Loyal as a Book #6

David Beckham, Paul Gascoigne, and the fates of the famous

One Month in a Nepalese Monastery

A Letter From Gandhi to Hitler

Quiz: Which famous author said this about writing?

Sunday Bloody Sunday

The 228 ways to call someone drunk in 1736

“Totally unoriginal, feebly plotted, instantly forgettable.”

Why do we need art?

Christmas in a Siberian labour camp, with Dostoevsky

View More

About Us

(The story of Misfit Press is inextricably linked to the story of Misfit Incorporated, which is inextricably linked to the story of AJ and Melissa Leon. These fascinating stories have been told at length on many other occasions – in newspapers, on TEDx stages, during numerous interviews and chance meetings in wine bars. If you want to explore the weird and wonderful company that is Misfit Incorporated, peruse our site. For the full backstory, check out this video interview.)

Misfit Press itself was established in 2014, with the publication of AJ Leon’s The Life & Times of a Remarkable Misfit. The little-known backstory to The Life & Times is that it was originally slated to be published by a major American publisher, who headhunted AJ after noticing the popularity of his blog, The Pursuit of Everything. About a third of the way through the writing of the book, AJ began to get twitchy about the compromises involved in traditional publishing: uncompromising editorial pressure, a lack of say on issues such as design and artwork. Not long later, AJ bailed on the contract, and decided to publish the book himself. The Misfit team created and ran a Kickstarter, aimed at raising $15,000 to cover publishing costs. By the time the fundraising had run its course, pledges totalled more than treble that amount. With the excess funds, AJ and Misfit decided to go one better than just publishing a book, and also founded a publishing house.

Since its founding, Misfit Press has steadily flourished. In 2015, we took under our wing Wolftree, the finest arts journal in the American Midwest; we released our 2015 Anthology, featuring the finest creative work we encountered over the preceding year; and The Life & Times of a Remarkable Misfit continued to find readers across the globe. In 2016 we published Destination Shakespeare, the debut poetry collection from esteemed Shakespeare academic Paul Edmondson; and we have more Shakespeare-related publications in the works for 2017, including Shakespeare On The Road, a tale of a Shakespearian adventure across the US.

Last  year was a big growth period for the Press, and there is lots more on the way for 2017. As you’ll see from our Forthcoming Publications section, over the next twelve months we will be publishing Saya Sayama: Three Years in Myanmar by incredible photojournalist Spike Johnson, a photonarrative account documenting a unique moment in Myanmar’s history: the violent shift from General Ne Win’s fifty-year dictatorship to the country’s first steps towards democracy. Also imminent is Tangentially Reading, featuring some of the most insightful, shocking, touching, and hilarious moments from the first 200 episodes of Christopher Ryan’s much-loved podcast, Tangentially Speaking.

These are exciting times at Misfit Press. To keep up to date with everything that’s going on, follow us at our blogFacebook, Twitter and/or Instagram. Into the future, we will always continue to work in the fashion we do right now: with authors we like, on projects that matter, in a way that leaves writer, reader and everyone in-between satisfied. We will also never renege on our One-for-One pledge; for every publication we ever sell, a child in India will receive money towards prescription eyeglasses, via the Misfit Foundation.

w: Clare

Susan Sontag on Photography, Capitalism and Redefining Reality

American writer and political activist Susan Sontag wrote extensively about many topics throughout her lifetime. One of her best-known critical works, On Photography, was first published in 1977, and remains one of the definitive texts on image culture. In the foreword, Sontag states that her collection of essays arose from “some of the problems, aesthetic and moral, posed by the omnipresence of photographed images.”

First appearing as a series of essays in the New York Review of Books between 1973 and 1977, there are many themes discussed throughout the essays, making it almost impossible to touch on just one. The collection spans photography’s role in our perceptions of beauty, its position as a social rite, its use as a tool of self discovery, and the predatory implications of picture -taking. However, it is Sontag’s essay “The Image World”, considering the bonds between capitalism, consumerism and the world of images, which retains the most resonance today. As Sontag observes:

A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivise reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs as strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images. The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself. The narrowing of free political choice to free economic consumption requires the unlimited production and consumption of images.

Sontag wrote this in the seventies, before the invention of digital imagery (and before it was possible for anyone to capture hundreds of images on their smartphones at the touch of a button). This “omnipresence of photographed images” has advanced interminability over the past 40 years, but some of Sontag’s ideas remain startlingly relevant. It is a shocking statistic that, since the invention of photography in 1838, we take more photos every two minutes than in the entirety of the 19th century. As Sontag puts it: “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.”

