So expansive is the area of our cultural life the transactions of which are processed through language that we hesitate to agree to the fact that there are areas in our cultural life in which language does not figure with the primacy (if it figures at all) generally accorded to it. The works of non-narrative creative art forms, such as abstract painting, music and dance, owe much for their composition to extra-linguistic exercise of the mind. An informed consumer of such a work of art may, drawing on their learning, read certain stroke of the brush or gesture of part of the body as a line or a curve, or the vocal range as spanning four octaves, linguistically giving labels to artistic maneuvers. However, those artistic maneuvers are not linguistic acts. Relevantly here, Birkerts aptly says about poetry and music:
Music can be subjected to stringent analysis, it can be precisely notated, and yet the notations give no purchase whatsoever on beauty. Because while a note can be named, a sound, and from sound a melody, cannot. And with poetry, beauty and mystery begin at the very point where denotation ends (Berkerts, 2012, pp. 76-77).
A mind experiencing a work of abstract art as a consumer functions differently from that of an artist at its creative moment. The consumer mind more often than not thinks about the work of art in a linguistic way. A mind at an abstract creative work does not think in terms of linguistic units (such as labels, meaningful or not) or their minimal meaningful compositions (such as words)—it experiences abstract plays of sometimes retrospectively namable colors, forms, and shapes, etc. Language is only a recent invention in our evolutionary timeline, and before humans biologically evolved to be well equipped for speech, they relied on their non-linguistic faculties—they experienced the world in a more direct sensuous way, visually, aurally, and so on. The pre-linguistic understanding of newborns is also another interesting example nearer to us.
Figure 1: A photograph at a slow shutter speed (20 seconds) set to record the trace the movement of fire at the tip of an incense stick. This photograph is untitled. Photograph by Thoithoi O’Cottage (October 2016)
Figure 2: Tangle of Light. This image, captured moments after the one in Figure 1, was also photographed at the same slow shutter speed of 20 seconds. Photograph by Thoithoi O’Cottage.
Before taking the above photographs, I had certain mental vision of something like a small brand of red or orange light moving in spirals, circles and curves leaving a long trace in knotty tangles—sort of the play of the persistence of vision, something we are unaware of unless we consciously and carefully study this phenomenon. The physical law governing this phenomenon did not concern the vision at all. The vision was about the formal beauty of the movement of the light in space and across time, and experiencing it spatially spread flatly across a page, the twenty seconds compressed into one viewing aesthetic moment, something temporally impossible made spatially possible by the medium of photography. While the physical law governing this phenomenon remains a fact, my vision of the firebrand trace did not have a specific form, and when I took the shots the same brand took different forms which have nothing to do with the photograph’s being titled or untitled.
Creative works of the abstract kind, thus, make no claims—they constate nothing; they contest nothing. It, therefore, stands to reason that such cultural artefacts are free from the responsibility of having to be value-charged. Though they can be subjected even to political studies, they are intrinsically affective and this primacy cannot be pushed aside to accommodate a linguistic claim considered putatively made by them. Foucauldean aesthetics falls along this line, in which, as James D. Faubion (2000) puts,
[t]the literary quest for experimental and expressive frontiers—a mission of discovery that leads beyond referentiality, beyond imitation, beyond “reason,” beyond the established generic bounds of disciplined invention, to the edges of coherence and interpretability just short of madness—has come to a considerable cost: it has obliged literature to share some portion of the fate of madness itself (p. xviii).
Therefore, for our current quest, we would move to areas where language is employed for the content in utterances—to make claims, and affirm or contest anything. In this area of our cultural life, we are “very much at the mercy of […] language” because “the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language” we speak as members of society (Sapir, 2008, p. 209). Without language thoughts and ideas that have distinguished humans from other creatures would have been much rudimentary at best.
