Still Life






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Publication: Art Journal
Author: Melville, Stephen W
Date published: December 1, 2011

Jacques Derrida. Athens, Still Remains: The Photographs of Jean-François Bonhomme. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brau It and Michael Naas. New York: Fordham University Press, 2010. 70 pp., 34 b/w Ills. $17 paper

Jacques Derrida and Marie-Françoise Plissart. R/ght of Inspection. Trans. David Wills. New York: Monacelli Press, 1998. 144 pp., 280 b/w ills. Out of print

Perhaps patient meditation and painstaking investigation on and around what is still provisionally called writing, far from falling short of a science of writing or of hastily dismissing it by some obscurantist reaction, letting it rather develop its positivity as far as possible,. are the wanderings of a way of thinking that is faithful and attentive to the ineluctable world of the future which proclaims itself at present, beyond the closure of knowledge. The future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger. It is that which breaks absolutely with constituted normality and can only be proclaimed, presented, as a sort of monstrosity. For diat future world and for that within it which will have put into question the values of sign, word, and writing, for that which guides our future anterior, f-here is as yet no exergue.1

Those readers of Jacques Derrida's first major work. Of Grammatology, in a position to hear the strong echoes of Martin Heidegger in rus closing paragraph of the book's opening "Exergue" - echoes of, for example, "The Question Concerning Technology" where Heidegger writes,

The destining of revealing is as such, in every one of its modes, and therefore necessarily, danger. . . .

In a similar way, the uncoecealment in accordance with which nature presents itself as a calculable complex of the effects of forces can indeed permit correct determinations; but precisely through these successes the danger can remain that in the midst of all that is correct the true will withdraw.

The destining of revealing is in itself not just any danger, but danger as such.2

- those attuned to such echoes will not have been surprised, on turning the page to the book's first chapter, to find Derrida's pivotal concern with writing given its initial expression in terms of its relation to die question of technology (or "technics," as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's translation has it). Such readers will then also not be surprised, especially given the retrospect afforded by Derrida's late writings as well as the work of such contemporary writers as Eduardo Cadava and Geoffrey Batchen, at the thought diat Derrida's deconstrucdon is from the very beginning implicidy interested in photography. Indeed, it was perhaps already difficult to read through Heidegger on the technological reduction or transformation of die world through its "enframing" into "standing-reserve" without giving some thought to die camera as one, quasi-paradigmatic means to Heidegger's disastrous lucidity.

Heidegger himself does not give photography any such thought, just as he gives Utile or no thought to any of the things he occasionally lists as exemplary of a modernity he cannot stand (airplanes and radio and film, for example). And this refusal or inability leaves him essentially blocked and baffled before the proposition he nonetheless thinks to advance and whose first form he takes, as he takes so much in bis late work, from Friedrich Hölderlin:

But where the danger is, grows

The saving power also.5

Heidegger's "as such" is. roughly, a Kantian kind of qualifier; it distinguishes and separates the "danger" it modifies from something else (for example, the "saving power"). Derrida's "absolute" is distinctively Hegelian and doesn't distinguish in diat way; it is more nearly a synonym for die danger and so names the place where one is pledged to also find whatever is other than that, however that may be. The shift thus marked is serious: one part of what it means is diat the modernity Heidegger sets himself against is the thing Derrida means to make general. "Technology," if uiat is the word we are to use. is there from die beginning; it supervenes on nothing prior. Writing does not represent speech, does not happen to a mode of language that is prior to and purer than it; photography is likewise there from the beginning, not foreign to die perception but already internal to it. Derrida had alreadyannounced in Speech and Phenomena that there was no such thing as perception, a claim revised as On Grammatology 's notorious and notoriously untranslatable assertion that "il n'y opas de hors -texte."

None of this comes to an explicit thought of photography until Derrida's to8t essay for Roland Bardies, "The Deaths of Roland Bardies."1 To the extent that Derrida can be said to have a "dieory of photography," that theory just is his reading of Barthes's Camera Lucida, and it underlines three primary points:

1. Reference is inexpungible in the photograph. Derrida plays ¿round a bit with the difference between reference and referent - bed rather not speak of the referent - but he takes as fundamental to any effort to make sense of the photograph that it carries reference with it ("real reference," one might say - not the sort of allusion or gesture or such that die newish verb "to reference" has lately come to carry, especially in the art world). This is intimately bound up with an essential passivity proper to die act of photographing: everything depends on there being something there.

