Kember, Sarah; Zylinska, Joanna. ‘Remediating Creativity: Performance, Invention, Critique’, Life After New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2012) pp.173-200


In the context of the previous arguments, it may seem risky or even impudent to reclaim creativity as a viable strategy for thinking about the media differently.


Indeed, creativity is inevitably tied up with capitalism because in both its monetized  and nonmonetized  forms – such as as [sic] music making, poetry, poetry, writing, engineering, art, cooking, or knitting – it participates in the intertwined process of production, consumption, and distribution through formal and informal communicative channels and networks made up of record labels, publishing houses, manufacturing plants, computer systems, telephone exchanges, and chats with friends.


Again, the politicoethical significance of scholarship that analyzes and critiques cultural and media industries and their attempts to reinvent the so-called creative labor practices under the guise of collaboration, commonality, sharing and gifting is not being contested here by us. Yet what if we were to mobilize the critical dimension of the analyses of creative media processes and products and combine it with an actual attempt to produce creative media, while also subjecting the notion of critique to a critique?

In other words, what if, rather than just write about the production of creative media by other , we could mobilize the very media that are being critiqued as objects of creative industries’ analyses and put them to critical uses, to think with and through them about change, invention, and socio-cultural transformation?

What if the roles of the cultural critic and the cultural producer were to be combined in this process of developing what Angela McRobbie has termed a “socially engaged, critical creativity”?


Is it possible to invent (new) media otherwise, without falling back onto their predetermined patterns, models and hierarchies?


[…] even if we are to repeat after Spinoza and then Deleuze that “we do not know what a body can do” and thus embrace the unacknowledged potential of human and nonhuman entities to transmute and produce things, perhaps knowing the difference between different acts, passions, and forms of knowledge is more significant for understanding creativity and thinking creative media than dwelling on the yet unrealised and yet unknown corporeal potential.


Criticality can save us from what we are terming “creative mania,” a desire-driven chase for originality that naively replicates the very structures and strictures of Romantic creation – albeit now dressed in the language of materialist-vitalist philosophy, with some sprinkling of biology.


“Critical attention” thus transcends human-centred intentionality by foregrounding the “entangled state of agencies” at work in any event. This is not to backtrack on what we earlier described as the theory of an inevitable but also somewhat impossible decision at the heart of which always lies a leap of faith, or to deny singularly human, ethicopolitical responsibility for such events. But it is certainly to acknowledge that what we are referring to as “human” is only a distinct entity “in a relational, not an absolute, sense” because, as Barad explains, “agencies are only distinct in relation to their mutual entanglements; they don’t exist as individual elements.’


[Reading artist Stelarc]

From this critical cybernetic perspective, the human is seen as having always been technological, or having always been mediated. To put it differently, technology and media are precisely what make us human.

[…] seeing ourselves as always already connected, as being part of the system – rather than as masters of the universe to which all beings are inferior – is an important step in developing a more critical and a more responsible relationship to the world, to what we call “man”, “nature” and “technology”.



Jean-Claude Gautrand, Publicités Kodak: 1910-1939 (Paris: Contre-jour, 1983).


The advertised image is no less ephemeral than the newspaper, the magazine or the poster that conveys it. The need to continually  repeat the commercial message, to reassess its visual impact and to avoid visual boredom leads to making a series of images that follow one another, modify one another and overlap in order to reflect tastes, fashion and present cultural trends as closely as possible. These series can even go so far as to create new habits and new needs to which they offer the right answer.

If ‘You Press the Button, we do the rest’ has remained one of the most enduring and exemplary formulas for the whole history of advertising, it has with the years accompanied series of new images that celebrate the technological improvements, which in spite of their popularity were intended for a certain social class.


André Rouillé has shown that the discovery of photography was in no way a fortuitous event, but rather the outcome of a widening gap in the nineteenth century between the rhythm for producing pictures and the new needs created by the emerging industrial and capitalist society. Reproducibility, accuracy, but also profitability were imperatives. On these bases, a mass production market was born that, as it met the  demands of new clients, also generated enormous benefits.

This commercial spiral was conditioned by the need to broadcast, promote and impose a new media through adequate advertising.

In order to understand to whom these advertised messages, which brag and impose a certain way of representation were intended, we need to go back in time in order to define the social target of this vulgarisation of the new means of reproduction, hence of knowledge.


Since the time of Daguerre’s heavy camera, technology has considerably improved but the manipulation of the hand-held camera was not yet for everyone. With the appearance of the dry bromized plate, the equipment was at last to become miniaturized; and a section of the middle class was finally to take to this new practice.

The ‘detective type’ cameras, always ready to be used casue, in turn, a small revolution: the public could now take snapshots. The nonprofessional photographer was born.

1888 was the year of the last and decisive revolution in the photographic industry. Till then photography had been the mere privilege of the privileged.


Eastman explained the philosophy of his system: ‘We provide those – men, women and children – who are able to direct a camera towards a subject and press a button with a tool that allows them to take pictures without their having any exceptional aptitude or even a special knowledge.’

A form of art that had been reserved to the upper classes came within the reach of all classes who thus acquired the possibility of ‘capturing’ all the moments of life and preserving ‘souvenirs’ in precious albums.

The marketing, in 1900, by Eastman of a simple box for taking six shots (5.5 x 5.5cm), sold for only one dollar, brought the art of photography to the most poorly off. Thousands of people in the street could take millions of pictures, simple and naive, that would be kept in their family archives; they thus entered into the logic of the producer-consumer spiral.


These photographs – a typical reflexion of capitalist society – had several purposes: promoting sales but also favouring dreams, when not enticing one to dream, in order to promote sales.

The message of these shots, celebrating the timeless aspects of a sophisticated, casual and luxurious happiness was: owning a camera is clearly a social privilege. Mass consumption was still out of sight.


Regardless of the backdrop of these advertising images, woman always remained the basic sign of the message apparently intended for her alone. Wasn’t she, on all those small posters, the only one who handled the camera? Who captured on film the masculine sports and activities of her male friend? She was a sign of the times when, for some strata of society, it was out of the question that a woman should ever do anything but conform blindly to fashion, be beautiful, smile and eventually become a mother.

Children also appeared as a favourite subject matter of advertising photography since they especially belonged to the female world.

Moments of happiness had to be captured and multiplied in order to make these albums, the true memories of families, to be leafed through in front of wide-eyed children.

The dream machine worked, as we see, perfectly well. If a half-century later, we can still thumb through these photographs, eyes brimming with emotion, the reason is that the commercial motivation has become less dominant. What we are left with is the obsolete, outmoded charm, the mellowness of the past, the melancholy poetry of these sophisticated chromos.

Elspeth H. Brown, ‘Photography and Commercial Illustration’ The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Commercial Culture, 1884 – 1929, Studies in Industry and Society (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2005). 159-216


Advertising matured as a profession in response to a new problem for American business: how to stimulate demand among consumers for the machined cornucopia of standardised products filling the shelves of American retail establishments.

Whereas earlier advocates of American productive efficiency, such as the Gilbreths, had championed the use of photography in rationalising the working body in production, by the 1920s the influence of applied psychology  had reoriented managers towards an appreciation of the mind as the critical element of rationalised consumption.

As the profile of the implied consumer shifted from that of “rational man” to “irrational woman” in the years 1908-15, photography’s realist tendencies became a problem for a new school of advertisers seeking to harness the subjective for the benefit of corporate sales.


In 1920 the home economist and advertising adviser Christine Frederick attached percentage figures to a general portrait with which advertisers had been familiar for some time: ” Women buy 48 per cent of all drugs, 96 per cent of all dry goods, 87 per cent of raw and market foods, 48.5 per cent of hardware and home furnishings.” As the purchasers of most products, women were the advertisers’ target audience. As the twenties unfolded, new audiences came into view, such as the massive working-class female readership of bernarr Macfadden’s True Story magazine. But as Roland Marchand has convincingly argued, admen tended to collapse class distinctions into a composite portrait: the typical consumer was not only a woman but a lazy, emotional, stupid one at that.



Advertisements for canned food, cameras, corsets, and carriages increasingly used photography to show a product’s selling points in realist detail. Products were displayed with the crisp insistence of edge-to-edge focus; advertisers assumed that photography’s ability to reproduce the detail, formerly lost in, for example, wood engravings or pen-and-ink drawings would sell the customer on the product’s fine workmanship.


So long as advertising photography worked within a model of rational rather than emotional appeal, this lack of mystery (referred to elsewhere as “art”) was unproblematic; sharply focussed, barely composed, and blandly presented photographic records were considered superior instruments of visual persuasion for many products.


Photography’s value as the preferred medium of efficient rationality became a distinct problem when advertisers and psychologists began to shift their model of the typical consumer from “rational man” to “emotional woman” in the first decade of the century.


Most photographic advertisements lacked what Kodak and other advertising writers throughout the twenties called “human interest”. Human interest in advertising required a story about the product, usually depicted by human figures shown using or benefitting from the product.

In 1913, Kodak sought to move photographers toward the making of “pictures that gracefully and effectively tell a story”. To meet this goal, photographers needed to move past the straightforward depiction of products required for catalog illustration to the artistic suggestion of narrative within the still image of the advertisement.


C.B.Larrabee, discussing Kodak’s superior photographic advertisements, described what advertisers were looking for as “sincere naturalness”. Kodak’s ads “seldom suggest the photographic  studio, which is the big secret that the successful commercial photographers have learned. […]”

Vilém Flusser, Gestures, trans. by Nancy Ann Roth (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014)

‘Towards a General Theory of Gestures’ pp.161-176


Gesture can be seen as a kind of movement.

What separates gestures defined in this way from other movements is their epistemological overdetermination.

When I lift my arm, I can explain the movement perfectly well as the result of a force vector affecting the arm from the outside.

The arm movement involves physiological, psychological, cultural, economic, and other factors in equal measure for example.


Yet any of these kinds of explanation leaves a residual dissatisfaction (unless one indulges in vitalism, psychologism, culturalism, economism, or simiar ideologies) because they all bypass the heart of the phenomenon.

This dissatisfaction arises from my knowledge that I lifted my arm because I wanted to. Of course, I also know that my arm movement was determined, in fact, overdetermined, as the various explanations show.

But explanations of this type (which in fact no longer explain, but “explain away”) can’t be seen as satisfying either. I know I made a free decision to lift my arm, and for this reason it is not the motives for this decision that are determining but rather the fact that I would not have lifted it if I had not wanted to. This negative side of my knowledge renders all objective explanations of the arm movement, even the dialectical ones, unsatisfying.

To this extent, the concept of “gesture” maybe defined as a movement that expresses a freedom. The gesture, as the movement it is, is in fact determined, as are all other movements, and in this sense completely explainable. But what makes it unique is that, untouched by any of this, it expresses a subjectivity that we are forced to call freedom. Accordingly, the competence of a general theory of gestures would be the study and ordering of acts of expressions of freedom.


For when I observe someone else’s arm movement, I cannot be sure of deciphering his innermost, his freedom, directly. Freedom, rather, possesses the strange capacity to hide itself in the gesture that expresses it. Freedom has the capacity to lie.

The definition can be reformulated: gesture is a movement through which a freedom is expressed, a freedom to hide from or reveal to others the one who gesticulates.


Taking that which motivates it as a criterion, gesture can be divided into two types: (1) gestures in which a human body moves and (2) gestures in which something else connected to a human body moves.


One might be inclined to say that when a gesture is technically informed, then it is no longer free (and so is no longer a gesture). But this is a naive error. For what makes a movement a gesture is not that it is free but that a freedom is “somehow” expressed in it. And “somehow” means “by means of some technology.”

The technological application of a theory of gestures would not touch on the fact that a freedom expresses itself in the gesture but on how it expresses itself. Nevertheless such an application would probably have far-reaching consequences for active being-in-the-world, for it would permit a gesticulating person to be theoretically aware of his gestures and so to draw back and away from them. Such a “formal” transcendence would surely have practical consequences. One would act differently.


We are probably in a revolutionary situation (although we cannot get an overview and therefore cannot say with certainty whether it is “objectively” revolutionary). This, our feeling of being in a revolution, manifests itself as, among other things, a sense of having to reorient ourselves to be able to act at all, as a sense of needing to develop new kinds of theories. The suggestion of a general theory of gestures came from such feelings: of gestures, because they concern the concrete phenomenon of our active being-in-the-world, and of revolution, because a revolution is always, in the end, about freedom.

Van Lier, Henri. Philosophy of Photography, Lieven Gevaert Series, 6, New ed. (Leuven: Univ. Press, 2007)

‘Part Three: Photographic Behaviours’, pp.77-78


As with all other techniques, photography poses the question of the nature of the link between equipment and human activity in general. The humanist illusion suggests that equipment is a means in the service of man, and in his control. However, from the very start, our objects and technical processes are objects-signs, or object-indices, and we are signed animals, literally constituted by them through our languages.

Furthermore, devices are not so much a meas as a milieu; and a milieu we are steeped in rather than it being at our command. In fact, photography nowadays comprises millions of apparatuses and billions of photographs and lenses. It might be we who push the shutter, but, as we have seen up to now, it is, above all, we who are triggered.

There is something peculiar about speaking so extensively of the photographic act.

It is perhaps because it concerns a domain where human action is at once both violent and most decentered, as in the case of the surgical act for instance. Both surgeon and photographer cut and trigger. And both operate on the level of living humanity, and engage with a specific death. The one works predominately with bodies, while the other predominately engages with signs.

Photography appears the most blatantly anthropocentric act, but this is without accounting for what the photographic apparatuses we produce state quite bluntly: “Put us down somewhere, allow us to release the shutter by ourselves, we will manage to make you something, to produce things often better than you have, which you will never understand absolutely anyhow, as you are concocting mostly anthropomorphic, thus irrelevant theories. […]”


Therefore, we will use the phrase photographic behavior, without denying the link between the photographic and surgical act, and without failing to recognize there are scientifically, artistically, commercially, and erotically committed photographers.

Following from the indicial and therefore overlapping nature of the photograph, these behaviors will not be as distinct and separable as is the case with sign systems. In addition it will also prove difficult to clearly distinguish the one who makes the photograph from the one who looks at it. Thus we will consider them together when addressing the major attitudes or behaviors.

Van Lier, Henri. Philosophy of Photography, Lieven Gevaert Series, 6, New ed. (Leuven: Univ. Press, 2007)

‘Part Two: Photographic Initiatives’


Up until photography’s arrival on the scene, human beings had a sense of mastery and creation in almost every domain. Both artisans and artists were responsible for their project just as much as for the means used in drawing, sculpting and writing.

If the painter’s canvas or the sculptor’s stone were replaced by the writer’s paper, nothing substantially changed in the triangle of model, creator and work. As for technology, it was a simple tool, a means in the service of human intentions, the latter alone being really respectable and originary.

The photograph radically changed this situation, that is to say, it changed the entire system of traditional culture. This is mainly due to the fact that the initiative of the photographer only takes place after other initiatives, namely those of the technician, of natural light, and of the spectacle with its structures and actors.

Indeed we have left behind anthropocentrism and humanism in favor of a more biological, universal, technical, semiotic and indicial perspective. In addition, our attempt at understanding all these incessant mutations has created a techno-logical, cosmo-logical, physio-logical, semio-logical and indicio-logical mindset.

Van Lier, Henri. Philosophy of Photography, Lieven Gevaert Series, 6, New ed. (Leuven: Univ. Press, 2007)

Part Two: Photographic Initiatives: 4. The Initiative of the Photographer: Trap and Switch Mediumism, pp.71-74


Photographs, even of psychological or social situations, are obtained through the automatic application of objectives, films, developers, and fixatives; they frequently offer interesting or even important results, while texts or aleatory paintings hardly ever do. Still there are those effects that can only be obtained through the intervention of a human agent, the photographer. Both optional and last, and yet miraculous, the photographer undoubtedly has a status even more difficult to define that that of the photographs he makes, or, to be more precise, he helps to make.

Like the sexual act, the photographic activity has its stage of arousal, a stagnant phase, a phase of quasi vegetative triggering, followed by he various stages of pregnancy in the darkroom with its techniques of burning and dodging, cutouts and re-centerings, and various layouts before reaching a resolution in simple or multiple deliveries.

In this metaphor, the moment of the shot is the orgasmic instant.


Cartier-Bresson speaks of his tiptoeing in order to find the most intense angle and what he himself dubbed ‘the decisive moment’. He compares the release of the shutter to a fencer making a lunge.

What is essential to the role of the photographer is vision, photographic vision.

One has concluded too rashly that the photographer as shot-taker is a ‘hunter of images’. The word conjures up loading, to aim, fire, and capture; to take, shoot and snap. However the camera is certainly not a revolver, despite the sound of the shutter and the phallic protuberance exploited in publicity. Neither is it, to keep with the sexual imagery, a suction pump.

The camera is rather a trap that must lead its prey into getting caught. The photographer as shot-taker resembles the hunter-trapper. The trapper is as passive as he is active. For the animal to enter man’s scheme, man must take in beforehand the animal’s behavior.


 The word trapper is used by North American Indians and indicates precisely the complicity between the hunter and his prey as the uttermost brotherhood.


The classic trope of the proximity between photography and sexuality is evocative only if one keeps in mind the idea of a reciprocal rhythmic coaptation.

In addition, the metaphor of the trap also indicates that the photographer remains on the outside. The trapper is satisfied with connecting the trap with the prey. The photographer as shot-taker connects the spectacle of the camera obscura. He never sees exactly as the film ‘sees’.

If the viewfinder is distinct from the lens, the eye sees simultaneously with the camera, but from another point of view. If we are dealing with a reflex camera, the eye sees from the same place as the camera, but at another moment, i.e. prior to it.

What strange type of hunter-trapper is this who does not even catch his prey but merely its traces? And what to think of ‘game’ consisting of wild rabbits, the curves of a lover’s smile and Orion’s nebula?


If it is true that even a highly indexed and indicial photograph contains fragments of reality against the frame of the real, then every photograph is mediumistic. Innocently or not, both the photographer as developer, printer and the one responsible for the layout, and especially the photographer as the taker of shots are mediums – mediums between reality and the real.

Here, the English language can help us, as medium applies at the same time to the object as to the subject, to the photograph and the photographer at the moment of capture, so that both are not quite separable. Furthermore, in its meaning of intermediate, the word medium brings out that, for the photo as well as for the photographer, we are not dealing with mediation or dialectic, which are unifications proper to signs, nut only with go-betweens, like the interventions of stockbrokers – suited to overlapping centripetal and centrifugal indices – for the most substantial activation of mental schemas.

Van Lier, Henri. Philosophy of Photography, Lieven Gevaert Series, 6, New ed. (Leuven: Univ. Press, 2007)

Part Two: Photographic Initiatives: I. The Initiative of Industrial Technology, pp.54-58


[…] the different technical combinations inflecting the photographic processes of each epoch are divided amongst the classical masters of the history of photography, each one of them pushing the technical possibilities available at that time to their extremes, just like ancient artists used to do. A photographer’s “photographic subject”, that is to say his systematic exploitation of particular perceptual field effects, is intricately bound to this choice, much in the same way a painter’s “pictorial subject” was bound to the props, pigments and media he had at his disposal.


However, a photographer does not depend on his apparatuses and his lenses in the same manner that Beethoven depended on his piano makers, who were few and lived close by. Someone using photography depends on a photographic technician who sees to thousands f individuals all over the world. who in their turn depend on a gigantic planetary processing, i.e. photography.

In fact, for every shot or zoom lens, for every film, developer or  fixative to be possible at a given moment in time, it is necessary that at least three conditions are met. Marketing engineers must be aware of the conscious and unconscious desires of a truly international market. Throughout the world, these desire, which often form technically incompatible combinations, must be supplied in compatible combinations whose elements are to be given form by either physical engineers for the lenses, or either chemists, for the film. The moment these combinations are known, their means of production must enter the harsh manufacturing and distributional competition governing the global market.

Of course singular developments might occur, as with Edwin H. Land, who was simultaneously the designer, producer and marketer of the Polaroid. However, even this case  presupposes a strong connection between the industrial and the scientific. Land was anything but an artisan. Photography places its users within a multi-dimensional and planetary technical network, putting the species to work so to speak.

