We met Eduardo Cadava on the occasion of his seminar “Genealogies of memory and perception literature and photography” which started February 27 at the University of Athens and we talked about photography and its relation with literature, philosophy, history, politics and technology, about Benjamin and Emerson.
This is the second part of the interview.
IL: In regard to your book, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History, and the obvious pun between the title and the text of Walter Benjamin, do you believe that the book suggests, after all, a clear link between the first theoretical approaches of the beginning of the twentieth century, the work of Benjamin himself, and the dialogue around photography today. Is there a relation, for example, between Benjamin’s theses on the relationship between photography and history to the contemporary development of new reproductive technologies, especially new digital technologies? What do you think is the most important point that your book offers to the contemporary theoretical discussion?
EC: It’s true that the subtitle to my book, Theses on the Photography of History, encrypts an allusion to Benjamin’s “Theses on the Concept of History.” Reproducing the title even as it alters it, I substitute the word photography for the word concept and, in so doing, hope to evoke what Benjamin understands as the technical dimension of thought. Bringing together a thinking of history and a thinking of photography, I hoped to suggest an irreducible link between thought as memory and the technical dimension of memorization, that is, the techniques of material inscription. In other words, photography is a question not only of historiography, of the history of the concept of memory, but also of the history of the formation of concepts in general. What is at stake here are the questions of artificial memory and of the modern forms of archivization, which today affect, with a speed and dimension that have no common measure with those of the past, every aspect of our relation to the world. The phrase obliges us to rethink what links these processes of technological reproduction to our so-called psychical and interior memory. The extent to which memory and thought can be said to belong to the possibility of repetition, reproduction, citation, and inscription determines their relation to photography. Like the camera that seeks to fix a moment of history, thought wishes to bring history within the grasp of a concept (we might recall that the word Begriff, concept, comes from begreifen, to conceive, to grasp). That photographic technology belongs to the physiognomy of historical thought means that there can be no thinking of history that is not at the same time a thinking of photography.
Having said this, as new technologies—video, digital and computer imaging, thermographic image techniques, medical imaging, and so forth—increasingly seem to replace the medium of photographic film (with its indexical dimensions of temporality and contingency), we might think, as many already have, that Benjamin’s reflections on photography, film, and media culture are becoming obsolete. This would seem to be in keeping with the growing sense that photography itself has now become a thing of the past, that, in our present era of global media networks and ever more expansive visual technologies, the revolutionary tasks Benjamin imagined for film and photography have been diluted. In response to this sense—and I know that many may disagree with me (especially those who always rush to embrace the “new”)—I would say that Benjamin’s meditations on the relations between photography and history not only comprehend, anticipate, and account for the recent developments in reproductive technologies, but that they are perhaps more urgent and pertinent today than ever before. Indeed, placing the question of the image at the heart of all his analyses, Benjamin insists that politics and history can no longer be thought as prior to the technical media, that historical and political events have to be understood in relation to issues of representation and reproduction, and that reproductive technologies, promising to bring things “closer” to us, simultaneously lead us both toward and away from history. That there is no event today that is not touched by reproductive technologies—and we should remember that language itself is always one of these technologies—is at least one measure of the importance of this insistence, and also of the endurance and relevance of Benjamin’s thought.
This is not to say that there are not differences between the so-called “new” technologies and those that were available during Benjamin’s lifetime (indeed, as he tells us in his essay on Fuchs, each age has its own specific techniques of reproduction, which “represent the prevailing possibilities for technological development” and are “a result of the specific requirements of the time”), but rather that these “new” technologies—with all their consequences for contemporary reflections on subjectivity, perception, memory, archivization, politics, and history—are to be understood within the horizon of Benjamin’s thought, and this even though the historico-political contexts within which we find ourselves at the beginning of the twenty-first century is different from the configuration of forces within and against which Benjamin wrote in the 1930s. In other words—and this is an argument I have tried to make elsewhere—if these contemporary modes of reproduction suggest something new, this something new is not a “first time” in history. They point instead to the intense acceleration of a movement that has always already been at work within the history of reproduction technologies, an acceleration that belongs to the processes whereby techniques of reproduction increasingly can be said to influence and determine nearly every moment of our life, and of our relation to the world.
