Readings: On the Politics of Education and the Traffic in Photographs by Allan Sekula

This week we read Allan Sekula‘s essay “On the Politics of Education and the Traffic in Photographs”, published in the volume Performance under Working Conditions, Generali Foundation, Wien, 2003, as a covering text for his work School is a Factory, 1978/1980. Sekula emphasizes the structure of the school as a factor of inequalities and a reinforcing agent of the hierarchical power relations on which the capitalistic system is built and developed. He also makes a few crucial affirmations over the art education and the role that the artists-teachers are called to play. This role is, according to Sekula, ambiguous since the bureaucratic system one the one hand erodes the autonomy of the artist by imposing on him the task of building reputation end exhibiting himself/herself and, on the other hand, praises the independent creative spirit. In the case of  the photographic education, this is translated into a division between auterism and technological determinism which rule the conventional teaching of photographic history and cover the affect of social factors such as class, race and sex in the formation of this history.

Note: The highlighting of  specific fragments is my personal editorial intervention in the text.

On the Politics of Education and the Traffic in Photographs


The arguments made here take us to a problematic intersection in advanced capitalist society, that of “higher” education and the “culture industry”.[1] I suspect that you and I are situated, as social actors, in that intersection, maybe directing traffic, maybe speeding through, maybe hitch hiking, maybe stalled, maybe in danger of being run over. I am interested here in speaking to whatever comforts or discomforts you might feel by virtue of the way these highways have been engineered into a larger social geography. This essay is a deliberate provocation, less an intervention from some fictitious “outside” than an argument from within.

In the “developed” world, school and the media bring a formidable play of forces to bear upon the self, transforming and supplanting the more traditional patriarchal authority that emanated from religion and family in the epochs of feudalism and entrepreneurial capitalism. Both mass schooling and mass media are developments intrinsic and necessary to the corporate capitalist world order that emerged in the very late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries. In the United States, the decade after the First World War saw the triumph of a new national culture, a “business” culture, reproduced through compulsory education and promulgated by mass circulation periodicals, radio and the movies. These forces sought to organize people as atomized “private individuals”, motivated en masse by the prospect of consumption, thus liquidating other dangerously oppositional forms of social bonding based on class, sex, race and ethnicity.

We have been led by the champions of corporate liberalism to believe that schooling and the media are instruments of freedom. Accordingly, these institutions are seen to fulfill the democratic promise of the Enlightenment by bringing knowledge and upward social mobility within reach of everyone, by allowing each individual to reach his or her own limits. This ideology hides the relentless sorting function performed by school and media. Both institutions serve to legitimate and reproduce a strict hierarchy of power relations, tracking individuals into places in a complex social division of labor while suggesting that we have only ourselves to blame for our failures. School and the media effectively situate most people in a culture and economy over which an “enlightened” few promote the subtle silencing of the many.[2]

School and the media are inherently discursive institutions, sites within which discourse becomes a locus of symbolic force, of symbolic violence. A communicative relation is established between teacher and student, performer and audience, in which the first party, as the purveyor of official “truths”, exerts an institutional authority over the second. Students and audience are reduced to the status of passive listeners, rather than active subjects of knowledge. Resistance is almost always limited only to the possibility of tuning out. Domination depends on a monologue of sorts, a “conversation” in which one party names and directs the other, while the other listens deferentially, docilely, resentfully, perhaps full of suppressed rage. When the wholly dominated listener turns to speak, it is with the internalized voice of the master. This is the dynamic of all oppressions of race, gender, and class. All dominating power functions semiotically through the naming of the other subordinate, dependent, incomplete as a human being without the master’s discipline and support. Clearly, such relationships can be overthrown; the discourse of domination finds it dialectical antagonist in discourse and practice of liberation. Like home, factory, prison, and city streets, school and the media are sites of an intense, if often covert, daily struggle in which language and power are inextricably connected.[3]

Most of us have managed to develop a professional relation to the traffic in words and images (as artists, writers or teachers) share, often unequally and competitively, in a “symbolic privilege” which situates us above whole populations of the silenced and voiceless. This role, the role of cultural mouthpiece, normally partakes in the privileging and accreditation of its own status and that of its patrons and employers, while suggesting that culture exists for everyone, for its own sake. A contradiction is developed between the bureaucratic and professional organization of all cultural work and the Janus-faced mythology of culture, which suggests, on the one hand, that mass culture is popular and democratic, while arguing, on the other that high culture is an elite activity, an Olympian conversation between genius and connoisseur. High culture is increasingly no more than a specialized and pretentious variant of mass culture, speaking to an audience composed of the upper class and the intermediary strata of professionals and managers (and especially those professionals and managers whose business is culture). The star system prevails in both SoHo and Hollywood: all culture becomes publicity, a matter of “exposure”.[4]

But artists and intellectuals do not control the interlocking apparatuses of culture and education. Increasingly, they are the functionaries and employees of state institutions: primarily as teachers and grant recipients. The ideology of autonomous professionalism serves to legitimate and defend career interests while, particularly, in the case of artist-teachers, building on a hollow legacy of romantic individualism. Although the myth of the lonely oppositional path retains its redemptive ideological force, artists are forced into a dreary upwardly-mobile competition for visibility, with reputation translating into career-capital. Those who refuse or fail are officially invisible, without voice. (I once heard a well-known artist characterize less-known artists, generally, as lazy.)

