The Other Reality

Words of Light, No. 3

Posted in MFA, Reactions to Readings by aryckman on October 13, 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 posts for my earlier reactions to 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!

The aura of something relates to its specific place in space and time—its uniqueness, its oringinalness. But talking about being the original is going to bring up the concept of authenticity, and authenticity is outside of technology and reproducibility.  They don’t really play well together but this doesn’t mean that we’re making a specific distinction between the authentic and the reproduced, it is just that once things can be reproduced authenticity takes a back seat to things.  “In removing the criteria of authenticity from the evaluation of an artwork, the possibility of reproducibility contributes and corresponds to the decay of the aura” (93). “The prevalence of techniques of reproduction within the field of photography, for example, makes it possible to replicate any given negative an indefinite number of times.  This capacity for reproduction and circulation undermines the notion of an artwork’s singularity, what Benjamin calls its ‘cult value’” (93).  So what does this mean now?  The ability to reproduce something undermines everything we know about what art is, its uniqueness because of the concepts of genius, creativity and originality.  Instead of its ‘cultic value’ now we only think of its exhibition value—how will this thing look reproduced? Technology is related to aesthetics but its also questions its independence because it has relied on “historical processes of production and distribution” (94).
The advent of film and photography questions aesthetics, just like Benjamin did with his writings on allegory and art. “The notion of an ‘original’ or ‘unique’ work of art is…difficult to sustain…with the emergence of photography and film,” just like it was with the German baroque mourning play (94). These plays not only mourn the loss of arts originality but also its ‘transcendent radiance.’ Transcendent radiance is what used to define the art, so it’s a big deal that it is disappearing. “The loss of the aura of originality and the loss of the artwork’s relation to transcendence…raises a series of questions about the possibility of defining the specificity or ‘essence’ of the artwork” (94).
Now in order to understand things “legends become necessary to mark the way and to bridge an image with its meaning, with the result that the images themselves signify only as elements in a pictorial script” (94). “The lesson ‘inherent in the authenticity of the photograph’ is in fact the link between the photograph and writing, between photography and the ‘prevalence of inscription’” (94).
“ ‘The illiteracy of the future,’ someone has said, ‘will be ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography.’ But must not a photographer who cannot read his own pictures be no less considered an illiterate?  Will not the inscription become the most important part of the photograph?” (94).

Hold on here!  Are you saying that photographers can no longer understand their own images?  Because that’s what it sounds like you’re saying…
Let me take a step back for a second.
I got the part where the question of originality is raised because of reproduction and that it loses its aura.  That makes sense. We have seen so many picture of the Mona Lisa that when we see it in person its just another picture.  We might ‘oh’ and ‘aw’ when we see it but that’s only because it’s the original of this thing that has been hyped not because it is more radiant than any of the reproductions we’ve seen of it.
That’s sad, things should still be unique and special and singular.  I have decided that I will never reproduce another photograph.  I will only shoot using the wet-plate process so that there is only one ambrotype and I will not photograph it so if you want to see it you have to come to it, no exceptions.  Just kidding. That would be impossible to do in this age, everything is reproduced.  Even if you don’t reproduce your artwork to be sold as prints or put it on a website eventually it will be photographed to used to promote it in a show or whatever.  Unless you hide all your work in a closet but then what’s the point? If you do that you’re aesthetics and work wont enter into this discussion anyways.
Back to the point.  Now instead of things being valued for their uniqueness they are valued for their exhibition quality.  That seems backwards but what can you do? Reproducibility changes the value of art from one of unique, singularity to its circulatory and exhibition ability.  This notion of original is hard to sustain with photography.
But what’s this about captions?  I’m not entirely sure where this fits in.  Do we require captions because otherwise we don’t understand the significance of the art on its own?  That can’t be entirely true, can it?  Is the writing what defines the art, the photograph, as authentic?  This has led to more questions than answers I fear.  Thanks a lot, Cadava.

Technological reproducibility has always existed.  This does not mean mechanical reproduction.  Technology is not a purely scientific and mechanical phenomenon, but it is a historical one.  Thinking about it as historical points to the connection between art and science, especially as they relate to reproduction. “Technical reproduction is not an empirical feature of modernity, it is not an invention to the so-called modern era…it is a structural possibility within the work of art” (95).  Art, along with other physical objects, have always been able to be reproduced.  There have been methods of stamping and bronzing and it has continued up to now with printing, photography and video.  This isn’t a new idea but it does indicate that thinking about it as new marks the intense acceleration that has advanced reproducibility. And it is not just that things are easier to reproduce now but that it is something inherent to their structure—“the process by which techniques of reproduction increasingly influence and indeed determine the structure of the artwork itself” (96).  The camera is where “replication and production merge” (96).  And the camera can record things instantaneously, in a shutter’s blink.  “An instrument of citation, the camera here cites the movement of light, a movement that never strikes the same place twice” (96).
The understanding of photography can only be, needs to be, understood within its relationship to the history of technology, they correspond. “This is why technology can never simply clarify or explain the photographic event.  This is also why the age of technological reproduction includes all of history” (96).  Every age had its own method of reproduction.

