Nov 23, 2010

Thinking of 'photography'

Whereas I want to think of photography as it is in photographs, as a textured medium that's normally invisible, Roland Barthes says he can only think of photographs, in their particularity, and never of photography.

"Photography," he says in the beginning of Camera Lucinda, "evades us."

What Barthes means by this is that photographs are profoundly, disturbingly particular. Photographs reproduce and re-reproduce "what could never be repeated existentially ... it is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency."

Photographs mark, he says, a "disorder of objects," a kind of ontological upset, in that the photograph, through mechanical reproduction, elevates the particular beyond the scope of particularity without making it universal or a category, which puts it in this unsettling, neither/nor ontological position. It's also an ontological upset in that such selection is an elevation of this particular, over and against everything else, which is a sort of betrayal. Barthes asks, "of all the objects in the world: why choose (why photograph) this object, this moment, rather than some other?" Note that a photograph, here, for Barthes, does the same perverse thing love does for Slovoj Zizek: it's an act that damns the universal and the ideal in favor of the flawed, failed, "fallen" individual.

The particularness of photographs, with the attendant ontological disorder, is, I think, perhaps why photographs of war and crime scenes work in a way that paintings or drawings never would. The disorder of attention, the perversity of the importance of this particular, these particular details, is exactly what we want to picture there.

For Barthes, here, such a thing as "photography" would be a kind of ontological opiate, a way of opting out of the disorder of the particularness of photographs, which is also, he thinks, the passage of time (the photographs' "testimony bears not on the object but on time"), that is, on Death ("Death is the edios of that Photograph"). Rejecting the concept of photography as such -- suggesting that it doesn't exist, that it has no "'genus' of its own" -- is an existential moment and an ethical moment that breaks down our denials of our own finitude, and forces the crack up of ontology.

Still, as much as it's a good thing to attempt to break down ontology, and as much as I agree that this disorder of particularness is pushed on us by photographs, and that mechanical reproduction of a particular was a disruption (for example, by replacing uniqueness or rareness with reproducibility as the primary value of pictures), it seems kind of silly to me deny the existence of photography as such.

There is this that we talk about that is called photography.

Barthes was using "photography" as a stand in for ontology, though, and I'm using it and its invisibility as a stand in for ideology and ideological functions.