This international process, defines a kind of homo photographicus. The latter undoubtably began as a realist. What mattered most was that photographic representations rendered things not as they physically behave, but as they appear to us after perceptual correction.

Especially in the West, man as technician, as well as technology are thus subordinated to man as user-consumer.

However, the position of a planetary homo photographicus also produced an inverse subordination, in which technology, changed by its own logic, modifies the perceptual and mental habits of human beings. An example of this concerns recent cartography, where one can see a photograph couple to a computer offering geographical and historical positions in curved space that are neither subjected to orthogonal arrangements, nor to realistic colours, nor to recognisable measuring standards. However we are not disturbed; instead we concentrate and treat it as obvious.

Crossing cultural barriers, the photograph, together with other planetary processes such as the computer, sound, the car and the plane, has therefore given birth to a more topological than geometric appropriation and understanding that activates mental schemas in an operative rather than conceptual or ideal fashion, where data processing is pivotal and where the real has precedence over reality and realism.


Anyone present at a convention of photographers, as if at an ancient Church Synod, could see members of this semi-fraternal and semi-aggressive movement passing around equipment from hand to hand, with everyone touching, weighing and handling it, not so much so as to discover what one already knows, but to participate in a ritual, a cult.

The camera is not an object. It is a relay in a process or network, just like his acoustic brother, the tape recorder. And the network, as Gilbert Simonden pointed out has become one of the places for the contemporary sacred.

In the information-noise and signs-indices of the Universe to which we are exposed, the unrestrained excess of man’s technical devices, or more precisely his technical environment, which is not merely a means, is more often than not the most pertinent to the system. Besides, what does one mean with pertinence when studying luminous, possibly indicial and possibly indexed imprints.

Thus, the photograph is one of three or four spaces – together with sound, lighting, the computer, the car, and the airplane – that manifests the true initiatory character of technology in our contemporary world. In this sense, photography is not only technical but technological.

Väliaho, Pasi. ‘Simulation, Automata, Cinema: A Critique of Gestures’, Theory & Event, 8:2 (2005) pp.1-39



The experimental, bare life that the hysterical body crystallizes in its distorted gestures, spasmodic jerks and abnormal physiognomy is rendered visible and known — and perhaps even brought into existence — by modern technological media.

‘Understanding Debt as the Basis of Social Life’ The Indebted Man ( ) 13-


“With the explosion of “precarious” work (short-term, occasional, seasonal, temporary) advantageous to business, the compensation system is now “structrually” in the red.


The deepening national debt is one of the principal results of neoliberal policies, which have sought, since the mid-1970s, to transform the financing structure of Welfare-State spending.


This is what is called “Central Bank Independence,” which, translated into normal language, means in practice a dependence on markets, since these laws make it necessary to turn to private creditors and submit to the conditions dictated by shareholders, bondholders, and the other owners of securities.


The “capture” of value also affects businesses. Neoliberal policies have transformed them into mere financial assets as they “pay more money to their shareholders than their shareholders pay out.

In the US and the UK, the level of household debt relative to disposable income is, respectively, 120% and 140%.


Through consumption, we maintain an unwitting relationship with the debt economy. We carry with us the creditor-debtor relation – in our pockets and wallets, encoded in the magnetic strip on our credit cards.

Indeed this little strip of plastic hides two seemingly harmless operations: the automatic institution of the credit relation, which thereby establishes permanent debt. The credit card is the simplest way to transform its owner into a permanent debtor, an “indebted man” for life.

Through the simple mechanism of interest, colossal sums are transferred from the population, business, and the Welfare State to creditors.

The so-called “real” economy and business are but aspects of the capitalist process of valorisation, accumulation, and exploitation: “On closer examination, the financial system is perhaps the most oppressive.” [Gabriel Ardent]


Credit is “one of the most effective instruments of exploitation man has managed to create, since certain people, by producing credit, are able to appropriate the labor and wealth of others.”


What the media calls “speculation” represents a machine for capturing and preying on surplus value in conditions created by modern-day capitalist accumulation, conditions in which it is impossible to distinguish rent from profit.

The process converting control over capital production and property, which began in Marx’s time, is now complete. The “actual functioning capitalist”, as Marx noted long ago, is transformed into “a mere manager, in charge of other people’s capital,” and “the capital owner” into a financial capitalist or rentier.

We must therefore remove all moral connotations from the notion of rent. The euthanasia of the rentier, his eviction from the economy, contrary to what Keynes had in mind, which was that it become the watchword of capitalist restructuring following the 1929 crisis, would not mean the euthanasia of “speculation” but of capitalism itself. It would mean that the death of private property and patrimony, the two political mainstays of neoliberal economies.

All of modern-day capitalist accumulation is, moreover, comparable to rent.


The real estate market, the continual rise in housing prices, constitutes a kind of rent […] in the same way we pay a rent for intellectual property each time we buy a product covered by copyright.


Reducing finance to its speculative function neglects its political role as representative of “social capital” (Marc), which industrial capitalist will not and cannot concede, as well as its function as “collective capitalist” (Lenin, which, through governmental practices, bears on society as a whole. It also neglects the “productive” function of finance, its ability to make profits.

Moreover it is impossible to operate finance from production, since the former in an integral part of every sector of the economy.


Neoliberalism has pushed for the integration of monetary, banking, and financial systems by using techniques revelatory of its aim of making the creditor-debtor relationship a centrepiece of politics.

In the current crisis the relation between owners (of capital) and non-owners (of capital) has expanded its hold over all other social relations.


We do not intend here to analyse “finance”, its internal mechanisms, the logic guiding traders’ decisions, etc., but rather the relation between creditor and debtor.

In other words, contrary to what economists, journalists, and other “experts” never tire of repeating, finance is not an excess of speculation that must be regulated, a simple capitalist function ensuring investment. Nor is it an expression of the greed and rapaciousness of “human nature” which must be rationally mastered. It is, rather, a power relation.

Debt is finance from the point of view of the debtors who have to replay it. Interest in finance from the point of view of creditors, security-holders who guarantee they benefit from debt.


Now that we have established that the current crises are not the result of some kind of uncoupling of finance and production, of the so-called “virtual” and the “real” economy, but are instead indicative of the bank of power between creditors and debtor, we shall now examine the growing hold of debt on neoliberal politics.

If debt is indeed central to understanding, and thus combating, neoliberalism, it is because neoliberalism has, since its emergence, been founded on a logic of debt.


States have not stopped at opening up financial markets, however; they have assisted in establishing the organisations and structures needed for them to thrive.


Monetary policies, wage-deflation policies, Welfare State policies (reductions in public spending), and fiscal policies (transfers of several points of GDP to corporations and the populations wealthiest in all industrialized countries) have come together to create enormous public and private debt.

Debt reduction, which is now the order of the day in all countries, does not run counter to debt creation, since debt serves to prolong and expand the neoliberal political program.

On the one hand, it means taking back control of “social issues” and Welfare State spending through austerity measures, that is, taking back control of revenue, time (of retirement, vacation, etc.), and the social services that have been wrested through social struggle from capitalist accumulation.


On the other hand, it means pursuing and expanding the process of privatisation of Welfare State services, that is, transforming them into a sector for accumulation and profitability for private enterprise.


The privatisation of social insurance mechanisms, the individualization of social policies, and the drive to make social protections a function of business constitute the foundations of the debt economy.

Debt acts as a “capture,” “predation,” and “extraction” machine on the whole of society, as an instrument for macroeconomic prescription and management, and as a mechanism for income redistribution. It also functions as a mechanism for the production and “government” of collective and individual subjectivities.


[Orléan]: “ We have moved from Fordist regulation, which privileged the industrial and debtor side, to financial regulation, which prioritizes the financial and creditor side.”

The creditor-debtor relationship encompasses capita/labor, Welfare-State services/users, and business/consumer relations, just as it cuts through them, instituting users, workers, and consumers as “debtors”.

The “morality” of debt results in the moralisation of the unemployed, the “assisted”, the users of public services, as well as of entire populations.


The power of debt in inscribed as if it were exercised neither through repression nor trough ideology. The debtor is “free”, but his actions, his behaviour, are confined to the limits defined by the debt he has entered into. […] You are free insofar as you assume the way of life (consumption, work, public spending, taxes etc.) compatible with reimbursement.

The creditor’s power over the debtor very much resembles Foucault’s last definition of power: an action carried out on another action, an action that keeps the person over which power is exercise “free”.


Neoliberalism governs through multiple power relations: creditor-debtor, capital-labor, welfare programs-user, consumer-business, etc. But debt is a universal power relation, since everyone is included within it.

We are no longer the inheritors of original sin but rather of the debt of preceding generations.

The concept of speculation only covers one aspect of how debt works and prevents us from seeing how it produces, distributes, captures, and shapes subjectivity.


Viewing debt as the archetype of social relations means two things.

On the one hand, it mean conceiving economy and society on the basis of an asymmetry of power and not on that of a commercial exchange that implies and presupposes equality. It introduces power differentials between social groups and redefines money, since debt is immediately present as a command, as the power of destruction/creation over the economy and society.

On the other hand, from this perspective debt means immediately making the economy subjective, since debt is an economic relation to which, in order to exist, implies the holding and control of subjectivity such that “labor” becomes indistinguishable from “work on the self”. Throughout the present essay we intend to corroborate, in light of debt, a truth concerning the entire history of capitalism: what one defines as “economy” would be quite simply impossible without the production and control of subjectivity and its forms of life.


The production of subjectivity, of forms of life, of forms of existence, is not part of a superstructure, but rather of an “economic” infrastructure. Moreover, in the current economy. the production of subjectivity reveals itself to be the primary and most important form of production, the “commodity” that goes into the production of all other commodities.


With regard to money, the authors [Deleuze & Guattari] maintain that it does not derive from exchange, from mere circulation, from the commodity; nor does it constitute the sign or representation of labor. It is instead the expression of an asymmetry of forces, a power to prescribe and impose modes of future exploitation, domination, and subjection.

Money is first of all debt-money, created ex nihilo, which has no material equivalent other than its power to destroy/create social relations and in particular, modes of subjectivation.

