The Self and The Penis

This term at uni was rather odd. There was surprisingly little work, and very few lectures. Of the few, though, two stood out. One was about properly interesting philosophy, although nothing to do with photography. And one was about how racism is caused by penises.

You see, when you’re growing up you pay a lot of attention to parental genitalia. It may seem like you don’t, but let’s pretend you do. If you’re male, you get very upset that your mother doesn’t have a penis. If you’re female, you get very upset that your father has a penis and you don’t. You then go through ‘mirror stages’ and formulate the concept of the Other, and eventually your penis-based psychological trauma manifests itself in conveniently subconscious and unfalsifiable ways that result in us all being racist. The lecturer in question was a PhD student at my university. She was very enthusiastic about her subject. We were less so.

I’ve been moaning about the psychoanalytic bullshit on my course for a couple of years now, and I still find it irritating as hell. Previous years were at least fairly academic: here’s some Freudian drivel about why we look at photographs the way we do, blah, whatever. But the causes of racism aren’t academic – that’s a pretty important subject, and I have a huge problem with lecturers spouting spectacularly stupid crap to people who may well believe them (through no fault of their own – it’s reasonable to expect uni lecturers to know what they’re talking about). Especially when you’re implying that a) we’re all racist and b) there’s nothing we can do about it.

There was some skepticism in the room, I’m pleased to say. A couple of the second years made her clarify some evasive language. As ever with psychoanalysis, it was all dressed up to maintain a veneer of respectability: your mother not having a penis is called ‘the lack’, presumably so they don’t have to keep saying the word ‘penis’, and so you can just say stuff like ‘the lack causes us to behave differently’ and pretend you’re not talking shit. But we made her spell it out, penises and all, just so we were clear. This was quite funny. Then another of the younger students queried, magnificently, whether we were learning this for historical context or we were meant to believe it was true. The answer was muddy, and eventually we asked outright if there was any evidence. We were told the guy who came up with it thought it was true. So that’s all right. I eventually got her to say out loud it was ‘just a theory’1, but it was a brief moment of lucidity.

So that was pretty annoying. A couple of weeks later, though, the course redeemed itself with the most interesting lecture we’ve ever had. A lecture that actually inspired me to willingly research the topic, which is, um, rare.

We’d been given a David Hume essay on ‘the self’ – essentially our inner experience of our own consciousness. But, rather than simply go through the essay, in this lecture we were taken on a grand story, beginning with Decartes and ending with Hume, explaining the different philosophical arguments. Decartes had his famous ‘I think therefore I am’, from which he derived, well, some dubious stuff, but was still pretty clever. Then Hume came along and demolished this concept of ‘I’, pointing out that his own inner experience consists of a bunch of perceptions, which are linked only by memory, which isn’t necessarily reliable. ‘I’ is therefore at least a bit problematic.

I found it all very interesting, and it wasn’t presented in any kind of dogmatic way. The only problem came at the end, when the lecturer linked it to photography. Firstly, this was surprisingly dull by comparison, and secondly, he did so by referencing Cindy Sherman, which is a bit of a cheat.

cindysherman1Cindy Sherman is a bingo photographer. We sit in lectures with so-far-theoretical bingo cards, ready to stamp the names of Cindy Sherman, Rineke Dijkstra, Andreas Gursky and – above all others – Bernd and Hilla Becher. As a general rule, three of the four will turn up (always the Bechers – despite their portfolio consisting entirely of industrial buildings). If you get all four, there are Not Really Prizes. Anyway – Cindy Sherman’s most famous work saw her photographing herself in various film-like scenes – I’ve put a couple of shots on the right. She’s often unrecognisable from one image to the next, and so this was linked to the Hume concept of the self: what does it mean to say we are always the same person?

cindysherman2Thing is, Cindy Sherman is massively ambiguous. You can read a lot into her images, and nobody will ever tell you you’re wrong. Feminism, politics, film theory, even philosophical concepts of the self – you can make arguments for all these interpretations (and people have). I suppose you’d have trouble saying Cindy Sherman was about soup, but I bet you could give it a go. None of which is to say anything about the quality of the photography (if you believe in such things) just that it’s sometimes suspiciously easy to corral it into an argument.

So the photography part of the lecture was a bit weak, but the philosophy fascinating. We have to write an essay on something we’ve found interesting this term, so I figured I’d read up on the latter. This sent me on a fascinating journey through Greek/Roman/medieval/Renaissance/Enlightenment attitudes to the self, which intrinsically links into discussions of the roles of faith and reason2, then the various political theories that fell out of these concepts. It’s been great. I have learnt a lot. Unfortunately, none of it has much to do with photography.

You may be thinking: you’re doing the wrong degree. And you may well be right. But I do enjoy the practical side, and I only have 17 months to go, and I’m going to get through it, dammit. In this case I think I’ve been saved by the aforementioned ambiguity. You can find photographers to back up whatever you like. I’ve got a bunch who are “clearly” discussing the differing relations of subject to state, and the inner experience thereof, as regards Greeks vs. civilizations with absolute rulers. It’s obvious, just like Cindy Sherman.

So I’ve finished an unsatisfactory term with an essentially historical/philosophical essay, plus some photographs to pretty it up. This may be taking the mickey – we’ll see. However, I’d rather have too much history and too little photography than it be entirely about penises.

  1. which felt odd, given the usual connotations of that phrase []
  2. Greeks = reason!; medieval thinkers = reason bad! faith good!; renaissance = WTF medieval thinkers!; enlightenment = ok time to grow up now []