Friday, May 01, 2015

The meaning of the ordinary

At the end of my last blog I wrote that selfies are seldom taken when you feel bad. Usually it is so that photos are taken of themes with a positive meaning; themes that are more than simply neutral let alone negative. Selfies, and by and large photos taken of yourself (and of other people not being you), don’t say: “That’s me ...” but “That’s me!” This is just an instance of a common characteristic of much photography. As Pierre Bourdieu analysed so well in his famous book An art moyen (A mean art), “You don’t photograph what you have before you all days” (p. 57). Or rather, that’s what many people think. Of course, what is “normal”, and so what is not photographed, depends on your point of view. What is everyday and ordinary for me, may be a piece of beauty or an object of interest for a tourist! The old door of my barn that almost falls from its hinges and urgently needs to be repaired may be very attractive for a passer-by. As Bourdieu tells us: “The tourist or the stranger are amazed, when they photograph everyday objects or persons in the setting of their regular activities” (ibid.). Who did say that a thing of beauty is a joy forever? It depends on your standpoint.
This makes clear that what is considered mean, average, ordinary, common – or how you want to call it – is not as mean, average, ordinary or common as often is thought. Just that it is so makes a thing meaningful – or most of the time. It says that the object or activity concerned is a routine part of its setting: It is so well integrated in its surroundings or flow that it is not conspicuous any longer. You need to be an outsider in order to see it, or the object or activity need to be taken away or stopped in order to realize its significance. Holidays change your feeling for what is photographable, to express what Bourdieu says in other words. This is also the case in another sense. Poverty is seen and felt by the poor and they feel ashamed to see it on a picture – and who wouldn’t? –, but tourist make such pictures, because they think that it is so picturesque ...
Lately someone told me that I make pictures from such special positions, implying from such unusual, banal or ordinary viewpoints. I see it as the compliment it was meant to be. My view on the world is not innate but something I have learned during my education as a sociologist and philosopher, so it is something everybody can learn. Being as it may, what is important is that we learn to look and that we realize that not only the exceptional is valuable but that also the mean, average, ordinary, common etc. is. For isn’t it so that the exceptional can only exist because there is something we find mean, average, ordinary, common etc.? That the exceptional is shaped by the normal? Even more, if the mean, average, ordinary, common etc. wouldn’t exist, we couldn’t live, for just these – so the routine – give what we exceptionally do and what we positively value as an exception (but also what we negatively see as exceptionable and reprehensible) its foundation. Maybe the mean, average, ordinary, common etc. is the most meaningful of what we do. In the end we need to park our car somewhere if we want to visit a restaurant.
Reference: Pier Bourdieu (ed.), Un art moyen. Essai sur les usages sociaux de la photographie. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1975.


lee woo said...

A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. See the link below for more info.


HbdW said...

Hello Lee Woo. Thank you for your comment. However, I have problems with this definition. For what then is the fundamental difference between a hero and someone addicted to drugs? Moreover, in view of this blog, heroism is something banal. And can we say that? There is some truth in it in some such interpretations of the views of Arendt and Zimbardo.
I have also written about being a hero in my blogs. See for instance
Thank you for your comment anyway. H.