Essaying en abyme

I’m currently writing an essay, and it’s not my finest work. It’s about ‘photography en abyme‘, which is when a photo contains metaphorical references to the process of photography. Like: when the image includes a mirror reflecting part of the scene, this is just like the photograph itself. I use italics because people get quite excited about it all. I myself do not. As with all the topics last term, it took me forever to understand what they were saying, and when I did it was all pretty obvious. This is because my chosen degree suffers badly from science envy, and makes easy things sound complicated to justify itself (proper science, meanwhile, does the exact opposite). Photography en abyme tries very hard to sound deep, but isn’t really, and you’d think writing an essay on it wouldn’t be difficult. Not so much. I’m hitting a referencing wall.

My course is obsessed with referencing. You have to say the correct things, but only if you can find someone – a published someone – to say it for you. Essays at my level aren’t about thinking, they’re about reporting what other people think – almost all of my essay feedback has been about the size of the bibliography. There’s an element of brainwork required to pull it all together, but it’s learning how to write essays rather than using them to say anything. I think this is pretty weird, but hey; maybe you’re not meant to start thinking for yourself until the dissertation. Anyway, I’ve been doing ok up to now, because I’m a better essay writer than I am a photographer – I can bullshit pretty well when necessary. The problem this time is I’ve run out of people to quote.

I’ve resorted to saying something original, which is a bit risky. I spent five parargraphs making up a bunch of metaphors to demonstrate the power of the en abyme concept – “the image is framed within the subject’s glasses: he’s seeing it through a lens, just like us” etc. – which boosted my word count enough that I’m in sight of the 2800 minimum, but is utterly devoid of references. This could be very bad. Also, I’m so desperate for content that I’ve been dissecting arguments, which might not go down well either.

You see, there is a little more to en abyme than just the metaphorical angle, but it’s a bit silly. There’s a convuluted attempt to link it to linguistics, and then to declare a ‘genuine rhetoric of the image’, which boils down to objective meaning: pretty much the holy grail of photographic theory. Again, once you strip away the verbiage it’s pretty simple, and, sadly, moofed. Where it isn’t vague, it confuses correlation and causation. When it’s not doing that, it’s invoking Lacanian theories of child psychology that no modern child psychologist looks twice at, and didn’t have any evidence even at the time. I’ve torn it to shreds. I’m genuinely intrigued as to how my lecturers will react to this – one in particular is very fond of en abyme stuff.

I’m currently at 2275, with a large amount of I-could-get-in-trouble-for-this, and I figure a conclusion + references + bibliography1 should be enough to finish it off. I’m a little nervous. Last time I had a first draft written a month before the deadline. This time the deadline’s on Thursday. Oops. If I have time, maybe I’ll hit the library and try to dig out something to replace the thinking-for-myself parts.

  1. our VERY SHOUTY guidelines are quite clear that these must be included in the minimum word count, despite this penalising people who do more research and therefore being obviously broken []