Any linguistic act involves the use at least of a minimal meaningful unit of language, such as a full-fledged word as “I” or filler sounds such as “mmm.” As such minimal units, considered at this linguistic level, are meaningful, no act that can be considered linguistic can be performed in vacuum—it always means something, its content. As language disagrees with vacuum, whenever we encounter a linguistic act (an utterance, even when it is in a language we do not know), we, irrespective of the speaker’s identity, try to tie its content down to the facts of the concrete world. Referentiality is the inherent property of language, no matter who the language user is, what the speaker’s intention is, and in what circumstances it is used, because since language is made up of meaningful units (say words) and each of these units derives its meaning from its reference to facts in the lived world, language remains anchored to the world of facts. A person may utter a word, say “apple,” and yet have no need or intention to convey the idea conveyed by the word, but by dint of the fact that “apple” has referents in the factual and conceptual world the utterance triggers referentiality, independent and irrespective of the utterer’s need or intention, in the same way as dictionary entries have meanings. The context (including the speaker’s supposed intention) does only to refine and narrow down the scope of the utterance’s referentiality by contextually limiting other possibilities of meaning. One of my neighbours in Kakching habitually drops in her speech three words—chafu (pot), pena (a Manipuri musical instrument), and various forms of the verb irujaba (bathe)—irrelevantly together consecutively in that order with great frequency (sometimes interspersed with right words in her sentences) before she self-corrects immediately after their utterance. Her interlocutors understand what these words refer to though she does not intend to utter these words to refer to mean what they mean; however, the linguistic competence of the interlocutors ignore these words as contextually irrelevant, at first with surprise, then with a smile, and later with knowledgeable ignorance.
However, in normal circumstances, the referring contents in spoken or written language acts (they are intended) presented as referring have corresponding anchoring referents at corresponding points on the timeline in the actual world. The referents can be factual materially (certain events actually happen physically; e.g., people shaking hands, wars being fought, buildings being built, etc.) or conceptually (some things happen in the mind without them necessarily crystalizing into verifiable material facts such as, wishing if we could fly without wings, believing something to be true irrespective of its actual truth value, understanding things in certain ways than they actually are, etc.), and they may lie in the past or the present, or in the future. The past and the present have actualized referents while the future consists of possibilities which are yet to actualize. Many of the possibilities actualize in actual reality while many others remain virtual reality without actually crystalizing into actual reality, while the rest disappears without a trace.
The general functions involved in referentiality is so common to us that we take most things for granted and we, until we pay attention, do not see the underlying complexities at work when our mind makes the referencing connections. When someone says
(1) This is a mango
and holds up a mango for us to see, we can verify the truth value of his statement (unless we are unaware of the fruit called mango) by checking the truth claim of the statement against our world knowledge—his “mango” refers to the fruit or the species of fruit in his hand. If he rather holds up an orange for us to see and says
(2) This is a mango
and if we know oranges and mangoes to tell one from the other and believe the speaker intends by his “mango” to refer to the fruit in his hand (orange), we encounter a problem of mismatch between the referrer and the referent, and thus we cannot link “mango” in his speech to the factual entity of the orange in his hand. This mismatch triggers a wide range of general judgmental issues concerning the speaker’s world knowledge, linguistic competence, personality, intentions, and so on. Does he (age matters; for example, a very young kid has far less world knowledge than a normal adult) not know the fruits mango and orange when he has definitely heard the word “mango”? Does he not know the term/name by which the fruit mango (or also orange) is known in the language he speaks? Is he a comic or a very argumentative person trying to convince his gullible audience that what he has in his hand (orange) is actually a mango, not an orange? Or what motive does he have for saying the orange in his hand is a mango well knowing that it is actually an orange and not a mango? Is he simply crazy?
Every day we come across true statements like (1) and false statements like (2). Rightly judging the truth value of a statement calls for relevant knowledge or information on the part of the audience, too. Lacking the relevant knowledge or information on their part fails the audience in judging the truth value of statements to accept or reject a claimed link between the referring content and the assumed referent in the actual world. This failure is of great consequence, because in the absence of the verifying knowledge, the audience has to right away take at face value a statement as true, or reject as false without any supporting proof or reason, or they may have to remain in suspension (in doubt or skepticism, or just indifference) thereby negating the purpose of the statement or linguistic exercise, rendering it fruitless. The behavior of the audience is affected by failed or successful linking. How we link the truth claims of statements to their supposed corresponding factual counterparts in the real world not only affects our daily behavior but also changes the course of history, and thus our culture. Truth, falsehood and outright lies have gone into our lives through history, and it is here that the general issues of truth, lie and falsehood, of linking truth claims in statements with their supposed corresponding factual counterparts in the real world become so much culturally important.