2. There is, continuous with this reference, an ineluctable pastness to the photograph - the "something's being there" is always its having been there. Derrida, will at times enforce this by reference to things like shutter lag, developing times, the radical shiftiness of light, the inevitable gap between the photographer's framing and die execution of die shot, and so on, but the point is really about the structure of presence itself. Arguments that in other hands would tend toward assertions that the camera never " really" captures the present and (so) is always a construction rather than a capturing of the real are taken by Derrida to point toward what die present always is - difference and deferral, dispersed: perfect, pluperfect, future perfect. It's here that die close fit between the problematic of writing as it drives Derrida's work and that of photography is most easily grasp - able; as Derrida elaborates it in his writings on photography, die thought ramifies most explicitly toward his explorations of the archive (Archive Fever) , the spectral (Spectres of Marx) , and mourning (a thought already active in Camera Lucida and thus important to Derrida's reflections on it and in much of Derrida's subsequent writing).6

3. Questions of reference and pastness come together for Derrida, as they do for Barthes, in the structure studium/piinctum. Readers of Camera Lucida frequenti)' feel themselves somewhat unhappily caught between invitations to take Baxthes's punctum as, on the one hand, intimately linked to die photograph's referentiality, so dut it ought to be something one could pick out in a given picture and expect others to agree to (Barthes gives his readers pictures to look at, points toward the punctum, there in die photograph), and, on the oUier hand, always bound to the viewer (it is "I" who notices in every case, "me" who is pricked by one or another detail, and the Winter Garden photograph of Baxthes's mother that sustains die entire second half of the book is famously never presented, wrapped in privacy, idiosyncrasy). This general stretching or tearing of the notion of punctum between the objective and contingent on the one hand, and the deeply subjective on the other is one of the places where being able to see through to the Lacanian underpinnings of Barthes s account is immensely helpful.'- For his part, Derrida insists most on those passages in which one is most strongly invited to imagine the punctum as finally continuous wich the photograph's Studium - as, say, its punctuation or counterpunctuation. This is the sense, on Derrida 's reading, that allows Barthes to write of die Studium "insofar asitis... traversed, lashed, striped by a detail (punctum)."7 Derrida thus writes that

the "subtle beyond" of the punctum, die uncoded beyond, composes with the "always coded" of the Studium. It belongs to it without belonging to it and is unlocatable within it; it is never inscribed in the homogeneous objectivity of the framed space, but instead inhabits or haunts it. . . . As soon as the punctum ceases to oppose the Studium, all the while remaining heterogeneous to it, as soon as we can no longer distinguish here between two places, concepts or things, it is not entirely subjugated to a concept, if by concept we mean a predicative determination diat is distinct and oppos able. . . . Ghosts: the concept of the other in the same, the punctum in die Studium, the completely other, dead, living in me. This concept of the photograph photographs every conceptual opposition: it captures a relationship of haunting that is perhaps constitutive of every "logic."8

In the next section of the text Studium and punctum become S and P, joining hands then with die S and P of Socrates and Plato in The Postcard" - but taking on also the standard shordiand for Subject and Predicate, which Derrida then passes back through the musical metaphor that runs through Baxthes's text and which has already been signaled in die talk of "composition":

In short, he is letting us hear, in an ambiguous movement of humility and defiance, that he will not treat die pair of concepts S and P as essences coming from outside the text in the process of being written, essences that would lend themselves to some general philosophical signification. They carry the trudi only within an irreplaceable musical composition.10

At this point in Derrida's text the remark bears, all at once, on the status of Studium and punctum within an account of photography or the photograph, on the writing of Barthes's text as a whole insofar as it not only argues but enacts bis claims for photography, and on the status of philosophic argument more largely. More particularly, it offers a sort of snapshot of Hegel on such things - as, for example, when Hegel writes, "This conflict between die general form of a proposition and the unity of the Notion which destroys it is similar to the conflict that occurs in rhythm between metre and accent ___ [T]he identification of Subject and Predicate is not meant to destroy the difference between them, which the form of die proposition expresses; their unity, rather, is meant to emerge as a harmony.""

