Friday, April 08, 2005


When Barthes spoke about photography, he brought up the question of the "punctum." Through this punctum, the photograph becomes an event in our head, in our mental life, where it is something different, a singular relation, an absolute singularity. This punctum, which, according to Barthes, is a nonplace, nothing, nothingness at the heart of the photograph, disappeared, and in its place we constructed a museum of photography. This death, which Barthes said was at the heart of the photograph, the photograph itself, the symbolic power of the photograph, disappeared, it assumed the shape of a monument or a museum, and this time a concrete death materialized. This was a cultural operation, and that operation, yes, I am against it, emphatically, with no concessions, without compromise.
We are stuck in an unlimited, metastic development of culture, which has heavily invested in archetecture. But to what extent can we judge it? Today it's very difficult to identify, in a given building, what belongs to this secret, this singularity that hasn't really disappeared. I think that as a form it is indestructible but is increasingly consumed by culture. Is any voluntary, conscious resistance possible? Yes. I think that each of us can resist. But it would be difficult for such resistance to become political. I don't get the impression there could be any organized political resistance as such. It would always be an exception, and whatever you do will always be "exceptional" in that sense. (The Singular Objects of Architecture)

Well, at least he's against something. Sounding a bit uncharacteristic here, in this relatively new book. One detects a note of leaning toward Derrida in the later Baudrillard. (So much leaning, but alas, no leap.) More interesting than what might be described as Baudrillard's habitually premature and reckless universalization is Barthes' punctum. For a long time, so the story goes, we were attuned to the death contained in photographs. We remained wary of the mechanical freezing of time, of a medium that seemed to consist entirely of canonical statements. Then, after a period of unprecedented immersion and enculturation, as the cumulative effects of seeing such (symbolic) deaths upon deaths wore on, we came to erect a museum in place of death. The photograph became a monument, or a tombstone, and the symbolic power was transformed into a real power. Or rather it has blurred into such. (Now we have 'Terri', for example, being "murdered" by those who only wish her to be allowed to die rather than artificially preserved as a symbolic, passive monument to the "victory" of life. It does not matter that she was unable to respond. Indeed, the "life" at stake there was in some respects more akin to that of a photographic still, and the network goblins gobbled her up with all the sensitivity given to their previous poster child.) But that is too simple, yes. Television does much more than this. But even and especially when (supposedly) mourning, television murders but does not permit death. In this it stands, for reasons both structural and political, against life.

but it is a frustrating task. because photography is slippery. because memory second-guesses and doubts the veracity given in images. because what we see does not always correlate to what we remember, and barthes is wary of images becoming memory. he wants to reclaim his memory from the visual repertoire, not have it given him from it. while looking for the image that will inform memory, he writes, "...a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see." what he is searching for, instead, is something which causes a disturbance, something that will prick memory, wound it and him in some way. it is in this essay that he names the idea that became the namesake for this site, where he calls "punctum" that detail in a photograph which renders an image subjective and particular, that which pierces through what we already think we know.

Or, conversely, recall David Foster Wallace's narrator(s), taken a bit irresponsibly out of context, but a nice "fictive" illustration of 'photo psychosis' nonetheless:
"Her photograph tastes bitter to me. A show of hands on the part of those who are willing to believe that I kiss her photo? She'd not believe it, or it would make her sad, or rather it would make her angry and she would say you never kissed me the way you kiss my chemically bitter senior photo, the reasons you kiss my photo have to do with you, not me.'
"The photo is a Sears Mini-Portrait, too large for any wallet, so I've bough a special receptacle, a supporting framing folder of thick licorice cardboard. The receptacle is now wedged over the sun visor, along with a toll ticket, on the passenger side of my mother's car. I keep the windows rolled up to negate any possibility of the photo's blowing around, coming to harm. In June, in a car without air-conditioning, I keep the windows rolled up for the sake of her photo. What more should anyone be required to say?'
'It's Here. It's Now. The next beauties will and must be new. I invited her to see a crystalline renaissance; cool and chip-flat; fibers of shine winking in aesthetic matrices under a spreading sodium dawn. What touches and so directs us is what applies. I sense the impending upheaval of a great cleaning, a coming tidiness foaming at every corner of meaning. I smell change, and relief at cost, like the musty promise of a summer rain. A new age and a new understanding of beauty as range, not locus. No more uni-object concepts, contemplations, warm clover breath, heaving bosoms, histories as symbol, colossi; no more man, fist to brow or palm to decollétage, understood in terms of a thumping, thudding, heated Nature, itself conceived as colored, shaped, invested with odor, lending meaning in virtue of qualities. No more qualities. No more metaphors. Gödel numbers, context-free grammars, finite automata, correlation functions and spectra. Not sensuously here, but causally, efficaciously here. Here in the most intimate way. Plasma electronics, large-scale systems, operational amplification.
'Now you stop kissing pictures and tearing up proofs and begin to intuit that things are, and have been, much more general and in certain respects sinister all along."
'I begin to realize that she might never have existed. That I might feel this way now for a different–maybe even no–reason. The loss of specific referent for my emotions is wildly disorienting. Two and a half weeks have passed since I came here. The receptacle is lying on the bureau in my room, still bent from the tollbooth. My affections have become a sort of faint crust on the photo, and the smell when I open the receptacle in the morning is chemically bitter. I stay inside all day, avoid windows, and cannot summon hunger. My testicles are drawn up constantly. They begin to hurt. Whole periods of time now begin to feel to me like the intimate, agonizing interval between something's falling off and its hitting the ground. (Girl With Curious Hair, 151-165)

