Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 14, 2011
Jacques Derrida Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography Ed. Gerhard Richter; trans. Jeff Fort. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010. 112 pp. Paper $16.95 (9780804760966)
Jacques Derrida Athens, Still Remains: The Photographs of Jean-François Bonhomme Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. New York: Fordham University Press, 2010. 88 pp.; 34 b/w ills. Paper $17.00 (9780823232062)
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Six years into the afterlife of Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), two of his U.S. academic publishers have excavated texts that have photography as their major point of focus, and they have published these pronouncements posthumously. While Copy, Archive, Signature reads as a wide-ranging conversation about a variety of important topics concerning “photography in deconstruction” (to recite the subtitle of editor Gerhard Richter’s astute introduction), Athens, Still Remains is a slim volume that takes the images of the contemporary French photographer Jean-François Bonhomme as a springboard for a larger meditation on photography and its relation to death.

The conversation was conducted in 1992 with two important German scholars of photography, Hubertus Van Amelunxen and Michael Wetzel, and was initially published in the former’s collection on photographic theory, Theorie der Fotografie IV, 1980–1995 (München: Schirmer/Mosel, 2000). To situate the historical moment, this interview took place during the same year that the controversy raged around the awarding of an honorary doctorate to Derrida by Cambridge University over and against the objection of a group of analytic philosophers who likened his work to “tricks and gimmicks similar to the Dadaists or of the concrete poets” (“Letter from Professor Barry Smith and Others,” The Times [London], 9 May 1992). Indeed, Derrida alludes to this convocation ceremony near the end of the interview as a way of marking a living (and live) tradition that excludes the dangerous supplements of media technologies (specifically television and radio) from intruding upon and contaminating the festivities at this venerable British institution of learning (50).

It is quite evident that the photographic ghost of Roland Barthes hangs over and haunts the scene of this conversation. Derrida alludes to his own work of multiplied mourning entitled “The Deaths of Roland Barthes” (in The Work of Mourning, trans. Pascale Anne Brault and Michael Naas, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001, 31–68) that he composed shortly after Barthes’s untimely demise in 1980. However, the two kindred thinkers part ways when Derrida takes issue with those phenomenological aspects of Barthes’s Camera Lucida (trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1980) that reduce the photographic referent to the “undecomposable simplicity, beyond all analysis, of a time of the instant” (8). In contrast, the deconstructive thinker of delay, différance, and the trace recalls the technical aspects that adhere to the writing of light that challenge the full presence of any photographic instant and whose analysis forces a more complex consideration that “this duration is constituted by a technê” (10). This is not a call for technological determination like that of Marshall McLuhan but rather a reminder of technological conditions—that the invention and intervention of photography has altered the very structure and flow of time. An adamant Derrida thereby breaks with “the presumed phenomenological naturalism that would see in photographic technology the miracle of a technology that effaces itself in order to give us a natural purity, time itself, the unalterable and un-iterable experience of a pretechnical perception (if there were any such thing)” (9).

In opposition to those who want to be assured of the truth of photography, Derrida emphasizes “photographic performativity” (5).This position leads him to have severe doubts in regard to the philosophical position that photography merely reproduces or re-presents the perceptual world in a transparent manner. Derrida later reviews this long-standing and fascinating debate as it pertains to the question of what constitutes photographic invention. On the one hand, there is the view of “invention as a discovery or a revelation of what is already there” and that views the process in terms of “the simple recording of the other as he was” (43). On the other hand, there is the view that this technological intervention “constitutes the other instead of simply receiving him,” such that recording is “immediately contaminated by invention in the sense of production, creation, productive imagination” (43). Derrida’s move from reproduction to production recalls the Bauhaus master Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s motto for New Vision photography in the 1920s. Derrida’s discussion of the senses of photographic invention leads away from the photograph as the adherence of the referent toward the advent of something new that is brought into the world with each image and its staging. This discussion also has interesting ramifications if applied to the contested status of Conceptual photography and its level of invention. Are such images to be considered strictly documentation of what was already there or dangerous supplements that take on a life of their own? The roots of this historical debate (documentary record vs. artistic production) are suggested in another section of the interview. In his classic critique, Charles Baudelaire reviewed the “Salon of 1859” in an attempt to restrict photography to the industrial roles of archivist and record-keeper and to ban it from the privileged realms of art, aesthetics, and imagination. As Derrida puts it, Baudelaire sought “to disqualify it in regard to art and literature” even if “he does not much believe in his own demonstration” (20).This unsettled and unsettling border between photography as the simple reproduction of the referent and as the complex performance of something that has lost touch with the referent leads Richter to think about photography in his introduction (and elsewhere) as this paradoxical “relation without relation.”