This means, however, that we need to be as clear as possible in our efforts to delineate the conditions of the presumed transition from photography and photo-based media to the new regimes of virtual and digital images. I want to say right away that, for me—despite the repeated announcements that the advent of video, computer graphics, and digitalization have sounded photography’s death knell—these new imaging processes in fact demand that we try to understand the transformations in the meaning and value of the photographic images that result from these new technologies. These transformations may point to a change in how we understand photography’s place within contemporary culture—its privilege or lack of privilege in relation to other image technologies—but I would argue that they already belong to what makes photography what it is. In other words, while it might be said that the specificity and use of film and paper-based photography may be changing, the very profound philosophical questions raised by such photography—the relation between original and reproduction, memory and archivization, identity and difference, relation and representation, photography and death, and so on—are still with us today.
And here I would like to insist on several points: 1) to announce the death of photography—the overcoming of photography—is to minimize the fact that death and photography have been irreducibly linked since the medium’s earliest beginnings (a point that has been made repeatedly throughout the history of photography: by Nadar, Baudelaire, Proust, Kafka, Benjamin, Kracauer, Barthes, Derrida, and, more recently, Krauss and Batchen, to name only a few). This is to say that the so-called “death of photography” already belongs to the history of photography (this means that it is perhaps only with the death of the death of photography—the death of the death that belongs to photography, and from which photography takes its point of departure—that the overcoming of photography could be imagined, although even here we should remember that photography is as much about survival as it is about death). Situating the claim of the death of photography within the history of photography helps us question it, helps us suggest that, since death always has been a part of what makes photography photography, the death of photography really names nothing else than photography’s continued survival; 2) in this regard, I would say the same thing about the transformations that are said to be taking place with the advent of digitization and digital imaging. The manipulations and transformations of images that we associate with digitization were always possible with traditional photography—even if they took place with a different rhythm and speed (or, as Benjamin would have it, with a different acceleration). In other words, the transformations that are supposed to signal photography’s death also can be shown to belong to photography’s history. We need only remember that the production of every photograph involves some degree of manipulation (minimally, the manipulation of light, exposure times, tonal differences, and so on). Transforming the world into photographs, photographers create their images. This is why photographs are no more or less faithful in their reproductions than digital images are; 3) if neither the so-called death of photography nor the supposed transformations of photography have resulted in its “death,” it is because the history of photography has never been a single, linear history, and also because photography itself has never been a single technology. As Batchen has demonstrated, its very history has been defined by “numerous, competing instances of technological innovation and obsolescence,” and this without any threat to its survival. Indeed, it is because, as he puts it, “a change in imaging technology” can never alone “cause the disappearance of the photograph” that contemporary debates over the relation between photography and the new reproductive technologies must remain as concerned with photography’s past and present as they are about its future.
Taken together, these three points suggest why Benjamin’s meditations on the issues of memorization, archivization, perception, reproduction, technology, death, the relation between the past and the present, and the experience of mourning—issues that he associates with the event of photography—may remain a model for us as we seek to understand the various ways in which photography’s very obsolescence (an obsolescence that, as I am suggesting, belongs to its very beginnings) can still offer us revolutionary promises. I think that one of the most important contributions of my book is its demonstration of the extent to which Benjamin remains one of our most significant resources for thinking about the production and reproduction of images in our contemporary world.
IL: How do you understand Benjamin’s stance on the relationship between technology and politics? In other words, if technology registers the moment of danger or if technology itself is (politically speaking) the moment of danger, how can we accept and think technology? How can we live in a technological world and still resist the political (reactionary) effects of technology, such as those of globalization, for example?
