Détournement as Optic

I’m very honored to have an article published in the excellent Philosophy of Photography. The advisory board of this UK-based journal features a number of scholars whose work has profoundly influenced my thinking on indexical media: Ariella Azoulay, Stewart Martin and Geoffrey Batchen, among others. My article explores the idea that détournement, a strategy of politicized appropriation, might best be understood in diametrical opposition to the strategy of omniscient depiction at work in the production of aerial views. Here’s a link to the article, entitled “Détournement as optic: Debord, derisory documents and the aerial view,” and an abstract below.

For Situationist, theorist and film-maker Guy Debord, the aerial view reproduced the falsely objective world-view he called ‘the spectacle’. To counter its myth of an infinitely expandable, omniscient perspective, Debord reduced views from above to ‘derisory documents’ of the social and the environmental through détournement, as evidenced in the two films he made while the Situationist International was in existence. The films engage critically with aerial photography as a hegemonic mode of indexical media, with the aerial view’s application as information image and ornament, and with the formal phenomenon of ciné-mapping. This analysis suggests that the détournement Debord performs in and across these films can be best conceptualized as a critical optic that constitutes a practice of seeing, a mode of reception and a call to action in the social space beyond its aesthetic employ. The optic of détournement is the contestational counterpart to the optic of the aerial view. This remains the case today, despite the complexity of photographic views from above and their increased abstraction of social agents and spaces. An alternative to the testimonial function of embodied photographic views, détournement as optic represents an indexical civil contract founded upon representational inadequacy.

(The myth of) the science of social space

I’ve just published a review of Jeanne Haffner’s lucid and interesting The View from Above: The Science of Social Space (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013). It’s in the current issue of French Studies, accessible here.

An excerpt:

The myth of social space was invoked in France by Marxists as well as by conservatives, city commissioners, and professors. Utopian in the equilibrium it implied, ‘social space’ referred to ‘space abstracted beyond the chaos of the ground but not divorced from it; not solely geographical or social, it was […] a spatialization of complex social and economic relationships within a particular urban environment’ (p. 82).

The View From Above establishes extremely valuable connections between the high modernist use of aerial photography detailed in the research of scholars such as Paula Amad, and the late modernist disillusionment with aerial photography exemplified by Guy Debord’s texts and films during and after his participation in the Situationist International. It represents a continued invitation to contemplate our view of the city and our right to it.