"The Paradox of Photography "analyzes the discourse on photography by four of the most important modern French
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English Pages 206 pages  Year 2009
The Paradox of Photography analyzes the discourse on photography by four of the most important modern French poets and t
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Table of contents :
Table of Contents
1 No Art's Land
2 Reasonable Madness
3 The Image, One Image, Images
4 The Fascinated Eye
The Paradox of Photography
FAUX TITRE 335 Etudes de langue et littérature françaises publiées sous la direction de Keith Busby, M.J. Freeman, Sjef Houppermans et Paul Pelckmans
The Paradox of Photography
AMSTERDAM - NEW YORK, NY 2009
Photography cover: Pierre Taminiaux, Leaf and stone, 2008. Cover design: Pier Post. The paper on which this book is printed meets the requirements of ‘ISO 9706: 1994, Information and documentation - Paper for documents Requirements for permanence’. Le papier sur lequel le présent ouvrage est imprimé remplit les prescriptions de ‘ISO 9706: 1994, Information et documentation - Papier pour documents Prescriptions pour la permanence’. ISBN: 978-90-420-2666-7 E-Book ISBN: 978-90-420-2667-4 © Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam - New York, NY 2009 Printed in The Netherlands
Table of Contents
No Art Lan
The Image, One Image, Ima
Modernity can be characterized simultaneously by its passion for photography and its strong suspicion of it. In this book, both positions are accounted for. It explores the critical writings and narratives of four preeminent French writers and thinkers who express their contradictory and vastly complex relationship with pictures, each in their own way. Generally speaking, bringing these diverse perspectives together in a single book is a difficult task. They all represent different styles, sensitivities, and personal philosophies. For instance, one can speak of Baudelaire’s post-romanticism, of Breton’s surrealism, of Valéry’s neo-classicism and of Barthes’s new criticism. But these labels, though they capture some essential aspects of these authors’ works, fail to fully define their respective discourses on aesthetics and in particular, on photography. They do not sufficiently underline the radical and often surprising nature of their viewpoints, which largely eludes the traditional classification schemes of literary history. These authors are forced to adopt an unexpected language as they navigate the unique identity of their discourse’s objects. Photography is a highly unique object in that it remains, even today, difficult to locate as a means of expression. It belongs simultaneously
The Paradox of Photography
to the domains of technique, art, and commerce, without being strictly attached to any of them. One can find numerous examples of the essential role played by photography in the development of modern technique: first in the nineteenth century, and then in the contemporary era, where it has fully integrated the world of digital technology. One can also affirm the foremost artistic status of photography in the context of the early twentieth century avant-garde, from Dada to Surrealism, and later through the experimental and conceptual work of many contemporary artists. It surely widened the aesthetic perspective of uncompromising artists who were not content with the constraints of classical painting. And finally, it rapidly became a helpful tool for professionals involved in advertising and journalism. Today we cannot imagine the media without the visual support of images that expand our capacity to understand world events, which so often occur far away from us. By being almost everywhere in our society, photography is thus demonstrably hard to locate with precision. Its center of gravity, so to speak, can always be legitimately displaced. According to the writers that I reference here, photography undoubtedly raises the critical issue of technique, as well as its meaning for both art and thought. It is therefore part of a global strategy that attempts to redefine the very notion of representation in modernity. In each case, photography asserts its privileged relationship with reality. What separates these theorists, then, is their construction of reality, a term that can obviously be interpreted in many different ways. For instance, it is clear that reality for Baudelaire is something to be feared or scorned, while Valéry or even Breton will stress instead the imaginary or poetic power stemming from it. When one analyzes the very process of picture-taking, one is always confronted with the presence of an object that exists prior to the image. Therefore, it is implied that photography always deals in one way or another with the reproduction of this object, regardless of the aesthetic choice of the photographer. But in contrast, one can also take into account the process of picture-making, which emphasizes the absolute freedom of the photographer towards his object. In this particular process, indeed, photography becomes a true art form by separating itself from the law of objective repetition. The subject matter, here, is only a pretext: it is never the ultimate goal, or destination, of the artist.
For each of these writers and critics, photography is constantly contextualized; it rarely stands alone. Instead, it is definitively linked to the issues of literature and language, from Breton to Barthes and Valéry. How can pictures illustrate a text and enhance its descriptive and narrative role? How can they talk about a particular subject, about his life and death? How can they enrich the aesthetics of poetry beyond words, through visual means that appear closer to those of the fine arts? Moreover, these authors often relate photography to issues of representation that have been primarily defined by painting in the history of Western art. The comparison with painting thus seems irresistible. This is the case because the number of critical works inspired by painting was, and likely still is, infinitely larger than the number of theoretical works devoted to photography. This was certainly the case at the time when these authors wrote their essays. Consequently, the historic, authoritative nature of the literature on painting has made it a primary source for writers developing their own discourses on photography. It provides critics of photography with an aesthetic and philosophical legitimacy that is undisputable. Indeed, art is painting, in the Western way of thinking, and it has been so for centuries. But art is not photography yet, and thus we discover the underlying reason for these authors’ frequent reliance upon critical forms that are actually alien to the objects of their study. Does photography, therefore, stand alone as a unique visual language that has transformed our perception of the modern world? Can it be identified without any reference to the more established disciplines of the fine arts? Is it also possible to define "the writing of light" as a radical form of writing, accomplished without or beyond the written word? These pressing questions are undoubtedly raised by the texts that I analyze here, but the answers provided remain open to discussion, if not totally inconclusive. Photography never ceases to reflect its own enigma, which is the logical extension of modernity’s ambiguous attitude towards both technique and art. It is the enigma of excess and its overwhelming presence within modern culture. Put another way, the ever-present must also be the most susceptible to a discourse of absence. What remains missing, somehow, is the true knowledge of an object that successfully resists any specific inscription within the cultural sphere. In this sense, excess entails a definitive process of dissemination, that
The Paradox of Photography
which establishes meaning as well as pictures or signs. By contrast, the space of both literature and painting is much more restricted and therefore easier to determine. This book is grounded in a critical context that emphasizes a contemporary perspective on both photography and literature. In the first chapter on Baudelaire, I try in this regard to move away from Benjamin’s already classical identification of the poet with Le Flâneur, a figure of both idleness and aimless wandering. The references to Giorgio Agamben, one of the most preeminent European philosophers and critics of post-modernism, enable me to stress instead the complex and often conflicting attitudes of Baudelaire towards the world of commodities. I also try to integrate Baudelaire’s discourse into his broader work of art criticism, to the extent that the issue of art remains key to his critical response to photography. In this sense, the object of my reflection is neither the poetic aesthetics of Baudelaire, as developed by the poet Michel Deguy, for instance, nor is it shaped by a psychoanalytical approach, such as in Leo Bersani’s Baudelaire and Freud. The second chapter on Breton stems from the reading of art critic Rosalind Krauss’s essay on Surrealism and photography, but it also questions the so-called objectivity of pictures in both Nadja and /¶$PRXU )RX, a notion that the literary critic and noted expert on Surrealism, Michel Beaujour, has recently put forth. The third chapter’s critical perspective on Roland Barthes’ La Chambre Claire relies heavily upon theoretical writings on photography by foremost contemporary French philosophers such as Jean-François Lyotard and Georges Didi-Huberman. Moreover, it distances itself from the essentially linguistic and semiological approach of Mary Bittner Wiseman in her book The Ecstasies of Roland Barthes and borrows instead from Reda Bensmaïa’s analysis of Barthes’ essay as a reflective text in The Barthes Effect. I try to demonstrate here that the main focus of Barthes’ discourse in La Chambre Claire is the unique character and identity of visual representation in photography. This identity largely escapes for him the power of history and of the community that embodies it. In this regard, I attempt to stress the important epistemological differences between Barthes’ essay and Walter Benjamin’s Petite Histoire de la Photographie. Finally, the last chapter on Valéry allows me to go back to the work of a poet and art critic who has been largely ignored by
contemporary readings of French poetry and criticism, especially by Deconstruction, if one thinks in particular of Derrida: in his book La Dissémination, he preferred to concentrate his analysis of a fragmented and de-centered poetic language in modernity on the work of Mallarmé. Moreover, Valéry’s study of photography must be integrated into his general writings on art, as it is the case with Baudelaire, since one of the main features of his argument is the strong relationship between photography and the representation of nature, a relationship that is constant in classical Western painting. The main purpose of my reflection is to underline the sheer modernity of Valéry’s critical perspective on art and aesthetics: for him, indeed, the viewer is always a subject fascinated by the multiplicity of images and their ubiquitous presence in society. I try to analyze this process of fascination in the light of Maurice Blanchot’s essay on the issue, included in /¶(VSDFH/LWWpUDLUH. The paradox of photography is primarily (but not only) a historical one. Photography is located at the very source of modernity, of capitalism and the industrial revolution, of a technical era characterized by the power of the machine. But it is also situated at the end of art, at the very limit of a model of representation dominated by painting and its primarily figurative aesthetics. Photography comes, therefore, both too late and too early. It comes too late because it is preceded by a long history of art and pictorial tradition which threatens to distort or oversimplify its definition. But it also comes too early to the extent that it anticipates the cultural development of imagery in the twentieth-century, from film to television to virtual reality. Photography thus signifies both an end and a beginning to representation. It is precisely this two-fold identity that makes it challenging to comprehend, especially if one still believes in the intellectual sovereignty of the historical perspective. This particular ambivalence is expressed in many ways by the authors considered in this book. They often seem to hesitate between analysis of the present or projections into the future on the one hand, and remembrance of an authoritative past on the other. If technique does not necessarily need a memory, art cannot live without it. Therefore, these writers cannot avoid the confrontation between a socalled modernity that is still growing and gaining in maturity, and a classical age whose lessons are still largely relevant for the philosophical interpretation of the age of mechanical reproduction.
The Paradox of Photography
Photography itself is able to record the past, creating a new memory of events and history through the power of technique. But it also and simultaneously accounts for a gradual disappearance of this memory within social reality. The more we create sophisticated means of preserving what has been through imagery, the more we are doomed to forget the past as we bury it in its own inner landscape. In other words, technique and photography, more particularly, enhance the cultural presence of history, while at the same time mimicking its inexorable decline in the modern world. Reproduction, thus, constitutes a fight against effacement and oblivion, but it also mirrors the very ills it resists. In this sense, a picture of the past does not necessarily accomplish its impulse toward memory. It can actually signify a profound and even traumatic break with its most subjective truth, as both Baudelaire’s and Barthes’ texts imply. Photography therefore captures the fragile and unstable nature of life itself, of its traces and evidences. This quality distinguishes it, to some degree, from both literature (the written word) and painting. For a very long time, the pictures produced through this medium did not seem to be part of a genuine history, whereas both literature and the traditional fine arts were firmly established. Indeed, one had to wait until the 1930s, and Walter Benjamin’s Petite Histoire de la Photographie in 1931, to find a definition of the medium that sought to encompass both its technical and aesthetic developments. It thus took a whole century to undertake any serious classification of its multiple expressions through time. For modernity in particular, as opposed to ancient or premodern times, one century is almost an eternity. This historical vacuum is reflected in various ways by these authors, who are clearly more interested in the significance of photography for the present (i.e., the present of both literature and culture at large) than in the actual identification of its origin and evolution. Their respective discourses are thus rooted in a specific moment that possesses its own utmost importance and even urgency for the study of modern France. This is the case whether one references the rise of the bourgeoisie’s social and economic power in the middle of the nineteenth century, which forms the context of Baudelaire’s article, or the revival of radical French nationalism at the time of Valéry’s speech at the Sorbonne. It is also impossible not to consider the general cultural background of Barthes’ landmark essay on photography, which is so obviously marked by the
remarkable growth of mainstream popular and media culture in France after World War II. The apparent emphasis on the precise moment of the image does not, however, prevent these various texts from retaining a universal and wide-ranging meaning. In this book, I express the need for an aesthetic perspective on photography that goes beyond a timedelineated cultural approach. If photography is not always recognized as a true and complete art form in some of the texts studied here, it still leads to a profound and thorough reflection upon the role of pictures in the visual representation of modernity. Therefore, pictures are here defined primarily as the objects and tools of a specific discourse on forms. These four authors have, after all, written extensively about art in the modern world, from romantic painting to the Surrealist and Dada avant-garde, and from Japanese calligraphy to impressionism. Their own work, in this sense, can never be separated from the issue of art at large. This dynamic is especially evident if one takes into account their critical writings, but it is also applicable to the field of poetry in several respects. Thus these authors share an unbridled love of forms that is inevitably expressed in their musings on photography. By love of forms, I mean in particular a strong faith in the existential and ethical powers of art, rather than a mere taste for mannerisms and obscure details of style. Their esoteric perspective renders them legitimate representatives of modernity, including its philosophical contradictions and aesthetic intricacies, and despite the abrupt critiques that they sometimes inflict upon it. For these authors, forms do not only exist in the pure domain of abstract ideas and concepts. They are also, and primarily, embodied in the reality of art works and material objects. They define a political discourse through their integration into the space of the community, of its dreams and desires. Moreover, they constitute powerful agents of cultural and social change. To the extent that these images’ fates are inevitably linked, in modernity, to the development of technique, they are to be conceived in their dynamic and fluctuating nature: indeed, technique never ceases to move forward and to evolve through time. In this sense, photography is not a field of expression that is being fixed once and for all. The forms that it entails are submitted to constant variations that highlight the uncertainty of any aesthetic discourse about them. From this perspective, one must see these texts
The Paradox of Photography
as mere subjective propositions or hypotheses on a particular medium, since they formulate a truth that is always partial or temporary. They are all located within a particular cultural context and dependent upon the spirit of the eras in which they occur. In essence, photography calls for the relativism of thought. It is an object whose contingent identity resists totality and any sense of the absolute. It was born at a time when these notions and values were already altered by the rise of a new cultural ethos that was radically secular. Photography, from the start, was neither associated with the representation of divinities, as was sculpture in ancient Greece, nor was it destined to represent the Biblical legacy and the Christian worldview in the tradition of Western medieval painting. This is one powerful reason why it is still rare to see photographs in a church or a cathedral today, despite the rich decoration of these same religious monuments with paintings, frescoes, and statues of all sorts. Photography, therefore, is a perfect mirror of modernity insofar as it questions the universal and eternal quality of any system of representation, and asks instead for the presence of a gaze that is simultaneously paradoxical (if not ironic), and somehow fragile. Moreover, photography is first characterized by its constant dissemination in the realm of everyday life and mundane activities. In this sense, it is always in our midst, existing in a state of both proximity and familiarity. This constitutes its greatest strength, but also its main weakness. In comparison, literature has never achieved the same intensity in its daily presence, not even today, with the growing commercialization of books and the availability of a huge number of texts on the Internet. The uniquely instant closeness of pictures has long alienated many writers and thinkers from photography, and from this situation the problematic relationship between the two has emerged. Not only can anyone see photographs at any given time, but anyone can also, perhaps more disturbingly, take them. Certainly this is the most common view held about the medium, and it proves a stark contrast to other familiar disciplines. Poetry and criticism, which together constitute the main language of Baudelaire, Breton, Barthes and Valéry, do not seem to possess the same democratic quality: they were each still provided with a more elitist status when these four authors wrote their respective works. Literature must therefore deal
with a form that has yet to be defined as a true artistic discipline, contrary to literature itself. Of course, the argument that "anyone can do it" is largely a myth. This argument is predicated on the assumption that because anyone can take pictures, they must necessarily enjoy the ability to make pictures, that is the ability to demonstrate unique or original creative abilities. In this tortured logic, the artist is too often confused with the mere amateur or casual practitioner. But action is not (or at least, not always) equivalent to creation. The easy approach and manipulation offered by modern technique does not automatically lead to the proliferation and mass production of art objects. In photography, then, art still remains a rare occurrence, an exception to the rule of permanent repetition and series. The rest is a mere illusion that technology grants to the average person. Indeed, if one constructs an aesthetic discourse, one inevitably refers to a whole set of forms that cannot be reduced to their practical use. Beyond the world of commodities and daily affairs, then, one ventures into a rather obscure or mysterious domain in which meaning itself is not immediately offered. It is this very differAnce (in the Derridian sense) or delay of meaning that turns the object (here, the image) into something more than a utilitarian item, thus enabling it to gain its artistic identity. To this end, The Paradox of Photography attempts to debunk certain aspects of the utilitarian myth. I do not pretend to rewrite the history of photography, but I nonetheless demonstrate that photography essentially belongs to the history of both modern art and criticism. More precisely, I show that any discourse on representation cannot ignore the important role played by pictures in the determination of our own visual spaces, inasmuch as these visual spaces are also mental or intellectual ones in some sense. More generally, this book highlights the aesthetic nature of literature itself. Indeed, the work of the four authors studied here would not be the same without their own contributions to the domain of art criticism and aesthetic theory, which, though significant, are sometimes overlooked. Language and the written word can never be fully separated from the domain of images: they both stem from the acute perception of the signs and symbols that define our relationship to the outside world. The term aesthetic, in this specific case, is definitively linked to the term poetic. Before putting his ideas and feelings in writing, the poet is someone who observes things around
The Paradox of Photography
him. His gaze allows him to express his own inner universe through numerous metaphors or visions. To see is to write and to write is to see. Therefore, The Paradox of Photography puts forth a poetics of forms whose unique character depends upon the sheer sensitivity of the writer’s eye. Photography stirs the presence of such an eye, but it also forces the writer, especially the poet, to analyze the various figures of his own self and how the self manifests within the visible world. In this process, critical discourse often underlines the radical subjectivity and highly personal imagination of the writer, from Baudelaire to Barthes and from Breton to Valéry. The so-called objective dimension of technique does not prevent literature from reflecting upon both the location and representation of the subject within images. Forms do not just exist for an anonymous community or culture; they also convey a particular existential meaning. In the end, what is at stake in these texts is the presence of a powerful voice looking for its own identity within, and ultimately beyond, the relentless stream of modernity, a voice lost in the shadows of reality, searching for a mirror of its own dreams and fears.
No Art’s Land
Baudelaire’s critique of photography, as expressed in his famous essay "Le Public moderne et la photographie", published in his &ULWLTXHG¶$UW (Paris: Folio/ Gallimard, 1992), has to be understood in the broader context of a general critique of the French spirit of his time. It starts indeed with an intriguing definition of the mindset of his contemporaries. According to Baudelaire, mid-nineteenth century French artists sought to surprise the viewer through means that were alien to the art form itself. This constant desire to astonish or bewilder the public was considered by Baudelaire to be the main vice of his era. This peculiar goal became an absolute priority for many painters, even for those who were talented and blessed with outstanding skills. At the beginning of his argument, Baudelaire focuses his attention on the misuse of titles that are supposed to enlighten the very subject matter of each artwork. The title is somehow manipulated in order to impose a shallow comment on the painting: it does not actually define its identity, but rather illustrates the artwork in a playful and even frivolous manner. The artist and his viewers are confused here: they
The Paradox of Photography
are embedded in a particular contract which betrays a profound lack of faith in the aesthetic power of painting. "Cette race, en effet, artistes et public, a si peu foi dans la peinture, qu’elle cherche sans cesse à la déguiser et à l’envelopper comme une médecine désagréable dans des capsules de sucre; et quel sucre, grand Dieu!" (Baudelaire 274). One could speak, in this regard, of an ongoing strategy that always aims at the public’s thirst for surprise and entertainment. Baudelaire’s essential metaphor, in this case, is of a medical nature. The title of the artwork acts as a sort of sweetener which actually increases its aloofness and disguises its true purpose. Evidently, this metaphor presupposes the existence of a sick body, that of society as a whole in its global attitude toward art and the artist. The poet also refers, in this perspective, to the presence of a "deplorable symptom." To enhance his argument, he is forced to confront the spirit of the French culture of his time with that of Italian Renaissance, for instance, and this confrontation inevitably leads to the feeling of a loss that is almost impossible to overcome. The bad taste that he witnesses in his daily encounters with the French painters of the mid-nineteenth-century seems to be the sole property of modern French society ("Je considère ces horreurs comme une grâce attribuée à la race française" (Baudelaire 275)). Like Flaubert in both Bouvard et Pécuchet and Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues, the poet turned art critic is destined to represent the commonplaces inherent to a particular people and to a particular zeitgeist. These commonplaces do not appear only in the context of casual conversations or purely social events; the experience of art, which should theoretically contradict them, actually reinforces them and might even be the privileged space for its expression. In the same vein, Flaubert was able to demonstrate that the discourse of science was not itself immune to the appearance of preconceived notions shared by the community. In this context, Baudelaire tends to deny the very existence of a French people that could be characterized by a common history and a collective legacy. This cultural community has been replaced or at least overshadowed by the power of the "French race", according to his own words. This notion of race, here, is not ethnically determined. It is essentially the sign of a lost community of aesthetic norms and moral values. It is a sort of empirical association of human beings linked by primitive instincts and lacking a true spiritual compass. By denying thus the possibility of a genuine community, Baudelaire
deliberately stresses the emergence of the masses in nineteenth century society. These masses have signed a contractual agreement with the artist. This contract allows ugliness to rule. The poet has witnessed a profound process of "decadence" from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. But the poet does not put the blame solely on the uneducated members of society. The artist himself has participated in this long-term move towards aesthetic decline. A truly aristocratic perspective would make the masses responsible for this state of affairs. It would instead grant the artist with a presumption of innocence. The war that Baudelaire conducts, thus, is a war against a certain conception of art dominated by the complicity between the artist and those who are supposed to receive his work. The very sovereignty of the "French race" implies that the masses can no longer oppose or merely contradict the artists’ position and the social order that they represent. In this perspective, these artists can never be alone or simply different: they mostly reflect the sensitivity and the ideology of the larger segment of society. It is important to notice in this regard that Baudelaire regularly focuses on the notion of taste in order to question the general attitude of the masses towards art work. Taste, indeed, is a rather neutral notion that can be related to almost any object or commodity. One can have a particular taste for a form of clothing, certain types of food or cooking, or a certain style of decoration. As such, it does not entail a specific relationship between the subject and the artwork. It is essentially the result of a detached attitude of the masses towards all things, within a world where art has ceased to be a true passion. Above all it characterizes the preeminence of a system of consumption stemming from the rise of modern capitalism. "Le goût du bête, du spirituel, qui est la même chose" (Baudelaire 275), as the poet says, is a middle-class or bourgeois attribute, because it is the middle class that can absorb and seize anything that appears in front of their own eyes at any moment. Taste, therefore, does not commit the subject the way love or desire usually does. It reflects the paramount power of visible and exchangeable artifacts at the moment when they are made available to the general public. Taste, as such, is neither bad nor good, but it does betray a casual attitude toward art, through which all works are identified with potential objects of pleasure and material gratification. The realm of emotions is barely affected by its action.
The Paradox of Photography
On the contrary, taste is in many ways a privileged means of emotional repression or containment. Baudelaire’s discourse links its power with the collective enjoyment and quest of silliness. Taste, indeed, belongs to the average man, to those who want to take advantage of things without having to make any sacrifice in return. In other words, and in a paradoxical manner, it is the passion of men without a passion. It imposes a perpetual attitude of irony towards the world of forms. In this perspective, one never feels bound by a cultural contract, and this in turn always makes the notion of artwork more futile. The false passion of the masses leads to the dissolution of the artist’s skills. Thus, the original beauty of painting is turned into "monstrosity" or "horror". This is a strange and highly contradictory relationship, where two sides achieve equal power and status but where apparent equality is rooted in a system which always first seeks the instant satisfaction of one sides’ needs. Baudelaire’s vision of the art world is that of a universe in which the interests of the artist and those of the viewer are intertwined. The trial of art therefore focuses on no single suspect, but derives a verdict that puts the burden of responsibility on all sides. The social law of taste is a law that is somehow fluid and flexible enough to content everybody. It is the ultimate proof of a so-called democratization of art in modernity. No on except the poet feels restricted by this law, because the taste for a particular object is never fixed and can always be adapted to the cultural changes inscribed within bourgeois society. Taste underscores the impatience of the masses, a people without real faith, inasmuch as faith, in the secular, Baudelairian sense of the term, contains a specific longing for the eternal. The poet does not deny the talent of the artist who abides by this contract: he recognizes it first in order to demonstrate how much it has been spoiled and even debased by its submission to the taste of the majority. Within this new order of art, the noblest things become the subject of mockery and light humor ("Chateaubriand, pardon! Les choses les plus nobles peuvent devenir des moyens de caricature, et les paroles politiques d’un chef d’empire des pétards de rapin". (Baudelaire 275)). The lost nobility of the artwork and of its natural spirit stems from the immoderate love of the people for anecdotes and juicy details. Modernity, therefore, is that moment in history when the ultimate seriousness of art is mixed with the most negative forms of derision and sarcasm. The recurrent use of witty and funny titles by
the artist constitutes an accomplished strategy of self-deprecation. In this perspective, artwork reflects the profound divide between the aesthetic and the spiritual domain in the French society of the midnineteenth century. In the French language, indeed, the word: "spirituel" has two very distinct meanings. It can be translated first as "spiritual", but it also refers to anything amusing or witty. Evidently, it is the second meaning of the word that Baudelaire has in mind when he criticizes "le goût du spirituel" within French culture. In other words, "le spirituel n’est plus spirituel" ("what is witty is no longer spiritual"). There is an element of parody in many of the titles that Baudelaire quotes. The viewer is being attracted to the artwork precisely because this dimension is constantly present. Wit operates here as a strategy of distraction: one ends up paying as much attention to the anecdotic character of the title as to the truly formal quality of the painting. In his essay "The Work of Art in the age of mechanical reproduction", included in the book Illuminations (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968) Walter Benjamin defines this attitude of distraction as emblematic of a culture dominated by technique and mass entertainment, particularly film. As he writes: "The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one." (240-241). In Baudelaire’s discourse, taste can also be understood as "appetite," which gives it a culinary connotation. Art, in this sense, is literally and not just metaphorically food for the eye. By definition, the title refers specifically to the subject matter or content of the artwork. It does not explain its particular aesthetic identity. One is therefore confronted with a process of displacement, from the domain of painting to that of writing. For Baudelaire, the title itself is excessive. It comes after the artwork, with no real reason of its own, as a separate message which is more a casual illustration than an in-depth analysis of the painting. The tone of Baudelaire’s critique is itself laced with dark irony. The poet contemplates a systematic display of bad taste in the Salons which verges on the ridiculous. One has only to open a catalogue to find evidence of such aesthetic perversion. The bad taste of both the public and the artist comes from the idea that the main purpose of painting is to tell a little story, as a writer of popular fiction would do with a series or feuilleton. It is of course these little stories
The Paradox of Photography
that the masses appreciate the most. A certain confusion is being created, therefore, between the spirit of art and that of low culture. In modernity, sheer talent is not in short supply, but it has been rapidly diverted from its original meaning for the community. In many ways, Baudelaire’s viewpoint deplores a particular process of representation of art. This process is largely dependent upon the expectations of the masses, which search first for the purely anecdotic character of the artwork because it is what brings painting closer to their own everyday experiences. The recurrent use of supposedly funny titles thus serves a practical function, by which the artist makes artwork more readily available to the public by stressing its narrative nature. But this narrative is neither of an epic nor of a truly poetic nature; it is made of words that mainly constitute a gross description of things. Their proliferation defines a world where comments on art have become more important than art itself. Somehow the distraction of the public’s gaze through the presence of words inhibits its contemplative power. In other words, the viewer reads in order to escape having to read the actual work of art. The almost endless succession of these little stories points to the preeminence of the entertaining value of art: one now talks around painting instead of really talking about it. This law of representation privileges the social role of conversation between members of the public and everything they see. This peculiar and unquestionably contrived form of conversation is regulated in such a way that it identifies artwork as a mere tool of social interaction. Thus, these little stories become the equivalent of small talk. And what is small talk if not a type of language that deliberately avoids the burden of meaning within words? Indeed, one can speak forever so long as one admits the vanity of language for oneself and for the other to whom one speaks. This casual conversation stemming from the cultural presentation of painting seems to be the same for everybody. Moreover, it has no particular source and is apparently intended for all viewers. But this law is also the sign of a world for which obscurity is no longer acceptable. The title must hold a basic didactic value in order to assert the instant legibility of the artwork. Any ambiguity would actually harm the social legitimacy of the contract upon which both the artist and the public have agreed. In this regard, the language of the title is that of an obvious truth. It is not to be disputed, and it must remain as light and simple as possible in order
to accomplish its objectives. Thus, although the title may appear at first as a key that opens the door to artwork and its meaning, in reality it is more like a recipe for "food for the eye" which discourages the public from questioning its form and content. On a related note, it is interesting that Baudelaire confesses his relative ignorance of art history. He does not pretend to have a superior knowledge of Western painting, and in many ways his critique remains that of both a moralist and a distinguished amateur. The aesthete is a lover of beauty and of formal perfection: his judgment does not establish definite standards of artistic value. His discourse remains too subjective to be that of a true scholar or specialist. The "I" is always dominant because, as an individual and not as a member of any academic institution, the poet speaks for himself rather than any particular group or school. The essay is conceived like many others, as an open letter to a friend. It has the nonchalant and down-to-earth quality of the epistolary form. (This form is integrated into a whole literary tradition of French culture, from Mme de Sévigné to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But it is either part of an autobiographical or of a truly fictional endeavor. The association of the epistolary form with that of criticism represents a significant and original departure from this tradition). In this sense, Baudelaire privileges the personal experience of art, an experience that must rest on the ultimate power of the senses. The senses dictate the words of the poet and not the mind, as would most likely be the case with a so-called art historian. If an essay like this one remains so close to us more than one hundred and fifty years later, it is precisely because of its sensitive apprehension of art as a cultural and social phenomenon. One should not try to read Baudelaire’s critique, and this does not apply only to his essay on photography, as a sort of theoretical or scientific discourse on art in the context of modernity. For him, to be genuinely modern means instead to be constantly open to the fluid and even unstable nature of man’s sensuous identity. The paradigm of the Correspondances, in their quest for a deep and intimate relationship between all the dimensions of human sensuality, does not only concern the domain of poetry. Since it necessarily involves an aesthetic viewpoint towards the outside world, it also includes the work of the art critic to the extent that the art critic is being led by his own gaze before allowing for the expression of his own language.
The Paradox of Photography
Seeing is speaking and speaking is seeing (or as the Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz once said, "No veo con los ojos: las palabras son mis ojos", "I do not see with my eyes: the words are my eyes"). But for the poet, seeing is also hearing and touching. The apparently objective or at least generalizing cultural discourse is truly a reflection of speech that only belongs to one single person: evidently, the poet does not hold a monopoly over the power of the senses. But he does have the unique ability to translate the common experience of the senses into a formal language over which he exercises almost total control. In this particular case, the "I" refers to the possibility of an infinite dialogue between what the critic feels and what he actually knows. As opposed to the traditional approach of the art historian, which is logically influenced by numerous references to the past, Baudelaire’s approach emphasizes instead the truth-value of the present. After all, it is a present state of affairs that he describes in his essay. Even though his relationship with the cultural order of his time is undoubtedly problematic, it is still the particular time in which he lives that draws his attention. For him, the past exists merely as the rather shadowy and undetermined object of his personal nostalgia. It is not truly deciphered, nor is it grasped in its detailed configuration. In other words, the past is only fantasized about, and therefore kept at a certain distance, whereas the present is brought ever closer through the fiery rhetoric of the contemporary decline of art. By definition, the sensuous person is someone who trusts the existential validity of his own "being-there", and who commits himself to the intensity of the moment. This person is likely to be captivated by the magical power of what is happening in the present without any regard for what has occurred or what is to come. The senses know, but they only know because they can ignore or forget the abstractions of the past. "Le Public moderne et la photographie", after all, is written largely in the present tense. In this regard, most of Baudelaire’s critical texts on art can be read as a set of timely chronicles. The gaze of the poet is attracted by events that are happening in the world where, for better or worse, he actually lives, loves and suffers. This group of texts might even be described as a sort of critical diary, one which concentrates primarily on the aesthetic nature of everyday life instead of simply accounting for the mere facts of his existence. This notion of a critical diary is again highly original and cannot be related with any canonical genre of either classical or modern literature.
In this sense, the ongoing presence of the "I" enhances the synchronic dimension of Baudelaire’s discourse. In many ways, the inner time of the poet is deliberately mingled with the outside time of social reality. Art must therefore be understood as being simultaneous to its experience by the critic. This particular emphasis on the present of art involves the radical subjectivity of the person who is speaking. The lack of distance that the subject demonstrates towards himself stems from his personal philosophy of time. In order to achieve some sort of detachment towards things, and therefore to reach some sort of rational objectivity, the poet has first to free himself from the burden of the present. If he does not accomplish this, it is precisely because he finds a definite intellectual (if not material) gratification in this process. Words as heavy as "monstrosity" or "horror" do not only express the profound hostility of the poet towards the taste of his countrymen: they also establish the emotional link that binds Baudelaire to modernity. In other words, the apparent discourse of rejection and negation is actually what enables Baudelaire to remain as close as possible to the object of his vociferations. There is nothing that Baudelaire would fear more than to lose contact with the world that he seems to despise. It is precisely the public's atrocious taste that fosters his discourse on art and makes it relevant. This provides him with a sense of personal legitimacy and beyond, with a feeling of moral and aesthetic superiority. After all, the era of disbelief in which he is forced to live reflects and even fosters his own loss of faith: Baudelaire is not the believer he pretends to be here. In this regard, the very tone of his critique is itself ironic and sarcastic. He is also a Godless man, like most men of his time, although different from the masses in his capacity to analyze the roots of this particular philosophical attitude. In this perspective, the poet’s hatred is essentially the result of unrequited love. In other words, he constantly stares at the public but the public does not really see him. Again, his gaze is not that of a blind man or of a fanatic who would unilaterally and unequivocally close the eyes on the positive aspects of nineteenthcentury art. As he says : " Ce qu’il y a de plus déplorable, c’est que le tableau, si singulier que cela puisse paraître, est peut-être bon" (Baudelaire 275). Sheer beauty has not vanished from the world; it has just been distorted or disguised by a dominant cultural order that imposes certain strategies of reception upon the viewer. Taste, in
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itself, does not even imply a profound process of reading or interpretation of the work of art: paradoxically, it engenders a predetermined reading that is the very negation of what reading should be. The painting still exists, though, beyond the social power of taste and the main task of the poet might well be to rediscover its original aesthetic quality. In this sense, modernity cannot be reduced to a mere process of destruction or annihilation of art: it is, rather, the mirror of a confused collective mind that is unable to distinguish artwork from its cultural representation. It is this kind of confusion that can turn the noblest and most beautiful things into objects of mere caricature. In his relationship with the present (and therefore, with modernity), the poet is undoubtedly driven by a conflicting attitude of both attraction and repulsion. His personal ordeal and torment, therefore, is that of a man who cannot overcome his own psychological contradictions. In many ways, he appears as an unsatisfied lover who is nevertheless unable to tear himself away from the object of his affection. In this sense, Baudelaire’s discourse is constantly torn between the profound darkness of nihilism and the pure light of romanticism. His own brand of modernism is a peculiar one: it is not strictly apologetic, as it would be for early-twentieth century avant-garde artists and poets such as Apollinaire, Léger, and the Italian Futurists. But it is not radical enough to grant the present a death sentence either. His ongoing assault against the very notion of artistic progress does not solely question the dominant mindset of the culture in which he lives. After all, this notion was already paramount for many Renaissance artists such as Leonardo, who were attempting in particular to integrate the language of science into their own aesthetic and philosophical reflection on the role of perspective in painting. This notion, of course, also appeared at the forefront of both the political and the moral discourse of the Enlightenment. Its very filiation in modern Western thought (inasmuch as art always entails, in its aesthetic developments, the critical analysis of its own forms) renders somehow impossible the mere adjustment of Baudelaire’s discourse to the cultural reality of mid-nineteenth-century France. The paradoxical and often conflicting attitude of Baudelaire towards modernity has been discussed in particular by a contemporary critic and philosopher such as Giorgio Agamben. In the article "Baudelaire; or, the absolute commodity", included in his book
Stanza: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), he stresses in the regard the poet’s enthusiastic response to the Paris Universal Exposition of 1855. Baudelaire left his impressions on the event in a series of three articles that appeared at brief intervals in two Parisian dailies. In the first one, entitled "De l’idée moderne du progrès appliqué aux beaux-arts", he focuses his attention on the spectacle of exotic commodities and described their universal beauty. He indicates then the possible transfiguration of the commodity into a work of art. These exotic products would indeed inspire important elements of his own poetics, notably his Correspondances. As Agamben writes: The great novelty that the Exposition had made obvious to Baudelaire’s perceptive eye was that the commodity had ceased to be an innocent object, whose enjoyment and perception were exhausted in the practical use of it, and had charged itself with that disturbing ambiguity to which Marx would allude twelve years later when speaking of the "fetishistic character", the "metaphysical subtleties", and "theological witticisms" of the commodity. Once the commodity had freed objects of use from the slavery of being useful, the borderline that separated them from works of art-the borderline that artists from the Renaissance forward had indefatigably worked to establish, by basing the supremacy of the artistic creation on the "making" of the artisan and the laborer-became extremely tenuous. (42)
This potential synthesis between the commodity and the artwork definitely constitutes one of the main features of modernity. It can be witnessed, of course, in the aesthetic value attributed to photography by many of Baudelaire’s contemporaries. It will be radicalized half a century later, indeed, in Marcel Duchamp’s’ exhibition of a urinal and his own definition of the commodity as a work of art through the ready-made. The case of the Universal Exhibition demonstrated quite well that Baudelaire was not only aware of this cultural evolution, but that he actually praised it in several circumstances. This definite attraction for what one could call the poetic nature of the commodity (as opposed to its mere use-value or even its exhibition-value, to quote Benjamin’s term in "The Work of Art in the age of mechanical reproduction"), did not prevent Baudelaire, though, from expressing his ongoing reluctance towards a world obsessed with the material status of objects and the ideology of progress that they entailed. Agamben’s words underline here the intricacies of the poet’s discourse on modernity:
The Paradox of Photography
Before the enchantment (féérie) of the Universal Exposition, which began to draw towards the commodity the kind of interest traditionally reserved for the work of art, Baudelaire took up the challenge and carried the battle to the ground of the commodity itself. As he had implicitly admitted when speaking of the exotic product as a "sample of universal beauty", he approved of the new features that commodification impresses on the object and he was conscious of the power of attraction that they would inevitably have on the work of art. At the same time, though, he wanted to withdraw them from the tyranny of the economic and from the ideology of progress. (42)
Agamben’s analysis asserts the greatness of Baudelaire’s attitude towards the commodity: the poet responds to its almighty rule in modernity by turning the work of art into a fetish. As he says: "The aura of frozen intangibility that from this moment began to surround the work of art is the equivalent of the fetishistic character that the exchange value imposed on the commodity" (42). In this sense, the poet creates an "absolute commodity", so to speak, in which "the process of fetishization would be pushed to the point of annihilating the reality of the commodity itself as such" (42). This process is simultaneous to an implacable critique of the utilitarian philosophy of the artwork and also to the expression of the intangible character of the aesthetic experience. Moreover, the main mythology of the present that Baudelaire opposes is also the property of the past. To confront this particular mythology (which is nothing else, in Baudelaire’s eyes, than the ultimate faith of those who have lost all faith) necessarily means to return to a certain tradition of art and to stress the ongoing presence of this mythology beyond its obvious inscription within modernity. In this regard, Baudelaire’s nostalgia does not stem from his longing for an object that is in the process of being lost, but rather from his profound apprehension of an object that is already gone. His own definition of progress is that of a constant evolution towards the domination of matter in the field of art. But this particular situation did not actually start with the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism in Western societies. Its origin must be traced to the Renaissance period, an era when scientific discoveries already had a major impact both on aesthetic expression and the philosophical discourse of man. In this sense, to go back to a world largely immune to the cultural power of matter, one must remain as close as possible to the
spirit of the middle ages. So to speak, the matter, for the poet, matters even more than progress itself. It is the foremost object of his critique. But what exactly is this matter that he seems to fear with such intensity? It is the result of the exclusive taste for what he calls "le Vrai". "Le Vrai", in his perspective, has nothing to do with truth, whether moral, philosophical or even scientific. It is rather the proof of an excessive attraction for the crudest forms of reality, to the point that man becomes completely immersed in them. However, it is not reality as a whole which the poet condemns, but its cultural identification with the subject of art. The dialectics of reality and imagination will of course be later explored systematically by early twentieth-century modernism: one of the main merits of the Surrealist poets and artists will precisely stem from their ability to overcome this tension through the creation of a unique aesthetic language. But Baudelaire was still caught in the spirit of the nineteenth century, and of a certain aesthetic idealism. In his own words, the cultural obsession with "le Vrai" could only stifle the inner quest of man for sheer beauty. To contrast the presupposed materialism of his time, Baudelaire actually calls for an aesthetic model whose perfection one can only reach through the exercise of patience. The cult of matter, in this sense, implies a definite reign of precipitation. (The critical analysis of this rule of precipitation will be developed in postmodernity by social thinker Paul Virilio. In his writings, and especially in his Vitesse et Politique, Virilio considers it to be one of the main aspects of a contemporary cultural order dominated by technology, the media and the power of instant information and communication). The ideal vision of a talented artist whose skills require a slow process of apprenticeship remains here rather academic. In many ways, it is rooted in a tradition that goes back to the medieval era. It is that of a disciple of a particular master, or in the world of writing and scholarship, that of the scribe who applies himself to the study, reproduction, and preservation of manuscripts. If, in the France in which Baudelaire lives, the natural painter has become an oddity and even a monster, it is partly because the general public does not allow for the perpetuation of the image of the artist as a meticulous craftsman. The law of material reality is stringent, inasmuch as it involves a specific acceleration of time: the time of art has now become identical to that of the social and economic world. It no longer
The Paradox of Photography
exists in a state of suspension, outside of most concerns for the instant cultural representation of the artwork itself, as was usually the case in the middle ages. The transformation of the painter into a monster reveals the secondary status of the aesthetic domain in modern French society. What is a monster, indeed, if not a figure of utmost ugliness, and radical evidence of the disappearance of beauty for those whose role is precisely to recognize and even worship its presence? It is interesting to notice that the poet, although passionately attached to the issue of "le Beau", does not provide us here with any true definition of this concept. It is as if the power of reality had been able to obscure beauty, even in the mind of its main admirer. This power is undoubtedly strengthened by the attitude of the public, whose identity cannot be determined by Baudelaire. For him, the only sure thing is that the public has no artistic nature. It lacks the capacity to feel and think synthetically, a shortcoming that appears to Baudelaire as an inherent aspect of French culture. Any true aesthetic sensitivity and thought requires, therefore, the sense of the whole, since beauty constitutes an entity that cannot be divided nor fragmented. One can go further by saying that the synthetic approach which the poet stresses reflects a specific quest for the absolute value of the artwork. By contrast, the public expresses the philosophical and cultural relativism of a certain type of modernity. "Le Vrai", thus, does not exist as such, although Baudelaire pretends it does. There are only various forms of reality, since reality itself is always considered as a set of different parts. So to speak, the definite article does not apply to this concept; otherwise reality could still be approached as a representation of the Absolute. In the mind of the public, what is ‘real’ is now located everywhere, but only as a symbol of cultural dissemination. The social power of this concept is specifically related to the impossibility of its unity. The relativism that is being unveiled here is that of a viewer who can play as many roles as he wants, and according to his or her own mood. He can be a moralist, an engineer, a philosopher or a socialite, since he is actually deprived of the only role that truly counts, for Baudelaire: the role of the artist. By artist, in this particular context, the poet does not mean one who creates or actually produces artworks, but one who clearly relates to the world in an aesthetic way. The artist is the person who is primarily concerned with
forms, and who always searches for their expression in the visible world. Although he is obviously not a painter, Baudelaire's narrow definition of the word "le Vrai" implies that he considers himself an artist, By contrast, a moralist is one who thinks of art as a means to convey specific ethical values and principles to the community; an engineer would tend to see art as a practical discipline destined to improve the material condition of the community, while a philosopher would emphasize the ontological dimension of art as opposed to its formal nature. Finally, the socialite would be content with its entertaining quality and its ability to distract people from their everyday concerns. In many ways, the moralist, the philosopher and the engineer share the same belief in rationality. They all belong to an intellectual order which can be characterized by its analytical method. What Baudelaire thus rejects in modernity is the sovereignty of thought and knowledge over critical sensitivity. The critique of such supremacy will be reiterated later by another great French poet, Paul Valéry, in his 3LqFHVVXUO¶$rt (Paris: Gallimard, 1934). In this book, Valéry writes that: "En matière d’art, l’érudition est une sorte de défaite: elle éclaire ce qui n’est point le plus délicat, elle approfondit ce qui n’est point essentiel. Elle substitue ses hypothèses à la sensation, sa mémoire prodigieuse à la présence de la merveille; et elle annexe au musée immense une bibliothèque illimitée. Vénus changée en document." (121-122). The public, although often ignorant in the field of art, is still capable of reflecting upon the objects he sees. This particular thinking, thus, can be entirely distinct from the actual knowledge of things. But it is also evidently distinct from any true emotional relationship with the world of forms. Ultimately, for Baudelaire the analytical approach of the public never leads to an actual critique of artwork. After all, this approach is dominated by the power of positive thinking: the cultural supremacy of reality is that of an order that can never be questioned. As long as one sees something, one must accept the cultural legitimacy of what one sees. In this sense, Baudelaire stresses the necessary link between the work of the critic and that of the poet. The average viewer of his time is not a poet, meaning an artist, because he is unable to engage in a true critical dialogue with the work of art. His judgment is largely influenced by the rational mindset of his contemporaries. By
The Paradox of Photography
comparison, the critic must remain indifferent to the spirit of the majority because the significance of his discourse is found in its fundamental individuality. From an etymological point of view, the word "individual" refers to the notion of a subject that cannot be divided. One is an individual, in this perspective, because one is a whole by oneself. It is therefore because of one’s own synthetic nature that one can relate synthetically to the world of art. It is quite clear that this emphasis on the total character of aesthetic sensitivity is reflected in the poetic perspective of the Correspondances. The individual who is constantly guided and inspired by the complete spectrum of the senses demands a resolution of all contradictions and differences within the realm of forms. Whether these forms are musical, pictorial or literary, they end up constituting an aesthetic entity which is impossible to dissociate. Therefore, when the critic speaks, he simultaneously echoes the voice of the poet. Both agree on the fact that modernity can be defined as the moment in Western history when the dominant cultural ethos refutes the poetic ideal of aesthetic totality. It does so, in particular, because the social order imposes a compartmentalized perception of things, due to the evergrowing process of specialization stemming from the rule of capitalism and bourgeois rationality. The philosopher, the moralist and the engineer are all, in their own way, the products of this process. Their specific vision of the world is a limited one, inasmuch as it is embodied in a discourse which, by definition, narrows the object of knowledge instead of widening it. This is why Baudelaire does not write or think as a so-called art critic. Art criticism, as such, in its academic tradition, still abides by this law of specialization. In other words, the poet is a true critic, a free and independent one, precisely because he is not a member of a particular professional group. It is in this very sense that Baudelaire epitomizes the spirit of modernity while apparently opposing it violently. He is therefore genuinely modern because he understands that one of the main duties of the artist is to break free of the fragmented conception of the artistic domain. In this perspective, art is not simply made of various disciplines defined by their own technique, mode of production and formal rules: instead, it is a privileged space of gathering, and even fusion, among numerous aesthetic languages and types of individual expression. In this regard, Baudelaire’s art criticism deals primarily with painting, but it deals
also with photography, fashion and music. The perception of the whole leads here to the integration of art into the cultural sphere in general. One can thus define Baudelaire’s aesthetic discourse as an authentic cultural discourse. By contradicting the original and wellestablished separation of artistic disciplines, the poet anticipates one of the most important characteristics of early twentieth-century modernism. One could think of Surrealism, in particular, and of its constant process of interaction among poetry, criticism, painting, photography and film. The essential paradox of Baudelaire’s discourse is that it remains profoundly and radically modern while denouncing a certain spirit of modernity. In this perspective, the true modernist is the one who at first adopts a distant position towards the world in which he lives in order to better embrace a hidden essence of the same world. At its beginning, this negating process already contains the possibility of a definite assertion. For this specific reason, Baudelaire might well be more modern than someone like Apollinaire. A more traditional and entrenched vision of Baudelairian aesthetics would tend to confine his sensitivity to the limited domain of "art for art’s sake". The lover of forms, thus, would be in a state of permanent and selfimposed isolation from the culture that surrounds him. But since "art for art’s sake", that is an ideal form of art completely detached from both the material and the social constraints of the time in which it appears, cannot objectively exist, the poet is forced to abandon this project replacing it with the highly personal vision of a total art. Nevertheless, the obvious idealism included in the notion of "art for art’s sake" is still present in the notion of a total art. In other words, the poet just moves, in this case, from one form of totality to the other. The deep belief in "art for art’s sake" would also impose the image of a timeless art. On the contrary, Baudelaire’s aesthetic perspective is literally haunted by the burden of time and more precisely, as said earlier, by the power of the present. This power is not merely cultural: it is also and maybe above all, existential in its nature. Moreover, the notion of "art for the sake of art" imposes the classical and somehow academic image of an aesthetic purity, which means that the integrity of the artwork cannot be altered by any external language or artistic expression. In other words, it definitely contradicts the baudelairian perspective that instead values the crossing of borders among art forms. This notion remains trapped in a
The Paradox of Photography
compartmentalized approach of art. It is no accident, therefore, if Baudelaire, in his broader critical discourse, praises above all the work and the aesthetic philosophy of Eugène Delacroix. The French painter, in fact, embodies for him all the qualities of a true modern artist, inasmuch as his painting is profoundly influenced by the close reading of many canonical authors of the Western literary legacy: Eugène Delacroix aimait tout, savait tout peindre, et savait goûter tous les genres de talents. C’était l’esprit le plus ouvert à toutes les notions et à toutes les impressions, le jouisseur le plus éclectique et le plus impartial. Grand liseur, cela va sans dire. La lecture des poètes laissait en lui des images grandioses et rapidement définies, des tableaux tout faits, pour ainsi dire. Quelque différent qu’il soit de son maître Guérin par la méthode et la couleur, il a hérité de la grande école républicaine et impériale l’amour des poètes et je ne sais quel esprit endiablé de rivalité avec la parole écrite. David, Guérin et Girodet enflammaient leur esprit au contact d’Homère, de Virgile, de Racine et d’Ossian. Delacroix fut le traducteur émouvant de Shakespeare, de Dante, de Byron et d’Arioste. Ressemblance importante et différence légère. (Baudelaire 424)
Delacroix was very well a spiritual brother, for the poet, precisely because he was in his own original way a total artist. He portrays him as a sort of Renaissance man, although Delacroix was also inspired in his painting by both biblical and oriental subjects. In this perspective, one has to notice the recurrent use of the word "tout" in Baudelaire’s discourse. The modern artist is the artist who is capable of enjoying everything, in his profound openness to all aesthetic forms and genres. Delacroix, therefore, perfectly represents Baudelaire’s idealism and translates it into the domain of art. But the painter is also an avid reader of numerous classical texts that provide him with vivid and grand images. These images are already "readymade" paintings. The love of all paintings implies in this sense the love of all poets. One is very far, here, from any sort of aesthetic nihilism. Moreover, the artistic or literary tradition does not contradict artistic or literary modernity. To the contrary, they complete each other. Delacroix’s painting, indeed, could not have existed without both the intense study and the personal cult of this so-called classicism. A superficial analysis of "Le Public moderne et la photographie" would make us believe that Baudelairian criticism rests upon the radical opposition between the past and the present, between what has been and what is. But the truth is more complex than that.