Assuming that everybody knows mangoes and oranges, they can tell one from the other and that both the referrer and the referent are right next to each other for easy and immediate verification of the statement’s truth value, we do not have problems of linking when we know both the referrer and the referent as in (1). However, things are not so straightforward and apparently very simple statements of the same type as (1) and (2) can be intractably difficult and do not readily lend themselves to easy and valid linking. For example, investigating and verifying the truth value of “She is his sister” (which is of the same type of (1)) may not be as simple as it seems, if it is not impossible. When we cannot access the verifying factual realities when we want, we are left to be unsure resulting in us just assuming the statement to be true or false (just like in elections when many people just vote for a candidate or the other to avoid wasting vote even when they do not support any of those whom they vote for) most of the time, or avoid getting involved by ignoring the discourse.
Sometimes (or rather most of the time) it is impossible for us to verify the truth/fact claims of every piece of information we receive every day, and when the frequency and volume of information inflow is far more than could be handled, the information, irrespective of its truth value, problematically becomes the constituents of knowledge without value judgment and verification, just as it comes. Once unverified information goes into the make-up of our knowledge, our relevant subsequent belief and practices are based on that knowledge with unverified elements. History and culture are alloys of truths, half-truths, falsehood and lies. In a hurry to keep abreast of events at a runaway pace, all the participants (governments, corporates, the media, and individuals) of the accelerated world cannot fathom most of the information inflow beyond what immediately concerns them on a personal level. In such a world, “the pace with which new threats can materialize leaves no time for hesitation” and nations in the world act on the maxim that “[d]ecisions must be made quickly and efficiently by a centralized and authoritative executive” for “slow-moving processes of deliberation and debate (not to mention investigation) are no longer viable” (Glezos, 2012, p. 2). More than that, these slow-moving processes “potentially threaten our survival” (ibid). In a 2004 New York Times Magazine article, reporter Ron Suskind quoted from what a high-level aide within the Bush administration said in their interview, which rationalized the above worldview and justifying those in power going “from one reckless action to another, always moving too fast to be held accountable for their destruction, lies and illegalities” (Glezos, 2012, p. 2):
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do” (Suskind, 2004).
Real-time war and crisis reporting keeps pace with “centralized and authoritative executives” and constructs a knowledge system in which, at the maximum possible level of objectiveness, what is visible to the eyes is reported as they look like (though reality is not that straightforward and appearances can be deceiving) as soon as they have happened or while they are happening. In the instant and real-time reporting scheme, there is no time for investigation and verification because “the news media which is supposed to exercise […] accountability must itself move […] fast […] in moving from scandal to scandal” to follow the developments at a runaway pace. For example, at the very instant when the First Gulf War officially started at 2:38 am of 17 January 1991 with an aerial bombing campaign on Baghdad,
CNN (the only Western TV network present in Iraq) started to broadcast the unfolding images of military action from the ground. In the following weeks, millions of viewers could watch the war, as it was happening, live on their TV screens (Bruno, 2011, p. 1).
Later in 1998-99, the Kosovo war (or rather Kosovo-Serbia war) was also reported real-time in various ways, and more recently, between late 2013 and early 2014, the Ukrainian civil war, or more specifically the Russian-Ukrainian war (the tension of which has not yet let up considerably), was reported real-time by protestors, demonstrators and soldiers on the front on newer media platforms on the Internet far more efficiently but sketchily and without organization and system. At first sight, audio-visual recordings and photographic images, by dint of their mechanical process of production (Bazin, 1980, pp. 240-241), may seem unquestionably objective in their nature to the extent of the recording subject (the videographer and the photographer) having no agentive role in the data’s value production, resulting in the data being an unmediated copy of the part of the world or event recorded. Such rigid objectivity-mechanicality arguments of the likes of Bazin between the early days of the invention of the photographic camera in the late eighteenth century and the later part of the nineteenth century turned out naïve to later scholars and critics of photography (see Berger, 1980, pp. 292, 294; Damisch, 1980, pp. 289-290; Weston, 1980, pp. 171, 173) and the cinematic medium as forms of art. More recently, critics like Baer (2002), Batchen (2004), Grundberg (2003, pp. 164-179), Kember (2003, pp. 202-217) and Sontag (1973, 2005), among many others, have gone to an impressive extent to study the problems of reality with respect to videography and photography and their unreliability as a means of documentation.
