Phatic Photography

Blanco, Patricia Prieto 2010. Family Photography as a phatic construction. Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network 3(2).

While both the production and reception of family photography have been academically examined before, its definition, as a media category, is still problematic. Using the notion of family photography as a media variable for the investigation, the aim of this research is to characterize family photography as a unique photographic genre that has undergone changes and tendencies in the usage of photographic pictures during the last 150 years. These changes are further complicated by the ways in which family photography has moved from private to semi-public spaces, ranging from home wall displays to Facebook, made increasingly easier due to advances in photographic technology. (Blanco 2010: 2)
If we agree that Facebook is at least in part a phatic technology, does this imply that Facebook pictures serve a phatic function? I can't think of an argument to contradict it.
Looking at family albums in the company of other family members is 'normal' in our Spanish culture, especially for children, but my supervisor could not recall any experiences like that. Having a designated place in the living room or at the entrance hall for the display of family pictures was also something he had never seen before, while for me this was a completely natural thing growing up, as was commenting about such pictures when visiting someone at their home (it is just polite to do so). (Blanco 2010: 3)
Is that the phatic aspect? (In this case "phatic" is synonymous with "polite".)
Extraordinary family events, such as a wedding, can easily find their way to a more public context of reception like the living room, the hall or the office. All these forms of reception fulfil a primary function in family life: the generation of common and shared experiences and the corroboration and confirmation of the family as a group (Bourdieu 1981[1965]: 38; Chambers 2001: 89). (Blanco 2010: 5)
Now we're getting phatic! (In the communion sense, but not yet in the speech sense.)
Looking at family photographs means not only retrieving information about a moment in the past, but also being reaffirmed as a part of the process. It is clear that lateral information in the form of comments or additional documents and items, which can be kept along with the family photographs, allows a more informative access to family photography. But it is this reaffirmation, which functions on a phatic level (Malinowski 1960[1923]: 307-317), what distinguishes family photography as a media category, as this paper suggests. A further discussion on the significance of the terms phatic communion and context of situation for family photography will follow. (Blanco 2010: 5)
Wow. This is not what I expected. Blanco has done something I've yet to see anyone do: she has taken up the point about affirmation in Malinowski's original appendix, i.e. "affirmations of some supremely obvious state of things" (p. 313) and "Always the same emphasis of affirmation and consent" (p. 314). Perhaps lack of attention towards this detail is caused by the relative obscurity of this word, "affirmation" which means "emotional support or encouragement" or "declaring that something is true". In other words, in looking at family photographs you are not primarily retrieving information but re-situating yourself in that past experience, affirming the occurrence. In a sense this involves reliving a communion.
While Hirsch's research focuses on aesthetic parameters, and by doing so she studies the symbolic representation of the family in Western culture over centuries, here we must look not only at visual conventions, but also the interaction with photographic and non-photographic items like letters, postcards or milk teeth, which are decisive for our analysis. Using media change as an overall category means to acknowledge a certain adjustment or development of the family archive according to the momentarily available communication tools. Other media forms such as written communication and tangible objects whech were effectively a part of a past shared/common reality, allow or constrain phatic interaction and they will be therefore taken on account for the investigation and in part discussed later in this paper. (Blanco 2010: 8)
Clearly this is heading towards a context-based approach to phaticity.
On the one hand family photographs 'document' a familial event. On the other, particular familial constellations, moments and meanings are 'constructed' in front of the camera. (Blanco 2010: 9)
Since the title of the paper contains the phrase "phatic construction" I suspect that this passage is especially important. Family photographs in a sense do construct a representation of familial communion: those who are in the picture and nearer to the front are more "in" and those on the sidelines and in the second or third row are more "out". It is certainly true that photography can create representations of social groups. What makes this process phatic in this case seems to be - due to this particular interpretation of "phatic" - the affirmation of who belongs to the family.
The materialization of family shots into paper copies assures preservation of shared experience. Beyond this storage function, family photographs also work as markers, since they allow the retrieval of a moment in a common past through their adjustment to certain criteria to be decoded afterwards. (Blanco 2010: 9)