The poet does not really choose between the past and the present, as if they were essentially incompatible; he rather attempts to demonstrate their similarities and affinities. Delacroix is modern, thus, because he stresses in his own work the aesthetic potential stemming from the relationship between classicism and modernity. The key-notion of the "aesthetic whole", for Baudelaire, expresses therefore the specific whole of time. In other words, the time of art cannot be divided: it reflects instead the presence of a continuum that precisely gives meaning to the concept of modernity. Moreover, the respective histories of painting and literature are necessarily linked: the great modern artist is responsible for emphasizing this historical resemblance. What Baudelaire calls here "la rivalité avec la parole écrite" ("the rivalry with the written word") is not a true competition, in the crudest sense of the term. Both painting and literature, indeed, search for the same figures of both aesthetic and spiritual transcendence. This so-called competition signifies that Delacroix, as a painter, deeply understands not only the purely artistic power of poetry, but also, and maybe more importantly, its particular definition as the origin of the work of art, that is of painting. For instance, the word "translator", used by Baudelaire to describe Delacroix’s pictorial representation of Shakespearean characters such as Romeo and Juliet, underlines this profound sense of an aesthetic origin for modernity. The process of translation, in its narrow literary identity, implies the reality of a text that cannot exist without being preceded by another text. It is clear that Baudelaire, in his critical discourse, is trying to submit painting to the spirit of poetry. His sense of wholeness stems from a particular sensitivity which still grants a pre-eminent position to the written word conceived in its lyrical form. In this regard, his passion for Delacroix’s work expresses his own feeling of rivalry with the world of images. Evidently, the poet and the painter use a different language, but they must end up solving their differences by ultimately confessing the poetic nature of all artistic expression. In this perspective, the sense of origin does not negate the aesthetic value of modernity. To the contrary, it enhances it. The quest for "Le Vrai", which constitutes for Baudelaire one of the main features of the modern viewer in "Le Public moderne et la Photographie", precisely misses the aesthetic importance of this origin for the construction of a modern discourse on art. The sovereignty of
The Paradox of Photography
reality is the sovereignty of a present with no source. It breaks the essential continuity of aesthetic time, which is now being confused with the mere social time shared by all men who live in the modern world, regardless of their class or professional activity. The cultural power of reality is associated here with the cultural power of progress. Both contain an important mythological dimension without which they could not define the new identity of art in mid-nineteenth-century France. The notion of progress itself entails the same denial of origin as reality. To believe in the supremacy of progress, indeed, is not only to worship the future as such, but also, and more significantly, to make the present ever more distant from the past. Therefore, progress imposes its own history by erasing any other form of history. For Baudelaire, beauty has a history that the present is destined to represent. But this particular process of representation is annihilated by the irresistible projection of the present into the future. Strictly speaking, this future has no origin. The Baudelairian perspective on the time of art emphasizes the idea that any discourse on modernity must be above all a discourse on the birth of modernity. By contrast, one can say that progress stems from a philosophy of time that alienates modernity from the reflection upon its own beginning. The main purpose of the artist is now to create a contrived sense of surprise through the public exhibition of the work of art. In this regard, the artist uses all means available to reach this goal. Evidently, since everything is now permitted, he is going to resort to various practices that do not belong in principle to the world of art. At the time of Baudelaire, it is clear that the cultural power of advertising, for instance, was not what it is today, in our age of advanced technology and the global media. When the poet, indeed, says in the English language that "it is a happiness to wonder", he might very well have foreseen in his own way the personal feelings and emotions of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century publicist, in his constant desire to attract the attention of the consumer through various strategies of seduction. Baudelaire, undoubtedly, could not have identified in those same terms this cultural phenomenon at the time when he lived. He could only perceive the gradual but nonetheless systematic transformation of the artist into a seducer of the crowd. In this regard, it is interesting to notice that the new credo of the so-called modern artist is expressed here in a foreign language, as if by its very nature it implied the weakening of French
cultural identity. Indeed, this credo has somehow already become universal, and by being so, it expresses art’s alienation from its original community. The poet is confronted with a particular process of cultural appropriation, and therefore, of cultural dispossession. The artist has now entered a system of representation in which art itself is just a material means to achieve collective amazement. This is how capitalism and bourgeois society can tolerate the presence of beauty, but this can only be true so as long as beauty is submitted to the law of wonder. The sense of surprise is apparently shared by all members of the community: it retains a vague and rather shallow democratic quality that reinforces its power. In other words, beauty is not being destroyed by the modern world: instead, it is being manipulated and used in order to produce a false aesthetic equality among all things, and more precisely, among all artworks. Any object can now engender an almost instant emotional reaction from the crowd, since the artist has agreed upon the terms of this cultural contract. In this perspective, of course, the artwork is no longer an end, but simply a means of spreading the new social norms of its reception. The crowd must now be struck by quick sensual stimuli before being literally overwhelmed by the aesthetic achievement of art. In this regard, Baudelaire refers to "procédés" and "stratagèmes", that is, to a tactical approach stressing the control exercised by hidden forces that do not belong strictly to the world of art. These two terms reflect the profound conflict that now exists between the realm of aesthetics and that of culture. For the poet, indeed, there is no such thing as an aesthetic strategy (and there is no such thing as a poetic strategy either). Forms express primarily the strength of the artist’s personal vision. They do not stem from a sort of objective calculation that would be influenced by the predetermination of the public’s attitude. In this sense, art has become more and more subject to the power of rationality. This type of rationality paradoxically escapes the aesthetic reason of both dreams and imagination. The emphasis on the tactical character of the artist’s project actually stirs a sort of cheap emotional response among the mass of viewers. But this emotional response is very much an ephemeral one: it only exists as long as the artist is aware of the public impact of his work. The common sense of wonder cannot last: by essence, indeed, it is destined to fade rapidly. Therefore, a certain philosophy of the time of art is once again at stake here.
The Paradox of Photography
To oppose this so-called happiness to wonder, Baudelaire refers to the ethical value of the ecstatic relationship to the work of art. The feeling of ecstasy, which relies mostly upon the happiness of dream, implies a suspension of time: the viewer is now detached from the constraints of real time and wanders through artworks by surrendering to the power of imagination. Baudelaire’s ethical ambitions also point at the necessary similarity between the approach of the art critic and that of the poet. In other terms, it is not only the painter who has to give up his rational mindset in order to become a "true artist", but also the critic. In his article "À quoi bon la critique?" (Baudelaire 77-79), Baudelaire attempts to define in this regard the task of the modern critic. In this text, he clearly demonstrates that the best form of criticism must be both funny and poetic. In addition, he underlines the fact that it has to contradict the dominant critical discourse which largely rests upon the vain pretension to explain painting in a purely rational way. This "cold and algebraic" concept of criticism, to use his own words, has to be rejected because it is profoundly deprived of any hate or love. The so-called intelligence of traditional or academic criticism is somewhat immune to both the moral and the aesthetic power of passion. It is still penetrated by a strategic and somewhat prudent approach to the work of art. In its obsession with both reason and measure, it fails to express the very feelings which, by essence, give birth to beauty and to the visual transcription of the artist’s imagination. "Ainsi, le meilleur compterendu d’un tableau pourra être un sonnet ou une élégie." (Baudelaire 78) The same suspicion that Baudelaire voices against the artist can be found again in his negative attitude toward the official critic. In order to re-establish the sovereignty of lasting emotions in modernity, the poet must therefore identify art criticism with the work of the poet. There is no such thing as an essay on art, in this sense. One can only write poetry on art, even if one does not actually resort to the language of poetry while writing criticism. This assertion must be understood as a radical response to the spirit of the artist and the critic as mere speculators. Criticism has to be independent from any philosophy of usefulness. It is not a commodity, and it does not serve any practical goal. "À quoi bon?" indeed: the very fact that this question is being raised by the poet shows that he does not really believe in the cultural application of the discourse on art. This discourse must remain highly
subjective, passionate and political. In other words, it constitutes for Baudelaire the ultimate expression of the romantic soul in the modern world. In the conclusion of his short essay, the poet actually asks for as much romanticism as possible: the artist and the critic, therefore, must be united in their quest for sincerity and the ethics of feelings. To go back to the essay on photography, this means that the strategy of wonder, so to speak, only leads to the concealment of man’s true irrational nature. Criticism, in spite of what it simply seems to be, constitutes very well a discourse of the Absolute, and not just a cautious account based upon the failed ideology of relativism. This radical conception has far reaching consequences: it implies for the poet the strong belief in the metaphysical dimension of criticism ("La critique touche à chaque instant à la métaphysique" as he writes (Baudelaire 79)). By this, one has to understand a global assault on a tradition of rationality which, in French culture, goes back to Descartes and Malebranche (and even before that, to Montaigne), is prolonged in many ways by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, in particular Montesquieu, and will still be echoed in the twentiethcentury in the work of both Bergson and Sartre. In this regard, it is no accident if Baudelaire, in his essay on "Le Public moderne et la photographie" criticizes with a particular violence what he characterizes as the "French spirit". It is a spirit which, for him, is profoundly immune to the spiritual power of romanticism. If other people or nations are superior to the French, according to his own words, it is precisely because they are capable of feeling with their whole being the call for the absolute included in any true work of art. Philosophical, moral and aesthetic relativism has already corrupt modern French society. Obviously, it is a clear consequence of the rule of the bourgeoisie and of its fundamental materialism. But it is also the consequence of a whole intellectual tradition that has dominated France for decades and even centuries. In this sense, Baudelaire’s discourse remains also cultural in the sense that it reflects upon a certain legacy of thinking that belongs specifically to French culture. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise if the poet of Les Fleurs du Mal finds his true alter ego, which is Edgar Allan Poe, in a foreign culture, namely the Anglo-Saxon world of nineteenth-century America. One must notice in this regard the important work done by Baudelaire both as a critic and a translator of Poe’s work (for instance, his own translation of Arthur Gordon
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Pym). If Baudelaire was hostile to the rise of the Daguerreotype in modern culture, though, such was not the case for Poe, who quickly celebrated the technical accomplishments of this photographic process in an article entitled "The Daguerreotype" and published in 1840. Poe praised in his text "the most beautiful miracle" of a plate that could produce an image of great accuracy and realism. In other words, photography could achieve for him a synthesis of both beauty and truth, a statement which radically contradicts Baudelaire’s perspective on the subject. Baudelaire’s brother in poetry has to come from another cultural tradition, one that is more open to the power of the Supernatural and at the same time less tied to the obstinate faith in the moral supremacy of Reason. In the same perspective, Delacroix is a great artist because he borrows his pictorial inspiration from the English, the Italian and the Oriental culture almost simultaneously. In this sense, he is a "world artist" and not a purely French one, as opposed, for instance, to what will happen later with the more obvious and purer Frenchness of Impressionist painters such as Seurat or Monet, and after that, of Cézanne. The emphasis on both the romantic and the metaphysical nature of criticism is not just motivated by aesthetic or even ethical concerns: it also reflects the intensity of a cultural conflict that the poet constantly carries within himself. But the metaphysical dimension that Baudelaire claims as an essential part of critical discourse must also be related to the belief in the individual expression through this discourse. The poet has to assert his own unbridled form of individualism wherever he can: it is his duty as well as his fate. By contrast, neither the modern artist nor the modern public are capable of imposing their own selves, since they are tied by a tactical contract which stresses their cultural similarities instead of enlightening their original differences. The need for the representation of radical subjectivity beyond any cultural order constitutes the main feature of the romantic sensitivity, but it also leads to a metaphysical conception of both art and criticism in the sense that this need becomes no less than a matter of life and death. Baudelaire’s metaphysical individualism is not just a circumstantial individualism shaped by material concerns and the practical constraints of the outside world: it is instead an absolute exigency stemming from the faith in the creative power of man’s inner life. In this context, the poet refers to the necessary temperament of both the
artist and the critic, by which term he implies both their strong personalities and the profound vigor of their respective feelings. In this sense, "temperament" contains the image of an uncompromising soul, of a subject who cannot be satisfied with the strictly contractual nature of art in modernity. It is this very same quality that Baudelaire, for instance, will emphasize elsewhere in his apology of Delacroix. Moreover, by putting forward this issue of "temperament", the poet recognizes both the aesthetic and the moral value of sincerity: the artist and the critic must not be afraid of their own naiveté, which means the foremost transparency of their intimate emotions. By contrast, the strategy of wonder is never naïve: it always conceals the true intentions of the artist and it is only the proof of a suspension of authenticity. This particular process is evidently imposed by the cultural law of the instant public reception of the work of art. "Le vrai", therefore, is not true. In other words, the romanticism that Baudelaire displays in his article on Photography is not a romanticism of forms; it is a romanticism of content. Art prevails when the painter or the poet crosses the sheer limits of aesthetics and assert the passionate inspiration of his own creative world. This is the reason why Baudelaire opposes Delacroix to Victor Hugo and confesses without any ambiguity his artistic preference for the painter. Hugo remains trapped in the aesthetic norms of academic poetry: he is a virtuoso of rhetorical conventions, of classical rhymes and tones, but the formal perfection of his work stifles in many ways the raw expression of his own feelings and emotions. On the contrary, Delacroix is not afraid of a certain aesthetic clumsiness or even disorder, because he believes profoundly in the ultimate power of shameless audacity and unabashed lyricism. Hugo, therefore, is primarily a skilled and experienced worker, while Delacroix is more of a youthful but innovative creator. The poet already belongs to the Academy from the start, while the painter explores an inner domain that is only his own. In this sense, the true poet is not the one we think. Baudelaire’s original definition of romanticism, in his emphasis on both spirituality and intimacy, questions by nature the vanity of strict formalism and calls for the supremacy of the artist’s instincts in the birth of the work of art. In this regard, the poet is anything but an esthete, in the traditional sense of the term. If Baudelaire had been living in the twentieth-century, it is almost certain that he would have been much more sensitive to the
The Paradox of Photography
pictorial primitivism of abstract expressionism, for instance, than to the patient but cold geometry of a Mondrian or to the sophisticated but abstract formal integrity of classical cubism. "Il faut en finir une fois pour toutes avec ces niaiseries de rhétoricien", as he says in his comparison between Hugo’s and Delacroix’s romanticism (Baudelaire 91). Baudelaire’s metaphysical individualism requires a radical departure from any purely formal approach of art. His discourse is metaphysical precisely because he asks for the artistic expression of an Absolute that no aesthetic system, by itself, can really engender. To put it differently, the poet’s romanticism, which is just another term for his metaphysical individualism, does not reflect his unilateral support of a specific school of art and thought: it is instead the symbol of a highly personal vision of both the world and the artist’s role in modernity. The moral supremacy of beauty, in his critical discourse, cannot simply be associated with the superficial cult of nice objects or artifacts. The demanding quest that it implies emphasizes instead an ethics of hard work and even sacrifice, as exemplified by the life of Delacroix. Beauty is by definition difficult to reach. The cultural evolution that Baudelaire denounces in "Le Public moderne et la Photographie" makes it indeed even more remote from the world of everyday affairs. In this perspective, "le Beau" exceeds the limits of a mere sensual fulfillment that could be achieved at any moment inside the material world. That is the reason why the common identification of Baudelaire with the well-known figure of the dandy lacks critical legitimacy, in this case. According to the poet’s discourse, the dandy is a figure of idleness, and it is through this very quality that he can establish some sort of aristocratic distinction between himself and the rest of society. Moreover, his attraction to beauty is more a result of his good taste than the consequence of his true passion. His own brand of individualism, therefore, is too tempered to include the radical philosophical perspective of romanticism in its metaphysical dimension. Although Baudelaire is able to find some features of the dandy in both Guys and Delacroix (and also in Poe), he actually never indulges in the sort of "originality for originality’s sake" that constitutes one of the main aspects of this character. In many ways, the dandy is also the epitome of narcissism. "C’est une espèce de culte de soi-même, qui peut survivre à la recherche du bonheur, à trouver dans autrui, dans la femme, par exemple; qui peut survivre même à ce
qu’on appelle les illusions" (Baudelaire 370). But it is precisely this narcissism in both the crowd and photography that Baudelaire abhors, as his essay "Le Public moderne et la photographie" clearly demonstrates. In spite of his aesthetic refinement and his personal pride, the dandy therefore remains tied to the worst impulses of modern society. At best the dandy is a cultural phenomenon that Baudelaire can only appreciate as such. He is the mirror of a waning era in which the aristocratic mind has not been yet completely overwhelmed by the socalled democratic law of equality and transparency, a law that the poet forcefully rejects. "Le Dandysme est un soleil couchant" (Baudelaire 372), which means it largely belongs to the past and is actually unable to pave the way for a new order of art located in the present, as opposed to the original romanticism of both Delacroix and Poe. It is a sunset, not a sunrise. The dandy can also constitute the subject matter of art, as he witnesses it in several of Constantin Guys’s drawings. But he can never become the ideal figure of the artist since he is naturally deprived of both the rigorous discipline and the emotional intensity that this ideal calls for. "Le caractère de beauté du Dandy consiste surtout dans l’air froid qui vient de l’inébranlable résolution de ne pas être ému." (Baudelaire 372). He might be a cold and latent fire, and admired as such by the poet, but his obstinate refusal to express or let flow his own emotions nonetheless contradicts the ethical definition of modern art which Baudelaire asserts elsewhere in his own critical discourse. In his essay "Boundaries of time and being", included in his book The Culture of Redemption (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), Leo Bersani has analyzed Baudelaire’s discourse on the dandy, a figure that he defines himself as "the bizarre modern form of individualism" (79). As he writes: There is, in short, nothing to be seen in the dandy except the determination not to let anything be seen. In a sense, no one is more prostituted to others than the dandy: his aristocratic individuality depends entirely on how others will interpret his heroically scrupulous erasure of any signs whatsoever of individuality, an erasure that may depend literally on the truly heroic, truly impossible feat of monitoring the movements of one’s sleeping body in a mirror. If in their self-prostitution the lover and the artist find themselves dispersed in the images of otherness within them, the dandy-more radically dependent on others-exists only in the astonished fabulations of those he seduces into inventing him. (80)
The Paradox of Photography
In many ways, the dandy is an individualist without a true individuality. His identity remains highly problematic, since it needs the others’ gaze to exist. He is, so to speak, the mirror of his own void. Moreover, his constant dependency upon others (upon other people’s capacity to fantasize and imagine him) profoundly contradicts Baudelaire’s philosophy of the modern poet, a figure that asks indeed for a radical emancipation from the bourgeois social order and the norms of the community. The modern poet is definitely not a figure of seduction, let alone of prostitution: he constitutes instead a symbol of utmost contradiction and even conflict with the other (as the poem /¶$OEDWURV clearly demonstrates it). To put it differently, Baudelaire is no Andy Warhol for the nineteenth-century (indeed, the famous jet-setter of Pop Art could have never qualified as a "doomed artist"). His ongoing concern for both the eternal in art and the nobility of the artist renders him somehow immune to the aesthetic appeal of trends. Moreover, in "Le Public moderne et la photographie" the poet never yields to the cheap temptations of popular culture. His critique of photography, indeed, is above all motivated by the fact that the majority of the new medium's intended audience basically uneducated in the field of art. The dandy’s distinction is that of a man who actually confuses eccentricity, which is primarily a psychological notion, with true originality, which is more of an aesthetic or philosophical nature. His apparent exception comes from a certain set of individual behaviors and attitudes rather than from a thoughtful conception of art. It is the exception of a character before being that of a vision. In this sense, the figure of the dandy enables Baudelaire to develop a specific cultural discourse against democracy and the reign of the masses, but it does not lead to the definition of a new artistic order for modernity. Clearly, the dandy raises the issue of individualism and of its cultural meaning in mid-nineteenth-century France. In his own way he stresses the need for human singularity in a society whose values and principles have profoundly distorted it. But he also reflects the conflict that exists between the self and the social conditions under which he is forced to live. In other words, he cannot identify with the dominant bourgeois class of his time because he still belongs to the aristocratic world of the past. Therefore, his own feelings of exclusion have to be defined primarily in sociological, rather than in strictly artistic terms.
The nineteenth century was the century of the industrial revolution in France. If Baudelaire could cope with the idea of a Revolution and the historical events that it entails, as shown by his enthusiastic and committed response to the Utopian political movement of 1848, there is no way he could agree with the rule of industry, especially when applied to the domain of art rather than that of social and economic production. When the poet refers to photography, he does not use the word "art", as if this word was only reserved for painting. But in focusing almost obsessively on the industrial nature of photography he yields to the gross generalizations of cultural discourse, and thereby abandons the subtlety that generally characterizes his meditations on modern aesthetics. While elsewhere the poet is a sophisticated and careful analyst of forms in their most tenuous details, he demonstrates here an irresistible tendency to general statements and simplistic characterizations. The problem, then, is not that Baudelaire criticizes photography or even rejects it as a whole, but that in order to do so he adopts a rhetorical position that lacks aesthetic legitimacy. In other words, it is a problem of language and style rather than content. The gaze of the critic has no role here: his discourse is not that of someone who looks at things, but of a man who covers his own eyes before writing or speaking. It is interesting that Baudelaire never makes specific reference to individual photographs, as though photography, unlike painting or sculpture, is not made of particular objects. For the poet, even bad paintings have a name (we know this already through his numerous comments, in the same essay, on their rather preposterous titles). Yet all pictures remain anonymous. In this sense, the subject matter of his discourse is a non-subject from the start, and it is this very neutrality that renders his argument profoundly abstract. Art criticism no longer exists, since it requires by nature the presence of well-defined objects from which the critic can draw his inspiration. Photography is deliberately denied its aesthetic dimension: it is not just a bad art form, but constitutes the vacuum of all form. Baudelaire does not merely emphasize the shortcomings of his subject: he erases it almost entirely in a sort of nihilistic gesture. What remains is the vaguely moral power of radical negativity. In other words, the poet asserts his overwhelming subjectivity by systematically destroying the image of the object to which this subjectivity is destined. Such a perspective has no equivalent in modernity, and it is in this regard that
The Paradox of Photography
Baudelaire’s essay still deserves attention as a unique attempt to obliterate the very foundations of critical discourse. If photography is undoubtedly absent in this case, it is because of the ubiquitous presence of the crowd. The poet shifts therefore from an aesthetic position to a purely cultural one. In this sense, his essay unconsciously reflects the rise, not only of a new medium, but also of a new science in modernity. Indeed, sociology is the true new theoretical discourse of the mid-nineteenth century. If the origin of hard sciences such as mathematics and physics can be traced to Ancient Greece, and if the same can be said about philosophy, the science of modern society, by contrast, only develops fully at the time of Baudelaire. In France, the work of both Auguste Comte and Gabriel Tarde will soon establish the intellectual credibility of such a science before the advent of Freudian psychoanalysis at the beginning of the twentieth century. The era of the masses calls for an unprecedented form of knowledge, one that will strive to underline the social domination of collective entities and structures over the individual in the modern world. (For an introduction to Gabriel Tarde’s groundbreaking sociological work in the second half of the nineteenth century, I want to refer in particular to his books Social Laws and Communication and Social Influence). Although he vehemently opposes the modern phenomenon of photography, Baudelaire retains his own modernity by insisting on a cultural approach which emphasizes the whole of the social order. This is the fundamental paradox of his critique. His gaze becomes that of a sociologist, one who can only witness the confusing movements of the crowd and yet disregards the meaning of both particular objects and individual lives. The main target of his discourse is the crowd, inasmuch as it does not possess any personal feature. This collective reality is not even made of people: it is merely a conceptual construction that allows him to express his own hostility towards the success of photography. It is clear that the poet’s dislike of any industrial product echoes the social philosophy of Charles Fourier. Fourier’s critique of modern industrial production and his call for the return to a rural community where all men could live their passions and their intimate feelings without any constraint will influence both André Breton, who will write a poetic ode in his honor and the various libertarian and Utopian movements of the nineteen sixties, from the hippies to May 68.
But Baudelaire does not offer any true alternative to this model. The enemy has won, and utopian possibility has been replaced by the fatalistic certainty of technical dominance. The rule of industry is identified with the irreversible loss of the divine within French society. New Gods have already appeared and Baudelaire can only acknowledge the cult of photography in the middle classes of midnineteenth century France. Words such as "fanaticism" and "sun worshippers" unequivocally assert the religious dimension of this ever-growing passion of the masses for pictures. Even Daguerre himself is compared to a sort of Messiah, albeit as a dark archetype. One could talk, therefore, of a religious spirit in the shadow of its own death. In his article "Daguerre, un Prométhée chrétien", published in Études Photographiques (Paris: Société Française de Photographie, May 1997, 2), the French art historian Éric Michaud analyzes in this regard the important religious dimension of Daguerre’s invention. He explains that this pioneer of photography was deeply concerned with a politics of images that would have facilitated the propagation of Christian universalism. Daguerre saw himself as a Promethean figure destined to embody the heroism of modern technique put in the service of a new Christianity. As he writes: "Ce Christianisme pratique achevait de substituer au culte des images fournies par la Providence, le culte de leurs techniques de production qu’apportait le progrès. " (55) In this context, it is obvious that Baudelaire’s radical vocabulary alone questions the legitimacy of any critical discourse. The necessary subjectivity of this discourse is so distorted that it becomes an object of caricature and derision. In this sense, "Le Public moderne et la photographie", especially in its second part, reveals the ultimate crisis of the critical subject. In other words, this essay becomes anti-poetic precisely because it is anti-critical, or rather because it deliberately assaults the principles and proper qualities of art criticism as defined earlier by Baudelaire himself. And this is how photography leads to the annihilation of the poet’s personal means of expression. The use of religious metaphors is evidently not an oddity for Baudelaire, as they constitute a repeated feature of his poetry, and most particularly in Les Fleurs du Mal. But the numerous references to religion in his literary work always retain a lyrical, almost apologetic dimension. They enable him to arrive at a sort of spiritual
The Paradox of Photography
ecstasy, and serve as a means of reconciliation between his own soul and the material order of things. Of course, there is no such process of reconciliation in his essay on photography, where religious metaphors only emphasize the absolute distance between the poet and the world, a distance that is clearly impossible to overcome. The religious language of redemption and salvation has now turned into a language of sheer damnation. In this sense the essay is overwhelmed with a profound pathos, one which his poetry is usually able to transcend. It is a pathos that is obviously born out of fear: the fear of the unknown, of a language that the poet is unable to decipher. What Baudelaire represents here is not the failure of photography as an art form, but the failure of criticism as an art form. The poet is confronted by a medium that is still in its infancy, and it is precisely this "childhood of art" that he cannot grasp or even analyze. While painting draws its aesthetic legitimacy from the shadow of its own history, photography is still very much identified with the present and with the world to come. It has no real history, and therefore has no real origin. This is evidently what separates Baudelaire from it. What can be said about the historical nature of the meaning of painting can also be said, of course, about the poetic language. There is no way to look back, and this is why the poet's gaze remains obscured by the limits of time. This is clearly the reason why his critique of bad painting is less vitriolic than his attitude towards photography. At least bad painting can still be integrated into some sort of historical framework. The history of art, in the classical sense of the term, does not solely rely upon the study of masterpieces. It can also focus on the study of minor, if not mediocre works, as long as they reflect a specific aesthetic (if not cultural) development of painting at a particular moment in history. By contrast, photography lacks a true system of references. Photography, so to speak, does not rest upon anything ("La photographie ne repose sur rien"). If it is essentially absent in Baudelaire’s discourse, it is because the main issue it raises is the issue of its own cultural reception, and not of its artistic significance as a means of representation. If photography does not represent anything, it cannot itself be represented by criticism. What is left is the fuzzy image of a mass of viewers that escapes any authentic process of identification. The "worshipper", by definition, is a mere dot within the crowd. He may be a human being, but he is not a
subject: indeed, the nature of the cult requires that he surrender his own personality. Because of this, Baudelaire’s attack does not focus on an art form, but on society as a whole, regardless of the individuals that constitute it ("La société immonde se rua, comme un seul Narcisse, pour contempler sa triviale image sur le métal" (Baudelaire 277)). The industry is not made of proud members of a particular socio-economic structure. Instead, it is made of ghosts, and as such it possesses no real physical identity. Baudelaire's essay has often been interpreted as an unambiguous condemnation of both the moral and the aesthetic value of nature. Certainly, the notion of an art form conceived as the mere reproduction of nature is contrary to the poet’s critical philosophy. Nevertheless, in this case the word "nature" actually refers to the socalled objective realism of photography. In other words, photography pretends to be ‘natural’ because it is realistic. Therefore it is not nature as a privileged subject matter of art that is scorned here, rather the specific mode of representation that an exact and meticulous reproduction of nature implies. Baudelaire is neither Rousseau nor Thoreau: he never idealizes nature, and he remains constantly aware of the presence of Evil within it. Yet he does draw his poetic inspiration from his own intimate relationship with the natural world. For instance, the remote paradise described in /¶,QYLWDWLRQDXYR\DJH (an imaginary place where everything is "order and beauty, luxury, calm and voluptuousness"), primarily reflects the formal perfection of flowers, rivers and sunsets. And what is a poem like /¶+RPPHHWOD mer if not a lyrical statement about the profound resemblances between man and the natural elements ("la mer est ton miroir"), and beyond that, about the passions which have always tied them, from love to hate? For the poet, nature is never the true other, or even a definite stranger, but rather a brotherly soul that is also capable of disappointing and even betraying him. Clearly, Baudelaire’s relationship with nature is complex. This is why the apparently radical perspective expressed in "Le Public moderne et la photographie" should not mislead us. The poet’s inner vision could not exist without a profound attraction to nature which is constantly mixed with a feeling of repulsion. Poetry, whether classical or modern, cannot deny nature. Such an attitude would be equivalent to the denial of poetry (and of art) itself. But it can adopt a position of contradiction, while
The Paradox of Photography
simultaneously overcoming this original contradiction through the moral power of aesthetics. Baudelaire’s romanticism rejects both the natural idealism of ancient Greece and the sheer nihilism of a particular modernity. From his point of view, modernity is guilty of distorting the image of nature through the blind action of industrial reproduction. In other words, photography is not bad because it is natural, but because it pretends to be natural. A particular cultural process of deception is at stake here: it entails the deliberate confusion between reality and nature. But for Baudelaire nature is precisely what is to be imagined or dreamt about, and not what is to be seen as a purely material object. It is never taken for granted, but instead permanently reinvented and reconstructed through the magic of words. Representations of nature in photography do not allow for such a creative process (which is of course, primarily, a poetic process). The overpowering influence of industry thus imposes a pre-determined image of nature, one that can no longer be modified by its audience. Above all, Baudelaire’s disgust stems from the supremacy of realism in the photographic form. In essence, realism asserts the impossibility of moving beyond reality: nature becomes a realm of objective facts, and is thereby rendered immune to the influence of the light of dreams. It is in this regard that Narcissus (a figure so vehemently decried by Baudelaire in the same text) is the ultimate realist. By looking at himself in the water, and by stating that the image he sees is the perfect mirror of his own being, he actually implies that there is nothing to be seen beyond what he sees. The mere surface of things becomes the proof of his presumed beauty and physical perfection. It is this unshakable belief in the superiority of the visible world which leads him to the intimate conviction of his own superiority towards others. The reality manifest in the reflection of his image thus constitutes the most solid foundation of his self-love. To put it differently, the unleashing of his absolute subjectivity (an almost terrorist one) is conditioned by the absolute objectivity of his own representation in the outside world. This particular representation is now conceived as a totality that cannot be exceeded. There lies the fundamental paradox of Narcissus, a sovereign subject whose apparent power is necessarily linked to the deep awareness of his own existence as a pure object inscribed within an indisputable reality.
It is clear that Baudelaire’s critique of modern narcissism rests upon the foremost role played by the aesthetics of portrait in photography. What he witnesses, in fact, is the birth of a new form that emphasizes self-representation as opposed to the representation of the outside world (the world of others). The cultural success of the Daguerreotype was primarily that of a medium that enabled the midnineteenth-century middle class to look at its own image. The main subject matter of these pictures rapidly became the closed nucleus of the family. Parents were thus seduced by the possibility of representing their children, as well as themselves, in an almost instantaneous manner. The democracy that Baudelaire opposes is therefore, above all, a deceiving equality of social representation. This particular process actually signifies the domination of the same social order, that of the bourgeoisie, through the endless production of seemingly singular artifacts. The popularity of this kind of portrait thus expresses the ardent desire of the masses for conformity, a conformity that needs to be asserted and reiterated constantly through the world of images. One is reassured in one’s own social integration through a form that emphasizes one’s resemblance to the rest of the community. Photography therefore constitutes a contrived space of similarity: this very similarity of appearances is now confused with a declaration of equality. This is precisely the reason why Baudelaire could enjoy, in a twisted and almost perverted way, the creation of his own portrait by a photographer such as Nadar. He was convinced that his artist-friend could rise to some sort of aesthetic challenge by creating an originallooking portrait. Baudelaire’s main purpose was to raise provocative, even defiant questions about the cultural identity of photography. This was a matter of personal pride, the pride of a poet who thought his own uniqueness could prevail over the uniform character of the medium (which is also the pride of a relentless fighter who thinks that, even in defeat, he can still battle his enemy and inflict some wounds). In this sense, Nadar's portrait of Baudelaire does not reflect a true attitude of complicity towards photography, but can be viewed as a parody of society’s narcissism, an ironic comment on its vanity. It is the sign of the poet’s profound resistance in front of a language that attempts to confuse his own personality with that of the masses. Therefore, and in spite of all, it does not really contradict the aggressive spirit of his essay "Le Public moderne et la photographie".
