The Other Reality

Words of Light, No. 8

Posted in MFA, Reactions to Readings by aryckman on October 19, 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!

(So Cadava, what happened to sections 14, 15 and 16?  Were those unlucky numbers or something?  Did the editor lose them? Did 13 have enough material to count for four passages? It just seems odd that you went from 13 to 17 with no explanation for them not being there. Is it an inside joke of sorts?  It’s your essay; you do what you want but think about your readers, man.)

“Death, both the work and the event, is a photograph that photographs itself—that comes as the suspension of reality and its referents” (110).  It’s a souvenir, the dead body of the experiences, its empty shell.  This is how it speaks of history, it’s a trace of what has existed.  But because it talks about death it isn’t death, instead it is both dead and alive and “it opens up the possibility of our being in time” (110).
Photography comes before history, it doesn’t not belong to history but gives history.  This brings up a lot of questions: “How can an event that appears only in its disappearance leave something behind that opens up history? How can the photographed guard a trace of itself and inaugurate a history? “For Benjamin, history happens when something becomes present in passing away, when something lives in its death.  ‘Living means leaving traces’ [Baudelaire 169]. History happens with photography. After life.

So, it’s nice that you’re planning on ending this with some questions.  Wanted to give us some food for thought, did you?
The photograph as a souvenir of existence, nice, I like that.  Good one, Cadava.  I’ll have to remember that.  An image is both dead and alive because it is a static, frozen interpretation of what existed, it speaks of what is gone but yet it continues to recall the referent as it still exists unchanged in the image.  Time becomes ambiguous, extending its meaning into every temporal direction.
What is the difference between a ‘history of photography’ and a ‘photography of history’? History escapes itself when it is a ‘history of photography,’ not the history of photography but history of photographs, of images, of flashes of memory.  Unlike a ‘photography of history’ images that claim to be history.  I guess in my mind I can see a difference but I don’t know if I can explain it… a ‘history of photography,’ history comprised of photography seems much more dynamic than a ‘photography of history,’ which seems that it is more direct depictions of the historical in static images.

A guy who wrote about Benjamin, his friend, finished his memoirs by evoking the relationship between photography, death and cemeteries.  This was more or less perfect of Benjamin because it fit with his thinking of memory and death.  See his grave never had an inscription marking its place; its funny because Benjamin says that death doesn’t have a referent.  He literally didn’t have a referent… there wasn’t anything to prove he was there! It’s ironic and fitting, no?  Instead all his writings are his epitaph—they speak through the tomb of his writing. “In death, Benjamin experienced what he had already experienced in life—death” (111).  Benjamin left these themes for us to read; death, corpse, decay, ruin, history, memory and photography.  These words dominate all his writing and don’t allow anything else to surface.  “Words of light, they correspond to the cremation of his work, a cremation in which the form of the work—its suicidal character—reaches its most brilliant illumination, immolated in the flame of his own criticism” (111).

Ah, a sigh of relief.  I have come to the end.  I didn’t think I’d make it… it only took me 14 hours to read this all and to attempt to figure out what it all means.  Notice I used the word attempt because I’m still unsure of what is actually meant in some of these passages.  Anyways, I’m glad I survived it.  It seems nice that Benjamin was remembered in death (or not remembered) in the same way he expressed things in life.  It is ironic that he didn’t have a marker to his grave but death as no referent so it works.  There are quite a few picture of him in this essay so its interesting to think about the photograph as referent and survivor while Benjamin’s body is buried (or probably moved/cremated since his cemetery spot was only leased for 5 years… I’m not being morbid… that’s how they do things in Europe sometimes… they reuse the cemetery lots).  Surreal.

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