Now that I think about it, class photographs function much the same way - they represent the particular constellation of students beginning the school year at that shared moment.
Sometimes we remember a photograph but we cannot recall the past experience. Other times moments in someone else's life, for instance our parents, become part of our horizon of a common past through the interaction with the family archive. It depends on the intensity of the viewing: from a quick glance towards the photo hanging on the wall at the entrance, to an affectionate and deep look into the wedding album in the company of other family members, who expect not only to look at the picture, but also to talk about them and to recall a shared experience. Family photographs act like markers: They allow for the retrieval of information and impressions of a common past, and at the same time they create the story of the family (or at least a significant part of it). (Blanco 2010: 9)
This paper continues to astound me with its unique take on Malinowski's phatic communion. Instead of merely "personal accounts of the speaker's views and life history", here we have a communal viewing and talk about common events in life histories. This could perhaps be better approached with a tool like communization, since the "common experience" here is in the forefront, but I can't hald it against anyone not knowing that this term exists.
Presentation of family photographs also follows non-written rules and conventions when they are displayed outside the family circle, such as standardized sizes of photo-portraits carried in a purse. They are a form of social contact, and social contract, and therefore act as a proof of belonging (Schneider 2004: 172-174). (Blanco 2010: 13)
How are contact and contract related? Latin contangere is "to touch" while contrahere is "drawn together". In any case I wonder what implications this theory would have for a study of Facebook facial recognition software and how it manifests proof of belonging via links.
Since family photography is not self-contained, how meaning, feeling, action and narration are coded in the family archive will depend on the very context of situation and on the given familiar gaze. There is no concrete materialization of a code, but rather a dynamical transmission, that takes place within the family circle. (Blanco 2010: 14)
Peirce 1, de Saussure 0.
The xchange of words sustain certain traditions and conventions present in the given group. It is not a matter of transmitting thoughts, but achieving social engagement. And by doing so, a phatic communion, which Malinowski describes as a kind of speech in which bonds of union are attained by the mere exchange of words, which directly serves the purpose of binding hearer and speaker (1960[1923]: 314-316), is accomplished. At the same time the generation of a common and shared horizon of experience takes place. (Blanco 2010: 15)
I.e. phatic communion generates mutual knowledge or at least reinforces the context of general experience.
Therefore we need to consider these photographs on a different level: not the information they could supply as a key factor for the research, but the act they are pointing out. Once you are pictured, you are part of the family. If you own a copy of the picture, you are being confirmed as part of the process. Think about your mother in law: once she displays a picture of you in her home, you are undoubtedly and 'officially' part of the family. The act of binding is what these pictures stand for. (Blanco 2010: 16)
This is culture-specific, but seems to stand to reason. It pretty much affirms the speculation about being "in" that I proposed above.
Fluctuation between different phatic communities characterizes family photography from its production to its distribution and reception. The familial gaze is also dynamic and provides the family with adjustable instruments for the 'staging'. Either arranged towards the outside or according to inside patterns, family photography gains its performative character by means of its phatic function, which not only reaffirms the phatic community as such and corroborates the integrative function of family photography, but also generates a place where meanings can be exchanged. The social usage of the later paper copy is already considered in the moment of shooting. There is arguably a pro-active approach of each family member towards the process of creating and corroborating a phatic community. (Blanco 2010: 16)
I've never seen the term phatic communion transform into phatic community. I'm not sure I take to Blanco's meaning here. If there were phatic communities, I'd much rather subscribe to a view according to which phatic communities consist of people who engage in phatic communication. Inclusion in a family is automatic, but it's not so much phatic as it is emotive (at least I currently think so - your family means a lot to you on an emotional level, not just because you have lived in the same house and had a lot of chit-chat).
Some social networks such as Facebook present a range of access-restriction or allowance, which seems to share much with the different phatic communities involved in the delivery of a given family archive. Simultaneously private and public, a Facebook user page is floxible enough to cover the need for interaction and the search for a sense of belonging, both important factors of family photography. (Blanco 2010: 17)
Damn, Blanco was ahead of me.


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