The Paradox of Photography
If one compares this essay with "Le Peintre de la vie moderne," also published in his &ULWLTXH G¶$UW, one is immediately struck by their differences of perspective as far as the crowd is concerned. Whereas Baudelaire celebrates the artistic figure of Constantin Guys as "l’homme des foules", the man who embraces the dynamic movement of humanity as a whole at any moment and under all circumstances ("sa passion et sa profession, c’est d’épouser la foule" (Baudelaire 351)), he loathes photography's audience, both for its complacency and its vulgarity ("obscenity" is actually the word that he uses in this case). The ideal of art as the representation of modern life entails a definite process of identification between the painter and the people. M.G., meaning Constantin Guys, is therefore truly modern, because he always feels at home in the crowd. As he says himself, any man who gets bored in the middle of the multitude is an idiot, and he can only have contempt for him. The experience of the masses confronts him with the vital and irresistible energy of the world, from which he draws his own artistic inspiration. This experience is primarily aesthetic in nature: what M.G. admires in the crowd is the profound harmony of ever-changing forms, the overwhelming beauty of certain landscapes, clothes and faces. He is staring at a model that he will later attempt to reproduce in his own works. The relationship that he establishes with the crowd is thus essentially visual: his gaze is fascinated by particular details that he internalizes in order to create an original aesthetics. ("Harnachements, scintillements, musique, regards décidés, moustaches lourdes et sérieuses, tout cela entre pêle-mêle en lui; et dans quelques minutes, le poème qui en résulte sera virtuellement composé" (Baudelaire 353)). Therefore, the apparent fusion (both physical and spiritual) that Baudelaire suggests between the painter and the masses does not really abolish the sense of a distance between the two. It is first and above all through the gaze that M.G. is connected to the subject matter of his art: this very fact underlines the need for a clear distinction (both material and spatial) between him and the world. He is the artist, and the crowd remains his object, although a privileged one, by reaching a formal perfection which is also the proof of its ultimate remoteness. It is worth remembering that this kind of aesthetic perception of the crowd does not exist in "Le Public moderne et la photographie". Baudelaire looks at it, but because he views it as the paramount
symbol of a cultural order that he despises, he finds nothing in it but chaos and meaninglessness. Nevertheless, the two perspectives, although contradictory in many of their statements, still regard the crowd as an external force for both the poet and the artist. In one case this force can be tamed and eventually controlled through the assertion of its unique formal quality, while in the other case it remains the sheer reflection of the poet’s powerlessness in front of the modern world. Baudelaire’s conflict with the photographic portrait does not mean that he rejects the representation of the singular subject as a whole. On the contrary, one can find in his critical work a profound respect for the tradition of portrait in painting. For instance, in his essay "Le Portrait" he praises the aesthetic accomplishments of the classical work of Holbein. For him, the artistic value of a portrait primarily rests upon the use of his own imagination by the painter. In other words, the great portrait does not simply reproduce the physical features of an individual with utmost accuracy, but must also represent his inner character and depth of soul. ("Le portrait, ce genre en apparence si modeste, nécessite une immense intelligence" (Baudelaire 315)). The apparent simplicity of the portrait as a genre, its essential modesty, should not mislead the critic: its composition requires the most rigorous work of the mind. Indeed, as Baudelaire shows at the beginning of his essay, it is the bourgeois who believes in the superiority of the model over the artist. ("Je pose et en réalité c’est moi le modèle, qui consens à faire le gros de la besogne. Je suis le véritable fournisseur de l’artiste. Je suis, à moi tout seul, toute la matière." (Baudelaire 314)). For the poet, of course, it is the other way around. The arrogance of the bourgeois stems from the idea that the subject matter of art can almost single-handedly define its aesthetic nature. The personal touch of the artist therefore becomes irrelevant, because he is only the servant of a particular model that he faithfully obeys. The pose, then, determines the identity of the artwork: it dictates the gestures of the painter and monopolizes the whole material substance of art. It is evidently this cultural rule of the pose that Baudelaire despises in the Daguerreotype. In this perspective, the portrait constitutes a mere system of reproduction instead of being a true order of representation. In "Le Portrait", the pretentious discourse of the bourgeois is immediately contested by the poet, who asserts by
The Paradox of Photography
contrast the power of the artist’s imagination. What Baudelaire refuses thus is the definition of the portrait as a closed form, both in painting and in photography. So to speak, the good portrait is not a still life, it is, literally, a moving life. It contains the visible presence of an original drama, one which belongs to the subject himself. ("Un bon portrait m’apparaît toujours comme une biographie dramatisée, ou plutôt comme le drame naturel inhérent à tout homme" (Baudelaire 315)). The intensity of the expression cannot surge without this particular presence. Because of this, Baudelaire’s philosophy of the portrait is an active one, whereas the philosophy of the ruling classes emphasizes its passive nature. The bourgeoisie deliberately avoids this almost convulsive dynamics of the subject in art: it is a world without a drama, a world that constantly imposes the image of its own shallow order and deceiving harmony through the medium of the portrait. However, this active conception of the portrait does not mean that the artist must radically modify the model on which he is working. On the contrary, Baudelaire stresses the mimetic essence of the genre. Thus the issue of resemblance remains fundamental for the poet, even through the aesthetic power of imagination. The mimetic quality of the artwork reflects the artist's extensive knowledge of his subject: it does not express the complete abdication of his own creative project. ("Holbein connaît Erasme: il l’a si bien connu et si bien étudié qu’il le crée de nouveau et qu’il l’évoque, visible, immortel, superlatif" (Baudelaire 317)). It is this profound desire to know the subject that is missing in photography. The industrial identity of the daguerreotype instead emphasizes its instant seizure: the photographer has no time to analyze or study the various features of the face. In this regard, the pose calls for a precipitated form of representation that cannot be the result of a methodical process of investigation. The time of aesthetic mimesis, therefore, is radically different from that of cultural mimesis. The social determination of the portrait in photography leaves the viewer with a feeling of ignorance: it is the ignorance of a picture that has never been conceived before actually being produced. The problem, thus, is not just that photography is destined to copy nature, but that it does so without a real knowledge of its main subject matter. As Baudelaire writes in La Reine des facultés, his essay on imagination: "Cependant, il eût été plus philosophique de demander aux doctrinaires en question, d’abord s’ils sont bien
conscients de la nature extérieure, ou, si cette question eût parue trop bien faite pour réjouir leur causticité, s’ils sont bien sûr de connaître toute la nature, tout ce qui est contenu dans la nature" (Baudelaire 280). In this perspective, imagination rests upon a detailed and total awareness of what is to be represented. It is the mirror of a global science of aesthetics, which is of course different from science itself. One should speak therefore of the totality of imagination, which is also an analytical, moral and sensitive quality. This totality refers to the profound relationship between imagination and the infinite: for the poet, it constitutes no less than the origin of the world in an almost religious sense of the term. "Le Vrai", in this regard, is not necessarily as such the enemy of art and beauty, or its radical contradiction, as one might deduce from a quick reading of "Le Public moderne et la photographie". But it becomes so when its actual representation overlooks the poetic might of imagination, which is for Baudelaire, "la reine du vrai". And he adds: "et le possible est une des provinces du vrai" (Baudelaire 281). In other words, "Le Vrai", in photography, does not open us to a vast realm of possibilities: it is instead the symbol of a set of sheer certainties that cannot be transcended. If photography is deprived of its true capacity for knowledge, it must constitute a mere commodity, and is therefore confined to the needs of practical reality. This is why Baudelaire dismisses its artistic potential by emphasizing its utilitarian dimensions. It is, above all, a technical innovation, and it can be compared as such to printing or stenography. It is undoubtedly useful for the archivist, the astronomer, the botanist or the traveler, but it is clear that this usefulness is the sign of a profound spiritual vacuum, the vacuum of technical modernity itself. Baudelaire’s furious assault on materialism finds a perfect target in photography. It is in this regard that his philosophical perspective radically separates the science of aesthetics from the science of matter. But it would be wrong to interpret this approach as a deliberate attempt to return to a pre-modern sensitivity. Rational knowledge is not rejected here because of obscurantist or obsolete belief. As already noted, the celebration of imagination by the poet instead implies a deep sense of the analytical relationship between the artist and his subject (what we could call the reason of artistic representation). Rationality, though, is unilaterally questioned when it inhibits the genuine aesthetic expression of dreams and the happiness
The Paradox of Photography
that it necessarily creates. ("Cependant, c’est un bonheur de rêver" (Baudelaire 279)). In other words, the main issue here is not to determine whether rationality is good or bad, but to ask without any ambiguity what the true purpose of such rationality is. The practical rationality of photography, therefore, essentially opposes the imaginary reason of art, that of poetry and painting. The spirit of photography can be characterized as a global assault on romanticism. Its focus on the portrait and on the private world of the middle class signifies the absence of an epic or tragic sensitivity, which is so dominant in the pictorial romanticism of Delacroix. One could say that, in many ways, photography returns to one of the most important aspects of eighteenth-century French painting, that is the obsession with the representation of domestic life. The quest for order and tranquility, for a sense of measure in all natural things, echoes thus the work of Chardin and Boucher. In both cases, indeed, the formal emphasis is on the stillness of the subject. Whereas Delacroix, for instance, strives to underline the motion contained in all bodies, (both animal and human), some of the best painters of the previous century seek instead to represent the formal perfection of a static reality. The aesthetic choice of domesticity over history, of intimacy over the outside world, somehow excludes the possibility of violence and chaos from the domain of art. Thus photography repeats through new technical means an artistic attempt to defeat the most irrational forces of nature. The subject of the Daguerreotype, in its apparent detachment and serenity, becomes the guardian of an aesthetic order which prolongs a certain tradition of modern French painting. For Baudelaire, the celebration of pictorial romanticism evidently implies a strong belief in the need for a break with this very French tradition: art is destined to the most sincere expression of the eternal turmoil of mankind, a turmoil which is not only individual but also collective. The so-called Narcissism of photography therefore reflects the blindness of a form that refuses to see the obvious instability (a very existential one) of its own subject matter. Baudelaire’s discourse is filled with radical dualisms: Good and Evil, beauty and reality, morality and obscenity, and it leads inevitably to an apocalyptic vision of the world. Because it fails to acknowledge the aesthetic legitimacy of such a vision, photography cannot be identified with a true artistic discipline. The poetic feeling
of the end, though, does not solely concern a society primarily driven by the mythology of progress: it also and maybe more importantly applies to the modern condition of art itself. "Le Public moderne et la photographie" asserts the death of painting through the birth of photography. The photographer is defined here as a failed painter ("Comme l’industrie photographique était le refuge de tous les peintres manqués, trop mal doués ou trop paresseux pour achever leurs études, cet universel engouement portait non seulement le caractère de l’aveuglement et de l’imbécillité, mais avait aussi la couleur d’une vengeance" (Baudelaire 278)). The new medium entails a global conspiracy against the artistic power of painting. Thus what photography truly wants to achieve is the undoing of art and the proclamation of its downfall in modernity. To most early twenty-first century observers, this kind of discourse might be seen as profoundly reactionary. We all know by now that this was not the project of photography. Many of us view Baudelaire’s negativity as an unfounded assault on the validity of any novelty in art. The invention of any given new medium and its rapid cultural dissemination through society does not mean, as the history of Western art in the past one hundred and fifty years has clearly demonstrated, that this same medium has ever been able to put an end to the particular art forms that it was supposed to threaten. The remarkable artistic development of photography in the twentiethcentury, for instance, from Surrealism to the Magnum group, never prevented cubist and abstract painters from accomplishing their own work and reaching full recognition. The advent of cinema, contrary to what was feared at the beginning, did not signify the disappearance of theater or even the decline of its popularity. Television itself, although seen by many as the main rival of both cinema and literature, has not so far really weakened the cultural and economic power of film, nor has it truly succeeded in diminishing the appetite of educated people for books and writing. In the long run, somehow, the new never quite ends up erasing the old, for the very reason that it is not its original intention. Modernity has thus successively absorbed each of these new techniques into its own process of production without profoundly damaging the status or the integrity of art. Technique, in this sense, can do many things, but it cannot silence the original aesthetic languages of both the past and the present. Baudelaire’s dark
The Paradox of Photography
pessimism was largely the result of his own overestimation of its cultural power (and of the cultural power of the masses). Indeed, the history of modernity is the history not only of the irresistible movement of humanity towards technical change and its increasing sophistication, but also of the numerous (and often ambiguous) strategies of resistance towards this same phenomenon. In this sense the death of art can never be pronounced, because there are always some artists who are willing to confront the main consequence of technique’s social supremacy: the cultural order of objective reproduction. In "Le Public moderne et la photographie", the poet underestimates the artist’s ability to unmask the illusion of sheer material progress, as well as his capacity for turning this illusion into the reality of art’s tireless efforts towards new forms and modes of representation. Even if the artist cannot go on, he will go on, as Beckett told us, against all odds and in spite of all the myths spread hastily and carelessly by modernity. In many ways, Baudelaire's somber prophecy reflects the disarray of an era that did not know which political and cultural directions to take. The so-called democratic spirit that the poet criticizes in his essays on art was actually a very fragile one in the mid-nineteenth century France, as is demonstrated by the strong ideological tensions between the rule of monarchy, authoritarianism, and the people’s quest for social utopia and republican ideals. French art itself had not yet been shaken by the aesthetic innovations of Impressionism, and therefore remained largely dominated by the academic canons of pictorial classicism. In this perspective, modernity was as much a fantasy (or a ghost) as a reality, beyond the evident social and economic transformations stirred by the industrial revolution (a process that came late in France, if we compare with England, for instance, and that could not stifle the social importance of the rural world, anyway, in spite of its utmost brutality). In this sense, "Le Public moderne et la photographie" expresses the insecurity and the anxiety of a whole society, and not just that of an isolated man. It is the expression of an individual as well as collective identity crisis. Modernity had not yet been accomplished, and that is the reason why it was to be feared. Finally, one must recognize that Baudelaire could not have foreseen the subsequent blossoming of photography as a true art form. The poet-critic could not adopt the position of an art historian since
the medium on which he was writing did not possess any authentic tradition. In this case, the lack of an historical discourse was not his fault. After all, he could not have predicted that right after World War I cinema would become one of the most powerful artistic languages of the twentieth century, and not just an entertainment for the troops or a curiosity for the idle masses? By putting the Baudelairian critique in perspective, and by emphasizing its cultural context, we underline the essential relativity of all aesthetic judgment, even those judgments which pretend to be absolute (or maybe especially when it is so). More than twenty years after the first endeavors of the Lumière brothers, many among the brightest minds of their generation could still not figure out the truth about the medium they had invented. The Soviet cinema of the October Revolution was barely beginning its march towards artistic greatness, and the pioneering Charlie Chaplin had yet to produce most of his cinematographic masterpieces. How, then, could Baudelaire have embraced photography, only a couple of decades after its official birth? And how do we know today if virtual technologies are going to lead us to a new age of art or instead to its ultimate undoing? Revolutions and radical changes are not to be evaluated at the moment when they actually appear: in this case, like in many others, time is the only reliable judge. The problem with Baudelaire’s discourse is that it came too early. It would be easier to condemn him if he had formulated the same negative approach more than fifty years later, if he had been armed with the full knowledge of photography’s historical identity. After all, whether they have been enhanced or not by technical creativity, some of the most profound aesthetic changes of modernity have started as apparent new trends and have matured consequently as lasting and influential art forms and movements. In other words, the poet was only witnessing the first steps of a long and arduous process of representation. He might have missed its actual significance from a purely artistic point of view, but he nonetheless attempted to raise the foremost issue of its reception by the community. One should read his essay as a highly contextualized comment on a particular cultural situation, and not as a rather abstract and timeless meditation on a specific artistic discipline. Art is essentially what artists make of it, but then so is technique. They are not defined by either the critic or the crowd. This is precisely the most important conclusion that one can draw from the contemporary analysis of "Le Public moderne et la
The Paradox of Photography
photographie". The poet as critic could only determine a general zeitgeist, and a certain self-image that society was presenting to the masses. If modernity constitutes the rule of the ephemeral and the contingent, then we have to consider Baudelaire's essay as a broad reflection on modernity. But that is only one half of art: the other is largely dominated by a sense of the eternal. It is rooted in a particular history, one which defies the mere urgency of the present. In other words, the poet could not escape the close reality of his own era, but his was a fight against a culture (to which photography already belonged) and not a fight against art.
If Baudelaire took on the issue of photography frontally by using criticism as a weapon, Breton sees it in a more cautious way through the prism of fiction. We have known, at least since Proust, the importance of the first words of a novel. Breton’s Nadja (Paris: Gallimard, 1964) reminds us of this literary truth. "Who am I ?" asks the narrator, before even starting to tell his story. But this troubling and eternal question is immediately coupled with another one: "Whom do I haunt?" The verb "to haunt" refers to the presence of a ghost, a form without a true substance or material dimension. The narrator thus questions the reality of his own existence by suggesting that it could somehow be reduced to an image of this kind. He might be forced to return to his own footsteps, and this move backward might well lead him to a process of self-knowledge. These two questions thus pave the way for the determination of what he calls his "differentiation". In order to reach the end of this process, the narrator must first establish the set of features that distinguish him from the others: he will then be able to understand the meaning of his life in this world. It is clear, therefore, that this work stresses from the beginning the existential goal of literature. Writing cannot simply be identified with story telling. But it also cannot be identified with a mere autobiographical project. The self, here, is confronted with the need for the representation of the other: it is only through this representation that
The Paradox of Photography
the self is known and defined. As opposed to someone like Blanchot, who, as a fundamental principle, asserts and celebrates in his essay /¶(VSDFH /LWWpUDLUH the withdrawal of the writer from his own work to the point of a sort of ecstatic neutrality, Breton claims the supremacy of subjectivity as an ever-visible and legible phenomenon. If Lautréamont constituted a spiritual father for all the members of the Surrealist movement, and in particular for its leader, the narrator cannot embrace his wish for total disappearance behind literature. This wish might be fascinating and even unique, but it remains superhuman in its excessive ambition. To erase the expression of the subject means therefore to erase the expression of literature itself. ("Il serait par trop vain et prétentieux d’y prétendre et je me persuade aisément que cette ambition, de la part de ceux qui se retranchent derrière elle, ne témoigne en rien que de peu honorable" (Nadja 19)). Nevertheless, this in no way implies that the narrator longs for the tradition of classical psychological literature. Rather, he refers to Huysmans in order to demonstrate the writer’s capacity to question its validity and to counter its cultural influence. His only purpose is to account for the most striking moments or episodes of his life ("Ma vie telle que je peux la concevoir hors de son plan organique", as he states (Nadja 19)). In Nadja, though, this unprecedented project cannot be accomplished through the power of words alone. The will to move beyond one’s own obscurity or opacity is translated into a whole set of images or, more precisely, of photographs. In the history of modern French literature, this book constitutes one of the first major attempts to integrate this new visual medium into a particular narrative structure. For this reason, it remains worthy of critical attention, regardless of its actual role in the development of the Surrealist movement. One can still read Nadja today precisely because one can always stare at a series of pictures that constantly interact with the text and enhance its existential project. It is interesting to notice, though, that the ongoing juxtaposition of words and images is never truly supported by a narrowly focused discourse on the image itself, and specifically on the relationship between the visual and the literary dimension of the text. Instead we witness the empirical practice of this relationship: pictures and words are both treated and explored primarily as material realities, the necessary evidence required by an original process of self-investigation. What is being unveiled is the
concrete experience of photography for literature, which is the deliberate use of pictures as the main tool for narrative strategies. This experience could not take place without the narrator’s strong feeling of their fictional power. The narrator here enters a forbidden territory: in this unknown world, numerous coincidences and accidents determine the nature of his story. Chance is of course the key word, making the predetermination of both language and images almost impossible. This set of unexpected events is not only to be told: it is also, perhaps primarily, to be seen. In this regard, the metaphor of lightning is quite significant ("Des éclairs qui feraient voir, mais alors voir, s’ils n’étaient encore plus rapides que les autres" (Nadja 20)). Lightning reflects the possibility of a bright vision, but a purely circumstantial and ephemeral one. It is the symbol of an instant surge, of an irresistible thrust that cannot be contained or preserved. In order to grasp the identity of his relationship with the outside world, the narrator must therefore define the moment of his own gaze. This time is not to be delayed: it only exists in the present and it is never stable. His original project stems from the belief in the ongoing closeness of all objects and places around him, beyond their apparent distance. The inner closeness of things enables him to overcome his profound sense of solitude, and the expression of a poetics of everyday life is predicated on this imaginary link between man and world. In this very peculiar context, photography must occur rather than simply appear. Pictures must themselves suggest the complicity between the narrator and the visible universe. They do not just state the obvious reality of things that are, but instead assert the undisputable presence of the subject within or with them. In this regard, In this regard, I would question some of Michel Beaujour’s assumptions in his article "Qu’est-ce que Nadja?", included in his book Terreur et Rhétorique. Autour du Surréalisme (Paris : JeanMichel Place, 1999) : Il est clair, par surcroît, que le lecteur de romans le plus obtus ne saurait exiger la description de la librairie de l’Humanité, mentionnée au passage, ni celle du château de Saint-Germain. Moins encore celle du manoir d’Ango, où le poète est en train d’écrire, ni le portrait verbal d’Eluard, de Desnos, de Péret, de Mme Sacco, voyante, ou celle de l’auteur lui-même. Or nous trouvons dans Nadja les photos de ces lieux, de ces personnes. Dans la plupart des cas, il nous est possible de vérifier leur authenticité. Leur fonction est donc de vérifier que rien n’a été inventé ni transposé. Les clichés ne remplacent rien de ce qu’on trouve
The Paradox of Photography d’ordinaire dans un roman. Au contraire, presque à chaque page, ils affirment que Nadja n’est pas un roman. (86)
Beaujour’s analysis obviously emphasizes the strictly objective dimension of photography. But this apparently objective dimension is always confronted with the implicit presence of the subject within pictures. This subject might often remain unseen, but it can nonetheless be perceived by the imagination of the reader (the viewer). A mere certificate of authenticity cannot reveal here the power of visual strategies that stress the profoundly hypothetical and almost ghostly nature of reality and consequently, of the subject that inhabits it. In other words, reality is always to be recreated through photography and not just confirmed, beyond the obvious presence of places and monuments. The first photograph of the book represents l’Hôtel des Grands Hommes, which is located at the Place du Panthéon: Breton actually lived here in 1918, at the end of World War I. As the narrator clearly states, it is a starting point ("Je prendrai pour point de départ l’hôtel des Grands Hommes" (Nadja 24)). The image of the hotel’s façade, and the square in which it stands, inevitably accounts for the existential relationship between the object and the subject. It also reveals, strikingly, the paradox of absence that constitutes one of the most important features of photography in Nadja: the narrator is excluded from the image, but this does not prevent him from creating the feeling of his own presence within it. The image never ceases to refer to him, somehow, beyond its objective nature. We could further argue that it is precisely the objective nature of the image that makes it capable of integrating the narrator’s existence within its frame. The reader, who is also a viewer, is always free to create his or her own representation of the subject, because the image is essentially a vacuum that constantly asks to be filled. We know that something is missing within the picture, and this knowledge allows us, both as readers and viewers, to superimpose our mental picture on top of the material one. To put it differently, photography’s emptiness is what reminds us of the power of imagination. The picture remains an open form which never really ends in front of our eyes. The starting point, literally, is an image. Photography appears thus at the beginning, and is itself nothing more than a beginning. The early emphasis on places within the narrative structure sets the tone of the whole endeavor. Consider Le Manoir d’Ango, which is the second
visual example in the book. It alludes to a particular moment of Breton’s life when, in August 1927, he was invited to stay at Varengeville-sur-Mer and escape the usual agitation of the French capital. Places are never truly inhabited: they always go back to a biographical reality that does not require a full explanation or revelation. Thus, they underline a vast realm of possibilities within the circle of certainties. Their ultimate truth always rests upon the expression of the "I", which is related by essence to the work of daydreaming and meditation. The third image of the text, which figures the statue of Etienne Dolet on Place Maubert, therefore enables the narrator to stress his personal interest in psychoanalysis while simultaneously questioning its ability to fully comprehend the problem of dreams. If the psychoanalytical method had really been entirely successful in its scientific approach of man’s unconscious, it is clear that Surrealism itself would have lost much of its intellectual legitimacy. In other words, these very limitations of modern science and rationality made the need for an aesthetic conception of dreams more pressing. The scientific discourse, by definition, attempts to provide a specific and detailed explanation for certain phenomena, but what is often lacking in this discourse is the perception of the unique ability of representation to understand these same phenomena. Psychoanalysis could only interpret man’s creation of images within the realm of dreams to the extent these images could be controlled by the mind, and thus turned into mere objects of scientific study. This process necessarily implied a sort of epistemological distance between science and man’s inner images. By contrast, Surrealism refused to even consider this objective distance in its artistic project. Images were not to be tamed, much less achieved by the work of reason: they always contained the promise of more images through the flow of the poetic imagination..In this regard, Breton asserted in his First Manifesto of 1924 the supreme reality of images and their spontaneous creation. As he writes: "Il en va des images surréalistes comme de ces images de l’opium que l’homme n’évoque plus, qui s’offrent à lui spontanément, despotiquement. Il ne peut pas les congédier; car la volonté n’a plus de force et ne gouverne plus les facultés." (Manifesto 48). These statements constitute a reference to Baudelaire. It is this very emphasis on the creative power of ongoing representation that is at stake in Nadja’s photographs. The poet never
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ceases to present new images to the world, regardless of all material constraints and personal contingencies. In this sense, representation always prevails over any method of interpretation. Photography is not destined here to explain the cause of the narrator’s actions and thoughts. It is mostly a sign (as he puts it, a "signal") of his own existence that opens up to a large number of hypothetical statements without any true resolution. Language itself belongs to this visible reality that the narrator faces every day. In this sense, it constitutes an important part of the process of representation. The episode where he searches for all the boutiques and shops with the words "Bois-charbons" written on their façades is a perfect example of this truth. In this particular case, the narrator is able to accurately predict when and where they are going to appear. These words actually refer to the last pages of Breton’s Champs Magnétiques; and in this sense, their repeated presence in the streets of Paris reflects a deep continuity, and even complicity, between the domain of literature and that of everyday life. According to this perspective, the urban landscape is supposed to confirm the inner world of the poet instead of contradicting it, because it expresses the same words and uses the same idiom. Yet it does so inasmuch as it is seen, and not just read. Language calls therefore for more images, for their spatial dissemination and their almost ubiquitous nature. This also means that the outside world must constantly be read and consequently deciphered. Photography, thus, reveals the profound feeling of an endless set of forms and appearances in which the narrator willingly gets lost. The paramount surrealist principle of coincidence is, above all, that of the coincidence between language and images. Evidently, these images are both external and internal: the narrator can always turn them into genuine visions, as shown by his apprehension of the piece of wood on which the words "BoisCharbons" are written from the mere contemplation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s skull on a statue beneath him. One could easily think here about the identification of everyday life with a sort of labyrinth-like structure. But the narrator always manages to leave some doors open. More precisely, he consistently remains both inside and outside of this powerful reality. Pictures, in this regard, do not constitute for him a symbol of radical closure or mental imprisonment. This is made possible precisely because the narrator does not really attempt to thoroughly interpret all
these signs. He favors instead the creation of imaginary ties between things, a poetics of relation that does not impose a stringent meaning on each of them. The possibility of an exit is still present here, since representation emphasizes the sense of a free movement from one image to the other. The metaphor of the poisson soluble could be relevant in this context: it provides us with the feeling of a true fluidity which stems, above all, from the narrator’s ability to wander within the world of phenomena without ever being stopped or captured by them. In the First Manifesto, Breton actually writes the following: "POISSON SOLUBLE, n’est-ce pas moi le poisson soluble, je suis né sous le signe des Poissons et l’homme est soluble dans sa pensée!" (Manifesto 53). Photography, therefore, reflects the fundamental mobility of both the subject and his gaze, beyond its own identity as a static and fixed object. Of course, Breton could not have conceived of this work without his strong attraction for the urban background of Paris. The big city, here, does not solely constitute the foremost setting in which the two main characters of the novel evolve: it also determines their existential fate and shapes their relationship to the world at large. The Paris that is being described here is, naturally, different from the Paris that we know today. It is already a major center of European civilization, a capital of artistic and political life, but its sophisticated urban configuration and cozy atmosphere has not yet been spoiled by all the ills of modernity (and post-modernity thereafter). For instance, the intensity of traffic was certainly not at the time what it is today, nor was the level of stress and the general pace of life: in this regard, Breton’s celebration of bohemia and casual encounters does not seem excessively unrealistic. The original philosophy of time that the writer expressed in Nadja did not entirely contradict the habits and the way of life of the Parisian population. It was more a subtle shift of consciousness than a brisk departure from common social conditions. The Paris of the nineteen-twenties could still be considered as a big village of sorts, in which people would be willing to "waste their time" instead of constantly rushing toward their next professional or social obligation. It constituted for Breton, and the other members of the Surrealist movement, a privileged place where a true community of artists and writers could be gathered in spite of the rapid economic transformations imposed by a post-World War I era of reconstruction. (The same thing could actually be said about the Paris of the
The Paradox of Photography
existentialists, that of Saint-Germain des Prés in the late forties and early fifties). Photography itself asserts the notion that a public space can always be turned into a private one, since the subject feels at home in the streets, the cafés, and the parks of the big city. The close relationship between the narrator and his environment has a lot to do with sharing in a common time: one never gets the sense that he is alienated from the space that surrounds him, regardless of its intriguing and supernatural nature. What prevails here is the possibility of a true fusion between the two, and a rather serene attitude towards the existential determination of the subject engendered by the urban model of Paris. It is no accident, then, that thinkers and critics such as Henri Lefebvre and the Situationists will later be inspired by the Surrealist conception of the city, in their own attempt to create a new and unique interaction between man and everyday life, as demonstrated in particular by Henri Lefebvre’s essay Critique de la Vie Quotidienne and Debord’s own La Société du Spectacle. (I have analyzed myself the complex political and existential relationship of Debord with everyday life in modern society in my essay "The Show must not go on", which is included in my book Surmodernités: Entre Rêve et Technique, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003). Of course, at the time when Lefebvre’s and Debord’s works appeared (that is, in the fifties and sixties), this relationship had already become much more problematic due to the increasingly capitalist and consumerist identity of the French culture emerging from the economic boom of the "Trente glorieuses". What was at first a mainly aesthetic statement about the poetic nature of urban reality became, some forty years later, a radical political project and a true cultural Utopia. The urban space could no longer be celebrated or even tolerated as such, as its recent evolution had produced major conflicts between man’s aspirations and his actual social condition. It must become the object of a profound conceptual change in order to achieve its ideal and most perfect form. In Nadja, time passes without flying. The book is mostly written as a diary, in which each day seems to contain a myriad of microscopic events. Something always happens for the narrator because a spirit of adventure guides him in all of his actions. One cannot appreciate fully the meaning of the work today without understanding the existential importance of slowness for its two main
characters. Pictures, in this context, crystallize the presence of a suspended time, through which one can walk freely without having to think about the future, or even the next day. The photographic medium embodies here a sort of perpetual present; its foremost purpose is not to construct a visual memory of personal experience. The image of the past is, indeed, somehow negligible. Rather, what needs to be represented in the first place is a "being-there", the sheer presence of a subject who faces both the other and the outside world in a mere succession of moments. The form of the diary also stresses the imaginary power of anecdotes, little stories that lack a strong narrative identity. As such, traditional narrative is questioned in its ability to figure this "being-there" inscribed within the realm of everyday life. Photographs thus express a particular process of undoing, wherein the main point is no longer to tell a story in all its details and in a linear way, but rather to insist upon the fragmented aspect of the subject’s relation to the visible world. Instants, after all, constitute pieces of time. Therefore, his perpetual present is also and maybe essentially the mirror of an impossible unity that can only be apprehended (and never really accomplished) by photography. The narrator must also confess the weaknesses and limitations of his own gaze. When he refers, for instance, to the famous poetic visions of Robert Desnos in his sleep, he says: "Il dort, mais il écrit, il parle", (Nadja 35) and he immediately adds: "et Desnos continue à voir ce que je ne vois pas, ce que je ne vois qu’au fur et à mesure qu’il me le montre". (Nadja 35) The pictures of the Surrealist poet in a state of awakening thus assert the power of the other as the one who sees things better than he does himself. One never enters the realm of everyday life alone: a community of gazes is always necessary in order to achieve a visual knowledge of the surrounding universe. Notably, the set of photographs that appear in Nadja are not authored by one single artist, but several of them, from Man Ray to J-A. Boiffard and from Henri Manuel to André Bouin. The book constitutes a structure that welcomes various viewpoints, in the strict sense of the term. In other words, photography does not belong to a single subject because the Surrealist gaze, by definition, asks for the presence of multiple eyes. This gaze does not have to be fully identified; it is more important is that one keeps seeing even if I, as a specific individual, do not see. After all, it is mainly the reader who is invited to see these pictures, that is a person who is not known in
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advance by the writer. Ideally, then, the "one" in the expression "one keeps seeing" should be a "we" so that "we keep seeing". By extension, dreams are not the property of the dreamer himself: they are to be shared by a whole group of people around him, as in the poetic approach of Robert Desnos. The very notion of possession or appropriation of images is to be questioned constantly by Surrealist philosophy. If the subject creates an image, it is to be spread throughout a common space that is both conscious and unconscious. As a particular example of this visual production, photography abides by the same rule. In Nadja, it appears regularly in order to stress this possible confusion of perspectives, which must be interpreted in a positive way. According to this logic, the identity of the gaze remains largely problematic. If the other sees, it is also I who will ultimately see what he sees, and what will actually prevail is a definite closeness within the act of seeing. The original question "Who am I?", which opens the book, thus becomes "Who sees?" through the ongoing experience of the outside world. The uncertain dimension of the gaze and its specific belonging is embodied, above all, in the character of Nadja. She is, in essence, the wandering subject who cannot stop floating among all things. What she sees, in other words, is never entirely determined by either herself or the narrator. The gaze, here, is a purely speculative phenomenon, mostly a space of random encounters, and as such, a space of unpredictability. If one wants to read Nadja as the process of identification of a particular woman through a work of literature, one must admit that this process is not a finished one. This process remains open and incomplete at the end of the narrative. If the gaze is never the property of a single being, it cannot really answer the question that the narrator is asks at the start of his journey. Who am I when I see, if not someone else as much as myself? The Surrealist utopia of togetherness within vision renders its subjectivity paradoxical in that it is simultaneously more relevant and less decisive. It is more relevant because I cannot be without seeing, but it is also less decisive because I cannot see without the other seeing. Through this perspective, photography often hesitates between a principle of identity and its contrary in Nadja. Consider the portraits of Surrealist poets such as Paul Eluard and Robert Desnos, but also of the actress Blanche Derval: they retain a ghostly quality that stems from a contradictory feeling of distance and proximity. All these
characters, represented by photography, only pass through the narrative as shadows without true substance. They do exist, but only in the moment of their apparition. They do not truly intervene in the development of the main story, which is the relationship between the narrator and Nadja. We are shown an imaginary gallery of portraits, a series of faces that only fiction can define as real space. The term "gallery" evokes a place where one can wander almost endlessly, without having to stop for a long time in front of the same portrait. In this sense, photography does not impart any lasting emotional attachment between the subject of the picture and the one who looks at it. What is emphasized instead is a profound freedom of movement from image to image. We can always return to a particular image, but we do not have to be tied to any of them, and this is the case both for the narrator and the reader. In fact, one could say that these faces do not have to be inhabited: instead, they remain close to us through their own indifference and their ephemeral presence. Therefore, the representation of the subject escapes any common mid-nineteenth-century conception of photographic portraiture at a time when its social dissemination was already particularly striking. There is simply no need, in Nadja, for the physical preservation of someone’s image beyond his or her own death. But there is also no need to assert the social identity of the subject within a concrete structure or institution such as the family. The subject of photography, in this book, exists outside of these two imperatives in a state of pure independence. One could question his material reality, of course, and it is true that the viewer/reader faces some sort of enigmatic presence. This presence of the portrait, in Western tradition, belongs definitively to the history of painting rather than photography. It is thus a quite old phenomenon that one can trace back to the Middle Ages, and later to the Renaissance, with the most famous example being Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. The birth of photography, by opposition, imposed a much more transparent representation of the subject, particularly through the huge success of the Daguerreotype. The cultural obsession with social status and identity in the new capitalist societies of the West created a specific form of individual representation deprived of any obscurity or ambiguity. The issue here was not that photography demanded a mimetic and realistic style of representation; this law of mimesis ruled the figurative tradition of pictorial portraiture for centuries. Photography asked instead for an instant and predetermined image of
The Paradox of Photography
the subject. By doing so, it denied the viewer any possibility of interpreting the portrait on his own terms and according to his own sensitivity. The viewer was supposed to receive this raw image (as one talks about "raw material") in a purely passive way, confirming and taking for granted the identity of the subject. In other words, the portrait suddenly became the privileged visual example of the subject’s obviousness, regardless of his complex personality and biographical history. This obvious nature of the photographic portrait stemmed from a discourse that was largely dominated by social concerns: it was never really the consequence of a deep aesthetic philosophy. It is this return to a more opaque conception of the portrait that constitutes one of the most original features of photography in Nadja. The portrait is not required from a strictly narrative point of view, but it is precisely because of its somehow superfluous nature that it becomes intriguing and even captivating. In other words, the portrait does not bluntly assert the physical existence of the subject within the community; it transforms the subject, in a suggestive manner, into the mere presence of signs or traces. Breton’s portrait itself only appears at the end of the book, as if the process of self-representation by the author could always be delayed without hurting the development of the story. It is important to notice that in Surrealist art in general, which consists primarily of painting, portraiture as a genre occupies only a marginal position. In viewing the work of Masson, Tanguy, Dali or even Magritte, one will always be struck by the realization that the human face is rarely the main focus of the pictorial project. Portraits cannot avoid the issue of resemblance, meaning some sort of identification between the subject and his representation, and beyond, between art and reality. Even the most radical forms of modernism have to confront this sometimes overwhelming fact. In this sense, there is an essential contradiction between the fundamental rebellion against the alienating character of realism inherent to Surrealist art and writing and the very nature of the portrait, which necessarily implies a visual reference to an original model from a mimetic perspective. This model is very much external, whereas Breton’s definition of pictorial automatism in Le Surréalisme et la Peinture underlines instead the primacy of an internal model for Surrealist art. This essential "realism" of the portrait, therefore, opposes the aesthetic spirit of Surrealism (expressed also in Breton’s
first Manifesto). In many ways, the pictures of Nadja express this profound tension, which can never be truly resolved. By putting too much emphasis on the expression of the face, the author would yield to a certain law of objectivity, and would also enhance against his own will the power of a purely conscious mode of representation within images. In his new introduction to the book, written in 1962, Breton explains that the abundant use of photographic illustrations enables him to eliminate any kind of description. It is this descriptive nature of literature, exemplified in the nineteenth-century French Novel, which the founder of the movement questioned vehemently in his Manifestos. By this logic, photography describes in order to signify the absence of description. But this description is no longer of a narrative nature: it is essentially of a visual one. The almost obsessive attention to detail that one finds in a realist novel by Balzac, for example, becomes irrelevant. Places and characters do not have to be framed with excessive accuracy; photography, instead, asserts an instant and holistic presence of both objects and subjects regardless of their possible fuzziness. As Breton explains it, there is a definite antiliterary imperative by which this book abides. Photography here reflects the desire of the author to go beyond words, and even beyond any classical notion of the book, but also his willingness to adopt a tone of the scientist rather than the writer or the poet. Nadja, indeed, must be conceived as a medical report on a particular patient, in this case the young woman who gives her name to the work. It is clear that Breton’s medical training had a profound influence on this choice, and that it was motivated by autobiographical events. But the comparison with scientific discourse inevitably enlightens the author’s attempt to reach some sort of aesthetic compromise between subjectivity and objectivity within writing. More particularly, photography is destined to be used as a form of evidence, as the sign of a phenomenon from which the scientific method draws its own deductions and conclusions. Undoubtedly, this specific instrumentalization of photography had been key to the spectacular progress of both medicine and the natural sciences as early as the mid-nineteenth century. At the end of his introduction, Breton stresses this ongoing conflict between subjectivity and objectivity for the human condition. He even confesses that the former often ends up being more bruised by this problem than the latter. This conflict is
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also that of art and science, of writing and thought. Surrealism, as demonstrated by its own history, will never be able to fully overcome this situation. For instance, it is clear that in the case of Breton, the early focus on dreams and their significance for the expression of man’s inner feelings in literature was founded upon the psychoanalytical perspective of Sigmund Freud. Breton needed this scientific legitimacy to support his main aesthetic project, that of automatism. The fundamental contradiction here was that automatism, by definition, entailed the notion of a pensée parlée that developed outside of any control exercised by reason, but it actually stemmed from the highly rational discourse of psychoanalysis. The apparent spontaneity of speech that Breton claimed and celebrated in order to demonstrate the overwhelming creative power of dreams and visions was not a real one; it was instead the result of a profound and thorough reliance upon modern reason and its Western legacy. This might explain why so many artists and poets who were originally members of the Surrealist movement ultimately decided to go their own way: for most of them, automatism became objectionable not because of its sensitivity to instant freedom of expression both in literature and art, but rather because this so-called freedom was transformed into an almighty law that could not escape the intellectual determination of rationalism. The search for this specific link between aesthetics and scientific knowledge separated Surrealism from its most important historical root, Dada, and underlined instead its similarities with another modernist movement that idealized the artistic meaning of both science and technique, Futurism. No text reflects the acute character of this tension better than Nadja. The poet cannot be separated here from the man of science. The story of his personal relationship with a disturbed young woman does not just constitute a romantic narrative in the traditional sense: it also has to be seen as a detached account of a particular clinical case. Photography, in this perspective, articulates a constant process of confusion between the distinct languages of poetry and science. Each picture can be identified with a document in its entire factual dimension, but it simultaneously makes a subjective statement about the magical or supernatural content of everyday life. In the end, one can say that the poet prevails over the scientist, but this happens only after a long series of contradictions. In this regard, the literary form of the diary, which Breton obviously prefers as the main narrative
structure of his book, contains the same essential ambiguity. If a diary is, by definition, a very personal and even intimate account of one’s own life in its daily occurrences, it is also prone to objectivity in its focus on concrete events and anecdotes, as Michel Beaujour states it in his article "Qu’est-ce que Nadja?": Tout journal affirme: j’y étais, j’ai vu, j’ai vécu ceci (ou, plus précisément, puisque le décalage entre l’événement et l’écriture doit paraître négligeable : j’y suis, je vois, je vis ceci, et je n’entrevois pas les tenants et aboutissants, ni l’issue de l’aventure où je suis engagé). C’est pourquoi le journal se présente comme l’antidote de l’invraisemblance. Il fait passer le fantastique. Son caractère brut et inachevé affirme au lecteur qu’il ne peut être victime d’un coup monté de longue main, d’une simulation littéraire du délire d’interprétation. Il garantit sinon les faits, du moins l’authenticité de leur perception. Avant même de nous dire de quoi il s’agit, ce genre désigne l’inusité, car en dehors des rares individus qui se confient quotidiennement à leur cher journal, ce sont les circonstances exceptionnelles qui nous jettent vers le papier pour témoigner à la fois de notre incapacité à passer l’extraordinaire sous silence et de nos efforts pour l’apprivoiser en le faisant rentrer dans les limites d’un discours intelligible. (92)
In other words, the diary remains highly dependent upon the factual nature of human existence, even if this existence is marked by outstanding circumstances and original encounters. Its self-proclaimed subjectivity can always be undermined or at least tempered by the ongoing reproduction of common realities. The "I" of the poet that the diary contains is thus nearly doomed to the inevitable documentary identity of the same literary form. This self is not made solely of inner feelings or impressions: it is regularly marked by the sheer, almost mathematical precision of dates and days of the week. It is well known that Breton intended in this book to assert his own negative, and even confrontational, perspective on modern psychiatry. The portrait of Professor Claude, a distinguished physician who was working at Sainte-Anne, was integrated here in order to enhance the critical argument of the writer. When describing his physical features, the narrator talked about "ce front ignare et cet air buté qui le caractérisent" (Nadja 161). This portrait, therefore, was that of a man whose alleged professional competence could not mask his actual ignorance and failure to understand the real problems of his patients. Nadja’s fate was to be the victim of a medical institution that this specific portrait represented in all its alienating force. In his genuine defense of this young woman, Breton was willing to take on
