“The possibility of altering and transforming the relations in which we live: this is what compels me to read and to write…” 

—  Eduardo Cadava

We met Eduardo Cadava on the occasion of his seminar “Genealogies of memory and perception literature and photography” which starts 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. The interview will be published in three parts.

Βρεθήκαμε και συζητήσαμε με τον Eduardo Cadava, καθηγητή του Princeton University, με αφορμή το σεμινάριο στο οποίο θα διδάξει από τις 27.2.2018 έως τις 12.6.2018, με τίτλο “Genealogies of memory and perception literature and photography” για το Πρόγραμμα Μεταπτυχιακών Σπουδών Πολιτικής Επιστήμης & Κοινωνιολογίας του Ε.Κ.Π.Α.

Holland House Library, September 1940

IL: To begin with, how would you introduce and describe your work, your theoretical efforts, and your political investments to a Greek audience?

EC: This is a difficult question, and not the least part of this difficulty is my inability to imagine with any certainty what you refer to as “a Greek audience.” How can I conceive the image and the interests of this audience? How can I select in advance, and in relation to my work, what it might find, interpret, accept, or refuse? In general, I would say, I can never know to whom my work is addressed (this is why, for example, Walter Benjamin states that it is never fruitful to think about the receiver of a work, or of a set of works). It’s true that I may have some general sense of this audience, certain anticipations and expectations, but, in the long run—like anyone who writes or speaks—I cannot be assured of any single or particular destination for my work. I would even say that this lack of assurance, this uncertainty about who my readers are, is part of what moves me to write. In other words, although it is the case that I may seek to address readers who I presume will be able to follow me, to recognize and respond to what I say, that I may even seek to discover or invent these readers, I can never know that this community exists or that it can ever be found. I would say instead that it is always to come, and that it can only come, if it comes at all, when this community of readers (Greek or otherwise) determines itself in a series of heterogeneous and always differentiated acts of reading—which means as a readership that could never be homogeneous, either in its constitution or in its responses.

Having begun with this small caution, however—a caution that is inseparable from the modesty that prevents me from presuming that I could ever know how this audience would be composed, or that my work could matter for it (a caution and modesty that perhaps already can begin to suggest some of the protocols that inform my work)—I am grateful for the opportunity to suggest at least a few of the theoretical, political, and ethical investments around which, during the last twenty years or so, much of this work has been organized. I can only hope that some of the readers to whom you refer may find that this work resonates with their work, their loves, their lives, their political struggles.

I might begin by stating that my work increasingly has touched on materials drawn from several national literatures and traditions (among others, American, English, German, French, Spanish, Greek, and Arabic), several disciplines (literature, philosophy, photography, art, music, history, politics, economics, religion, law, media, architecture, meteorology, geology, and the natural sciences in general), and several genres of writing (essays, political speeches, historical and legal documents, scientific treatises, poetry, novels, and so on). If I have sought to do several things at once and in several ways at once, it is because I believe that nothing ever happens in isolation, that nothing is ever done alone (and this includes even my work, which has benefited from all the writers, friends, and colleagues whose thoughts and work have countersigned mine). This is why much of my work seeks to understand the nature of relation—for example, that between texts, between literature and philosophy, history, politics, economics, or technology, between the self and others, between different communities or nations, between language and the domains of history and politics, and among the past, the present, and the future. In each instance, I am interested in tracing the relations that prevent the assertion of an identity—of a subject, a community, a nation, a state, a discipline, a race or ethnicity, a technology, a moment in time, and so forth—that would be identical to itself, that would refuse its relation to others. This insistence on relation belongs, therefore, to an ethico-political project that begins in the presupposition that we are always in advance related to others. This project seeks to rethink the axiomatics that support claims for the agency and responsibilities of subjects without reference to the relations in terms of which these subjects are constituted in the first place—whether they are conceived as individual, collective, or national—not in order to make ethical and political statements or actions impossible, but, on the contrary, to facilitate a path for their very future. I would even say that there can be no ethics or politics that does not begin with this sense and question of relation.

To put it differently: I am interested in the contradictions and paradoxes that inform some of the most cherished concepts in the name of which we so often act in the world—identity, difference, humanity, nationality, democracy, freedom, ethics, responsibility, life, death, and memory—contradictions and paradoxes that emerge when we take relation into account. To give a brief example: if we believe that we are who we are because of our relations to others—something I suspect few would disagree with—at the same time, we must acknowledge that it is precisely because of our relations to others that we are never simply ourselves. This means, in this instance, that relations both enable and prevent the assertion of our identity. I would suggest that this contradictory structure can be generalized, and shown to inhabit every dimension of our thought, our history, and our lives. It helps us explain, in different contexts, and among so many other things, why we are never simply human, why democracy is never simply democratic, why nations can never (without violence, that is) claim to have an independent existence, why memory is always touched by forgetfulness, why the past, the present, and the future can never be thought in isolation from one another, why language and mourning play such an essential role in our everyday historical and political existence.