Well, or at the risk of being taken for a "lit-crit type" (a convenient label, if ever there was one) for such juxtapositions, there remains that invisible elephant of analytic philosophy, one Martin Heidegger, who surely must figure in any responsible analysis of the "historical object":

Among the meanings of the expression "history" that signify neither the science of history nor the latter as an object, but rather this being itself which has not necessarily been objectified, the one in which this being is understood as something past claims a preferred use. This significance makes itself known in talk such as "this or that already belongs to history." Here "past" means on the one hand "no longer objectively present," or else "indeed still objectively present, but without 'effect' on the 'present'." However, what is historical as what is past also has the opposite significance when we say that one cannot evade history. Here history means what is past, but is nevertheless still having an effect. However, what is historical as what is past is understood in a positive or privative effective relation to the "present" in the sense of what is real "now" and "today." "The past" has a remarkable ambiguity here. Here "the past" belong irrevocably to an earlier time; it belonged to former events and can yet still be objectively present "now"–for example, the remains of a Greek temple. A "bit of the past" is still "present" in it.

Thus history does not so much mean the "past" in the sense of what is past, but the derivation from it. Whatever "has a history" is in the context of becoming.

Somewhat brutally snipped, here and there, Heidegger continues:

The "antiques" preserved in museums (for example, household things) belong to a "time past," and are yet still objectively present in the "present." How are these useful things historical when they are not, after all, not yet past?
[...] Or do these "things" "in themselves" yet have "something past" about them although they are still objectively present today? [...] What is "past"? Nothing other than the world within which they were encountered as things at hand belonging to a context of useful things and used by heedful Da-sein existing-in-the-world. That world is no longer. But what was previously innerworldly in that world is still objectively present. As useful things belonging to that world, what is now still objectively present can nevertheless belong to the "past." But what does it mean that the world no-longer-is? World is only in the mode of existing Da-sein, that is, factically as being-in-the-world.
The historical character of extant antiques is thus grounded in the "past" of Da-sain to whose world that past belongs. According to this, only "past" Da-sein would be historical, but not "present" Da-sein. However, can Da-sein be past at all, if we define "past" as "now no longer objectively present or at hand"? Evidently Da-sein can never be past, not because it is imperishable, but because it can essentially never be objectively present. Rather, if it is, it exists. But a Da-sein that no longer exists is not past in the ontologically strict sense; it is rather having-been-there....Da-sein is what is primarily historical. But does Da-sein first become historical by no longer being there? Or is it historical precisely as factically existing? Is Da-sein something that has-been only in the sense of having-been-there, or has it been as something making present and futural, that is, in the temporalizing of its temporality? (Being and Time, 346-349)

In any event, biting off more than any single blog post could chew, certainly. But the blogosphere could use a bit more Heidegger. While typing this I've been trying to think of a way to relate this all back to photographs, as well as the many distinctions between traditional portraits and "use-objects" (such as the "everyday" "household things" Heidegger has in mind) that it would be necessary to draw out. There is of course a certain psychological and emotional work performed by contemporary photos (especially those on refrigerators, of people, of "friends") in which their primary purpose seems to be an endless (impossible) reassurance of this very status of "friend" itself. Such reassurance often verges on pathetic fallacy (or perhaps only mimics it?), but in a more habitually distanced and complicated, less mystical manner than the Romantics ever imagined. If there is a kind of death in photographs, one to which we have lost some of our sensitivity, and instead seek to avoid with an excess or endless parody, then is it enough to argue for a new, or renewed, reverence? We must allow objects to look back at us, says Benjamin (in a manner different but perhaps complementary to Lacan). There are many kinds of distance, surely, and the danger, the nausea of Museum Sickness looms large.

'Please do not touch.' That is the one label every visitor to the museum or gallery has read. If one forgets its message, if one leans forward a little too closely, puts out a hand to follow a contour or point a figure out to a companion, there is always an attendant on hand to warn one away. But, in a sense, the label is both redundant and misleading. In a museum or gallery all the great and famous objects of world culture are 'at hand'. For the duration of our visit they belong to us. We can, in the British Museum, move from the Rosetta Stone to the Elgin Marbles, from the Lindisfarne Gospels to some ancient Chinese buddha. It is an admirable place to find visual confirmation of what books have told us, and in that sense it is an invaluable educational tool. But just as the gramophone and the radio have brought the masterpieces of world music to us without our having to make any effort to get to them, so here the very abundance and proximity of masterpieces and objects of huge cultural significance tend to deprive each of its aura. We can, if the attendant is not looking, actually touch them–but can they touch us?

-Gabriel Josipovici, Touch

Some interesting comments on the excellent Charlotte Street on related themes here, several posts after this one.

No comments: