On Photography

Whether it’s Ansel Adams’s Landscapes (Middle), Gary Winongrand’s Cityscapes (Lower Left), Annie Leibovitz’s Lifestyle photos (Right), or Walker Evans photographs of rural poverty (Upper Left); or any number of a multitude of other current or past photographers: I’ve always felt that photography is about enframing (Heidegger), about that sense that one is exposed to something that has been framed within/by technology – but what; a view, a description, a statement of fact or imagination. Is this interpretation (hermeneutics) or against it (non-representational), real or irreal, etc. Is the photographer trying to destroy the gap between the camera’s eye and the scene, bring thought and being together in unison, one? Or, is she producing gaps between form and content, revealing the inherent contradictions and antagonisms in reality, the obstruction of the Real itself that will not let the photographer in on the secret of the world? The best photographers seem to situate themselves in the gaps and cracks of the world, the slippages in things allowing them to speak and emerge on their own, stand their shining in their simplicity as things without us; and, yet, at other times we see the power of the human emerge, too: the supple interweaving of certain lines of light and shadow that suddenly lift emotion from its core hideaway and reveal the patterns of reality in ways that nothing else in the world could. So that this enframed technology of the photograph is both produced gap and its destruction, a twisting of the anamorphic truth that cannot come by way of direct or indirect appeal. This notion of what a photographer is up to in what they’ve framed and caught in their slice of the Real – what is the action, the event being portrayed. Is it light, shadow, movement, texture, grains, color (trope of effect or cause?), the deformation of things or their ineffableness – mystery. It’s this sense of struggle not with the medium itself but with the actual forms being captured in the act of disclosure – it’s almost like pornography of the Real, as if one could capture the raw naked power of its lures, traps, and investiture as it suddenly juts its ugly or beautiful head out of the thick soup of things… to reveal the force of appearance rather than appearance per se; to reveal as in apocalypse/revelation a happening in movement in still life slices just at the point where time, space, and substance come together in the unique distillation of the Real. One can never truly capture it in a photo, what one captures is the hint — as in Zen of the frisson of the momentary aura (Benjamin) of the world in its passing… nothing is redeemed, everything is loss, pure loss… only the sparks and embers in their slow burn dazzle us with the supreme delights of the photographer’s art.

Slavoj Zizek, Heidegger, and Enframing

In speaking of Heidegger, Slavoj Zizek tells us that he is the ultimate transcendental philosopher: his achievement is to historicize the transcendental dimension. For Heidegger, an Event has nothing to do with ontic processes; it designates the “event” of a new epochal disclosure of Being, the emergence of a new “world” (as the horizon of meaning within which all entities appear). Catastrophe thus occurs before the (f) act: the catastrophe is not the nuclear self-destruction of humanity, but that ontological relation to nature which reduces it to techno-scientific exploitation. The catastrophe is not our ecological ruin, but the loss of our home-roots, thus making possible the ruthless exploitation of the earth.  The catastrophe is not that we are reduced to automata manipulable by biogenetics, but the very ontological approach that renders this prospect possible. Even in the case of total self-destruction, ontology maintains its priority over the ontic: the possibility of total self-destruction is just an ontic consequence of our relating to nature as a collection of objects for technological exploitation— the catastrophe occurs when nature appears to us within the frame of technology. Gestell, Heidegger’s name for the essence of technology, is usually translated into English as “enframing.”1

When one thinks photography one is already encompassed and enframed by the technological that escapes the frame of the picture itself: the camera. The camera as technology is left out of the equation by the photographer (or is it?) who seems to seek out only the revelations of those moments or slices of time that might best capture (or express?) the movement of the world in its unveiling (to use a Heideggerean term). At its most radical, technology designates not the complex network of machines and activities, but the attitude towards reality that we assume when we engage in such activities: technology is the way reality discloses itself to us in modern times, when reality has become a “standing-reserve”:

Enframing means the gathering together of that setting-upon which sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the real in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve. Enframing means that way of revealing which holds sway in the essence of modern technology and which is itself nothing technological. (Zizek quoting Heidegger, pp. 93-94)

So what is it that is revealed in the enframing of the photo which is not itself bound to the technological framing of its disclosure (i.e., “nothing technological”)? What Zizek is saying is that we no longer live in reality per se, we live in the artificial worlds of technological enframing, and that reality itself is still there but as “standing-reserve” as a resource that can be manipulated, extracted, used by technology and techne to support the artificial worlds of modern global society. For better or worse the natural has disappeared into the artificial; or, as he says: “the catastrophe is not the nuclear self-destruction of humanity, but that ontological relation to nature which reduces it to techno-scientific exploitation”. It’s this manipulation of nature or the natural as ontological relation that opens it to the exploitation of science that has occurred. A reversal in which man as natural being has emerged as artificial (i.e., humanity is always already technologies “standing-reserve,” manipulable and mutant). Photography is not revealing the natural, but rather is enframing our relation to that “standing-reserve” and showing forth the ontological catastrophe of the disappearance of nature and the natural into its technological artifacts, the passing of its aura into that movement from natural to artificial. As Zizek will comment “[t]he paradox of technology as the concluding moment of Western metaphysics is that it is a mode of enframing which poses a danger to enframing itself: the human being reduced to an object of technological manipulation is no longer properly human, it loses the very feature of being ecstatically open to reality” (94). The very closure of Western metaphysics is as well the closure and erasure of the human as it becomes mutant and machinic, becomes a technological being manipulated by the sciences rather than natural processes.

Our problem, of course, with Zizek comes just here that when presented with these dire conclusions, these pessimistic outcomes he wants to drag in the whole Hegelian remake of his supposedly revisionary dialectical materialism with its retroactive machinery of redemption and salvation, etc. It’s as if he just cannot stand that a catastrophe is what it is, that there’s no going back, no retroactive revisioning of the past into something new. Zizek quotes Walter Benjamin’s notions of redemption in which that thinker tells us:

The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.2

Then Zizek will question this asking how far we should go with this: “Do we limit the logic of retroactive redemption to human history, or are we ready to take the risk of applying this logic to nature itself, which calls for humanity, human speech, to redeem it from its mute suffering?” (95)

One sees the problem of this, Zizek is putting humanity in the place of Yahweh (God) of Israel as having the power to undo Time, to retroactively change the course of things, go back and redeem the time, redeem the suffering of humanity and nature itself. Such a fantasy might make for a great fictional masterpiece of Fantasy but as for reality? We can see where this is going, can’t we? But let’s go on, what else has Zizek up his sleeve, being a the Hegelian Magician that he is one can never be sure just where in the dialectical twist of oscillating thought he is at any one moment. That’s one of the issues of dialectical materialism is that it is never where you think it is, its always already in movement between two poles so that one can never quite pin it down, apply the scalpel of critique because it’s outside that Kantian world altogether; or, at least it would have us believe it is, but is it? Have we really escaped the circle of Kant’s internalization and epistemological quandaries yet? But then of course this is the dialectical logic of Zizek’s answer as well. Because he’ll ask us “are such speculations about the pain inherent in pre-human nature not simply mythical fables? One of the signals of a transcendental approach is the recourse to myth: after describing a rational structure that goes as far as our thinking can go, thinkers from Plato to Lacan then offer a mythical fable, claiming that we really cannot go beyond the rational structure, and can only speculate about what went on prior to it through the medium of a fable” (pp. 95-96). So that when classic Lacan  claims that the fact of the symbolic order, of the logos, is the ultimate horizon of our thinking: we cannot go further back, every story about the “origin of language” is a circular myth which implicitly presupposes what it purports to explain, so all we can do is to concoct amusing fables. (96)

Of course my friend R. Scott Bakker would call this problem of the circle the hard problem of consciousness itself – and, his term for it is “medial neglect”. In some ways Scott Bakker’s short post Intentional Philosophy as the Neuroscientific Explananda Problem succinctly shows us the central problem of our time: medial neglect. But what is medial neglect? The simplest explanation is that we are blind to the very internal processes that condition our very awareness of ourselves, our conscious mind. Scott’s point is that no one, not philosophers, not neuroscientists, no one can agree as to why this should be? No one can explain what consciousness is – much less how it emerges from the physical substratum of our brain. Philosophers of Mind have battled over the extremes of pure reductive physicalism (Davidson, etc.) and its opposite the irreductive world of the mind/body dualism of a Descartes. Yet, for all our advances in neuroscience and the technological breakthroughs in brain scan imaging, etc. we still cannot explain this indefinite terrain between brain and consciousness. Not that many have not tried. In my library or my e-book reader I have hundreds of books, journals, and publications devoted to just this one subject alone.

Philosophy cannot prove its case, but neither has science been able too either. Is there a solution? Of course, my friend Scott, sees this as both part of the problem and a pointer to its solution, saying, “Here’s what I think is a productive way to interpret this conundrum.”:

Generally what we want is a translation between the manipulative and the communicative. It is the circuit between these two general cognitive modes that forms the cornerstone of what we call scientific knowledge. A finding that cannot be communicated is not a finding at all. The thing is, this—knowledge itself—all functions in the dark. We are effectively black boxes to ourselves. In all math and science—all of it—the understanding communicated is a black box understanding, one lacking any natural understanding of that understanding.

For Scott if it isn’t reduced to scientific naturalism its fairly well useless, all metaphysical statements to the contrary. So what about that? Is scientific naturalism the last word in knowledge? To ask such a question is to fall off a cliff and enter an abyss we might not want to enter, like opening a can of worms and finding a nest of asps instead: a deadly business, indeed.

Science is based on instrumental reason and description; or, in Scott’s parlance, manipulation and communication, which he sees as the “cornerstone of scientific knowledge”. Medial neglect is the very real sense that this knowledge is not enough, that it is tentative, open to revision, or estimation – as in 1560s,

“valuation,” from Latin aestimatus “determine the value of,” figuratively “to value, esteem,” verbal noun from aestimare. Earlier in sense “power of the mind” (mid-15c.). Meaning “approximate judgment” is from 1580s. As a builder’s statement of projected costs, from 1796.

This sense of approximation and probabilities has been the hallmark of most sciences in modern times, the notion that we do not have the full and complete knowledge, description, estimation of our world, universe, etc. But that we are in the dark seeking better and better instruments, reasons, answers to the problems, and solutions to help us define, delimit, and determine the truth or validity of our knowledge against the Real, etc.

In fact, the point Scott makes about the neurosciences typifies just this pattern when he tells us that what neuroscience is after, of course, is a natural understanding of understanding, to peer into the black box. They want manipulations they can communicate, actionable explanations of explanation. The problem is that they have only heuristic, low-dimensional, cognitive access to themselves: they quite simply lack the metacognitive access required to resolve interpretive disputes, and so remain incapable of formulating the explananda of neuroscience in any consensus commanding way. In fact, a great many remain convinced, on intuitive grounds, that the explananda sought, even if they could be canonically formulated, would necessarily remain beyond the pale of neuroscientific explanation.

The point here is that we may always be in the dark, may always be circumscribed within this circle of medial neglect or what the philosopher Quentin Meillassoux once termed the correlationist circle. In After Finitude, he defines correlation as ‘the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other’ (AF, 5). (see Extract) In other words we cannot step out of the frame, because we are the frame – the technology is consciousness itself, which was invented by none other than evolution for purposes, accidental or not that we do not as of yet understand, nor can we duplicate, nor can we describe for the simple reason it is both horizon, ground, and circular oscillation or feedback mechanism in-between. The old notion of having an Archimedean point outside the frame as in our neuroscanning and imaging devices was and is an avenue, yet the problem we face is not the truth of what it reveals but what happens when you try to use this correlational device of consciousness to describe what these machines are seeing. One is thrown back into the intentional enframing device of our technological heuristics with all the cumbersome metaphysical bric-a-brac linguistic devices (i.e., rhetoric: tropes, figures of thought and speech, etc.) that cannot do the job because they are part of the problem not the solution.

 The Photographer’s Dilemma

Isn’t this what a photographer is face with? Isn’t this what someone gazing on a photo is faced with? What is hidden in the photo or the photographer’s eye is the hidden technology that enframes the very scene in its artificial circle which cannot be circumvented. We want to reach through the camera or the photo and experience and access reality first hand, but we are already always seeing the past even as we gaze at what we think is the present. Our brains have already pre-processed reality and transformed it into the phantasms of consciousness so that we only have indirect (or representational) access to the Real. There will always be a gap or crack in our knowledge of reality and the Real. In the old parlance of Kant this was the split between phenomenon and noumenon. And, many would say the noumenon is only one aspect of the phenomenon, while others argue it is an object in its own right. But like consciousness there is no definitive answer or solution to these problems. Science wants to reduce it to a problem of pragmatic instrumental use: can we manipulate it, can we describe it. But for many scientists the description is bound to the visible or mathematical, and anything beyond that is hypothetical and irrelevant. If it cannot be reduced to either natural or mathematical description it cannot be manipulated, period.

So where does this leave art and imagination? Fantasy, phantasms of the mind, quirks of hallucinatory misjudgments and accidents of brain or neuronal biochemical interactions that lead to strange perceptions, etc.? Is the world but a perception machine and we are and will always be at the mercy of darkness and non-knowledge, mystery and the ineffable blankness of things. Or, will we live in this simplified scientific machine and artificial world of fact and facticity that is bound to the rules of logic, instrumental reason, and description of analytical precision or mathemes? As Zizek himself will ask:

The key philosophical problem today is this: is the transcendental dimension the ultimate horizon of our thinking? (97)

Will we be forever locked off from reality in Kant’s internalization of thought into brain function, representational schemas, etc. or is there another way out of the box of the correlational circle of thinking and being? Zizek being bound in his dialectical materialism to the whole gamut of the Idealists apparatus, the clunky use of the transcendental will see three options. First there is Fichte’s notions of radicalizing the transcendental itself (i.e., the deduction of the entire content, inclusive of empirical multiplicity, from the transcendental principle). Second is Schelling’s meta-transcendental genesis of the transcendental, that is, the move beyond the transcendental to the arche-transcendental, from late Schelling (with his notion of Ungrund, the self-withdrawing abyss out of which everything emerges as the pre-transcendental Real) up to Derrida, whose différance names the meta-transcendental conditions of the transcendental itself. (97) And, lastly, is the return to realism— which he describes as:

not primarily to a pre-critical realist ontology, but to a radical scientific program of naturalization that tries to account for the rise of the transcendental horizon itself out of the ontic evolutionary process. However, the vicious cycle between transcendental and empirical ontology remains unsurpassed in this version: scientific naturalization has to rely on an already given transcendental horizon. (97)

That last is exactly Scott Bakker’s “medial neglect,” which binds us to being enclosed in the horizon of consciousness itself without a way to escape it and know it from the outside in, etc. Or, Meillassoux’s correlationist’s circle, etc. The sciences by their very nature are bound to the Kantian dilemmas of instrumental reason and the transcendental horizon. Caput.