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the medical establishment of his time. His main point was that the mental asylum created madness instead of curing it. ("Il ne faut jamais avoir pénétré dans un asile pour ne pas savoir qu’on y fait les fous tout comme dans les maisons de correction on fait les bandits" (Nadja 161)). More profoundly, any form of detention for therapeutic purposes had to be rejected unilaterally because of its arbitrary character. For the leader of the Surrealist movement, the fundamental issue here was human freedom. Science was negating itself when it made the general public believe that the deprivation of freedom could actually improve the health and well-being of sick people. Detention had, after all, been primarily used throughout modern history to marginalize and even to eliminate those who refused to abide by traditional social rules of both thinking and conduct. Breton, in this regard, referred to the case of unconventional poets and thinkers such as Baudelaire, Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade, all of whom had been forced into seclusion by society under the pretext that they were mentally unstable. Furthermore, through the voice of the narrator, he advocated the possible killing of a member of the medical staff by any patient trapped in this intolerable situation. In this sense, the "anti-literature" elements of Nadja are at the same time "anti-science", rendering it a peculiar treatise which borrowed the tone of scientific discourse while demonstrating, paradoxically, a profound contempt for the institutions and methods on which traditional science was based. In this perspective, the portrait of Professor Claude, in all its official pretension and contrived seriousness, symbolized all the figures of power that Breton resisted and scorned. Photography, thus employed, could be an essential tool in the articulation of a radical political and social thought. It is clear that Breton’s passionate, angry comments on the appalling state of mental care in nineteen twenties French culture were some of the first steps toward a widespread movement of protest against the conservative and even reactionary nature of mainstream psychiatry. Four decades later, the landmark work of Deleuze and Guattari in France, /¶$QWL-Oedipe, as well as the libertarian school of both Ronald Laing and David Cooper in the Anglo-Saxon world, enabled the development of an entirely new approach to the study of mental dysfunctions and disorders. One also cannot ignore Foucault’s genealogical investigations on madness and its history. The same philosophical and ethical premises that Breton had unequivocally
supported, the sacred but simultaneously revolutionary character of individual freedom and emancipation from any social structure and institution, were certainly still relevant for these scholars and therapists. But the main focus of their attention shifted from the issue of mental asylum and detention itself to the highly repressive environment of the family in bourgeois society. Their unique point of view also implied a rigorous and thorough critique of classical Freudian psychoanalysis and its politics, a critique which Breton himself did not dare to undertake in spite of certain timid reservations towards this theory. The science of anti-science, in Nadja, was therefore inevitably linked to the expression of a poetic sensitivity towards social exclusion and mental isolation. For Breton, obviously, it was the writer and the philosopher who had historically suffered the most from this devastating condition of otherness. In this regard, Nadja’s mind and behavior was constantly identified by the narrator with those of the free and uncompromising artist. Several of her own drawings, in particular, are reproduced in the book, from "Le Rêve du chat" to "Le Salut du diable". They are all deeply imaginative and rather obscure works, a succession of personal visions that the narrator attempts to describe in detail without providing meaning for the reader. For Nadja, the outside world presents itself as a set of signs that have to be deciphered and interpreted constantly. She is by nature a visionary character, and it is undoubtedly this quality that the narrator finds most fascinating. One could say that, for her, "the eye is the I". It is these eyes that catch the narrator’s attention when they meet for the first time, whereas (except for being a blonde) the rest of her physical features are barely noticed. As he says: "Je n’avais jamais vu de tels yeux" (Nadja 73), and furthermore, "Je la regarde mieux: que peut-il bien passer de si extraordinaire dans ses yeux? Que s’y mire-t-il à la fois obscurément de détresse et lumineusement d’orgueil ?" (Nadja 73). In this regard, the most potent metaphor is that of the Mazda lamp, which appears in a photograph by Boiffard as a luminous ad on one of Paris’s main boulevards at night. In fact, the young woman likes to compare herself to a butterfly whose body would have the shape of this lamp. In many ways, this object expresses the dream of the "great reflector", that of an almighty light that brightens all things by a sort of photographic flash that can be instantly and repeatedly triggered. Her eye thus suggests the power of
The Paradox of Photography
a subject who is able to look through the entire visible world and to penetrate its surface. In this sense, Nadja’s gaze is a photographic one in its unique capacity to shed light on the most hidden aspects of reality, and to capture and frame them despite their obscurity or their flimsiness. She constitutes the "eye of an imaginary camera", and it is this peculiar gift that allows her to represent and not just reproduce what she unceasingly sees and contemplates in the realm of everyday life. One of the best examples of this ability to represent (and therefore reinvent) the world in a creative way is that of "la main de feu", a troubling and uncanny vision that Nadja develops as an analogy to Breton’s writing about her. From the reading of the First Manifesto, it is clear that Breton’s original definition of the Surrealist image did not rely primarily upon the rising cultural status of photography in the early twentieth century. This definition was essentially influenced by Pierre Reverdy’s reflection on the subject, which stated that the image stemmed from the confrontation, and even fusion, of two distant realities. Breton could not agree more, although he quickly departed from the cubist poet’s statements by asserting that this possible fusion was of an unconscious nature, and not strictly deliberate. The main point, however, was to produce a particular light, and the sheer value of the image could only depend upon the beauty of the spark that sprung from it. Reason did not intervene actively in this process: it had to be carried away by the overwhelming force of these images, what Breton called "La Nuit des éclairs". For Breton, Surrealism was above all a poetic movement. His own conception of the image thus dealt primarily with the language of poetry, in its capacity to assert a set of original visions to the reader. He established a classification of images along these lines, while simultaneously emphasizing and praising their arbitrary character. The work of language and words was paramount regardless of a possible translation into the domain of the visual arts. In other words, the subject who could see was primarily the subject who could write. But the emphasis on physical, and more precisely electrical, phenomena (Breton suggests that the beauty of the spark, for example, is based upon the difference of potential between the two conductors) also implied that the definition of the image was shaped by the power of modern science and technique. The writing of the image, therefore, entailed certain metaphors that were alien to literature itself. It was
linked to another essential process, which is the writing of light. Etymologically, the expression "writing of light" necessarily leads to photography, if we think of the Greek root of the word. In this sense, Breton’s theory of the Surrealist image involved, even unconsciously and indirectly, the reference to photography and its material reality. Just like the photographer, the poet could not create original images without the presence of light. The radical poetic logic of Breton’s discourse could very well be interpreted as an attempt to reflect upon the image (and poetry) within the whole scope of modernity, which means in regard to all its forms of expression from science and technique to photography. The unilateral, unequivocal nature of his reflection could thus be misleading: it could conceal a call for the extension of the power of images to other fields besides literature. The emphasis on "la lumière de l’image" was particularly significant here, since one could define modernity as the era when the power of light became universally celebrated and disseminated for its practical use. In the First Manifesto, Breton writes more particularly that the value of the image depends upon the beauty of the spark obtained. ("La valeur de l’image dépend de la beauté de l’étincelle obtenue; elle est, par conséquent, fonction de la différence de potentiel entre les deux conducteurs." (49)). But the substantive "lumière" did not just refer to Edison’s invention and its major consequences for mankind. It also alluded, in French, to the foundation of sociopolitical modernity, individual freedom, and human rights by the thinkers of the Enlightenment ("Les Lumières") and to the brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière, who created cinema at the end of the nineteenthcentury, a medium which would become one of the most important art forms of the modern world. It is clear that Breton’s theory of automatism applied first and foremost to the field of literature, although, in the first pages of Le Surréalisme et la Peinture, he clearly established the supremacy of sight over all senses and stressed its ‘automatic’ character, as opposed to the more premeditated aspect of thought. In her landmark essay "Photographie et Surréalisme", included in the book Le Photographique: Pour une Théorie des Écarts (Paris: Macula, 1990), Rosalind Krauss states in this regard that psychic automatism is a particular form of written expression that leads to the production of a text. Even when transposed to the domain of visual practices, as it is the case with André Masson, for instance, automatism is still to be
The Paradox of Photography
conceived as a kind of writing. For Breton, in this sense, writing always remained superior to vision. This hierarchy corresponded to a classical opposition in Western culture between perception and representation. Perception was considered to be more authentic, to the extent that it was based upon the true experience of things, whereas representation was more suspicious, since it constituted essentially a set of signs that merely replaced the experience itself. Nevertheless, there are several similarities between Breton’s concept of automatism and the process of picture-taking in photography. First of all, automatism stressed the instant character of the poet’s work; it asked for a new time-frame for both literature and art in Western culture. Its logic was that of speed, of a definite acceleration of time within the realm of words. Man’s self-expression could not wait. It had to happen now, and could not tolerate any delay because it was moved and shaken by the irresistible force of desires and inner feelings. It is interesting to notice, in this regard, that the word "automatic" also recalls the ongoing presence of machines around us. The unbridled assertion of subjectivity that it implies is therefore paradoxically translated into the objective terms of the technical domain. But this word also suggests, metaphorically, the idea of a technical device that did not need man’s total intervention in order to function (as we speak today of an "automatic camera"). This constitutes one of the main features of photography, in both its relation and its opposition to traditional visual languages from painting to drawing and sculpture. With photography, one could now produce an image without having to follow a slow and painstaking process of fabrication. The camera did most of the job, and the photographer was essentially engaged in a reduced number of operations for which the machine eventually dictated its own law. The hand of the artist, in this sense, was no longer a decisive factor in the creation of the artwork. The "automatic" identity of photography therefore signified a profound break with the academic tradition of art in the Western world. In this perspective, Breton’s passionate praise of Duchamp, in Le Surréalisme et la Peinture (Paris: Gallimard, 1963), was based upon the ability of the avant-garde artist to question the supremacy of both painting and drawing in modern art. His well-known intellectual crisis of 1912 stemmed from an original attitude of negation, which led him to reject the power of manual skills in the definition of the
artist’s work. As Breton wrote in his essay "Marcel Duchamp. Phare de la Mariée": "L’exercice du dessin et de la peinture lui fait l’effet d’un jeu de dupes: il tend à la glorification stupide de la main et de rien d’autre. C’est la main la grande coupable, comment accepter d’être l’esclave de sa propre main ?" (Peinture 123). "Jeux de mains, jeux de vilains" could have been the words of Duchamp himself, in this regard. The fundamental conflict between the most radical form of modernity and the identification of art as a manual practice was also, in many ways, central to the issue of photography. Since the new medium blossomed at a time when the aura of painting was already starting to fade, it was expected that it would question many values associated with it, particularly the ethics of patience and the emphasis on the hand as proof of the artist’s unique expertise. In this sense, photography participated in a global trend towards the precipitation and the escalation of forms, a trend that artistic modernism was destined to support in its own terms. The new world born from the ashes of World War I was an impatient one, engendering an unprecedented philosophy of time that art and literature could no longer ignore. As opposed to Breton’s automatism, though, the possibility of the artist’s rational control over his work was more relevant for photography. The various techniques of framing, focusing, and zooming signified that photography could not be a purely instantaneous expression. They implied the power of an individual mind that could always determine the exact formal characteristics of the image. Moreover, the existence of the dark chamber underlined the need for a slower process of creation due to specific material constraints. This was obviously required by the purely technical demands of the medium. The automatic dimension of photography therefore remained only a partial one, in that it still faced concrete realities linked to the actual production of the image. In "Photographie et Surréalisme", Rosalind Krauss stresses the numerous contradictions of Breton’s critical discourse, particularly when it comes to the relationship between Surrealism and photography. The writer’s hatred for the "real figuration of real objects" should have logically resulted in the complete rejection of this medium, given its original identity as a realist mode of representation. (We know that Breton’s assault on the tradition of realism in Western culture implicated all artistic genres and
The Paradox of Photography
languages, not just literature; this is demonstrated by some of his fiercest statements in The First Manifesto). Instead, several of his major works, particularly /¶$PRXU)RX and Les Vases Communicants, allowed for the integration of photography within the creative process of writing. Rosalind Krauss refers to this allowance as Breton’s "strange tolerance for photography" (Krauss 108). She goes back in this regard to some statements by Breton in which he asks for all good books to be illustrated with photographs instead of drawings. I accept that Breton paid some attention to the medium, and that he did not remain entirely indifferent to its artistic achievements. I do think, however, that this so-called "tolerance" (or even understanding) has to be contextualized and questioned. In order to better grasp the essence of Breton’s attitude towards photography, one has to go back to the broad discourse on art that appears in his thick collection of essays, Le Surréalisme et la Peinture. The title of the book is unambiguous: Surrealism defined itself as a poetic movement from the start, and only later acknowledged the participation of visual art forms in its collective project. Thus, if painting constituted a sort of other that had to be made closer by his art criticism (albeit with some reservations; we know, for example, the problematic nature of his relationship with the work of both Chirico and Magritte), it still represented an artistic expression that could absorb the theory of automatism. André Masson’s work played an essential role in this process. In fact, Breton did not pay attention exclusively to Surrealist art, strictly defined, in his critical endeavor. His book also included various essays on artists whose ties to the movement were loose if not non-existent, from Gorky to Picasso and Kandinsky. Nevertheless, this discourse on art, although apparently exhaustive and certainly very ambitious in its scope, largely overlooked the creative power of photography not only for Surrealist art, but also for modern art in general. In this regard, one will have a hard time finding any analysis of specific pictures in the book. "Art" was considered by the founder of Surrealism as primarily painting, but also drawing, sculpture, and the production or the presentation of objects such as Joseph Cornell’s boxes and the readymades of Marcel Duchamp. The only direct and detailed reference to photography, and its connection to Surrealism and its history, appears when Breton comments on the pictorial work of Man Ray. Breton shows that the
American-born artist, like Max Ernst, used some basic principles of photography in order to better transcend them in his famous Rayographs. Man Ray’s main merit, for Breton, was precisely to question the purely positive dimension of photographic representation and beyond that, to deprive photography of its so-called arrogance and natural pretension ("Il s’est appliqué d’emblée à lui faire ôter son caractère positif, à lui faire passer cet air arrogant qu’elle avait de se donner pour ce qu’elle n’est pas" (Peinture 52)). It is obvious that, in this text, Breton adopts a certain attitude of distance towards the medium. As he writes: L’épreuve photographique prise en elle-même, toute revêtue qu’elle est de cette valeur émotive qui en fait un des plus beaux objets d’échange, (et quand donc tous les livres valables cesseront-ils d’être illustrés de dessins pour ne plus paraître qu’avec des photographies ?), cette épreuve, bien que douée d’une force de suggestion particulière, n’est pas en dernière analyse l’image fidèle que nous entendons garder de ce que bientôt nous n’aurons plus. Il était nécessaire, alors que la peinture, de loin distancée par la photographie dans l’imitation pure et simple des choses réelles, se posait et résolvait comme on l’a vu le problème de sa raison d’être, qu’un parfait technicien de la photographie, qui fût aussi de la classe des meilleurs peintres, se préoccupât d’une part, d’assigner à la photographie les limites exactes de ce que à quoi elle peut prétendre, d’autre part de la faire servir à d’autres fins que celles pour lesquelles elle avait été créée, et notamment à poursuivre pour son compte, et dans la mesure de ses moyens propres, l’exploration de cette région que la peinture croyait pouvoir se réserver. Ce fut le bonheur de Man Ray d’être cet homme. (Peinture 52-53)
Breton’s definition of pictures as objects of exchange, even the most beautiful and emotionally charged ones, already sets the tone of his argument. Photography is apprehended here in its socioeconomic status before being taken as an art form. It belongs to a particular cultural logic of modernity, and it is from this perspective that it can be studied. Could Breton have defined modern painting the same way, by insisting first on its existence as a commodity? The answer is no. Quickly, though, Breton questions the so-called accuracy of photography in its mimetic representation of the outside world. This does not prevent him from suggesting at the same time that this supposedly essential quality of the medium remains his main asset in regard to painting. Moreover, his celebration of Man Ray as the first modern artist to demonstrate a deep understanding of photography as a creative practice, and not just as a mere reproduction of reality, still
The Paradox of Photography
assigns a rather inferior position to photography. After all, in his perspective, the artist is to be recognized for drawing the very limits of the medium, and particularly of its artistic ambitions, and not simply for exploring all its visual possibilities. In other words, Man Ray’s project is to be praised precisely because it does not take photography for what it actually is, but instead for what it could be. Breton adds that his work allows for a unique fusion between photography and painting, to the point that the two can no longer be distinguished from one another. The ambiguity of Breton’s position stems from the fact that, by his logic, photography still needs the legitimacy of its pictorial definition in order to exist as a true art form. Thus photography is art because it is also painting, or more concretely, because (as in the case of Max Ernst) it constitutes a privileged tool for painting. The eye of the painter turns it into a genuine expression of human imagination. Similarly, when Breton dreams of books that would no longer be illustrated by drawings but instead by pictures, he actually underlines his own doubts about the medium. Photography is to be treated as a sort of complementary object for literature, such that its radical independence and self-sufficiency are denied. In Nadja (and also in /¶$PRXU)RX), he emphasizes this same illustrative nature of photography, reflecting one of the most common and even banal uses of photography since its birth. After all, Baudelaire, in his ferocious assault, still recognized the relevance of pictures as purely illustrative or decorative forms as early as the mid-nineteenth century. This kind of identification, therefore, could be considered a poisoned gift. By comparison, the same function was never attributed to either painting or sculpture in relation to literature. But photographic illustrations had been in high demand in both popular magazines and journals of scientific vulgarization for quite a while. Mainstream culture had therefore exploited them in order to pursue its own practical, profitable goals within bourgeois and capitalist society. This short passage on Man Ray enlightens some of the most fundamental contradictions of Surrealist aesthetic discourse. Beyond the issue of photography, he raises the question of the hierarchy of art forms. Artistic modernism implied, from the start, a belief in the equality of all artistic expressions; as such, the traditional authority of academic disciplines such as oil painting, drawing and sculpture were suddenly questioned by the advent of new genres such as collage and
found objects. This was more obvious in Dada than in any other movement. But the attitude of Surrealism towards this so-called principle of equality was less clear. After all, it is mainly in painting that foremost artists such as Dali or Tanguy excelled. In this sense, Duchamp could get rid of this long-term and privileged relationship with painting precisely because he was not so much a Surrealist artist as a Dada. When Breton speaks or thinks about art, he definitely speaks or thinks first about painting, even if works such as the automatic drawings of André Masson play an important role in his reflection on art and Surrealism. One has to wonder, therefore, whether modernism (and this is even more true of Cubism) really achieved what it was supposed to do. No one will argue with the premise that all forms were actually used and exploited for artistic purposes by the Surrealist artists and writers. But this does not mean that the hierarchy among all these forms eventually disappeared. If I were to establish such a hierarchy in reference to Surrealism and its aesthetic discourse, as defined by Breton, then poetry would occupy the first rank, followed by painting, and only then by photography and film. Music was almost completely ignored by Breton, who disliked it profoundly. It is from this perspective that we must consider the integration of photography within André Breton’s literary work. It is a process that, beyond its openness and "tolerance", betrays a particular way of thinking that still belongs to the past of Western culture. One could compare this viewpoint, for instance, with the philosophy of art expressed by Hegel in his Esthétique. The real equality among all art forms would only be accomplished some four decades later in conceptual art, particularly in the project of the international avantgarde group Fluxus. (Let us also think of the work of Robert Filliou, in France, in this regard.) Here, the notion of an "artistic discipline" would no longer be relevant: it would forever be replaced by the general notion of "artistic expression", with its emphasis on the eventful nature of art and its collective production. The classical hierarchies and rankings that modernism entailed, even unconsciously, could finally be overthrown inasmuch as the original reference of artistic discourse to both poetry and painting could now be abandoned. In other words, art could become truly modern (and also truly radical) by virtue of the following sentence: "Anything can be art and art can be anything, which is life itself". This statement, obviously, could also
The Paradox of Photography
have been pronounced by Marcel Duchamp. For Surrealism, by contrast, this "anything" still concealed a more cautious (and less defiant) approach to the legacy of Western culture. In other words, it still divided the map of art between centers and margins, in spite of all declarations of intention expressed in various Manifestos. In his musings on Man Ray, Breton particularly questions the unique status of the pose in photography. The work of the photographer requires from the subject a pre-determined attitude in front of the camera. As he says: "Le cliché photographique commence par exiger de ces figures une attitude propice, quand il ne les surprend pas dans ce qu’elles ont de plus fugitif. Les mêmes réflexions s’appliqueraient du reste à la prise de vue cinématographique, de nature à compromettre ces figures non plus seulement dans l’inanimé, mais encore dans le mouvement." (Peinture 52). To contradict this common approach of the portrait, Breton stresses the originality of Man Ray’s models, those women who do not seem to be caught in contrived positions. "Les femmes très élégantes et très belles qui exposent jour et nuit leurs cheveux aux terribles lumières de l’atelier de Man Ray n’ont certes pas conscience de se prêter à une démonstration quelconque. Comme je les étonnerais en disant qu’elles y participent au même titre qu’un canon de quartz, qu’un trousseau de clés, que le givre ou que la fougère !" (Peinture 53-54). He shows how the human face and other parts of the body are confused here with a specific set of objects, and how, together, they construct a profoundly poetic world. It is in this specific transformation of the classical portrait that Man Ray demonstrates his own creative power through the medium of photography. The law of the pose is transgressed; the subject no longer exists by itself as the single focus of the image, but instead as a figure that relates to (and reflects) the material things and natural world around it. Again, this implicit critique of the pose does not clearly appear in the pictures of Nadja. Most of the portraits found in the book are actually of a classical form, that is, they do abide by the rules of mainstream photography. Therefore, another essential contradiction is unveiled here: that between Breton’s critical discourse and his literary work. It is true, indeed, that one notices a certain "strangeness" that inhabits several of these portraits (particularly that of Eluard). But their aesthetic identity remains nevertheless quite predictable, although Man Ray himself made some of these portraits. By
extension, one could say that the dominant aesthetics of the book’s iconography is that of realism. The problem is that Breton primarily praised photography for its illustrative value, as we saw through his essay in Le Surréalisme et la Peinture. By definition, an illustration constitutes a direct or indirect visual reference to a particular text. But Breton decided from the start to use photography in order to eliminate most description from the narrative. Therefore, pictures were defined not only by their illustrative function but also by their descriptive function. This emphasis on the descriptive power of the image apparently implies the supremacy of its mimetic dimension. In this regard, Breton’s use of photography was destined to represent the surrounding reality before being able to recreate it, this reality being that of places, faces and objects. The need for description beyond literary language meant that photography was not a domain of pure imagination or fantasy. It produced a definite distance between the formal nature of these pictures and that of both poetic and pictorial modernism. If these pictures were not, in fact, surrealist in their essence due to a definite concern for realism, they were even less connected to the modern spirit of abstraction. Their ongoing inscription within the world of everyday life and mundane preoccupations marked a clear departure, for instance, from the aesthetics of a Mondrian or a Kandinsky or even a Miro. Does a work by Kandinsky, for instance, describe social reality? In many ways, these works were still rooted in the artistic tradition of photography (but also of painting) in the nineteenth century: a rather prudent and almost academic one, indeed. As such, the use of photography by Breton was particularly important in works like Nadja and O¶$PRXU)RX, both of which dealt with issues of excess and passion either from a fictional or critical perspective. In /¶$PRXU)RX, Breton celebrated the eternal power of desire and sexual attraction between men and women, expressing a radical freedom that could not be voiced without the help of numerous pictures. But this self-proclaimed apology representing unbridled feelings did not lead to a truly irrational and transgressive model of representation. What should strike the reader, instead, is the oftenmeasured character of the images that construct the visual aspect of the work. Whether they are images of the Parisian urban landscape at night, or reproductions of artworks by an artist such as Giacometti, their dominant feature remains that of a profound sense of balance and
The Paradox of Photography
symmetry. In other words, the iconography generally escapes any sort of madness or chaos in its overall careful approach. A great distance is maintained from the pictorial hallucinations of Salvador Dali or the uncontrolled visions of André Masson. In this context, photography still asserts the utmost meaning of reason for both art and literature. It is largely deprived of the violence or the exuberance usually associated with the world of passion. In his article "L’Art des fous, la clé des champs", written in 1948 and included in Le Surréalisme et la Peinture, Breton paid particular attention to artworks created by so-called mad people locked up in asylums and special institutions in order to highlight their spiritual and moral depth. Referring to Jean Dubuffet, he emphasized the uniqueness of "Art Brut". What was at stake, in these works, was the return to the aesthetics of primitivism within a Western culture that had in many ways stifled it over the centuries. Primitivism radically questioned the artistic legitimacy of rationalism, and thus Surrealism had to embrace it. Breton, in his essay entitled "L’Art des fous, la clé des Champs", asserted his strong and unambiguous opposition to the establishment of art criticism, in that it was guilty of conformism and essentially unable to welcome artworks that did not respect the social norms of artistic creation. But this link between madness and primitive aesthetics is too often missing in the pictures of both Nadja and /¶$PRXU)RXapart from a couple of references to "wild objects" and fetishes. What prevails is the presence of a tamed representation that does not really allow for the expression of the repressed. In this sense, photography still suggests the power of the Law, regardless of the unconventional behavior that the author is supposed to enlighten and glorify. It remains a language of so-called civilized and educated forms, through which the wildest and darkest side of man can rarely appear. Photography exists here beyond or rather beneath the primitive. It constitutes a world of orderly things, seized through a detached and distant eye. In /¶$PRXU)RX in particular, several pictures reflect the poetic significance of nature, from coral to sunflowers and clusters of crystal. The insistence on the mineral and vegetal world leads to the identification of photography as a sort of modern still life that comes after painting and its long tradition of the subject. This tradition largely stemmed from the belief in the fundamental order of pictorial representation, in which the artist demonstrated his own intense rigor
and the historical mastery of art and culture over nature. This was still the case even in the most modernist and original interpretation of the genre, from Cézanne to Morandi and Braque. The tension between the objective reflection of the universe and the raw expression of the subject in painting was thus overcome through a patient and careful process of reproduction that revealed, above all, the intellectual knowledge of the artist and his pre-determination of the work of art. The logic of the still life necessarily implies the supremacy of immobility over movement. It is a form which requires the aesthetic power of contemplation. The timelessness of the form is enhanced by the choice of the subject matter, which is the natural world. While men are mortal, nature is immortal, and this is one of the main characteristics that separate the time of the still life from the time of the portrait. The identification of photography with the genre therefore calls for a sense of eternity within the visual domain. This allows us to highlight, once again, the contradictions of Breton’s critical discourse, and more precisely of his discourse on beauty in both art and life. Toward this end, the last pages of Nadja provided a new and highly personal definition of beauty which, according to Breton’s own words, was neither static nor dynamic. The main metaphor for this argument was that of a train in the Gare de Lyon that would actually never leave. "Beauty was to be convulsive or would not be", and this notion was also developed in the first part of /¶$PRXU )RX, where Breton looked for literary examples of this definition in the poetic work of Lautréamont and others. As he said: "Le mot ‘convulsive’, que j’ai employé pour qualifier la beauté qui seule, selon moi, doive être servie, perdrait à mes yeux tout sens s’il était conçu dans le mouvement et non à l’expiration exacte de ce mouvement même". (Amour 13). According to these words, Breton’s aesthetic sensitivity entailed a delicate balance between motion and its negation. He had to assert the reciprocal relationship that tied the object both in its motion and its stillness. In the same passage, Breton actually expressed his regret for not having provided, as an illustration to his text, a picture of a high-speed locomotive that had been abandoned during all those years to the folly of the wild forest. This was undoubtedly the kind of image that he would have loved to see. Moreover, he stressed the magical character of such a vision ("L’aspect sûrement magique de ce monument à la victoire et au désastre, mieux que tout autre, eût été de nature à fixer les idées" (Amour 13). The same vision of a train that
The Paradox of Photography
would not leave was therefore repeated in order to suggest the fundamental illusion of both speed and immobility. But his questioning of essential mechanical phenomena associated with modernity distinguished his discourse from that of other modernist artistic movements, and particularly from Futurism. The cry for a convulsive aesthetics did not mean a complete surrender to the purely dynamic representation of the modern world (a form of representation that was paramount for the pictorial project of Futurism, but also for Léger’s Cubism and Delaunay’s Simultaneism). The self-proclaimed spontaneity of expression that was put forth in this discourse did not actually contradict the need for a contemplative interaction with reality. (I want to emphasize here the paradoxical dimension of this formula: "contemplative interaction", beyond its apparent passivity, was still marked by the desire to act upon the outside world). In /¶$PRXU )RX, Breton praised the crystal as the ultimate symbol of the formal identity of artwork, and also of life. Crystal was a sort of natural ready-made, something that existed as in its solidity and regularity, and could neither be improved nor perfected as such. Artistic spontaneity was part of the message included in this metaphor, but it also implied the quest for an inanimate reality within the natural world. Breton simultaneously celebrated, in this regard, flora ("les alcyonaires et les madrépores") and the coral located in the depths of the ocean. Both the vegetal and the mineral world reflected the poetic power of eternal forms that could not be altered. In this sense, human imagination could be agitated and animated by them by virtue of a magnetic force that stemmed from their permanent and fixed presence. ("L’inanimé touche ici de si près l’animé que l’imagination est libre de se jouer à l’infini sur ces formes d’apparence toute minérale" (Amour 15)). The missing picture of /¶$PRXU )RX, that of the locomotive, said it all. The machine, as the ultimate objective expression of modernity and the law of technical progress, had to be framed and seized in its vegetal possibility. It had to reveal the sense of a fast time that could still be stopped, such that one could, through the image, move from a social to a poetic definition of time. Photography constituted the most appropriate medium for the representation of stillness within perpetual motion: it could always capture and control an accelerative process to assert the artist’s unique ability to see and
visualize the eternal through the experience of the ephemeral and the instantaneous. In /¶$PRXU Fou, the identification of beauty with light is almost inevitable. The celebration of the crystal was evidently that of an object whose transparent surface let light go through. It echoed the dream of the glass house that was already included in Nadja. The legend that accompanies the picture of these stones is of particular significance: "La maison que j’habite, ma vie, ce que j’écris" (Amour 18), which is actually only the first part of a sentence that ends: "Je rêve que cela apparaisse de loin comme apparaissent de près ces cubes de sel gemme" (Amour 14). This identification continues, and is maybe even more significant, in the notion of "revelation" that Breton develops further in the text. His radical critique of rationalism stems from an esoteric sense of the mystery of things around us. The main task of the poet, and the artist, is to point at this mystery and unveil it with words and pictures. The utopia of total transparency is based upon the belief that art can literally go through things and penetrate what he calls "the deep night of human existence". In order to do so, the artist must first give up the demands of traditional logic. Breton strives for the birth of an unprecedented contact between man and the material world that would be dazzling ("éblouissant"). According to his own discourse, the word "revelation" is not to be taken as metaphysical, but rather concrete. Indeed, to reveal is to demonstrate in a poetic manner the mental closeness of the material reality that surrounds us. But this term also implies, by nature, a specific move from darkness to light in a very physical way. As such, revelation entails the irresistible passage of things and beings to light, beyond the perception of a reality that cannot be neither known nor understood. From this perspective, transparency constitutes the privileged aesthetic model of an almighty light that can reach, touch, and illuminate every single object and subject in the universe. It expresses both its ubiquitous nature and its specific power to signify meaning as an original and unique language. The metaphors used by Breton in these two literary works thus often refer indirectly to the issue of photography. For what is photography, if not a medium that shed light on objects, places, and people to make the world more visible through a process of sheer "revelation"? For Breton, the identity of Surrealist poetry and art had to be defined through the ongoing creation of inner images and visions. But it also required the
The Paradox of Photography
active support of a primarily physical phenomenon as an origin and foundation, the utmost importance of which was demonstrated by the very technique of photography. The tension between motion and stillness that characterized Breton’s aesthetic discourse was especially embodied in the philosophy of idleness (or désoeuvrement) that the narrator formulated in Nadja. Many pictures in the book evoked this philosophy through their emphasis on the emptiness of the urban space. It entailed an unequivocal rejection of the merely social definition of work in capitalist society, which inevitably led to the servitude of those who accepted it. In order to achieve some sort of personal emancipation (or "désenchaînement", to use the narrator's term), the narrator praised the ethical and existential value of wandering, and more precisely of man’s footsteps ("Pour moi, je l’avoue, ces pas sont tout" (Nadja 79)). In this sense, the celebration of Les pas articulated a desire to move beyond the strictly active conception of life that prevailed in modern Western culture. Idleness, by contrast, opened upon the discovery of contemplation and its power to reveal. In other words, it was necessary to stop feverishly working and acting to see through the surface of the world. The character of Nadja, in her own complete disconnection from social reality (and thus from the reality of labor), expressed the promise of an individual freedom based upon the everyday supremacy of the gaze. The idle being could therefore overcome the general process of alienation common to all people by continuously staring at (and through) the things around them. This peculiar quality of the gaze did not imply, though, that the subject remained locked and paralyzed in inaction. This form of contemplation was not purely passive or even ecstatic, as in the religious or mystical experience. For Breton, instead, it enabled a profound transformation in the nature of the communication, not only between men and women, but also between man and the material world. Les Pas, in this sense, echoed the will for a radical cultural and existential change, not some longing for absolute withdrawal or renouncement. Contemplation had to be associated with an agitated attitude of revolt and rebellion: it determined, in its own way, a dynamic process of involvement and engagement that could neither reduce nor confine man to silence, neutrality, and powerlessness. In Nadja, the urban imagination of the poet is translated into images that mostly appear in daylight. Streets, squares, buildings, and
parks are represented in a state of "daydreaming", precisely because the day constitutes a time when most people are at work and therefore unable to dream. The overwhelming imperatives of the social order are embodied in the rigid organization of daytime: to challenge this particular order, the poet must assert the presence of both art and the unconscious within a realm that denies them. This is evidently what separates the pictures of Nadja from the works of Brassaï, in which urban views of Paris are dominated by a nocturnal sensitivity. They are closer to the earlier works of a pioneer like Atget, especially in the particular attention that Breton pays to the emptiness of the urban space. The Paris of Nadja is mostly deserted by its inhabitants. Its photography focuses instead on the fantasy of a large city that has been abandoned by its people (which evokes the pictorial aesthetics of Giorgio de Chirico, an artist that Breton praised in his earlier writings before excommunicating him later on). This city is deprived of any crowd of passers-by. It becomes a sort of metaphysical vacuum that the narrator and his female companion fill with their own words and visions. In many ways, Paris is an abstract landscape here: it does not resemble a true modern city, with its constant movement and its dense gatherings of human beings. The narrator and Nadja are almost alone within this setting, as if this loneliness was the pre-condition for a sense of true belonging. The city is now theirs, precisely because the urban space is not being shared with anyone else. Photography suggests the uncanny presence of a deserted world, a world that only exists in the mind of the poet and the artist. But this is also how the Paris of Nadja allows for the confusion of daytime and nighttime, as it is solely in the middle of the night that the streets and the squares of the big city are, in fact, deserted, when the vast majority of people are asleep and most restaurants, shops and theaters are already closed. In this perspective, photography strives for an impossible encounter between two opposite realities: it defines a Utopian space in which the image of man becomes more obscure and aloof. In the last pages of the book, the narrator insists upon the abstract character of the big city and its ongoing metamorphosis in front of his eyes. The modern city has no definite form. It is an ever-changing entity that seems to flee while expressing its fundamental otherness. This sensibility is close to that of Baudelaire, if one thinks in particular of a poem like Le Cygne, but with a less melancholic tone. ("Sans aucun
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regret, à cette heure, je la vois devenir autre et même fuir. Elle glisse, elle brûle, elle sombre dans le frisson d’herbes folles de ses barricades, dans le rêve des rideaux de ses chambres où un homme et une femme continueront indifféremment à s’aimer." (Nadja 182)). According to Breton’s own words, the city is indeed a "mental landscape" and a profoundly enigmatic one at that. It must be the result of a particular intellectual construction that defies the purely material aspects of the urban space. The narrator of Nadja, therefore, conceives of the city in his own mind while simultaneously living it in the everyday experience. In this perspective, photography fosters the conceptual project of an urban poetics that is always unfinished and open to change. In her own essay, Rosalind Krauss refers in this regard to Walter Benjamin’s interest in Breton’s urban poetics, as it appears in his essay "Le Surréalisme", which is included in his Oeuvres I, Mythe et Violence. She quotes some of his statements, saying that "photography wonderfully captures some spaces and objects belonging to the city, from streets to doors. These century-old architectures are thus detached from their banal evidence in order to be related, with an utmost intensity, to the very event that photography presents". (Krauss 108). One can never underestimate the political dimension of Breton’s writings, which shapes even those texts that are not strictly manifestos. /¶$PRXU)RX, for instance, defines a politics of love and desire, of its eternal nature against all odds. In this regard, the narrative of Nadja does not constitute an exception; it might actually be one of Breton's most politically charged works. The assault on the medical establishment (discussed previously) is combined with a fiery rhetoric about the need for radical freedom and non-conformity. One could define Breton’s general attitude and mindset as primarily existential. But this original perspective is rarely conveyed by photography itself. Distance is maintained from the spirit of John Heartfield’s photographic collages and montages, whose purpose was directly political. It was this utmost ideological dimension that attracted someone like Aragon in his enthusiastic critical discourse on Heartfield's work. If Breton avoids the trap of propaganda here, he is also reluctant to embrace the idea of photography as art engagé, a position which is more problematic. After all, from its very foundation, the Magnum Group inscribed photography within the domain of history. Many of Robert
Capa’s most famous images actually focused on war and its tragic implications for mankind, from the Spanish civil war of 1937 to World War II and the colonial conflicts of the late forties and early fifties. This tragic, or even epic, nature of photography is almost absent in Breton’s writings. It is as if the photographer could not be the witness of his own era, a notion that was so crucial for many renowned artists working with this medium in the twentieth century. The only reference to history in Breton’s writings is located in CartierBresson’s striking picture of Spanish children walking through the rubble during the civil war, a picture that appears at the end of /¶$PRXU)RX. By deliberately focusing his attention on the realm of everyday life, the Surrealist poet ended up ignoring some of the most important aspects of modern photography. These aspects had indeed transformed photography into a major art form by underlining its political urgency and its identification with life and death issues concerning the whole of humanity. This universality might be missing in both Nadja and /¶$PRXU )RX, as if the emphasis on personal feelings and subjectivity had overshadowed the representation of the community, of its struggle and of its suffering, simultaneously historical and eternal. Breton’s use of photography does, however, imply the integration of this medium within the domain of popular culture. The Surrealists generally expressed a strong interest in the so-called "low culture" of genre movies, popular songs, detective stories and cabaret shows. The text of Nadja is filled with references to such forms of entertainment. The narrator is not ashamed of the fact that he greatly enjoys the performances staged at the Théâtre Moderne, in spite of the poor acting and the ugliness of the décor. He finds pleasure in listening to a refrain sung by a young woman, a quite banal love song with melodramatic undertones. "Descendre vraiment dans les basfonds de l’esprit, là où il n’est plus question que la nuit tombe et se relève" (Nadja 45), such is his main goal when he attends shows of dubious quality in some of the worse areas of the city. He describes an evening spent at the "Théâtre des Deux-Masques", a popular theater specializing in Grand-Guignol, watching a play that had been trashed by the critics. It is well-known that Breton was not a big fan of the theater, which is probably the reason why theatre occupies only a marginal position in the hierarchy of Surrealist practices. The narrator confesses
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here his lack of taste for "les planches". Nonetheless, he expresses his enthusiasm for a play called Les Détraquées, which he considers to be the only stage work that he wants to remember. He pays particular attention to the character of Solange, a young girl who attends boarding school and dies at the end of the performance. He is above all fascinated by the actress who plays her role, Blanche Derval, a woman that he defines emphatically as the most admirable and maybe the only actress of her time. A photograph of her appears in the middle of his account, her portrait revealing the importance of popular mythologies (in the sense given to the term by Barthes) for Breton and his followers. Blanche Derval becomes an iconic figure for the narrator. She is seen by him as a star and an idol, despite her relative lack of fame and artistic status. Her picture enables him to keep a strong memory of her:. It underlines the presence of an imaginary relationship, which exists only in the mind of the narrator (of the fan that he actually is). The objective (and quite mediocre) reality of the context in which this mental bind takes place is no longer significant: the picture of the young actress unveils here the fictional power of photography and its capacity to turn the other into an object of pure fantasy. Popular culture, by this logic, allows for the assertion of intimate desires and feelings within the most banal forms of human experience. It engenders a thorough process of transfiguration in which the imagination of the subject becomes paramount. Truth is no longer the issue: "les bas-fonds de l’esprit" instead defines a system of representation in which the underground and hidden dimensions of life play the main part. Popular culture and Surrealism share a belief in the sheer equality of all forms of cultural expression. For the Surrealist artist, collages, found objects and photographs were as essential to his projects as painting or drawing. Surrealism (and also Dada) implied in many ways a profound questioning of the hierarchy among the arts, although (as demonstrated earlier) Breton himself still maintained a sense of hierarchy in his writings. Nevertheless, the distinction between "high art" and "low art" became more and more blurry after Duchamp and Man Ray. To the extent that Surrealism and the avantgarde belonged to and reflected the twentieth-century, they had to confront the aesthetic and cultural relativism that constituted one of its main features.
What prevented Surrealism and the avant-garde from becoming truly "popular", though, was their foundation in a theoretical discourse that was alien to the world of commercial films and magazines. Moreover, the vast majority of the artists and poets who participated in their history firmly believed in the possibility of radical social and political changes through art, a notion that the producers of true popular culture did not share. In this sense, Surrealism had to assume its own philosophical contradictions. Its relativism could not be absolute, for absolute relativism constitutes the most profound negation of art, of its meaning and its purpose. Popular culture itself would end up trivializing the very word "Surrealism" by superficially imitating its aesthetics in advertising and film. But this artificial and contrived synthesis could not mask the fundamental differences between the two. In the First Manifesto, Breton clearly stated the deep conflict between the avant-garde poet or artist and the materialism of capitalist society by unambiguously tying the politics of his movement to Marxist ideology. (I have studied Breton’s complex ties to Marxist ideology, and more particularly to the personality and the political legacy of Trotsky, in my "Breton and Trotsky: The revolutionary memory of Surrealism", which is included in the special issue Surrealism and Its Others of Yale French Studies, Volume 109, 5266). By contrast, popular culture lacked such a political project. It was primarily destined to entertain the masses, and therefore legitimated the oppression of the capitalist order by providing people with a temporary sense of joy or bliss. Escapism was its real identity, whereas Surrealism attempted instead to raise serious issues about the revolutionary role of modern art and its mission as a liberating force for the community. In this sense, Surrealism never became truly "popular" because it belonged to the domain of the avant-garde and took on its rather esoteric nature. The problem with photography was that, in the course of its history, it started first as a standardized means of expression for the masses, and then became an increasingly creative artistic discipline for the educated few. These two contradictory dimensions of the medium still co-exist today. This might well be the reason why it remains so difficult to assert an essentialist definition of photography. Breton’s discourse reflects these unresolved tensions. He constantly hesitates between the pictorial aspect of photography
The Paradox of Photography
and its strictly anecdotic dimension, that is, between photography as mere illustration of both narrative and reality, and photography as an independent and mature art form. Pictures can be insignificant and outdated objects found by chance in a flea market, the rather mundane stuff that postcards are made of. But they can also stir the unconscious of the narrator and open up to the infinite world of dreams and visions by revealing the numerous coincidences of everyday life (such as in the picture of Les Bois-Charbons). As such, pictures are always to be constructed and developed by both the narrator and the reader. In Breton’s perspective, they do not exist as closed entities, but instead as a sort of "open door or window", as if these objects needed external help in order to assert their own meaning. They are essentially flawed or imperfect, and these aesthetic limitations enable us to interpret them freely with our own model of thought. After all, the Surrealist project of Nadja constantly tracks the possibility of the event within the uneventful. Banality becomes a precondition for the expression of the extraordinary. These pictures all seem so close to us, in their apparent simplicity, but this perception is somewhat misleading. Photography provides us with a mere illusion of transparency and obviousness. It never reaches the utmost sophistication of Breton’s prose, its profound intricacies, but it leads us nonetheless to a sense of the symbolic complexity of everyday life. In this regard, one could compare photography to a set of questions. These questions give us the opportunity to read and decipher the world of objects and signs around us without providing us definitive answers to our own interrogations and anxieties. Photography is there to open our eyes, and to suggest the ongoing presence of a gaze that does not only belong to the central character of the narrative, but to us all. In Breton’s perspective, this gaze is never self-sufficient: it will always need the power of the poetic language. But it can at least fashion and stir our awareness of the invisible world existing behind the visible one, in its eternal beauty and infinite richness.
The Image, One Image, Images
Any discussion of modern critical discourse on photography requires an examination of Roland Barthes’s famous essay, La Chambre Claire (Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 1980). More than twentyfive years after its publication, this book continues to influence definitions of the true nature of the medium. Barthes’ undertaking, after all, is not about seeing photography, or even looking at it, but rather about reading it as a type of subliminal text. The very process of reading has always been central to the author’s general reflection on literature and literary criticism, from S/Z to Le Plaisir du Texte. It is no surprise, therefore, that his main work on photography focuses essentially on this issue of reading images. The first pages of his essay immediately enlighten this particular search for the possibility of interpretation, beyond the material presence of visual representation. In order to read a given object, one has first to define it in broad terms: the definition, in this sense, cannot provide us with the true meaning of the object, but it does give us conceptual tools that will enable us to find its meaning afterwards. The first major rhetorical move by Barthes consists in opposing photography and cinema. ("Je décrétai que j’aimais la photo contre le cinéma, dont je n’arrivais pas pourtant à la séparer" (Barthes 13)). The word "against" is being put into italics, as if the author was insisting upon this radical opposition. We have already seen this attempt to
The Paradox of Photography
confront photography with other art forms: Baudelaire’s critique, in this regard, determined from the start the antagonistic relationship between painting and photography. The differences between cinema and photography are obvious: the former produces moving images most often accompanied with sound while the latter is based on still and silent ones. But an ambiguity remains in Barthes’ statement, since he confesses his inability to separate the two. From a strictly technical point of view, it is clear that cinema could not have been conceived without the invention of photography. One must notice in this regard that the Lumière brothers themselves engaged in in-depth scientific research on photography, and ended up developing in particular a new process of reproduction of color pictures called O¶DXWRFKURPHBeyond the purely technical aspect of this relationship, though, one can easily argue that cinema, from the start, asserted itself as a narrative means of expression whereas photography was more dominated by descriptive or documentary concerns. In this sense, cinema rapidly became a powerful vehicle for fiction and story-telling, while photography was more confined (at least at the beginning) to the reproduction of reality. This statement is significant, to the extent that Barthes, the moviegoer, never really attempted to write a book-length essay on cinema, as opposed to Deleuze, for instance (I want to refer here to Deleuze’s landmark theoretical writings, such as /¶,PDJH-Mouvement and /¶,PDJH-Temps). As a literary critic, (which was, after all, the main intellectual identity of the author), he decided instead to focus his attention on photography. By doing so, he unconsciously suggested that photography could be integrated into his own theory of writing, and beyond that, into the theory of writing in general. After all, the very word "photography" denotes the act of writing, while cinema does not. This demonstrates that, for Barthes, issues of writing and reading largely exceeded those of fiction and narrative. His famous distinction between O¶pFULYDLQand O¶pFULYDQW, implied the idea that the true writer was primarily interested in critical issues and the concept of writing instead of being a mere producer of stories and imaginary characters. From this perspective, the choice of photography over cinema meant that photography could encourage critical reflection precisely because its main purpose was not the creation of fiction. For him, fiction was in many ways what resisted the very possibility of an ontological discourse. Photography, by
The Image, One Image, Images
deliberately distancing itself from such viewpoint, could therefore open up to the assertion of an "en soi" and the expression of an "ontological" desire. From the beginning, Barthes casts a doubt on the identity of photography. It must be said that when he undertook this project in the late seventies, critical discourse on the medium was still relatively rare, at least in French culture. The only notable example was Bourdieu’s Un Art Moyen, which was much more of a sociological study than a true essay on aesthetics. In this sense, Barthes was a type of precursor. In many ways he had to start from scratch. The absence of a significant corpus on the subject, aside from the traditional catalogues raisonnés and archival documents, enabled him to construct his own theory of photography without having to answer to anyone. His singularity therefore constituted the source of his intellectual independence. There was no established authority which could assess the validity of his statements or reject them on the basis of a preexisting model of thought. This is still what strikes the reader of La Chambre Claire: it is the absolute freedom of tone that characterizes the words of the author. The essay in the "I" form reflects the ultimate power of a writer who speaks without having to take into account a series of text that would shape a certain history of the topic. Barthes does not even mention Baudelaire in his work, as if photography was springing almost out of nowhere, from the background of a philosophical vacuum: "Qui pouvait me guider?" (Barthes 14). This question is particularly significant, because it stresses an absence of other voices that might have enabled Barthes to develop his own discourse. The bold orientation that Barthes defined in his Nouvelle Critique evidently targeted a traditional and rigid conception of literary criticism that had been determined by French academia for decades. His polemical response to Raymond Picard did not have to assert itself against a particular institutional framework. But it is also for the same reason that the voice of the writer is somewhat lonelier. Barthes must explore photography like a franc-tireur detached from any school and from any community. It is clear that such a situation can generate numerous anxieties. The writer here is literally by himself. He does not hear any echo and has to proceed without any external help. This could explain Barthes’s search for the classification and order of pictures. ("Il faut bien classer, échantillonner, si l’on veut constituer
The Paradox of Photography
un corpus" (Barthes 14)). It is almost as if the writer had to construct for himself the very object that he was trying to study. Photography, in other words, does not seem to exist yet. Pictures must be put together in order to constitute a corpus: they still have to reveal their own tangible reality. This particular reality is that of contingency. This means that pictures are always integrated into a series: they do not exist in their unique nature. This kind of discourse has become a common place of the modern critique since Benjamin and his "Work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction". However, Barthes is not really interested in the purely technical aspect of this situation, nor does he elaborate on it from a post-Marxist perspective. For him, the issue is more that of the singularity of the event that photography attempts to capture. Therefore, the event from which photography stems is always an occasion or an opportunity: it belongs to the infinite world of encounters. The fundamental contradiction of this process is that pictures never cease to repeat contingency, since they are essentially tied to their referent. This is obviously very different from the kind of repetition that one finds, for example, in Blanchot’s theory of writing, or in Beckett’s experimental novels, in the sense that repetition is here defined by an external model, and not by the inner model of the narrative voice and its language. Repetition relies upon the categorical imperative of representation, the law of a clear and distinct form associated with the visible world and with reality. The ressassement of literature isolates writing from the domain of forms and opens up the possibility of the formless, which is essentially the potential neutrality of representation. It is in relation to this that Barthes evokes the fatality of photography ("Pas de photo sans Quelque chose ou 4XHOTX¶XQ" (Barthes 18)). Photography always rests upon something, as opposed to literature, which, we all know by now, can rest upon nothing. It is destined to the determination of reality and to the simultaneous assertion that any true void is impossible. In other words, to represent is always to fill out a certain space, to get rid of blanks and to superimpose a form upon (and from) reality. In this perspective, photography becomes the ultimate contradiction of Mallarmé’s poetic project. Its very nature, as stated by Barthes, separates it thus from some of the most important aspects of literary modernism. From Mallarmé to Beckett (but also Dada poetry), indeed, literature has
The Image, One Image, Images
accustomed us to words such as "Nobody" or "Nothing" and to their profound significance, both from an aesthetic and an existential standpoint. The author uses this idea to conclude that photography is doomed to "the immense disorder of things". He believes that it is almost impossible to choose one picture (or one object) instead of another. The so-called invisibility of the medium stems from the fact that the object represented in photography is always more obvious than the form that allows it to be represented. But this problem is not specific to photography. It is fundamentally associated with the very notion of figuration, and more precisely with realist figuration in art. This problem is almost as old as Western culture. During the seventeenth century, when Louis XIV asked his official painter to make a supposedly realist portrait of himself, he wanted the French people to see him through the painting, as it were, and not painting itself. The evident reference included in the artwork enabled the king to make his own power more visible through a particular system of pictorial representation. The portrait was very well the image of someone, and it is this someone, ultimately, that the masses would see and remember. The masses did not truly conceive of this artwork as a painting (as an aesthetic process defined by a certain style): the king, instead, wanted them to admire a mere mirror of his own body and of his own face. This "invisibility" of painting was also key to the cultural and symbolic power of religious art in the middle ages, for instance, to the extent that the scene of the crucifixion, for instance, imposed the sacrificial figure of Jesus Christ to all the Christians before asserting the presence of the artwork itself. Barthes also laments the lack of substantial studies on photography: for too long, the discourse on the medium had been dominated by either technical or sociological concerns. We have already seen that Baudelaire, the ultimate poet, could not himself avoid the dangers of sociological generalizations. Before gaining the status of an art form, any technical innovation is shaped through various analytical approaches that tend to define it from a loosely cultural point of view. This was also true of cinema at the beginning of the twentieth century. The masses would first marvel at the original spectacle of images moving through time on the big screen, and later, at the combination of sound and images in the same arena. Early comments on cinema also focused on the entertainment value of this
The Paradox of Photography
new medium and on its capacity to gather large groups of people on a given night, like circus or sporting events would do. The difference is that the perception of cinema rapidly changed, and that its identification with a major artistic discipline became a fait accompli after less than four decades of existence, with the development of post-revolutionary Russian cinema and the American burlesque in particular. This evolution did not appear as quickly with photography: it was only in the twentieth-century, indeed, and more precisely in the nineteen twenties and thirties, with both the rise of the Dada and Surrealist avant-garde, on the one hand, and the publication of major critical writings such as Walter Benjamin’s Petite Histoire de la Photographie, on the other hand, that photography started to be recognized as a major art form. It took almost a century for this process to be completed. The problem with photography is that it had been systematically put together and then compared with painting: it definitely belonged to the field of the visual arts, or at least, to that of visual practices. In that sense, it would always be seen as the younger brother of painting and this particular perspective would be largely detrimental to its artistic growth. By contrast, cinema did not have to endure such family disputes. Movies competed at its birth with the theater as a place of social gathering and entertainment for the middle class. Nevertheless, they were rarely seen as a mere imitation of stage productions by the critics and the spectators alike. In other words, photography constituted the bad copy of painting and therefore had to live constantly under its shadow, while cinema had no real model to worry about. The history of painting and of Western art in general, which also includes drawing and sculpture, was by all means overwhelming: it defined for many years the relative marginalization of photography within scholarly discourse and artistic institutions. The paradoxical nature of this situation was that photography, although associated with modernity from a purely technical and sociological standpoint, was still drawn back towards the pre-modern era through its confusion with painting. So to speak, it was not radically modern, as opposed to cinema, since it still belonged to a system of representation that had dominated Western culture way before the advent of modernity. Both sociological and technical approaches to photography prevented it from being defined in purely aesthetic terms. Again, the ongoing comparison with painting only superficially expressed strictly
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formal concerns, to the extent that the apparently aesthetic discourse on the medium was actually borrowed from a more established discipline and had therefore little to do with its own characteristics: the pictorial model, in this perspective, imposed its specific forms on any core definition of photographic representation. Writing in the void, such was thus Barthes’ fate. It is clear that for a refined esthete like him, purely technical or sociological viewpoints could not be satisfactory, or even relevant. His critique of the Marxist school of thought, as stated in /H'HJUp=pURGHO¶ecriture, revealed not only a deep suspicion towards the relationship between political ideology and critical theory, but also and maybe more decisively towards the relationship between sociology and literary criticism. In other words, Barthes was not only opposing Sartre or Althusser in this context, but also the new intellectual fashion of cultural macro-analysis that was growing in popularity in France in the fifties and the sixties. Moreover, the obsessive emphasis on technique and its role in the definition of art in modern society was itself stemming primarily from a post-Marxist perspective, as the work of Benjamin (but also of Adorno) demonstrated it. By contrast, Barthes was searching for a sort of subjective aesthetics, an original discourse on forms that would be able to integrate the vast realm of his own emotions and inner feelings. By essence, sociology ignored the power of the "I", but so did technique. Photography, therefore, had to engender for him the new "fragments of a love discourse", to the extent that any picture referred essentially to an "object of desire" or "a cherished body" (Barthes 19). The "I" asserted itself beyond the community and its rhetorical norms, beyond culture and the technical apparatus that it created inevitably within modernity. In this sense, photography did not pertain to the realm of knowledge: it had to remain the absolute unknown, an original field of human experience without any epistemological or hermeneutic tradition. Photography was literally asocial, if not anti-social: it was destined to stress both the fundamental distance separating the writer from the conventional rules of the external world and its own ultimate primitivism. In this regard, Barthes refers to Nietzsche and to his "ancient sovereignty of the I". The subject asserts his supremacy to the extent that he is capable of selecting a relatively small amount of pictures according to the meaning that they hold for him and for him only. ("Je résolus donc de prendre pour départ de ma recherche à peine quelques
The Paradox of Photography
photos, celles dont j’étais sûr qu’elles existaient pour moi. Rien à voir avec un corpus : seulement quelques corps." (Barthes 21)). One of the main characteristics of photography is precisely its infinite proliferation within modern society, through advertising, magazines, catalogues and newspapers. The recent development of both the Internet and digital photography has enhanced this phenomenon even more: an increasing number of pictures are made available nowadays through numerous websites and blogs worldwide, while digital technology vastly increases the speed with which pictures can be seen and spread. In this sense, contemporary technology has pushed Benjamin’s concept of mechanical reproduction to its limit: the very idea of a selection process among all pictures has become almost irrelevant. The irony of this situation is that there have never been as many possibilities of choice for the consumer as there are today: the overwhelming presence of pictures around us reflects the cultural, social and economic power of sheer numbers. Indeed, the notion of choice implies a restricted number of objects from which to choose: one can make a sensible and meaningful choice only if one is able to assess and to compare, at least in general terms, the main features of all the objects that are available. This kind of knowledge cannot exist in the face of an excessive number of objects: the ongoing and frantic reproduction of pictures, therefore, destabilizes our very system of values, and our personal relationship to objects, by erasing the image of their uniqueness or rarity. Barthes wrote his essay a long time before the birth of these new technologies. Nonetheless, he already understood the problems created by an excess of pictures. He speaks in this regard about "les photos innombrables du monde" (Barthes 20). The subjective discourse relies upon a certain freedom of choice: the "I" cannot yield to the idea that more is necessarily better. In this perspective, to talk about photography is not to talk about all of them but only about a few ("à peine quelques photos"). What can no longer be numbered is also what can no longer be integrated into a particular order of things. The law of sheer number precipitates the entropy of objects, their chaotic dissemination throughout modern society. Pleasure itself, in this case the aesthetic or psychological satisfaction that one could feel in front of a particular picture, is the result of a mindset which, by definition, imposes quality over quantity. This was already true for Barthes’
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relationship to literary texts, as demonstrated by Le Plaisir du Texte. So to speak, the happy reader only picked a few pages or passages here and there in a book: he was wandering from page to page and was going back ultimately to the same body of works. Barthes’ critical philosophy is not fundamentally different, obviously, in La Chambre Claire. The sophisticated and lucid critic, indeed, is the one who always returns to a few pictures that truly matter to him and stir his sensitivity. In this sense, Barthes’ method is anything but historical. The history of art, by nature, implies the scientific need for the exhaustive classification of artists, styles, schools and movements throughout centuries. The historian, therefore, firmly believes in the possible wholeness of art, and beyond, of history itself. But for Barthes, photography is not to be exhausted or encompassed in a single intellectual endeavor. Meaningful pictures always resist the very possibility of this holistic approach. The inner truth of the subject determines the presence of an I that exists outside of traditional history, within a timeframe that belongs to him exclusively. In this regard, the academic establishment of literary criticism that Barthes opposed was also tied unilaterally to a strict historical perspective on literature. This does not mean, though, that the modern or ‘new’ critic is indifferent to the past or to any form of tradition. To the contrary, Barthes’ critical writings were deeply influenced by the works of the great classics of French literature, from Racine to Balzac. We also know that he paid a particular attention to the work of an historian like Michelet. But it means instead that history only exists as a small set of unrelated fragments and not as an infinite collection of objects or events. In other words, what Barthes resists in the very idea of history is the possibility of totality, whether this totality is Hegelian or not. After all, photography merely pretends to seize a few moments in the endless chain of time: it does not determine as such the sense of its unity. Barthes is more interested thus in specific examples (or "samples") than in the constitution of a series of images. Pictures are therefore defined by their singularity, instead of being treated as elements of a vast collection. This particular approach evidently distinguishes the author of La Chambre Claire from Walter Benjamin, who, in his Petite Histoire de la Photographie, attempted to grasp and put together a large body of works that lacked apparent similarities
The Paradox of Photography
through their common participation in a so-called history of the medium. In this perspective, Benjamin clearly searched for an origin of photography and for a golden age which, in many ways, was associated with this origin (imaginary or real). A thinker like Benjamin, whose intellectual ties to Marxist thought are undisputable, could never have abandoned this historical framework since it enabled him to assert the ongoing technical development of the medium through different eras as well as its aesthetic diversity. Moreover, Benjamin had to conceive of pictures as objects in a collection. The serial dimension of pictures provided a decisive argument for his broader concept of "mechanical reproduction". After all, he was himself a collector, and this very situation proved the intimate nature of the relationship that he had with photography. Subjectivity (the subjectivity of critical discourse), in his case, stemmed precisely from the fact that these cherished objects were brought together under the sheer label of photography, regardless of their specific subject matter or material identity. The emphasis on the historical definition of photography also prevented Benjamin from being overly emotional in his work: although undoubtedly influenced by his own personal experience of the medium, La Petite Histoire de la Photographie remained a rather detached analytical essay that did not appeal directly to the feelings of the reader. In other words, history could never have been carried away by the power of the "I". In essence, it asserted the sovereignty of collective entities over individual needs or demands. Benjamin’s essay stressed both the possibility of a scientific discourse on photography and also the profound social meaning of the medium throughout modernity. Historical perspective, in this sense, was still abiding by the law of practical reason. Benjamin always insisted upon the possible use of the medium by and for the community, beyond any aesthetic concern. This practical imperative implied a definite emphasis on the technical dimension of photography, a dimension that Barthes almost completely ignores in his own essay. This is obviously what gives Benjamin’s argument its quality of accuracy, but it is also what prevents his text from being truly tied to the most fundamental issues of the human condition. It lacks the existential urgency which one might expect from a thinker who otherwise celebrated the tragic sensitivity of both Baudelaire and Kafka in his writings on literature, as demonstrated by his celebrated collection of essays, Illuminations.
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His tone here is primarily didactic: La Petite Histoire de la Photographie, thus, is essentially a general and mostly objective lesson on some of the most important developments of the medium over a period of about one hundred years. The lack of an historical argument in Barthes’ essay also underlines the reluctance of the writer to embrace a sort of encyclopedic view of photography. By encyclopedic view, I mean a deliberate attempt to express and define an in-depth and broad knowledge of the subject from a quasi-scientific perspective. In other words, Barthes never states that he actually knows what he is talking about. Knowledge is not truly the issue, here, to the extent that photography is being seen as an object that precisely and by nature resists any objective and even rational thinking. As we know, the very notion of encyclopedic knowledge in Western civilization stemmed from the rapid progress of both science and philosophy in the eighteenth century. It was mainly conceived by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, who firmly believed that all the new forms of study of both the physical and the social world that appeared almost simultaneously at the time could be somewhat synthesized and put together in a common intellectual project. This notion, therefore, relied upon two essential and almost Utopian principles: the absolute faith in both the ongoing progress of mankind and the legitimacy of a collective scientific endeavor that could exist beyond the power of any individual mind. In this sense, the Encyclopedia defined a positive historical consciousness that was geared towards an ever brighter future, but it also asserted the moral supremacy of the community over the isolated subject: progress was only made possible because a group of outstanding scholars had decided to join their efforts and their intellectual abilities in order to produce this monument of knowledge. By contrast, in Barthes’ view photography escapes this ethical imperative of progress. The writer is not interested in stressing its technical achievements, nor is he willing to define the relationship between photography and the community. For him, photography only represents a past reality (a "ça a été"). It is always bound to what has been, and as such it cannot be part of a philosophy that emphasizes the paramount value of the future: not from an epistemological standpoint, and certainly not from a social or political one. One might even argue that, for Barthes, photography holds no future at all. It is either a "being-there", an existential presence for the isolated subject here and
The Paradox of Photography
now, or a form that is irresistibly drawn towards events and occurrences that are buried in the personal history of this subject. In other words, the representation of reality that photography constructs opposes many of the most fundamental philosophical premises of modernity. Its essential paradox is that, from a strictly technical point of view, it clearly belongs to the modern world, while it also asserts the aesthetic and emotional sovereignty of the past in its own mode of representation. In the end, what is being put forward by pictures is our own irrational and highly subjective ties to time, (the time in which we lived yesterday and the time in which we still live today), in spite of the almighty and apparently objective forces of technology and scientific knowledge that precipitate us faster and faster towards a so-called better world to come. It is for this very reason that one of the least satisfactory dimensions of Barthes’ essay lies, in my opinion, in its almost superfluous attempt to propose a sort of clinical dissection of photography, through the pseudo-scientific notions of both studium and punctum. These two notions are somehow arbitrarily projected onto a vast array of pictures that have very little in common. If the studium constitutes the general context of photography, its cultural background or framework, it suggests a kind of distant or uncommitted attitude towards the medium. Barthes evokes here, in a true oxymoron, a "nonchalant desire" (as if desire could be nonchalant!) and an "inconsequential taste" for images. In fact, this notion could be applied to any cultural expression in modernity. It does not belong specifically to photography, and the irony is that Barthes himself acknowledges this situation ("Le studium est de l’ordre du to like, et non du to love: il mobilise un demi-désir, un demi-vouloir; c’est la même attitude qu’on a pour des gens, des spectacles, des vêtements, des livres qu’on trouve ‘bien'" (Barthes 30)). Therefore, Barthes integrates photography here into the undefined domain of cultural manifestation: in other words, the apparent process of definition implied in the very notion of studium ends up canceling any possibility for a true identification of its object. Thus photography can resemble any other everyday practice of the community: it gets lost amidst the various human activities that are all, somehow, culturally determined. Barthes obviously intends here to question the consumerist contract between the photographer and the
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viewer. Photography belongs in this regard to the field of mythological productions, a field that the author described at large and analyzed in his Mythologies. But this questioning remains in many ways cautious and overly general: we can read, for instance, that photography is provided with specific social functions (to inform, to represent, to surprise, to signify, to stimulate desire, among others), but these same functions are only named and never truly examined in their political meaning. In order to reach this political and quite essential truth of mythologies, the author would have to stress the negative counterpart of these same functions, that is to misinform, to misrepresent, to conform, to silence meaning, to repress desire, and so on. The mostly descriptive discourse of Mythologies itself remained trapped as a sort of anecdotal comment on various forms of popular culture. It never dealt seriously with the ideological (and also economic) implications of such forms. We all know by now, and more precisely since the events of 9/11, that photography can be used as a very powerful tool by the mainstream media in order to impose a biased representation of reality. This thorough process of misrepresentation, (through the obsessive reproduction and re-enactment of the collapse of the Twin Towers, in this particular case) holds profound implications for the community: these implications largely exceed the rather vague and ultimately shallow domain of cultural analysis. The contextual dimension of photography in Barthes’ essay remains therefore underestimated and understudied. Although the author is obviously suspicious of a strictly sociological approach of photography, he nonetheless engages in a cultural discourse that provides the reader with very few clues about the actual manipulative power of photography in modern society. Terms like "taste" or "inclination", those weak affects that seem to characterize the Studium, cannot account for the radical process that makes man mentally dependent upon the ubiquitous power of images in today’s world. To put it differently, it is not enough to say that man can be superficially attracted or seduced by a particular subject matter included in the image: one must also explain the social and political reasons for such complicity and consequently analyze the various strategies through which these ties are enhanced by a given symbolic order.
The Paradox of Photography
The Punctum is supposed to counteract the influence of the Studium. It reinstates the law of particulars, of specific details or formal elements that would stir the emotions of the subject. ("Le Punctum d’une photo, c’est ce hasard qui, en elle, me point (mais aussi me meurtrit, me poigne" (Barthes 49)). Barthes defines these two notions as themes, in the musical sense, since the pictures he likes are constructed like a classical sonata. In this regard, the use of the Latin language already reflects the rhetoric of a classicist. Photography abides by fixed laws of composition: the formal organization that it entails is always dominated by a strong sense of order and harmony. The problem with the Punctum is that it highlights a sheer dot within the picture, a tiny fragment that would somehow determine the subjective nature of the relationship between the viewer and the image. The metaphor of punctuation inevitably ties photography to language itself, to the domain of words and writing. Punctuation, indeed, implies the possibility of a break between sentences, of a pause that enables language to find its own rhythm. It suggests therefore the integration of silence within the text. As such, it signifies an end or a conclusion, and if not, a suspension of the flow of words. But the Punctum also implies the presence of a mark, of a wound that would hurt the viewer: in other words, it acts as a sort of symbolic weapon that would go deep inside his body and his mind. Moreover, Barthes clearly associates this notion with that of chance, of a randomly process ("Car Punctum, c’est aussi: piqûre, petit trou, petite tache, petite coupure- et aussi coup de dés" (Barthes 49)). Therefore, the Punctum exists beyond the intention of the photographer. It is not strictly the result of his own artistic project: it is there nonetheless as a sort of hidden quality and constitutes the main feature of the picture for the viewer. For it is obvious that Barthes grants more value to the Punctum than to the Studium, since the former possesses an emotional power that the latter does not have. One can immediately see that the author never relinquishes the references to literature, even when he speaks about a visual language such as photography. In his perspective, pictures contain a definite syntax, but only a few of its pieces are truly meaningful. Again, one can go back to Le Plaisir du Texte, and to a notion such as La Tmèse, which implies precisely the sense of punctuation within the act of reading itself: the thoughtful reader, in this sense, is the one who is capable of feeling and understanding this essential interruption. In
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other words, one reads a text to the extent that one stops reading a text, at least for a moment. To break this process actually means prolonging it. This specific discourse of fragmentation is repeated in La Chambre Claire. Photography thus calls for its own Tmèse. The gaze of the viewer does not follow a linear or holistic logic: it only seizes upon small number of visual signs (even one is enough) within the whole image. The main difference, though, is that the punctuation of photography, as opposed to that of the literary text, evokes more a sense of pain or sorrow than a sense of pleasure or bliss. It is an arrow or a knife, not a caress or a balm. Nevertheless, what Barthes suggests here even unconsciously is the fact that a photograph can be read like a piece of literature, although the jargon that he uses to describe this process is obviously original. Moreover, the emphasis on chance (he talks about the "adventure" of photography) includes the idea of an indetermination of photography itself in its aesthetic identity. In this regard, one single element in a picture can stir a whole range of emotions and sensations for the viewer, but this element is then taken out of its context and therefore threatens the unity of the work. This is precisely what fundamentally separates the visual arts from both literature and music. In painting, but also in drawing, sculpture and of course photography, the meaning of the form comes primarily from the fact that it can never be truncated or cut into pieces. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how one could exhibit an artwork in a museum or a gallery by showing only half of it and having the other half covered by a curtain. By contrast, one can always marvel at the beauty and the rhythmic quality of a particular sonnet by focusing only on a few verses. One can also listen solely to the introduction of a piece of music and still capture the style and the original qualities of its composition. In other words, the process of fragmentation that the Punctum entails goes against some of the most irreducible principles of both visual perception and aesthetics. What can be the meaning of an image when this image is dissected like the dead body of an animal in an anatomy class? An artwork is always more than the sum of its parts; otherwise it is not an artwork. The very concept of representation is precisely based on this assumption. Representation is the creative process which enables to define the essential unity of the artwork beyond the apparent heterogeneity of its forms. The rise of the avantgarde in the course of the twentieth-century allowed the viewers, in
The Paradox of Photography
this regard, to focus more than ever on this unity. Does anyone really worry about the number of bottles than can be kept inside the bottle rack that Marcel Duchamp used as one his most famous ready-mades? And does one really care about the content of the newspaper articles that Kurt Schwitters included in some of his most accomplished collages or about the actual size of Hans Arp’s reliefs? In most cases, the answer is no, because what is truly at stake in the modernist project is either a radical gesture of negation and confrontation or the creation of a compositional structure that always searches for a hidden order and homogeneity which stems essentially from utmost chaos or fragmentation. The parts, in this perspective, never really define the inner logic of the artwork. This was the main philosophical principle behind the aesthetics of collage shared by Dada, Surrealist, and Cubist artists alike (but also in music and the performing arts by members of Fluxus and their followers). Above all, the collage constituted an attempt to define the meaning of the artwork regardless of the apparent insignificance of its parts. Original elements did not truly matter anymore: what made collage an artistic achievement was precisely the fact that the power of unity prevailed within a form that paradoxically expressed its contradiction. In other words, collage was not the sum of its parts: it stressed instead the aesthetic sovereignty of the whole within a society that was either imposing a contrived image of this whole or simply repressing it. Even if we assume that the Punctum constitutes the source of the personal encounter between the artwork (the photograph, in this case) and the viewer, we have to point out that this notion does not belong exclusively to the field of photography. The Mona Lisa, in this regard, might very well be the most famous painting in the history of Western art. What is the reason for this ongoing fascination that this work has exercised on millions of viewers throughout the centuries? Many commentators, whether they are scholars or mere admirers of this artwork, have underlined the enigmatic quality of the portrait. In doing so, they have focused their attention on a particular detail, which is, as we all know by now, the smile of the young woman. We can therefore legitimately state that the Mona Lisa possesses her own Punctum, which is obviously her smile. Some others have been mesmerized or simply intrigued by her eyes, just to show that this Punctum is always a subjective and somehow fluctuating notion. For
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Barthes, in many ways, "God is in the details", while for many of us, according to the well-known formula, it is the devil instead who is in the details. It is precisely this volatile subjectivity of the Punctum that makes it a weak concept. The emphasis on details is largely dependent upon the alleged realism of photographic representation, what Barthes calls in his own terms the "sheer contingency" of the medium. Once we state that a work of art is no longer destined to reproduce or simply imitate reality, we also often distance ourselves from the pure meaning of details. Is the notion of pictorial fragment, or punctuation, indeed, still valid when we have to analyze an abstract canvas by a Barnett Newman or a Mark Rothko? The key aesthetic issues raised by these particular works become issues of space and light, beyond any presence of definite figures or clear forms. The science of detail was definitely rooted in the spirit of the Renaissance and of the kind of painting it produced. It still made sense for the study of Impressionism, but the development of abstract art in the twentieth-century implied a profound questioning of its philosophical significance. Moreover, the original project of Marcel Duchamp, in its radical negation of the sovereignty of manual skills in the artistic creation, pushed this new perspective even further. The power of ideas prevailed therefore upon the so-called perfection or accomplishment of the aesthetic form, which undoubtedly implied a contradiction of this rather academic and classical taste for pictorial punctuation. The strictly speculative process that was associated with the public presentation of found objects reflected instead the complexity of the artist’s thought before stressing the visual need for sophisticated details. One could also say that this preference for the Punctum entails a certain attraction for the purely decorative nature of photography. For instance, when one assesses the value of a particular piece of furniture, one tends most of the time to focus upon one or two striking features of the object, in order to authenticate its worth. In this regard, the object is not conceived as a whole, but rather fragmented according to the importance of a few technical or decorative elements that determine its identity. The Punctum evidently asserts the power of personal feelings and emotions in our relationship with the work of art, but it also expresses the presence of excessive mannerisms and formal concerns. Again, this constitutes a fundamental dimension of
The Paradox of Photography
Barthes’ approach, not only of photography, but also of literature. The critical formalism of the author towards texts was obviously modern, in its spirit and its intentions, but it still reflected a definite nostalgia for the philosophical sovereignty of style over content. In the case of photography, of course, this stylistic analysis is more difficult to undertake, and in this sense riskier, to the extent that there is no real history or established canon that could validate this analysis. The very word: "style" can rarely be applied, indeed, to artworks that are truly modern and radical. Once the artist has decided that art is not primarily concerned with the creation of polished and finished objects, but rather with the construction of various theoretical hypotheses or the development of empirical endeavors, the notion of style itself becomes somewhat problematic. So to speak, art exists then beyond the issue of style and this is in many ways the case for contemporary art and more specifically for its own creative use of photography. In Barthes’s original perspective, the formalist and the realist definitions of photography are thus interrelated. The contingency of the medium asserts the essentially descriptive nature of the medium. In literature, the notion of style applies first and foremost to the art of description as it has been demonstrated in many classical works, from Balzac to Proust. The need to describe things and people with great accuracy reflects the belief in art as a vehicle for objective knowledge. In other words, art and literature teach us something to the extent that they are both capable of pointing out specific features that would otherwise escape our gaze or our mind. This is what Barthes calls himself "the ethnological knowledge of photography". The term "ethnological" must be underlined, here, since ethnology constitutes precisely a discipline of social sciences that deals with cultures that are quite remote from our own Western world. In this sense, ethnology is the science of the absolute unknown, as opposed to sociology, for instance. Pictures indicate therefore the visual presence of what we do not know or rather could not have known on our own. Above all, this contingency determines the documentary nature of photography. Pictures are tied to the representation of actual facts through this quasi-scientific definition: what is absent here, therefore, is the possibility of fiction and of distancing oneself from reality. In his own essay Petite Histoire de la Photographie (in Études Photographiques, Paris: Société Française de Photographie, 1, 1996)
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Walter Benjamin also emphasized and praised this documentary quality of the medium, while studying the work of August Sander. According to Benjamin, because Sander’s numerous portraits covered the whole spectrum of the society in which he lived, they can teach us a great deal about the various social classes and professional activities. This quality stems from the direct observation of people, an observation that the author describes as "without prejudice, bold but also tender" (Benjamin 24). In this case, photography becomes an essential tool for social and human knowledge. It possesses an almost anatomic precision, and thus acquires status of a true theory by always remaining close to its own subject. But its acute sensitivity to specific detail also identifies photography as a sort of modern craftsmanship. In Benjamin’s text, this kind of identification is particularly striking when he refers to the origin of the medium and its golden age. These first steps (more precisely, the first decade of photography) are seen by the author as pre-industrial. They correspond to a set of obscure experimental practices which were initiated by the pioneers of the medium. During this original period, therefore, photography was still struggling with its own technical possibilities. It was not yet obsessed with the social and economic imperatives of mechanical reproduction. But these pioneers could not imagine that their daring endeavors would pave the way for a new art form, although the production of these pictures required specific skills from the start. In this sense, photographs were to be crafted with utmost attention and care: they reflected the meticulous rigor of their creators, as well as their profound humility. It was in these earlier works that Benjamin noticed the presence of the aura in its highest intensity, which is the unique apparition of a distance, no matter how close it is. This presence unveiled the particular beauty of photography. The modern world imposed instead, according to the author, an ongoing sense of proximity, as if all things had to be seized by the gaze and brought closer. His definition of the aura also stressed the aesthetic value of both uniqueness and permanence, while capitalism was much more interested in producing series of ephemeral objects for mainly economic purposes. This theory of the aura revealed the utmost importance of individual and collective perception in the definition of images. Photography itself was integrated into a specific time and space that the viewer had to comprehend in order to reach the inner truth of the
The Paradox of Photography
work. It is clear that such a concept entailed the sense of an irrational nature of photographic representation. The aura, indeed, led to the possibility of a magical or supernatural expression within pictures. In his famous essay "The Work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction", Benjamin clearly related the aura of an object or work of art to its cult-value (as opposed to its mere exhibition-value). The kind of implied knowledge or sensitivity was therefore linked to a sense of the sacred, or at least to the feeling of an uncanny or mysterious presence. In other words, the aura challenged the transparency of images and their immediate meaning. By contrast, Barthes’ Punctum does not reflect the perception of such fundamental distance within physical closeness. This notion expresses instead the existence of a visual fragment that irresistibly gets closer to the eye and the mind of the viewer. In many ways, therefore, the Punctum asserts the impossibility of a distance. It is a weapon that strikes, so to speak, at close range. Barthes saw an essential intimacy in the image, a belief that Benjamin did not necessarily share. The Punctum means that the image is here and insists on being here; it is located right next to the viewer, and it cannot be put aside. Therein lies its unique emotional power, in its capacity to literally tie the viewer psychologically to the object that he is contemplating. On the other hand, the Aura includes the sense of the "unapproachable", a term that Benjamin himself uses at the very end of his essay on the history of photography, as if this word could somehow summarize and at the same time achieve his whole philosophy of the medium. His final words are the following: "C’est à la lueur de ces étincelles, sortant de l’ombre du quotidien de nos grands-pères, que se montrent les premières photographies, si belles et inapprochables." (Benjamin 29). This emphasis on the supernatural dimension of pictures (and of the original relationship that the viewer has with them), was undoubtedly determined by the culture to which the author belonged. The German spirit has always allowed, indeed, for the powerful expression of the most irrational forces of human nature within literature and art. We can trace this back to the middle ages (to Beowulf, for instance) and then move to the era of German idealism and romanticism. We can even speak of a cultural tendency towards mysticism and the sacred, a feature that is far less evident or widespread in French culture, especially since the Enlightenment and
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the Revolution of 1789. One can say, therefore, that Barthes’ perspective on photography still echoes a certain form of rationalism that constitutes a key element of the culture to which he belongs. In this regard, one could define the kind of subjectivity that Barthes advocates through his own explanation of the Punctum as "rational subjectivity". In comparison, one could very well evoke the "irrational objectivity" of Benjamin’s critical discourse on photography and beyond, on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. The whole text of La Chambre Claire can be seen as an attempt to search for an ontological determination of photography while acknowledging the irrelevance of such notion for the medium. How could one, indeed, reconcile the essential contingency of photography with its supposedly irreducible identity? By irreducible, I mean the fact that photography would exist by itself, as an absolute language characterized by its radical difference with other art forms, regardless of any external object that it represents. It is these kinds of contradictions that underline both the complexity of Barthes’ argument and its ultimate impossibility, or lack of resolution. Again, the perils of the ontological quest exist not only for photography, but for any form of visual art, including painting. Could we reasonably suggest an ontology of painting, indeed, while its whole history in the Western world shows us that it always relied upon an original model to which it constantly referred through the essential process of figuration? Contingency, in this sense, is not the sole property of photography. The presence of an external model, which serves as the main visual reference of the artwork, has dominated painting itself for many centuries. This ongoing situation exceeds by far the issue of realism in art, since one can find this external model even in artistic movements that did not build their own aesthetics upon the mere reproduction of reality. In this regard, one can still argue about the presence of contingency in Futurism, Surrealism and Cubism. (Let us think, for instance, of Braque’s still lives). "C’est toujours quelque chose qui est représenté" (Barthes 52), as Barthes states it while referring to this particular notion in photography. One could easily compare this sentence to Picasso’s own: "Il n’y a pas d’art abstrait. L’art part toujours de quelque chose". The issue of contingency, in this sense, implies a definite questioning of the purely abstract nature of art, and in particular, of modern art. This actually means that some sort of figuration (if not an
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entirely figurative process) is always being achieved in the artwork. After all, many of Picasso’s tormented portraits of women were inspired by autobiographical experiences and did reflect the existence of a real and original model for the painter (as it was obviously the case with his portraits of Dora Maar). An ontological definition of art (of photography or painting) would therefore underline the Utopia of a pure and total abstraction: this improbable definition would end up dematerializing art to the point that art would indeed cease to exist as a sum of tangible and visible objects. As soon as we look at things, thus, we relate to the concrete world, regardless of the specific formal nature of the things that we look at. Contingency, therefore, can be defined as the universal and eternal law of art and visual representation, a law that even the most entrenched modernist and contemporary artists could not (and still cannot) fully transgress. In other words, there is always an "outside" reality into which we, as viewers, project our own gaze, and into which the artwork itself is being integrated. This reality might save the appearance of neutrality ("Quelque chose est représenté"), but this unidentified "something" nonetheless constitutes an essential part of our own personal relationship to the artwork. This is in all likelihood the reason why Barthes, by focusing on the essential contingency of photography, cannot avoid the comparison with painting. ("La photographie a été, est encore tourmentée par le fantôme de la peinture" (Barthes 55)). He even goes further by bluntly asserting that photography was born from painting ("Comme si elle était née du tableau" (Barthes 55)), which constitutes thus its "absolute fatherly reference". In this sense, nothing can separate photography from painting, since pictorialism is only an exaggeration of what photography thinks about itself. In order to truly define photography as a distinct art form and visual language, Barthes would have had to do away with his personal rhetoric of contingency. By contrast, in his Petite Histoire de la Photographie, Benjamin demonstrated his ability to draw the line between photography and painting, at least to the extent that he was more interested in stressing the mainly technical developments of the medium. For technique, as such, still constitutes the most obvious way through which one can distinguish the two. In this regard, no one will dare to say that the techniques used by photographers are the same as those used by painters This is even truer today than ever before, with
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the increasing dependence of contemporary photography upon digital technologies. The objective process of picture-taking, with its insistence upon issues of focus, zoom, light and framing, will never be the same, indeed, as that of painting. Brushstrokes and canvases, on the other hand, will never be needed by the photographer. In his own essay, Benjamin attempted to underline the specificity of photography in regard to any other art form. This does not mean that he could entirely escape the reference to painting. In this context, he alluded to the use of photography as a complementary tool and technical device for the painter’s creative process. He briefly referred in this regard to the work of Utrillo, who used to paint his fascinating views of houses located in the suburbs of Paris from various postcards which served thus as his main model (Benjamin 9). These specific examples, though, remained marginal for Benjamin. They never overshadowed his search for the historical identity of photography. His critical perspective definitely emphasized the technical aspects of the medium and their evolution through time. By doing so, he succeeded in highlighting its specificity, if not its uniqueness. By comparison, the aesthetic perspective is more confused, or even misleading. By definition, it tries to bring together artistic methods and approaches that often have very little in common. In many ways, Barthes builds his argument upon the highly questionable hypothesis of a single aesthetic identity of photography. It is as if all photographers throughout history have shared a similar philosophy of the medium, and have subscribed to the same formal principles and values. But we all know by now that the relationship that photography has developed with contingency has had many different turns and twists. The numerous avant-garde artists (from Dada to the present) who have been dedicated to the aesthetic exploration of the medium have often expressed, indeed, their profound discontent with its socalled realism. One could say that is has now become almost impossible to define a global and general aesthetics of photography, for the simple reason that its practice is now largely disseminated throughout the world. In other words, photography no longer has a center. It is now being spread constantly within cultures that do not share the same history, social structures or political institutions. To the extent that the nature of pictures is being shaped and defined by the cultural
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sensitivity of the photographer, photography always asserts aesthetic differences (a particular law of aesthetic distinction). To talk about la photographie might have been possible at the time when the medium was born, or even several decades later, and this was obviously the case for both Baudelaire and Benjamin. But this very notion has become obsolete in the new millennium. In the same way, it was possible to talk about la physique at the time of the Greeks (of Democritus or Archimedes) or even at the time of Isaac Newton. But the speed and pace of scientific innovations has rendered such language (or labeling) almost inadequate for a contemporary mind. The use of a definite article to qualify the forms of an artistic discipline or scientific knowledge, therefore, is only relevant if one exclusively considers the early stages of their respective development. Otherwise, it fails to recognize the essential philosophical diversity that this art or science will inevitably encompass. When, for example, Baudelaire analyzed photography for the first time in French culture, he could talk about it from a general point of view, to the extent that the Daguerreotype could be seen as the perfect and unifying symbol of this new form of expression in the mid-nineteenth century. Such possibility no longer existed more than a hundred years later, at the time when La Chambre Claire was written and published. The tendency to relate photography to painting is quite natural, and ubiquitous in modern criticism. It emerges from the ongoing preoccupation with the issue of representation in art. As soon as art is defined as representing a part of the external world, it must also take into account the role of photography in this process. Some statements by French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, a wellknown commentator of both Marcel Duchamp and contemporary art as well as one of the main theorists of post-modernism, are instructive in this regard. In the essay "Représentation, presentation, imprésentable", included in his book /¶,QKXPDLQ (Paris: Galilée, 1988), he underlined the so-called crisis of representation that photography brought to the world of the visual arts. According to his perspective, photography was not only the technical byproduct of industrial and post-industrial capitalism, but also (and more importantly) a medium on which capitalism heavily relied to impose its own social and political agenda. In many ways, photography was able to suddenly eclipse the cultural predominance of painting in
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Western civilization through its instant availability and affordability for the average user: D’un seul déclic, le plus modeste citoyen, en qualité d’amateur et de touriste, fait son tableau, organise son espace d’identification, enrichit sa mémoire culturelle, fait partager ses prospections. Le perfectionnement des appareils contemporains le libère des soucis du temps de pose, de la mise au point, de l’ouverture du diaphragme, du développement. Les tâches dont l’acquisition par l’apprentissage à l’atelier et à l’école exige toute une expérience (détruire les mauvaises habitudes, instruire l’œil, la main, le corps, l’esprit, les élever au nouvel ordre) sont programmées dans l’appareil photographique grâce à ses fines capacités optiques, chimiques, mécaniques, électroniques. Il reste à l’amateur le choix du réglage et du sujet. (Lyotard 132)
The key words, in this passage, are the following: "Le plus modeste citoyen fait son tableau". It is as if photography constituted a sort of second-rate painting whose practice did not require any particular training or skills. The most humble citizen, meaning the man without any profound knowledge of art, would now be able to express himself and pose as an artist without truly being one: he is thus a non-professional and therefore an illegitimate painter. It is obvious here that the philosopher bases his argument on a strict hierarchy of art forms that establishes the aesthetic supremacy of painting. Moreover, he emphasizes the so-called predictability of the medium through its technical identity. Such predictability, of course, did not characterize painting (whether classical or modern) because painting was never as dependent as photography upon a purely technical process of production. Lyotard identifies photography with "an industrial ready-made", emphasizing the reproductive nature and immediacy of such pictures. As he puts it: "Elle (la photographie) a l’infaillibilité de ce qui est parfaitement programmé, sa beauté est celle de Voyager II" (Lyotard 134). The overwhelming power of technique precipitates, therefore, the absolute determination of the work of art in capitalist society. We must consider two very different concepts of beauty. The aesthetic definition provided by painting highlighted the role of chance and individual freedom for artistic creation, while at the same time asserting the necessary sensitivity of the viewer. In contrast, photography entails a form of beauty that derives directly from the mechanical perfection of its means. ("La photographie industrielle n’en appelle pas au beau de sentiment, mais au beau d’entendement et
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de connotation" (Lyotard 134)). It is thus too beautiful, to the extent that it merely reflects the essential accomplishment of technology within the realm of representation. This specific beauty is a hard one, because it is tied to the infinite scientific and economic rationality of capitalism. In this sense, photography does not express the philosophical sovereignty of the subject in the manner of painting; rather, it submits subjectivity to the law of the nameless within the structures of the social order. In other words, photography cannot truly be subjective because it is too common. It needs to be ratified by the common sensibility in order to exist as a cultural language (and by "cultural", I mean something that exceeds the frontiers of art). In his essay, Lyotard questions the genuine identity and true originality of photography. And he does so precisely because he stubbornly confuses the issue of pictorial representation with that of photographic representation. His main aesthetic model or system of references is constituted here by the various avant-gardes, particularly that of abstract painters from Mondrian to Barnett Newman. As he says: "Les avant-gardes accomplissent un travail secret d’interrogation des présupposés ‘techniques’ de la peinture, qui les conduit à négliger complètement la fonction ‘culturelle’ de stabilisation du goût et d’identification d’une communauté au moyen de symboles visibles. Un peintre d’avant-garde se sent d’abord responsable devant la demande émanant de son activité même, qui est : qu’est-ce que la peinture ? Et son travail a pour enjeu essentiel de faire voir ce qu’il y a d’invisible dans le visuel. La tâche de cultiver le public vient après." (Lyotard 137-38) While Baudelaire asserted the aesthetic superiority of classical painting over photography, Lyotard asserts both the aesthetic and the philosophical superiority of abstract painting over photography. Over time, the main issue of art remains pictorialism, regardless of the new techniques that appear in modernity. Barthes himself could not avoid this paramount idea. Put differently, photography always comes after painting, and this time sequence determines the critical orientation, and ultimately the relevance, of any analytical discourse on this medium. Moreover, we can see that in the case of both Barthes and Lyotard, the cultural dimension of photography is particularly emphasized (which was already true of Baudelaire). Before being considered fully as an art form, then, photography is inevitably seen as
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a cultural phenomenon. More precisely, photography literally belongs to everybody, while painting belongs only to a few. The former involves the whole community, while the latter needs only the support of a small group of artists and intellectuals. The ongoing insistence upon the essential contingency of photography in Barthes’ essay necessarily implies its aesthetic identification with realism, a style that had been developed throughout centuries by academic painting (and by the novel, particularly in nineteenth century literature). In this regard, the specific iconography of La Chambre Claire leaves no doubt that: the vast majority of the pictures chosen by the author to illustrate his text can be labeled as realist. The paradox of this critical viewpoint is that although photography comes chronologically after painting, it is in many ways less modern than painting, certainly less radically modern. Barthes’ perspective emphasizes a certain nostalgic quality of the medium, in an almost Proustian sense, while Lyotard states that photography fails to grasp the aesthetic issue of the Kantian Sublime (as opposed to avant-garde painting). Therefore, photography is neither truly modern, which is Barthes’s assertion. nor truly post-modern, which is Lyotard’s assertion. In other words, pictorialism highlights the fundamentally contradictory nature of the medium: its purely technical identity is located at the heart of modernity, whereas many of its formal attributes refer to art's past. In many ways, man’s relationship to photography is dominated by general cultural affects that fall under the category of "taste". This is what Barthes’s notion of Studium implies. Lyotard, for his part, emphasizes the cultural role of photography in the creation of visible symbols with which the whole community can identify. In this sense, it allows for the sharing of predetermined attitudes that define and reflect the common taste of the public. But the aesthetic and political issue of art in modernity exceeds that of taste. The twentieth-century avant-garde, starting with Duchamp and Dada, stated clearly that the artist had to do away with all traditional notions of good or bad taste. It could only exist and assert its own novelty inasmuch as art was able to exceed the rather narrow domain of taste. To put it quite bluntly, taste still belongs to the realm of culture (and more precisely to the bourgeois culture of the nineteenth century), while the most radical forms of art will tend to initiate its negation.
