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Pretentious? Moi?


Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

I enjoy every image I take: I hope you'll enjoy looking at them.
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Pretentious? Moi?

3 May 2021 10:55AM   Views : 225 Unique : 129


If you read magazines that talk about photography as an art, it won’t be too long before you come across the name Roland Barthes. You may feel bound to find out more: clearly, a writer of great influence. Now, I’ve recently fallen to the temptation, despite my reservations about any book translated into English from French – and at the same time as buying the book, I asked a couple of friends about this. Moira (mrswoollybill on here) wrote ‘the English language, rooted in good, sturdy Anglo-Saxon tradition, is essentially concrete. It doesn't do abstract concepts well.’

She told the tale of a university tutor who had felt the need to write his thesis in French because ‘the English language couldn’t cope’ – though another friend (whose own PhD is in philosophy) said ‘With a little imagination, I've never found anything that cannot be said in English.’


Moira went on to say ‘In general I would say that the French have much less fear of sounding pretentious, this is partly supported by a language that is pretty well purpose-built for splitting semantic hairs.’
Let this serve as a warning: it’s a brave English photographer who will venture far into Camera Lucida, Barthes’ celebrated book on photography, without his pith helmet and elephant gun: especially as Barthes was not a photographer, and seems to have had no desire to be one. He viewed the whole business as an outsider who hated having his own picture taken.

As I write, I’m making slow progress with the book, but I’ve come across the first mention of the thing that Barthes is known for: the distinction between what he calls the STUDIUM and the PUNCTUM. The former is a sort of general human interest, and the latter is something that will disturb, distress, or give real emotional meaning. I suppose this matters to all serious photographers, as we want to pierce the hearts of our viewers (at least sometimes)!


I’m going to persist, even if it’s only to prove that I can persevere through a dense book, which declines to put definitions at the start, or even in an appendix, like a good scientist writing up an experiment. (Just looked: no glossary at the back, though there are an enviable number of blank pages for one’s own notes!)

The last part of my writing exercise (and it feels like twenty press-ups) today is to find pictures.



dudler Plus
17 1.6k 1839 England
3 May 2021 11:02AM
If in doubt, go for a pun.

Not STADIUM, but STUDIUM. Echoing the Sellars and Yeatman joke about Pope Gregory sending St Augustine to Britain ('Non Angli, sed Angeli' translated as 'Not Angels, but Anglicans'). I live in a confusing world...
3 May 2021 12:54PM
English is capable of great subtlety and nuance, and there are roughly 500,000 words in the English language ( of which only about 4,500 remain that are of Anglo-Saxon origin ) , as opposed to a mere 70,000 in French. That would suggest to me a significantly greater choice of words to frame any concept, abstract or otherwise, and to characterize English as "essentially concrete" ignores the plethora ( * ) of influences other than Germanic and is utter nonsense.

If English "doesn't do abstract concepts well," how on Earth did famous philosophers such as John Locke, David Hume, A J Ayer, Bertrand Russell, et cetera ( * * ) manage to express their thoughts with such depth and clarity? And of course there were those other influential chaps who thought and wrote in a Germanic tongue... Kant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer...

"Essentially concrete." What absolute garbage. I suggest you READ THIS.

( * ) 'plethora' ...from the Greek, meaning 'fullness.'

( ** ) 'et cetera'... from the Latin 'and so on.'
cooky Plus
17 6 3 United Kingdom
3 May 2021 1:48PM
Why can I just hear, 'Waterloo' by ABBA, playing in my ear... ????

The North has it's own language too...

dudler Plus
17 1.6k 1839 England
3 May 2021 1:59PM
Both barrels, Alan!

I am not fluent in any language other than English: I have real trouble even starting to learn anything, despite formal attempts with French and Latin at school, and informal forays into German and Greek. I therefore speak with some deference of other languages.

However, translations from French tend to be obscure, for whatever reason!

A very old friend, who is professionally involved in philosophy, psychotherapy and writes poetry, shares your view that English works well - though I think he concedes that a little imagination may be needed with some concepts. Maybe we've found an area where the French and British diverge more than most fields - in many ways, we're too much alike to get on very easily...
mrswoolybill Plus
14 2.8k 2403 United Kingdom
3 May 2021 2:47PM
Concrete language... We use it all the time, without thinking about it. The buck stops here, a different kettle of fish, pot calling kettle black, six of one, half a dozen of the other, raining cats and dogs, and on, and on. A sticky situation, a Marmite image, not my cup of tea, whack-a-mole... It's lively and it communicates, to those in the know.
The French language has started to move this way in the last decade or so - twenty years ago I had great difficulty in explaining to a French friend what 'putting labels on people' meant, I have just recently come across this used in French. But such usage is still largely confined to colloquial language, you are unlikely to find it in the pages of Le Monde for example. And when we encounter a direct translation from French, devoid of such expressions, it sounds dry and, um, pretentious.
mrswoolybill Plus
14 2.8k 2403 United Kingdom
3 May 2021 4:32PM
Just as an aside, I have been following the story of protests against anti-Semitism in France, following the murder of Sarah Halimi. Placards at a recent demo translate as variations on 'Harassed and defenestrated for being a Jew'. I cannot imagine 'defenestrated' being used in a political slogan in England. It would be 'bullied and chucked out of a high-rise window'. More direct, physical, but much less concise.
And to clarify one point above - publications such as Le Monde will include anglophone concrete expressions, but always shown in inverted commas, ie acknowledging that they are a linguistic oddity; not used unconsciously.
pablophotographer 9 1.9k 405
4 May 2021 4:05AM
Last time abroad I moved my hand as ventalia on the side of my face in an attempt to show to a person that the room was hot, they brought me food.
I politely ate it 😂
dudler Plus
17 1.6k 1839 England
4 May 2021 7:14AM
A pity they didn't think you were asking for wine, Pablo...
4 May 2021 8:25AM

Quote:Concrete language... We use it all the time, without thinking about it. The buck stops here, a different kettle of fish, pot calling kettle black, six of one, half a dozen of the other, raining cats and dogs, and on, and on. A sticky situation, a Marmite image...

None of those expressions are examples of concrete language, they are examples of idiom, which is not the same thing. Each of those examples is a "figure of speech," a non-literal expression.
Whereas abstract language is imprecise and can be open to misinterpretation, concrete language is precise, specific, unambiguous, making it in most instances a better tool for communication.
"Your relationship with Jim is not good," would be an example of abstract language, because it's vague and leaves questions unanswered. Conversely, "You and Jim argue all the time and call each other insulting names," is concrete language, because it's precise and communicates more.

Perhaps English does lend itself more easily to concrete ( i.e. unambiguous ) expression than some other languages... I'm not a linguist so I don't really know... but if so, then that may be partly why it is the internationally accepted language of science.
And I'd be interested to see an explanation of why " (English ) doesn't do abstract concepts well."
dudler Plus
17 1.6k 1839 England
4 May 2021 9:01AM
Reading this thoughtful addition, I'm wondering if the tendency to use descriptions of real, concrete things to describe more abstract concepts (when the kettles of fish are, perhaps, a Playboy centrefold and an Ansel Adams landscape) is one of the things we're talking about...

By the way - has anyone actually read the book that started this off, or will I be in a minority of one among EPZ members?
4 May 2021 9:32AM
Maybe. I suppose that might come into it.
But it was the assertion...and stated as fact rather than opinion, without anything to support it... that English "doesn't do abstract concepts well" that really got under my skin.

No, I haven't read that book.

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