Chapter 11. Transubstantiation: Conceptual Innovations

We have now several chapters of the Manual, and it seems good at this juncture to think about what the various chapters have all been about. In this way our philosophical appreciation of the work may be deepened, and the reflection may also reveal new insights that can help guide the ongoing development of the Manual and our study of photography.

In a chapter in Multiliteracies: literacy learning and the design of social futures, Gunther Kress talks about a child who describes a hill as “very heavy” just as he struggles to climb it. As adults who “know English”, we would probably correct him. We might tell him that the use of the word “heavy” is not entirely appropriate. Perhaps the better word, we may tell him, is “steep”. The hill, we would teach him to say, is “very steep”. If we think about this, about our theoretical point of departure, or basis for correcting the child, we might find ourselves subscribing to a particular semiotic theory: one for which word and signs have particular given meanings which we inherit, and then use.

The child on the other hand, seems to presuppose another semiotic. For him, the word “heavy” is reconfigured and exploited, given its linguistic potential, in order to express another idea of interest: the notion that the hill is very challenging to climb because of an incline. Like heavy things, which require effort to carry against grativational pull, so also this hill: one works hard against the pull backwards. For the child, there is an alternative semiotic. Sign-vehicles, such as the word “heavy” are used, but may also be re-shaped, re-formed, i.e., re-designed for signing other meanings of interest.

When we think about this little child and his semiotic, we begin to grasp that the child is not restricted in his understanding of the world through the words and their related meanings he has been given. For him the object of interest, or the interesting meaning, is prior, and the word is reshaped accordingly to express it. This compares very differently from a diametrically opposed semiotic, and its epistemology, which presumes that the words we inherit and their meanings are there merely to be used, and will need to be used to express the meanings we have in mind, but when such words and their given meanings are not available, then the meaning one had in mind cannot exist, and so does not exist. An analogy may be a carpenter who has an idea, and goes about to shape it with his tools and his wooden blocks, in order to realize it, in contrast to a rich consumer who has something in mind, but goes about shopping to find a best fit, only to discover that, after looking through all the malls, that there is just “no such thing” and so leaves it there.

This is very significant, because when we become like this little child, we cease to be dependent on the signs and meanings someone else has devised, which constrain our ideas and the world we build with these ideas and which we experience, i.e., our ontology. Instead, like this little child, we allow these new ideas to live, and to be carried into existence with old signs, devising nonetheless new ways of using these signs. Like the carpenter, we re-shape, re-design the old block, to carry through a new idea, a new blue-print, a new form. And since a sign is simply something that carries us to a referent, then when it begins to refer to something else, then it has be-come from this sign to that sign, i.e., a new sign. Like the child, we can trans-form signs. And when new signs with new meanings are available, then new ontologies constituted from those meanings are also available. The adult who merely uses words will have an ontology which is exhausted by the given words and meanings, and unless he turns around and becomes like unto the little child, he will not be able to call forth the new and marvelous world from a plurality of infinitely possible and alternative worlds. Yet for the adult this is not always easy, especially if the temptation to subscribe fully to a certain discourse—such as what is “evidence-based” or what is “scientific”—with its signs and meanings is strong because of promises of prestige and human respect. How unlike Aquinas who dared, against even the Aristotelian tradition before him and which he so admired, to re-work “being” (esse) into the ‘act of existing’, expressing as he saw it, an infinite power to bring things out of nothingness, as Etienne Gilson’s studies suggest.

But signs are not merely words. Everything is in principle a sign, if it calls to mind something else other than itself. So just as the word, “camera”, is a sign of some object which takes pictures, the physical camera itself, the technology, can also be a sign—perhaps of relaxation—and just as well the experience of taking pictures, and the pictures which are developed, which may recall—and hence sign the realities, or fond memories, etc. And just as a child may re-shape words to express new meanings, so also we can re-design these other signs to point us to new ideas and concepts, in order to have these lead us to other ideas of interest, besides those commonly, and conventionally signed. We can, as it were, speak of the possibility of a kind of semiosic transubstantiation: the substantive transformation of this or that sign as sign. Although it is still a sign, it is changed from one particular sign to another; as sign it now points in semiosis to something new, and hence is now a new sign. If we collect all these things—words, tools, experiences, etc–under the word “photography”,including the thinking and writing about “photography”,then we can begin to see the potential for semiosically transubstantiating “photography”. We can begin to explore—and hence design and engineer—what all that we have under “photography” can mean anew. It need not merely mean snapping an image of something. Perhaps, it could mean–sign–something else.

In part, the Manual has been an attempt to re-conceptualize photography, and to consider how it may be re-shaped and re-designed to lead us to new ideas and concepts that photography conventionally may not sign. The question that had driven many of its past chapters has been, “what is the camera?” An answer to this question is not easy; the task is not to discover through analytic thinking an essence or a definition. Rather it is an invitation to re-construct, or to re-engineer this thing we call a camera, with its lens, sensor, body and viewfinder. Such re-construction or re-engineering of this camera may or may not imply the physical re-modeling of the thing. It may merely involve the re-conception of how the thing as it is may be used, and for what end. Though in all appearances nothing much seems to have changed, such re-conceptualization can be very significant insofar as the complete and substantive modification of its nature as sign is concerned: it may now point us to very important ideas. Quite often, such re-conceptualization is never pre-empted, but discovered through experimentation with photography, and taking note of some of the accidental or unintended effects that are desirable or relevant. In technical, semiotic jargon, much of this also involves developing new interpretants to re-assign these signs to new meanings (suggesting therefore at the same time the importance and indispensability of theorizing which results in these new interpretant theories).

The spirit which drives the movement began by Augusto Ponzio and Susan Petrilli, labeled as “semio-ethics” is I think not too far from this. Semio-ethics, which seeks to connect signs and values, traces its origins to Lady Victoria Welby and her educational theory of “significs”, and is an invitation to us to offer translations of signs that matter—to read, and to learn to read, and perhaps teach others to read all kinds of signs in new way, particularly in ways that have normative and practical significance, leading to the ethical transformation of behaviors. Such an interest to translate signs towards meanings that matter and that can inform our practice in ethically relevant ways seems also to me what John Finnis’ development of the focal meaning of law in Natural Law and Natural Rights achieved: the conceptualization of a meaning of “law” which captures that which is related to what is most valuable for human flourishing, so that it could inform the development of good law and the reform of bad law. Alejo Sison, who in his The Moral Capital of Leaders re-configures “capital” from the fiscal and social towards the moral, and makes the case for the importance of this kind of “capital” in business does more or less the same.

Like them, the re-engineering of “photography” in the Manual also shares of this semio-ethical ethos: we have explored (and will continue to explore) various ways which the doing of photography and everything that surrounds it can lead in semiosis to ethical ideas, as well as ideas relevant for practice. It is also, at the same time, an invitation to put aside the adult semiotic which merely uses signs, and to ongoingly become unto a little child, who re-designs the present world with its present collection of signs and meanings, in order that these may receive a new one.

Now what shall I make from all these?