rough notes

The Real and The Represented

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Contemplating some considerations about creating shadowy, maligned images of ourselves in the non-physical world of the internet, and its ramifications, I began to realize that the development of false representative identities on a large scale is not without precedent. This does not alleviate the anxiety of existence, though.

Stereotypes show the inaccuracies of representation We create stereotypes in order to simplify, categorize and make sense of the world. On a social level, we accept the stereotype, and its ramifications, within our culture – witness the teenager telling his parent to be aware of the stereotype he has just learned in his civics class – witness my use of “the teenager”, as well. The stereotype is not dissimilar to the creation of the virtual shadow of the real person – the best and/or prominent faculties are promoted and accentuated to the detriment of the proper “rounded character.” (Of course, most declared stereotypes accentuate inaccurate and false qualities, but the process remains the same.)

Recently, “local” users on an internet message board (I am apprehensive to the use of the term “local” when discussing the internet and “users”, as opposed to the “real world” and “people”) reinforced the stereotype of the student of literature as a disaffected, caffeinated critic of society. “CDMac” suggests they all wear “black turtlenecks and berets, maybe some purple hipster glasses and a soulpatch if you can swing it”, while “Jha’Meia” supports the contention, declaring that the scholar is never seen without her “giant coffee mugs. Nearly every prof in the English department has one! [at]”. (

I am aware of this message board and thread because I have followed the lives of these users, and interacted with them online, as well, for several months now. It would be remiss of me to suggest, further, that I have not helped to cultivate the image they are reinforcing; I founded the student society which these users are discussing. Nonetheless, like the teenager who just learned is lesson in Civics, I feel compelled to remind the world that the English Student and Professor does not exclusively wear turtlenecks, drink coffee, or grow soulpatches. Many choose to follow the earlier fashionable lit-scholar stereotype, known for its crunchy-granola flair for herbal teas and corduroy jeans. Regardless, I helped to cultivate, and reinforce the type as well know it today. It aids categorization, and frankly, brings comfort through a sense of identification and a sense of belonging to many people.

Yet, for everything our teenager and her civics class has reminded us about the stereotype, there is still a better example to demonstrate the issues that develop at the intersections between social and personal identity, and representation. Nothing has blurred the lines between The Real and The Represented as the photograph has. Rather, we have not allowed anything to blur the distinction between The Real and The Represented like the photograph has.

We treat the photograph and photography as the work, and the form, that visually captures reality. In spite of the fact that photographs were once “composed” as portraits were, or, as in today’s digital age, we snap as many photos as we can to ultimately choose which picture “best captures” or resembles the moment, we treat photography as the form that offers a bona fide visual record of the world. But the very fact that the craft of photography is taught in both art schools and journalism schools should raise questions about the power, and verity of its representations. We all understand that photographs do not lie, but can mislead; the real concern, however, is the manner in which we alter our thoughts to suit the photograph, and vice versa.

The Government of France has recently outlawed smoking in public places – the law will take effect for the most part in January 2007. A friend has told me that our days, and memories, of having a smoke and a cafe on a left bank patio, are now limited. In the course of our discussion, she alluded to the multitude of photographs we all think we have seen and remember, of pre– and inter-war Paris, with a Latin Quarter full of exiles and expatriates with money to spend and culture to cultivate. I think, though I cannot be certain, that my friend alluded to a day-time summer photograph by W. Robert Moore, of a Paris outdoor cafe, full of drinkers and smokers. Yet, upon a close inspection, we see that the Paris we thought we had in the photograph has very few smokers at all. There are many pints and vins, but signs of tobacco – ash trays or cans – grey fumes, etc – are difficult to find.

This is not to say that Paris has never known a cigarette. Rather, it does show that we take the type or image we believe to be representative, and append it to our memories and impressions of the visual markers of the apparent “real.” The 1936 Paris of Moore’s photograph is not any more real than our mental image of Parisian smokers based on the photograph itself. It would more “fitting” for our thoughts if the man standing in the black suit was holding a pipe, or the woman in the floral dress was about to take a drag on a cigarette. Instead, we have nurtured and development the collective identity of the Parisian cafe smoker on an incorrect remembrance of a composed photograph.

you are commodified.


Written by mitchellirons

October 15, 2006 at 12:56 pm

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