1. Photography and the Language of Things
Published: 18.05.2016
in the series Photography and the Language of Things
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In her short 2010 text “A Thing Like You and Me”, Hito Steyerl traces what she describes as a shift from an “emancipatory practice” that would be tied to the “desire to become a subject” (of, say, politics or history) to the emergence, today, of a “different possibility”: “How about siding with the object for a change? Why not affirm it? Why not be a thing?”

This desire to side with the object is one that has been much echoed across large parts of the humanities and social sciences over the last decade. Indeed, from the influential work of Bruno Latour and Bill Brown’s ‘thing theory’, to various species of ‘new materialism’, object-oriented ontology and posthumanism – as well as in its reception by recent art practice – such a turn to the object is rapidly approaching the status of a new doxa for contemporary theoretical work tout court.

Hito Steyerl, Abstract, 2012. HD video with sound, 5 min. Installation view, e-flux, New York, 2012 © e-flux

In this blog I want to explore – in an inevitably rather sketchy way – some questions that are for me provoked by this desire to side with the object, and, in particular perhaps, with what it might mean for an account of the photographic image as a site of continuing debates concerning representation, abstraction and realism. In photographic theory, of course, as elsewhere, an emergent turn to the thing is most often construed as a simultaneous turn away from an earlier linguistic turn of the 1970s and 1980s, associated with structuralism and post-structuralism, and reflective of a widespread sense of the inadequacy of semiotic approaches that would reduce images to quasi-linguistic forms. (The current cult of Flusser is at least in part to be understood in this context.) But it also responds, one would suspect, to a question of the changing ‘definitions’ of photography itself in the face of digitalization, not only as an issue of transformations in its indexical relation to the world – which can certainly be overstated, to the degree that digital cameras, too, must rely upon the recording of light through optical lenses – but also of what, in a previous contribution to this blog, Melanie Bühler describes as a practical shift of focus from a ‘classical’ concern with the relation between reality and representation to one concerning the “multiplicity of relations that extend from a photograph”.

It is significant, I think, in this respect, that for Steyerl, as an artist and theorist whose interest in making such a turn has been considerably more nuanced than most, this call to side with the object is itself tied, therefore, to the possibility of a different account and politics of the image. As she puts it in “A Thing Like You and Me”, if “identification” is to be “with the image as thing”, it is not to be with the image “as representation”. Rather than searching in, say, the documentary image for a more accurate form of representation, which would remain tethered to a ‘realist paradigm’, one should rethink “truth” as “neither in the represented nor in the representation”, but “in its material configuration”. “To participate in an image… would mean participating in the material of the image as well as in the desires and forces it accumulates”. Disembedded from a ‘realist paradigm’ of representation, the image thus becomes part of a circulating ‘swarm’ of images that are, as Jodi Dean similarly puts it (also in a previous contribution to this blog), less to be viewed, contemplated or interpreted than they are to be the material, temporary sites of shared participation, opening up onto “alternative forms of connection, communication and relations”. 1See Hito Steyerl, ‘The Language of Things’, translate, online at: http://eipcp.net/transversal/0606/steyerl/en. As Steyerl notes, the "new documentary forms of production with home computers and unconventional forms of distribution thus can be understood as articulations, which reveal the outline of new forms of social composition." They do so, however, on the apparent condition that they thereby refuse ‘representation’. This will be the central theme of a subsequent post.

Yet, it is worth noting that while, in this way, the withdrawal from representation may articulate a desire to escape a ‘realist paradigm’ on the part of Steyerl and others (a desire which is hardly so new in itself), this expresses not so much a wish to sever the relation between the image and reality, but, on the contrary, to encourage a ‘shift in perspective’ whereby the image becomes itself the real, the material reality within which we might then participate in a very real sense... “Without expression”, as Steyerl paraphrases Walter 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.” The call to participate in “the material of the image” reflects, in this sense, what is certainly observable as a more general, contemporary tendency among artists working in a multitude of forms and media not to represent reality but to break “larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work”. 2David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (London: Penguin, 2011), 3.

At the same time, in privileging such “‘raw’ material’, as David Shields calls it – the “seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional” (including what Steyerl famously terms the “poor image”) –, such ‘reality hunger’ also conjoins, I would like to show, with a rather longer history of such a desire for a withdrawal from representation. Take, for instance, the famous account of Dada in Benjamin’s 1934 essay

“The Author as Producer”: “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.” 3Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer”, in Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 2: 1931–1934 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 774. 

