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Kent Aesthetics Research Centre | Summer Events

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The Aesthetics Research Centre at the University of Kent warmly invites attendance to its upcoming research events for the summer term: 

Weds 15 May, 4pm, Jarman Studio 5 (Teams link here)

‘Self-Presentation and External Validation: Vulnerability and Trust in Rineke Dijksta’s Portraiture’Diarmuid Costello, University of Warwick.

Contemporary Dutch photographer and video-maker Rineke Dijkstra works in extended series. I focus on two pairs of what I take to be related series here. The first, Beach Portraits (1992-2015) and The Krazy House (Megan, Simon, Nicky, Philip, Dee), Liverpool UK (2009), captures adolescents and young adults trying, in very different ways, to construct a coherent and stable self-image as they navigate the transition to adulthood. The second, New Mothers (1994) and Bullfighters (1994-2000), captures two very different groups of people who have just undergone abrupt, life-changing—indeed potentially life-threatening—experiences, which they seem to be trying to process. Despite the vulnerability and sense of exposure created by undergoing such periods of intense transition or extended instability, all seem willing to trust the photographer—typically a total stranger—to represent them. Why would they do this?

Since Annette Baier’s “Trust and Antitrust” (1986), the consensus in philosophy has seen trust as a three term relation: A trusts B to Φwith Cfor X, or in domain D. If this schema is correct, what do Dijkstra’s sitters entrust? I suggest they trust the photographer to help them arrive at a better understanding of themselves by trusting her with their self-presentation. As what Karen Jones calls “finite social creatures,” humans rely on others to extend the scope of their agency in a multitude of ways. In agreeing to be photographed, Dijkstra’s subjects must trust that she will not represent them in a way that they could not have endorsed if consulted: minimally, they trust that she will not humiliate, travesty or belittle them photographically. What reason could they have to run such a risk, given their lack of control over the outcome?

The suggestion I want to try out here is that the sitters depend upon the photographer to capture the sense of self in the process of emerging, sometimes only fleetingly, from these transformative experiences. Each is implicitly engaged in a process of “self-fashioning.” This need not be volitional. By documenting this—indeed perhaps merely by witnessing it—Dijkstra provides an external, non-subjective validation of that project. The sitters trust the photographer, and in doing so render themselves vulnerable to whatever she makes of the self-presentation they entrust, because the photographic process can itself function as a public acknowledgement of the self that is in the process of being forged. Precisely because such validation is external, it can add substance to what might otherwise remain inchoate, thereby potentially helping to bring that self into being.

Weds 22 May, 4pm (tbc), Jarman Studio 5 (Teams link here)

‘Boiled Frog Fictions’Josh Landy, Stanford University.

Sometimes you reach the end of a novel, movie, or TV series only to find that your favourite character is a bit of a wrong’un. They didn’t become immoral; they were dodgy all along, but you just didn’t notice or let it slide. The moral temperature kept rising and rising until now, like the proverbial frog, you are boiled.

(Just a metaphor: if we’re going to eat other animals, let’s at least treat them humanely.)

Fictions like these are high risk—legions of confused fans will express outrage and disappointment or, worse, profess to have “learned” terrible things—but maybe they are also high reward. Could they be the literary equivalent of a reductio ad absurdum? Could they provide a kind of Rorschach test for us, generating a reliable form of knowledge? Could they even cultivate better mental habits, including an epistemic modesty that will keep us out of future pots?

All welcome!