EC: Since I have sought to engage these questions elsewhere, and in several different contexts, I will try to formalize an answer here as briefly as possible, even though it is true that this brevity, this speed, and this mode of summary themselves belong to, and often reinforce the dangers you mention—especially in relation to the various technologies that today, devoted to the rapid transmission of information, so easily serve the interests of globalization, capitalism, militarization, surveillance, and social discipline. With this caution in mind, however, the first thing to say is that, for Benjamin, there is nothing that is not touched by technology—nothing that is beyond or outside it. This means that there can be no thought of the political in his work—no thought of what political praxis might be—that is not also a thought of technology (of its effects, its dominance, its relation to every aspect of our existence), and that does not pass through technology in order to resist it. If the incursion of technology into our everyday existence defines what Ernst Jünger calls “a space of absolute danger” (and here we should remember that technology for Benjamin includes not only technology as we generally understand it but also all the various techniques of language, memory, and perception with which we seek to order the world), it is because the ubiquity of technology has become the measure of our “humanity,” the medium of a process of technologization, homogenization, commodification, and violence that threatens to erase, among other things, the singularity and effectivity of political action. This is why, in his theses on history, Benjamin specifies the moment of danger as the moment when the oppressed classes sense that a “conformism” is about to overpower them—when they run the risk, that is, of becoming an instrument of their oppressors.
This risk of “conformism” attains its momentum from a politico-economic hegemony that—with unprecedented forms and speeds, and with the support of several discursive, and often transnational modes of persuasion and domination—increasingly gains its force through techno-mediatic means. These media technologies, mobilized in conflictual and highly differentiated contexts, shape and threaten all the forms of democracy that today seem so fragile and contradictory. This is why so much recent critical work (including that of Derrida, Avital Ronell, Samuel Weber, Bernard Stiegler, and Jean-Luc Nancy), often taking its point of departure from Benjamin’s reflections on the relations between technology and politics, has insisted that politics can only be thought in terms of the media without which it could never take place—has even insisted that we must, beginning from these media, seek to think (or invent) an opening to an other history or politics, perhaps a space for a democracy that is still to come. We just need to recall the media spectacles of the “Gulf War” or the current “war on terrorism” to register what Benjamin understood as the danger of aestheticizing politics, to witness the differential mobilization of tele-technologies in the name of this or that political position (none of which is ever simply “one”). That the same tele-technologies can be used to support or challenge different political agendas means that we live—perhaps more than ever, given the virtualization of space and time these technologies imply—in a world in which we can no longer distinguish identities and events from their representation, bodies and psyches from apparatuses, actuality from its simulacra, life from death, “real” time from “recorded” time, privacy from public space, and democracy from its several others. This means that the political consequences of these tele-technologies cannot be analyzed or challenged without taking into account an entire network of what Derrida has called “spectral effects”—including the new speeds according to which simulacra of all sorts appear (prosthetic images, virtual events, and so forth), the ghostly effects of cyberspace and new modes of surveillance, and the structures of hauntedness that support strategies of control, manipulation, and discipline of all kinds (military, penal, medical, economic, educational, etc.).