The Paradox of Photography
Another important issue raised by Lyotard’s text is the selfreflexivity of art. The pictorialism of the avant-garde stirs a certain number of philosophical questions, the main question being: "What is painting?" The abstract painter asks this during the creative process. This capacity of the artist to reflect upon the identity of his own medium is crucial to the development of a true art form able to evoke the presence of the absolute. For Lyotard, the predominance of cultural affects and general feelings prevent photography from raising such a question. And indeed, in many ways, it is the critic and not the artist who formulates it. It is certainly the case for Barthes, who, at the beginning of his essay, clearly searched for an ontological definition of the medium. When the education of the viewer is no longer the primary concern of the artist, art can then reach this state of selfreflexivity. We have already seen, though, that this didactic dimension of photography constituted a significant feature of Barthes’ reflexion on the topic. The ongoing presence of the Studium in pictures underlined the perception of an infra-savoir, a rather general knowledge that photography could carry and then transmit to the viewer. For this very reason, the issue of self-reflexivity is completely absent from Barthes’ discourse. The author never actually refers to what the photographer could think about his own practice, much less about his own art. The creator of pictures is there to teach him something, as in the case of William Klein’s picture taken in Moscow on May 1. The ethnographic or documentary question of photography contradicts the pictorial possibility of self-consciousness that Lyotard defines in regard to abstract painting, and also to the conceptual approach of many contemporary artists (notably Daniel Buren). The contingency of photography thus reflects its fundamental relativism. Any picture always goes back to objective elements within reality, regardless of the aesthetic perspective of the photographer. It is tied to the material world, and more precisely, to what is simply visible within this world. As such, the famous statement by Paul Klee, which said that the main purpose of art (i.e., painting and drawing) was to render visible the invisible, cannot be applied to photography. The discourse of both Barthes and Lyotard expresses, by contrast, the utmost dependence of the medium upon the evidence of things seen. Barthes later describes the essential mantra of photography as the "it has been" (the "ça a été"), or alternatively, its "certificate of presence"
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("son certificat de presence"). Photography still presents reality, to the extent that presentation implies an emphasis on the mere context of art. (What is the Studium, in this regard, if not a concept that highlights the meaning of the general background of pictures?). The sense of the invisible within the visible is also echoed by Lyotard in his own essay: he defines it as the main quality of the avant-garde painter in his quest for the Sublime. By contrast, the absolute is not presentable; it is therefore the "Unpresentable". This aesthetic and philosophical relativism does not only oppose the absolute in art. It constitutes also, and maybe primarily, an assault on romanticism, that is, on the romantic dimension of artistic modernity. This highlights one the main elements of Lyotard’s reflection: the pictorial avant-garde, for him, will have accomplished romanticism while at the same time depriving it of its sense of loss or nostalgia. The word "Sublime", in itself, detains a rather romantic connotation, as one can find it in both Apollinaire’s and Barnett Newman’s writings on art. In many ways, Barthes’ book can also be seen as an attempt to assert this romanticism against all odds, within a form which excludes it by nature. In this regard, it celebrates the aesthetic power of radical subjectivity while acknowledging the evasive character of its presence within photography. If the technical determination of the medium is both overwhelming and obvious, then the main task of the writer and critic is to question the objective and rational nature of this determination, and to draw the shadow of a "I" driven by his emotions and his sensations (the "I" of the Punctum, in his case). Both Barthes’ and Lyotard’s texts were published in the nineteen eighties. The two thinkers certainly followed very different intellectual paths in their respective careers, but they nonetheless shared this perception that the issue of pictorialism was instrumental in the analytical interpretation of photography and its critique. In both cases, though, the discourse on photography failed to understand the historical importance of the medium for the experience of the avantgarde. By historical importance, I mean the fact that modernist movements such as Dada and Surrealism, as early as the nineteen twenties, embraced photography in their own creative practice and turned it into a true art form. In Barthes’s essay, there is no mention of their achievements in the field whatsoever. The author sticks to a rather classical perspective that largely ignores the aesthetic
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innovations of the first part of the twentieth century. At least one can say that Walter Benjamin’s Petite Histoire de la Photographie referred laconically to the work of both Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray, by integrating in particular a reproduction of a Rayograph entitled "Salle à manger". Benjamin himself translated in 1924 Tristan Tzara’s preface to the album Les Champs délicieux, a collection of photographic experiments by Man Ray in 1924. By comparison, both Barthes and Lyotard express in their own way the profound distance that supposedly separate photography from the history of the avantgarde. Barthes does it by avoiding any comment on this history altogether, while Lyotard systematically opposes the Sublime of avant-garde painting (and therefore its perception of the Absolute in modern art) to the rather trivial and mundane activities of the average photographer. Therefore, one can say that both authors decisively question the artistic identity of photography, to the extent that art essentially implies the possibility of radical novelty and aesthetic difference. By contrast, Benjamin did emphasize the adventurous dimension of photography and its sheer originality. He praised the precursors of a new and unique visual language by quoting the Dada poet Tristan Tzara’s reflection on the avant-garde artists’ experiments with photography. These artistic pioneers might have come, at first, from the more traditional disciplines of fine arts (namely painting); they nevertheless ventured rapidly into unknown territories. Their ultimate goal was to demonstrate that photography could escape its "decorative tendencies", according to Benjamin’s own words. In this regard, I am not sure whether Barthes and Lyotard succeeded in moving beyond this strictly decorative identity of the medium, although their writings on the topic appeared half a century after those of Benjamin. The reference to painting also possesses, in the case of Barthes at least, an important autobiographical significance. Note the fact that the author of La Chambre Claire started to experiment himself with graphic and visual arts in 1971, and kept producing hundreds of works until 1978. In his essay, Barthes confesses his lack of concrete knowledge of photography because he was not a real practitioner of the medium, as opposed to other French theorists and writers from Claude Simon to Jean Baudrillard (For an in-depth presentation of Claude Simon’s creative work as a photographer, see in particular the book Claude Simon: Photographies, 1937-1970, with an introduction
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by Denis Roche, Paris: Maeght, 1990. As far as Jean Baudrillard’s work on photography is concerned, see in particular his "Objects in this mirror", in Le Crime parfait, Paris: Galilée, 1995, pp. 125-129). Such was not the case, however, for drawing and painting. What was first a mere pass-time quickly became an important part of Barthes’ life and work. These pictorial activities, although rather secretive, ended up influencing his critical writings on art and also on literature. It is rather interesting to notice, then, that Barthes started to write his essay on photography right at the end of a decade which had been marked by the personal practice of fine arts. This practice was somewhat interrupted by the death of his mother, an event which confronted him with the existential (rather than solely critical) urgency of photography. In other words, photography (or at least the discourse on photography) came for him right after painting, from a purely autobiographical viewpoint. Therefore, we should not be surprised by the fact that photography also came for him right after painting from a purely critical viewpoint. This becomes even more startling when we consider that for Barthes, in La Chambre Claire as well as in many other essays, the critical discourse is most often charged with a profound autobiographical resonance. It is interesting to notice, in this regard, that Barthes also wrote during the same period a critical text on the painter Cy Twombly entitled: "Sagesse de l’Art". This text was part of a catalogue of Twombly’s paintings and drawings from 1954 to 1977, which was published in conjunction with a major retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1979. One can indeed find many elements of similarity between the aesthetics of Barthes’ graphic works and that of Twombly. Photography thus constitutes, for Barthes, an object that he could not produce on his own. In this sense, pictures are always the sign of a definite otherness, of something and someone representing the other. This might explain why he tends to consider photographs as "found objects", as finite items that can be drawn instantly from an old family album or a catalogue. (Lyotard, in his own words, talked about "the industrial ready-mades" produced by photography). What is missing here is the sense of photography as an unfinished and ever open creative process, with all its flaws but also all its strengths. The perception of these found objects leads to the definition of pictures as inanimate bodies. According to this way of thinking, photography
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becomes the mirror of otherness, but this otherness is considered then in its stillness and its closed perfection. The essential metaphor becomes that of a theater of death in which forms and figures reach a sort of ecstatic beauty. ("La photo est comme un théâtre primitif, comme un Tableau Vivant, la figuration de la face immobile et fardée sous laquelle nous voyons les morts" (Barthes 56)). In spite of all the efforts, photography cannot really belong to the world of the living. The essential otherness of the medium is that of death, of what remains the radical unknown for mankind. This particular perspective undoubtedly stems from the emphasis on the aesthetics of the portrait. La Chambre Claire is indeed richly illustrated by various representations of human faces. The metaphor of the theater (where this theater is also largely of a pictorial nature) reflects the ongoing presence of masks, as if photography had to conceal truth in order to express its own meaning. ("Le masque, c’est le sens, en tant qu’il est absolument pur, comme il était dans le théâtre antique" (Barthes 61)). But what is a mask if not the product of a fundamental pictorialism, that of the human face? Put simply, the mask is nothing but a painted face, as demonstrated by its ongoing presence in numerous tribal rituals in African and Far Eastern cultures. The theatrical metaphor refers to the particular drama contained in the image. In his essay The Barthes Effect: The Essay as Reflective Text (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987), Reda Bensmaïa has stressed in this regard the ability of the photographic image in La Chambre Claire, namely that of the mother in the winter garden, to actually dramatize things. It is precisely through this drama that one can project the point-object and ‘reach the point’ (the Punctum), an expression that Reda Bensmaïa borrows from the reading of Georges Bataille’s /¶([SpULHQFH,QWpULHXUH: Camera Lucida will fix the photographic image of the "winter garden", it will seek to reach the point (Punctum)-in proffering at least once that which in me does not partake of any ‘Image’-by dramatizing things: by projecting the pointobject (the absent mother) through drama. Barthes will try to track down ("once and for all") that in himself which belongs only to him and which dooms him to death. Forgetfulness, which as we know, was not long before what enabled me to read (S/Z 18), forgetfulness as the "force of all living life", is no longer acceptable once the mother is dead, "the science of the unique being" (CL 71) becomes "impossible" (to defer). (88)
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In this sense, the memory of the dead mother is also what enables Barthes to attain the phantasm or vision of his own death, beyond the power of pure reason. He has to die since the main object of his love has already died and, more importantly, since this object is now fixed in photography. The picture of the winter garden acts thus as a double mirror: it constitutes the tangible visual sign of the absence or loss of the other, but at the same time this absence or loss belongs to him and to no one else. As Reda Bensmaïa states: "Dying of not dying, Barthes dreams of forcing the doors of a "mystical" realm where he might consume himself, drown himself in love. Now, it is only at this cost-at the cost of his lucidity-that he thinks he can accede to the extreme". (89) For Barthes, the shadow of death seems to be everywhere in photography. Notice that this ongoing presence can be witnessed even in the first stages of the medium’s historical development. One of the main social functions of the Daguerreotype, indeed, was to preserve the image of the dead for the community as a whole, particularly those of the closest members of the family. Barthes talks in this regard about the strong impulse of photography to imitate life through the feeling of its absence ("Cette rage à faire vivant ne peut être que la dénégation mythique d’un malaise de mort" (Barthes 56)). In the middle of the nineteenth century, the bourgeois order stemming from the rise of capitalism sought to repress the representation of raw death within society. It had to turn death into a beautiful and still object that everyone could contemplate without being frightened or unsettled in any way. The Daguerreotype became the modern equivalent of mummies in ancient Egypt. The dead could assert their social role among the living; the community enhanced, through photography, its own unity and its own defiance of time. The faces and portraits of the deceased would always appear as if they were still alive. Photography could thus be identified once and for all with a systematic process of illusion and make-believe. Through this process, society was essentially concealing reality (that is, the existential reality of mortality for mankind) as the images of the dead became an endless series of masks. In his own essay on photography, Benjamin highlights the work of D.O. Hill as illustrative of this dynamic, particularly the numerous portraits taken in the cemetery of the Franciscan brothers in Edinburgh. These pictures all refer to the original era of the medium,
The Paradox of Photography
and one of these works is actually included in the essay as a visual document. According to Benjamin, the cemetery itself resembles an indoor space, a closed and isolated room where the funeral monuments rise from the ground. The main background of photography inevitably evokes death, in this case. Benjamin adds that this peculiar location speaks in many ways to the spirit of the time, observing that the models seem to feel at home in this environment. The first portraits of photography thus revealed the fundamental silence of the human face. It is through this silence that any true gaze could actually be shaped. If one considers portraits to be the most important subject matter of early photographs, one must emphasize the nature and the meaning of the pose that these portraits require. In most poses, the subject is asked to stand still while looking at the camera. He becomes a fixed figure that is deprived of any motion. This particular rule imposes the image of a physical appearance much like that of the dead. The body is denied its essential freedom of movement: it is somehow petrified by the power of the medium. When one looks at nineteenth-century plates, one is often struck by the fact that the human face lacks any inner animation or agitation. In this sense, the very process of the pose constructs an ideal model of human representation for which life itself becomes almost alien. In its core social definition, the Daguerreotype was meant to literally stop the passage of time and give the impression of its suspension to all members of society. This constituted its main appeal but also its deceitful nature. The pose entailed the utterance of a paradoxical order given to the subject: he or she was asked to stand like the dead in order to assert the sovereignty of life for the middle class family. This assertion of sovereignty was most certainly contrived. In this regard, La Petite Histoire de la Photographie includes a striking picture of the young Kafka that actually belongs to Benjamin’s personal collection. The philosopher emphasizes here the almost grotesque dimension of the pose, and the whole staging of the six-year-old physical appearance. The child is literally overwhelmed by pieces of clothing that do not fit him, such as a tight suit and a Spanish Sombrero, as well as by a winter garden background dominated by palm-trees. Benjamin notices here the profound humiliation to which the little boy is being submitted. This particular pose highlights the utter loneliness of the subject, his "infinite
The Image, One Image, Images
desolation" (his own words) within photography (Benjamin 18). The pose, in this specific case, reflects above all the strict norms of the social order and the alienation of the subject through a form of visual representation on which he has no control whatsoever. The eyes of the little Kafka express here an "unfathomable sadness", undoubtedly the result of an image imposed from outside (where "outside" is also an "above"). In this sense, the so-called sovereignty of life asserted by the pose cannot hide the ongoing presence of death and negation produced by society and its main institutions (primarily embodied, in the case of the little Kafka’s portrait, by the family). This constant relationship between photography and death is only made possible if one considers the portrait to be the main form of photographic expression. It is definitely the case for Barthes. Portraits retain an allegorical significance that is also existential. Hence Barthes strives to assert in his essay the aesthetic but also ethical value of the human face for photography. The second part of La Chambre Claire is evidently haunted by the shadow of the dead mother, the famous picture of the winter garden. This is not just any face, but the face of the loved one, which naturally escapes any form of anonymity or oblivion. In the first pages of this second part, Barthes refers quite significantly to the possible "resurrection" of the loved face through photography. This notion, in the Western tradition, holds a profound religious meaning because it expresses the absolute event of a return to life after death. But in the particular case of Barthes’ essay, "resurrection" also implies an ongoing ghostly presence within the image, which constitutes the new apparition of a subject who had previously disappeared. The subject therefore goes back to the world of the living as an almost dematerialized and intangible figure. In other words, he is there, but not actually there. His radical absence can only be overcome through the power of representation. In this perspective, the portrait clearly defines a spectral identity of the image. This spectral identity implies a profound confusion between truth and illusion or fantasy, or more precisely, the inability of the gaze to distinguish between appearance and reality. In essence, the ghost projects his own light onto the visible world. He becomes the source of all light, and for this reason, Barthes speaks in his essay about the particular luminosity of his mother’s face. ("Pourtant, il y avait toujours dans ces photographies de ma mère une place réservée, préservée, la clarté de ses yeux. Ce n’était pour le
The Paradox of Photography
moment qu’une luminosité toute physique, la trace photographique d’une couleur, le bleu-vert de ses prunelles. Mais cette lumière était déjà une sorte de médiation qui me conduisait vers une identité essentielle, le génie du visage aimé" (Barthes 104-105). In his collection of essays entitled Phasmes (Paris: Minuit, 1998), Georges Didi-Huberman has analyzed the utmost importance of numerous choses apparaissantes for our own critical knowledge of the visible world. The word comes from the Greek phasma, which suggests form, apparition, vision, ghost, and premonition, among other things. These multiple apparitions can be embodied in various objects, from sculptures to insects to mystical texts. But they can also be found in photographs. In this regard, one of Didi-Huberman’s essays entitled "Celui qui inventa le verbe photographier", deals specifically with the invention of the verb "to photograph". The man who actually used this term for the first time was Philothée, a wise man who lived in a state of reclusion near the Mount Sinaï, most likely between the ninth and the twelfth century. He has left us a few texts collected under the title Philokalia, or "the love of beauty". Didi-Huberman analyzes in his own essay this man’s ongoing quest for transcendental light in order to become a pure image. Living according to an ascetic rule, he dreamt of leaving his own body while keeping his eyes perpetually open. Truth, for him, was to be found in the sunlight, and he interpreted his whole existence as a fight against shadows. In this context, photography constituted the symbol of a unique experience that enabled him to see light in front of him by being transformed into a figure filled with light. ("C’était l’appel d’une ascèse de la vision où pourraient enfin fleurir l’équivalence paradoxale du voir et de l’être vu, la dissolution de l’être voyant dans le temps du regard, l’incorporation réciproque de l’œil dans la lumière et de la lumière dans l’œil" (Didi-Huberman 54)). It did not entail the creation of finite and visible objects. To the contrary, Philothée was highly suspicious of the power of images. He intended to chase them instead. Paradoxically, this negation (or disappearance) of images was only made possible through the presence of pure light internally and externally. The experience of light ultimately defined the profound and almost overwhelming sensation of a "pure tactile intensity": Nous ne savons plus aujourd’hui où était l’escarpement du Sinaï contre lequel Philothée de Baros ouvrit grand ses yeux au soleil et imagina le verbe "photographier". Nous ne savons pas le nom incompréhensible qui scandait sa
The Image, One Image, Images
vision et sa respiration avides. Nous savons seulement que le verbe "photographier" était venu là, sous sa langue, comme l’exigence non pas d’un plaisir des images et des formes de la réalité, mais comme celle d’une jouissance infinie de O¶LPDJH VDQV IRUPH : cette pure intensité tactile qu’est la lumière en flots sur notre visage offert-notre visage vu par elle comme par une mère qui nous enfante (Didi-Huberman 55-56).
In his conclusion, Didi-Huberman refers to the light being projected on a human face. Light reads us in its motherly attention, just as we are reading light. It does not take on a clear form, but rather a set of waves or a stream. One can now easily go back to Barthes, and in particular to his emphasis on the clarity of his own mother’s face while looking to a photograph of her as a five year-old child. ("J’observai la petite fille et je retrouvai enfin ma mère. La clarté de son visage, la pose naïve de ses mains, la place qu’elle avait occupé docilement sans se montrer ni se cacher, son expression enfin, qui la distinguait, comme le Bien et le Mal, de la petite fille hystérique, de la poupée minaudante qui joue aux adultes, tout cela formait la figure d’une innocence souveraine" (Barthes 107)). This so-called innocence of the face that the author seeks is tied, in his own words, to an assertion of kindness. He stresses the etymology of the word "innocence", which evokes an inability to harm or to hurt. Notably, Philothée linked photography to the experience of purity as the result of an ascetic rule. The innocence that Barthes reads on his mother’s face reflects a similar sensitivity, which is that of an intense presence. "The impossible science of the unique being", to quote Barthes, might well be the absolute knowledge of an inner light that belongs only to the loved one. The main issue (as in Philothée) is not so much to identify the nature of a visible object in front of us but to feel, as deeply as possible, the proximity of a human shining that irradiates our world. To put it differently, the act of seeing (the gaze) does not strictly entail apprehending and comprehending outside forms and images through the power of our eyes alone. It implies, instead, a personal encounter with a face that is itself the image, in that it contains the source or origin of light. It is through this very encounter that the other appears to us as a unique being and becomes an apparition, as Didi-Huberman uses the word (i.e., in a sense that largely exceeds the domain of religion).
The Paradox of Photography
This is the main challenge of photography: how to turn what appears into what is, into a true being. In Barthes’ perspective, this process of transfiguration is not fully accomplished: the apparition leads instead to the expression of an "it has been" ("ça a été"). The presence of the other is thus located in a time that is neither a present nor a buried past. This past is still a vivid reality because photography actualizes it in its own physical identity. ("Ce que je vois, ce n’est pas un souvenir, une imagination, une reconstitution, un morceau de la Maya, comme l’art en prodigue, mais le réel à l’état passé : à la fois le passé et le réel" (Barthes 130)). The apparition of the mother’s face offers "a certificate of presence", such that time (that is, the time of representation) now escapes any doubt or suspicion: it is a sure and tangible reality. ("Peut-être avons-nous une résistance invincible à croire au passé, à l’Histoire, sinon sous forme de mythe. La Photographie, pour la première fois, fait cesser cette résistance : le passé est désormais aussi sûr que le présent, ce qu’on voit sur le papier est aussi sûr que ce qu’on touche" (Barthes 136)). Philothée’s vision of an absolute light also included the project of bringing together past and present, beyond the obvious distance created by the passage of time. ("L’oeil pur, l’"oeil perpétuellement ouvert", l’abstinence et le "silence avisé des lèvres"- tout cela équivalait pour lui à un grand acte de Mnèmè, la mémoire, ce fil tendu entre l’eau de sa naissance (où ses paupières submergées s’étaient un instant refermées) et la lumière de sa mort dont il tentait précisément d’acquérir une sorte de mémoire (et où jamais plus il ne clignerait des yeux devant le soleil ardent)" (DidiHuberman 52)). In this regard, Didi-Huberman stresses Philothée’s merciless war against oblivion, which he always cursed. ("Philothée le Sinaïte a maudit l’oubli comme on maudit le diable, il pensait d’ailleurs que l’oubli est une machinerie satanique." (Didi-Huberman 52). Although Barthes questions the notion that photography reenacts what is done and gone in order to create a mere memory (or remembrance, in the Proustian sense) of things past, he nonetheless emphasizes, in his own way, the ability of the medium to resurrect this past. By definition, this resurrection entails a new and radical move towards existence, as well as an expression of the triumph of life over death. The "certificate of presence", in this sense, does not only mean that something has been but that this something still is since it can be prolonged (and literally re-lived) through photography. One does not
The Image, One Image, Images
just have to deplore the inevitability of loss. To the contrary, the power of authentication of the medium stresses the possibility of gained presence. Pictures thus confront us with the somehow reassuring apparition of ghosts: the dead can come back to us and signify the work of life within images and the visible world in general. The problem inherent to Barthes’ reflection is that this capacity to authenticate or certify reality largely overshadows photography’s power of representation. Photography, according to this discourse, is actually destined to present instead of re-present. As the author puts it, "D’un point de vue phénoménologique, dans la Photographie, le pouvoir d’authentification prime le pouvoir de représentation" (Barthes 139). The medium reiterates the world prior to reinventing or even imagining it. This is what Barthes also terms "la force constative de la photographie". In this regard, the author never ceases to emphasize what is supposedly missing in photography. He engages in a negative rhetoric that tends to highlight the aesthetic limitations of the medium. Photography is without a future, as opposed to cinema; photography is without a culture, without a dialectics, without a catharsis, etc, etc. The ontological quest thus leads to a profound denial of identity. Barthes confesses that he cannot read a picture since it is too full and complete to allow for any additional interpretation. He clearly opposes photography to painting and sculpture on this issue: photography cannot transform his own gaze into something deeper than a mere physical relationship to the visible world. The medium seems to be trapped in its own finitude and does not entail the promise of a transcendence that would free the viewer from his inner turmoil. ("Je ne puis transformer mon chagrin, je ne puis laisser dériver mon regard- aucune culture ne vient m’aider à parler cette souffrance que je vis entièrement à même la finitude de l’image" (Barthes 141)). The impossibility of reading is a major concern for Barthes, since his own original epistemology of literary criticism always implied the quasiethical necessity of such a process. The true modern critic is the one who can actually decipher the hidden codes of the text and its language, according to the rules and principles of semiology. There rests, in his view, the fundamental violence of photography. It is violent precisely because it does not allow him to see anything beyond the concrete space of the picture. ("La Photographie est violente : non pas parce qu’elle montre des violences, mais parce qu’à chaque fois
The Paradox of Photography
elle emplit de force la vue, et qu’en elle rien ne peut se refuser, ni se transformer" (Barthes 143)). By contrast, the reader of the literary text (who, in Barthes’ perspective, is always an active and even more a creative one) is capable of transforming the object of his analysis into a coherent and radically original form. The text itself is open to changes, and even to a process of profound metamorphosis, inasmuch as it is an open and fluid structure that the act of reading is destined to shape. The text contains blanks and empty spaces: it is never an absolute and fully accomplished entity. Thus criticism operates as a "supplement", in the Derridian sense of the term. It adds or superimposes its own language and thought upon the preexisting language and thought of the text. This addition is made possible because the subject of analysis is, in itself, incomplete and perhaps even undetermined. Photography, as a closed object, refuses to be read in many respects, or at least, resists Barthes’ attempts to read it. This essential conflict prevents the author from identifying photography with a true art form, which appears more and more obvious in the last part of his essay. For Barthes, art (and not just literature) relies largely upon this promise and freedom of personal interpretation. But photographs cannot be modified by the gaze of the viewer; they can only be turned into pieces of trash, destined to be thrown into the garbage. This insistence upon the ephemeral, and even fragile, nature of the object prevents photography from being instituted as art. The era of photography is also that of impatience: modern man is no longer able to sense, either emotionally or symbolically, the duration within things. The gaze of the viewer is a gaze without real depth. The author recognizes that he cannot go through the surface of the image. By contrast, the very nature of reading contains the idea of seeing through and reaching an object's inner truth that is not immediately apparent. Pictures are, for him, obvious items defined and limited by their own certainty (their own visible evidence), as opposed to texts that do not reveal everything and maintain their own secret beyond reading itself. ("Dans l’image, l’objet se livre en bloc et la vue en est certaine- au contraire du texte ou d’autres perceptions qui me donnent l’objet d’une façon floue, discutable, et m’incitent de la sorte à me méfier de ce que je crois voir" (Barthes 163)). By admitting to this absence of reading, Barthes also underlines the failure of a real aesthetic discourse on photography.
The Image, One Image, Images
Since the medium is not primarily defined as a system of representation, it cannot be understood as an original set of objective visual forms, either. What is left is the sheer power of an individual subjectivity that draws a strictly existential truth from the image. The portrait, in this sense, exists beyond art as the living proof of an intimate relationship binding the viewer and the subject of photography. The main issue of the portrait is not only that of resemblance, that is, the identification between reality and its reproduction within the image. It suggests instead the presence of something that cannot be said ("l’indicible") and, in so doing, highlights the spiritual essence of the human face. In his essay Le Regard du Portrait (Paris: Galilée, 2000), JeanLuc Nancy has questioned the sovereignty of resemblance as constitutive of the portrait in painting. If resemblance seems to be the main focus of the painter’s art, it nonetheless establishes a strong tie between the artwork and an original model that is, in many ways, secondary. For Nancy, this model can even be absent in the portrait itself, in that the viewer rarely sees or knows the originals of the vast majority of portraits that he contemplates. In the history of Western art, the most striking example of this phenomenon is the Mona Lisa, as Nancy points out. While this painting is universally considered to be one of the most beautiful portraits ever made, it still remains a highly enigmatic work precisely because we, as viewers, do not truly know the identity of the subject behind the portrait. In this sense, the original model is somewhat absent in the Mona Lisa. We can only speculate endlessly upon its true name and face. ("Et ce n’est pas un hasard si l’identité de Mona Lisa, archétype des portraits, reste incertaine jusqu’à son sexe et autant que le sens ou l’inflexion de son sourire (c’est précisément cette incertitude qui lui a conféré sa place légendaire). Il se peut même que nous admirions des portraits qui en leur temps furent jugés insatisfaisants du point de vue de la reconnaissance" (Nancy 40)). In this regard, what Barthes calls "l’air" is the ultimate expression of the moral dimension of the subject beyond resemblance, beyond the sheer reality of the mother as an original model. ("Enfin la photographie du Jardin d’Hiver, où je fais bien plus que la reconnaître (mot trop gros), où je la retrouve: éveil brusque, hors de la "ressemblance", satori où les mots défaillent, évidence rare, peut-être unique du "Ainsi, oui, ainsi, et rien de plus" (Barthes 167-68)). It
The Paradox of Photography
reveals a soul, not just a physical appearance that could be either faithful or unfaithful to the subject. ("Toutes les photos de ma mère que je passais en revue étaient un peu comme des masques ; à la dernière, brusquement, le masque disparaissait : il restait une âme, sans âge mais non hors du temps, puisque cet air, c’était celui que je voyais, consubstantiel à son visage, chaque jour de sa longue vie. Peut-être l’air est-il en définitive quelque chose de moral, amenant mystérieusement au visage le reflet d’une valeur de vie ?" (Barthes 169)). It is "an expression of truth", as Barthes says. This air thus constitutes a luminous shadow that goes along with the body. The face contains an inner light that the portrait unveils. In the absence of aesthetics, the moral and spiritual discourse enables Barthes to somehow redeem photography, while carefully avoiding a thorough reflection upon its specific visual language. In front of the portrait, the "I" asserts his own supremacy once and for all, and the writing of light inevitably becomes the writing of one’s own light. ("Puisque ni Nadar ni Avedon n’ont photographié ma mère, la survie de cette image a tenu au hasard d’une vue prise par un photographe de campagne, qui, médiateur indifférent, mort lui-même depuis, ne savait pas que ce qu’il fixait-c’était la vérité-la vérité pour moi" (Barthes 170-71)). In other words, the truth of photography is a very particular truth. This is what often distinguishes the portrait in painting from the portrait in photography. In the first case, the classical portrait that I see in a museum is more likely to be of a figure that belongs to history or religion (a public figure, a king, a queen, or a saint). Even if this portrait, belongs to the aesthetics of modern art, it is likely still the representation of someone I do not know personally. (Matisse’s portrait of his wife is one example). But in the case of photography, the portrait, the image of a relative, a spouse, a child, or a friend, is more likely to be a part of my own life story. It is an object that I can put into a family album, or frame and hang in my own home. The portrait of photography thus more frequently retains a private and even intimate dimension than the portrait of painting, which is linked in the Western tradition to an artistic legacy of religious, political, and official representation. It can speak directly about my own life as well as those of the people who have been and remain close to me, whether they are alive or not. In this perspective, the portrait that Barthes analyzes implies the profound belief in a secret that cannot be truly or fully shared with
The Image, One Image, Images
others. The image is the keeper of this secret, and "l’air", therefore, can only underscore the presence of this impossible communication. Hence Barthes uses in this context terms like "l’indicible" or "l’improbable". By contrast, the painted portrait most often implies the inclusion of the image within the community to which the portrait is shown. It is defined by its public power prior to any linkage with the personal life of the viewer. "L’air" thus expresses a process of spiritual revelation within the image, while at the same time denying the possibility of such revelation through words (that is, through the body and the substance of words themselves). A truth for me is indeed a secret; it is what ultimately separates me from the outside world and asserts my definitive isolation or loneliness. In this sense, La Chambre Claire is an essay about one image (that of the mother in the winter garden) and not about the image, meaning photography in general, if there is any such thing. But it is also not an essay about images, meaning the flow of visual stimuli that contemporary society imposes on us daily through magazines, advertising, or the Internet. Barthes’ critical standpoint implies a radical distance from this flow. The author wants to focus his attention on a few examples only, and so his gaze resists the cultural law of the infinite reproduction of signs. This is where his perspective becomes truly driven by ethical concerns. His gaze is not just selective, but also contemplative. A photograph is not, for him, an object of instant consumption or aesthetic gratification; it is something to be reflected upon carefully and slowly, in spite of a social order that constantly precipitates pictures into a system of frantic simulation (in the Baudrillardian sense). In today’s world, and this was already true at the time when Barthes was writing his book, it has become increasingly difficult to simply choose one image among many others, or to explain the reasons (whether personal or philosophical) for such a choice. The law of the instant and ongoing reproduction of images relies upon a highly sophisticated network of technological tools and devices over which the average man (that is, the average viewer) has less and less control. As such, theory and criticism unveil the almost Utopian possibility of a break within this order. They express the existence of a subjective gaze that challenges the pace of the image and its reception within society. Here, writing allows for a slowdown in the mere accumulation of these images on ubiquitous screens and in countless
The Paradox of Photography
publications. La Chambre Claire defines an intimate time of photography, a notion which goes against the widespread exploitation of the medium for primarily economic and commercial purposes in the contemporary media. This intimate time further corresponds to an intimate space. The truth for me, therefore, questions the actual meaning of the purely social truth of the image. This social truth denies, in its very nature, the possibility of a secret. It is instead dominated by an obsession with transparency and public exhibition. In the last pages of his essay, Barthes evokes the trivialization of photography which, according to his own words, crushes all the other images under its own tyranny ("Plus de gravures, plus de peinture figurative, sinon désormais par soumission fascinée (et fascinante) au modèle photographique" (Barthes 181)). Paradoxically, then, La Chambre Claire reasserts the need for a certain obscurity within the image, a resistance to its instant reading and comprehension. The Camera is thus still Obscura, since it enables the subject to retreat voluntarily from the overwhelming power of actual events, and from his own objective social identity. In this sense, the contingency of photography defines a privileged relationship of the medium to reality to the extent that this reality is foremost a reality for me, not for every man lost in the crowd. This reality remains partly hidden and its veil must never be lifted. Barthes’ project, therefore, insists upon the profound need for belonging within images. In other words, to choose one single image among many others is to stop an image that would otherwise pass by without notice. This choice requires constant attention, the exact opposite of the distracted attitude defined by Benjamin in "The Work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" as one of the main characteristics of modern man in his relation to art and culture. The ethical nature of such a choice is obvious. The subject asks for a return to a sense of a difference within photography. My most meaningful image is not the other’s most meaningful image, for the very reason that my life is never exactly the same as theirs. The main illusion or deceit created by contemporary culture is that of a universal (i.e., global) and ongoing sharing of images, as if they could signal the existence of a so-called democratic order in which differences (economic, social, cultural or psychological) would no longer apply. The truly realistic approach thus puts forward the presence of a singularity within pictures, without having to reveal all the reasons for
The Image, One Image, Images
such a viewpoint. We now comprehend why La Chambre Claire establishes such a strong link between photography and death (through the image of the dead mother). For death is, in essence, that which cannot be fully disclosed or shared. I can indeed share my language, my body, and even my possessions with others, but not my death. It will always remain my own death through which I assert my existential difference and my irreducible being. It will never be purely transparent, nor will it be fully understandable to the other. As Marcel Duchamp aptly stated: "it is always the others who die" ("Ce sont toujours les autres qui meurent"). This sentence implies the ultimate specificity of one’s death. In other words, the death of the other is not and never will be mine. It keeps its own secret inasmuch as I exist and the other too. This constant hesitation between revelation and concealment is the means by which photography defines its own existential power beyond the mere issue of art (that is, of photography as a true art form). The "certificate of presence" paradoxically suggests absence. ("Or, dans la photographie, ce que je pose n’est pas seulement l’absence de l’objet : c’est aussi, d’un même mouvement, à égalité, que cet objet a bien existé, et qu’il a été là où je le vois" (Barthes 177)). Therein lies what Barthes calls the madness of photography: this contradictory motion between what has been and what is not (or no longer) there. ("La photographie devient alors pour moi un medium bizarre, une nouvelle forme d’hallucination: fausse au niveau de la perception, vraie au niveau du temps : une hallucination tempérée, en quelque sorte, modeste, partagée (d’un côté "ce n’est pas là", de l’autre "mais cela a bien été") : image folle, frottée de réel" (Barthes 177)). It is significant that Barthes uses the word "medium" to describe photography. This word reflects the negation of photography as a true art. Moreover, it conjures up the image of an "in-between", an object located between presence and absence. But "medium" also refers, in English and French, to a magical apprehension of the world. (After all, the medium is a person who, because of his or her own extra-sensorial or supernatural powers, is able to see through reality.) The conclusion of Barthes’ essay therefore identifies photography with a sort of modern magic. This particular identification leaves room for the fundamental mystery of the image. It is the enigma of being, of his inner feelings, his desires and emotions.
The Paradox of Photography
We might argue, then, that La Chambre Claire does not constitute an essay of art criticism, but rather an essay on his own personal experience of photography (or on photography as experience). The image is a particular object that the author encounters or faces, and so, his language must articulate the sovereignty of this single event for his own existence. ("Telle photo P¶DGYLHQW telle autre non" (Barthes 38)). The form, as such, only marginally concerns Barthes: it is essentially a pretext for the inner exploration of this event. His original perspective defines, at the same time, the richness and the shortcomings of his work. The powerful content of La Chambre Claire is not easily forgotten, but we must remain sensitive to its melancholic tone and underlying pathos. Beyond that, one must also wonder whether the object of his discourse is what it is supposed to be. The title of the book refers to a room where one seeks privacy, far away from the public eye. By nature, this room is a closed space where only a few can penetrate. The light shed on this particular space (this "clear" room) is thus never a full one. It emerges from the mind of a viewer who definitively searches for one intriguing image, a unique testimony to his own mortality and lasting presence (though this mortality and lasting presence are also, obviously, that of the (m)other). Indeed, La Chambre Claire was Barthes’ last major work before his unexpected death. Therefore, through this remarkable anticipation of the most subjective and human of all events within the image, his project will always dwell in our conscience as the mirror of our own existential condition.
The Fascinated Eye
Paul Valéry’s main lecture on photography, "Le Discours du centenaire de la photographie" (in Études Photographiques, 10, Paris: Société Française de Photographie, November 2001), was given in the context of the national celebration of its one hundredth anniversary in France. It can be read today as a passionate apology of a medium that still needed to convince many skeptics after so many years of existence. His text must be understood as a general and public defense of photography, as if it had been put on trial by a large number of artists and scholars of his time. Its tone is undoubtedly ceremonious, if not a bit pompous, for the very reason that this lecture took place at the Sorbonne, the most prestigious French university of both the past and the present, under the auspices of the French Academy. These very official circumstances did not seem to be the ideal setting for a talk on such a topic. After all, the French Academy has been and still is concerned with the cultural preservation of the French language in its purest forms. It is not an institution that entails the study of the visual arts among its intellectual priorities. It is this very contradiction between the content of Valéry’s speech and the identity of the Academy that makes this text intriguing. The members of this pillar of French cultural tradition pretended to celebrate the outstanding achievements of the great Frenchmen who contributed to the birth and the development of photography. They wanted to pay tribute to the technical creativity of pioneers such as Niepce and Daguerre. In other words, photography was seen by them as a national invention, a direct product of French genius and unique creativity. Thus the poet participated here in an enterprise that was obviously driven by national pride, and not just by aesthetic or
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philosophical interests. In his introduction, he refers to photography as one of the most admirable inventions of the nineteenth-century. The tone is set from the start: Valéry will definitely be the anti-Baudelaire: he will delight in the beauty and the originality of the medium, rather than trashing it or denying its artistic qualities. According to Valéry, these great Frenchmen have been able "to fix the resemblance of visible things through the action of the light that emanates from them". These few words almost serve as a complete definition of photography and of its specific attributes: photography constitutes first of all a means of immobilizing reality on a silver plate or a piece of paper. Secondly, it is dominated by the search for a resemblance between pictures and the visible world. Third, it reflects the utmost power of light in the expression of this world. The main purpose of his speech is to demonstrate the possible relationship between literature and photography. At the time of this presentation in 1939, this relationship does not seem particularly obvious in French culture. If photography has already acquired a certain artistic status through the work of masters such as Nadar and Atget, it still remains a marginal and obscure field for most French writers, with the notable exception of Proust. (In this regard, the main study on Proust’s intensely personal relationship to photography is that of photographer Georges Brassaï, in his book Marcel Proust sous O¶(PSULVH GH OD 3KRWRJUDSKLH, published by Gallimard in 1997). Photography remains generally confined to its own narrow territory: it has yet to engage in an extensive dialogue with poetry, novels, or essays, a dialogue which will of course be pursued after World War II by writers or critics such as Barthes or Claude Simon. In this perspective, it is quite significant that Valéry keeps using the term "invention" when referring to photography, as if he were trying to emphasize its youth as opposed to the venerable age of literature. Pictures seem to be fresh and childlike: they are actually more than one hundred years old at the time when Valéry speaks, but it sounds as if they had been created the day before. After all, the members of the French Academy who are responsible for this event gained fame and prestige through their literary achievements, and not through their personal connections to the visual arts. Valéry, therefore, must adapt his own discourse to their language and mindset. The issue here is not so much whether photography constitutes an art form or not, which was the case
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previously for Baudelaire, but rather the specific meaning of the medium for the poet and the novelist. In this particular sense, photography still constitutes a novelty for the writer, even though it has already been diffused on a large scale within popular French culture. In other words, it is not yet an academic concept. As such, Valéry refers to the "beautiful invention" of photography, in order to show that its cultural reality is primarily defined by the action of science and technique. Yet if writers generally lack a true understanding of its possibilities, the artists themselves have already grasped its usefulness for their own creative endeavors. ("Nous savons bien que le dessin, la peinture et tous les arts d’imitation ont su tirer profit de la capture immédiate des formes par la plaque sensible" (Discours 89)). Photography has already been integrated into the vast domain of the visual arts because of its essential accuracy. Valéry insists here upon its ability to fix motion, whether human or animal, in reference to the now classical experiments of both Marey and Muybridge that took place as early as the last part of the nineteenth century. This ability prevents the artists from making mistakes in their own representation of animal motion, that of horses and birds in particular. What was before a largely imaginary and subjective interpretation of nature seized in its dynamic identity can now be turned into a true and faithful process of reproduction that is characterized by a much greater objectivity. In other words, photography teaches the artist how to look closely at things. Instead of gazing beyond or beside reality, the artist is now facing it directly, and this confrontation enables him to adjust his own gaze to the paramount laws of the visible world. This situation should not come as a surprise, since photography asserted itself from its birth as a means of capturing reality in all its exactitude. Whether it was defined as an authentic artistic discipline or as a mere technical device, its main quality was that of a mimetic form that could even surpass the figurative power of painting and drawing. Valéry admits here that the acceptance of photography by the art community has not been imitated by the literary community. After all, the writer did not need the help of photography in order to create his own poetic universe. He could always rely on an inner gaze that provided him with potent metaphors and visions. ("Mais au contraire, la possession de ce moyen de reproduire les apparences de la nature et
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de la vie par un simple relais d’énergie physique ne paraît point d’une conséquence certaine et d’un avantage marqué pour les Lettres" (Discours 89)). In Valéry’s discourse, the word "nature" occupies a central position. Nature must be comprehended as a sum of appearances, of visual phenomena that the artist has to examine carefully and in all detail. It is clear that this emphasis on nature as the main subject matter of human creativity is more predominant either in science or the visual arts than in literature. The scientist, whether he is a chemist, a botanist or a biologist, is destined to the study of living organisms and cells. The painter himself, at least in the academic tradition of his art, tends to imitate the natural forms of the human body or of flowers and trees, in classical exercises such as the nude, the landscape or still life. This was true even at the time of Valéry, when the Cubist or the Surrealist avant-garde had not yet fully established its own supremacy in the art world. The problem therefore is that the sovereignty of nature is much more questionable for the writer than it is for either the scientist or the artist. The history of the Western novel, from Dante to Cervantes and from Goethe to Dickens and Dostoyevsky, confronts us with the sheer artistic power of fiction. Even if the power of this fiction stems from a strict observation of social reality, such as in Dickens’ work, the main subject matter of the novel is never truly nature, not even in the case of so-called "naturalism" immortalized by Zola or Maupassant. In other words, the invention of the world is always more important for the writer than its mere reproduction. Otherwise, there could be no such thing as fiction. By invention, I mean here the capacity to interpret the world in an original manner through the eyes of imaginary characters, and through the description of their inner psyche. This does not mean that the objective presence of nature cannot be felt in some of these works. But this presence never overshadows the structure of story-telling, whose fundamental identity is always fanciful. In addition, if one considers modern poetry in France alone, one can easily see that much of it is dominated by a profound suspicion towards the power of nature on human existence in general. This is nowhere more obvious than in the work of Baudelaire, as we saw it already through the reading of some of his aesthetic writings. In this regard, the very title of his main work of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal, implied a negative definition of nature:
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flowers themselves belonged to the dark side of life. Moreover, the symbolist project of Mallarmé, who Valéry considered as his spiritual father, entailed in many ways a clear distance between the voice of the poet and the idealized image of nature. Valéry stressed here instead the possible rivalry between photography and literature, as if the former could somehow diminish the artistic importance of the latter. For him, even the best descriptive writer could never match the essential precision of the new medium. The accuracy of language, by comparison, seemed almost illusory. Language could only make people see certain aspects of reality, while photography opened up a revelation of the whole visible world. ("Comment dépeindre un site ou un visage, si habiles que nous soyons dans notre métier d’écrivain, de manière que ce que nous aurons écrit ne suggère autant de visions différentes que nous aurons de lecteurs ?" (Discours 90)). The kind of vision that language could produce was limited not only in its scope but also in its sheer number. Valéry’s passionate embrace of photography and of its unique energy entailed a critique of literature, or at least of the narrative language that supported it. Even the science of the poetic language, what Mallarmé himself had defined as "the essential language", was often flawed in its attention to details and its own visual ambitions. More generally, the descriptive project of literature, which had been key to the development of great narratives in the West since the Greeks, was suddenly being shaken by the rise of photography. The author of Monsieur Teste was known for saying that he would always refuse to write a sentence such as "la marquise sortit à cinq heures." This apparently ironic statement actually signified a profound questioning of the aesthetic value of narration itself. For Valéry, literature had to be located in an entirely original space that could not be located in the classical novel. If one looks closely at the forms on which his own work is largely based, one will notice an undisputable preference not only for poetry, but also for criticism and fragments or aphorisms (such as in his Cahiers, for instance). Those forms are mostly defined outside of the realm of both narration and description. They always imply for him the possibility of intellectual speculation, but also the presence of a hypothetical language whose logic and identity cannot be made compatible with that of description. In other words, there is no such thing as a hypothetical description.