Lorey, Isabell. ‘Becoming Common: Precarization as Political Constituting’ e-flux journal #17 (June-August 2010) 1-10 []


In the past decade, conversations concerning both the (partly subversive) knowledge of the precarious, and a search for commons (in order to constitute the political), has conspicuously taken place more often in art institutions than in social, political, or even academic contexts.

It became possible to articulate a critique of the ambivalent role of art institutions: on the one hand, institutions in the art field were the site of critical discussions of neoliberal transformation processes; on the other, such institutions were important players in the game of cognitive capitalism and increasing precarization tendencies.


Precarization is by no means a phenomenon that first affects social groups imagined to be at the margins before moving into the center to affect the so-called middle class – those who have secured their position within the capitalist production regime, and who are therefore able to fortify and improve their social position. A model of this kind, based on precarious margins and a threatened center, does not do justice to the remodeling and outright dismantling of social security systems in Europe. It is a development that reached the so-called center a long time ago, with the massive reduction of permanent employment contracts and the increase in temporary jobs sometimes calling for a high degree of mobility, with or without minimal social security benefits such as health insurance, paid holidays, or pensions.

Neoliberal societies are now governed internally through social insecurity, which means providing the minimum possible social security. Precarization is currently in a process of normalization, taking its cue from administrative strategies that were problematic even before Fordism. Just as the Fordist social welfare state represents a historical exception, so too can precarious working conditions be understood as an anomaly or deviation.

This administrative logic no longer focuses on regulating fixed differences in identity, but regulates the “absolute poverty” that could prevent individuals from being competitive.

If precarization has become a governmental instrument of normalization surpassing specific groups and classes, then social and political battles themselves should not assume differential separations and hierarchies. Rather, those who wage such battles should look specifically for what they have in common in the midst of normalization: a desire to make use of the productivity of precarious living and working conditions to change these modes of governing, a means of working together to refuse and elude them.


In addition, particularly among leftists, one has to be reminded that expressions of solidarity with the mostly migrant “others” not only leave one’s “own” position unquestioned, but also victimize the “poor others” and deny them their own capacity for political action.


Within the framework of EuroMayDay, rather than sealing off identity categories between precarious creatives on the one hand and the excluded precarious workers on the other (the white “lower class,” migrants, or illegalized persons), alliances between class and status were forged to bring together precarious cultural producers, knowledge workers, migrant organizations, initiatives of the unemployed, organizations of illegalized persons, and also unions. Thus the subject of repeated debates concerned how modes of refiguring the subject – and thus identitary logics – could be deconstructed to find a new language of politics capable of widening the field of political possibilities.

There is an important presupposition for both a political and a theoretical perspective of the common: the new figure of work based on communication, knowledge, creativity, and affect is by no means productive only for a new phase of capitalist accumulation.

The economization of the social, the confluence of work and life, the demands to involve the whole person in immaterial and affective work – in other words, the capitalization of modes of subjectification – are not total, comprehensive, or wholly determined. There are always surpluses, possibilities for articulation, and potentialities of resistance.

Modes of subjectification are not completely absorbed into the normative state, or into economic interpellations of flexibility, mobility, and affective and creative labor. In insecure, flexibilized, and discontinuous working and living conditions, subjectifications arise that do not wholly correspond to a neoliberal logic of exploitation, which also resist and refuse.

The value produced by forms of work primarily based in communication and affect, on exchange with others, cannot be entirely measured, as these activities transgress the terms required by Fordist industrial labor. 14 What is unforeseen, contingent, and also precarious, emerges at many moments in the process of precarization, and an inherent aspect of this precarization is the capacity for refusal, and hence precarization is a process of recomposing work and life, of sociality, which thus cannot be – not immediately, not so quickly, and perhaps not even at all – economicized.

What was needed in the early 2000s (and is still needed today) was knowledge about both different forms of precarization and the practices of refusal and subversion newly emerging in them.

The practice of militant research seeks to initiate interest, emancipation, debates, social struggles, and to amplify movements searching for better ways of living and working.


The precarious have no common identity, only common experiences.

Precarization refers to the very laborious practice of queering multiple positions and appeals at the same time and one after another. Taken this way, precarization also indicates the impossibility of disambiguation, the impossibility of an identitary standstill.

Here precarization also means the experience of dealing with simultaneous multiplicities, with the heterogeneity of ascriptions and interpellations. Different singularities are not constituted through individuality, through inseparability, but rather through that which they share with others, what they take part in, to what extent, and how they become common with others, how they become a constituent power.

To be able to imagine this becoming-common as political agency, rather than regard the concept of the common as a social ontological constitution (as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri most recently suggested again in Commonwealth), I would like to focus on another concept from Negri that has meanwhile dropped out of sight somewhat, namely the concept of constituent power.

In making demands for political and social rights, it can certainly be necessary to (strategically) refer to an ontologically grounded common, the common that strives for equality, for equal opportunities in the midst of difference. But to be able to act together with others at all, this common has to mean something other than a basic ontological category. Because this “common” is something that must first emerge, that has first to be put together, that does not yet exist. There is no community that emerges here, no association or opportunity for disambiguation, but rather a constituency in the process of fleeing from notions of community.

This kind of constituting is to be understood like a mosaic, as a joining together of many single, already existing pieces, singularities, allowing something new to emerge in the manner of the arrangement.

Conflicts and confrontations, however, are not the sole basis for the common. Confrontations – in the sense of taking apart and taking sides behind different fronts – are an expression of refusals and resistances, on the basis of which a constituent power is first able to develop. Without conflicts, without social struggles, constituent power, which is needed to set a process of constituting in motion, remains a set of merely latent, singular potentialities.

Butler conceives the general precariousness of life, the vulnerability of the body, not simply as a threat or a danger, from which protection is absolutely needed. Precariousness distinguishes that which makes up life in general – human as well as non-human. Butler formulates an ontology that can only be understood as embedded in social and political conditions. Vulnerability becomes an extension of birth, because initial survival already depends on social networks, on sociality and labor.


Precarity – or, in my terms, precarization – as an effect of specific conditions of domination means, on the one hand, that this is not the ontological concept of precariousness, but rather a political concept (as Butler makes clear). Yet, on the other, precarity is therefore not to be understood as determinate but, on the contrary (although Butler does not make this sufficiently clear) as decidedly productive: in its productivity as an instrument of governance and a condition of economic exploitation, and also as a productive, always incalculable, and potentially empowering subjectification.

Unlike ontological precariousness, political precarity crosses all categories of identity and cannot be contained within them.

The European movements of the precarious and their associated theoretical discourses have been able to identify commonalities through precarization – unreasonable demands as well as opportunities – and have left identity politics behind.

Bishop, Claire. “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents” in Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012) pp. 11-40


[on Debord]

Given the market’s near total saturation of our image repertoire, so the argument goes, artistic practice can no longer revolve around the construction of objects to be consumed by a passive bystander. Instead, there must be an art of action, interfacing with reality, taking steps – however small – to repair the social bond.

[Bishop cites a number of writers]


Alongside a discourse of spectacle, advanced art of the last decade has seen a renewed affirmation of collectivity and a denigration of the individual, who becomes synonymous with the values of Cold War liberalism and its transformation into neoliberalism, that is, the economic practice of private property rights, free markets and free trade.

Even if a work of art is not directly participatory, references to community, collectivity (be this lost or actualised) and revolution are sufficient to indicate a critical distance towards the neoliberal new world order. Individualism, by contrast, is viewed with suspicion, not least because the commercial art system and museum programming continue to revolve around lucrative single figures.

Participatory projects in the social field therefore seem to operate with a twofold gesture of opposition and amelioration. They work against dominant market imperatives by diffusing single authorship into collaborative activities that, in the words of Kester, transcend ‘the snares of negation and self-interest’.


Instead of supplying the market with commodities, participatory art is perceived to channel art’s symbolic capital towards constructive social change.


But the urgency of this social task has led to a situation in which socially collaborative practices are all perceived to be equally important artistic gestures of resistance: there can be no failed, unsuccessful, unresolved, or boring works of participatory art, because all are equally essential to the task of repairing the social bond.

While sympathetic to the latter ambition, I would argue that it is also crucial to discuss, analyse and compare this work critically as art, since this is the institutional field in which it is endorsed and disseminated, even while the category of art remains a persistent exclusion in bates about such projects.

[discussion of New Labour policies and result for arts funding]


[Bishop critiques Francois Matarasso’s report]

[…] social participation is viewed positively because it creates submissive citizens who respect authority and accept the ‘risk’ and responsibility of looking after themselves in the face of diminished public services.

The social inclusion agenda is therefore less about repairing the social bond than a mission to enable all members of society to be self-administrating, fully functioning consumers who do not rely on the welfare state and who can cope with a deregulated, privatised world. As such, the neoliberal idea of community doesn’t seek to build social relations, but rather to erode them […]

[Discussion of recent politics and ‘Big society’]

The UK is not alone in this tendency. Northern Europe has experienced a transformation of the 1960s discourse of participation, creativity and community; these terms no longer occupy a subversive, anti-authoritarian force, but have become a cornerstone of post-industrial economic policy. From the 1990s to the crash in 2008, ‘creativity’ was one of the major buzz words in the ‘new economy’ that came to replace heavy industry and commodity production.

Foucault, Michel. “The Prose of the World” The Order of Things (Oxon: Routledge, 2008[1970]) 19-50


Up until the end of the sixteenth century, resemblance played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western culture. It was resemblance that largely guided exegesis and the interpretation of texts; it was resemblance that organised the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them.

And representation – whether in the service of pleasure or of knowledge – was posited as a form of repetition: the theatre of life or the mirror of nature, that was the claim made by all language, it’s manner of declaring its existence and of formulating it’s right of speech.


[discussion of ‘convenience’]


Conveniantia is a resemblance connected with space in the form of a graduated scale of proximity. It is of the same order as conjunction and adjustment.


[discussion of ‘aemulatio’]

There is something in emulation of the reflection and the mirror: it is the means by whereby things scattered through the universe can answer one another.

The human face, From afar, emulates the sky, and just as man’s intellect is an imperfect reflection of God’s wisdom, so his two eyes, with their limited brightness, are a reflection of the vast illumination spread across the sky by sun and moon; the mouth is Venus, since it gives passage to kisses and words of love; the nose provides an image in miniature of Jive’s sceptre and Mercury’s staff.