It is because the concepts we use to speak of the aims of our historical and political existence can take on different meanings according to the contexts within which they are mobilized—we all know that many terrible, violent, and murderous things have been done (and are being done today still) in the name of democracy, freedom, rights, humanity, and community—that much of my work, perhaps even all of my work, could be described as an effort to analyze, read, and measure the rhetoric and language without which political acts, gestures, and formations would never take place. This emphasis on language is not meant to suggest that historical and political acts, events, or realities are only words, that they are reducible to language, but rather that they would not have an existence without words and language, without the words and language that have helped them take place.

In my work on Benjamin, for example, I trace his analysis of the ways in which the National Socialist regime mobilized the rhetoric and values of art, aura, originality, creativity, technology, death, and war in order to articulate a sense of national identity and thereby establish and extend its control over several populations. In my work on Emerson, I suggest the ways in which the rhetoric of democratic freedom, citizenship, manifest destiny, and racial difference often helped justify American slavery, violence, inequality, economic oppression, and colonialist and racist exclusions. Indeed, whether I am writing on Benjamin, Emerson, Celan, Kafka, or any of the other writers whose work, at different times and in different contexts, has drawn my attention, in each instance I try to measure the ways in which their engagement with the changing historical and political relations that form the context of their work takes place in the movement of their language. If these writers often seek to revise the language they inherit, it is because they believe that, in changing language, they can perhaps change much more than language: they can perhaps change the relations in which we live. This is why their language—and mine—so often seeks to perform its historical and political work through the mobilization of figures whose movement and multiple significations refer to both the linguistic past within them and the unpredictability of a future that could alter, and thereby create, the meaning and promise of our historical existence.

The possibility of altering and transforming the relations in which we live: this is what compels me to read and to write. Within the context of an interview, however, it is impossible to delineate the contours and trajectories of my work with anything but the broadest strokes. I would like to give even more specific examples, to speak in detail about my recent work on the relation between mourning and nationalism (work that—focusing on the role and place of loss, death, mourning, and war in the constitution and de-constitution of national identity—perhaps could find meaningful resonances within the political history of Greece), and on the relation between music and techniques of reproduction, memorization, and writing. But I think I already have gone on for too long here and perhaps we can return to these topics either later in the interview or in another context.

Joan Fontcuberta, Semiopolis, L’Aleph, 2000

IL: Even though you come from the field of literature—at least in terms of your early training and your primary object of study— your relation with photography is quite important and close. Could you talk to us briefly about the relation with photography, as well as how it began?

EC: It’s true that I studied literature before developing an interest in photography, but I believe that, at a certain point, the interests coincided with one another and ever since then I have viewed literature and photography as a kind of couple, with neither one being able to be thought without the other one. My first real step in the direction of photography, however, was in the early 90s, when I was invited to speak on a panel on the topic of “Ghost Reading in the Age of Technological Reproducibility” at the annual International Association for Philosophy and Literature meeting in Irvine, California, where I had done my graduate work. I had read Walter Benjamin’s 1931 essay, “A Little History of Photography” and, returning to it then, I delivered a talk on the photograph as a kind of afterlife structure, as a ghostly residue of its subjects and objects. The talk was well-received and, after continuing my work on Benjamin during the next few years, I then decided to write a book on Benjamin’s relation to photography and, in particular, on his use of the language of photography in his discussions of history and politics. While I was of course interested in photography as a technology, I was more compelled by the philosophical questions that the medium raised for me: questions about the nature of subjectivity, memory, perception, reproduction, and mourning. In other words, photography became a lever through which I could open up a series of questions that mattered to me and that also had touched my earlier work in literature.

Here I would even say that my first two books—my book on the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson and the Climates of History, and my book on Benjamin, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History—stage this relation between literature and photography in a particularly revealing way. I suspect that there are many who wonder what Benjamin and Emerson could have to do with one another: they wrote in different centuries, different countries, and in different historico-political contexts. In addition, even in relation to my own intellectual trajectory, each book would seem to belong to a completely other history, especially since the books present themselves in different modalities: in different tones, rhythms, and even with different vocabularies and modes of address. The truth is, however, that, even though I began the Emerson book several years before I started the Benjamin book, I finished both of them within two months of each other. This means that, for longer than three years, I worked on both books simultaneously. It should not be surprising, then, that “something” persists and is recognizable from one book to the other and I would even say that they embody my joint interests in literature and photography. Indeed, while the two books could be said to cover materials from different areas of specialization and even different national literatures, they both reflect my ongoing interests in the relations between literature and history, language and politics, and memory and mourning. I might even go so far as to say that, in the long run, the books are less about Benjamin and Emerson (although of course they are this, too) than about my own desire—to think about what it means to read historically, the conditions of revolutionary and political action, and the ways in which history and politics are enacted and altered by language and images.

To emphasize my own interests here is not, however, to diminish the very real relays between Benjamin’s and Emerson’s writings. There are several, but here I will refer only to the most legible ones: 1) they both write at the level of sentences, which is simply to say that their writings are aphoristic (this is why, especially in relation to Emerson, so many critics point to their quotability); and this stylistic similarity is also a theoretico-political one, since the aphoristic quality of their writing is meant to interrupt the flow of writing and thereby to mark a kind of unpredictability in the movement of language, temporality, and history; 2) their writing is extremely citational (they both practice, that is, what Benjamin referred to as “the art of citation without citation marks”), and this citationality becomes a means of enacting the relation between the past and the present, of suggesting that we must always pass through our inheritance in order to invent our future, and of marking the gesture whereby both writers seek to evoke and revise the language they inherit as a political one; 3) they both think the questions of history, politics, religion, capital, and experience in terms of questions of language, writing, and mourning; and 4) they both seek to perform and enact, in the very movement of their language, what they wish to convey to us—about memory, history, political action, ethical responsibility, and all the other motifs that circulate throughout their work.

In order to move more directly to my attraction to these two writers, though, let me say that, in seeking to draw out Benjamin’s and Emerson’s respective conceptions of history, I tried to delineate what I would call the historical and rhetorical “physiognomy” of each writer’s language. In Emerson, for example, I wanted to account for why he so often had recourse to the language of the weather in his writings on history and, in Benjamin, I wanted to understand why he repeatedly used the language of photography to think about history. Believing that both writers confirmed and enacted their conception of history through the figures with which they chose to represent it, I traced the way in which Emerson’s climatic and meteorological metaphors suggest what, for him, is the always changing, vanishing, and unpredictable nature of history, and the way in which Benjamin’s photographic figures—with their connotations of arrest and interruption—indicate what, for him, is the caesura of the historical event, the separation and discontinuity from which history emerges. Even though these metaphors would seem to offer different conceptions of history—Emerson’s weather metaphors emphasizing movement and transition, and Benjamin’s photographic figures fixity and arrest—I would suggest that they are different ways of describing and enacting a similar temporal and historical structure. To be more precise, when Benjamin states that “the task of historical materialism is to set in motion an experience with history original to every new present,” he refers to a historical movement that, interrupting and shattering the continuum of history, belongs to a movement of perpetual transition, metamorphosis, and transformation—he refers, in other words, to the constant alteration that also characterizes the climates of Emerson’s conception of history. That history is always in transit—and according to a movement that is neither continuous nor linear—means that history is something to which we can never be present. This is why, for both Benjamin and Emerson, to write history is never to represent a past or present presence—or, as Benjamin would put it, “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘as it really was.’” It is rather to trace the transitive movement that, belonging to what we call the past or the present, prevents either one from ever being present to itself, and thereby makes history, in Emerson’s words, “a vanishing allegory.”

I would like to close my remarks here by returning to the last of the four relays I mentioned between Benjamin and Emerson: the fact that both of them always seek to perform, in the movement of their writing, what they wish us to understand. In particular, I wish to suggest that, for me, the only way to respond to such performances has been to enact another performance. This is why, in each instance, I wanted to find a way of writing that would remain faithful to the difficulty of the questions I wished to pursue. My focus on Emerson’s recourse to climatic and meteorological metaphors in his discussions of history, for example, enabled me to trace what many critics have recognized as the signature of Emerson’s writing: its successive changes in direction, its lack of predictable transitions. Trying to imagine what a book would look like if it came to us in the form of the weather helped me follow the incalculable and often unpredictable movement of his language (the transitoriness of nature and history can be said to be inscribed within the movement of Emerson’s own language; indeed, the shifting movement, the rapid transition that we always have associated with his language, can be read in terms of his wish to remain faithful to something that is always about to vanish, his desire to practice what he once called “the art of perpetual retreating and reference”). In writing about this element in his language, I wanted to find a language that would in some way signal, make palpable, what I was trying to explain—a risky, but I believe necessary strategy for approaching a writer whose style demands that we read creatively. In other words, my mode of presentation in the Emerson book belongs to a strategy aimed at explaining, without betraying, what happens in his language. I tried to accomplish the same thing in writing on Benjamin. There, I wanted to find a way to write about what Benjamin calls the “caesura” of the historical event. In choosing to write the book in the form of theses—Benjamin’s own privileged mode of presentation—I sought, on a formal level, to replicate the movement of interruption or suspension that for him defines historical and photographic events. Like the camera lens that momentarily fixes history in an image, the thesis—a kind of photograph in prose—is also a force of arrest. Writing the book in theses therefore enabled me to reenact Benjamin’s own method of writing and, at the same time, to recreate the movement that we experience when we look at a series of photographs.

Jeff Wall, After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue, 1999-2000

IL: Directly relying on the above, do you see a necessary relation between photography and literature, in regard to their creative or expressive levels? What non-photographer artist do you believe that, if you will allow me the expression, remains creatively close to the photographic mode of production and why?

EC: There would be many ways to begin to respond to this question and they might include tracing literary works that are illustrated by photographs (literary works, that is, that can’t imagine themselves existing without photographs, works such as Breton’s Mad Love or W. G. Sebald’s Emigrants or Austerlitz), discussing the “fictional” dimension of photographs (the incapacity of photographs to present everything that is before the camera or the fact that photographs can be manipulated digitally or in the darkroom), or thinking about photographers who stage photographs in relation to literary works (from Julia Margaret Cameron’s presentations of scenes from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King to Jeff Wall’s “photograph” of a scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man). We also might consider literary works that have recourse to the language of photography in their discussions of memory and perception. Here we might recall Marcel Proust’s encounter with his aging grandmother in Guermantes Way. Marcel sees his grandmother and registers that she has aged because he has an image in his head of how she used to look in the past. He compares the woman in front of him to the image in his head and declares “what happened in my mind was indeed a photograph!” If we trace the use of photographic language within the history of literature—if we follow the figures of light and darkness, shadows and images, traces and inscriptions, mirrors and reflections, echoes and repetitions, originals and reproductions, subjects and objects, the sun and the moon and the stars, corpses and cadavers—we can of course read photography into the earliest beginnings of literature. I would even say that we didn’t have to wait for the invention of photography to learn what it could teach us about seeing and remembering, about subjectivity and agency, since we already could have learned what it could say to us from literature and, in particular, from literature’s mobilization of photographic figures avant la lettre. Both literature and photography are means for thinking about questions of representation, of truth and fiction, of identity and imitation and these questions are at the heart of their respective creative processes.

There are of course many artists who follow a photographic mode of production and, indeed, many who even take their point of departure from photographs. We might think here of Leon Golub who, from the beginning of his career, began accumulating images drawn from photojournalism, film, and other mass-media sources and, like Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Salvatore Puglia, and Gerhard Richter, often would use these images as sources for certain elements in his paintings and drawings. Following his early interest in classical representations of the body, he gathered images from fashion magazines, and sports magazines such as Sports Illustrated, in order to study the body in different positions, but also in movement, from Soldier of Fortune for figures in conflict and war, including images of torture victims, mercenaries, and professional soldiers, from National Geographic for pictures of lions and other animals, from porn magazines for representations of the sexualized body and of different sex acts, from newspapers for images of contemporary events and figures, and from art history textbooks for materials on Egyptian and Roman art and for artistic renderings of the body. Assembling in this way a kind of database of images, Golub was then able to circulate and recirculate these images within his work, even if, in each instance, the most important element of this process of incorporation was the transformative power of his interventions, and indeed his reinvention of these earlier, found images. The dynamic that emerges between photography and drawing or painting therefore becomes one of revelation and concealment, of seeing and not seeing, of playing one medium against and with the other, and of creating relations between them. These are drawings and paintings, that is, which present themselves as “photographs” and, in so doing, ask us to rethink the relations among drawing, painting, and photography. Without erasing the distinction between them, these works suggest that these media never appear alone: they inhabit one another at every moment. It is almost as if Golub were saying that drawing and painting could not exist without photography or, more precisely, without a certain concept of photography—one that, because of its relation to drawing and painting, could no longer be simply related indexically to its referent. If these works are “photographs,” however, it is not because they replicate the photographs on which they are partially based or because they correspond in every detail to their several referents, but rather because, like a photograph, these works also alter and transform whatever is before them, whatever has come to be “inside” them. The interplay between these different media becomes a means for Golub to suggest, however discreetly, that these “photographs,” encrypting several memories and histories at once, can never be read solely in relation to the frame within which they appear.

As Gerhard Richter once said about his artistic practice, confirming his own fidelity to the photographic process: “I’m not trying to imitate a photograph. I’m trying to make one. And if I disregard the assumption that a photograph is a piece of paper exposed to light, then I am practicing photography by other means…. [T]hose of my paintings that have no photographic source (the abstracts, etc.) are also photographs.”

Gerhard Richter, Sailors, 1966


The second part of the interview here.

Το σεμινάριο θα διεξάγεται κάθε Τρίτη από τις 27.2.2018 έως τις 12.6.2018, Αιόλου 42-44, 2ος όροφος, Αίθουσα 3.

From 27.2.2018 to 12.6.2018, Tuesdays 18:00 – 21:00, Aiolou 42-44, 2nd floor, room 3



*κεντρική φωτο: Πάνος Κουφός