John Berger’s insights on the interplay between photography, sociology, positivism, and the traditional realist novel are captivating due to their depth. Berger’s persuasive argument revolves around the simultaneous emergence of these fields and their shared aspiration—an ardent belief in the transformative potential of observable and quantifiable facts, meticulously captured by experts, to serve as the bedrock of proven truth, thereby propelling humanity forward. It appears that the objective was to replace metaphysics with precision and resolve conflicts via strategic planning. Unfortunately, the course of events took an unexpected turn, resulting in the emergence of a paradigm in which reducing everything and everyone to mere factors of calculation and profit became the ultimate objective.
When we consider the historical relationship between photography, sociology, and positivism, it is clear that the formative years of these disciplines overlapped and mutually reinforced one another. Due to photography’s relative accuracy in documenting reality, it has become a valuable tool for sociological research. In essence, this medium crystallized fleeting moments of time, providing tangible evidence that could be dissected and analyzed with precision. Comparatively, the sociologist, like the photographer, attempted to decipher the complexities of the social fabric by searching for patterns, correlations, and hidden truths within the captured images or gathered data.
Positivism, which reached its zenith in the nineteenth century, embarked on a fervent quest to establish a scientific framework as the primary means of world comprehension. It advocated that knowledge should be based on empirical evidence and that human progress should be guided by rational principles. In this endeavor, positivism intersected with the emerging fields of photography and sociology, forging a shared epistemological basis. Together, they envisioned a future in which empirical evidence and logical reasoning would converge, resulting in a harmonious and prosperous utopian society.
In a similar manner, the goals of photography, sociology, and positivism were strikingly similar to those of the classic realist novel, with its meticulous attention to detail and unwavering determination to accurately depict the world. Through their respective mediums, these disciplines sought to capture reality, grounding it in tangible experiences and providing a reflection of the multifaceted nature of the human condition. Akin to photography, the realist novel endeavored to capture the nuances and complexities of life, emphasizing the importance of empirical observation and the representation of society’s intricate tapestry.
Despite the initial promise of the convergence of photography, sociology, positivism, and the realist novel, their subsequent course took an unexpected turn. In place of a society guided by precision, planning, and the pursuit of objective truth, we witnessed their noble goals gradually erode. These disciplines’ lofty goals were usurped by the advent of calculative logic, which was driven by an insatiable desire for profit.
Once used to reveal the truth, photography has evolved into a manipulative and persuasive tool. Ads used carefully composed and retouched images to manipulate consumer desires and influence public opinion. Additionally, the rampant proliferation of digital manipulation undermined the medium’s credibility by blurring the line between reality and fiction. In this new environment, photography lost its pristine purity, and its position as arbiter of the truth became increasingly suspect.
In a parallel manner, sociology endured a similar fate. The desire to quantify and categorize human behavior led to reductionism, which reduced people to mere statistical data points. Richness and diversity inherent to human experiences were diminished in favor of simplified models that prioritized generalizability. Thus, the lived realities of marginalized communities and their complex struggles were frequently disregarded or disregarded.
Positivism contributed unwittingly to the emergence of a reductionist worldview, despite its initial aim of replacing metaphysics with scientific inquiry. The relentless pursuit of profit and efficiency drove societies toward a utilitarian framework that measured human value solely in terms of monetary value. Long-term social and environmental consequences were disregarded in favor of measurable results and immediate gains.
At the heart of this transformation is an inherent flaw in positivism’s underlying assumptions and reductionist agenda. Positivism sought to replace subjective speculation and metaphysics with objective truths through its emphasis on empirical evidence and quantifiable data. It promoted the notion that only through scientific observation and measurement could knowledge be obtained. However, in its haste to establish a solid basis for truth, positivism overlooked the nuances and complexities of the human experience.
This positivist paradigm gave rise to a reductionist worldview that propagates the notion that everything and everyone can be reduced to calculable factors. It views the world as a collection of measurable entities without intrinsic value or significance. The value of humans is determined solely by their contributions to a profit-driven society and their level of productivity. This reductionist approach disregards the inherent worth, agency, and complexity of individual lives, reducing them to mere cogs in the pursuit of material gain.
In addition, the reductionist worldview reinforces a way of thinking that gives precedence to short-term gains over long-term sustainability. The interconnectedness and interdependence of systems and processes are frequently obscured by the simplification of complex phenomena into simplified models and numerical indicators. This narrow focus on immediate profit produces unintended results such as environmental degradation, social inequality, and the deterioration of communal bonds.
As a counterpoint to this reductionist worldview, art assumes a crucial role. Art resists reductionism by embracing the complexities, ambiguities, and subjective dimensions of human existence through its multifaceted expressions. It serves as a reminder of the irreducible aspects of our lives, including emotions, imagination, beauty, and the eternal search for meaning.
Art is capable of transcending the limitations of the quantifiable and engaging with ineffable aspects of human experience. It compels us to question, reflect, and investigate alternative viewpoints that transcend profit-driven calculations. Art allows us to challenge established norms and envision alternative futures that transcend the constraints of a reductionist worldview when we engage with profound existential questions.
In my personal reflections on this topic, I am keenly reminded of the enormous responsibility that artists, philosophers, and thinkers share. Together, we have the ability to resist the relentless tide of reductionism, reclaim the value of complexity and nuance, and promote a more holistic worldview. By recognizing the intrinsic value of art, we can foster a society that places a premium on human flourishing, ecological sustainability, and the pursuit of collective well-being over narrow calculations of profit.
The unintended results of profit-driven calculative logic have produced a reductionist worldview that reduces everything and everyone to mere calculable factors. Positivism has inadvertently disregarded the complexities of human existence and the broader implications of reductionism in its pursuit of objective truth and progress. Through the power of art and profound philosophical reflection, however, we can challenge this reductionist paradigm, embrace the complexity of our existence, and pave the way for a more holistic and meaningful understanding of the world.
John Berger, “Ways of Seeing” (United Kingdom)
Max Weber, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (Germany)
Michel Foucault, “The Birth of Biopolitics: Michel Foucault’s Lecture on Neo-Liberal Governmentality” (France)
Susan Sontag, “On Photography” (United States)
Pierre Bourdieu, “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste” (France)
Zygmunt Bauman, “Liquid Modernity” (Poland)
Herbert Marcuse, “One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society” (Germany)
Donna Haraway, “Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature” (United States)
Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulation” (France)
David Harvey, “The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change” (United Kingdom)