While the arguments of these scholars may help us appreciate the complex nature the relationship between reality on the one hand and photography and videography on the other, our current concern does not require going into those details beyond pointing out the fact that videography and photography can serve diametrically opposite purposes while they report the same event as we have witnessed it in the above-mentioned Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and the infamous Vietnam War (1954–1975), in which individuals affiliated to either side photographed or videographed the events from their own angles. When the news and visual reports of mass destruction, ignominious torture and tragedy of Vietnam War flooded the American mediascape, there was no dearth of news and visual reports of American heroism in action on the front, but Vietnamese photographers, especially Nick Ut, captured more traumatizing scenes of the war in only a very few photographs. Judging the event just by reports from opposite sides juxtaposed in front of us, the third party, we are compelled to believe that each side is a hero or a villain.
Figure 3: Herioism of American soldiers during the Vietnam War, photographed by an American photographer
Figure 4: A tragic scene during the Vietnam War. Photograph by Nick Un.
The CNN real-time report of the Gulf War was accompanied by oral commentary by on-the-scene reporters. However, that does not make any difference because even if the verbal statements were supplemented by the live video report or vice versa (or they might be mutually supplementing), there is always the possibility of employing convincing statements and audio-visual data to serve ideological purposes, intentionally or otherwise.
When “history’s actors” engage in creating fast-paced realities pushing the borders of knowledge into newer areas, and when the willing or reluctant propagators of these new realities and body of knowledge (the media and academic institutions) engage in the debates around the acts of history’s actors by multiplying, reproducing the replicas and clones of the new realities in the form of news and critical studies in alarmingly large volume at an alarming pace, the common people are left with no option but consuming what they are fed. They are reduced to consumers of the system constituted by the government, its institutions, corporates and the media (capitalism would be a clichéd and too vague a term) which they feed but makes it look like they are fed by it. When one is reduced to a constant consumer, one can never keep pace with the producer, let alone overtaking it and exchange roles once in a while, if not permanently. Dynamic equality and parity in which there is a two way flow of economic and political traffic between any two sides maintaining a balance is not obtainable in such a system. Thus the common people are condemned to perpetual consumerism in which they are not equipped to be capable of questioning the values of the products sold to them and investigate and verify their truth claims. As space (the site of shape and form) is realized in two senses in painting and architecture (the positive space and the negative space), news (or what is presented to us as knowledge or reality) always has two sides to it—the told and the untold. Openly shared information positively act on the minds of its consumers, while information kept secret or on hold for a calculated period of time act snegatively or passively to maintain the order prevalent while the openly shared information is running its positive rounds. If the withheld information were released while it was actually kept locked inside the closet, it would have affected the knowledge-scape of the world in question in a different way than when it was kept withheld. All this means that what we call knowledge is mediated by some agency and it is their artefact, and we are a controlled product of this agency. In our perpetual condemnation, we consider only the told part as constitutive of our knowledge or what is called ‘truth’ although it has taken that form by dint of the pressure applied to it by the untold part. No shape is possible without pressure acting on it, but the pressure is invisible most of the time while what takes shape or assumes a form is clearly perceptible to us as it is actually taking shape or assuming a form as if magically on its own.