This is why Benjamin’s analyses of the mediatic phantasmagoria that supported National Socialism remain significant here (provided that we avoid facile parallels, and that we transform and adapt these phantasmagoria in relation to the new forms, speeds, and effects of today’s media technologies). In both instances, what is at stake is the possibility of diagnosing the ways in which politics and technology are joined together by apparatuses that—no matter how complex and differentiated they may be—reinforce each other at every moment in order to establish, strengthen, and maintain a particular political hegemony. As Benjamin suggests in his artwork essay, this process of reinforcement takes place through what we call (still, and perhaps too easily) “the media”—understood in its broadest, most inclusive, and most pervasive sense. Indeed, it is because of this pervasiveness—because the political effects of the technical media are becoming worldwide—that some measure of complicity with the most dangerous of these effects is always possible, if not inevitable, no matter what we might try to do. If we are to lessen the chances that we will simply repeat and reinforce the worst elements of the mediatic apparatuses whose effects we wish to change, then, we must try to understand the history and genealogy of these media—how they emerged, how they have been used, how they might be turned, here and there, toward revolutionary rather than reactionary ends. If this history is not taken into account, we run the risk of aligning ourselves, without our knowing it, with the very politico-technological consequences we seek to oppose. This is why so many of Benjamin’s efforts are directed toward exposing the conflictual genealogies of techno-mediatic modes of reproduction and, in particular, toward the interruption of the values that support such reproduction: among so many others, presence, transmission, progress, calculability, and, perhaps most importantly, instrumentality. We might even say that, especially in regard to the latter (which he associates with technical, bourgeois subjectivity), Benjamin seeks at every moment to call forth and enact a non-instrumental, performative conception of language and the media—to set in motion, that is, a series of concepts that would be useless to the mediations of the media (in the same way that, in his artwork essay, he seeks to mobilize a series of concepts that could remain useless to fascism). This is why his obsession with technologies that are in the process of emerging or becoming obsolescent remains a permanent feature of his writings. It is there, in the transitional moment between the life and death of a technical medium, that he discovers the revolutionary chance of historico-political transformation.
If this transformation can never be programmed or guaranteed, however, it is because, at every moment, we must use a mediatic technics against the technics of the media: it is because, in other words, we always risk reinforcing—being appropriated by—the very techno-mediatic apparatuses and effects we want to change. This appropriation can happen because, as Benjamin so often reminds us, repetition belongs to the conditions of all possible futures. If this risk cannot be avoided, then, it is because it belongs to the possibility of transformation in general. This is why, given that we can never entirely escape the realm of technology (that we must even “use” it to resist it), our political responsibility cannot lie in the denial of our complicity with technology, in the claim that our thoughts or actions are untouched by it. It must instead begin in our acknowledgment of this complicity: in our effort to measure, under the shadow of this complicity, the extent to which a particular media technics remains linked to what it seeks to question—and then to respond accordingly. It is because everything is touched by the technical media that we must make several complex gestures to signal that, despite this contact or complicity, we are acting in this way because we believe this action is in this instance more likely than another one to accomplish what we want—to interrupt the identities, calculability, instrumentality, and modes of transmission without which technics could never secure its future. These gestures should not be understood as pragmatic resolutions to given situations (or much less to the fact that it is perhaps in the questions concerning technology and the media that the most decisive confrontations over our future are taking place). They are strategic evaluations which, in the face of uncertainty, nevertheless attempt to respond to the contradictory and invasive system we seek to unsettle at any given moment. This means that our most urgent and serious responsibility is perhaps that of trying to evaluate which is the least dangerous of these forms of complicity—and to do so even as we know that this effort can never escape the danger we seek to overcome. It is because whatever we do will remain insufficient that we remain in danger: there would in fact be no danger if it were not able to persist, to remain, and to haunt our every move. Perhaps danger is even what grants us our right to politics and political action.
IL: Where do you think that the theoretical discussion in regard to photography today is concentrated in an international level?
EC: In reviewing the history of photography, the only thing we can say with any kind of clarity is that a photograph has never been a single thing, has never had a consistent form, has never remained identical to itself. Instead it has continually been altered, transformed, and circulated and is by definition itinerant. We might even say, following Benjamin, that the photographic image comes into being only as a consequence of reproduction, displacement, and itinerancy. I think that some of the most interesting questions for us today have to do with what I have elsewhere called “the itinerant languages of photography” and how they operate in international and global networks of collaboration and exchange. By “itinerant languages” I refer to the various means whereby photographs speak and move across historical periods, national borders, and different media. While photographs have been exchanged, appropriated, and mobilized in different contexts since the second half of the nineteenth century, such movement is now occurring at an unprecedented speed, especially given the new technological and political configurations that now facilitate this movement. We could even say that such movement belongs to the signature of our modernity. Despite the many ominous predictions of photography’s imminent and irreversible disappearance, we all have become homines photographici— obsessive archivists taking and storing hundreds and thousands of images, exchanging photographs across borders with other equally frenzied, spontaneous archivists around the globe. From this perspective, the ubiquity and mass circulation of images that characterize the present are the latest manifestation of an itinerant condition that has belonged to photography from its beginnings.