On this account, Studium and punctum express the grammax of die photograph, opening the way to its thought. That it should be Hegel's logic that emerges through the play of S and P is hardly accidental; it is the logic of the absolute, and of that absolute in its deconstructive resdessness.

Michael Fried has recendy suggested that Camero Lucida has "something of the character of a swan song for an artifact on the brink of fundamental change,"" and a paxt of what he means is mat trie photograph Barthes addresses is - unlike much of the photography that has come to prominence over the past decade - intended for the single viewer and in that sense (at least) finds its natural resting place in the book rather than, say, on the wall. Derrida s limited and distincdy occasional encounters with actual photographs - those that make up Marie-Françoise Plissart's Right of Inspection and those of JeanFrançois Bonhomme in Athens, Stil) Remains - can certainly seem to underline Frieds point (and this is likely also true, if somewhat differently, of the notable inclusion of photographs in his collaborative project with Catherine Malabou, Counterpath: Traveling with Jacques Derrida).'5 Plissart's wordless sequence of photographs of a chain of photographic and sexual encounters (and departures and arrivals and falls) carried along a Moebius strip of women is a sort of variation on - perhaps abstraction from - the "photoroman" that has had more success on the Continent than in the United States. The general logic of the sequence can put one quickly in mind of die Alain Robbe -Grillet of, say. The Erasers or Jealousy (Derrida 's brief mention of "die optical device of a . . .Venetian blind" (Right of Inspection, in) is perhaps a nod in this direction), just as the look of many of the images can awaken echoes of die film of Last Year at Marienbad. Derrida 's reading of the sequence takes a form he has used elsewhexe, a poh/logue for an indeterminate number of voices among which both gender and intimacy or distance are at play in ways for the most part necessarily lost to David Wills s excellent translation, and he systemadcally plays off the model of checkerboard invited both by the layout of the images and their contents against the temptations of narrative coherence. The Barthesian apparatus of Studium and punctum (already described by Derrida in "The Deaths of Roland Barthes" as a "supple" artifact that "lasts only die time of the book; it will be useful to others but it suits perfectly only the one who signs it. hke an instrument that can't be lent to anyone") '* plays no role in die reading, which nonetheless draws heavily on the consequences of the syntax those terms express and from which Derrida derives an essential seriality to the photograph that Plissart's sequence is shown to exphcidy unpack in multiple registers. Whatever, one might say, gives itself as S/P is thereby given over to multiplicity, as one sentence gives itself over to another, to discourse or to text. The job of Derrida's reading is to show how Plissart's work thinks this through for itself, and it leaves him at the end once more reading Barthes on photographic reference, The voices, still, again, diverge:

- Not that it suspends reference, but that it infinitely defers a certain type of reality, that of the perceptible referent. It gives the prerogative to the other, opens the infinite uncertainty of a relation to the completely other, a relation without relation. . . .

- Concurrence and recurrence you say, but since what is lacking is the name or noun for it, the idiom or the country, I see them chase after it. They borii pursue and flee the name. They are after it. They come after it, Ln other words follow it, but, since they run behind it, in fleeing it you see them here depart before it, run to meet it, which amounts to the same thing. (Right oí Inspection, 137 and 138. italics in original)

These lines will, of course, not mean enough apart from the reading that leads up to them, but they are perhaps enough to give some sense of how Derrida locates the work of photography at once before die world and in language.

Right oí Inspection finds its way to this end through a double movement of close attention to the Plissart pictures and sequence, and a deft play with language, including repeated turns through die difficult French word demeure and close meditations on the simultaneously reflexive and opaque grammars of elle se voit and elles se regardent - die kind of reading that is a hallmark of Derrida's work from early on and that makes die most of what one might call his more structuralist mode of attention to doings.

Athens, Still Remains inherits the terms developed in Right of Inspection - die word demeure, the interest in reflexives that variously block and complicate themselves - -and turns them toward Derrida's more nearly Heideggerean voice (here, in Athens, which Derrida like Heidegger comes to late in life, demeure no longer picks out, among other things, die sumptuous and abandoned residences through which Plissart's figures move but picks up instead the resonances of Heidegger's "house of Being") . And die grammar diat interests Derrida is no longer that of vision, but of something else diat comes to him - and so to Bonhomme 's photographs, to which Derrida attends far less closely tiian Plissart's - from some outside as the sentence Nous nous devons a ?a mon - "We owe ourselves to death."