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When one attempts to describe a particular object, one inevitably stresses the certainty of this object and of its main characteristics. One sticks literally to its objective reality, and asserts a concrete existence that is being enhanced through language. Description reflects the narrator's lack of doubt about the proximity of the object. It is not surprising then that Valéry praises photography precisely because it frees literature from the formal constraints of description. ("Ainsi l’existence de la Photographie nous engagerait plutôt à cesser de vouloir décrire ce qui peut, de soi-même, V¶LQVFULUH" (Discours 90)). A genuine description must indeed allow people see the object as if they were themselves physically in front of it. It asks the reader to see through language, through the screen of words in order to reach the visual identity of the object. As opposed to a description, which is often lengthy, an inscription constitutes a brief message. Moreover, it relates language to the material world, since words that are inscribed are quite often written on a stone or a solid surface. The general technical evolution of the modern world witnessed by Valéry entails an irresistible move towards a language that is becoming more and more instantaneous as well as physical. In particular, according to Valéry the development of photography results in the progressive eviction of speech by images. Yet this situation is not contemplated with pleasure. Instead the poet manifests a real anxiety towards a world in which images have already established their overwhelming cultural presence. It is interesting to note that this negative feeling is being expressed at a time when the power of the media was far from being as crushing as it is today. The world in which Valéry lives has not yet been "invaded" by television, video games, the Internet and virtual reality. If cinema already appears to be a dominant form of art and mass entertainment at the end of the nineteen thirties, it still leaves room for poetry, the novel and theater within everyday French culture. The images that the poet refers to are mostly to be found in newspapers and magazines, and not on big or small screens. They belong therefore to the world of the press and journalism. This obviously constituted the most important cultural use of photography before World War II. Valéry notices in this regard the "vices" of images when they try to compete with language by asserting their own superiority. These images are too often cheap, (he talks about their "facilité"); moreover, they do not necessarily tell the truth about reality. ("Oserais-je ajouter qu’il n’est
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pas jusqu’au mensonge, grande et toujours florissante spécialité de la parole, que la photographie ne s’enhardisse à pratiquer" (Discours 90)). In the second volume of his Cahiers (Paris : Gallimard, La Pléiade, 1974), the poet also denounced the excessive cultural influence of the press, and the way it diffuses a colloquial language which escapes any true rigor ("L’évolution de la littérature moderne n’est que l’évolution de la lecture qui tend à devenir une sorte de divination d’effets au moyen de quelques mots vus presque simultanément et au détriment des phrases. C’est le télégraphisme et l’impressionnisme grossier dû aux affiches et aux journaux. L’homme voit et ne lit plus" (Cahiers 1183)). The age of mechanical reproduction therefore turns any reader into a potential viewer. Language itself becomes a visual reality before being a purely literary or rhetorical one. It is now confused with images, through the ongoing action of the mass media. In this new era, the presence of visible things is somehow selfsufficient: it no longer needs the support of words. Images speak, and they even speak for language itself. This implies a transformation of the symbolic order associated with modern culture. The symbolic order now relies primarily upon a network of information that imposes a particular concept of language, beyond reading. In many ways, photography participates actively in this new order by being constantly linked to the myth of an instantaneous meaning. In other words, pictures can be seen and understood in a moment: they stir an original time of human perception, whose main principle is that of a constant acceleration of visual stimuli. Nevertheless, Valéry does not succumb to a merely nostalgic discourse that would reject this irreversible evolution altogether. To the contrary, he attempts to stress its positive consequences for the community. He talks about the proliferation of photographs in the modern world, but the undisputable presence of this law of quantity does not prevent him from searching for a new definition of quality, a quality that is always for him of an aesthetic nature. Its main focus remains not just literature, but what he calls (maybe a bit ironically) "Les Belles-Lettres", or rather "the truly beautiful letters" ("Les Lettres véritablement belles" (Discours 90)). Photography has pursued throughout its short history the conquest of both motion and color. Originally though, its tone was essentially black and white, like the black ink on a white sheet of
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paper. Indeed, in the word "photography" itself one can find the presence of writing, of a trace or an inscription that also includes the sense of a memory. After all, Niepce began his career as a man of the theater, and Nadar often chose writers and poets as subjects of his portraits. According to Valéry, this relatively new medium underlines the very limits of language: it forces the writer to redefine the goals of his or her own practice. Modern technique is now capable of assuming extended functions which include the objective representation of reality. Its realistic nature enables literature to break this so-called inevitable link with the domain of facts and sheer events. Since photography is responsible for a new form of visual story-telling, writing can now reach a new and unprecedented level of abstraction and philosophical analysis. In other words, the remarkable impurity of photography and of the technical means of expression in general, can enhance the "purity" of literature, even within a world that does not seem to pay much attention to its existence. Now the sentence "literature for the sake of literature" acquires its most profound meaning. The writer no longer has to turn his gaze towards the external world, since a considerable number of pictures and images have actually become its authentic mirror. ("Une littérature se ferait pure, qui délaissant tous les autres emplois que d’autres modes d’expression ou de production remplissent bien plus efficacement qu’elle ne peut le faire, se consacrerait à ce qu’elle seule peut obtenir" (Discours 90)). Technique has taken over the sphere of economic production: it abides by strict rules of efficiency and practical reason. Therefore, literature, by deliberately asserting its own identity outside of this sphere and these rules, can find a new freedom and a total independence of spirit. Valéry’s argument therefore implies the tireless quest for a new literary absolute. He clearly sets the priorities of such project: first, literature must strive for the perfection of a discourse that exposes abstract thinking. It definitely belongs to the world of concepts, of ideas, of the mind, as we already know from Monsieur Teste. But these intellectual constructions need a particular framework: they are expressed through a language that resists the unsophisticated forms of everyday speech. One can add here that Valéry’s attention to the utmost accuracy and formal complexity of language stems from the French rhetorical tradition of the seventeenth-century. Les "BellesLettres" reflect the unique power of a "Beau parler" or "Beau
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langage". Modernity, by contrast, asserts the economic, social and cultural sovereignty of technical means of communication, from cinema to photography. These new means do not necessarily distort the meaning (the actual content) of language for mankind, but they certainly diminish the value and the importance of its classical forms. The utopia of a perfect discourse, which was key to the social order of the seventeenth and even eighteenth century, is now replaced by the myth of an instant and easily accessible discourse. Moreover, the abstraction of the new world dominated by technique does not stem from the overwhelming influence of speculative thought within society and its main institutions, but rather from the social determination (and even control) of man and his personal expression by increasingly complex mechanical devices and systems of production. The poet’s demand for abstraction echoes in this sense a whole aesthetic movement that characterizes the early twentieth-century modernism, both in the visual arts and in music. One can find it in the Vienna School and the serial (or atonal) music of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, as well as in the geometrical paintings of Kandinsky or Mondrian. In other words, in order to be truly modern, the poet or the artist has to search for a radical abstraction that enables him to constantly relate the creative process of art to the analytical approach of philosophy or science, beyond the obvious differences between these domains. The second goal that Valéry sets for literature more strictly concerns the domain of poetry. In this regard, he claims the need for a multiplicity of poetic combinations and resonances. Poetry must become a fertile ground for formalist experiments: its author must above all be concerned with the almost musical harmony of words, and their endless imaginary relations through the poetic language. Again, this overall vision of literature questions its descriptive functions. In many ways Valéry rejects a certain aesthetic legacy of nineteenth-century romanticism. He refers in this perspective to the excessive preoccupation with the background and the external aspects of life in many books of fiction written between 1820 and 1840. The descriptive dimension of such works leads to the depiction of mere fantasies, whether these fantasies are projected upon the Orient or the middle ages. This dimension implies the definite emphasis upon the mostly decorative quality of art and literature. The nineteenth-century asserted the power of a social and cultural order obsessed with the
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proliferation and the abundance of furniture, pictures and luxury objects in everyday life. However, a new vision appears with the birth of photography. For Valéry, this event is no less than revolutionary. It entails a complete transformation of our values and visual knowledge. In other words, our gaze will never be the same. The imprint of photography is to be felt primarily in the realm of everyday life. The medium provokes new needs and habits; it has become an essential record of major life events such as birth or marriage. This documentary dimension of photography is now reflected in the aesthetic evolution of nineteenth-century French literature. For Valéry, realism has turned into an almighty system of representation: the era of photography is also that of the novel, a genre which, like in Balzac’s work, pretends to encompass the whole of social reality. The main goal of literature has become therefore the pursuit of truth, instead of the search for poetic beauty. The poet does not suggest that the project of writers such as Zola or Maupassant stems directly from the advent of photography. Nonetheless, he stresses a coincidence that has to be seriously taken into consideration. It is clear that Valéry cannot be fully satisfied with the dominance of realism. In his speech, he attempts in to widen the domain of literature, beyond the obvious changes of perspective introduced by the classical novel or narrative of the nineteenth-century. He insists upon the possibility of a dialogue between writers and history, philosophy or the hard sciences. He talks thus about "these uncertain regions of knowledge" in which photography asserts its own significance. In order to understand Valéry’s contradictory attitude towards the modern world and its impact on art and poetry, one has to go back to his main essays on art, as they appear in his book 3LqFHVVXUO¶$UW (Paris: Gallimard, 1934). In the essay entitled "Propos sur le progrès", he refers in particular to the general suspicion of the nineteenthcentury artist towards such notion. This was nowhere more obvious than at the time of Romanticism, when the writers who belonged to this movement manifested their unambiguous hostility towards the rationalism of modernity and ignored in this process the accomplishments of modern science. In many ways, Romanticism expressed its own nostalgia for pre-modern forms of knowledge such as magic. But it is only with the early twentieth-century avant-garde that this conflict between the poet or the artist and the scientist or the engineer will be somehow overcome: movements such as Futurism
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and Dada will emphasize instead the aesthetic power of machines and their imaginary identity. (For a study of the relationship between the early twentieth-century avant-garde and the aesthetic power of technique and machines, I will refer in particular to my book Surmodernités: Entre Rêve et Technique, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003, and in particular the chapters on Léger, Jarry and Duchamp). Approaching the issue of progress, Valéry is careful to avoid both a strictly negative and a purely apologetic response. For him, both attitudes are equivalent to common places. By contrast, he tries to highlight a possible synthesis between the realm of positivity and that of the supernatural ("Il arrive que le merveilleux et le positif ont contracté une étonnante alliance, et que ces deux anciens ennemis se sont conjurés pour engager nos existences dans une carrière de transformations et de surprises indéfinie." (Pièces 217)). In other words, rigor and method can also engender dreams, which could very well have been the mantra of Leonardo, an artist that Valéry particularly admired and on which he wrote a well-known essay. In this sense, the sheer legacy of the Enlightenment too often fails to take into account the poetic imagination in its philosophical project. But the radical subjectivity invoked by Romanticism also fails to comprehend the important role of ideas and concepts in the creation of the work of art. The main problem of the modern world is that it is no longer dominated by the mind and the visions of the artist, as in the utopia of Leonardo. Even if such synthesis is accomplished in society, it is happening because of the overwhelming power of trade and technique: Enfin, presque tous les songes qu’avait faits l’humanité, et qui figurent dans nos fables de divers ordres, sont à présent sortis de l’impossible et de l’esprit. Le fabuleux est dans le commerce. La fabrication de machines à merveilles fait vivre des milliers d’individus. Mais l’artiste n’a pris nulle part à cette production de prodiges. Elle procède de la science et des capitaux. Le bourgeois a placé ses fonds dans les phantasmes et spécule sur la ruine du sens commun. (Pièces 219)
This is the main reason why it is quite difficult to go back to the model of the Renaissance, even though the poet is profoundly attached to the spirit of this era. One of the most striking aspects of the changes stirred by modernity is their irreversible character. Mechanical power is being increased dramatically as well as the precision that man can
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demonstrate in his work and his social activities. This irreversibility produces a new sense of time, for which the past becomes less and less relevant. ("Bientôt l’ère toute nouvelle enfantera des hommes qui ne tiendront plus au passé par aucune habitude de l’esprit. L’histoire leur offrira des récits étranges, presque incompréhensibles, car rien dans leur époque n’aura eu d’exemple dans le passé, ni rien du passé ne survivra dans leur présent." (Pièces 221)). It is this loss of the past, of its very apprehension by man, that Valéry fears the most, since this actually means that art and literature themselves are destined to disappear. What would be poetry, for instance, without the recollection of the Greeks and of their great lyrical tradition? Art and literature exist in the present, but they simultaneously stem from a whole cultural heritage that constantly exerts its influence on the poet and the artist. It is in this context that the sense of history, of a continuum between past and present, constitutes an essential value for the educated man and his creativity. ("Tout ce qui n’est pas purement physiologique dans l’homme aura changé, puisque nos ambitions, notre politique, nos guerres, nos moeurs, nos arts sont à présents soumis à un régime de substitutions très rapides : ils dépendent de plus en plus étroitement des sciences positives et donc de moins en moins de ce qui fut" (Pièces 222)). Tradition and historical realities are being threatened by a concept of progress that emphasizes the urgency of constant technical and practical changes. It is this very mindset that was in many ways at the source of the first world conflict. In 1914, European nationalism relied heavily upon military technology and advances in the domain of armaments in order to assert its own ideology throughout the continent. ("Peut-être qu’un observateur assez lointain, considérant notre état de civilisation, songerait-il que la grande guerre ne fut qu’une conséquence très funeste, mais directe et inévitable, du développement de nos moyens" (Pièces 224)). Valéry, in this perspective, stresses the extension and intensity of a war that was the consequence of the sheer excess of our power. The new and disproportionate material resources that were available at the time demanded such excess and such large-scale destruction. The troubled and ambiguous image of progress therefore appeared in the development of modern warfare and in the possibility of collective annihilation. No historical event had until then utilized progress in such a contradictory fashion, by pretending to serve the political ideals
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of European populations while actually leading them to the path of mutual obliteration. However, in the same text Valéry goes beyond his relative anxiety towards an unbridled expression of progress for purely political reasons, and demonstrates instead his own enthusiasm for the physical qualities of light. ("Parmi tant de progrès accomplis, il n’en est pas de plus étonnant que celui qu’a fait la lumière. Elle n’était, il y a peu d’années, qu’un événement pour les yeux. Elle pouvait être ou ne pas être. Elle s’étendait dans l’espace où elle rencontrait une matière qui la modifiait plus ou moins, mais qui lui demeurait étrangère. La voici devenue la première énigme du monde" (Pièces 226)). It is clear that Valéry refers here to the landmark scientific discoveries of Einstein as they are exemplified by his theory of relativity. The speed of light, from this point and time in the modern history of science, is capable of defining the very notion of energy and therefore, the mechanical identity of matter. In this sense, light becomes a symbol of ultimate power and strength. Moreover, it can no longer be seen as a mere visual phenomenon: it must now be grasped in its sheer speed and motion. Modern physics has therefore determined an entirely new philosophy of light. Photography itself, as a writing of light, will thus be influenced by such findings. It also entails the enigma of a world in which everything is now interrelated and interdependent. In this context, photography cannot just be seen as the language of still images. Even the most contemplative representation of nature possesses a dynamic dimension and a form of inner motion. It is a medium that is also destined to be constantly modified through the evolution of techniques and modes of perception. The age of mechanical reproduction, in other words, does not imply the predominance of repetition over novelty. To the contrary, it enhances the cultural presence of ever changing signs and visual stimuli. The main problem for man is now the preservation of its own memory within such a process. Can the rule of positive sciences leave room indeed for a personal link between the subject and his own past? This is where the role of photography becomes essential and undeniable. To the extent that photography is able to save an image of the past and make it available to the community, it constitutes a true bridge between tradition and progress, between history and the present. It is in this particular sense that its radical modernity is being revealed:
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photography is not modern because it is the result of technical accomplishments, no matter how sophisticated these accomplishments might be; it is modern first and foremost because it allows for a specific bind between the origins of mankind and its very future. What was supposed to remain buried is now being exposed in front of everyone’s eyes. Valéry provides us here with his own original definition of History: it is a narrative to which we give what will distinguish it from a tale. We lend it our current energy as well as our resources of images that are necessarily extracted from the present. The ultimate truth of History lies in the fact that we can discover within the past something that belongs to the future. Photography constitutes in this regard an important means of representation, since it allows for the visual interpretation of the past, beyond the mere account of events and facts. History is now an open book filled with vivid illustrations. ("L’Histoire ne pouvant connaître que des choses sensibles, puisque le témoignage verbal est sa base, tout ce qui constitue son affirmation positive doit pouvoir se décomposer en choses vues, en moments de ‘prise directe’, correspondant chacun à l’acte d’un opérateur sensible, d’un démon reporter photographe" (Discours 93)). The Christian tradition of the West had already established the need for a pictorial identity of religious and Biblical history: in this regard, the passion of Christ had been embodied and transmitted from generation to generation through its ongoing depiction in classical painting. History was therefore about representing and seeing as much as it was about hearing or reading. The masses had always been sensitive to this visual expression of History. With modernity, though, history could now be systematically and directly recorded or reported. Such is indeed the unique power of photography. Tout le reste est littérature. Photography reveals indeed the truly material dimension of history, while the domain of narrative implies its intellectual construction. One can imagine and reflect upon history through its literary account, but as Valéry points out, the products of such mental operations are "bodiless things" ("des choses sans corps"). By contrast, pictures assert the presence of the human eye and of its sensorial intensity within events. It is clear that until then, and even in modernity, history had mostly been presented and discussed through texts and philosophical arguments, as we know from the reading of Hegel, in particular. The
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historian, by academic tradition, was (and maybe still is) above all a man of words and written data. Whether we consider a materialist interpretation of history or not, the strictly visual dimension of history remained largely ignored by thinkers and scholars in early-twentieth century French culture. It is this definite abstraction of history and of its critical discourse that Valéry questions here. With photography, thus, the past is no longer just fossilized through cold monuments and stones or through arid and dry textbooks filled with dates, names and numerical information: it becomes instead an active process that is open to ongoing technical innovations in the domain of visual representation. In other words, photography asserts the cultural sovereignty of a physical and energetic notion of time. History is now fundamentally tied to the rule of speed and instant expression. But this does not mean that the sense of tradition and collective heritage is doomed to disappear. Photography, in its own way and with its own means, has to be seen as the possibility of an eternal trace of the past. Moreover, this rise of pictures in modernity does not imply the end of literature and of its specific meaning for the community, only that the texts must now take into account not only the documentary quality, but also and maybe more importantly the truth-value of visual representation, its ethical integrity. The textual expression of history had somehow stressed its fictional and almost imaginary nature: photography enhances instead its human and therefore concrete experience. One can easily see that Valéry does not yield here to a nostalgic discourse on the loss of aura of art in modernity, as opposed to Walter Benjamin, in particular, whose famous text on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction also came out in the nineteen thirties. There is no presence here of a "disenchantment", that is, of a clear qualitative distinction between the sacred identity of the artwork (what Benjamin called its "cult-value") that was supposedly part of its historical definition and its profane or even mundane apprehension in the modern world (what corresponds to its "exhibition-value", in Benjamin’s terms). This is quite surprising, especially when it is understood that the main critical texts on art written by the poet, and collected in the book 3LqFHV VXU O¶$rt, reflect a classical sensitivity towards painting and the visual arts in general. This self-proclaimed classicism, indeed, should logically resist the quick integration of new techniques and modes of representation within the domain of art. But
The Paradox of Photography
paradoxically, such is not the case here. Valéry does not see any real contradiction between the growing cultural power of photography and the respect for the more canonical forms of visual expression. He never speaks in this regard about the possible threat that photography could pose for the future developments of painting. In this sense, tradition and modernity seem to be perfectly compatible. One can better understand his position by going back to Valéry’s comments on the work of Corot, as they appear in his essay "Autour de Corot", also included in his 3LqFHVVXUO¶$UW. He begins his text by apologizing for speaking about painting. But he immediately adds that any true work asks for its own response. After all, the artist wants to be talked about. Valéry even attempts to define art criticism as a "literary genre" ("La "critique d’art" est le genre littéraire qui condense ou amplifie, ou essaye d’harmoniser tous ces propos qui viennent à l’esprit devant les phénomènes artistiques. Son domaine va de la métaphysique aux invectives". (Pièces 156)). This is not as easy as it seems, given the natural resistance of many painters towards critics and writers (he gives in this regard the example of Degas, who was profoundly hostile to any interpretation of his work by people who were not artists themselves). For Valéry, though, there is no doubt that painting contains a sort of unconscious or hidden literature ("Ils se tiennent en vérité devant leur mirage de toile, des discours infinis, mêlés de lyrisme et de crudité, toute une littérature réfractée, refoulée, parfois recuite qui, vers le soir, fait explosion en "mots" remarquablement justes-dont les plus justes ne sont pas du tout les moins injustes" (Pièces 157)). In this sense, the true painter is the one who writes ("Ils écrivent alors"), which was concretely the case for outstanding figures such as Leonardo or Delacroix. Corot himself used to write down his thoughts and ideas, even the simplest or apparently most banal ones, in his notebook. He was thus able to communicate the meaning of his everyday work to outsiders, without necessarily going into complex theoretical musings. In his essay, Valéry stresses the constant relationship between Corot’s art and Nature with a capital N. He also highlights the work ethics of the artist. His main point here is to determine the aesthetic identity of Corot’s classicism. It is above all based upon what he calls his "spirit of simplicity". This simplicity is indeed "a goal, an ideal limit that paradoxically presupposes the complexity of things and the multiplicity of potential perspectives". It is not to be confused with
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any kind of laziness or idleness. To the contrary, Corot is a painter who knows the pain of hard labor. Nature, for him, constitutes a model. By that, Valéry means that the artist is not just interested in the exact copy of nature, as opposed to many academic painters. His art does not value as much objective exactitude and pure resemblance as the expression of his own sensitivity. In other words, Corot’s vision of nature is a highly personal one. His art combines thus a sort of "optical truth" with "the real presence of feelings". By painting Nature, Corot, in this sense, also paints himself. Valéry praises here his gift for the observation of the earth, of rocks, sand and plants. He shows in particular that trees, through his eyes, become sheer human figures and possess their own history ("Il est, chez Corot, quelqu’un" (Pièces 168)). This allows him to define the specific and even unique beauty of Corot’s work. This beauty is evidently of a poetic essence. Valéry, though, prefers to focus his discourse on a set of musical metaphors. There are certain forms and aspects of the visible world that sing, indeed. Some rare individuals are capable of perceiving this song, and Corot is obviously one of them. The painter does not just obey Nature : he solicitates her like a virtuoso musician would do with his own instrument in order to stir more exquisite vibrations from his soul ("Ainsi voit-on Corot tirer de l’Étendue transparente, de la Terre ondulée et doucement successive ou nettement accidentée, de l’Arbre, du Bosquet, des Fabriques et de toutes les heures de la Lumière, des "charmes" de plus en plus comparables à ceux de la musique" (Pièces 172)). This quest for simplicity in the representation of Nature was actually very similar to the project of nineteenth-century (and even early twentieth-century) photographers. Photography, after all, shared many formal characteristics with classical painting. Its two main subject matters, for decades, remained the human face on the one hand and natural objects or landscapes on the other hand. The purpose of such pictures was always to emphasize the essential harmony of the natural world and to convey the feeling of an eternal beauty. They were intentionally deprived of any violence: photography reflected instead a paramount order of things beyond the chaos of social reality. Like Corot, the photographer was primarily interested in the expression of an optical truth that demanded a keen observation of plants, trees, flowers and the earth in general. Emotions and sensations
The Paradox of Photography
were all stemming from this acute gaze that could fix his attention on any particular objects for hours. The labor of the photographer was also, in most cases, a humble one: he considered his own work to be more that of a craftsman than of a true artist. Moreover, his modesty came from the realization that fame would most likely elude him. In other words, photography took its aesthetic inspiration from the tradition of classical painting. If it definitely belonged to modernity from a purely technical point of view, it was still rooted in the past from a purely artistic one. In its own way, it revealed therefore a profound contradiction and even conflict between the realm of technique and that of art. This is the reason why Valéry could at the same time embrace the work of Corot and photography. Both linked for a large part the issue of representation to that of the imitation of nature. Both also referred constantly to a classical interpretation of art within modernity. In his essay, Valéry insists in particular on Corot’s taste for obscurity and dark colors. He explains in this regard that the two fundamental tones of his art are the black and the white. In this sense, Corot did not really need color in order to express his own inner soul on the canvas: Mais comment le blanc et le noir vont parfois plus avant dans l’âme que la peinture, et comment, ne prenant au jour que ses différences de clarté, un ouvrage réduit à la lumière et aux ombres nous touche, nous rend pensifs, plus profondément que ne fait tout le registre de couleurs, je ne sais trop me l’expliquer. Circonstance remarquable: parmi les peintres qui ont le mieux aimé, le mieux joué le jeu de se passer de la couleur, ce sont les plus "coloristes" qui l’emportent,- Rembrandt, Claude, Goya, Corot. Mais encore, tous ces peintres-là sont essentiellement poètes. (Pièces 176-77)
Photography itself asserted its undisputable presence within modern culture without resorting to color for a long period of time. It constituted a black and white medium: pictures did not require the use of multiple tones in order to catch the eye of the viewer. The most important aspect of its aesthetics was indeed light: this light could be represented through the radical visual contrast between darkness and clarity. The ability to represent the visible world through this essential contrast constituted for Valéry one of the main qualities of the artist. But this particular talent was not the sole property of Corot (or Goya
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and Rembrandt). It was also demonstrated time after time through the work of numerous photographers. In both cases, the subtle variations on black and white allowed for the poetic definition of art. After all, poetry is also a two-color genre. The poet starts indeed to work from a blank page (Mallarmé’s famous white space) and writes words on it with black ink. In this sense, both Corot and the photographers underlined their personal relationship with the most subjective form of writing. Color, for both of them, was only a supplement, a sort of luxury that existed beyond the absolute necessities of art. As Valéry states it in his essay, the black and the white are closer to the spirit and the acts of writing, whereas color painting is closer to the perception of reality: painting, in this sense, is always tempted to deceive the eye. At the core of these two texts is the poetic power of art forms that are neither purely classical nor truly modern. In many ways, poetry does resist this kind of aesthetic classification. In "Autour de Corot", Valéry defines it as "a state of invention through emotion", a notion which is timeless and escapes the historical determination of art and literature. Poetry produces what he calls "a harmonic and reciprocal link between our impressions, ideas, impulsions and means of expression". This reminds us of Baudelaire’s Correspondances, since it implies a specific and ongoing relationship between all our senses and thoughts. The word: "correspondence" is used by Valéry himself, when he talks about "the mysteriously exact correspondence between the sensible causes that constitute the form, and the intelligible effects that are the content." Such a definition widens the scope of poetic discourse. It extends it to languages that are not just literary but also visual, and in particular, to the domain of painting and photography. In this regard, Valéry insists upon the precocious nature of Corot’s poetic sensitivity. Poetry, though, should not be confused with the world of dreams. It is clear that he opposes here the new and radical concept of the poetic language introduced by Breton in his Surrealist Manifestoes. The act of drawing that is essential to the development of Corot’s artistic project demands in this regard a state of absolute concentration: it excludes therefore the possibility of a wandering mind. ("Est-il rien de plus exclusif de l’état de rêve que l’acte de dessiner? Je ne puis devant un tableau ne pas imaginer obscurément cet acte, qui exige la fixité et la constance d’un certain point de vue, l’enchaînement de mouvements, la coordination de la main, du regard, des images (l’une
The Paradox of Photography
donnée ou voulue, l’autre naissante), et la volonté." (Pièces 180)). This state of concentration was also shared by the pioneers of photography and their followers. The process of the pose, an often tedious and lengthy one, forced the photographer to focus strictly on his subject without caring for his environment. In other words, the accomplishments of modern technique did not liberate the artist from the laws of hard labor. Confronted with the complexity of the machine, and the tricky details of the pictures’ development inside the dark chamber, the photographer was often absorbed by the sheer practical realities of his medium. The poetic dimension of the visual arts leads to the expression of a mystical sensitivity which brings together the soul, hand, and eye of the artist. The man who sees, as Valéry says in his essay, suddenly becomes the soul that sings. A definite will for possession leads the artist to recreate the object he loves. This possession is also a type of knowledge which, in the creation of a form, exhausts the furor to act that the form itself engenders. This search for a lyrical interpretation of Nature, beyond any objective description, also constituted an important element of photography’s relationship to reality. With these new pictures, man could ultimately assert his own subjectivity within the objective world, within the apparent domain of mere reproduction. The eye could easily be turned into a I, to the extent that the human gaze was always capable of imagining what he was actually contemplating. Moreover, photography allowed for openness to the whole world: it made other cultures finally visible, even those that seem quite remote from the West where the medium was invented. The inner landscape of both the artist and the viewer would thus widen to the point that it could now integrate objects and figures that belonged to a distant reality. This reality would definitely retain its imaginary quality in this process: in this sense, pictures would invite both of them to explore the surface of the world not only physically but also mentally. This was made possible precisely because the places and situations that photography captured were now mostly alien to their concrete everyday experience. The subject matter of photography, therefore, often constituted an outside or foreign domain that could always be transformed and made more personal or even intimate by the human mind.
The Fascinated Eye
When speaking about Corot, Valéry notices the hostility that his work stirred in the middle of the nineteenth century. These negative feelings are echoed particularly in Baudelaire’s writings on art. For Valéry, this misreading of the painter’s work comes from the excessive power of fads and cultural changes in the French society of the time. A new (and more romantic) perception of art implies indeed a clear distinction between the realm of emotions or impulses and that of the artist’s technical and academic skills. Therefore, the sheer expression of the subject must prevail upon the mere know-how of the painter. Romanticism imposes now a new vision of art for which the wish to wonder and to shock become an essential dimension of the artist’s project. Nevertheless, Corot was able to overcome these obstacles, and was recognized ultimately as a unique landscape artist. For Valéry, this is due to the fact that the main subject of his paintings was suddenly granted a value equal to that of the portrait or the historical subject. The public and the critics would now appreciate the aesthetic significance of the landscape as much as that of the human face. This shift in the taste and general perception of the public would also reverberate in photography: the new medium would largely exploit the endless visual possibilities of natural sceneries in order to create a more accurate and even scientific representation of the natural world. In other words, photography turned landscapes into truly modern forms (into truly modern objects of aesthetic discourse). Valéry’s argument also included the idea that landscapes could be part of a modern artwork (since Corot was more than a strictly academic artist), beyond their classical appearance. This idea would be even more relevant a few decades later, at the time when the Impressionists strived to develop entirely new brushstrokes and pictorial techniques while using nature as their main source of inspiration. For painters like Monet or Van Gogh, indeed, the sea or countryside landscape did not contradict the spirit of modernity: it constituted instead the heart of its aesthetic identity. The art of the landscape is an art of composition, as opposed to a simply mimetic enterprise. The main issue, for the artist, is not to express the so-called truth of nature, but rather to make its profound beauty visible. The Baudelairian dialectics of truth and beauty is somewhat repeated by Valéry in his own essay. But contrary to his predecessor, Valéry does not attempt to idealize the past, nor does he
The Paradox of Photography
trivialize the present. In this regard, he will also praise, alongside Zola and Mallarmé, the work of Manet and his eminently modern aesthetic audacity in his essay "Triomphe de Manet", published in Pièces sur O¶$UW Truth cannot be the primary purpose of the artwork: the painter (or the photographer) must challenge constantly the notion that a perfect imitation or reality constitutes the very end of art. This ongoing quest for the poetic essence of visual representation entails a definite critique of the descriptive nature of both art and literature. In this regard, it is no coincidence if "Autour de Corot" concludes with a reflection on the limited role played by description in the art of writing. ("Une oeuvre purement descriptive (comme on en a tant fait) Q¶HVWHQYpULWpTX¶XQHSDUWLHG¶°XYUH. C’est dire que si grand que soit le talent du descripteur, ce talent peut ne mettre en jeu qu’une partie de l’esprit : un esprit incomplet peut suffire j IDLUH °XYUH TXL YDLOOH HW °XYUH H[FHOOHQWH" (Pièces 195)). In other words, description only defines an incomplete form of literature, which is evidently also true for painting. This situation stems from the fact that it can be reduced to a mere enumeration of various aspects of visible things. In this perspective, discourse becomes a set of substitutions. This is where the utmost importance of photography is being implicitly reiterated: this new medium does question the very meaning and usefulness of description for both art and literature to the extent that it is able to focus on specific and tiny details that would normally escape the gaze of the artist and the writer. One must thus acknowledge the enormous visual power of light, which largely exceeds the perception and sensorial capacities of man ("Le cliché vient redresser notre erreur par défaut comme notre erreur par excès: il nous montre ce que nous verrions si nous étions également sensibles à tout ce que nous imprime la lumière, et rien qu’à ce qu’elle nous imprime" (Discours 94)). In this sense human description is insufficient, for the very reason that our senses can never fully grasp the world that surrounds us. Its claim for authenticity is therefore abusive. By contrast, photography allows us to correct our own errors in the apprehension of reality. In other words, the true objectivity is now that of light, and beyond, of the technique that relies upon it. (Valéry talks in this regard about "the impartial light"). "Autour de Corot" ends with the assertion that art needs the work of the mind in order to accomplish its aesthetic goals. For Valéry, indeed, the true artist must also be a philosopher or even a
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scientist. This explains of course his passion for the work of Leonardo, on which he wrote an essay entitled Introduction à la Méthode de Léonard de Vinci. His critique of modernity stems therefore from the awareness that the creation of the artwork is now more than ever submitted to the power of the artist’s sensitivity. ("Dans tous les arts, la souveraineté de l’esprit sur ses moments a dû le céder aux qualités de l’artiste qui exigent le moins de puissance de coordination, le moins de méditation, d’études préalables, de préparation technique et, en somme-de caractère" (Pièces 196)). This emphasis on the analytical dimension of art can be interpreted as a peculiar form of classicism, to the extent that it obviously refers to the artistic spirit of the Renaissance. But it can also be perfectly integrated into the general movement of modernity, and even of the avant-garde, if one considers for instance the work of Marcel Duchamp. The "sovereignty of the mind" defines a new and broad perspective that profoundly questions the cultural influence of romanticism. It is also deeply rooted in the belief that art participates in the development of modern knowledge, and as such, it emphasizes the ultimate reason of art. It is this same reason that Valéry finds in photography. In this context, reason is not the negation of poetry. It constitutes instead its most profound expression. The last pages of his "Discours du centenaire" stress thus the need for a philosophical understanding of the medium. Photography forces us to think and it does so because it forces us first to see. The physical phenomenon of light, which is at the source of all pictures, has always been an object of study for philosophers, theorists of knowledge and mystics. More precisely, light has for centuries constituted a sheer metaphor of thought itself. ("Nous parlons au figuré de clarté, de réflexion, de spéculation, de lucidité et G¶LGpHV. Et nous disposons de toute une rhétorique visuelle de la pensée abstraite" (Discours 95)). Literally, the man who thinks (the man with "clear" ideas and a "lucid vision" of things) is also the man who sees: he does so because of the presence of a light that he feels and incorporates in his own intellectual endeavor. Thought can itself be defined as a mirror that reflects this light (a speculum). In this passage, the poet also stresses the infinite multiplicity of the visible world, which is precisely revealed through light. Ultimately, though, the project of philosophy is to question the validity of appearances, to go beyond light in order to find a hidden truth. The eye can easily be
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deceived: this very process of deception is contained in photography, to the extent that it belongs itself to the visual domain of images. One could say that Barthes attempted to define a psychology of photography, (although he pretended it to be first of all an ontology), while Baudelaire tried to write a sociology (a cultural critique) of the medium. Benjamin, on his side, insisted upon a possible history of photography, even a minor one. By comparison, Valéry expresses his belief in a philosophy of this means of expression. By philosophy, one must understand a critical approach that is neither interested in the subjective or purely emotional dimension of pictures nor in their social significance (their significance for the community) at a particular time. More precisely, what Valéry proposes in his text is a sort of phenomenological interpretation of the medium. This interpretation stems from the fact that photography is first and foremost a physical reality. It is part of the universe, of the whole of matter, and as such, it needs to be studied as a body that is perceived by the human gaze. In this regard, it is important to notice that he never alludes to a specific work or a particular artist. In this sense, photography is not truly conceived as an art form, as a distinct aesthetic language: otherwise it would constitute a sum of welldefined and original objects. But its artistic identity is not being denied either, as opposed to the content of Baudelaire’s discourse in "Le Public moderne et la photographie". In other words, the main concern here is not to wonder whether photography is or is not an art, but rather whether photography can complete pre-existing art forms and provide them with new keys for the representation and the interpretation of the visible world. This very physical nature of photography is linked to the whole development of technique in modern society. This development creates an entirely new apprehension of both time and space. Photography is time, since it seizes the present and preserves it for the future. But it is also space, since the process of reproduction on which it is based enables pictures to be seen simultaneously in various locations. In other words, photography stresses the issue of ubiquity, an issue that Valéry considers to be essential for our understanding of art in the twentieth-century. In his essay, "La Conquête de l’ubiquité", also included in his 3LqFHVVXUO¶$UW, the poet reminds us that the classical tradition of fine arts, in the Western world, was founded and established in an era that
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was actually quite different from ours. At the time of this foundation, man did not possess the power of action on things that modern man has. The rise of modernity, with its emphasis on constant technical changes, has profoundly transformed our perception of reality, and more particularly, of the visible universe. Technique thus increases the material nature of our relationship to things around us. ("Mais l’étonnant accroissement de nos moyens, la souplesse et la précision qu’ils atteignent, les idées et les habitudes qu’ils introduisent nous assurent de changements prochains et très profonds dans l’antique industrie du Beau. Il y a dans tous les arts une partie physique qui ne peut plus être regardée ni traitée comme naguère, qui ne peut pas être soustraite aux entreprises de la connaissance et de la puissance modernes." (Pièces 103-104)). The domain of fine arts is also being affected by this evolution. More precisely, this means that the very concept of beauty is profoundly altered by the almighty rule of technique. It is so because the space and time of the work of art are being respectively expanded and accelerated in an irresistible (and irreversible) manner. The notion of art itself becomes now radically different from the past. It is no accident, in this regard, if Valéry’s decisive remarks on ubiquity in the modern world open Walter Benjamin’s celebrated essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. For the poet, technique is not just a means that defines or improves our practical life: it transforms instead our whole vision of the world and especially, of art and culture. In this perspective, photography plays a crucial role, since pictures are now capable of appearing almost at any time and in any place. In other words, photography embodies with a particular intensity the law of ubiquity. In the France of the nineteen thirties, pictures are already printed and reproduced on a large scale, through mass communication, from magazines to advertising and daily newspapers. They are literally everywhere and occupy a large portion of the urban landscape. In this sense, photography is more ubiquitous than cinema, since cinematographic images are mostly confined to the screens of movie theaters. This means that the very space of visual representation is now multiplied and somehow fragmented in its public display or exhibition: Sans doute ce ne seront d’abord que la reproduction et la transmission des oeuvres qui se verront affectées. On saura transporter ou reconstituer en tout lieu le système de sensations -ou plus exactement le système d’excitations-
The Paradox of Photography que dispense en un lieu quelconque un objet ou un événement quelconque. Les œuvres acquerront une sorte d’ubiquité. Leur présence immédiate ou leur restitution à toute époque obéiront à notre appel. Elles ne seront plus seulement dans elles-mêmes, mais toutes où quelqu’un sera, et quelque appareil. (Pièces 104)
What is also at stake in this process is the presence of the work of art in its instantaneous dimension. Photography imposes the existence of ever closer and faster pictures. In many ways, the tone of Valéry’s argument is quite prophetic. His observations do not just concern the present: they speak for a future reality that will be even more overwhelming. In fact, photography will not just be at the source of film: it will also profoundly influence the advent of television after World War II in its journalistic identity. Moreover, the rise of a consumerist way of life in the nineteen fifties, both in Western Europe and the United States, will largely depend upon the ongoing everyday presence of photography in the realm of publicity. In his speech, Valéry understands perfectly this cumulative power of the medium. He knows that it cannot be reduced to a single use or a single goal. Photography is destined to a sort of universal expansion that no one will truly be able to stop or even slow down. If his speech was indeed given more than six decades ago, right before the beginning of the second world conflict, it nevertheless holds a strong and quite meaningful resonance for our own global culture. In fact, the law of ubiquitous images has never been as paramount as it is today. Of course, new and more sophisticated technological media such as the Internet have made our visual landscape totally dependent upon this law. In other words, we never see a particular object (a particular event) only here and now: we also see it there and before or later. Images have reached a state of almost absolute reproduction, so much so that it has become impossible to identify their origin or beginning. Valéry himself did not experience the cultural proliferation of such forms of visual representation, but he nevertheless anticipated, with a particular acuteness, the utmost transformation of our sensations that it would provoke. The law of ubiquity implies that quantity now prevails over quality. Images and signs are to be spread everywhere at the same time: they are no longer characterized by their uniqueness or their originality. They invade our personal space on a daily basis ("Comme l’eau, comme le gaz, comme le courant électrique viennent de loin
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dans nos demeures répondre à nos besoins moyennant un effort quasi nul, ainsi serons nous alimentés d’images visuelles ou auditives, naissant ou s’évanouissant au moindre geste, presque à un signe" (Pièces 105)). These images and signs are all ephemeral and instantaneous: therefore, our senses have to adjust all of a sudden to a new set of rapid and unstable stimuli. In this regard, Valéry talks ironically about "the society for the home delivery of sensitive reality", a notion that no philosopher could have dreamt of. In other words, our own space becomes a social space, the space that modern culture at large occupies whether we like it or not. For Valéry, this situation still contains a Utopian element: it is undoubtedly dominated by positive consequences for the average citizen, especially at the practical level. Pictures constitute in this context a mere source of motion: they are located at the very beginning of a universal process of circulation and dissemination. Contemporary thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio will definitely radicalize the insights provided by Valéry. They will indeed contemplate with a more critical or skeptical eye a social order in which the law of ubiquity determines a loss of meaning for all objects, including artworks. This loss of meaning stems from man’s waning perception of reality in a global culture where the power of the Symbolic is now almighty. Therefore, ubiquity corresponds to a technological process of simulation for which images are now defined by their increasing speed and their power of seduction. Valéry still talks about "conquest" when referring to this phenomenon. He stresses its progressive nature and its benefits for the community (I am not sure, though, whether he would have adopted the same viewpoint if he had still been alive today). In his discourse, the best example of such ubiquity is provided by music ("La Musique, entre tous les arts, est le plus près d’être transposée dans le monde moderne. Sa nature et la place qu’elle tient dans le monde la désignent pour être modifiée la première dans ses formules de distribution, de reproduction et même de production" (Pièces 105106)). He underlines here the future internationalization or universal expansion of this art form, alongside science. These words can be easily translated in contemporary terms, and replaced by the word: globalization. For what constitutes globalization, if not the triumph of a law of ubiquity that is not just cultural, but also and maybe above all economic and social? (The universal domination of capitalism and
The Paradox of Photography
market forces, and of its dramatic implications in the configuration of labor, which is now often precarious, outsourced or in short supply). Such political or social considerations do not appear in Valéry’s reflection. The author does not even speak as a poet here, but more as a scientist or as a positive philosopher. This marks also the intellectual limits of his prophecy, to the extent that it lacks a true feeling of anxiety in front of the world to come. By contrast, this anxiety will be at the forefront of both Benjamin’s and Heidegger’s theoretical discourses on technique. This sort of overconfidence towards the technical evolution of the modern world is particularly troubling, if one considers the fact that these texts were all written in the nineteen thirties, at a time when totalitarian ideologies were gaining considerable strength throughout Europe, from Germany to Italy, and from Spain to the Soviet Union. The speech on photography, in particular, was given only a few months before Nazi Germany declared war on France. Fascism and Communism both exploited indeed the considerable technical advances of the time in order to build both their war and their propaganda machine. In other words, the rise of such ideologies demonstrated the impossibility of separating the issue of technique from that of politics in the modern world. (This will become even clearer, a few years later, with the explosion of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Technique was not the sole property of a supposedly "pure" and disinterested science and thought: it was now being used by political leaders and institutions whose aim was no less than the total domination (if not the destruction) of mankind through violent means. In this sense, Adolf Hitler became the first ubiquitous leader of the West in modernity: the new media diffused and communicated his image throughout the world in a very short period of time, as opposed to previous conquerors like Napoleon or Alexander the Great who could not benefit from the visual and also eminently political power of photography and film. There is nothing Saturnian in Valéry’s critical discourse on photography and modern technique. One neither finds in him the almost apocalyptic tone of Baudelaire nor the irrational sensitivity of Breton. The melancholic nature of Barthes’ reflection is not present here either. One could therefore state the rationalism of the poet’s perspective, to the extent that it is largely influenced by scientific and philosophical discourse. Photography, for him, expresses the
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possibility of reason within the modern world. This can be understood easily if one only considers the early history of photography, which was dominated by portraits and classical representations of nature. But the overwhelming chaos of twentieth-century history will soon determine a profound transformation in the mind and the aesthetic project of the photographer. This chaos was not just that of wars and world conflicts, but also that of art in its irresistible revolutionary movement towards the avant-garde. Photography could no longer be satisfied with the status quo of bourgeois representation, a status quo which of course favored an illusory harmony of the world and its visual representation. It had to exceed the seemingly rational identity of technique in order to express man’s thirst for radical change both in the domain of art and politics. This process implied a definite break with the purely scientific and objective determination of photography. Pictures were now used as weapons by the avant-garde artist: they essentially reflected his will to create a new world in which imagination and the poetic language largely prevailed upon the necessities of traditional reason. In other words, Valéry’s essay on photography is rooted in the past while seemingly being geared towards the future. Paradoxically, it celebrates the technical accomplishments of modernity although its aesthetic viewpoint remains that of a nineteenth-century classicist. The deliberate avoidance of any political or social issue associated with photography, and with visual representation in general, also reflects a specific philosophy of art that will be in many ways rejected by the early twentieth century modernism of Dada and Surrealism (but also by Futurism). In Valéry’s perspective, photography is deprived of any Manifesto, of any ideological framework. It constitutes a sort of absolute form whose presence in society is never contingent upon its power structures, laws and values. Technique exists thus for him beyond the realm of politics, in a vacuum that only belongs to the scientist and the philosopher. No surprise then that his speech at the Sorbonne ends with a major reference to Plato’s cave. The poet here asks: what is Plato’s cave, if not an already dark chamber, and the largest ever made? If the Greek philosopher had reduced the opening of his den to a small hole, and if he had also covered with a thin layer the wall that separated him from the outside, he would definitely have obtained a large-scale film.