The relation of emulation enables things to imitate one another from one end of the universe to the other without connection or proximity: by duplicating in itself a mirror the world abolishes the distance proper to it; in this way it overcomes the place allotted to each thing.

But which of these reflections coursing through space a the original images? Which is the reality and which is the projection? It is not often possible to say, for emulation is a sort of natural twinship existing in things; it arises from a fold in being, the two sides of which stand immediately opposite to be another.

However, emulation does not leave the two reflected figures it has confronted in a merely inert state of opposition. One may be weaker and therefore receptive to the stronger influence of the other, which is thus reflected in his passive mirror.

Are not the stars, for example, dominant over the plants of the earth, of which they are the unchanged model, the unalterable form, and over which they have been secretly empowered to pour the whole dynasty of their influences.


Emulation is posited in the first place in the form of mere reflection, furtive and distant; it traverses the spaces of the universe in silence. But the distance it crosses is not annulled by the subtle metaphor of emulation; it remains open to the eye. And in this duel, the two confronting figures seize upon one another. Like envelops like, which in turn surround the other, perhaps to be enveloped oce more in a duplication which can continue ad infinitum. The links of emulation, unlike the elements of convenientia, do not form a chain but rather series of concentric circles reflecting and rivalling one another.


[on analogy]

Like the latter [emulation], it makes possible the marvellous confrontation of resemblances across space; but it also speaks, like the former, of bonds and joints. Its power is immense, for the similitudes of which it speaks are not the visible, substantial ones between things themselves; they need only be the more subtle resemblances of relations.

Disencumbered thus, it can extend, from a single given point, to an endless number of relationships.

There does exist, however, in this space, furrowed in every direction, one particularly privileged point: it is saturated with analogies (all analogies can find one of their terms there), and as they pass through it, their relations may be inverted without losing any of their force.


This point is man: he stands in proportion to the heavens, just as he does to animals and plants, and as he does also to the earth, to metals, to stalactites or storms, upright between the surfaces of the universe, he stands in relation to the firmament (his face is to his body what the face of heaven is to the ether; his pulse beats in his veins as the stars circle the sky according to their own fixed paths; the seven orifices in his head are to his face what the seven planets are to the sky); but he is also the fulcrum upon which all these relations turn, so that we find them again, their similarity unimpaired, in the analogy of the human animal to the earth it inhabits: his flash is a glee, his bones are rocks, his veins great rivers, his bladder is the sea, and his seven principal organs are the metals hidden in the shafts of mines.


Man’s body is always the possible half of a universal atlas.


The space occupied by analogies is really a space of radiation. Man is surrounded by it on every side; but, inversely, he transmits these resemblances back into the world from which he receives them. He is the great fulcrum of proportions- the centre upon which relations are concentrated and from which they are once again reflected.

Lastly, the fourth form of resemblance is provided by the play of sympathies. And here, no path has been determined in advance, no distance laid down, no links prescribed. Sympathy plays through the depths of the universe in a free state.

It can traverse the vastest spaces in an instant: it falls like a thunderbolt from the distant planet upon the man ruled by that planet; on the other hand it can be brought into being by a simple contact – as with those ‘mourning roses that have been used as obsequies’ which, simply from their former adjacency with death, will render all those who smell them ‘ sad and moribund’.

But such is its power that sympathy is not content to spring from a single contact and speed through space; it excites the things of the world to movement and can draw even the most distant of them together.

Sympathy is an nstance of the Same so strong and so insistent that it will not rest content to me merely one of the forms of likeness; it has the dangerous power of assimilating, of rendering things identical to one another, of mingling them, of causing their individuality to disappear – and thus of rendering them foreign to what they were before.

Sympathy transforms.


It alters, but in the direction of identity, so that if it’s power were not counterbalanced it would reduce the world to a point, to a homogenous mass, to the featureless form of the Same: all its parts would hold together and communicate with one another without a break, with no distance between them, like those metal chains held suspended by sympathy to the attraction of a single magnet.


This is why sympathy is compensated for by its twin, antipathy. Antipathy maintains the isolation of things and prevents their assimilation; it encloses every species within its impenetrable difference and it’s propensity to continue being what it is.


The identity of things, the fact that they can resemble others and be drawn to them, though without being swallowed up or losing their singularity – this is what is assuring by the constant counterbalancing of sympathy and antipathy.


Because of the movement and the dispersion created by its laws, the sovereignty of the sympathy-antipathy pair gives rise to all the forms of resemblance. The first three similitudes are thus resumed and explained by it. The whole volume of the world, all the adjacent is of ‘convenience’, all the echoes of emulation, all the linkages of analogy, are supported, maintained, and doubled by this space governed by sympathy and antipathy, which are ceaselessly drawing things together and holding them apart. By means of this interplay, the world remains identical; resemblances continue to be what they are, and to resemble one another. The same remains the same, riveted onto itself.


Convenientia, aemulatio, analogy, and sympathy tell us how the world must fold in on itself, duplicate itself, reflect itself, or form a chain with itself so that things can resemble one another. They tell us what the paths of similitude are and the directions they take; but not where it is, how one see it, or by what mark it may be recognized.

The are no resemblances without signatures. The world of similarity can only be a world of signs.


The system of signatures reverses the relation of the visible to the invisible. Resemblance was the invisible form of that which, from the depths of the world, made things visible; but in order that this form may be brought out into the light in its turn there must be an visible figure that will draw it out from its profound invisibility.

This is why the face of the world is covered with blazons, with characters, with ciphers and obscure words […]

And the space inhabited by immediate resemblances becomes like a vast open book; it bristles with written signs; every page is seen to be filled with strange figures that intertwine and in some places repeat themselves.

The great untroubled mirror in whose depths things gazed at themselves and reflected their own images back to one another is, in reality, filled with the murmur of words. The mute reflections all have corresponding words which indicate them.




Resemblances require a signature, for none of them would ever become observable were it not legibly marked.


Let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to make the signs speak and to discover their meaning, hermeneutics; let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to distinguish the location of the signs, to determine what constitutes them as signs, and to how and by what laws they are linked, semiology: the sixteenth century superimposed hermeneutics and semiology in the form of similitude.

To search for a meaning is to bring to light a resemblance. To search for the law governing signs is to discover the things that are alike. The grammar of beings is an exegesis of these things. And what the language they speak has to tell us is quite simply what the syntax is that binds them together.

The natured things, their co-existence, the way in which they communicate is nothing other than their resemblance. And that resemblance is visible only in the network of signs that crosses the world from one end to the other.

Everything would be manifest and immediately knowable if the hermeneutics of resemblance and the semiology of signatures coincided without the slightest parallax. But because the similitudes that form the graphics of the world are one ‘cog’ out of alignment with those that form its discourse, knowledge and the infinite labour it involves find here the space that is proper to them: it is their task to weave their way across this distance,mousing an endless zigzag course from resemblance to what resembles it.


[discussion of the “microcosm” in the sixteenth century]

In an episteme in which signs and similitudes were wrapped around one another in an endless spiral, it was essential that the relation of microcosm to macrocosm should be conceived as both the guarantee of that knowledge and the limit of its expansion.


The is no difference between marks and words in the sense that there is between observation and accepted authority, or between verifiable fact and tradition. The process everywhere is the same: that of the sign and it’s likeness, and this is why nature and the word can intertwine with one another to infinity, forming, for those who can read it, one vast single text.

In the sixteenth century, real language is not a totality of independent signs, a uniform and unbroken entity in which things could be reflected one by one, as in a mirror, and so express their particular truths.


In its raw, historical sixteenth-century being, language is not an arbitrary system; it has been set down in the world and forms a part of it, both because things themselves hide and manifest their own enigma like a language and because words offer themselves to men as things to be deciphered.


The great metaphor of the book that one opens, that one pores over and reads in order to know nature, is merely the reverse and visible side of another transference and a much deeper one, which forces language to reside in the world, among the plants, the herbs, the stones, and the animals.

Language partakes in the world-wide dissemination of similitudes and signatures. It must, therefore, be studied itself as a thing in nature. Like animals, plants, or stars, its elements have their laws of affinity and convenience, their necessary analogies.

[description of Ramus’ division of grammar into etymology and syntax]

The study of grammar in the sixteenth century is based upon the same epistemological arrangement as the science of nature or the esoteric disciplines.

Language stands halfway between the visible forms of nature and the secret conveniences of esoteric discourse.


It is a fragmented nature, divided against itself and deprived of its original transparency by admixture; it is a secret that carries within itself, though near the surface, the decipherable signs of what it is trying to say.


It is at the same time a buried revelation and a revelation that is gradually being restored to ever greater clarity.

Languages became separated and incompatible with one another only in so far as they had previously lost this original resemblance to the things that had been the prime reason for the existence of language. All the languages known to us are now spoken only against the background of this lost similitude, and in the space that it left vacant.


But though language no longer bears an immediate resemblance to the things it names, this does not mean that it is separate from the world: it still continues, in another form, to be the locus of revelations and to be included in the area where truth is both manifested and expressed.

[description of five forms of writing across the world (left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top and in spirals)]


The relationship of languages to the world is one of analogy rather than of signification; or rather, their value as signs and their duplicating function are superimposed; they speak the heaven and earth of which they are the image; they reproduce in their most material architecture the cross whose coming they announce – that coming which establishes its existence in its own turn through the Scriptures and the Word. Language possesses a symbolic function; but since the disaster at Babel we must no longer seek for it – with rare exceptions – in the words themselves but rather in the very existence of language, in its total relation to the totality of the world, in the intersecting of its space with the loci and forms of the cosmos.


Hence the form of the encyclopaedic project as it appears at the end of the sixteenth century or in the first years of the seventeenth […] to reconstitute the very order of the universe by the way in which words are linked together and arranged in space.

But in any case, such an interweaving of language and things, n a space common to both, presupposes an absolute privilege on the part of writing.

This privilege dominated the entire Renaissance, and was no doubt one of the great events in Western culture. Printing, the arrival in Europe of Oriental manuscripts, the appearance of a literature no longer created for the voice or performance and therefore not governed by them, the precedence given to the interpretation of religious texts over the tradition and magisterium of the Church – all these things bear witness, without its being possible to indicate causes and effects, to the fundamental place accorded in the West to Writing.