Things have always been copy-able—it has more to do with the structure of the art/object than technology of the modern era.  Something can be inherently able to be reproduced. Like you said, each era has its own method of reproducing things.  Art and the ability to reproduce things finally culminated in photography and video. The artwork that is created in the act of photographing is the negative, which is also the means of reproduction!  It’s incredible!  It is a 2 for 1 deal here.
Hey Cadava, I understood that part but what’s with bring up the camera as a tool of citation?  Last section you were talking about how photographs need captions and writing and now it sounds like photographs are a form citations.  I guess I can separate them in my head as relating to two different aspects of photography but really, are you trying to make it complicated? (Just giving you a hard time Cadava, don’t worry about it).

“What is at stake in the question of technological reproduction…is not whether photography is art, but in what way all art is photography” (96).  Once reproduction reaches photography a huge rift is formed because photography transforms the entire idea of art.  “The presumed uniqueness of a production, the singularity of the artwork, and the value of authenticity are deconstructed” (96).  The function of art is reversed once it can be reproduced.
Technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitical attachment to ritual.  To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work of art designed for reproduction. From a photographic negative, for example, any number of prints is possible; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed.  Instead of being founded on ritual, it begins to be founded on another practice—that is, to be founded on politics. [Illuminations 224]
Art used to have an aura because it was singular but now that you can substitute multiple copies of something for an original the ideas of what art is are destroyed.  “Every work is now replaceable” (97).  We’ve broken from the tradition of art as a ritual and have entered into a time when art needs to be concerned about how it functions politically.  This isn’t about political art, but about politics moving into autonomous art, to the art that appears politically dead. But “if politics…depends on photography and film’s capacity to exhibit and manipulate bodies and faces, then all politics can be viewed as a politics of art, as a politics of the technical reproduction of an image” (97).
If politics is sought in art then nothing, no aesthetic or philosophy, that can separate them.  Now I want to mention l’art pour l’art because it’s French and makes me look smart.  I wont really connect anything to it but here is a quote from Benjamin: “The most rabidly decadent origins of this new theory of war are emblazoned on their foreheads: it is nothing other than an uninhibited translation of the principle of l’art pour l’art to war itself” [theories” 121-22] (97). “Seeking a restoration of the aura within the framework of aesthetic autonomy, and originating as a reaction against the rampart commodifications of art, l’art pour l’art presents itself, within fascism’s own efforts to stage the nonpolitical essence of the political, as the truth of the political” (97).  Aesthetics are used for political ends. (Oh my!)

Art reverses after reproducibility because it’s not about uniqueness.  Art is produced to be reproduced.  Sounds like a bad cycle…a recycle, even. It is no longer dependent on ritual or the cultic basis of art.  Every work is replaceable.  Not ritual= now political.
But chew on this for a while.  Can the thing actually be reproduced?  You can create images of things that look like other things but are they real copies?  Is a clone a real copy of something else?  Or does it evolve into its own person with unique traits even if it is genetically and visually similar?  Ok, maybe that’s off track but think about this: Plato.  Yeah, I’m bringing out the big guns now.  He talked about an intangible ideal and everything physical is just an imperfect representation of that ideal.  Chairs are always the example, aren’t they?  There is an ideal Chair, “chair” with a capitol “C”, it is the essence of chairy-ness but what we physically have and can sit on is only a shoddy representation of what a chair can be.  It can never come close to the perfect Chair. It is never a Chair.  Isn’t reproduction something like that?  A painting is the ideal of a reproduction of that same painting.  It has the essence of the Painting.  Make sense?  I know that the lines blur not a little when talking about photography because all prints are a reproduction; I’m not sure how that fits in then.  I guess the negative is then the ideal.  OR is the situation—the arrangement of space and time—captured in the image the ideal?  No print will ever be able to replace that space and time.
Also, is it just me or is that last paragraph about propaganda?  I guess I just think about how images of idealized life that do not look overtly political while actually being very political… does that make sense?  Oh “l’art pour l’art” could have been explained maybe.  People should be able to figure it out, I don’t know French and I figured out what it meant without looking it up but the historical context would have been nice. I know its hard to fit everything in a single essay, it’s just a suggestion though.

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