Exceptional Position of Photography within the (Art) World | Walead Beshty | Monday, 23.04.2012

Notes on Photography and Loss

On the long flight from Los Angeles to London I undertook last week (which at the time of this posting going live, I will be completing in the reverse) I reread “The Photograph as Post-Industrial Object” by Vilém Flusser. In it Flusser asserts that “We are witnessing a cultural revolution”, a revolution consummated by digital images (what he refers to as “electromagnetized photos”) where “one can see how information abandons its material basis,” threatening to usher in “a society dominated by uncontrolled apparatus… thrown back into the terror of blind, absurd automaticity, into a pre-cultural situation.”

We can be certain that the revolution he had foreseen would have to, by now, be fully in place, if not already passed, and that the more dramatic predictions of Flusser’s are likely not to come to pass as a result. Yet what is striking is how common this sort of apocalyptic imagining is in writing about photography as it adopts new forms, regardless of how rigorous their authors might be, and how often photography is situated as the final battle in a war between images and materiality, a war that materiality is perennially on the verge of losing. While the impending destruction of our connection to a material world receives varied glosses depending on the writer, the nature of the transformation that photography is understood to be ushering in stays relatively constant. While I am limited to citations close at hand, even those readily available on my desktop serve as compelling evidence. For example, Oliver Wendell Holmes offered this cheerily apocalyptic prescription in his 1859 text “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph”, when the medium was barely twenty years old:

Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. Pull it down or burn it up, if you please.

Holmes goes on to propose that travel will no longer be necessary, and that the world would be contained in vast image libraries. Add to this Siegfried Kracauer’s 1927 entry into photographic criticism. Kracauer saw death inscribed in the proliferation of images, an accumulation that contained within it the eradication of memory:

In the illustrated magazines the world has become a photographable present, and the photographed present has been entirely eternalized. Seemingly ripped from the clutch of death, in reality it has succumbed to it.

Or we might turn to Barthes and Camera Lucida, where the most affirming aspect of the photograph, the thing which redeems it from Kracauer’s numb death in the chill of sociological information, was the punctum, or wound. This wound is always resonated as absence or death (what is a wound but a gap left from some intrusion), and further was an experience we could only have in isolation, such that while the reception of photographic images was collective, the experience of the most profound effect of the photograph was at root the traumatic separation from others:

however ‘lifelike’ we strive to make it (and this frenzy to be lifelike can only be our mythic denial of the apprehension of death), Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead.

Regardless of the veracity of one transcendence or another (and to this list one could add many more examples from many more theorists of photography) the pattern is unmistakable. The photograph becomes exclusively the testament to a loss or lack, a marker of absence, a presence defined in negative rather than positive terms, and this dead end is always the foregone conclusion of attempts to find solidity in signification. Each seem, in brief, to revolve around a similar divisive assumption that image and material are mutually exclusive and perpetually at war, and that at some point, one will triumph completely over the other, and that by most accounts, the image, or likeness is the more fearsome, and the more likely to destroy the other. Certainly, a degree of apprehension about images is merited, for each likeness holds within it the fear that we may not be able to differentiate it from what it is deployed in relation to, to not be able to separate likenesses from actuality, and that subsequently, we will lose our ability to distinguish between things at all, and find that likenesses will supplant all that we once had direct access to, ourselves included (a kind of phantasmagorical psychosis). This, put in vulgarly imprecise terms, is the apocalypse of the image.

Where meaning is predicated on likeness or depiction, one repeatedly runs into this theoretical problem. It bears noting that photography (as a class of simple objects) is separate from images, and it continues that a picture is a more specific form of image, one governed by some form of social convention. Regardless, so common is this hermeneutic endpoint, that it has become a trope of photographic criticism to argue that what is noticeably absent from a photograph is the most compelling evidence of what a photograph is about (think of the interpretive echoes of Benjamin’s famous comments on Atget in a “Short/Small history of Photography”). It seems that this is the result of a confusion or a crisis in the object of a discourse, for a crisis in the discourse itself. In other words, a dysfunction in a structuralist or psychoanalytic approach to aesthetics which assumes that aesthetic meaning functions analogously to linguistic signification, and that disjunction is the source of meaning. This is a very peculiar way to begin to understand aesthetic objects, that somehow they are exclusively what they are not, that aesthetic meaning can only be about the separation of signifier from signified, and the arbitrary relation between the two (as when Barthes discusses the “this has been” of the photographic image). This is a making real of an interpretive schema, a confusion of the conceptual for the concrete. I am also reminded here of two quotes. The first is Saussure, which to me comments elegantly on the autonomy of interpretive schema, and how the questions we ask of our objects govern the questions we get back:

Far from it being the object that antedates the viewpoint, it would seem that it is the viewpoint that creates the object.

And the second is Benjamin, which to me describes the critic, who repeatedly witnesses, in the case of photography, photography’s repeated collapse as a category, or laments the loss of its ability to have specific meaning:

It is indeed the characteristic of the sadist that he humiliates his object and then − or thereby − satisfies it.

I think it would serve us best if one left aside questions pertaining to what a work might be “about” or “represent,” as these seem all but exhausted avenues, and instead start by trying to address what an artwork does—or more precisely, what we make it do, and what we do around it. In other words ask how aesthetics organize our relations to one another, which is to discuss these issues in affirmative terms. This is not, as Jan-Erik proposed, a refusal of representation, but rather an assertion of the relational aspects of representation, its conditional nature staged not as a loss of meaning, but the accumulation of meanings, polysemy being a specific systemic condition, one that links various contexts to ranges of possible implications for an aesthetic work. We would do well not to confuse the inability of interpretation to give solid contextually independent answers with evidence of a lack of meaning, or an instance of the pure relativism that was repeatedly decried by those more reactionary postmodern critics.