Henceforth, it is the primal nature of language to be written.


The sounds made by voices provide no more than a transitory and precarious translation of it. What God introduced into the world was written words; Adam, when he imposed their first names upon the animals did no more than read those visible and silent marks; the law was entrusted to the Tablets, not to men’s memories; and it is in a book that the true Word must be found again.


Esoterism in the sixteenth century is a phenomenon of the written word, not the spoken word. At all events, the latter is stripped of all its powers; it is merely the female part of language, Vigenere and Duret tell us, just as its intellect is passive; Writing on the other hand, is the active intellect, the ‘male principle’ of language. It alone harbours the truth.

This primacy of the written word explains the twin presence of two forms which, despite their apparent antagonism, are indissociable in sixteenth century knowledge. The first of these is a non-distinction between what is seen and what is read, between observation and relation, which results in the constitution of a single, unbroken surface in which observation and language intersect to infinity. And the second, the inverse of the first, is an immediate dissociation of all language, duplicated, without any assignable term, by the constant reiteration of commentary.


To know an animal or a plant, or any terrestrial thing whatever is to gather together the whole dense layer of signs with which it or they may have been covered; it is to rediscover also all the constellations of forms from which they derive their value as heraldic signs.

Knowledge therefore consisted in relating one form of language to another form of language; in restoring the great unbroken plain of words and things; in making everything speak.


Scriptural commentary, commentaries on Ancient authors, commentaries on the accounts of travellers, commentaries on legends and fables: none of these forms of discourse is required to justify its claim to be expressing a truth before it is interpreted; all that is required of it is the possibility of talking about it.

The task of commentary can never, by definition, be completed. And yet, commentary is directed entirely towards the enigmatic, murmured element of the language being commented on: it calls into being, below the existing discourse, another discourse that is more fundamental and, as it were, more ‘primal’, which it sets itself the task of restoring. There can be no commentary unless, below the language one is reading and deciphering, there runs the sovereignty of an original Text.


It will be seen that the experience of language belongs to the same archaeological network as the knowledge of things and nature.

The commentary resembles endlessly that which it is commenting upon and which it can never express; just as the knowledge of nature constantly finds new signs for resemblance because resemblance cannot be known in itself, even though the signs can never be anything but similitudes.

As just as this infinite play within nature finds its link, its form, and its limitation in the relation of the microcosm to the macrocosm, so does the infinite task of commentary derive its strength from he promise of an effectively written text which interpretation will one day reveal in its entirety.


In fact, language exists first of all, in it’s raw and primitive being, in the simple, material form of writing, a stigma upon things, a mark imprinted across the world which is a part of its most ineffaceable forms. In a sense this layer of language is unique and absolute. But it also gives rise to two other forms of discourse which provide it with a frame: above it, there is commentary, which recasts the given signs to serve a new purpose, and below it, the text, whose primacy is presupposed by commentary to exist beneath the marks visible to all. Hence there are three levels of language, all based upon the single being of the written word.

It is this complex interaction of elements that was to disappear with the end of the Renaissance. And in two ways: because the forms oscillating endlessly between one and three terms were to be fixed in a binary form which would render them stable; and because language. instead of existing as the material writing of things, was to find its area of being restricted to the general organisation of representative signs.

[…] language was never to be anything more than a particular case of representation (for the Classics) or of signification (for us). The profound kinship of language with the world was thus dissolved. The primacy of the written word went into abeyance. And that uniform layer, in which the seen  and the read, the visible and the expressible, were endlessly interwoven, vanished too.

Things and words were to be separated from one another. The eye was thenceforth destined to see and only to see, the ear to hear and only to hear.


Through literature, the being of language shines once more on the frontiers of Western culture – and at its centre – for it is what has been most foreign to that culture since the sixteenth century; but it has also, since this same century, been at the very centre of what Western culture has overlain.

For now we no longer have that primary, that absolute initial, word upon which the infinite movement of discourse was founded and by which it was limited; henceforth, language was to grow with no point of departure, no end, and no promise. It is the traversal of this futile yet fundamental space that the text of literature traces from day to day.

Sekula, Allan. ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’ Thinking Photography ed. by Victor Burgin (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1982) 84-109


The meaning of a photograph, like that of any other entity, in inevitably subject to cultural definition. The task here is to define and engage critically something we might call the ‘photographic discourse’.

A discourse is defined as an arena of exchange, that is, a system of relations between parties engaged in communicative activity.


The discourse is, in the most general sense , the context of the utterance, the conditions that constrain and support its meaning, that determine its semantic target.

This general definition implies of course, that a photograph is an utterance of some sort, that it carries, or is, a message. However the definition also implies that the photograph is an ‘incomplete’ utterance, a message that depends on some external matrix of conditions and presuppositions for its readability. That is, the meaning of any photographic message is necessarily context-determined.

We might formulate this position as follows: a photograph communicates by means of its association with some hidden, or implicit text; it is this text, or system of hidden linguistic proportions, that carries the photograph into the domain of readability.

(I am using the term ‘text’ rather loosely here; we could imagine a discourse situation in which photographs were enveloped in spoken language alone. The word ‘text’ is merely a suggestion of the weighty, institutional character of the semiotic system. that lurks behind any given icon.)

The anthropologist Merville Herskovits shows a Bush woman a snapshot of her son. She is unable to recognise any image until the details of the photograph are pointed out. Such an inability would seem to be the logical outcome of living in a culture that is unconcerned with the two-dimensional, analogue mapping of three-dimensional ‘real’ space, a culture without a realist compulsion.

For this woman, the photograph is unmarked as a message, is a non-message, until it is framed linguistically by the anthropologist.


A metalinguistic proposition such as ‘This is a message’. or, ‘This stands for your son’, is necessary if the snapshot is to be read.


Photographic ‘literacy’ is learned. And yet, in the real world, the image itself appears ‘natural’ and appropriate, appears to manifest an illusory independence from the matrix of supposition that determines its readability.

Quite regularly, we are informed that the photograph ‘ has its own language’, is ‘beyond speech’, is a message of ‘universal significance’ – in short, that photography is a universal and independent language or sign system.

Implicit in this argument is the quasi-formalist notion that the photograph derives its semantic properties from conditions that reside within the image itself. But if we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship  the we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.

But this particular obstinate bit of bourgeois folklore – the claim for the intrinsic significance of the photograph – lies at the centre of the established myth of photographic truth. Put simply, the photograph is seen as a re-presentation of nature itself, as an unmediated copy of the real world.


The photograph is imagined to have a primitive core of meaning, devoid of all cultural determination. It is this uninvested analogue that Roland Barthes refers to as the denotative function of the photograph. He distinguishes a second level of invested, culturally determined meaning, a level of connotation.

In the real world no such separation is possible. Any meaningful encounter with a photograph must necessarily occur at the level of connotation.

The power of this folklore of pure denotation is considerable. It elevates the photograph to the legal status of document and testimonial. It generates a mythic aura of neutrality around the image.

But I have deliberately refused to separate the photograph from a notion of task. A photographic discourse is a system within which the culture harnesses photographs to a various representational tasks.

Every photograph is a sign, above all, of someone’s investment in the sending of a message.

[…] the most general terms of the photographic discourse are a kind of disclaimer, an assertions of neutrality; in short, the overall function of photographic discourse is to render itself transparent.

The problem at hand here is one of sign emergence; only by developing a historical understanding of the emergence of photographic sign systems can we apprehend the truly conventional nature of photographic communication.


[discussion of two Lewis Hine and Alfred Stieglitz photographs]


The problem I am confronted with is that every move I could possibly make within these reading systems devolves almost immediately into a literary invention with a trivial relation to the artefacts at hand.

The image is appropriated as the object of a secondary artwork, a literary artwork with the illusory status of  ‘criticism’.

Again, we find ourselves in the middle of a discourse situation that appear as messages in the void of nature. We are forced, finally, to acknowledge what Barthes calls the ‘polysemic’ character of the photographic image, the existence of a ‘floating chain of significance, underlying the signifier’.

In other words, the photograph, as it stands alone, presents merely the possibility of meaning. Only by its embeddedness in a concrete discourse situation can the photograph yield a clear semantic outcome.

Any given photograph is conceivably open to appropriation by a range of ‘texts’, each new discourse situation generating its own set of messages.


Furthermore, it is impossible even to conceive of an actual photograph in a ‘free state’, unattached to a system of validation and support, that is, to a discourse.


Even the invention of such a state, of a neutral ground, constitutes the mythic idea of bourgeois intellectual privilege , involving a kind of ‘tourist sensibility’ directed at the photograph.

Such an invention, as we have already seen, is the denial of invention, the denial of the critic’s status as social actor.

It seems that only by beginning to uncover the social and historical contexts of the two photographers can we begin to acquire am understanding on meaning as related to intention.


Photographs achieve semantic status as fetish objects and as documents. The photograph is imagined to have, depending on its context, a power that is primarily affective or a power that is primarily informative. Both powers reside in the mythical truth-value of the photograph.


While theories of affect regard the photograph as a unique and privately engaged object, informative value is typically coupled to the mass reproduction of the image.

In Benjamin’s terms, the unique artwork is necessarily a privileged object. The unique art object stands in the centre of a discourse within which ideology is obscured; the photograph, on the other hand, is characterised by a reproducibility, an ‘exhibition value’, that widens the field of potential readers, that permits a penetration into the ‘underprivileged spaces of the everyday world. As a vehicle for explicit political argument, the photograph stands at the service of the class that controls the press.

Benjamin, Walter, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction translated by J. A. Underwood (London, Penguin Books, 2008) 1-50


In principle, the work of art has always been reproducible. What man has made, man has always been able to make again.

Technological reproduction of the work of art is something else, something that has been practised intermittently throughout history, at widely separated intervals though with growing intensity.


With photography, in the process of pictorial reproduction the hand was for the first time relieved of the principal artistic responsibilities, which henceforth lay with the eye alone as it peered into the lens. Since the eye perceives faster than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction was so enormously speeded up that it was able to keep pace with speech.


Even with the most perfect reproduction, one thing stands out: the here and now of the work of art – its unique existence in the place where it is at this moment.

The trace of the former will be brought to light only by chemical or physical analyses that cannot be carried out on a reproduction; that of the latter forms the object of a tradition, pursuit of which has to begin from the location of the original.

