M1 Wk9: Theory in Practice 1

Forum: Theory in Practice

In reasoning why it is necessary to write the book Basic Critical Theory for Photographers, its author, Ashley La Grange, postulates the following:

“Many people are put off critical theory because they see it as difficult (often unnecessarily difficult), and cannot see its relevance to their own practical work.  The situation is not helped by the fact that much critical theory is written by academics, for other academics who are already familiar with the issues, vocabulary and earlier arguments.  The result is that critical theory becomes unnecessarily elitist and many people who would be quite capable of debating the issues are discouraged from doing so”.

Ashley La Grange (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Focal Press.

For me, this statement encapsulates perfectly my current thoughts on critical theory – in my eyes this statement is effective theory in practice, critiquing critical theory.   Of course, Ashley sets out to dispel this belief and in fairness, I am yet to complete the 247 pages.  Having spent most of my University days in lab-based research, I have not previously had higher-academic circle time to share feelings.  The work I investigated and the writings I produced had to be entirely factual, scientifically proven with no place for subjectivity (although, scientific method does, I suppose, comprise two subjective components: forming hypotheses, and collecting data to substantiate or refute each hypothesis).

An analogy would be that of ordering wine in a restaurant – everyone is capable of expressing in their own terms what wine they would like to have with their meal, but many are terrified of embarrassing themselves by saying the wrong thing… so they pick out the recommended wine or ask the sommelier for a recommendation.  Here’s where I must come clean: I have studied with the Institute of Cape Wine Masters and am working slowly towards becoming a Winemaster – I routinely critique wines and have no problem with the associated issues, history, methodology and vocab.  I know the wines I like and I know theoretically what ought to make a good wine… but I cannot make wine and none of my critical practice has impacted any wine or the wine industry in any way.  So, does critical theory serve a valid purpose beyond humouring ‘academics’?

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