The Other Reality

Words of Light (Annotation)

Posted in Annotation, MFA by aryckman on October 20, 2008

Cadava, Eduardo. “Words of Light: Theses on the Photography as History” Diacritics Vol. 22, No. 3/4 (1992): 85-114.

Alexandra Ryckman
First Semester, Fall 2008

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 of photography to describe how they work. An example of this crossing of terminology can be seen in the comparison between philosophy and photography; they are both interested in knowledge and can be described in terms of light. “Both take their life from light, from a light which coincides with the conditions of possibility for clarity, reflection, speculation and lucidity—that is, for knowledge in general” (87).  Knowledge comes in a moment of ‘simultaneous illumination and blindness’- like a flashbulb. Spanning a range of topics, Cadava explores the photograph’s recognition of the temporal nature of its subject, the impact of mechanical reproduction on society and the understanding of history.

One of Cadava’s major points is that photographs show us how estranged from the subject we actually are because it announces the death of the photograph’s subject, the referent. “The photographic event reproduces…the posthumous character of our lived experience” (89). Through photographs we are made into static objects—reminding us that we are not static or permanent. In this way, photography is a method of grief. Rather than capture moments accurately, it tells us about death. Once the referent becomes an image, that image speaks to the fact that things will not stay the same.  The referent will pass on—the moment passes, a person dies, the season changes—nothing is constant in life as it is in the photograph. A photograph “is what remains of what passes into history” (90).

The fact that everything must change gives photography its strength; if nothing ever changed we would have no need to record it.  During the referent’s life the photograph is a specter, a ghostly apparition, but at the death of the referent the photograph is the return of the departed. “This is why it is precisely in death that the power of the photograph is revealed, and revealed to the very extent that it continues to evoke what can no longer be there…The photograph is a farewell” (92).

Cadava also delved into the role of reproducibility in art. The ability to reproduce objects existed long before our modern technology, it is not related specifically to technological advances. Photography and video are the result of a need to reproduce ever more accurately. Yet the ability to reproduce images has challenged our notion of art.  Previously art existed as a singular, unique object, but today it can be reproduced an infinite amount of times. Now that there can be multiple copies of the same artwork the concept of originality fails and we need new criteria to evaluate artwork. We now need to think of art in terms of its exhibition value.  Also, Cadava asserts that “legends become necessary to mark the way and to bridge and image with its meaning, with the result that the images themselves signify only as elements in a pictorial script” (94). These legends, the writing attached to specific images, help determine the authenticity of an image.

As soon as the technology of reproducibility advanced to the point where photography was born, the dynamics of art changed. “Every work is now replaceable” (97). Not needing to be concerned with originality or the ritual of art its function reversed. It became political. Art did not become political art, but politics became a part of art, no matter how non-political it appears. This brings to mind propagandist images, images appearing as separate from a specific political ideology portraying society in a positive manner but whose image content is controlled by that ideology. Even though they seem separate they are completely infused with politics. Besides this extreme example, the production of art today is coupled with thoughts about its promotion, how and where it will be displayed, who will sponsor it, and its market value.  Art is less and less about the ritualistic need to create something and more about how it fills a specific financial or political need in society.

The essay draws on the importance of understanding history through the language of photography. The memory and truth of history comes to us in flashes—it pauses for a second and then begins to fade. 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.  This flash allows the historian to fit this image into its place between the past and the future, its place in the intersection between space and time.  Photography cannot help but be related to time in this same way.  Each image represents a specific space-time crossing.  The image is the result of these things coming together and then they continue to travel on after the click of the shutter.

Cadava continues talking about history as imagistic but also associates it with psychoanalysis in a way. Photography shows us just how much we do not see.  Photographic technology has improved to the point where it shows us events we did not even realize were happening because they cannot be seen by the human eye. For example, there is a point when all four legs of a horse are off the ground while it is running—something we did not know before the invention of the camera. This is similar to the ideas of the unconscious and conscious in psychoanalysis. Just as every image goes through the processes of being a negative and not every negative is turned into a positive print, not every unconscious thought is turned into a conscious one.  This does not mean that the negative and positive or the unconscious and the conscious are ever separate from each other.  They need the hidden component, the negative or unconscious, to be realized.

This can be taken further when you think about the mind repressing events of great magnitude—a kind of shock.  The power of this historical shock is not that the event is repeated after it is forgotten but that it is first truly experienced in this memory. “It is what is not experienced in an event that paradoxically accounts for the belated and posthumous shock of historical experience” (109).  In the same way that you may notice details in an image long after it was taken the flash of memory of an event might yield details that were unnoticed in the actual experience of the event.  History can be viewed in the same way, things come to light in the reliving and reviewing of history that were not previously thought of as consequential. In this way our memory registers its own incapacity for accuracy.

There are some topics that I can relate to here.  I love the concept of photography’s ability to speak of death. The idea 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 long after it has passed. The photograph is a souvenir of existence.  I feel that this is at the base of why I photograph.  It is an impossible attempt at trying to make things stay the same while also being a sad acceptance that they cannot.

I have mixed feelings on the idea of reproducibility.  I fear that being able to reproduce art has deadened its aura.  We have seen so many pictures of the Mona Lisa that when we see it in person it is like any other picture.  We might ‘ooo’ and ‘ah’ when we see it but that is only because its value is derived from its fame, not because it is more radiant than any of the reproductions we have seen of it.  That is a sad realization but on the other hand I am not convinced that everything can be replicated completely.

Just as Plato theorized about the ideal of an object that could not be met by a physical representation, I feel that reproductions cannot meet the ideal of the art being reproduced. A painting is the ideal of a reproduction of that same painting. The lines blur with photography because all prints are a form of reproduction.  The negative could then be seen as the ideal. Or the negative could be seen as the reproduction of the situation—the arrangement of space and time—captured in the image may be the ideal. If the situation itself is the original, and our life the art, then not just photography, but all art forms, are merely reproductions. However, art is validated by the artist sharing their unique perspective with their audience.

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One Response

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  1. gobblegobble said, on May 12, 2014 at 8:28 am

    awesome thank you for summarising. I barely understood half of the primary text.


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