Which brings us back to the photographer’s dilemma which is almost the same of being circumscribed by technological enframing, using a camera and lens, film and paper, etc. to portray, disclose, express the given or excess aura beyond the given that cannot be reduced to the technological artifact of the photo itself. So how does the photographer get to that excess outside the frame, to the object that cannot be reduced to scientific manipulation (camera) or communication (photo)? How to present the aura trailing in the embers of the passing moment…

To be honest I do not have an answer, only more questions. But, of course, Zizek again thinks he’s found one in Hegel, saying,

The problem is that of the emergence of a “closed” self-relating system which has no outside: it cannot be explained from outside because its constitutive act is self-relating, i.e., the system fully emerges only once it starts to cause itself, to posit its own presuppositions in a closed loop. So it is not just that there was nothing and then all of a sudden the symbolic order is here— rather, that there was nothing and then, all of a sudden, it is as if the symbolic order was always already here, as if there was never a time without it. … The Hegelian wager is that one can account for such emergences: the dialectical reversal is precisely such an emergence of a new order without an outside. (98)

Now that’s a tongue twister if there ever was one: the notion that a new order arises because we cannot get out of the circle but can do it willy-nilly through the very act of dialectical reversal. Zizek at times seems more like a street magician with all the tricks in his favor, show me a card and I’ll show you the moon. If we can’t get out of the box then just reverse it. Reminds me of that series of movies about the Cube. A group of people wake up inside a giant rubric cube in which they must move from room to room and discover the exit, but the trick is to choose wisely for some rooms are safe while others are traps, deadly traps within which you will die from a myriad of deaths: lasers, knives, gas, heat, etc. It’s like trying to get to the outside through some logical illogic in which one is never sure if it is pure luck and chance or skill and knowledge that is the key. One is always already enclosed and encased in the labyrinth not knowing a way forward or back. So how do you reverse a system you do not know or understand? If you’re always on the inside and following the horizon then how do you know when you come to the limit since you do not know a completed circle or whole, but only the one’s own limited access to the system itself? How can one reverse something that is incomplete? It’s not like taking an automobile engine apart and putting it back together, reality isn’t something you can do that too. Ask a physicist sometime, what they have is mathematical theorems not reality – against which they test their theorems with instruments (i.e., Large Hadron Colliders) to see if the theorem and reality touch base or coincide at some point.

For Zizek it is ultimately antagonism and conflict that are the key to our exploration of the Real, because we cannot reconcile our languages — natural or mathematical with reality, because they are always partial elaborations bound and circumscribed by their history and time. And, yet, this need not bind it to a postmodern relativism either,  there is he tells us a way to “avoid relativism even while accepting that historical material is always organized into narratives that are partial and engaged: there is a conflict of narratives, and the Real is touched by this conflict that maintains the distance of the narratives from reality; the Real is inaccessible, and the Real is the very obstacle which makes it inaccessible— this is how the (narrative) form itself falls into its content”(103). So that the Real lies not in what is the same, in the transcendent hard core beyond our narratives, but in the gap between different narratives. Because this “gap between narrative forms brings out what is ur-verdraengt (primordially repressed) from / in the content” (105). It’s just here that Zizek and those other realisms like Harman’s OOO touch base. Zizek will tell us that the key consequence of the move from Kant to Hegel is the “gap between content and form is to be reflected back into the content itself,” as an indication that this content is not all, that something was repressed or excluded from it.(106) In Harman’s sense there is an excess in the object that can never be reduced to language, natural or mathematical; that the “real” object is always in excess of our descriptions of it. Where they touch base and differ is in this Freudian notion of “repressed or excluded” from language in Zizek, or in excess of analytical or scientific reductions or descriptions in Harman. So that the one philosopher psychologizes it (Zizek), while the other ontologizes it (Harman). Is there a difference, or is it in nuances and perceived differences. Both philosophers are philosophers of the “gap” of cracks in reality or the Real.

