Here are some things I’ve learnt in this term’s photographic theory classes

Women only have children to make up for their lack of a penis.

This came up in “one of the two most important photographic essays of the 20th century”. It’s an idea originally from Freud, so it must be true. Freud can do no wrong on my course. He’s worshipped as a god, despite the last thirty years of psychological research suggesting his explanatory framework is, well, bullshit. Here’s the ‘fair’ Freud: A Very Short Introduction bending over backwards to give the guy some credit:

The female version of the Oedipus complex is less clearly worked out, in line with the fact that Freud continued to find women a puzzle throughout his life. However, Freud concluded that, while the little girl is also at first involved emotionally with her mother, her discovery that she lacks a panis, and is therefore an inferior being, leads her to become disillusioned with her mother whom she blames for her condition. This turns her towards her father as a love object, and she begins to phantasize that he will impregnante her. The resulting child, Freud supposes, will compensate the girl for her lack of a penis, and, in this sense, might be said to be a substitute for the missing organ. What brings this stage of emotional development to a conclusion is the girl’s growing perception of other men as potential impregnators who will enable her to have a baby and thus overcome her continuing sense of being an inferior kind of human being.

Stated in so bald a fashion, Freud’s perception of the Oedipus complex as constituting the central emotional stage through which every human being has to pass if she or he is to achieve adult stability and happiness sounds crude indeed. We have already observed that Freud invariably strove to reduce the psychological and emotional to the physical. To allege that all small boys fear castration at the hands of their fathers sounds ridiculous when taken literally. But, if we were to phrase it differently, and affirm that small boys are greatly concerned with establishing their identity as male persons, feel rivalry with their fathers, and are easily made to feel humiliated or threatened by disparaging remarks about their size, weakness, incapacity and lack of experience, most people would concur.

Maybe, but that’s not really what he said, is it? In fact, in this case it seems he was wrong about everything until you massively overgeneralise. The defence is usually ‘he was the first to think about this stuff’, which is all well and good1. But if I go to a science class I don’t expect to learn about Prime Mover theory, no matter how awesome Aristotle was.

The one high point of this topic was when my lecturer couldn’t bring himself to mention Freudian dick theory in regard to fetishes. He said people fetishise things for ‘a variety of reasons’. This was quite funny.

Western science, and indeed culture, has ‘privileged the visual’ for centuries.

God knows what this is supposed to mean, but they say it a lot. Galileo started the trend of privileging the visual when he looked through his telescope, apparently, and it’s been true in astronomy – and pretty much all the sciences – ever since. The other senses are given far less attention. Apparently.

It’s always spoken about in sinister tones, as if it’s really oppressive. I keep thinking they’re going to draw some profound conclusion, but one hasn’t yet materialised. I honestly don’t know how to respond. It’s not even wrong. I mean, doesn’t walking privilege the legs? It’s just how things are, isn’t it? How are you meant to look at the stars without using your eyes? Maybe I’m missing something profound, or maybe it’s just filling time between drooling over Freud.

Society tells us what ‘perfect vision’ means. There’s no concept of 20/20 vision in nature.

This is also SINISTER AND OPPRESSIVE. It’s all a bit libertarian, my course. Oh look, someone’s trying to help me see better. How bloody arrogant and insulting of them.

I think this meant to be some mealy-mouthed point about culture and its subtle influences. Which is probably an interesting discussion. Or would be, if they could think of any other examples.

I don’t think society says jack shit about ‘perfect vision’. I think society says you need a certain standard of vision for specific tasks, like driving. I think society says your vision can be improved – as a quantifiable measure – with corrective lenses. I don’t think society makes any value judgements about your vision. If you want to stick it to the man by refusing to read eye charts just because someone tells you to, go right ahead.

Before humanity learnt about Cartesian perspective, people had an entirely different concept of the space around them.

This is all a bit odd. Apparently the understanding of perspective fundamentally changed the way we view the world. I’m not totally averse to this idea, but their evidence is so pathetic that I provisionally conclude they’re making stuff up. Here’s the proof: a few lines from the start of Hamlet in which the perspective is changed – because it’s not like Shakespeare was a poet or anything – and an anecdote about showing a film to some tribespeople, who didn’t understand it at all. Yeah, I’m totally convinced. They also say that pre-perspective painting indicates something other than ‘them not having developed perspective yet’, which, to my eyes, it doesn’t.

Oh, and cameras were designed around2 cartesian perspective, which is SINISTER AND OPPRESSIVE. You may think your eyes see things in perspective, but they don’t! As proof: do you ever walk places and notice new things, despite having walked there many times before? Proof that our brains don’t work just through perspective! I’m so glad I came to university to learn this stuff.


Sorry to rant. It just gets me down sometimes. I increasingly feel like it’s a massive waste of my time. What isn’t demonstrably wrong is just facile, unfalsifiable wittering, all presented as terribly profound art theory.

Maybe it is interesting, if you’re not like me. I suppose there’s value in discussing unfalsifiable theories, if you happen to find it fascinating. But I don’t. I just find it annoying. I want to see the modern, evidence-based psychological research into people’s experience of the world, and how they look at art, and how culture influences the way we think. In Our Time recently had an episode on neuroscience, and it was utterly fascinating. I know there’s wonderful knowledge to be had, and it’s so disappointing to instead get psychoanalytic gibberish from the ’70s, by people incapable (suspiciously so) of writing clearly.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to quit or anything. I have another 18 months of this before I hit the 4th year and can study whatever the hell I want, and I can live with it for 18 months. Goodness knows how the essays will turn out, though. I’m not optimistic about squeezing 3000 words from this term’s work.

  1. the other defence, which my lecturer actually said to me, is ‘he wrote really well’ []
  2. ‘designed around’, as opposed to perspective being part of the physical laws of the universe []