It’s so interesting to read a book that is for the most part so far outside my area of expertise — Impossible Presence is a collection of essays and art criticism that overlaps
The intro is from editor Terry Smith, full of questions I have never before asked myself….
why is it that the visual image continues — according to an inscrutable but seemingly invisible geometry — to become more and more powerful, proliferative and pervasive at every level of public and private life, promising more and more openness…while at the same time its power to communicate concentrated meaning seems to decline…?
What has been the fate of the image in modernity, modern art, popular visual cultures, in postmodern art and in postmodernity? Has the procession of the simulacrum reached the point of purity, of unconditionality? Or has the real returned to those intersections where abject aficionados of post-humanism that what we must, again, call presence remains powerfully present in the art of this time, just in its persistence despite its putative impossibility? It does so, I would argue… (1)
I like pondering such questions so far outside my normal range of questions that I am not entirely sure what all of them are questioning.
Literally returning to more solid ground, there is a wonderful quote from Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, on the First Photograph.
No hint here that this is the first quiet note of … an unstoppable torrent of pictures … haunting and unforgettable, hideous and beautiful, pornographic and revelatory, pictures that will create the very idea of the Modern, that will overpower language itself, and cover and distort and define the earth, like water, like gossip, like democracy.
And who knew Heidegger had characterized modernity as the ‘age of the world picture’? Probably lots of people, I know. But not me. My inability to avoid Heidegger in all of his phenomenologyist splendour continues.
I like this idea of ‘presence’ — being new to all this it fascinates me to find this long history of its discussion. Smith writes:
I wish to interpret ‘presence’ here in a way different from its previous lives in art-critical and art-historical discourse, where it stood, in the 1960s, for the implacable physicality of materials, and in the 1970s, when it signaled an ethics of social commitment. (7)
I’m such a 70s girl. Smith links
‘presence’ to ‘impossibility,’ not in a spirit of defeat but of possibility. Presence despite apparent impossibility, tangibility against the prosthetics of cyberbeing, or, as Heidegger would put it, authentic Being against the grain of seeing/knowing — the eye — of an age which can only see itself for its own loss of being. (8)
I don’t know, I find the first two much more intriguing. He continues.
Presence, for the kind of modernism I value, is a quality of insistence. It insists differently at different times.
It insists against empty space, white noise, dematerialisation, infinite replay.
Marshall Berman is in here! ‘Too Much is Not Enough: Metamorphoses of Times Square.’ Lovely. He writes, having discovered this through his criticisms of the criticisms of others around New York’s Times Square:
I’m a partisan of happiness. I believe more joy will give people more power to change the world for the better. My vision of the good life includes both bright lights and critical thought; it demands a critical thought that knows how to love the bright lights. (41)
He describes how the authors and poets of the city know and celebrate its contradictions, the way it drains and yields energy. Non-fictional authors? Only a few — he names Georg Simmel, Lewis Mumford, Paul and Percival Goodman, Jane Jacobs. The Goodmans? Never heard of them, that is always exciting. Berman then goes on to describe Times Square through the imagery of the whore of Babylon from Revelations, and as he always does, inspires in me a tremendous desire to read another classic text — The Persian Letters by Montesquieu. Balzac said this book taught him everything about urban life. My god. I have not read it.
For Berman, it creates a vocabulary for understanding the city, explores the value of the urban to
nourish personal authenticity, mutual opennesss, intercourse and communication between people. Out in the street people can feel free, can imagine new ways to live, can experience the joy of mutual recognition. (50)
He moves to Engels writing about how people move quickly and stay to their right in Manchester, shows wonderful saucy old postcards. As a side note he describes a process where immigration has transformed the face of the US just enough to make people a little more comfortable in city centres like Time Square, to make it marketable to try and reclaim them. The irony.
This is my territory. A brief stop and on to the rest of the book — all new. I loved Tom Gunning’s piece on early photography and the role of amateurs in ‘New Thresholds of Vision: Instantaneous Photography and the Early Cinema of Lumiere’. This must be one of the best things I’ve seen, embodying the mystery within the everyday, the mischievous natures captured in these photographs from the early days of film as it was transitioning into new processes that did not require long exposures:
There was Jacques-Henri Lartigue, whose photographs
display the era’s fascination with freezing a moment and capturing motion in full flight, as well as a youthful mischief and delight in the often ungainly bodily postures the instantaneous camera could discover, bodies filled with mobile vitality and a sense of fun. Indeed, the image of the small boy armed with a camera capturing moments of indiscretion became a staple of the comic narrative revolving around the “bad boys” in this period… using it to unmask the order of the adult world. (92)
There was a new knowledge that Zola was a photography enthusiast. Ah Zola. I will look that up.
An essay on Benjamin — I always prefer Benjamin to essays about him or using him, but I loved this photograph from Atget.
Two essays on Warhol in here — I have come to appreciate him more. I liked Baudrillard, liked this:
Warhol was the first to introduce into modern fetishism — transaesthetic fetishism — the fetishism of an image without qualities, of a presence without desire. (184)
I liked Silverman’s essay on Warhol, and it taught me the word ‘chiasmatic’. Relating to the intersection of the optic nerve fibres at the bottom of the brain.
Elizabeth Grosz wrote a fucking splendid essay on nakedness and orchids and desire and all sorts called ‘naked’. She describes the difference between facing nakedness in person and in ‘art’.
One is, in Levinasaian terms, called, called upon by the open giving up of a certain vulnerability that the other offers to us as naked. It is this that we are protected against in observing the work of art. We are not called to protect, or to bare ourselves to, this other that we observe. Our observation is given free range. We are liberated from the impulse towards reciprocity. (218)
What I really loved though, was her skilled debunking of definitions of the gaze, its suppressed anger and intelligence of the kind I most admire have given me a bit of an author crush.
We don’t just have two modes of looking, on that illuminates the soul (art) and one that is salacious and perverse (pornography)
How fucking limiting that would be.
What is needed instead is a typology of looking, a mode of thinking of spectatorship that does not rely on the vast apparatus of projection, identification, fetishism and unconscious processes that psychoanalysis has offered to film theory and that theorists of the visual arts have borrowed as their primary model of spectatorship. Voyeurism is not the only modality of looking: seeing has many particular forms, well beyond the purview of the gaze, which is, in psychoanalytic terms, necessarily aligned with sadism, the desire for mastery and the masculine privileging of the phallus. (218-19)
I imagine her punching Zizek in the stomach, mostly because he makes me angrier than most people drawing on psychoanalytic theory (admittedly, a field I have so far mostly stayed away from apart from Fromm, who is the antithesis to this). But she doesn’t need to punch anyone physically, that sentence does it all.
I would suggest that seeing needs to be retrieved by feminists, and that vision needs to be freed from the constrictions imposed on it by the apparatus of the gaze. (219)
I would like to be part of that, I hope she does so, this is so useful for thinking about art and photography, particularly in activism and studying the ‘urban’. I am about to read much more of what she has written. There is more in the volume, the other to stand out was on aboriginal art — a really fascinating interdisciplinary change of pace which is perhaps what I most like about this book. But of course, I know I am blinkered by the things I am working on now, this will richly repay a visit.
Smith, Terry (ed) Impossible Presence: surface and Screen in the Photogenic Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.