Week Twelve Reflections – Gilbert Ryle

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My practice has changed, and my understanding of photography has deepened. So, a good end to Informing Contexts. As this is also the end of the ‘taught modules’, before the Final Major Project, these reflections really refer to the past 15 months.

The Cambodian project has been a constant thread throughout, and I have moved from decently-done documentary to more mindful, expressive work. I have also moved from considering that I was covering two connected but somewhat separate photographic tasks (Sarath’s stories, and the Genocide), to a more singular approach to my work. In getting to this point, there have been some breakthroughs – traces, cyanotypes, negatives, infrared, storytelling – and some bear traps identified – dark tourism, for example. I have also done better in editing and self-curating, although I can see that is very much work in progress. It is also of interest that, other than the Cambodia project, my picture-taking has slowed down. I am not yet sure whether that is a good or bad thing, as I have a major archive of my own and my Dad’s work that I want to get working on, once this MA is over.

The Informing Contexts Critical Review  discusses the changes in my practice, and this is my latest Work in Progress.

My improved understanding of photography can be observed in three ways.

First, my bookshelves and file archives have grown hugely (Ingrid might say, crazily). Of course, just buying books isn’t the point – reading and digesting the ideas is. I will let others decide as my CRJ and CR is reviewed, but I am personally convinced a great deal has ‘stuck’. And not just those prescribed texts.

Gilbert Ryle is a major influence on my thought processes, since my undergraduate days. He predicated knowing-that versus knowing-how. Knowing-that has been a pre-occupation for philosophers since Aristotle – how do we know that something is true, real, beautiful, ethical and so on. Knowing-how is about how we learn.

‘What is involved in our descriptions of people as knowing how to make and appreciate jokes, to talk grammatically, to play chess, to fish or argue? Part of what is meant is that, when they perform these operations, they tend to perform them well, i.e. correctly or efficiently or successfully. Their performances come to certain standards, or satisfy certain criteria. But this is not enough. The well-regulated clock keeps good time and the well-drilled circus seal performs its tricks flawlessly, yet we do not call them ‘intelligent’. We reserve this title for the persons responsible for their performances. To be intelligent is not merely to satisfy criteria, but to apply them; to regulate one’s actions and not merely to be well-regulated. A person’s performance is described as careful or skilful, if in his operations he is ready to detect and correct lapses, to repeat and improve upon successes, to profit from the examples of others and so forth. He applies criteria in performing critically, that is, in trying to get things right.

This point is commonly expressed in the vernacular by saying that an action exhibits intelligence, if, and only if the agent is thinking what he is doing while he is doing it, and thinking what he is doing in such a a manner that he would not do the action so well if he were not thinking what he is doing‘. (1949: 29)

The ‘intellectualist’ argument is that we learn through putting theory into practice, using inner acts of contemplation. And there is the opposing view of ‘flow’, of effortlessness, the Chinese Taoist concept of wu wei – that we don’t consciously know how we are doing something – the ‘Just Do It’ idea.

Contrary to both of these polar opposite views, Ryle said that we learn by actively self-teaching as we do things. The intellectualist argument seems to falsely equate intelligence with some prior, internal planning, and ignores the requirement to act. And ‘just do it’ seems to imply that little or no thought is required.

For Ryle, knowing-how is a learning oriented engagement with the world. We walk without thought, yet we know that we are walking, we can reflect on how we are walking, and we get better at walking as we walk more.

I can see that is how I have approached this MA, and my bookshelves are part of the proof.

Second, as a consequence I find myself moving from subject to subject, and I have enjoyed that. In some ways, my love of reading and research has been re-kindled. Frankly, I am intellectually disappointed by those armchair-photographers such as Sontag and Barthes. Yet, they have prompted me to dig deeper, both in the practice of photography, and its philosophy. I find it easier to understand Flusser and benjamin, by re-reading Marx, or learning more about Adorno. Studying Pierce, Sartre or Baudelaire seems more satisfying than allowing Barthes to paraphrase.

Third, I have been a ‘teacher’ for a long time. Whilst in the world of business, I used to take a teaching, facilitation approach to my leadership role. My hard drives are littered with workshops, exercises and presentations that I made. I even recall teaching factory workers in India about this new thing called the Internet. At the University of Leeds and elsewhere, I have pursued teaching more formally, although, fortunately I can opt in and out of things. I am not wanting to swap a 24×7 business or consultant’s role with that of a full time lecturer. Still, as this MA has progressed, I have found myself helping other people understand matters of photography, and seem to be building a sidebar activity of photography talks. There is an old saying that those that can, do, and those that can’t teach. Frankly, I debate that – Sontag is a case in point. Ryle has it right, learning and doing are intrinsics human activities of knowing-how, and fundamental to good teaching.

Stepping back, and looking at the past 15 months, I would offer it might have been better to sequence Informing Contexts after the initial Positions and Practice module. I believe this was the way they were originally planned. From the curriculum overview:

Informing Contexts aims to introduce you to some of the themes and debates that surround the making and consumption of photographs today. With the authorship of your own diverse practices at the forefront, it aims to develop your awareness of some key critical ideas, contexts and visual practices that might inform your own photographic work‘.

IC is intellectually heavy, and much attention was paid to the detail of academic learning, writing and presentation – perhaps a bit late at the end of the ‘taught modules’. IC thus would build nicely on PP. Surfaces and Strategies is also intellectually heavy, though geared towards using research to practically explore the ‘apparatus’ of photography in its broadest sense, a process I suspect Ryle would find satisfying. This exploration leads well into Sustainable Practice with its business and future oriented content, and then into the Final Major Project, as the culmination of all.

I would also offer that I find it useful to understand (and overtly state) some of the intellectual anchors of programs. Barthes appears in PP, Flusser comes to mind with SS, Pritchard with SP. That also leads to a rounded pedagogical approach.

In any event, onward to FMP.

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RYLE, Gilbert. 1949. The Concept of Mind. 1980 reprint. Harmondsworth: Penguin.