The Paradox of Photography
We all know that in this case Plato’s reflection focused on the divide between the hidden truth of things and the visible world. Thus, to go back so far in time means to emphasize the role of photography in the chain of Western knowledge. From the beginning, man tried to isolate himself in order to better see the reality that surrounds him. After all, this is the main purpose of the dark chamber. In other words, darkness and obscurity paradoxically enable man to point at the light of the universe. The philosopher and the scientist, two figures that one can bring together under the term: thinker, both work and write in the secluded area of an office or a lab. Their own dark chamber or retreat is a self-imposed one. From a certain distance, indeed, they can better seize what is "on the other side". In this sense, photography becomes an essential metaphor for thinking itself, for its particular conditions and goals. But it also entails the apprehension of a specific conflict between appearances and reality, between what seems to be and what actually is. The gaze, therefore, is always the victim of some sort of delusion. After all, this is what Plato told us. It can see certain things, but not everything. If one really wants to pursue with the allegory of Plato’s cave, one is therefore forced to recognize that the photographer as philosopher is also a man who is prone to errors. A picture is only a representation of reality, just as the shadow of a human figure is only a physical projection of human life. Valéry’s imagery, here, allows him to stress the importance of the photographic mind for the development of Western thought and science. This mind was already active way before modernity and the actual birth of photography. It was born, thus, before the universal rule of technique and its political, social and economic implications within industrial societies. One could also read both "Le Discours du centenaire" and the 3LqFHV VXU O¶$UW as a series of fragmented texts on photography and painting. In his celebration of photography, indeed, Valéry is less interested in producing a finite body of work than in stating (or even suggesting) a series of hypothetical propositions on photography. The largely speculative spirit of his undertaking enables him to visualize the medium as a sort of absolute concept detached from the constraints of society. One knows that the form of the fragment has played an important role in the development and the expression of philosophical thought in the Western tradition. One can go back to Montaigne’s Essais, in this regard, but one can also think of Nietzsche’s numerous aphorisms, particularly in Beyond Good and
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Evil. In other words, the fragment underlines the fundamental and irreducible freedom of its author towards meaning itself: it allows him to circulate through language according to his own will, and more importantly, according to his own ideas. In his essay "Passages Privés", included in the book Le Livre et ses Adresses: Mallarmé, Ponge, Valéry, Blanchot (Paris: Méridiens Klincksieck, 1986), Vincent Kaufmann stresses in this regard the fragmented nature of Valéry’s discourse in his Cahiers: Les Cahiers se présentent à l’évidence comme une pratique moderne du fragment. Ils apparaissent comme un "tout improbable, contradictoire, ou impossible à reconstituer". Ce caractère contradictoire a été souligné maintes fois par Valéry lui-même, pour justifier la clarté du fragment au détriment de celle de l’ensemble, son moi, désigné comme texte à déchiffrer. "Je sens toutes ces choses que j’écris ici- ces observations, ces rapprochements comme une tentative pour lire un texte et ce texte contient des foules de fragments clairs. L’ensemble est noir." (CI 6). (160-161)
What is true for Les Cahiers is also true for "Le Discours du centenaire" and the 3LqFHV VXU O¶$UW: the fragment allows for the expression of various contradictions, but at the same time, it exceeds the opaque nature of totality in language in order to enlighten the possibility of reading. After all, Valéry addresses in his speech at the Sorbonne a group of writers and scholars whose actual knowledge of photography is quite limited. One of the main purposes of his essay (his bits and pieces on photography, so to speak) is therefore to shed light, literally and figuratively, on the unique characteristics of this new medium. Although his text obviously entails complex philosophical statements, it is also destined to clarify the significance of photography for the general public (for a public of non-specialists), if not for the whole of mankind. In other words, the philosophical form of the fragment does not imply here a break from the presence of meaning. To the contrary, it opens to its more immediate reception by a relatively large number of listeners and readers. Moreover, the poet demonstrates in "Le Discours du centenaire" his utmost fascination for this new visual language: photography constitutes an irresistible presence that the eye of the poet cannot escape. Its power of attraction is literally that of a magnet. Pointedly, it is interesting to notice that the apparent rationalism of Valéry’s discourse leads to the assertion of a bind that cannot be explained. Fascination exists beyond any form of traditional causality. The
The Paradox of Photography
fascinated subject cannot truly define the reasons for his particular mindset. He is not even interested in knowing exactly the identity of the object to which his mind is tied. In his critical essay "La Solitude essentielle", included in the book /¶(VSDFH /LWWpUDLUH (Paris: Gallimard, 1955), Maurice Blanchot has analyzed in this regard the power of fascination and its profound relationship to the close presence of the image: Pourquoi la fascination? Voir suppose la distance, la décision séparatrice, le pouvoir de n’être pas en contact et d’éviter dans le contact la confusion. Voir signifie que cette séparation est devenue soudain rencontre. Mais qu’arrive-til quand ce qu’on voit, quoique à distance, semble vous toucher par un contact saisissant, quand la manière de voir est une sorte de touche, quand voir est un contact à distance ? Quand ce qui est vu s’impose au regard, comme si le regard était saisi, touché, mis en contact avec l’apparence. Non pas un contact actif, ce qu’il y a encore d’initiative et d’action dans un toucher véritable, mais le regard est entraîné, absorbé dans un mouvement immobile et un fond sans profondeur. Ce qui nous est donné par un contact à distance est l’image, et la fascination est la passion de l’image. (Blanchot 2829)
The gaze normally presupposes a distance between the subject and the object, between man and the visible world. The fascinated eye, though, is able to overcome this natural distance in order to be touched by what he actually sees. In photography, this symbolic contact becomes a real one, since pictures are items that one can easily take in one’s hands or manipulate, as opposed to paintings and canvases, which are usually heavier and more cumbersome. At a very material and concrete level, they constitute tangible objects that are defined by their intimate proximity. Their surface is a flexible one: it asks for physical contact with the user and the viewer. The tactile dimension of our everyday relationship to photographs therefore defines a new concept of gaze: indeed, what we see is also what we can touch (literally) and what can touch us (symbolically). The philosophical confusion of seeing and touching beyond distance implies "a passion for images". The term: "passion", in Blanchot’s text, obviously refers to irrational and incontrollable feelings. But it also entails the sense of a bind that defies reality. ("Ce qui nous fascine nous enlève notre pouvoir de donner un sens, abandonne sa nature "sensible", abandonne le monde, se retire en deçà du monde et nous y attire, ne se révèle plus à nous et cependant
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s’affirme dans une présence étrangère au présent du temps et à la présence dans l’espace" (Blanchot 29)). The fascinated eye is profoundly detached from actual time and space: he lives in many ways in a "virtual" world. This loss of reality stems from a kind of perception where the object of the gaze attracts the viewer with such force that it ends up overwhelming him. In this process, the object itself abandons the real world and asserts its imaginary presence beyond meaning and reason ("Quiconque est fasciné, on peut dire de lui qu’il n’aperçoit aucun objet réel, aucune figure réelle, car ce qu’il voit n’appartient pas au monde de la réalité, mais au milieu indéterminé de la fascination" (Blanchot 29)). After all, Plato’s cave might very well be the perfect place for this process. The shadows that man sees inside it are in fact the mere appearances of a reality that only exists outside. In this cave, the gaze is fascinated by what he sees, but this very fascination actually prevents him from comprehending the truth that is located beyond the visible world. In other words, the cave constitutes a space of utmost "de-realization", in which man loses the sense of what really is and what really happens around him. This irresistible magnetic attraction, which seems always to be drawing Valéry closer to photography, is the most striking aspect of the conclusion of his speech. The poet does not seem to care for the possible ties between the medium and everyday reality: he attempts instead to define a cosmology of pictures, which integrates them into the system of stars and planets. His own gaze becomes an hallucination, dominated by visions that come from the contemplation of the sky above him. (But isn’t the gaze in Plato’s cave the ultimate proof of man’s drive for visions, of its own thirst for illusions regardless of rational meaning?). Valéry evokes in this regard the prodigious increase in the number of stars, radiations and cosmic energies that have to be attributed to the power of photography. Pictures enable us therefore to see the beyond, to expand our gaze to the whole universe. ("Peu à peu, çà et là, quelques taches apparaissent, pareilles à un balbutiement d’être qui se réveille. Ces fragments se multiplient, se soudent, se complètent, et l’on ne peut s’empêcher de songer devant cette formation, d’abord discontinue, qui procède par bonds et éléments insignifiants, mais qui converge vers une composition reconnaissable, à bien des précipitations qui s’observent dans l’esprit" (Discours 96)). Once more, Valéry stresses the
The Paradox of Photography
extraordinary progress associated with this holistic perspective. Photography changes our whole worldview, since it forces us to see even the most remote elements of the universe. It therefore demands a new definition: the latter is now the product of the technical means that are available to man at a particular time and which enable him to perceive various events far away from his normal range. In other words, technique itself (in this case, photography) shapes the very identity of the visible world instead of merely reproducing it. Its role is thus proactive: it is now defined by its creative and imaginative qualities. This creativity is of course more that of the scientist or the philosopher than that of the artist. The gaze of the photographer, here, is very well the gaze of the astronomer, of a Galileo or a Copernic, the gaze of the Renaissance man suddenly transplanted into modernity. It seems then that Valéry’s discourse on photography and technique can be defined as essentially Utopian. The issue of ubiquity, in this regard, is closely related to that of Utopia. The former reflects the ability of images to be everywhere at the same time, while the latter provides us with the sense of their non-location, of their spatial indetermination. But we are starting to understand in this day and age that there is no profound contradiction between these two notions. The endless and frantic circulation of pictures and visual signs in contemporary culture, through the virtual media and digital representation, only exists in a cyberspace that is at the same time global (universally present) and infinitely distant or absent. In other words, to be everywhere means more and more often to be nowhere. Moreover, Valéry’s Utopia is more scientific or philosophical than strictly technical (or technological): the poet is a worshipper of a mind before being a worshipper of the machine. It stems directly from the legacy of d’Alembert’s Encyclopedia. As such, it is intellectually stimulating but not always satisfactory for the study of photography’s role within both art and social or political reality. In his perspective, photography opens to new fields of knowledge that are not primarily concerned with artistic and aesthetic issues. His unbridled optimism and idealism seems to be at odds with the tormented spirit of his fellow French writers of the time. After all, his speech at the Sorbonne takes place only a few months or even weeks after the publication of Sartre’s major existential novel, La Nausée. We are in 1939, which means that Hitler’s army is already at
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the doorstep of France and of the rest of Europe. In this particular historical context, a Utopian sensitivity does not appear to be the most likely characteristics of the public intellectual, unless it is deeply rooted in radical left-wing politics, as demonstrated for instance by the ideology of the Popular Front, which was supported at the time by the French Communist Party and by a large majority of the French liberal intelligentsia. Valéry’s attitude towards fascination is also quite ambiguous (the same could actually be said of Blanchot’s reflection in "La Solitude essentielle"). The fascinated subject inevitably distorts or even forgets the reality of the object to which he is tied through the gaze. In other words, his eyes are at the same time closed and wide open. Fascination, therefore, expresses a state of mental confusion between the visible world and the inner domain of thoughts and desires. In this narrow sense, Valéry’s viewpoint is eminently modern, since Western culture is today more and more dominated by visual languages that precisely exert their power of utmost fascination over the masses, from videos to the Internet. The fascinated eye is by essence the eye of the modern subject who has become increasingly dependent upon symbolic orders and modes of representation that escape his own reason. If contemplation characterized the gaze of the middle ages, in an era that was deeply influenced by religion and the institution of the Church, fascination defines by contrast the visual sensitivity and perception of a world ruled by science and technology. In his own essay, Blanchot talks about the absolute light that is associated with fascination ("Ce milieu de la fascination, où ce que l’on voit saisit la vue et la rend interminable, où le regard se fige en lumière, où la lumière est le luisant absolu d’un oeil qu’on ne voit pas, qu’on ne cesse pourtant de voir, car c’est notre propre regard en miroir, ce milieu est par excellence attirant, fascinant: lumière qui est aussi l’abîme, une lumière où l’on s’abîme, effrayante et attrayante" (Blanchot 30)). The gaze is turned here into light, a light that is also the abyss, at the same time frightening and profoundly attractive. One can think immediately of photography, "the writing of light", since this striking physical phenomenon is actually at the source of all pictures. Photography fascinates because it contains light, and is born out of it from a technical viewpoint. Valéry’s cosmological perspective indeed celebrates the uncanny beauty of the stars that shine in the sky at night. One could not find a more valid metaphor:
The Paradox of Photography
photography seems like a bright comet that spreads a most powerful light through the universe in the midst of darkness. Utopia itself constitutes a space of fascination. Fascination does foster it, since it implies by definition a loss of reality stemming from a definite change in human perception. The subject who believes in Utopia abandons the world as it is in order to reach a largely imaginary space. He is bound by an attraction that challenges any sense of reason or measure. His gaze becomes therefore subjugated by a distant object that molds his own thoughts and ideas. For Valéry, photography remains this distant object to the extent that it is never truly identified with an independent art form. In the last sentences of his speech, he emphasizes instead the considerable efforts made by the pioneers in order to demonstrate that photography constitutes a modern invention. These pioneers are confused here with amateur scientists: the poet praises in this regard their admirable determination and will in spite of the limited material and financial resources that were at their disposal. Ultimately, photography does not fully belong to the world of art, but it does not constitute a true scientific discipline either. It is also too much determined by the laws of modern technique to be a mere craft. Moreover, its pioneers were too consumed by their work and experiments to be interested in its commercial aspects, as Valéry reminds us. In this sense, it is not really a part of trade and the economic sphere either. In Valéry’s discourse, it becomes therefore a u-topos, an object without its own place, by being a bit of everything. Photography does not inhabit any specific space, which in concrete cultural terms means that it is not being integrated (or not enough, at least) into the institution of the museum. In fact, at the time when the poet speaks, the medium remained largely ignored by the major French museums and their permanent collections. Even those that already focused their attention on modern art and the avant-garde of the early twentieth-century did not consider photography to be an important element of their artistic capital. It is only after World War II and specifically through the development in France of contemporary art museums and foundations in the last thirty years or so that photography gained a status comparable to that of the traditional fine arts, from painting to drawing and sculpture. Thus, in 1939 it is still looking for its own topos within the mainstream of exhibition venues.
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In many ways, photography resisted the usual logic of the museum because of its supposedly ephemeral and fragile nature. It did not entail the sense of duration and material solidity provided by painting and sculpture. In other words, photography was not destined to be kept nor stored in a well-defined public space, as opposed to more established visual art forms. The main purpose of the museum was precisely to preserve the integrity of the artwork through time: it needed the belief in its conservation in order to assert its own cultural influence. These apparent shortcomings might paradoxically have enhanced Valéry’s appreciation of the medium. In a short text entitled "Le Problème des musées," also included in his 3LqFHV VXU O¶$UW, he expresses in this regard his strong reservations towards the very process of accumulation associated with a museum’s permanent collection. According to him, this process is largely abstract and artificial, since it brings together in a series of empty rooms works that often have very little in common. Notions such as classification, conservation and public use dominate this kind of project: it is clear that Valéry does not consider them to be decisive for his own love of art. In his article, he emphasizes the chaotic and also contradictory nature of such gathering, beyond the deliberate attempt made by the curators to present an organized display of art works ("Tout ceci est inhumain. Tout ceci n’est point pur. C’est un paradoxe que ce rapprochement de merveilles indépendantes mais adverses, et même qui sont le plus ennemies l’une de l’autre, quand elles se ressemblent le plus" (Pièces 118)). His harsh critique of museums can be summarized in one sentence ("Une civilisation ni voluptueuse, ni raisonnable peut seule avoir édifié cette maison de l’incohérence" (Pièces 118)). The almighty principle of accumulation defies both human rationality and sensuality. It stirs indeed a profound dispersion of the gaze, which is being attracted by too many objects at the same time and in too many directions ("Je ne sais quoi d’insensé résulte de ce voisinage de visions mortes. Elles se jalousent et se disputent le regard qui leur apporte l’existence. Elles appellent de toutes parts mon indivisible attention : elles affolent le point vivant qui entraîne toute la machine du corps vers ce qui l’attire…" (Pièces 118)). By comparison, human ears will not abide the sound of ten different orchestras at the same time. As Valéry says, the mind needs a focal point, and so do the senses, which include the sight. Instead,
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museums impose a kaleidoscopic form of vision that neither respects man’s need for concentration nor the original identity of any major art work. In this sense, they embody the ubiquity of modern Western culture, beyond their historic determination or mission and their ties to artistic tradition. In a museum, the gaze of the viewer is forced to be everywhere and to move quickly from one place to another: it is therefore essentially ubiquitous. This peculiar situation of excess constitutes a true assault on the gaze and on its very integrity, since it profoundly negates the uniqueness of its object, which is the work of art. In this regard, Valéry insists upon the fact that the outstanding beauty and aesthetic quality of a particular art work is related to the ongoing possibility of its distinction. The most remarkable object of the gaze is thus a rare object, an object that cannot be confused easily with any other ("Plus elles sont belles, plus elles sont des effets exceptionnels de l’ambition humaine, plus doivent-elles être distinctes. Elles sont des objets rares dont les auteurs auraient bien voulu qu’elles fussent uniques. Ce tableau, dit-on quelquefois, tue tous les autres autour de lui…" (Pièces 119). For the poet, this excess is ironically a source of impoverishment. It is the mirror of an artistic heritage that is quite overwhelming. In the museum, the visitor inevitably gets lost in the midst of a vast quantity of art objects. He feels his own isolation within a space that is in many ways too big for him. It is in this sense that the museum constitutes an almost inhumane creation, to the extent that it does not take into account the irreducible specificity of both the artwork and the human gaze. In these pages, Valéry’s discourse stresses with a particular (and rather unusual) vehemence the negative impact of a perspective that essentially ties art to a mere law of series. He is not very far here from Walter Benjamin’s main philosophical statements on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Wherever one talks about an ongoing accumulation or a technical predetermination of art works, one does highlight the universal domination of a cultural order for which rarity has become a dirty word. Strangely enough, Valéry’s emphatic critique of museums and large art collections in general echoed or anticipated that of numerous avant-garde artists, from Marcel Duchamp to the members of Fluxus in the nineteen sixties and seventies. (In this regard, I want to refer here to the exhibit organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Museum as Muse, in the spring of 1999. It featured the work of numerous avant-garde
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artists, from Duchamp to Robert Filliou and Marcel Broodthaers, who used the museum as the subject of the artwork and often expressed their critical attitude towards its institutional identity). Valéry, in spite of being the ultimate classicist of modernity (a label which in his case is not necessarily an oxymoron), expressed a strong opposition to the mere superimposition of works for mostly economic reasons. Artists themselves were the big losers in this process, since their works were put together with those of "fellow artists" with whom they often did not share any aesthetic purpose. In this sense, the institutionalization of art and of its so-called collective memory stirred a process of radical dispossession that was two-fold. On the one hand, the viewer was deprived of his own gaze, while on the other, the artist was bereft of his own aesthetic identity. This fundamental tension between modernity and classicism, between the longing for the past and the celebration of both present and the future, constitutes the most interesting and original dimension of the poet’s reflection on art and photography. It never ceases to question our most entrenched beliefs. In the end, it might not be entirely successful, especially from the point of view of the philosophy of art, but at least it has the merit where it underlines the possible continuity and resilience of the artistic mind beyond numerous technical and formal changes. In other words, it takes away our revolutionary illusions, but still indicates the possible links between what technique is and what it could be. In this perspective, photography constitutes the privileged symbol of a world to come, a symbol which is at once blurry and particularly vivid. It exists by itself between imagination and reality, between ideas and facts, in that wide-open space where man can ultimately find his own inner light.
The very existence of photography embodies the eternal conflict between reproduction and representation. It is clear that, during the first stages of the medium, the former largely eclipsed the latter. Taking a closer look at Baudelaire’s critique, photography was destined to perform its mimetic function and therefore collide with the identity of art in the Western tradition. Even if figurative painting prevailed for many centuries, it could always leave room for a recreation of reality, whether in its mystical, allegorical or expressionistic forms. The nineteenth century, in many ways, was a century filled with contradictions. On the one hand, it allowed for the rapid development of scientific research and new techniques, but it also stirred almost simultaneously the expression of an unlimited romantic sensitivity. Photography was therefore caught, from the onset, between the rules and norms of modern capitalist society and the dreams and aspirations of the modern artist. The legacy of painting remained paramount for a very long time: it overshadowed in many ways the specific accomplishments of photography. In this regard, Baudelaire did not really consider the medium as such: he could only read it through the prism of this legacy. In other words, photography could never escape the burden of history. It could not impose the power of its own time: its apparent novelty and youth would always be marked by the traces of the past. One could indeed marvel at its exactitude and sense of details: nevertheless, one was also forced to acknowledge the supremacy of painting in its capacity for visionary perspective. This historical burden would for a long time haunt the critical discourse on
The Paradox of Photography
photography. The case of Baudelaire is evident, in this regard. The poet attempted to integrate photography into a general critique of art. This critique implied the existence of a golden age, namely the Renaissance. From there, Baudelaire stressed the progressive decline of art in the West, of which the birth of photography was one of the most obvious manifestations. The paradox of photography is largely that of modernity as a whole. When we commonly refer to this term, we most often imply notions such as progress and freedom. But modernity was and still is at the same time an age of darkness: the irresistible advancement of technology and science has not been able to prevent widespread phenomena such as poverty, war and diseases. Modernity in its essence, therefore, defines a paradoxical era. Romanticism implied both in literature and in painting the expression of a contradictory world full of conflicts and tensions, primarily the tension between the individual and society. It rapidly became the symbol of midnineteenth-century art: in this context, photography was born and grew before even asserting its own identity. Baudelaire was still himself in many ways the product of this romantic ethos: as illustrated by his main work of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal, the human existence was doomed to the experience of chaos and nothingness, an experience that could only be tempered by the embrace of the poetic language. Romanticism demanded a radical expression of being: it could not tolerate the social and esthetic compromises imposed by the bourgeois order. In other words, romanticism and post-romanticism could not accept a mere reproduction of reality through art, since this very reality was considered alienating and even oppressive. This should not come as a surprise, therefore, if Baudelaire stated in his essay his profound hostility towards photography. He staged an imaginary trial against the new medium, a trial in which he played the main judge. One remains baffled today by the essential theatricality of his argument and style: through photography, thus, the poet attacked the whole society of his time, and photography became the scapegoat for all the ills and vices of the modern world. It embodied the cultural power of the masses and their thirst for popular entertainment. Baudelaire’s aristocratic views were a mere reflection of the poet’s deep suspicion towards an egalitarian philosophy of art. The artist had
to be chosen by the Gods: he could not be identified with the movement of the mob. Moreover, the utmost melancholy expressed by Baudelaire in his poetry, better known as spleen, could not find any echo in the apparent objectivity and crude realism of photography. The poet denied the very existence of a true pathos in this medium. Nothing would be further from the truth: the work of celebrated photographers such as Robert Capa or Walker Evans, to name two, would instead emphasize later the ability of photography to reveal the tragic fate of mankind stemming from events such as the Great Depression or World War II. In the course of the twentieth century, indeed, and particularly through the works of the Magnum group, photography would become an open window on the world’s eternal chaos and suffering. By contrast, a thinker like Walter Benjamin immediately perceived the emotional power of pictures, when he referred in his Petite Histoire de la Photographie to the spirit of the pioneers and early creators of the medium. The pictures produced by these modest craftsmen and practitioners who did not pretend to be artists actually conveyed the sense of an aura, of a magic touch, and also of a profound and sincere form of subjectivity. But the subsequent technical developments of photography somehow undermined, for Benjamin, this original quality. Through the writings of André Breton, photography was inevitably linked to the history of the avant-garde. This history had been first and foremost that of literature and poetry, for the author of the Surrealist Manifestos. Nevertheless, Breton stressed the important role played by photography in the construction of a Surrealist aesthetics. Like Baudelaire, he was still influenced by a long Western tradition of art that established the supremacy of painting over all other art forms. Nevertheless, he acknowledged the sheer modernity of the medium and its ability to express and represent the dreams and hidden desires of mankind. It is this very dream-like quality of photography that Baudelaire had stubbornly denied. With Surrealism, photography broke, maybe for the first time, with the dominance of reality. Pictures had to exist in many ways beyond reality, inside a secret realm shaped by the unconscious. But reality still remained the starting point from which one could assert his or her own freedom. In this regard, a novel like Nadja celebrated the supernatural dimension
The Paradox of Photography
of everyday life. In other words, reality was not to be erased in photography but rather transfigured. Faces and places occupied a central position in Breton’s definition of the photographic unconscious. The sense of emptiness and absence stemmed in Nadja from a particular representation of the city of Paris that Atget had developed so well in his own work. Pictures suggested here the constant possibility of the void, regardless of the relentless urban agitation that surrounded the novel’s characters. One could talk more precisely in this case of a fold of reality ("un pli de réalité"), and therefore of a hole or break in the surface of objective facts and actions. Surrealism did not constitute a radical rejection of the real world and of mundane affairs: to the contrary, it asserted their imaginary identity. Breton used photography to unveil the maze-like structure of everyday life: one could only wander inside it without ever being truly able to escape from it and live outside of it. This did not mean that reality constituted a prison: the power to create images that defined human existence would always enable man to exceed the limits of reality and overcome its constraints. In this process, objects played a decisive role: they expressed the absolute sovereignty of human imagination (its ability to see behind the visible world and to point at the invisible one), an imagination that was nowhere more striking than in the character of Nadja herself. For Breton, photography constituted a unique narrative tool or device. It allowed him to describe what could not be described by mere words. In this sense, it was still dependent upon the particular power of literature. Pictures also served as illustrations of his own philosophical discourse, as demonstrated by /¶$PRXU )RX. They did not fully belong to the domain of art, but rather to that of writing and thought. As objects, they embodied the aimless visions of Nadja and therefore opened up to the dark world of madness. Photography thus enabled Breton to write a more detailed clinical account of his personal experience. It could help him define life as a sum of unforeseen events and encounters shaped by chance and randomness. Therefore, photography possessed a distinct existential dimension, beyond its illustrative or descriptive function. It determined the fate of the subject and of the narrative voice that echoed it. With Roland Barthes, photography became maybe for the first time a separate entity, an original body to be clearly separated from both literature and painting. In this sense, Barthes tried to move
beyond any kind of historical framework. Photography did not belong to any pre-established tradition: it could now exist and evolve by itself. The author of La Chambre Claire searched for the authenticity and the true originality of the medium. In order to do so, he had to distance himself from his own past as a literary critic. The "I" constituted for him an absolutely essential mode of knowledge, regardless of any theoretical and so-called objective system of interpretation. It is this "I" that enabled him to read photography, from a radical and unique perspective. Some argue over the fact that his discourse was largely guided by personal feelings: the image of the dead mother dominated his relationship to pictures and the lasting influence they had on him. Nevertheless, this highly emotional quality of photography is also part of its ontology. Whether one thinks of the mid-nineteenthcentury daguerreotypes or of contemporary digital pictures, one witnesses the same deeply subjective attachment that people have to them. Daguerreotypes enabled the members of a family to remain closer together and also to preserve the memory of the dead for their parents, brothers and sisters. More than one hundred fifty years later nothing has changed in this regard, in spite of all technological changes and so-called socio-economic progress. Men and women throughout the world still use photography as a privileged means of retaining an image of their loved ones: this reality is at the same time universal (global, one would say today) and eternal. Whether these loved ones are alive or departed, photography remains a unique way of confronting and ultimately overcoming both absence and even death. Such need becomes even more urgent in a world as unstable and unpredictable as today’s: global social, cultural and economic realities often force family members and couples to be set apart by circumstances on which they have no control. Physical distance is a common feature among human beings that are supposed to be united. Even sophisticated and powerful systems of communication such as the Internet cannot conceal or even less erase our shared sense of remoteness or aloofness. Photography, in this regard, prevails as a unique mode of representation and personal expression, because of its extraordinary capacity for memory and crystallization (or suspension) of time, in a world constantly threatened by collective amnesia and acceleration or precipitation of time. In many ways, photography defies speed and challenges our own perception of time imposed by
The Paradox of Photography
both the media and the global economic order. It invites us to pause, to stop for a moment and take a closer look at a face that we cherish: therefore, it allows for the creation and the lasting presence of a community that is both imaginary and real, both physical and spiritual. Whatever new technologies provide, they will always have to deal with this unique aspect of photography, and they will never be able to repress it. In this sense, Barthes’ apparently impressionistic discourse on photography remains largely relevant for the contemporary reader. The issue of the "I" within images, of its very survival in a world where the media too often impose a contrived and fabricated vision of reality, is essential and will still be for years to come. How can one preserve one’s own private images and personal secrets in a world ruled by transparency and immediacy? Barthes already raised those questions some thirty years ago, only a few months before his passing. The subject of the image is therefore ethical, and not self-absorbed. One cannot conceive photography without the possibility to express this ethical dimension, what Barthes himself called O¶DLU in portraits. Valéry’s perspective on photography seems to relinquish the supremacy of subjectivity. Although himself a celebrated poet, the author attempts to define a true Utopia of the image stemming from the overwhelming power of both science and technique in modernity. This power enables us to see our world as a whole, in its relationship to other planets and comets. This original cosmology of the image implies the definition of a new gaze, which is characterized by a sheer fascination for the various phenomena of the visible universe. One can speak in this regard about the totality of photography, which encompasses not only the domain of the fine arts but also that of philosophy and speculative thought. According to this particular perspective, the Utopian nature of photography finds its roots in the Renaissance, an era which obviously established the necessary fusion between all fields of knowledge and all artistic practices. The paradoxical dimension of Valéry’s discourse relied upon the fact that its historical context was that of the late nineteen thirties. Mankind was already plunging into the darkness and abyss of warfare and collective annihilation: the unbridled optimism of the poet’s vision stood in sharp contrast to the political reality of fascism spreading throughout the European continent. Valéry’s essay must be considered in its hypothetical identity, rather than as a clear
and lucid assessment of photography’s place within society. The death of culture expressed by Nazi ideology, in particular, profoundly contradicted the possibility of a universal visual language that would have connected and bound together all human beings, regardless of origin and nationality. The history of photography is never-ending, and constitutes the history of its own critique. It remains perpetually open to technical innovation, but also to the evolution of subjectivity throughout time. Nothing unites the ultimate negativity of Baudelaire and the fundamental positivity of Valéry, although both intensely believed in the beauty of aesthetic forms and the transcendental nature of lyrical language. Nevertheless, they each reflected in their own way the growing dominance of photography in modern culture. One can assert indeed the almost ubiquitous dimension of the medium in our world. This ubiquity, the capacity for the image to appear everywhere at any given time, had already been foreseen by Valéry several decades ago. The main issue, then, becomes the following: how can mankind distinguish today between all these images, and point at the ones that are authentic works of art and not just objects of rapid and cheap consumption? This is the new and daunting challenge that we all now face. Baudelaire’s discourse already expressed the fear of an overwhelming cultural confusion, although he could not anticipate the specific technological realities of the digital and virtual era. Fortunately, many artists and writers continue today to explore thoroughly the creative possibilities of the medium. In France alone, there are recent narratives written by Michel Tournier and Hervé Guibert, as well as visual works created by Sophie Calle, Sophie Ristelhueber and Christian Boltanski in the domain of contemporary art. Add to that the final writings of a major social thinker such as Jean Baudrillard, who in the last years of his life paid particular attention to the philosophical significance of photography in post-modern culture. The texts studied in this book only offer some partial answers to the issue of photography and its artistic identity, an identity that we no longer question. They constitute the undisputable traces of a history of critical discourse on the medium, a history that is always influenced by the poet’s particular subjectivity. If the majority of the authors analyzed here are indeed poets, it might be precisely because the very nature of photography calls for the poet’s attention and acute aesthetic sensitivity. One will never be able to reduce the
The Paradox of Photography
existence of photography to the mere issue of technique. Nor will one be able to apprehend the complexity of its forms through the prism of sociological objectivity. The voice of the poet is needed, here, to the extent that the poet always asks for a model of representation that exceeds the finite realm of reproduction. The question: "is photography art?" becomes "is photography a poetic language?", a question that the Surrealists and the avant-garde artists of the first part of the twentieth century answered with a resounding "Yes", if one only thinks of the works of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy. The ultimate paradox of photography in the contemporary world will therefore be that of a genuine artistic form simultaneously confused with the domain of commodities and the capitalist order of instant consumption. Photography must now abide by the rules of global advertising and submit to the sheer power of universal market forces. Nevertheless, many artists and writers never cease to assert its unique imaginary meaning and its original relationship to the world of dreams and desires that society too often represses. This paradox constitutes thus also a struggle: this struggle is constant, since the integrity of the image is always threatened and jeopardized by a symbolic order requiring its instant utility. But this struggle already appeared in Breton’s writings: it is therefore the sign of an ongoing cultural conflict that can never be fully resolved, but can at least be approached and grasped by both art and critical discourse.
Agamben, Giorgio. "Baudelaire; or, the absolute commodity", in Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture Translated by Ronald L. Martinez. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993, 41-46. Aragon, Louis. Les Collages. Paris: Hermann, 1965. Barthes, Roland. La Chambre Claire. Note sur la Photographie. Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 1980. ±±±±±± Le 'HJUp =pUR GH O¶ecriture, suivi de Nouveaux Essais critiques. Paris : Seuil, 1972. ±±±±±± Le Plaisir du Texte, Paris : Seuil, 1973. ±±±±±± Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes. Paris: Seuil, 1975. –––––– Mythologies. Paris: Seuil, 1957. –––––– /¶(PSLUHGHV6LJQHV. Paris : Flammarion, 1970. –––––– "Sagesse de l’Art/The Wisdom of Art", Catalogue of the Exhibit of Cy Twombly’s paintings and drawings (1954-1977), New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1979, 8-23. Baudelaire, Charles. CrLWLTXHG¶$UWVXLYLGH&ULWLTXH0usicale, Paris : Folio/Gallimard 1992, Edited by Claude Pichois, Introduced by Claire Brunet. –––––– Les Fleurs du Mal, Edited by Jacques Dupont, Paris : Garnier Flammarion, 1991. Baudrillard, Jean. "Objects in this mirror", in Le Crime Parfait. Paris: Galilée, 1995, 125-129.
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Bazin, André. "Ontologie de l’image photographique", in 4X¶HVW-ce que le cinéma ? Paris : Cerf, 1975, 9-17. Beaujour, Michel. 0LURLUVG¶(QFUH. Paris : Le Seuil, 1980. –––––– "Qu’est-ce que Nadja?", in Terreur et Rhétorique. Autour du Surréalisme. Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1999, 81-96. Béhar, Henri. AndUp %UHWRQ /¶LQGpVLUDEOH. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1990. Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction", in Illuminations, edited and introduced by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968, 219-245. –––––– Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. London: NLB, 1973. –––––– "Petite Histoire de la photographie", in Études Photographiques, 1, Paris: Société Française de Photographie, 1996, translated by André Gunthert, 7-36. Bensmaïa, Reda. The Barthes Effect: The Essay as Reflective Text. Translated by Pat Fedkiew. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 Bersani, Leo. Baudelaire and Freud. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. ––––––––– "Boundaries of time and being: Benjamin, Baudelaire, Nietzsche", in The Culture of Redemption. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990, 47-101. Blanchot, Maurice. /¶(VSDFHOLWWpUDLUH. Paris : Gallimard, 1955. –––––– Le Livre à venir. Paris : Gallimard, 1959. Blood, Susan. "Baudelaire against photography: An Allegory of old age", MLN, 101, 4, September 1986, 817-37. Brassaï, Georges. Marcel Proust soXVO¶(PSULVHGHOD3hotographie. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.
Breton, André. Manifestes du Surréalisme. Paris : Gallimard, 1985. –––––– Nadja. Paris: Gallimard, 1964. –––––– Les Vases Communicants. Paris: Gallimard, 1955. –––––– /¶$PRXU)RX. Paris : Gallimard, 1937. –––––– Le Surréalisme et la Peinture. Paris : Gallimard, 1965. ––––– Entretiens avec André Parinaud. Paris : Gallimard, 1969. –––––– Ode à Charles Fourier. Introduced by Jean Gaulmier. Paris: Klincksieck, 1961. Brown, Andrew. Roland Barthes.The Figures of Writing. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992. Bryant, Marsha, ed. Photo-Textualities: Reading Photographs and Literature. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1986. Burgin, Victor. "Re-reading Camera Lucida", in The End of Art Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity. London: Macmillan, 1986. –––––– Thinking Photography, Editor. London: Macmillan, 1982. Comment, Bernard. Roland Barthes, vers le Neutre. Paris : Christian Bourgois, 1991. Cooper, David. The Death of the Family. New York: Pantheon Books, 1971. Dant, Tim and Graeme Gilloch. "Pictures of the past: Benjamin and Barthes on photography and history", European Journal of Cultural Studies, 5, 1, February 2002, 5-23. Debord, Guy. La Société du Spectacle. Paris : Gallimard, 1992. –––––– Lignes, Special issue on Guy Debord, 31, Paris : Hazan, May 1997. De Duve, Thierry. Au Nom GH O¶$UW Pour une Archéologie de la Modernité. Paris : Minuit, 1989. Deguy, Michel. "L’Esthétique de Baudelaire", Critique, 244, 1967.
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Deleuze, Gilles. Capitalisme et Schizophrénie. /¶$QWL-¯GLSH. Coauthored with Félix Guattari. Paris: Minuit, 1972. –––––– /¶,PDJH-Mouvement. Paris : Minuit, 1983. –––––– /¶,PDJH-Temps. Paris : Minuit, 1985. Derrida, Jacques. La Dissémination. Paris : Seuil, 1972. –––––– /¶ecriture et la Différence. Paris : Seuil, 1967. –––––– "Les Morts de Roland Barthes", in Psyché : Inventions de O¶$XWUH. Paris : Galilée, 1987, 273-304. Didi-Huberman, Georges. Phasmes (VVDLV VXU O¶$SSDULWLRQ Paris : Minuit, 1998. –––––– Ce que nous Voyons, Ce qui nous Regarde. Paris : Minuit, 1992. Foucault, Michel. +LVWRLUH GH OD )ROLH j O¶$ge Classique. Paris : Gallimard, 1976. Fourier, Charles. ¯XYUHV&RPSOqWHV. Paris : Anthropos, 1966-68. Garnier, Marie-D, Ed. -DUGLQV '¶+LYHU Littérature et Photographie. Paris : Presses de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure, 1997. Gaudon, Jean. "Lettre (‘retardée’) à André Breton : les photographies dans Nadja et /¶$PRXU )RX", Bérénice : Rivista Quadrimestrale di Studi Comparati e Ricerche sulle Avanguardie, 3,7, March 1995, 4154. Kaplan, Alice and Ross, Kristin, Editors. Everyday Life. Special issue of Yale French Studies, 73, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987. Kaufmann, Vincent. Le Livre et ses Adresses. Mallarmé, Ponge, Valéry, Blanchot. Paris : Méridiens Klincksieck, 1986. Krauss, Rolf H. and Jane Livingston. /¶$PRXU)RX: Photography and Surrealism. New York : Abbeville, 1985.
Krauss, Rosalind. Le Photographique: Pour une Théorie des Écarts. Paris: Macula, 1990. Lefebvre, Henri. Critique de la Vie Quotidienne. Paris: L’Arche, 1958. Lombardo, Patrizia. The Three Paradoxes of Roland Barthes. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1989. Lyotard, Jean-François. "Représentation, présentation, imprésentable", in /¶,QKXPDLQParis: Galilée, 1988, 131-140. –––––– La Condition Post-Moderne. Paris : Minuit, 1982. –––––– Toward the Post-Modern. Edited by Robert Harvey and Mark S. Roberts. New Jersey, London: The Humanities Press, 1993. Marin, Louis. Le Portrait du Roi. Paris : Minuit, 1981. Michaud, Eric. "Daguerre, un Prométhée chrétien", in Études photographiques, Paris : Société Française de Photographie, May 1997, 2, 45-57. Moholy-Nagy, László. Peinture Photographie Film. Paris : Gallimard, 2007. Nancy, Jean-Luc. Le Regard du Portrait. Paris : Galilée, 2000. Prévost, Jean. Baudelaire, Essai suU O¶,QVSLUDWLRQ HW Oa Création Poétiques. Paris: Mercure de France, 1953. Prosser, Jay. "Buddha Barthes : what Barthes saw in photography (that he didn’t in literature)", in Photography and Literature in the Twentieth-Century, eds. David Cunningham, Andrew Fisher and Sas Mays. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2005, 145-159. Roger, Philippe. Roland Barthes, Roman. Paris: Grasset, 1986. Sarkonak, Ralph. "Roland Barthes and the spectre of photography", /¶(VSULW&UpDWHXU XXII.1 (1982): 48-68.
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Sartre, Jean-Paul. La Nausée. Paris: Gallimard, 1938. –––––– Baudelaire. Paris: Gallimard, 1963. Shawcross, Nancy M. Roland Barthes on Photography: The Critical Tradition in Perspective. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. Simon, Claude. Photographies, 1937-1970, with an introduction by Denis Roche. Paris: Maeght, 1990. Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978. Schwarz, Arturo. Man Ray: The Rigour of Imagination. New York: Rizzoli, 1977. Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation. Essays on Photographies and Histories. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. Taminiaux, Pierre. Surmodernités: Entre Rêve et Technique. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003. –––––– "Images de la dépossession : Jean-Philippe Toussaint et Christian Boltanski", Dalhousie French Studies, Special issue Mise en Scène du Regard, 32, Halifax : Dalhousie University, Fall 1995, 87-100. –––––– "Stepping aside/transparency: photography in Breton’s Nadja", The European Legacy: Towards New Paradigms, Vol. 2, 1, Cambridge: MIT Press, March 1997, 165-169. –––––– Surrealism and its Others, Katharine Conley co-editor, Special issue of Yale French Studies, 109, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, spring 2006. Tarde, Gabriel. Social Laws. New York: Arno Press, 1974. –––––– Communication and Social Influence. Edited and Introduced by Terry N. Clark, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. Thomas, Chantale. "La Photo du Jardin d’Hiver". Critique 38 (423-4), 1982. 797-804.
Ungar, Steven. Roland Barthes. The Professor of Desire. Lincoln, NE and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. Valéry, Paul. "Discours du centenaire de la photographie", in Etudes Photographiques, 10, November 2001, Paris : Société Française de Photographie, 89-106. –––––– Cahiers I et II. Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1973, 1974. –––––– 3LqFHVVXUO¶$UW. Paris: Gallimard, 1934. ±±±±±±Introduction à la Méthode de Leonard de Vinci. Paris: Gallimard, 1964. Virilio, Paul. Vitesse et Politique. Paris : Galilée, 1977. –––––– La Machine de Vision. Paris: Galilée, 1988. Weingarden, L. S. "Reflections on Baudelaire’s Paris: photography, modernity and memory", in Writing and Seeing: Essays on Word and Image, eds. Rui Carvalho Homem and Maria de Fátima Lambert, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006, 145-53. Wiseman, Mary Bittner. The Ecstasies of Roland Barthes. London: Routledge, 1989.
Agamben, Giorgio: 8, 24, 25.
Alighieri, Dante : 144 Althusser, Louis : 101. Apollinaire, Guillaume : 24, 122. Aragon, Louis: 89. Archimedes : 117. Arp, Jean : 109. Atget, Eugène: 88, 142, 182. Avedon, Richard : 135.
Balzac, Honoré de : 68, 103, 112, 150. Barthes, Roland: 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 95-116, 120-139, 142, 163, 168, 182, 184. Bataille, Georges: 126. Baudelaire, Charles: 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 15-57, 61, 71, 79, 88, 96, 104, 117, 120, 142, 144, 158, 160, 163, 168, 179-181, 185. Baudrillard, Jean: 124, 166, 185. Beaujour, Michel: 8, 59, 70. Beckett, Samuel: 55, 98. Benjamin, Walter: 8, 10, 19, 25, 89, 98, 100-104, 112-114, 116-117, 127-128, 137, 155, 163-164, 167, 177, 181. Bensmaïa, Reda: 8, 125, 126. Bergson, Henri: 36. Bersani, Leo: 8, 40, 41. Blanchot, Maurice: 9, 57, 98, 172, 174. Boiffard, Jacques-André: 65, 73. Boltanski, Christian: 185. Boucher, François: 53. Bouin, André: 65. Bourdieu, Pierre: 97. Braque, Georges: 84, 115. Brassaï, Georges: 88, 142.
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Breton, André: 5, 6, 8, 12-13, 43, 57, 58, 60-63, 68-93, 159, 168, 181-182. Broodthaers, Marcel: 178. Buren, Daniel: 122.
Capa, Robert: 89, 181. Calle, Sophie: 185. Cartier-Bresson, Henri: 90. Cervantes, Miguel de: 144. Cézanne, Paul: 84. Chaplin, Charlie: 56. Chardin, Jean-Baptiste Siméon: 53. Chirico, Giorgio Di: 77, 88. Cooper, David: 72. Comte, Auguste: 43. Copernic, Nicolas: 173. Cornell, Joseph: 78. Corot, Jean-Baptiste Camille: 156-160.
Daguerre, Louis: 44. Dali, Salvador: 68. Da Vinci, Leonardo: 24, 67, 151, 156, 162. Debord, Guy: 64. Deguy, Michel: 8. Delacroix, Eugène: 31-33, 37-39, 53, 156. Delaunay, Robert: 85. Deleuze, Gilles: 72, 96. Democritus: 117. Derrida, Jacques: 8. Descartes, René: 36. Desnos, Robert: 65-66. Dickens, Charles: 144 Didi-Huberman, Georges: 8, 129-131. Dostoyevsky, Fedor: 144. Dubuffet, Jean: 83. Duchamp, Marcel: 25, 76, 78, 80-81, 91, 109, 111, 118, 121, 138, 150, 162, 177-178.
Edison, Thomas: 74. Einstein, Albert: 152. Eluard, Paul: 66, 81. Ernst, Max: 78-79. Evans, Walker: 181.
Filliou, Robert: 80, 178. Flaubert, Gustave: 16. Foucault, Michel: 72. Fourier, Charles: 43. Freud, Sigmund: 69.
Galilei, Galileo: 173. Giacometti, Alberto: 82. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von: 144. Gorky, Arshile: 77. Goya, Francisco: 158. Guattari, Félix: 72. Guibert, Hervé: 185. Guys, Constantin: 39-40, 48-49.
Heartfield, John: 89. Hegel, Georg Wihelm Friedrich: 80, 155. Heidegger, Martin: 168. Hill, David Octavius: 127. Holbein, Hans: 50. Hugo, Victor: 38-39. Huysmans, Joris-Karl: 58.
Jarry, Alfred: 150.
Kafka, Franz: 104, 127-128. Kandinsky, Vassili: 77, 82, 149. Kaufmann, Vincent: 170.
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Klein, William: 121. Krauss, Rosalind: 8, 75, 77, 89.
Lautréamont, Comte de: 58, 84. Lefebvre, Henri: 63. Léger, Fernand: 24, 85, 150. Lumière, Louis and Auguste: 55-74. Lyotard, Jean-François: 8, 118-123, 125.
Maar, Dora : 115. Magritte, René : 68, 77. Malebranche, Nicolas : 36. Mallarmé, Stéphane : 8, 98, 144-145, 161. Manet, Edouard : 161. Man Ray : 65, 78-79, 81-82, 91, 123, 186. Manuel, Henri : 65. Marey, Étienne-Jules : 143. Masson, André : 68, 75, 80. Matisse, Henri : 135. Maupassant, Guy de : 144, 150. Michaud, Éric : 44. Michelet, Jules : 103. Miró, Joan : 82. Moholy-Nagy, Laszlo : 123, 186. Mondrian, Piet : 82, 119, 149. Monet, Claude : 37, 161. Montaigne, Michel de : 36, 170. Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat : 36. Morandi, Giorgio : 84. Muybridge, Eadweard : 143.
Nadar, Félix : 48, 135, 142. Nancy, Jean-Luc : 134. Newman, Barnett : 110, 119, 122. Newton, Isaac : 117. Nietzsche, Friedrich : 71, 101, 170.
Paz, Octavio : 21. Philotée : 129-131. Picard, Raymond : 97. Picasso, Pablo : 77, 115. Plato : 167, 172. Poe. Edgar Allan : 37, 40. Proust, Marcel : 57, 112, 142.
Racine, Jean : 103. Rembrandt, Harmenszoon van Rijn : 158. Reverdy, Pierre : 73. Riestelhueber, Sophie: 185. Roche, Denis : 124. Rothko, Mark : 110. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques : 21, 46, 62.
Sade, Marquis de : 71. Sander, August : 112. Sartre, Jean-Paul : 36, 101, 174. Schoenberg, Arnold : 149. Schwitters, Kurt : 163. Seurat, Georges : 37. Sévigné, Mme de : 21. Simon, Claude : 124, 142.
Tanguy, Yves : 68, 80. Tarde, Gabriel : 43. Thoreau, Henry David : 46.
Tournier, Michel : 185. Trotsky, Léon : 92. Twombly, Cy : 124. Tzara, Tristan : 123.
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Utrillo, Maurice : 116.
Valéry, Paul : 5, 6, 8, 10, 12-13, 28, 141-178, 184-185. Van Gogh, Vincent : 161. Virilio, Paul : 27, 166.
Warhol, Andy : 41. Webern, Anton : 149. Wiseman, Mary Bittner : 8.
Zola, Émile : 144, 150, 161.