Photography and the Language of Things | David Cunningham | Friday, 27.05.2016

The Return of the Real (Again)

In my previous post I tried to sketch out some of those questions provoked by a contemporary desire, in the words of Hito Steyerl, to side with and affirm the object. While this affirmation has coincided with a more general turn towards the object or thing in recent theoretical writing – and, consequently, away (or so it is said) from earlier concerns with language, text, discourse and sign – it has also been attached, in Steyerl and others, to a more specific call to rethink the character of 'the image', and of 'our' relationship to it, as one framed not by an “identification” with the image “as representation”, but precisely “with the image as thing”.

I want to focus in future posts upon some of the wider philosophical and political issues that are, I think, at stake in this, for photographic theory at least – including those quasi-animistic claims often made today for the capacity of the thing or object to speak of its own accord (sometimes combined with rather over-excited accounts of machine vision and photography’s automation), as well as, in my final post, the kinds of political oppositions, between, for example, a politics of representation and one of participation, that are frequently said to follow from this. In this current post, however, it seems useful, before doing so, to trace something like a ‘pre-history’ of the contemporary valorisation of the image as thing (as opposed to the image as representation) in order to try to draw out more clearly in my subsequent posts what might be distinctive about the particular ways in which this is conceived of today.

As I noted in my first piece, it is significant in this regard that while a withdrawal from representation is understood, by Steyerl and others, as expressing a desire to escape a ‘realist paradigm’, this does not actually register a wish to sever the relation between the image and reality as such, but, rather, designates what is said to be a “materialist” “shift in perspective” whereby the image becomes itself the real, the site of a “truth” instantiated in the image’s “material configuration” as opposed to any external referent to which the image may be attached. As Steyerl paraphrases Benjamin, the image “doesn’t represent reality. It is a fragment of the real world. It is a thing like any other – a thing like you and me.”

In terms of some familiar narratives of art history (and Steyerl is herself an artist), while this pursues, then, a break with the ‘realist paradigm’ that has often been identified as a general, defining feature of ‘modern art’ as a whole, it is one that is self-consciously different from both the negation of figuration envisaged by, say, ‘modernist’ abstraction (as an opposition to illusionism), and a so-called ‘postmodernist’ constructivism for which all representation (including ‘realism’) can only ever be a kind of auto-referential representation of other representations, a simulacral image of an image. 1I leave the term 'postmodernism' in place here as it is the term most often used in identifying this kind of shift, despite my own sense that it is less than helpful as a periodizing concept in this regard. See David Cunningham, “Returns of the Modern: On Nicolas Bourriaud’s Altermodern’, The Journal of Visual Culture 9, 1 (2009), 121–129. More specifically, where, for the latter position, at its most dominant perhaps in the 1980s, the point is that ‘reality’ is itself a construction of representation – a point often conveyed significantly through a certain use of photography (think, variously, and most canonically, of the appropriation art of Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince, or of the early Cindy Sherman, if not indeed Warhol’s silkscreens) – the assertion of the image as thing marks, in this sense, an obvious shift in insisting on the status of the image as simply ‘real’ in itself. 2To put it another way: while so-called 'postmodernism' exemplifies a critique of representation, generally on political, feminist, post-colonial or queer, grounds, it remains precisely all about (the violence of) representation for this very reason. It is against this backdrop that, of course, an alternate politics of the image-as-thing also converges with the larger revolt against the 'linguistic turn', textualism or constructivism often celebrated in recent 'new materialist' or 'object-oriented' theory.
Richard Prince, New Portraits, installation shot (29237) Richard Prince, New Portraits, installation shot, 2015 © Rob McKeever/Gagosian Gallery

But haven’t we been here before? In an influential essay published two decades ago, Hal Foster, too, identifies a “shift” from a conception of “reality as an effect of representation” towards a “return to the real” – a shift that he describes as possibly “definitive in contemporary art”, as well as “in contemporary theory, fiction, and film”. As he puts it: “If some high modernists sought to transcend the referential figure and some early postmodernists to delight in the sheer image, some later postmodernists want to possess the real thing.” 3Hal Foster, “The Return of the Real”, in The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 146, 165. While, however, there is evidently some continuity here, Foster’s elaboration of this desire to possess the real thing via a psychoanalytic theorization of repetition and shock (implicitly connected, in art, to a history of the avant-garde) and, more specifically, Jacques Lacan’s attempt to “define the real in terms of trauma” in his 1964 seminar “The Unconscious and Repetition” (itself informed by surrealism, as Foster observes), sits rather oddly with that “return to the real” evoked by Steyerl and others.

Still, before coming back to the latter’s conception of the image as “of the real” itself, it is worth noting that Foster’s 1996 account already has its own photographic dimension. Most interestingly – as against the ‘postmodernist’ use of the photographic image to signify the ubiquity of representation – Foster’s return to the real-as-trauma finds one exemplification in Roland Barthes’s famous distinction between studium and punctum, in which, of course, it is the latter that designates the “traumatic point” in the photograph: that element, as Foster cites Camera Lucida, “which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me”. 4Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, cited in Foster, “The Return of the Real”, 132. Actually, Foster’s account has two photographic dimensions – the other being focused on a shifting 'content' or thematics of art photography reflected in, for example, an image like Cindy Sherman’s 1989 Untitled #190, by contrast to her earlier work, as well as what he describes, rather witheringly, as the “coded realism” of “the bohemian romance of the photography verité of Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, Jack Pierson, and others” (153). As that which is uncoded, the punctum is, for Barthes, on the one hand, tied to the thing-like literalness of indexicality as the “emanation” of the referent that identifies the image with “the absolute particular” – hence, its association with the accidental or “unintended” detail – and, on the other, that which possesses the form of a kind of “wound”. This does not so much “represent” the real – which, in Lacanian terms, cannot be represented – as it “points to the real” through a moment of “rupture” which, resisting the “symbolic”, lies “beyond” signs or, indeed, the image altogether.
Untitled #190 (29238) Cindy Sherman, Untitled #190, 1989

Now, unlike Steyerl, if the image is, therefore, tied here to the ‘real’ in a fashion that cannot be incorporated by any conventional realist paradigm, this is, however, less about the image as object or as a fragment of the real world than it is about (a rupture in) the subject on the basis of the image. “In trauma discourse … the subject is evacuated and elevated all at once”, as Foster puts it. 5Foster, “The Return of the Real”, 168 [original in italics (It is not hard to see, as such, why this psychoanalytic perspective should be as much an object of antipathy for most recent examples of the theoretical turn to the object or thing as post-structuralism or social constructivism.) From this perspective, Steyerl’s far more mundane – and I mean this in a good way! – conception of the image as real, a “fragment of the real world”, would seem to have very little to do with, say, the image as obscene or abject in anything much like Foster’s sense.

In fact, the more recent turn to the thing might, in this light, be better understood in relation to a rather different legacy of the avant-garde. It’s worth quoting again, as I did in my first post, that 1934 passage from Benjamin which Steyerl’s conception of the image as “a fragment of the real world … a thing like any other” would most clearly seem to echo:

“The revolutionary strength of Dadaism consisted in its testing art for its authenticity. A still life might have been put together from tickets, spools of cotton, and cigarette butts, all of which were combined with painted elements. The whole thing was put in a frame. And thereby the public was shown: Look, your picture frame ruptures time; the tiniest authentic fragment of daily life says more than painting. Just as the bloody fingerprint of a murderer on a page of a book says more than the text. Much of this revolutionary content has gone into photo-montage.” 6Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer”, in Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 2: 1931–1934 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 774.

If “authenticity” is, for Benjamin, associated with a kind of concreteness that acts against the illusionism or artificiality of painting, it is worth noting, however, his own emphasis (as the final reference to photo-montage suggests) on construction as what makes someone like Heartfield’s work a “political weapon”, or, in other words, what Brecht – his mentor in this respect – terms the necessity of “something” being “set up”. 7From Brecht’s famous account of “The Threepenny Opera Trial”: “The situation becomes so complicated [today] because less than at any time does a simple ‘reproduction of reality’ tell us anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp factories or the AEG provides virtually no information about these institutions. True reality has slipped over into functional reality. The reification of human relations, the factory, let’s say, no longer reveals these human relations to us. Therefore, something has actually to be constructed, something set up.” Cited in Theodor Adorno, “Reading Balzac”, in Notes to Literature, Volume One, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 128. This then suggests a kind of caveat to an idea of the image as itself just a “thing” (like you and me). For, in this sense, while Benjamin, as Peter Bürger notes, may see in the incorporation of “actual fragments of empirical reality” a renunciation, in the name of a critical refusal of the appearance of reconciliation, of any ambition of “shaping a whole” – in which the work’s parts “are no longer signs pointing to reality, they are reality” – this does not thereby renounce all shaping, and hence any frame, tout court. 8See Peter Bürger, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). Indeed, without this emphasis on “construction”, the danger is that the affirmation of the image-as-thing becomes less Benjamin’s polemical valorisation of the “bloody fingerprints” of the murderer over the text on which they appear – which is, after all, material, indexical and social, through and through – than the expression of a wish to be liberated from ‘form’ per se in the name of a sheer material presence (without construction) of the ‘real’ itself. If photography often has a privileged role to play here it is precisely in terms of an understanding of the photograph as ultimately “indifferent to all intermediaries”, as Barthes writes in Camera Lucida. Yet extended to the image in general, such indifference, in reducing it to an ‘unshaped’ thing, would threaten to undermine the very dynamic of ‘revolutionary’ construction that, in Benjamin, gives meaning to the ‘avant-garde’ interruption of the everyday itself, as opposed to its simple positivist repetition or a sheer aesthetic ‘wonder’ in the face of objects qua objects.

Clearly, and rightly, this is what someone like Steyerl wants thus to avoid by stressing (as I will discuss in my next post) the ways in which – against certain other contemporary forms of ‘new materialism’ or object-orientation – a turn to the thing can also be understood as a turn towards ‘history’, and towards the ways in which the object is materially formed in and through its encounters. (Although the question that Hal Foster poses to an art of the real-as-trauma – which often foregrounds “things [that] resist formal shaping” or “moulding” – of whether this can possibly “constitute a politics” in any meaningful sense, remains at least partly relevant, I think. 9Foster, “The Return of the Real”, 164. ) I will come back to this, as I say, in future posts. Yet, it can already be seen that there is then a question of how to think about the ‘form’ of the image in this sense, if the image is indeed just a “thing like you and me”. Indeed, there is a possible slippage at this point in which the image-as-thing can actually become less, in this context, about the reality of the material image as such, the image as a real thing, and more about the ways in which specific material configurations are themselves rendered meaningful (in art at least) as images of the real.

This, I take it, provides, for example, one important backdrop to Bernd Stiegler’s point, in the very first piece posted on this site, that in “looking at both contemporary exhibitions as well as photographs as they are used in everyday aesthetic applications, one notices that imperfection plays a key role”, and, hence, the “thesis” that “imperfection serves as the contemporary modus of the real in photography”.

I’m not sure that I understand this “thesis” in quite the same way as Stiegler, but it certainly seems to me arguable in this vein that what others have remarked, for example, as the privileging in post-conceptual art of photographs that appear the most ‘crude’ or ‘direct’, and thus ‘least artistic’, manifests the continuation of an avant-garde dynamic for which the continual confrontation with, or incorporation of, a ‘non-art’ reality is essential to the renewal of ‘art’ itself as socially meaningful – its “test” of authenticity, as Benjamin puts it. This is of course why so many artists love what Steyerl herself terms the “poor image”, since its very impoverishment which, from another perspective undermines its indexical ‘realism’, also makes it signify as more ‘direct’, ‘immediate’, or materially ‘real’ as an image. (Note, then, that when Steyerl writes, in “In Defense of the Poor Image”, that the “poor image tends towards abstraction” – even, “thrust into digital uncertainty, at the expense of its own substance” – this itself, in a peculiar way, becomes a kind of marker of its concreteness and material presence.)

I said above that the most recent return to the real had seemingly little interest in the concerns with the traumatic or the abject characteristic of much art or theory discussed by Foster. Yet, it might be more accurate here to say, instead, that, in such a way, it locates this ‘traumatic’ dimension at the level of the ‘material aspects’ of the image itself as ‘thing’ (rather in a rupturing of the subject). In one of the more compelling passages in “The Return of the Real”, Foster looks back to Warhol’s Death in America series of thirty years earlier, and argues that if there is a traumatic punctum of a kind in these images, it resides not so much in the shocking “content” of the images, but in a “repetitive ‘popping’ of the image” generated by the material form of Warhol’s silkscreening process and techniques of repetition, “such as a slipping of register or a washing of colour, [which] serve as visual equivalents of our missed encounter with the real”. 10Ibid, 134.

It is presumably in something like this sense that Steyerl writes similarly, in “A Thing Like You and Me”, that the “negativity of the thing can be discerned by its bruises”, where “not even the digital image is outside history”:

“The bruises of images are its glitches and artifacts, the traces of its rips and transfers. Images are violated, ripped apart, subjected to interrogation and probing. They are stolen, cropped, edited, and re-appropriated. They are bought, sold, leased. Manipulated and adulated. Reviled and revered. To participate in the image means to take part in all of this”.
(29239) Thomas Ruff, from the jpeg series

This is a remarkable piece of writing. And, indeed, it is in this way that – like the fossil or forensic object – the thing seems to offer up some distinctive prospect of speaking for itself of its own ‘violations’. Hence Steyerl’s suggestion that we might need a rethinking of the documentary image as “not about representation at all, but about actualizing whatever the things have to say in this present”. But if ‘history’ is thereby something precisely indexed in the material form taken by the image itself as a thing, and which it in some way ‘speaks’, what form does such ‘actualization’ take, if it is not to be a simple submission to a naïve immediacy of the real or the material (without construction or formation)? Tellingly, it is at this point that the image as ‘commodity thing’ makes its Benjaminian entrance in Steyerl’s account, as both “a fossil in which a constellation of forces are petrified” and a “hieroglyph in whose dark prism social relations lay congealed and in fragments”. Yet the fossil and the hieroglyph are rather different figures – rather different images – that should indicate that the commodity is itself a rather peculiar thing. In my next two posts, I want then to follow up both this idea of the documentary image, as a translation from the language of things, and the seemingly pivotal (but questionable) role played by the commodity in thinking this through.