The play of ideology and deliberate ideological inflection in news reports and the politics of speed in these political and media undertakings may not be immediately that obvious to or concern the common people. However, the same principle applies to the undertakings and negotiations in our day-to-day life processed through language as in the simple utterances like (1) and (2). As we do not, most of the time, have access to the corresponding verifying facts immediately when we hear statements, we are left unsure of the truth about the truth claims in those statements. But as we often have necessarily to act on the statements the truth value of which are unverified for the time being or unverifiable at all, we have to have an opinion on those statements as a response for our relevant subsequent actions and behavior to be based on. If we do not commit [at least such a makeshift action], human relations disintegrate and the world’s progress (or change, the sign of life) is stalled. Skepticism save us relatively better from falsehood and lies but it shrinks the space of life into a small island of supposed certainty landlocked by rocky uncertainties. We are not sure what ground we should stand on to claim a value superiority of a skeptic lifestyle with a narrow filed of life over a more open lifestyle with a wider space of life knowledgeably letting in lies and falsehood to a manageable extent.
Falsehood needs to be distinguished from a lie though they can at times coincide. (2) above restated as
(3) This is a mango
can be false but not a lie if the speaker believes that the fruit in his hand is called “mango” while it actually is an orange. The fact claim of his statement is false because his belief that the fruit in his hand (which is an orange) is known by the name “mango.” Then when the statement is false, what is it that makes this statement different from the same statement uttered as a lie? Consider this in such a circumstance as when a malicious adult intends to mislead a special-care kid from his neighborhood into believing that the fruit that he has in his hand (which is known to all people by the name orange) is a mango and says:
(4) This is a mango
While (3) and (4) have or share the same form they are different so that the former is falsehood while the latter is a lie. The same form comes to take on different truth values by dint of the presence or absence of certain motive behind its utterance. (4) has the motive of making somebody believe in something while he is well aware that it is not true and the other person (the kid) cannot at that moment judge and prove him wrong due to lack of relevant world knowledge on his part, while in (3) the speaker, lacking the knowledge of calling the fruit in his hand by its name, calls it by another fruit’s name, but in this false name-assignment, he does not have an intention to lead another person into unwittingly but willingly substituting their belief about or knowledge of one kind of fruit for their belief about or knowledge of another kind of fruit.
Weather forecast statements can be good examples to distinguish between false statements and lies. As we know, weather forecasts, especially the ones made by ill-equipped professionals, such as
(5) There is a heavy rain tomorrow evening.
can often turn out wrong especially when they word the statements quite tightly as in the case of 5 with its absence of words like “expected” (5 would have been better if it was rephrased as “There is a heavy rain expected by tomorrow evening”) which give rooms for probable faults in the data collection and its interpretation, and possible (often unexpected) changes in the atmosphere which may render the forecast irrelevant. (5) may turn out false but not a lie, because the forecast is consistent with the data the scientists have collected, and while there can be flaws in how they collect the data or in how they interpret the collected data, they still believe that the data is right and their interpretation is accurate.
Here we judge the truth value of statements based on the intention of the language-using subject. But in our lived experience, we often find clear cases of outright misunderstanding and interpretations of linguistic acts in various ways other than the utterer’s intention, not in the way of misunderstanding. Swept by the “death of the author” and the myth about the myth of “intentional fallacy,” hard-core post-structuralism does consider misunderstanding obtainable, because in this scheme understanding itself cannot happen in the absence of what is to be understood–intention encoded as meaning in the text. However, in our lived experience, we have our intentions when we make utterances, and we are often understood in unfortunately shocking lights.
Misunderstanding happens when the truth claim T in a statement S referring to a fact F is rather linked by the audience to a fact they assume A. We often try to explain ourselves by emphasizing the link between T and F, but we do not succeed every time we do so. Misunderstanding is a fact—it happens—and we cannot ignore this fact in our study of truth claims in statements. Misunderstanding affects personal relationships and the how we navigate our way through the tangles of life. Cultures differ in how individuals navigate their ways through the social maze. Therefore, how we establish and draw the link between T and F or A or a non-existent fact ϕ demands extensive study beyond the current confines of semantics.
In my attempt to cover a wider conceptual field, the term “non-existent fact” here is inaccurate and thus calls for elaboration. If the T of a statement cannot be verified by F because, in such a circumstance, T actually does not refer to F and for this reason there is no F for this T. Then T in the statement in question refers to a non-existent fact ϕ, presented by the speaker as an F (an actually existing fact) for the audience to establish the link it with T, and as T remains suspended without a fact anchor, it is a lie. For example, if T in
(6) He is my boyfriend
cannot be verified by a corresponding real-life fact of the person referred to by “he” actually being the boyfriend of the speaker or, in other words, if such a relationship does not exist in reality, and if she wants to lead her audience (or interlocutor) into believing that such a relationship actually exists, then it (T) is ϕ (i.e., a lie).