While the copy and the archive are pertinent to any Derridean discussion of photography, the “signature” in the title may appear less obvious. It refers in part to that portion of the interview that reviews the quaint practice of thinkers (e.g., Heidegger and Freud) who gave their signed portrait photographs to friends or admirers as gifts. Derrida asserts here how these celebrity-philosophers sought to restore some individual aura and non-reproducibility into the age of technical reproduction. But any discussion of the signature in Derrida’s texts must take into account how it cannot remain untouched by the dynamics of the copy and reproduction. As discussed in Derrida’s famous essay “Signature, Event, Context” (in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982, 307–30), the signature is linked to iterability or the ability of any sign to reiterate itself and generate a plethora of new contexts. This logic challenges the originality of the signature and marks it with repetition and difference. The figure of iterability brings with it an even stronger connection between the signature and the photograph, and it subverts any claims to the uniqueness and originality of the photograph and its self-same identity.

Interestingly, this particular interview does not dwell on the question of spectrality and its importance to photography and cinema’s “hauntological” being in the world. The only moment where this fascination with the ghosts in the photographic machine appears is in Derrida’s reflection on his cameo appearance in Ken McMullen’s film Ghost Dance (38). It leads Derrida to suggest a certain affinity between this technology of mass reproduction and the return of the revenant. However, photographic spectrality would become a key aspect of Derrida’s speculations in the video interviews that he conducted with Bernard Stiegler just one year later, and it would form the basis of their book Echographies of Television (trans. Jennifer Bajorek, Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2002).

In contrast to the image-free interview, Athens, Still Remains consists of thirty-four photographs by Bonhomme who turned his camera on the classical ruins and modern sites of this legendary Greek city-state, and it juxtaposes these photos with twenty reflective clichés (or stills) of varying lengths composed by Derrida. The book revolves around a single sentence that struck Derrida with a particular force on 3 July 1996, and that serves as both its epigraph and its epitaph—“Nous nous devon à la mort.” Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas have translated it into English as “we owe ourselves to death.” For Derrida, our photographic experience is devoted to and marked by a state of indebtedness that ties it inextricably to a delayed discourse of mourning and loss. That is why these ruins and tombs of ancient Greece become an overdetermined site for both Bonhomme’s elegiac images and Derrida’s untimely speculations about these images and photography in general. As he writes, “Each one, in any case, recalls a death that has already occurred, or one that is promised or threatening, a sepulchral monumentality, memory in the figure of the ruin” (2). The figure of the photograph as ruin and remain is embedded in both the original title in French (Demeure, Athènes) as well as in its English translation.

“Still XVII” reaches a crescendo of sorts when Derrida performs a close and virtuoso reading of this singularly French phrase and reviews a number of ways of interpreting the meanings of this photographic debt. The first reviews the long-standing philosophical tradition spanning from Socrates to Heidegger that interprets the phrase earnestly and mournfully in terms of what Derrida calls “the sacrificial tradition of being-for-death” (59). But the playful Derrida refuses to rest comfortably at this somber juncture nor to be beholden to death in this way alone. In contrast to this deadly serious photo-philosophical tradition, he therefore offers other readings that would complicate matters in order to “give philosophy another chance” (59). One of them focuses on the double usage of “nous” in the French as both the subject of this (death) sentence and its (self-)reflection in order to question the ability of the willing subject to master or control her or his state of indebtedness and this photographic pact with death. Evoking photography as a discourse of the double, it is the second reflective “nous” that paradoxically takes the lead. In this way, Derrida recalls an “originary heteronomy” (61) so that our indebtedness to death precedes, inscribes, and, indeed, photographs us. Another level of deconstruction offers a more ironic reading that interprets the phrase in a hyperbolic manner so that it becomes tinged with black humor. This radical reversal suggests mockingly that we owe ourselves to death to death. For if we devote our energies to something that we really know nothing about, then photography’s indebtedness to death and our meditation on this relationship would amount to nothing. But if that were the case, then we would begin again with photographs of “an innocent living being who forever knows nothing of death” (63).