It is undeniably true that consumerist culture is fed by imagery. Photography, once considered a medium of depicting “truth,” is ironically now the largest contributor to the artifices and psychic manipulations of capitalist society. We are bombarded with images on a daily basis, the vast majority from advertising; on billboards, in magazines, and on our screens. Sontag observes that this has been instrumental in redefining our ideas of beauty:

So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful… We learn to see ourselves photographically: to regard oneself as attractive is, precisely, to judge that one would look good in a photograph.

Photographs have come to form the standard against which we hold ourselves. This statement becomes even more relevant in today’s age of the selfie – unless the camera reflects us in a good light, we rarely regards ourselves as beautiful. As Sontag states, it is now “reality which is scrutinized, and evaluated, for its fidelity to photographs.”

The true modern primitivism is not to regard the image as a real thing; photographic images are hardly that real. Instead, reality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras. It is common now for people to insist about their experience of a violent event in which they were caught upa plane crash, a shoot-out, a terrorist bombingthat “it seemed like a movie.” This is said, other descriptions seeming insufficient, in order to explain how real it was. While many people in non-industrialized countries still feel apprehensive when being photographed, diving it to be some kind of trespass, an act of disrespect, a sublimated looting of the personality or the culture, people in industrialized countries seek to have their photographs taken feel that they are images, and are made real by photographs.

Photographs confirm our existence in the world, lending that existence weight and gravity. The reality-confirming, “mental pollution” of image culture has been further perpetuated by the invention of social media; a phenomenon Sontag only lived to catch a brief glimpse of before her death from leukaemia in 2004. Nine years later, in 2013, Facebook confirmed that over 350-million photos are uploaded to their servers every single day. These – along with our tweets, Instagrams and other shares – are little snapshots in time confirming we were here. So Sontag recognised, in 1977:

Photography, which has so many narcissistic uses, is also a powerful instrument for depersonalizing our relation to the world; and the two uses are complementary. Like a pair of binoculars with no right or wrong end, the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much farther away. It offers, in one easy, habit-forming activity, both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others—allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation.

This, too, is the strange duality of social media: it allows us to contribute to a social reality, whilst alienating us from the actual physical world of human interaction.

Photography reinforces a nominalist view of social reality as consisting of small units of an apparently infinite numberas the number of photographs that can be taken of anything is unlimited. Through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated freestanding particles; and history, past and present, a set of anecdotes and faits divers. The camera makes reality atomic, manageable, and opaque. It is a view of the world which denies interconnectedness, continuity, but which confers on each moment the character of a mystery.

While we can choose not to participate in the social web, we can never really escape the image world. The effect of the omnipresence of images is twofold, not only leading us to redefine what is “real,” but also to an “aestheticizing of reality.” We are so oversaturated with images that they cease to have the same impact on us that they once did (and perhaps should). Now, we are not only unaffected by a disturbing image of war or beautiful picture of a sunset; but we are also numbed to the “real thing”, the subject of the photograph itself. We have, in a sense, experienced everything before.

Knowing a great deal about what is in the world (art, catastrophe, the beauties of nature) through photographic images, people are frequently disappointed, surprised, unmoved when they see the real thing. For photographic images tend to subtract feelings from something we experience at first hand and the feelings they do arouse are, largely, not those we have in real life.

What we consider a wonderful capacity of the modern day – our “knowing a great deal about what is in the world” – is also one of the contributing factors to the dissatisfaction and mass anxiety of our generation. We are constantly made aware, via the medium of the internet, of the multitude of options available to us and how else we could be living our lives – jobs we could be doing, places we could visit, people that we could meet. This makes it incredibly difficult to be satisfied with what we have. 

When I first read On Photography, five years ago, I took issue with some of the sweeping, blanket statements that Sontag makes. As a student of photography, the view of the practise as “mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power” was a very unromantic notion. However, while many of Sontag’s views can be construed as negative, it is ultimately not photography she is indicting, but consumerism. Photography has undoubtedly contributed to laying the image-obsessed foundations of the 21st century, but the medium itself is not inherently flawed. The problem lies in the anxiety-inducing gravity we assign to images. Sontag concludes this final essay of the collection with the following:

Images are more real than anyone could have supposed. And just because they are an unlimited resource, one that cannot be exhausted by consumerist waste, there is all the more reason to apply the conservationist remedy. If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will require an ecology not only of real things but of images as well.

Wise words.

1463 words

Like words?



ClareClare is Assistant Editor at Misfit Press. She enjoys taking pictures with a variety of strange cameras, chasing after cats, drinking pale ale and exploring new places.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.

David Foster Wallace on Dostoevsky’s “ingenious and radiantly human fiction”

Literature’s greatest sex scene? Umberto Eco explores lust and love from the Dark Ages to today

Aldous Huxley’s deathbed meditation on Shakespeare, consciousness and waking up

Misfit Press