John Heartfield, Fünf Finger hat die Hand (The Hand Has Five Fingers), 1928 © Deutsches Historisches Museum

An initial question might then be what this means for our understanding of the photographic image today. It is perhaps telling in this regard that Steyerl’s own examples of the image-as-thing in “A Thing Like You and Me” should also lean – like Benjamin’s “bloody fingerprint” – so heavily on suggestions of the indexical. This is apparent both in her comparison of the thing to “a fossil in which a constellation of forces are petrified” as well as in her account of the forensic conception of the object as ‘witness’, whereby, in the deciphering of ‘bruises’ and imprints of violence, things “are made to speak”. Yet, the materialism that is thereby affirmed is, as such, also an ambiguous one. For the image is, in this sense, both, as material configuration or object, a thing ‘in itself’ – or, more precisely, through digitization, a shifting material configuration of multiple images – and yet, like the fossil, it is also never the thing which it is an image (or fossil) ‘of’. Indeed, without this doubling, as simultaneously ‘thing’ and indexical image of thing(s), the fossil could never be the site of a constellation of forces of the type that so fascinates Steyerl here – a point that obviously resonates with a certain conception of the photograph as, in George Baker’s words, a “shape” that is “borrowed” from its object, and through which the “life of objects” is registered.

As an image of the image, the fossil speaks here, of course, to the broader seductive notion, so prevalent today, that the thing might itself speak in some fashion. And if this speech is, perhaps inevitably, directed to ‘us’ (and hence invites ventriloquism on its behalf), it is also somehow before and outside of ‘us’, the inhuman and quasi-autonomous language of “a world without me, that is, a world viewed as though in the absence of the viewer”, as Stanley Cavell describes the cinematic image. 4Cited in Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism (London: Verso, 2013), 169. In the context of Steyerl’s own oeuvre this points back to a 2006 piece entitled simply The Language of Things in which she draws on a far earlier Benjamin text, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”, written in 1916, and so some time before his discussions of photography or the avant-garde. This is an essay that I will discuss at rather greater length in a subsequent post, but it is worth noting, here, that it is specifically the documentary image that, Steyerl suggests, might be best understood, therefore, as “translat[ing] the language of things into the language of humans”. 5See Steyerl, "The Language of Things". It is notable in this regard that, largely on the basis of Steyerl’s essay, Kayla Anderson, for example, in an article for the journal Leonardo, suggests – in what I think can be shown to be a very doubtful reading – that Benjamin’s 1916 essay can itself "be considered a precursor to contemporary discourse surrounding posthumanism and object-oriented ontology", as well as providing a kind of philosophical legitimation for various forms of recent art practice that are "founded on 'languages issuing from matter’". I will take up this kind of argument with regard to Benjamin’s work, including its discussions of photography, in a subsequent post. See Kayla Anderson, "Object Intermediaries: How New Media Artists Translate the Language of Things", online at: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/LEON_a_00840 To engage in “the language of things in the realm of documentary form" is thus not, on this account, about (‘realist’) "representation at all, but about actualising whatever the things have to say in the present”. As Steyerl puts it, the image is a matter of “presencing”, not re-presentation.

PPTRD 026, 2008. Platinum and palladium print © Hiroshi Sugimoto

In my series of blog posts for Still Searching over the next few weeks, I want, then, to take this ‘language of things’ as the prompt for a rather broader, if fragmentary reflection upon what it might mean to think the photographic image as a thing, and of what would seem to be the consequences of a widespread desire to ‘withdraw from representation’ that accompanies it. How, these posts will ask, if the politics of the image are to be reconstituted in an opposition between ‘representation’ and ‘participation’ – one that can be traced back at least to Guy Debord’s critique of the Spectacle, if not to Lukács’ writings on reification – are the political and ‘aesthetic’ senses of this opposition conjoined today? What is the relation between the image as thing and the image as commodity (often evoked in Steyerl’s own writings as itself a quasi-magical ‘condensation of forces’), given that the commodity – into the objectivity of which as value, Marx reminds us, not “an atom of matter enters” 6Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1976), 138.

– is itself far from an ordinary ‘thing’? And, finally, what is revealed in the very widespread desire that the image – the thing-as-image and the image-as-thing – be simultaneously both a fragment of reality, a thing like you and me, and the more general point of a materialization of a language of things, when placed in conjunction with a certain conception of the ‘photographic’ itself?

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