Derrida recalls that it is not only philosophy that is indebted to Greek civilization. It is the memorializing technology of photography itself that traces its classical etymology somewhere in the space between light (photos) and writing or drawing (graphé). Given its keen attention to Plato’s dialogues that revolve around the life and death of Socrates (especially Phaedo and Crito), Derrida’s Athens, Still Remains serves as an investigation of the origins and limits of something that might be called a “philosophy of photography.” This is an especially relevant issue today in light of the emergence of this sub-field in photographic studies and with the recent founding of an academic journal of this same name. Derrida’s reticence to advocate for such a photo-philosophical discourse returns to his fascination with the delay or what he refers to as a “permanently delayed action” (17). He insists that the technics of photography will never have done with these mechanisms of delay despite the philosophical desire to close the gap in the name of something like photographic instantaneity. Given his keen desire to “rethink instantaneity on the basis of the delay” (17), Derrida’s insistence on photography as prosthetic technology is very much in keeping with his long-standing deconstructive interest to resist philosophy in terms of any metaphysics of presence.

While there are a number of photographs by Bonhomme that Derrida ignores or glosses over, it is clear that “Photographer on the Acropolis” is the one that most inspires him. It is here that one comes face to face with the privileged place of the Acropolis as the monumental and mediating site of photographic ruins. As one of the preeminent tourist destinations in the world, this complex of monuments and architectural fragments has served as a prime catalyst for the production of photographic remains since the invention of the medium. In this context, it should be recalled that Derrida’s text first appeared as the preface to Bonhomme’s collection of photographs entitled Athens—in the Shadow of the Acropolis (Athens: Olkos Publishers, 1996). Derrida returns to “Photographer on the Acropolis” in three of his snapshots, even repeating with slight differences some of the same descriptions and analysis. For Derrida, this photograph takes on exemplary significance not only for its self-reflective and abyssal structure (that of a photographer photographing another photographer photographing these remains) but also for the way in which the subject matter offers an inventory or a taxonomy of the many kinds of things that exist in the world such that the technology of photography “takes these things by surprise” in order to figure and configure “its photographic archive” (35). This extended and intricate passage turns out to be one of the highlights of the book, and it leads to Derrida’s fascinating conclusion that the Greek goddess Persephone maintains a special and intimate relationship to photography as “the best mirror of all human things” (49).

There is no question that the thinking about photography’s indebtedness to death in Athens, Still Remains also owes much to Barthes’s canonical account and thanatological speculations in Camera Lucida. (One recalls, for instance, how Barthes reads the photographic pose in terms of “a micro-version of death.”) Sentences like, “Whether we are looking at the whole picture or just a detail, never do any of these photographs fail to signify death” (2), could just as easily have been written by Barthes. However, Derrida goes even further than Barthes in “Still XIII” with a brilliant elucidation of what he refers to as photography’s “three temporalities of death” (27). The object of the text moves from Bonhomme’s Athenian photographs to an articulation of the three paradoxical “‘presences of disappearance” opened up by the photographic image in general as it dwells in the realm of the phantasm. Derrida’s thinking of the photograph under the deadly sign of the delay—as keeping loss or as the presence of absence—gestures further toward how Athens, Still Remains offers the opening salvo for a critique of any transparent theory of photography that is content with the presence of the photographic referent and that overlooks such poignant paradoxes.

With the translation of these two thought-provoking texts by Derrida on photography, one would expect a triggering of further stays and delays. Whether these take the form of theoretical debates on the issues he raises or the form of artistic productions inspired by his ideas, Copy, Archive, Signature and Athens, Still Remains will have made an immeasurable contribution to photography studies, giving pause to consider not only what photography owes to death but what readers owe to Jacques Derrida for confronting this inextricable relationship throughout these two literary remains.

Louis Kaplan
Professor, Graduate Department of Art, University of Toronto and Chair, Department of Visual Studies, University of Toronto, Mississauga

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