The Other Reality

Words of Light, No. 2

Posted in MFA, Reactions to Readings by aryckman on October 12, 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 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.

I was finding understanding his language difficult and decided that I could best internalize the information by paraphrasing Cadava’s writings.  He writes in the form of theses and I’ve kept this same format.  Below each paraphrased section are my own reactions in italics.  Check out the previous blog for the first batch on Words of Light and watch for more to come.

I welcome any and all comments, if you understand something a little differently let me know it might help me out!

(This one is longer than the others up to this point… just a warning)
The incunabula of photography, (that’s right I said incunabula. Look it up) is also the burial place of photography and it flashed the truth about the photo.  And this truth is that between the photograph and the referent there is no relation—not only no relation but an absence of one.  The truth is that the photograph shows how estranged we are from the subject in the photograph.  Pictures don’t reproduce accurately they predict death. “The photographic event reproduces…the posthumous character of our lived experience” (89).  But that’s ok because we feel better, more comfortable when we recognize that we will die, when we come to terms with it.
When someone takes a picture of us we become “mortified—that is objectified, thingified, imaged” (90).  A picture isn’t taken of/from us but we are made into an image.  And ironically because we are seen as a permanent feature in the image it announces that we are impermanence in this world.  Weird, right?  Because when we die we will not be here but our image will stay—that’s how it predicts our death because it knows that it’s more permanent than us.  We have created a way that allows us to outlive out bodies, but only in static images.  A person departs in death and their image survives them.
It needs to happen this way to.  What would a photograph be if the subject didn’t die or change?  That defeats the purpose of taking a picture because if something will always stay the same, why photography it? You could just keep looking at it in real life.  A photograph ‘is what remains of what passes into history” (90).

So I kept imaging photographs as inscriptions on tombs, on our tombs.  The inscriptions don’t change they are memorizations of the people under them, just like photographs which are static and continue to speak of the person after their death.  Some might call it morbid but I like that thought.
The very nature/objective of photograph is to capture an unrepeatable moment/experience.  It recognizes that whatever is in front of the camera will change—which means that the subject in the final photograph also changes and cannot continue to exist as they do in the photo.  In this way the photo points to the death of the referent because it acknowledges that it is subject to a constant flow of time ultimately leading to death.  A single photograph is only a memorialization of one passing moment.  And this isn’t just for people or animals, living things, but it’s the same with nature and built objects.  Because nature continues to change and structures are changed by man, everything is subject to change and extinction.

Photography is a method of grief. It tells us about death (see above).  Essentially the photograph is the “return of the departed” (91).  The photograph declares this has-been-here this makes our relationship to the photograph.  “The lesson of the photograph for history…is that every attempt to bring the other to the light of day, to keep the other alive, silently presumes that it is mortal, this is always already touched (or retouched) by death” (91).  Its like the more you try to prove something is alive by photographing it the louder the photograph tells you its going to die, its inevitable, get over it.   Here is a partial quote from Benjamin himself “The photograph becomes a ghost because the costume doll lived…it is not the person who appears in his photograph, but the sum of what is to be deducted from him” (91-92).
“This is why it is precisely in death that the power of the photograph is revealed, and revealed to the very extent that it continues to evoke what can no longer be there…The photograph is a farewell” (92).

Wow, just wow. Let me see if I got this straight.  A photograph portrays what will no longer exist once the referent dies.  Before the subject dies the image is a ghostly reminder of his death but after the subject dies the photographs true power reveals itself because it ‘continues to evoke what can no longer be there.’  I image all the images of a person following him around during his life- transparent specters of all the things he’s done and the places he has been.  Then the instant he dies these photographs turn opaque, clear, permanent- no longer shadows of his life but the truth that remains of him.  He becomes the ghost-they switch places.
I feel this.  It relates to my need to photograph my grandfather’s house because my photographs are a farewell to all the things that I love about the place and the person.  I recognize that everything will change and I can’t do a damn thing about it.  The place/person/my memories are mortal.  I am speaking of death intentionally.  It’s that premeditated mourning I’ve been talking about.
Oh and don’t think that I didn’t relate that ‘has-been-here’ thing to Barthes.  It is the punctum that relates to time.  The photograph says “Bam! This shit has existed.  It has-been in no uncertain terms.” I’m watching you, Cadava. Don’t think that I don’t know what you’re up to!  (Actually I’m bluffing… I’m not sure I have the faintest idea what you’re up to).

