The Other Reality

Words of Light, No. 7

Posted in MFA, Reactions to Readings by aryckman on October 18, 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 advent of photography concurs with the advent of psychoanalysis.  We can do all sorts of amazing stuff with camera technology which reveals things that they eye can’t see in life. “The photograph tells us that when we see we are unconscious of what our seeing cannot see” (105).  We don’t even know we don’t know.  This is kind of like what Freud says about the conscious and unconscious.  Just like every image goes through the process of being a negative (lets forget about digital for a second) and not every negative is turned into a positive print, not every unconscious thought is turned into a conscious one.
This doesn’t mean that the negative and positive or the unconscious and the conscious are ever separate though.  They wouldn’t be able to be transcribed to the positive/conscious if there weren’t already paths that linked them together. “The unconscious, strictly speaking, is never simply the unconscious, is never elsewhere waiting to be transposed or transported” (106). It exists there as a trace, woven into all the other thoughts, unperceived.
There can be no psyche without photography and vice versa because I say so and I have Freud and Benjamin to back me up on this one. “To say that everything within the psyche begins with writing and reproduction is to say that the psyche begins with photography.  If the psyche and photography are machines for the production of images, however, what is produced is not simply any image, but an image of ourselves. And we are most ourselves when, not ourselves, we are an image or a photograph—an image or a photograph we may never see ‘before our gaze’” (106).
“This photograph of ourselves registers our lived experience and points to our absence in the face of that experience.  The self-portrait emerges from what we remember of our past tells us that what once took place may never be given to us in the present, may never be brought before our gaze. We can neither see nor remember anything before the photographic image that brings forth both our sight and our memory” (107).
We’re going to jump now to some ideas about shock.  See, I shocked you with that jump in topics but you should be used to it living in this modern age. “The advent of shock experience as an elemental force in everyday life in the mid-nineteenth century, Benjamin suggests, transforms the entire structure of human existence. While Benjamin identifies this process of transformation with technologies that have ‘subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training’…he singles out photography and film as media—that in their techniques of rapid cutting, multiple angles, and instantaneous shifts in time and place—raise the experience of shock to a formal principle” (108).
Photography is an important player in this shock because you can easily fix a moment with the press of a button.  And you can compare the photograph and its latent development to the latent development of experience. Freud likes to talk about this in relationship to childhood (of course he does). Because the experience/image can be developed after so long it is as if we are experiencing it indirectly.  Repressing the memory is an act of defensiveness so that we don’t need to deal with something of great magnitude.  But we can’t keep it hidden forever, it’ll come back to you and it’s the only way to get over it.  “Consciousness emerges as memory begins to withdraw” (109).
“The notion of shock—of a posthumous shock that coincides with the photographic event—in fact requires that history emerge where understanding or experience cannot” (109).
The power of this historical shock is not that the event is repeated after it is forgotten but that but that it is first truly experienced after it is forgotten. “It is what is not experienced in an event that paradoxically accounts for the belated and posthumous shock of historical experience” (109).  It is not perceived or experienced directly except in the memory of the event, it is recovered only in the flash of the image of the past.  History is experienced in its disappearance—ironically its not experience that is the most important part of memory but its all the little things that are woven together that are not perceived as being experienced.
And it doesn’t necessarily relate to the length of time you’re somewhere.  You can be somewhere a few hours and remember every detail but live somewhere for years and have the entire experience be fogged and incoherent.  “During the flash of the mind’s camera—a moment when, besides ourselves, we are no longer ourselves—we experience the shock of an experience that tells us that memory, all remembrance of things past, registers, if it registers anything, its own incapacity, our own immolation” (110).  Our memory registers its own incapacity, inability.

Well, I do see how you can relate the unconscious/conscious combo to that of photography’s negative/positive combo.  They, the unconscious and negative, are just waiting to be brought to fruition.  Is it ok to use fruition?  I thought it would be a fun word and even if its not a perfect example of this I still think you’ll get the point.
At the end there I started thinking about photography and memory.  When you say that the image brings forth our sight and memory and that we can’t remember anything before the image, is that because the image obscures everything else—the positive obscure the negative? It makes me think of our photography becomes a substitute for our memory. ( If this is off topic, just bear with me.)  I have so many memories that I think I actually remember because I’ve seen the photograph and I don’t know if its because the photograph stirs up these memories and makes me relive them or if it creates false ideas of what these memories actually are.  That kind of bothers me. While I love photographs and I’m glad that we have them I’m terrified to think that my precious memories are just constructions of images—that my memories are false except for the moment captured on film anything I add to that image could be fiction.
Whoa, that’s a big jump from self-portraits to shock treatment!  Ok, so you think that shock experience is the new way of life through photography and video.  Well, they do allow us to experience ‘reality’ in ways that we can never do.  Jumping between different angles of the same scene and not from a single vantage point like we would normally experience it.  It’s pretty amazing how we never think about that, no one is in awe of camera angles, not most people anyways, and there are a lot of people who probably aren’t aware the a scene changes about every 3 seconds on television… even if the environment around us changes constantly it doesn’t switch entirely every 3 seconds!
Do I really need to talk about all the psychology stuff? I think you summed it up pretty well there Cadava.  Experience like photography is often developed latently—much after the time it has been experienced in but then it comes back to us in a flash.  And sometimes things that we didn’t even perceive come back to us that memory so its like we experience it more in this remembered version.  I guess I can see some of that.  There are details I remember for an experience that I wasn’t aware of noticing at the time of the event or I remember a dream with surprising clarity hours after I’ve been awake.  What else should I say about this?


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