And just what does that mean?

Well, we know something of how it means - like an oracle or a riddle. As something heard and insistently holding its hearer in suspense, or as something seen like that - Derrida calls it "a snapshot." So. it's as if here he finds himself with his field reversed, as d"he is asking with this book for die photographs to read this sentence, a writerly gamble whose success is hard to gauge.

We know also where we are - still with Barthes but more nearly on the side of mourning, so also the side of the archive, die history we inhabit or dial inhabits us, in the Athens that will always also include die death of Socrates, the birth of philosophy, the Greek sun, and (never brought into the text but continuously dangled before us in die fact of Bonhomme 's camera) die cave. Derrida is, it seems, always retnrning from swimming (un coup dans l'eau).13

"Nous nous devons à la mort" can mean that we are obligated to one another to the end, and it can equally mean diat we owe ourselves to die, as if in coming to or turning toward it we find those selves made whole, and it can mean thai we are to give ourselves to death.These are. so to speak, die forward-looking construals of the sentence, and whatever obligation they may chart, they leave us - "we," the subject's sentence - finally undisturbed in its self-possession. Read another way, we owe ourselves to deadi - have those selves and so such selfpossession as we can claim only by the grace of deadi by which we ate then traversed, lashed, striped. That's how die photographs read it.

Right of Inspection and Athens, Still Remains are, like most of Derrida's writings on concrete works of visual art, tokens of occasion and relation, and it will not be an unusual or unjustified reaction to think that die works in question are being asked to bear more tiian they reasonably can or more dian they merit - a feeling one will likely have more strongly about die Bonhomme than me Plissart just because Derrida does more to bring the latter into such view as it can sustain. It is less clear that they do not nonetheless go some considerable way toward capturing our interest in even die most ordinary of photos. It is even less clear that this interest can be registered within die protocols of art history or visual culture. Still: "Every time you look at diese photographs, you will have to begin again to translate, and to recall diat one day, around noon, for some, having come from Athens and on their way back to it, the verdict had come down but the sun was not yet dead" (Athens, 69).

1. Jacques Derrida. Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1998), 4-5.

2. Martin Heidegger. The Question concerning Technology, and Other Essays, trans. W. Lovitt (New York: Harper and Row, 1977). 26.

3. Ibid., 42. The lines Heidegger cites are from the opening starna of Hölderiin's "Patmos."

4. Translations of this essay can be found in Philosophy and Non-Philosophy since Merleau-Ponty. ed. H. Silverman (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997); Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2003); and Derrida, Psyche: Inventions of the Other, vol. 1 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).

5. See especially the essays collected in The Work of Mourning.

6. See Margaret Iversen, "What Is a Photograph?" Art History 17. no. 3 (1994), 450-64.

7. Roland Barthes, Camera Lurido, trans. R. Howard (New York: H)II and Wang, 1982), 40. Derrida is, in effect, rescuing a positive characterization of the Studium/ punctum relation from a sentence that aims at the thought of a photograph that would be nothing but Studium, and so he elides a "not" in Barthes's original ("Having thus reviewed the docile interests which certain photographs awaken in me. I deduced that the Studium, insofar as it is not traversed, lashed, striped by a detail (punctum) which attracts or distresses me, engenders a very widespread type of photograph (the most widespread in the world), which we might call the unary photograph").

8. Derrida, Psyche, 271-72.

9. Jacques Derrida. The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. A. Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987),

10. Derrida, Psyche. 272.

11. G. W. F. Hegel, Pher/omeno/ogy of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller Oxford. UK: Oxford University Press, 1979). §61.

12. Michael Fried. Why Photography Matters as Art os Never Before (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

13. Jacques Derrida and Catherine Malabou. Counterpath: Traveling with Jacques Derrida, trans. David Wills (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

14. Derrida, Psyche, 271.

15. Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 170.

Author affiliation:

Stephen W. Melville is professor emeritus of the history of art at The Ohio State University and visiting professor of philosophy at Bard College. He is the author of Philosophy beside Itself: On Deconstruction and Modernism (1986), Seams: Art as a Philosophical Context (1996), and. with Margaret Iversen, Writing Art History: Disciplinary Departures (2010). He has written widely on contemporary art and art history.

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