When people started to forget that photographs are spectral-like and foreshadow death photography started its decline.  Early photographs have an aura to them but later ones just look like their miming reality because the technology got so much better. It is all very ironic.  Photography’s decline is directly related to its technological incline; they go in opposite directions. During the early years, the subject and technique of photography were in harmony with each other but a rift started as soon as things improved technically, with better optics and the ability to photograph in darkness. And because all the technology got so much better all people cared about what reproducing life exactly like it wasn’t capable of speaking to anything greater—this is what started the decline of photography.
Lets recap.  The decline of photography includes 1) the relation between the work of art and what it represents; 2) the decline that happens in photography, within its history; 3) the decline that is photography, the perversion of the concepts about what photography is able to do.
Photographing in darkness!  It’s like photography doesn’t remember that it’s a record of light, it has forgotten itself!  So as much as people claim photography is a record of truth… um, if you start photographing in the dark how can that be a truthful representation of things?  You people need to get your story straight, you’re confused and its ruining photography for the rest of us!
As a side note, I just want to clarify that there are no periods of decline, but no periods of decline just mean that there are no periods without decline.  Got that?  So, don’t think of the decline of photography as a temporal thing, it is more like a structural thing.
Now the most accurate photograph is the least accurate photograph—“the photograph remains faithful to its own infidelity” (93).  I.e. photography is only true to the fact that it is no longer true to truth/reality.  “The photograph, the medium of likeness, speaks only of what is unlike.  It says, ‘the photograph is an impossible memory.’ Because this forgetting is inscribed within every photograph, there is history—the history of photography as well as the history inaugurated by the photograph” (93).

Ummmm… right.  I see your point, maybe.  It does seem ironic that photographic technology became more and more accurate and advanced to the point where we could photograph in darkness, that seems ridiculous now that I think about it in terms of ‘light-writing’.  If you’re in darkness and the photograph reveals a scene it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t light (there was some form of illumination do to that, unless you have night vision…blah blah blah) but it is never how it would have appeared to the human eye and therefore is not accurate to reality.  It is hyperreal, to use a new word, an exaggeration of reality that people perceive as real.
And it is sad that the people became obsessed with recording nature ever more ‘accurately’ but what did you expect? It’s a camera, recording things ‘accurately is its strong point.  You can’t get the same results with a paintbrush so people are going to keep pushing the limits to be able to record more and more with the idea that the results are true-ish to life.  I don’t know, maybe I missed your point here.  You should speak slowly and clearly for me, Cadava, I’m not the sharpest crayon here.

3 Responses

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  1. A following-alonger said, on October 12, 2008 at 6:43 pm

    This Cadava stuff is really hard—I don’t think his ideas reduce too well. I think you’re doing an excellent job summarizing and responding to him, but it still makes my incunabulas hurt.

    After days of trying to read the essay, I’m embarrassed to say that I still am not sure what the hell his point is.

    Favorite line: “Bam! This shit has existed.”

    Keep up the good work!

  2. vanja. said, on October 12, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    lexi, this is good! it’s such a good idea to write about what you read, i agree that it helps you internalize it. this really inspires me….keep writing! 😀

  3. Ted Hughes said, on October 13, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    Hey, I’ve been re-reading these posts (working up to part 3, which I’ve yet to look at), and I think I see, not a mistake actually, but an oversight in Cadava’s thinking.

    Cadava says (in your summary of him), “[b]ecause when we die we will not be here but our image will stay—that’s how it predicts our death because it knows that it’s more permanent than us.” But the photograph isn’t immortal! Sure, a photograph might be archival, depending on the process and materials, and may last over 100 years, but the physical object of the photograph and the image it holds will die eventually.

    Even digital images will die eventually, whether they get printed out or not, as they exist only as part of a physical medium—whether on a hard drive, or a DVD (or other optical medium), or a solid state chip—these mediums will fail over time and the images they hold will too unless saved onto something new.

    So while the person in a photograph never ages, the photograph itself does… it fades in the light, it might get scratched or smudged or damaged. That’s why we have places like the George Eastman House that exist to preserve photograph, to keep them from dying, to keep them on life support if need be.

    I’m reminded of a quote by Theodor Adorno (that’s maybe a little off topic):

    “The German word museal [museumlike] has unpleasant overtones. It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying. They owe their preservation more to historical respect than to the needs of the present. Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are the family sepulchres of works of art.”

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