A key question asked in the social sciences concerns the relation between the individual and society, or using more precise terms, the relation between agency and structure. On the one hand are those who, like Emile Durkheim, argue that social structure is prior to the individual and serves to limit individual action; on the other hand, such a view is contested or qualified by those who, like Max Weber, argue that the social world encompasses, among other things, the meaningful actions, utterances, and gestures of individual agents who know what they are doing and can give reasonable motives for their actions. The debate has a long history in sociology, as sociologist Anthony Giddens elaborates:
"In formulating a basic conceptual approach in social science, several major traditions of thought — most notably that associated with Durkheim and his followers — saw 'society' as pre-eminent over the 'individual'. According to this view, society has a primacy over individual action, and the constraining properties of 'social facts' form the chief terrain for social analysis. Proponents of the contrasting standpoint laid emphasis upon the distinctive properties of 'individuals', seeing 'society' as the outcome of a multiplicity of discrete activities. The debate between the two sides was set up in such a way that it became impossible to resolve."More recently, the extremes of each position are constituted, respectively, by claims like Louis Althusser's structural Marxism that the individual is wholly an effect of the social structure (i.e., humankind cannot, through mere volition, do anything about its own misery and alienation; the revolution will not occur because people have changed their minds), and by those like Talcott Parsons's voluntarism that valorize the significant subjective elements of volition and action. But, you might ask, what does this sociological debate have to do with art criticism, photography in particular? Yet — as many critics today implicitly, if not explicitly, point out — the problem of the agency/structure debate is central to the issues surrounding the cultural struggle between Modernism and Postmodernism. Concerns with biography and personal reference (i.e., agency) and social context (structure external to the artwork) were anathema to many art critics writing in the early-to-mid-1960s, a period still under the dominance of Greenbergian Modernism.
This aversion can be traced back to the influence of New Criticism in literature. C. S. Lewis summarized this position in 1939: "I shall maintain that when we read poetry as poetry should be read, we have before us no representation which claims to be the poet, and frequently no representation of a man, a character, or a personality at all." Three years later W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, building on and clarifying Lewis's arguments, championed "objective" criticism in their classic essay "The Intentional Fallacy" (1942): "We ought to impute the thoughts and attitudes of the poem immediately to the dramatic speaker, and if to the author at all, only by an act of biographical inference." Cleanth Brooks, in his essay "The Formalist Critic" (1951), set down a key tenet of the New Criticism: "the formalist critic assumes an ideal reader: that is, instead of focusing on the varying spectrum of possible readings, he attempts to find a central reference from which he can focus upon the structure of the poem or novel."
Clement Greenberg's overarching influence passed on the tenets of the New Criticism into painting and sculpture — later John Szarkowski, as curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, subsumed art photography under Greenbergian principles — so that these 1960s art critics were in large measure strict formalists, imposing on their writing what critic Robert Pincus-Witten called "an apersonal, hermetic value system," what Joseph Riddel termed a "willful interpretation" that produced "a unitary or autotelic text." But by 1977, Pincus-Witten could write in Postminimalism about a shift in critical approach that was more resonate with the art — Minimalism, Postminimalism, Conceptualism — then being produced:
"More recent artistic emphasis is almost directly opposed to the formalist values of the mid-sixties. It is revealed in those art activities stressing autobiography [i.e., agency], the artistic persona and psyche, stripped bare as it were, layer by layer."Although this work demanded of the critic a reassessment of the boundaries proper to critical discussion, widening the narrow path that formalist critics had once tread into an excursion into the forbidden territories of intentionality and social context, the concept of the individual as written from romanticism through existentialism did not fundamentally change. Thus, writing just prior to the postmodernist challenge to the tenets of Modernism, Pincus-Witten had to qualify the shift he observed by remarking upon the survival of Modernism's valorization of the creative genius:
"Despite this apparent reversal of values, an essential constancy of modern art—uniqueness of personality — persists; no longer manifested through facture, the individuality of touch, but through an unrepentant autobiographical confession or fantasy concerning those areas of human activity in which the artists are most singularly personal — their literally private lives."If Pincus-Witten were to write an introduction to a new book titled Postmodernism, he would have to theorize that his previously noted mere change in values had escalated into a full-blown paradigm shift wherein now even the discourse of originality, with its stress on authorial presence and voice, had been overturned in both theory and practice. In place of the auteur high-culture's version of the Parsonian free agent, who stands outside the status quo as the avant-garde critic of Kitsch, hence, the savior of high-culture, Pincus-Witten would have had to introduce a different kind of producer, the bricoleur, Postmodernism's "de-centered subject," a scavenger who appropriates already-existing structures not as mere collage insertions, but as to incorporate them into the arena of a new and enlarged cultural realm. The new conception of the "I" heralded in by poststructuralism, a radical shift in the understanding of selfhood as developed in traditional Western thought, is described by William C. Dowling:
". . . the framework of custom I inhabit when I permit myself to think passively 'about' such notions as totality is in this case my own consciousness, the 'I' that lies prior to my thoughts about anything at all. So deep is this way of experiencing the world that I am likely to think of my separation from everything else as being the very condition of my individuality, the 'I' and the 'not-I' as being the primitive and mutually defining terms of my very consciousness. So deep is it, in fact, that I am seldom likely even to recall that this experience of the world, something we do not normally think of as rising to the abstract level of the conceptual or philosophical, is in fact buttressed by the metaphysics of that entire tradition called philosophical empiricism, the tradition that runs from Descartes's cogito and Locke's tabula rasa to Bertrand Russell's modern attempts to found knowledge in 'knowledge by acquaintance' and knowledge by acquaintance in a reality innocently perceived by the senses. This the tradition now so powerfully challenged by structuralism and poststructuralism with their 'decentering of the subject . . ."This new kind of subject (understood as producer) and the problems posed by this concept was remarked upon by Michel Foucault:
". . . one must return to this question [of the founding role of the subject], not in order to re-establish the theme or an originating subject, but to grasp the subject's points of insertion, modes of functioning, and system of dependencies. Doing so means overturning the traditional problem, no longer raising the questions 'How can a free subject penetrate the substance of things and give it meaning? How can it activate the rules of language [or visual art] from within and thus give rise to the designs which are properly its own?' Instead, these questions will be raised: 'How, under what conditions and in what forms, can something like a subject appear in the order of discourse? What place can it occupy in each type of discourse, what functions can it assume, and by obeying what rules? . . . the author does not precede the works, he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; . . . One can say that the author is an ideological product . . ."Two basic modes of Postmodernism have been noted: 1) a reactionary, populist, anti-modernist variety that turns toward "tradition" and "nostalgia" (la mode rétro); 2) a critical or political oppositional variety that is not only anti-modernist, but also against what Hal Foster calls the "false normativity" of reactionary Postmodernism; moreover, this resistant strain of Postmodernism attempts, says Foster, "a critical deconstruction of tradition, not an instrumental pastiche of pop- or pseudo-historical forms, with a critique of origins, not a return to them." The resistant strain of postmodernist scavenging might entail ironically quoting verbal or visual material (either past artistic styles, or even what high-modernism loathed, Kitsch) in a strategic attempt (albeit "weaker" than its modernist counterpart) to subvert from within, like a virus, the various constraining, dominant "discursive regimes" characteristic of late capitalism. One can see in the shift remarked upon by Pincus-Witten, and telescoped into today's postmodernist paradigm, the changing attitudes about what constitutes agency and structure and what the nature of their relationship might be: Binary opposition or mutually implicated duality?
The key site of this theoretical investigation lies within the complex topos of what contemporary theory terms identity—a concept involving the study of the positionalities of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and social role. Do these modalities of identity (as produced discursive structures) simply constrain the agent (as Althusser would have it), or are they insignificant compared to individual free action (as Parsons would prefer), or, finally, are these structures both constraining and empowering as British sociologist Anthony Giddens argues. Giddens's Theory of Structuration attempts to show agency and structure presuppose one another, that they are mutually implicated in a dialectical relation he terms the "duality of structure." How this question is answered will determine the type of "subject" that will inform any further critical discussion or artistic practice. (For instance, within Giddens's theory the producing subject gains more control than under Foucault's conception cited above.) It will also inflect the direction of critical engagement away from the apersonal and the intrinsic toward the interpersonal and the extrinsic aspects of artistic practice, a shift in emphasis that echoes the broad disciplinary move away from the static conception of things touted by structuralism (Modernism) toward a dynamic conception as posited by poststructuralism (Postmodernism).
This change in emphasis has been theorized as the shift from concern with the autonomous work of art — along with the autonomous subject or ego — to rereading such works as texts, as "immense ensembles of texts of various kinds, superimposed on each other by way of the various intertextualities, successions of fragments, or yet again, sheer process [textual production]," which results in stressing the heterogeneous aspects and discontinuities of the object of textual study. The work as merely an aesthetic production is demystified, materialized, and becomes subsumed under the more general term media which, as Fredric Jameson points out, contains the "multiple dimensions of the material, the social, and the aesthetic."