Indeed, as a practice and as an ever-expanding archive, photography resists being fixed in a single location. While it travels around the globe, it constantly redefines itself whenever it is re-contextualized and reread. This is why we must learn how to trace the movement of photographs as physical artifacts, as means of communication, as disembodied images and, indeed, to begin to develop a visual and linguistic lexicon for understanding and speaking about their migratory character. This is why I believe that some of the more urgent issues within the field of photography today include tracing: i) the means and effects of the circulation and exchange of images beyond cultural, social, ethnic, and national borders; ii) the dialogue between photography and other media such as literature, cinema, theater, and art in an international context; and iii) the relationship between photography and the archive in relation to memory, history, justice, and photographic poetics (in regard to this latter issue, the mobilization of images drawn from the visual aesthetics and archive of the Holocaust in discussions of human rights in Latin America is just one example of the re-appropriation and re-contextualization of images we could consider here). I will just say a few words about some of the considerations that emerge within each of these three issues, and in relation to the movement across international zones:
i) Photography’s historical association with travel is entirely relevant to its itinerant condition. Not only was the invention of photography a leap in the evolution of types of image-making long associated with traveling, but also its mode of production facilitated the flow and mass consumption of images by lowering their price and multiplying their number exponentially. If the proliferation and traffic of representations achieved a spectacular global magnitude under capitalism, photography’s contribution to the elaboration of this image-economy was crucial. Nineteenth-century photographs functioned as a type of currency that brought subjects into a global network of valuation and desire. As we know, traveling photographers, with different aesthetic and political agendas, have helped define the visual iconography of whole regions, continents, societies, and cultures, and their pictures continue to intervene in international debates on human rights, development, and ecology (the high visibility and wide circulation of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado’s work on displaced peoples and exploited workers from all over the globe immediately comes to mind here). There are of course images that are produced in order to be circulated, beginning with the invention of postcards in the context of national and international tourism and the economic and symbolic transactions associated with it and continuing all the way to the radical transformations in image production and exchange that have emerged in the aftermath of new electronic and technological developments such as the FAX, the internet, Facebook, cell phones, and so forth.
ii) Since 1839, when the invention of the daguerreotype was made public, photography established itself in dialogue, in relation and in opposition to other media, borrowing, adapting, and incorporating traits of these media, but also questioning the logics of representation put forward by them. At the same time that it struggled to distinguish itself from painting, for example, it continued to share many of its compositional rules and generic conventions. Confronted with the ubiquity of photographs, nineteenth-century modern writers were both fascinated and unsettled by their realism and democratic appeal, devoting many pages to their interpretation and valuation. Taking as a starting point the contemporary debates on inter-media, or the post-medium era—debates that seek to describe the crossing the borders between traditional media and contemporary media—it is critical to consider the question of the itinerant languages of photography, of the various ways in which photography approaches, engages, and intermingles with literature, cinema, theater, art, architecture, and hypermedia, paying particular attention to the developments and technological changes that have taken place in the last fifty years. I would suggest that, when different types of images and languages are correlated and merged with each other on the borders of photography, the interrelationships of the distinct elements cause a shift in the nature of the image itself and this is why we increasingly need modes of understanding and analyzing how the emergence and spread of new technological forms of communication have rearticulated and transformed the production, circulation, and de-codification of photographic images at large.
