The Other Reality

Words of Light, No. 4

Posted in MFA, Reactions to Readings by aryckman on October 15, 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.

This is where it starts to get really confusing for me so I definitely welcome any and all comments, if you understand something a little differently let me know it might help me out!

(This is where things get confusing.  You may want to sit down for this part.  Buckle in, even.  It’s a long, bumpy ride.)

History comes to a crisis in the moment of a disaster, that disaster structures the danger of history.  History, itself, is in danger.  It takes almost no time for this to happen and everything, even, thinking comes to a standstill.  “It experiences itself as an interruption” (97).  In order to think historically thoughts don’t just flow but they also become arrested.  The catastrophic insists that history is organic and progressive—if catastrophes didn’t happen then we could plan history out.  “ ‘That things just go on,’ Benjamin tells us, and have gone on this way, ‘this is the catastrophe:’ ‘Catastrophe is not what threatens to occur at any given moment but what is given at any moment,’[“Central Park” 50]” (98).
There is no history without the Medusa effect, that is “the capacity to arrest or immobilize historical movement, to isolate the detail of an event from the continuum of history” (99).  It stalls history, temporarily suspends the continuity between a past and a present.  Stopping the present in this way allows for history to be reread and rewritten it is a mode of historical understanding.  But there is another mode of historical understanding.  “Whereas ‘historicism presents the eternal image of the past,’ historical materialism offers ‘a specific and unique experience with it…Historical materialism conceives historical understanding as an after-life of what is understood, whose pulses can still be felt in the present’ [352]” (99). Historicism doesn’t offer involvement with the past, just an image but with historical materialism that understanding of the past is living and can influence the present.
We are not in a predetermined history but have leapt to a ‘true’ history, this leap takes place in a present, the transition between past and future but a time that comes to a standstill.  In photographic terms: “By retaining traces of the past and future—a past and future it nonetheless transforms—the photograph sustains the presence of movement, the pulses whose rhythm marks the afterlife of what has been understood, within the movement it gorgonizes” (99).  The Medusean glance, like the camera, can momentarily transfix history and in this transfixed state history appears as it disappears.  A way to catch the image of history before it vanishes. “Within this condensation of past and present, time is not longer to be understood as continuous and linear, but rather as spatial, an imagistic space that Benjamin calls a ‘constellation’ or ‘monad’” (99).  In its arrest the past is blasted open and this “blast ‘shatters the continuum of history’ and in so doing reveals the history hidden in any given work. It discloses the breaks, within history, from which history emerges.  Focusing on the what has been overlooked or hidden within history, on the transitoriness of events, and on the relation between any given moment and all of history, the historical materialist seeks to delineate the contours of a history whose chance depends upon overcoming the idea of history as the mere reproduction of the past” (99).
Photography relates directly to time, “it interrupts history and opens up another possibility of history, one that spaces time and temporalizes space. A force of arrestment, the image translates an aspect of time into something like a certain space, a certain interval, and does so without stopping time or preventing time from being time” (100).  Time presents this ‘spacing’ to us in photographs. “The photographic event interrupts the present; it occurs between the present and itself, between the movement of time and itself…What the photograph inaugurates is history itself, and what takes place in this history is the emergence of the image” (100).
“For the photograph is always related to something other than itself.  Keeping the mark of the past within its space-crossed image, it also lets itself be (re)touched by the mark of the future.  Related no less to the future than to the past, the photograph constitutes the present by means of this very relation to what it is not” (100).  As soon as the photo is taken the moment is past but the image is evidence to that past, but it also foreshadows the future in announcing the death of the subject.  Thus the information in the image extends in multiple temporal directions.
As soon as the photographic event takes place all of history telescopes into a single moment, it ends or stops in this image and cannot be completely understood.  To write history isn’t just to re-present a past presence.  “ ‘To articulate the past historically…does not mean to recognize it ‘as it really was.’ It means to take possession of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’ [illuminations 255]” (101-102). History begins where memory is endangered. In that flash that memory appears it also disappears.  It is in-between present and history.  A historian doesn’t work from memory but he does attempt to represent something that cannot be represented—history itself.  History cannot be comprehended directly because only a small area can be illuminated at any given time.  Like the photograph only a small portion of that moment of reality is available.
You see, the moment of disaster, the moment of danger, in this essay is also my moment of danger because this is when I lose all track of what you’re talking about.  From now on it reads about like this:

The moment of danger and history, blah, blah, now-time. Blah. Blah, something to do with photography and maybe memory.  Blah. Moment of danger. The End.

Now what am I supposed to make of that?? Really? I think you’re just a big meanie trying to prove that you’re smarter than everyone because people can’t figure out what you’re saying.  Or maybe I’m pouting because you make my head hurt.
What did I get out of this last section?  Well, when you start talking about constellations and stopping the present, etc.  I envision everything around me pausing and being able to step back into a black space in which I am surrounded by floating, fixed images of the past that can be examined.  And once an understanding is come to of the past they all just explode into millions of tiny glittering pieces and you reach a level of enlightenment where everything is one and history makes sense.  Maybe my vision is a little hokey but I can’t help but picture that.  Especially with all that ‘blasting open’ of the past, etc. History is not just a reproduction of the past but is organic and ever evolving, being influenced by the past but not a duplicate of it.
Photography cannot help but be related to time.  It can only capture a specific place and time and it makes sense that a photograph can be seen as space-time crossed.  The image is the result of these things crossing and they continue to travel on after the click of the shutter.  I am reminded of the ambiguous aspect of time in “Camera Lucida.”  The referent is here in the photo, but the image is old so the referent is dead.  He was there at the time of the picture, he is here in the picture and he is passed on, all in one image.  Intense.
Like the image burnt onto a retina after the flash from a camera illuminates the scene this is the memory that flashes before the historian and even as he sees it, it begins to fade. Is this the moment of danger?
Good grief, Cadava!  Couldn’t you have made it a little easier?  It’s only taken me about two plus hours to read this one section and try to form some thoughts on what it actually means and I don’t even think that my thoughts are coherent at this point!
That’s it, I’m moving onto something else…


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