Manifest destiny redux
between the lines of photo criticism
“I would argue that Manifest recapitulates the dehumanizing role of division in the conquest of the Frontier, by divorcing agency from lifeworld.”
Edmund Husserl is never around when you need him. "I’m pretty bright, (so they tell me,)” renowned photo critic and martial artist Jonathan Blaustein tells us, but he’s "still not sure” what aesthetics philosopher Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is recapitulating in Manifest, Kristine Potter’s flawless photography book. Rather than just admit, like Tara to Carrie Pilby, “I have no idea what you just said but you sure sound like a friggin’ genius,” JB waxes philosophical, just not in the "tradition of the great inscrutable Frenchmen" Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. No, aware that "most Trump voters … would get angry reading a sentence like” the one Wolukau-Wanambwa wrote about manifest destiny, JB endeavors "to come across as a 'regular’ guy” whose solipsism is tautological but not hermeneutic. Writers who "aim to create barriers around their concepts” are like "rich people in the fancy house up on the hill,” who are "smarter than” we are, and know it while they eat “arugula” salads and watch “The Daily Show. Even better, they like the opera, and caviar.” This image of elite writers is a bit overdetermined. After all, overpaid, undertaxed philistines also scarf down delicacies in their loges while listening to La bohème. Doesn’t everybody? Still, mustn’t insult readers with polysyllables in "clause-packed sentences dense with information.” Better to talk "about big ideas” wrapped "in jokes, or Pop Culture references” like Maria’s spoonful of sugar or the Netflix superhero who taught JB the meaning of "that sense of inferiority” we all feel when we need a dictionary.
Don’t get me wrong. JB may empathize with Trump worshipers and their low self-esteem, but he is no devotee, and to prove it he links a Daily Show clip featuring fools for Trump’s Space Force. He compresses sixty years of American history into a couple of sentences then, sounding like a reviewer requiring portfolios that push photography's boundaries, notes how Trump "managed to take the rhetoric to previously unseen heights” while addressing his faithful and sounding like a virgin. “You’re a superstar. Yes, that’s what you are,” sang Madonna. “We are the super-elite,” vocalized Trump thirty years later. We can all burn our dictionaries now.
With all this "focus on the use of language itself” JB’s introduces us to the American West where, "with its wide-open landscapes, and unimaginable space and scale, still feels like it always has,” a spaghetti western cast with poor people who "live in conditions that one can reasonably call ‘Third World.’” Now that our discourse is dumbed down enough for gun-toting Trumpers to understand, we can appreciate Potter’s photographs of a “dry and dusty” environment populated off-the-grid by anonymous folks "turning their backs on mainstream culture” and us, too.
JB almost compliments Potter’s work for managing "to capture that sense of the general-ness [sic] of the light, and the heat, and the landscape.” He also admires the book's “production values” with its gobsmacking shadow detail. Still, JB cannot resist damning the work with faint praise. "Then there are portraits of men, shirtless, which smack of the female gaze,” he condescends. "These are cool too, and I get that they’re trying to be subversive, undercutting the traditional methods of representation, but even that feels a touch stale.” JB doesn’t explain how or why depicting half-naked men reflects the female or any other gaze and reifies representational subversion. If Potter’s portraits do not measure up to JB's “Goldilocks’ standards,” at least her stare smacks back.
Turns out all this stale tradition undermining is an Ivy League requirement. “Sorry, Stanley,” JB apologizes for “making fun” of Wolukau-Wanambwa’s “official” essay before demeaning the scholar’s interpretation of the photographer’s aesthetic, conceptual, ideological, and social research. Manifest is apparently not worth the analysis. Potter is an alumna of Yale, that "most infamous of photo-world mafias,” which "explains all the big-word-theory-driven sentences, and the attempt to try [sic] to make this work more conceptual, more theoretical than it really is.” Despite the photographer’s elitist pedigree, JB likes Manifest because it "keeps it real in ways I can respect,” – Potter’s profound documentary – "(and others I might mock,)” – Potter’s sensitive portraits of Western men – “but it definitely knows what it wants to be.” Whatever that means.
After his anti-intellectual diatribe and semi-unconscious, infantilizing sexism, JB’s approval feels like bad faith.