The here and now of the original constitute the abstract idea of its genuineness.


But while in relation to manual reproduction (the product of which was usually branded a forgery of the original) the genuine article keeps its full authority, in relation to reproduction by technological means that is not the case. the reason is twofold. In the first place, a technological reproduction is more autonomous, relative to the original, that one made by hand. Through photography, for instance, it is able to bring out aspects of the original that can be accessed only by the lens (adjustable and selecting its viewpoint arbitrarily) and not by human eye, or it is able to employ such techniques as enlargement or slow motion to capture images that are quite simply beyond natural optics.

Secondly, it can also place the copy of the original in situations beyond the reach of the original itself. Above all, it makes it possible for the original to come closer to the person taking it in, whether in the form of a photograph or in that of a Gramophone record.


Even if the circumstance into which the product og technological reproduction of the work of art may be introduced in no way impair the continued existence of the work otherwise, its here and now will in any case be devalued. And if that by no means applies to the work of art alone but also, mutatis mutandis, to a landscape (for instance) that in a film slides past the viewer, as a result of that process a supremely sensitive core in the art object is affected that no natural object possesses the same degree of vulnerability. That is its genuineness.


The genuineness of a thing is the quintessence of everything about it since its creation that can be handed down, from its material duration to the historical witness that it bears.

The latter (material duration and historical witness) being grounded in the former (the thing’s genuineness), what happens in the reproduction, where the former has been removed from human perception, is that the latter also starts to wobble. Nothing else, admittedly; however, what starts to wobble thus is the authority of the thing.

We can say: what shrinks in an age where the work of art can be reproduced by technological means is its aura.

Reproductive technology, we might say in general terms, removes the thing reproduced from the realm of tradition. In making many copies of the reproduction, it substitutes  for its unique incidence, a multiplicity of incidences. And in allowing the reproduction to come closer to whatever situation the person apprehending it is in, it actualizes what is reproduced.


Within major historical periods, along with changes in the overall mode of being of the human collective, there are also changes in the manner of its sense perception. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it occurs, is dictated not only naturally but also historically.


The act is: ‘Getting closer to things’ in both spatial and human terms is every bit as passionate a concern of today’s masses as their tendency to surmount the uniqueness of each circumstance by seeing it in reproduction.


Stripping the object of its sheath, shattering the aura, bear witness to a kind of perception where ‘a sense of similarity in the world’ is so highly developed that, through reproduction, it even mines similarity from what only happens once.

The orientation of reality toward the masses and of the masses toward reality is a process of unbounded consequence not only for thought but also for the way.

Flusser, Vilem. ‘Exile and Creativity’ Writings translated by Andreas Ströhl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002) 104-109 [1984]


In exile, everything is unusual. Exile is an ocean of chaotic information.

In it the lack of redundancy does not allow the flood of information to be received as meaningful messages. Because it is unusual, exile is unlivable. One must transform the information whizzing around into meaningful messages to make it livable. One must “process” the data. It is a question of survival: if one fails to transform the data, one is engulfed by the waves of exile. Data transformation is a synonym for creation. The expelled must be creative if he does not want to go to the dogs.

[Flusser’s hypothesis] proposes a positive assessment of expulsion.


For it seems – according to this hypothesis – that those people who want to “help” the expelled to become ordinary again are, in fact, engaged in reeling him back into their ordinariness. This is an informative assumption, because it forces us to think about what is usual.

The assumption does not justify the expellers, but rather, it exposes the vulgarity of the expellers: the expelled were bothersome factors who were expelled to make the surroundings even more ordinary than before. Indeed, this assumption leaves the following question to our discretion: Even without intending to do so, have the expellers not done to expelled a service?

I use the word expelled  rather than refugees or emigrantsto bring the totality of the problem before our eyes.

We find ourselves in a period of expulsion. If one values this situation positively, the future will appear a little less dark.

This essay has been written by one who has been expelled not only many times, but also in a number of different ways. Thus, it comes from one who knows the suffering that characterizes every form of exile. Also, the shadow that this sort of suffering casts and for which the German language has coined the word Heimweh (“homesickness”). Nevertheless – or perhaps out of spite – this essay will praise expulsion.

Habit is like a cotton blanket. It covers up all the sharp edges, and it dampens all noises. It is unaesthetic (from aisthesthai – perception), because it prevents bits of information from being perceived, as edges or noises. Because habit screens perceptions, because it anaesthetizes, it is considered comfortable. As comfy. Habit makes everything nice and quiet.

Every comfortable surrounding is pretty, and this prettiness is one of the sources of love for the fatherland. (Which, indeed, confuses prettiness with beauty.)

If the cotton blanket of habit is pulled back, one discovers things. Everything becomes unusual, monstrous, in the true sense of the world un-settling. To understand this it is quite enough to look at one’s right hand with all its finger movements from the perspective of a Martian: an octupus-like monstrosity.

The Greeks called this “discovering” of the covered up aletheia, a word that we translate as “truth.”

It is not as if we could actually be expelled from our right hand, unless of course, we let it be amputated. Thus, when we discover how monstrous our bodily condition is, it is owning to our strange ability to expel our body from our thoughts.


An exile as radical as this cannot be maintained for long: we are overcome with an irresistible homesickness for our own beautiful bodies, and we reimmigrate.


Yet, this example of an extreme form of exile is instructive: For the expelled, it is almost as if he has been expelled from his own body. As if he was out of his mind. Even the usual things that he takes into exile are creepy. Everything around him becomes sharp and noisy. He is driven to discovery, to truth.

In habit, only change is perceived; in exile, everything is perceived as if in the process of change.

In exile, where the blanket of habit has been pulled back, he becomes a revolutionary, if only because it enables him to live there. Thus, the suspicion that confronts the expelled in his New Land is completely justified. His advent in the New Land breaks with the usual and threatens its prettiness.


The expelled are uprooted people who attempt to uproot everything around themselves, to establish roots. They do it spontaneously, simply because they are expelled.

Perhaps one can observe it when one tries to transplant trees. It can happen that the expelled becomes conscious of the vegetable, almost vegetative aspect of his exile; that he uncovers that the human being is not a tree; and that perhaps human dignity consists in not having roots – that a man first becomes a human being when he hacks of the vegetable roots that bind him. In German, there is the hateful word Luftmensch, a careless “man with his head in the air.” The expelled may discover that air and spirit are closely related terms and that therefore  Luftmensch essentially signifies human being.

This sort of discovery is a dialectical change in the relationship between expelled and expeller. Before this discovery, the expeller is the active pole and the expelled is the passive pole. After this discovery, the expeller is the victim and the expelled is the perpetrator.

This is the discovery that history is made by the expelled, not the expellers. The Jews are not part of Nazi history, the Nazis are part of Jewish history. The grandparents are not part of our biography; the grandchildren are part of our biography. We are not part of the history of automatic apparatuses; the apparatuses are part of our history.

And, the more radically the Nazis, the grandchildren and the apparatuses have driven us into exile, the more we make history: the better we transcend.

But this is not the decisive part of the discovery that we are not trees – that the uprooted make history. Instead, the decisive part of it is to discover how tiresome it is not to establish new roots.

After all, habit is merely a cotton blanket that covers up everything. It is also a mud bath where it is nice to wallow. Homesickness is a nostalgie de la boue, and one can make oneself comfortable anywhere, even in exile.

The discovery that we are not trees challenges the expelled to struggle constantly against the seduction pleasures of the mud bath. To continue to experience expulsion, which is to say: to allow oneself to be expelled again and again.


The discovery of human dignity as uprootedness seems to reduce one’s freedom to the mere right to come and go as one pleases. The right of the spirit to drift from one place to another.

But, in reality, the question of freedom leads us to the question: Is it possible to allow oneself to want to be driven? Is there not a contradiction between “allowing” and “wanting”?

Thus, the question of freedom is not the question of coming and going, but rather of remaining a stranger. Different from others.

[…] the production of new information (creating) depends on the synthesis of previous information. Such a synthesis consists in the exchange of information, just as it might be stored in one singular memory or in multiple memories. Thus, with respect to creating, one can speak of a dialectical process where the dialogue is either “internal” or “external”.

The advent of the expelled in exile leads to “external” dialogues. This spontaneously causes an industrious creativity in the vicinity of the expelled. He is a catalyst for the synthesis of new information. If, however, he becomes aware of his uprootedness as his dignity, then an “internal” dialogue begins within himself; which is to say, an exchange between the information he has brought with him, and an entire ocean with waves of information that toss around him in exile.

The objective is the creation of meaning between the imported information and the chaos that surrounds him. If these “external” and “internal” dialogues are harmonized with each other, they transform in a creative manner not only the world, but also the original natives and the expelled.

This is what I meant when I said what freedom means for the expelled: the freedom to remain a stranger, different from the others. It is the freedom to change oneself and others as well.

The expelled is the Other of others. Which is to say, he is other for the others, and the others are other for him.

In this manner, he is able to “identify.” His advent in exile allows the original natives to uncover that they are unable to “identify” without him.


For the expelled threatens the “particular nature” of the original natives; his strangeness calls them into question. But, even such a polemical dialogue is creative; for it leads to the synthesis of new information. Exile, no matter what form it takes, is a breeding ground for creative activity, for the new.

To Interact


Flusser, Vilém. ‘To Interact’ Into the Universe of Technical Images trans. by Nancy Ann Roth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011) pp.51-60

Technical images are not mirrors but projectors. They draw up plans on deceptive surfaces, and these plans are meant to become life plans for their recipients. No longer people but rather technical images lie at the center, [of contemporary society] and accordingly, it is the relationships between technical images and people by which society must be classified, for example, by groups such as cinema-goers, television watchers, or computer users.

Explanations for people’s needs, wishes, feelings, and knowledge are to be found in technical images.

The relationship between technical images and people, the interactions between the two, are therefore the central issues of the coming cultural criticism, and all other issues are to  be grasped from this point.
A technical image is directed toward a person. It presses in on him and finds him in even the most secret reaches of his private space.
Technical images press through countless channels (television channels, picture magazines, computer terminals) into private space. They replace and improve the distribution of information that once occurred in public spaces and in so doing block off all public spaces. People don’t go from the private into the public any more because they can be better informed at home and because there is essentially no public space left to which to go.
One single technical image, namely, film, appears to run counter to the insistently projective orientation.  In this case, it looks as if images are projected against a publicly erected screen and that people must go to a public space, the cinema, to see these images.
And if cinema were in fact a theater, that is to say, a place of visibility, of “theory”, then one could say that film is a case of a technical image showing its viewer how to see through appearances and liberate himself from the image. Unfortunately, this is a mistaken view.

Film is shown in cinemas not to awaken a political and philosophical consciousness in its viewers but because it relies on a technology from the nineteenth century, when receivers still needed to go to the sender.

Films are being replaced by electronic recording technologies, and cinemas will disappear.
The penetrating force of technical images drives their receiver into a corner, puts him under pressure, and this pressure leads him to press keys to make images appear in the corner. It is therefore optimistic nonsense to claim to be free not to switch the television on, not to order any newspapers, and not to photograph. The energy required to withstand the penetrating force of technical images would project such a person out of the social context. Technical images do isolate those who receive them in corners, but they isolate those few who flee from them even further.
However, the reception of technical images does not end the communication process. Receivers are not sponges that simply absorb. On the contrary, they must react.
On the outside, they must act in accordance with the technical images they have received: buy soap, go on holiday, vote for a political party. However, for the interaction between image and person under discussion here, it is crucial that receivers also react to the received image on the inside. They must feed it.

The images have feedback channels that run in the opposite direction from the distributing channels and that inform the senders about receiver’ reactions, channels like market research, demography, and political elections.


This feedback enables the images to change, to become better and better, and more like the receivers want them to be; that is, the images become more and more like the receivers want them to be so that the receivers can become more and more like the image want them to be. That is the interaction between image and person, in brief.

Flusser gives examples: one in a cinema when the projector shakes, and another of a scientist watching a football match on television.
The image shows a political party for which it wants us to vote, and we want the image to show us the party because we want to vote for it. This circuit can’t be closed, however, for then the images would fall into entropic decay. They would always be the same images, reproduced ad infinitum. To get better (to always give the receiver something new, to be able to program innovatively), the image must get feedback from somewhere other than the receiver.

The images feed on history, on politics  on science, art, on events of so-called daily life, and not only from current but also from past events.

A photograph shows a political demonstration, a film a battle that has been fought this week, a television program a reconstruction of a nineteenth century laboratory, a videotape a Renaissance building.
In this way, it begins to look as though technical images were windows through which the receiver, having been driven into his corner, can observe things that are happening outside, and as if these images could always renew themselves because new things are always happening and because the sources on which they draw (past history) could never be exhausted.
On closer inspection, however, both the windowlike character of technical images and inexhaustability of history oriented to past and future turn out to be in error.
Current events no longer roll toward some sort of future but toward technical images. Images are not windows; they are history’s obstructions.
And this initiates a novel sort of interaction, a feedback between image and event. The event dines on images, and the images dine on events. The moon landing was to produce a television programme, and a mission to the moon was on the television broadcaster’s schedule. Part of getting married is to be photographed and weddings conform to a photographic program.

This will become increasingly clear for all events. Our historical consciousness defends itself against this new conception of history. We look for examples to establish that there are interactions free from the pull of technical images (e.g., the relatively image-free war in Afghanistan.


In its first, current phase, this reversal of events from the future to the image causes events to speed up. Events are caught in the undertow of the images and roll against them more and more wildly. One political event follows another more and more precipitously, a scientific theory is introduced, an artistic style replaces another almost before it has been established. The life span of a model is now measured not in centuries but in months. Progress accelerates. Yet the models don’t fall over each other to change the world, but always,in theory eternally, to be shown in images. The linearity of history is turned against the circularity of technical images. History advances to be turned into images – posthistory.

Although the length of time images have been sucking up history is sort compared to history’s full duration, the first signs are appearing that this source is exhausted. Images are beginning to scratch at the bottom of a well thought to be bottomless. It makes no difference whether the images draw from the present or the past. For them historical categories have lost their meaning.


For these images, the universe of history is nothing more than a field of possibilities from which images can be made.

And once there is an image, everything is in the present and turns into an eternal repetition of the same, whether it is about a battle in the Lebanese War or in the Peloponnesian War. In this way, the images reach back to transform the past into a current program design to program receivers  as the past is reduced to serving as a source of images.
What we call “history” is the way in which conditions can be recognised through linear texts. Texts produce history by projecting their own linear structure onto a particular situation. By imposing texts on a cultural object, one produces cultural history, and by imposing texts on a natural objects (which happened relatively recently), one produces natural history.
Such historicizing of conditions affects people’s perspectives. Because nothing need repeat itself in a linear structure, each element has a unique position with respect to the whole.
This dramatizing state of mind characterizes historical consciousness. It stands in opposition to a pre-historic state of mind, for which everything in the environment (as in an image) must repeat itself, for which time moves in a circle, bringing everything back into its proper place, and for which the point is not to change the world but to escape just punishment for interfering with it.
Technical images translate historical events into infinitely repeatable projections.
A consciousness appropriate to technical images operates outside history. Stories and texts become materials for images.
For technical images, history and prehistory are pretexts from which to draw nourishment.
In their current first phase, technical images can still constantly renew themselves by feeding on history. But history is about to dry up, and this exactly because images are feeding on it, because they sit on historical threads like parasites, recoding them into circles. As soon as these circles are closed, the interaction between image and person will, in fact, become a closed feedback loop. Images will then always show the same thing, and people will always want to see the same thing. A cloak of endless, eternal boredom will spread itself over society. Society will succumb to entropy, and we can already confirm that the decay is on us: it expresses itself in the receiver’s zeal for the sensational – there always have to be new images because all images have long since begun to get boring. The interaction between image and person is marked by entropy tending towards death.
These images [technical] are programmed for an eternal return of the same; they were invented for this specific purpose: to bring an end to linearity, to reactivate the magic circle and a memory that eternally turns, bringing everything into the present.

Such a rupture of the magical circle between image and person is the task we face, and this rupture is not only technically but above all existentially possible. For images are beginning to bore us, in spite of the contract we have with them.

The traffic between images and people is the central problem of a society ruled by technical images. It is the point where the rising so-called information society may be restructured and made humane.

McInnes, Marnie. ‘A Meditation on Poetry and Photography’ Photographies, 5:1 (March 2012) 19-32


In 26 lines describing a fairly ordinary landscape, Atwood encapsulates key paradoxes of photography as a medium; indeed, one way of reading her poem is as a compact essay on the ontology of the photographic image.

As a poem, however it also invites us to think about the relationship between the visual and verbal image and to consider the seldom acknowledged but strong reciprocity between the lyric poem and the photograph.

Set alongside contemporary photographs and photograph installations, Atwood’s poem helps us analyze the process by which we read and respond to an image and its accompanying words.

Atwood’s poem moves us beyond tired analogies – the poem “aspiring to the condition of” the visual, and the reverse – to consider instead how the poem and photograph may reflect on the nature of one another, opening our eyes to experiences that are neither verbal nor visual, exactly. Indeed, the experience of reading a lyric photograph is largely a conceptual one, encouraging reflection on time, place, identity, and subjectivity.


At least two threads are woven together in the metaphysical tangle created in their different ways by Atwood and Whitman’s poems. The first has to do with the play of time and space: the collapse of past, present and future, and the overlay of here and there, me and you. Both poems end with prophetic assertions about what will happen in the future.

Such a direct and emphatic engagement with the imagined reader sets these two poems apart from many others: the entanglement of “I” and “you” overshadows other dimensions of the poem, including its visual images.

As a general rule, lyric poems create speakers whose voices speak from beyond the grave, disembodied voices that create the illusion of a vital, speaking presence. As a general rule, lyric poems weave a web of time.

The second thread, closely related to the first, has to do with presence and absence and the nature of the visible.

Both Atwood and Whitman are centrally concerned with conveying more than the surface of the person (the “me”) and choose to do this precisely by conveying the surface – the surface of water, hills, houses, shipyards in which there is not the least visible trace of “me”.

Atwood and Whitman, in other words, exploit the capacity of poems to convey one set of meanings by way of another: to convey both a surface and a subtext. The surface, in this case, is the set of visual images; the subtext is the meaning which the speaking voice in the poem creates for the “you” who listens and sees. Can photographs do this, too?

Photographs are not inward in the same way as are poems, nor do they convey ideas and arguments as effectively as verbal texts.

Above all, the lyric poem and photograph create a tension between liberation and drowning, between freeing us from and embalming us in time.

Silence is a hallmark of the photograph, yet photographs create the illusion of a speaker and speaking voice more often that one might imagine. Moreover, verbal engagement of the spectator is not simply a recent phenomenon – not a technique, that is, special to the postmodern photographic installation.

An interpretively rich conjunction of words and image occurs, for example, in one of the very earliest photographs: Le Noyé by Hippolyte Bayard.


Photographs, like poems, go both ways: a human presence looks out at you “in unknown ways,” even as you think you are the one looking in.

This reciprocity or face-to-faceness can happen whether or  not the photograph depicts a human face, a landscape, a river, a city street, or a piece of lace.

In this essay, I have been looking at photographs that involve words, and certainly this hybrid genre, which has gained in status and visibility since the 1960s, bridges the gap between poems and visual images.

But the self-conscious use of words in titles, captions, overlays, and footnotes, only makes explicit the verbal, speaking dimension that exists in many evocative photographs whether or not they are accompanied by words.


We apprehend photographic images as ideas and embodiments of consciousness as much as we apprehend them through our sense of sight.

Lyric poem by Margaret Atwood

It was taken some time ago.
At first it seems to be
a smeared
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;

then, as you scan
it, you see in the left-hand corner
a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree
(balsam or spruce) emerging
and, to the right, halfway up
what ought to be a gentle
slope, a small frame house.

In the background there is a lake,
and beyond that, some low hills.

(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.

It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
you will be able to see me.)

Atwood, Margaret.This Is a Photograph of Me’ Selected Poems, 1965-1975 (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin) p.8

Centre for Fine Art Research CFAR – BCU

via What is a Photograph? Part Three – YouTube.

Includes discussion of Laruelle’s “Non-photography”.