iii) Finally, the questions of the archival uses of photography, and of the photographic uses of the archive as a contradictory system that holds and stores information in place, even as it is always in the process of re-arranging itself (as more materials are added, or as they are reorganized or reconfigured), seem to me increasingly important issues. As Marcel Duchamp so wonderfully put it in his work “La boîte-en-valise,” the portable authorial museum that he carried in a suitcase, the content of the archive is always on the move. In this way, the archive always is caught in a kind of double bind: it is simultaneously defined as an inert, rational repertoire of historical artifacts and as an active, delirious machine, a Borgesian labyrinth. From its inception, the photograph has been understood to be an archival record. The camera’s capacity to link its act of mechanical inscription to the allegedly indisputable fact of its subject’s existence constitutes the basis of our understanding of photography as a mode of representation. The capacity for accurate description and the ability to establish distinct relations of time and space have come to define the terms of archival production. Because the camera is literally an archival machine, every photograph is a priori an archival object. Since Kodak enabled commercial processing, photography has not only generated endless streams of realistic reproductions, but it also has encouraged a feverish pace of pictorial generation and archival accumulation, no less ambitious than the massive archival structures put together by the state and its disciplinary apparatuses. The role of the photographic archive as an aspect of public memory has retained its power over a wide range of artists and intellectuals, who continue to deploy archival images of media as documentary responses to historical events, and especially traumatic ones.
In this context, I would suggest that it is important today to explore and study the archival uses of photography as a means of producing a legal, historical, or anthropological record, and the photographic uses of the archive as a principle of organization, paying particular attention to those articulations that stress the archive’s unstable economy of production, exchange, and transmission of images. We should be interested in the conspicuous use of archival photographic materials among artists, photographers, writers, and activists preoccupied with issues of human rights violations, ethnic genocide, or social injustice, for whom the photographic record represents both the physical trace of a forced absence, the building stone of a collective monument, the sign of mnemonic ambivalence, and the fragility of memory. Argentine photographer Marcelo Brodsky’s art of memory represents perhaps one of the most extensive articulations of this epistemic and political tension and we could think about how, as a Jewish activist, he has drawn from the discourses and archival images of the Holocaust in order to memorialize the disappeared in Argentina. Of particular interest here might be his collaborations with the German memorial artist, Horst Hoheisel, who, in turn, also has worked on memory projects in Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. Even though Hoheisel has warned that it is not possible to “instrumentalize the formula for every mass-murder in the world,” it is important to measure the role and place of photography in these projects, and the itinerancy that permits it to draw and erase relations between traumatic historical events in Latin America and elsewhere. The use of photography in controversial state-sponsored projects of collective and/or historical memory in Argentina, Chile, Perú, and Spain, among others, are good examples of the same trend, even if in these instances the photograph is sometimes put to different use. In each instance, what will be of utmost importance is to investigate the shifting role of photography within these mnemonic and archival projects.
In what way have the advent of such technological developments as the Xerox, the fax, and the internet accelerated and complicated the exchanges of images? Does the crossing of borders that we have come to associate with globalization have its analogue in the movement and translation of photographs from one context to another? These questions are perhaps more important than ever given the centrality of images within our everyday life and, if these transformations point to a change in how we understand photography’s place within contemporary culture—its privilege or lack of privilege in relation to other, newer image technologies—I would argue that they already belong to what makes photography what it is. Indeed, I would suggest that the photograph’s mobility extends to the concept of photography and to the word itself. Given the way in which photography—the word and the concept—condenses and encrypts a series of associations that confirm its relations to other terms, mediums, and even fields, I would even say that photography’s condition of possibility can only be the impossibility of its ever having a fixed semantic content. This is why there are languages of photography and why they must be itinerant. This attention to the different modes of itinerancy that have characterized the history of photography enables a more compelling, active, transnational lens through which to understand not only the effects of the speed of globalization on contemporary techniques of vision but also the various ways in which the itinerancies already in motion from the beginnings of photography have remained with us today, even if transformed into different and new forms.
The first part of the interview here.
The third part of the interview here.
*κεντρική φωτο: Πάνος Κουφός