The Other Reality

Words of Light, No. 1

Posted in MFA, Reactions to Readings by aryckman on October 11, 2008

Cadava, Eduardo. “Words of Light: Theses on the Photography as History” Diacritics Vol. 22, No. 3/4 (1992): 85-114.

Words of Light is the distillation of many of Walter Benjamin’s theories and theses by Eduardo Cadava.  Whether he writes about photography, philosophy or history he uses the language to photography to describe how they work. Topics range from the photographs recognition of the temporal nature of the referent, the impact of mechanical reproduction on society and the understanding of history.

More than once I’ve felt the need to untangle the sentences in order to get at the essence of Cadava’s meaning.  As a way to do this I have translated (and condensed) his essay into my own language.  Keeping his original format, that of theses, and then including my own reaction in italics beneath it. The biggest problem I see with this is that if I never came to understand the theory than it probably just got translated incorrectly and wont do me any good whatsoever.

As the essay itself was broken into convenient sections I plan to break them apart and post them here.  Some are short and I can put a couple on here at once and some are longer and will be posted by themselves.

I would love reactions to these as any input might help in my own understanding.

PS:  I can get silly sometimes so just ignore those bits.

Walter Benjamin wrote some theses before he died.  The ‘state of emergency’, which is an attribute of all history, corresponds to the photographic event.  He uses the language of photography to describe history a lot.
All fascism is touched by the ideology of realism, and as everyone knows realism belongs to (and does not belong) to the history of photography.  For Benjamin, comparing the rise and fall of photography to social/political forces, it is easy to see that media has taken us in a bad direction.  But this also shows how much power the media has- a revolutionary potential- “especially in the deconstruction of the values of authority, autonomy, and originality in the work of art” (86).  Photography raises questions about art and how it can be reproduced so easily with technology- this is a problem of fascism and also means we need to rethink some basic concepts like “creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery” (86).
Benjamin is interested in photography because he is interested in how technology effects “our understanding of aesthetics” which depict the features of modernity.
Benjamin wants us to think about this stuff, but it is more important than that, it is a call to responsibility- “a call that requires a passionate and determined effort of reflection” (86).   What needs to be thought about is the convergence of history and photography- a convergence he locates in the historiographical event.

So, Cadava is telling us about Benjamin and what he believed here.  I can understand that photography and the ability to reproduce things easily has changed our world a lot, including the realms of the social and the political (and of course, art).  What does this mean though?  Do we know?  We need to get off our butts and really figure out how photography relates to history, that’s what Benjamin would have wanted and this is, after all a tribute to him so that’s what we’re going to do here.  Right?  Right?

History is like photography because they both start with and need light.  Photography uses light to ‘write’ the image onto a plate and likewise there would be no history without light.  “Let there be light” is the beginning of history (you know, if you dig that sort of thing).  Now I’m going to talk about a play you probably don’t know about so lets just say that God had to make light several times, once in the sun and then again in electricity.  For light to survive its got to be remade, I don’t know why that’s just how it is, and one of the ways it is remade is in photography.  Compare philosophy and photography; they are both interested in knowledge and can be described in terms of light.  A moment of illumination grants philosophical clarity and reveals truth.  Light makes it possible to record an image and you have a ‘true’ picture of reality and you can gain a lot of knowledge from a picture.  (photography and philosophy are secret lovers).  “Both take their life from light, from a light which coincides with the conditions of possibility for clarity, reflection, speculation and lucidity—that is, for knowledge in general” (87).  Knowledge comes in a moment of ‘simultaneous illumination and blindness’- like a flashbulb.

I can see the relationship between photography and philosophy… philosophy is when concepts are illuminated by that giant light bulb that comes on over your head and photography is when light allows for the transcription of reality.  You see truth in both.  I’m not even going to get into the concepts behind truth though, are photographs truth etc… that’s just way to much to get into here but you can see the connection, right?  Light makes things clear in both circumstances and gives you a chance to scrutinize and gain information from the results whether it’s a shiny new concept or photographic plate.

“Photography prevents us from knowing what an image is and whether we even see one” (87).  Benjamin writes this great essay on the history of photography and the way he writes it starts out with really great clarity, like a flash, but then it gets foggy and kind of hard to understand but that’s exactly like the ambiguity of the beginning of photography.  He’s a fucking genius.  Anyways, this fog makes it difficult to see history in a linear manner. Therefore you can forget about the ‘knowing and seeing that structures the history of photography, that informs the desire of the photographic event—even before it begins” (89).  If the youth of photography is cloudy it is because we can’t see a thing (is that redundant?)  “In the twilight zone between seeing and not seeing, we fail to get the picture” (89).  (You see, Benjamin had such a good idea for writing fog into his essay that I got jealous so I needed to make up a really clever line here about the twilight zone).

Ok, ok.  I get that Benjamin is clever and all but what exactly is that first sentence about?  Why does photography prevent us from knowing what an image is?  Is it like Barthes explains that we cannot see the image, the actual photograph, because it is obscured by the referent?  The subject predominates the visual experience and instead of seeing the thing—the photograph—we see the person, place or thing the picture is of?  I know that Barthes thinks this makes talking about photography, and the genius thereof, impossible.  But what does it mean to Benjamin… Cadava, are you leaving something out?  You trickster, you!  Hey, in that last sentence were you implying that because photos masquerade as reality we can’t see because we can’t understand fully?

One Response

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  1. A Randomly Generated Kitten said, on October 12, 2008 at 8:47 am

    You’re so funny, and I really liked how you talked back to Cadava.

    I can’t wait to hear about incunabulas!

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