2. Contemporaneity
Published: 24.04.2018
in the series Photographic Futures
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“They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.” Susan Sontag 1Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 1990), 3.

In analyzing contemporaneity with the present, the past, or the future, we refer to pictorial practices, spatial design, and architecture from a poetic perspective. Our goal is always the creation (poiesis) of a space where real shifts can operate. Our supposition concerning pictorial media, for example, is that they serve a function for visuality that resembles the function the twentieth-century present tense novel served for language: novels in the present tense endow this tense with a new quality, namely the capacity for shifting positions of the self in space and time, which the present tense does not possess in everyday usage. In Kevin Vennemann’s novel Nahe Jedenew (Close to Jedenew), for instance, we can move between her position, a collective we position, or the position of an I in at least three different places and at three different times.

“[W]e do not breathe. We look at each other breathlessly the moment we’re lying down, finally, and we know, we think: she is crossing the country lane like me earlier or like I cross the lane when it is my turn next to cross the lane, we think: she doesn’t have to admit it, we think, I know it, she knows it, it doesn’t make a difference, nothing makes anything anymore, we think: it makes no difference that we’re lying, lying to ourselves, lying to each other downright shamelessly and regularly, making believe, we don’t know what, nothing makes anything anymore. That, immediately before our eyes, our house and everything we are, is being emptied out.” 2Kevin Vennemann, Nahe Jedenew (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2005), 85. Unfortunately we could not consult the original translation for this blog entry. 

Now, concerning pictorial media, John Berger’s reciprocity of seeing does describe the constitution of our field of vision to depend on our visibility, but it does not take into account the emancipatory perspective that is opened up by the shifting of my seeing and my visual orientation in the world.

Let’s take the example of an older media topos concerning photography that describes a peculiar temporal shift, namely a shift toward a visibility of the past. Roland Barthes insisted—certainly influenced by his reflections on the way in which narratives presentify the past—that in the photographic image, the mode of the past represents the only decisive moment for understanding photography. In photographs, the presence of the past is a real presence even if it is given only in the image. Outside of the image, time has changed, has gone or simply progressed on its path. In the image, in contrast, it has remained this—arbitrary, perhaps—past. While the simple past tense allows us fictionally to shift our present to another place and another time (before or after our own), in the photographic image, we encounter a present at the site of its past without anything fictional coming into play. The rise of photography thus has subliminally and permanently changed our perception of the past. Photography has made the past perceptible whereas in language, the presentification of the past is an act of imagination. The change of the form of time has also changed the mode of the past. A past, in photography, is undoubtedly real. What arouses suspicion, however, is that it does not pass, that it remains present in the image. When the past becomes visible in images merely as the accumulation of different presents, the image of time in images seems to flatten. What exactly constitutes its pastness becomes mysterious. Such a conflict between present and past in the image makes it difficult to picture the present and the past as equally real or, vice versa, equally unreal. This conflict, you say, is a modal conflict.

We’ve encountered similar difficulties in the phenomenon of preemptive police work. Emblematically articulated in Philip K. Dick’s 1956 sci-fi short story “The Minority Report,” it has become not only a movie by Steven Spielberg, it has also become a reality in police departments across the world. What we’re seeing here is an ominous identification of a present future and a future present: the preemptive logic of time in its entirety refers to events that—and this is the philosophical (temporal and moral) paradox of making arrests “in time”—will perhaps never have taken place. Preemptive events are present only as future events.

This paradox resembles the one we find in photography. Images make something visible that is present only as something past. Preemption creates events that are present only as something futural. Temporality is joined by modality, and modality features as much in photography’s reality conflict as it does in the reality paradox created by preemption. Perhaps modality even must come into play if contemporaneity with the past and the future, if real contemporaneity is to be possible?

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