The Other Reality

Words of Light, No. 6

Posted in MFA, Reactions to Readings by aryckman on October 17, 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!

Benjamin understands the image has historical but he also understands history as imagistic, this is why he uses the language of photography so often.  History, its movement, corresponds to what happens when an image comes to pass.
The past cannot disappear, rather it passes away, therefore what threatens to disappear is the image of the past.  The past is irretrievable but its image is not. “The moment of history therefore corresponds to what happens during the photographic event, or what happens when an image comes to pass” (103).  You can create a picture of the past, in the present for the present.  A photograph is of the past, in and for the present.  “What the image intends is the irretrievability of the present itself.”
This image of the past is fleeting yet held fast.  If we don’t see the image of the past it is not because we are unable to grasp the truth but it is because the image is always passing away. If “a true picture of the past does not five us history—or rather, is the only thing of history we get–…it can still be viewed as true” (104).  “An image corresponds to a historical truth” (104).  If we think about history in terms of images it doesn’t mean that we’re saying history is a myth or that it’s a certain reality.  It’s somewhere in between.  If we cannot represent things we have images to replace that reality or nothing happens but the creation of historical images that don’t really point to anything—that are a fiction. “In either case, the image is a principle of articulation between language and history” (104).  History is an involuntary memory that comes to someone in the moment of danger, like a flash.  In this way it is like photography because an image is created involuntarily.  Both historical image and photographic image are brought into existence—to light—in a critical moment.
“Images are essentially involved in the historical acts of the production of meaning. Their links with knowledge give them their force, and hence their consequence within the domains of history and politics.  This is why the materialism of Benjamins’s theory of history can be allegorized in the photographic image.  To the extent that the function of the camera is to make images, the historiography produced by the camera involves the construction of photographic structures that both produce and reconfigure historical understanding”(104-5).

Are you saying that because an image is always an image of the past in and for the present that it necessarily points to the passing of the present?  That the present is constantly slipping into the past at an unstoppable rate?  Every click of the shutter marks the passing of the present and also commemorates it with an image of the past?  That suddenly makes me feel that time if very precious and that I should be doing something more with my time.  That maybe, just maybe spending the entire day trying to interpret your essay was a waste of my time because every second of this present is irretrievable, lost to me forever.  (Maybe you should have started the essay with this concept so I would have known to stop then…)
Cadava, it kind of irks me that you (and Benjamin) talk about things in the language of photography.  I get excited because I think ‘ah ha, something about photography.  Here we go!’ and then it’s a let down when I realize you’re only employing its language.  I’m beginning to feel like I read the wrong essay… I guess they can be related back to photography but still…
I do like the imagery of history and images being created at a critical moment, just as they are created they begin to fade… the memory starts to pass away of the scene in front of the camera changes.
I feel that maybe you did actually get back to talking about photography at the end there.  You were, weren’t you?  Now I’m just confused.  I know, I know, you’re thinking ‘Doesn’t take much now does it?’  Well, there is no need to be rude about it.  I’m probably a lot younger than you.  Anyways, it seemed that you were talking about the importance of photographic images because they seem to represent reality accurately, which gives them their historical and political power.  Historiography produced by the camera… I like that, the writing of history through the camera, our history in images.  By Jove!  Is this what you’ve been getting at the whole time—history as written in images?  (Well, more or less maybe??)

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