The term “non-existent fact” can also refer to a tentative fact (belief) which has “yet” to transpire into F in a point in future, when the speaker actually believes that the tentative fact may or will crystalize into a real fact. “Will” and “may” differ, and they should be marked appropriately in T. In such a case, T is not linked to ϕ but to ϴ. For instance, if the speaker, when saying
(7) I will be in the studio tonight
actually believes that he will be in the studio tonight, T is linked to ϴ (a tentative fact which has yet to crystalize into a real fact if it ever will). Anything can happen between the cup and the lip, and his mind may change or some other things can happen changing the situation precluding his actually going to and being in the studio at the appointed time. Even then, when he stated (7), T still was linked to ϴ, because he believed (and did not pretend) it would be ϴ. This is not a case like (6) in which ϕ is presented as F to link with T while the speaker is aware that it is actually not the case. Reneging on a promise may be legally liable depending on the kind of promise, but it is not a marker indicating the completion of a sustained act of lying unless the person did not mean to keep the promise when they made it and had in their mind the decision that they would finally go back on that promise. An act of making a false promise is a T-ϕ case, even when it later turns out that the promisor keeps that promise because when we judge the truth/fact values of statements we are concerned with the T-linking (the linking of truth/fact claims of the statements to their referents) at the actual moment of their utterance. Thus, the actual linking of T to ϴ as in (7) is different from the case of reneging.
We have so far been dwelling on the truth claims of statements by people considered normal. We will now turn to the utterances of people clinically certified as diagnosed with pathological psychic conditions, or of people who are socially considered and treated as “affected in the head” (Hillcoat, 2012), which needs to be understood in terms of degrees, not an absolute. We will also examine the verbal behavior of and the truth claims of statements by neurotic patients.
People suffering from psychiatric conditions and other physical conditions affecting the thought processes caused by injury to the brain (excluding aphasic conditions, which are not psychiatric conditions) often have experiences which are not real and not verifiable to others. A mental patient experience a different reality than a normal person’s does, and this leads to normal people expecting no T-F, T-ϴ and even T-ϕ linking in the statements by mental patients. Even though their speech draws on the vocabulary of the language their mentally healthy fellow humans in the same speech community, they do not share the coordinates of fact/truth value verification which, in the case of mentally healthy people, lie in the real physical world. These patients inhabit their own, individual lonely island worlds, and no two such patients share the same world for their experience to be anchored commonly. In the speech of mental patients and mad men, there is breakdown in varying degrees in the link between T and the lived world of the normal people and/or even their own. Normal people, in consequence, think that mad mental patients and mad people just utter words incoherently and these utterances remain floating in the air without coherent and consistent factual anchoring somewhere (even when listeners may not be able to establish the relevant linking relations as in the case of our being unable to fix such a relation when we hear people speak in languages we do not know) and consider such utterances as bogus. Belonging to none of the referential categories relevant to the speech of normal people (T, F, ϴ, and ϕ), the referential categories in the speech of mad men are value-free and relieved of the responsibility of meaning things. When the responsibility of making meaning is stripped from speech, speech is not more capable of doing anything, not even lying. Speech becomes empty strings of sounds. What mad men say is actually constituted by the culture of the people they live among—they speak the language of the normal people (no Chinese mad man in a Hong Kong supermarket would speak Hindi or any other language than the one he knows), they use words from the normal people’s vocabulary, they speak in the same accent as the normal people, and the individual words they utter are imbued with the culture of the normal people who speak the language the vocabulary including those words constitutes. However, when the responsibility of having to make meaning has been lifted from the shoulders of their speech, mad men are left to live in meaningless noise sounding exactly like language. Even when their utterances can be studied linguistically, pragmatically the mechanism of sense making is totally shattered in their speech, except in certain very basic functional utterances expressing instinctive feelings and their gratification such as hunger, thirst, eat, and drink, etc.
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