As Graham Harman would say in his recent book on H.P. Lovecraft Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosphy:

One of the most important decisions made by philosophers concerns the production or destruction of gaps in the cosmos. That is to say, the philosopher can either declare that what appears to be one is actually two, or that what seems to be two is actually one.3

Of Lovecraft Harman will say that no other writer is so perplexed by the gap between objects and the power of language to describe them, or between objects and the qualities they possess. Despite his apparently limited interest in philosophy, Lovecraft as a tacit philosopher is violently anti-idealist and anti-Humean. (KL 63) This notion that philosophers either have a bent to destroy, produce, —or, as in the case of Hume to both destroy and produce gaps between thinking and being comes as no surprise. As Zizek tells it since the parallel here runs between transcendental antinomy and— not reality, but— the Real: the distance from reality registers the Real, the Real that is the gap in reality, making it non-All. The “solution is thus not to reach into the In-Itself beyond the gap that separates the subject (subjective appearance) from it, but to perceive how this gap is itself In-Itself, how it is a feature of the Real” (106). But what does this mean?

For Zizek following Lacan we should go a step further beyond the ontological break between language and the living body and ask: how must the real be structured so that that break can emerge within it? In other words, language colonizing the living body from without cannot be the last word since, in some sense, language itself has to be part of the real. How to think this belonging outside the naturalization of language? There is only one consistent answer: by de-naturalizing nature itself.(107) [my italics] In this way the emergence of the gap comes by way of reversal says Zizek in his Heglian dialectical materialism: what at first appears as an impotence or limitation in our knowledge, as the impossibility of our grasping the wealth of natural phenomena conceptually, is turned into an impotence in nature itself. And, indeed, do we not find exactly the same constellation in quantum physics, where indeterminacy (complementarity) points towards a “weakness of nature,” in its inability to fully determine itself? (pp. 108-109)

So the impotence in our ability to describe natural phenomenon is not due to something inherently wrong with our language or mathemes, but rather the impotence and weakness lies directly in the very nature of natural phenomenon’s inability to fully determine itself. A strange reversal, indeed! So that for Zizek Hegelian approach to the transcendental tells us that the a priori ontological frame is irreducible, it can never be inscribed back into reality as an ontic occurrence, since every such occurrence already appears within some transcendental frame. Hegel’s way of overcoming the transcendental approach is to introduce a dialectical mediation between the form/ frame and its content: the content is in itself “weak,” inconsistent, barred, ontologically not fully constituted, and the form fills in this gap, the void of that which is “primordially repressed” from the content. This is why the form is not primarily metonymic with regard to its content: it does not express or mirror it, but fills in its gaps.(109) Which brings us to our last quote:

Furthermore, since every relation between a frame and its content is necessarily disturbed, there is a need for a supplementary element which will “suture” the entire field. In this element (baptized by Lacan the objet a), opposites immediately coincide, i.e., its status is radically amphibolous: it is simultaneously a particular idiosyncratic object which disturbs the frame of reality (the birds in Hitchcock’s The Birds, say) and the frame itself through which we perceive reality (the birds provide the focal point from or through which we read the story). This coincidence of opposites demonstrates Lacan’s move beyond transcendental formalism: the fantasy frame is never just a formal frame, it coincides with an object that is constitutively subtracted from reality— or, as Derrida put it, the frame itself is always enframed by a part of its content, by an object that falls within the frame. (109)

So this brings us finally back to our photographer and that strange object that falls back into the frame of the camera lens and shot he is taking that is always “enframed by a part of its content, by an object that falls within the frame”. It’s those gaps and cracks in the picture or photo, the thing in the frame that disturbs us, awakens us, draws us out of our normal vision and into that radically amphibolous moment of syntactic ambiguity that both delights and horrifies, fascinates and repels us that gives us that frisson of difference we seek in the aura of the passing moment of the slice that is the shot. This petit object a that is both in excess of and the thing repressed and uncannily returned to us out of the void of the Real that disturbs us and awakens that desire of fascinating appeal that is photography.

  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 93-94). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
  2. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books 2007, p. 254.
  3. Graham Harman. Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (Kindle Locations 41-43). (Zero Books 2012)

©2016 S.C. HickmanUnauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

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