The case of photography is especially poignant in this regard, since historically the medium has been central to the development of mass culture, with its necessary industrialization and proletarianization of much of cultural work. The dominant spectacle, with its seductive commodities and authoritative visual “facts”, could not exist without photographs or photographers. Treated by the vigorous new art history of photography to an expanding pantheon of independent auteurs, we forget that most photographers are detail workers, makers of fragmentary and indeterminate visual statements. These photographs take on a more determinate meaning as they pass through a bureaucratically organized and directed process of assembly. The picture magazine is a case of point. Even the curated fine art exhibition, such as John Szarkowski’s “definitive” Mirrors and Windows at the Museum of Modern Art, may be another. A bureaucratized high culture needs to celebrate the independent creative spirit while functionally eroding the autonomy of the artist.

If school is a factory, art departments are industrial parks in which the creative spirit, like cosmetic shrubbery of Muzak, still “lives”. Photographic education is largely directed at people who will become detail workers in one sense or another. Only the most elite art schools and university art departments regularly produce graduates who will compete for recognition as fine artists. Nonetheless, the ideology of auteurism  dominates the teaching of the medium’s history at all levels of higher education, even in the community colleges. The auterism actually oscillates in and out of view, sharing prominence with its opposite, technological determinism. Students learn that photographic history is driven by technical progress, except in some cases, when history is the elevated product of especially gifted artists, who are to be admired and emulated. Very few teachers acknowledge the constraints placed on their would-be “auteurs” by a system of educational tracking based on class, race and sex.

Thus, most of us who teach, or make art or go to a school with desire to do these things, are forced to accept that a winner’s game requires losers. One can either embrace this proposition with a social-Darwinist steeling of the nerves, or pretend that it is not true while trying to survive anyway. Otherwise, we might begin to work for a method of education and a culture based on a struggle for social equality.

[1] The exhibition version of this work, published in its entirety in Allan Sekula, Photography Against the Grain (1984) consisted of a sequence of 19 photographs and captions, intercut with seven graphics panels, from which the current illustrations are taken unless otherwise noted. An earlier version was published in Exposure, vol. 15, no. 3-4, Winter 1980.

[2] Clearly, an adequate account of the developments alluded to in the last two paragraphs would require volumes. Several recent  texts come to mind as especially important Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, New York, 1979, are about the corporate struggle to seize control of the labor process by means of  “scientific management”, thereby isolating and deskilling workers; Stewart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness, New York, 1976, about the growth of a consumer culture motivated by corporate advertising Samuel Bowles’s and Herbert Gintis’s Schooling in Capitalist America, New York, 1976, about the historical relations of educational reform to the changing demands of a capitalist economy; and David Noble’s America by Design, New York, 1977, about the corporate role of science and technology with an emphasis on the instrumentalization of higher education. David N. Smiths. David N. Smith’s Who Rules the Universities?, New York, 1974, is also valuable, as is Allen B. Ballard’s The Education of Black Folk, New York, 1973, and the hard-to-find text by the Newt Davidson Collective, Crisis at CUNY, New York, 1974.

[3] See Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, 1970, for a very important dialectical understanding of the educational process in its dominating and liberating modes. Ira Schor’s Critical Teaching and Everyday Life, Boston, 1980, does an admirable job of translating Freire’s insights concerning peasant societies into terms compatible with the experience of North American working-class students. Pierre Bourdieu’s and Jean-Claude Passeron’s Reproduction, London, 1977, is theoretically dense but valuable in its attempt at a “theory of symbolic violence” in the pedagogical sphere. Adrienne Rich’s essays on education in On Lies, Secrets and Silence, New York, 1979, especially the one entitled “Toward a Woman-Centered University”, are among the most lucid statements I have read on the radical remaking of educational possibilities and I am grateful to Sally Stein for directing me to them.

[4] Thus there is something revealing about the very title of the journal in which this essay originally appeared. Exposure was founded in 1964 as a forum for college teachers of photography. In contrast, Aperture, founded in 1953, suggested that the practice of fine-art photography involved a small hermetic circle around the guru-like figure of Minor White. One entered this circle through the smallest of apertures (f/64?), rather as if through the New Testament “eye of the needle”. Exposure supplanted this inner-directed aestheticism with a belief in outward-oriented professional boosterism appropriate to the mid-sixties era of Pop Art and growing college art teaching. Both titles share, however, in a venerable fixation with the techniques and apparatuses of photography. Thus, “aperture” unites technologism and spiritualism, while “exposure” unites technologism and an incipient photographic star system, realized in the 1970s.

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