The Virtual Life of Photography


Kember, Sarah J. ‘The Virtual Life of Photography’, Photographies, 1:2, 2008, pp.175 – 203

After more than 150 years, we still do not know what photography is. The reason for this, I suggest, is indeed due to the deployment of a restricted range of disciplinary and conceptual frameworks – but only in part.

Memory constitutes the object, or essence, of photography and intuition constitutes, in Bergson’s formulation, an “empirical” method of aesthetic rather than scientific understanding. [Bergson, Creative Evolution] Intuition, for Bergson, is at odds with the intellect. The intellect blocks our understanding of life and all things that move and change, including, I would add, photography.

We have not understood what photography is, then, because we have relied too much on our intellects, never mind the constraints of specific disciplines.

Applying intuition as a method, rather than “a feeling, an inspiration” or “a disorderly sympathy” [Deleuze], involves the use of certain acts, or rules.

The first of these requires us to distinguish between true and false problems, since false problems obfuscate understanding. Coincidentally, for both Barthes and Bergson, the problem of realism which has so dominated debates on photography and philosophy, respectively, is a false one.

Perhaps as a result of the historical separation between disciplines, it has taken contemporary thinkers a long time to catch up with this argument, and even now it can be said that the arts are predominantly idealist, while the sciences are predominantly realist.

For Barthes, the problem of realism is part of the problem of classification, and classification is always external to the object of photography – “without relation to its essence”.

His search for the essence of this mother supersedes, and overlays, his search for the essence of photography. It leads him to replace photography with the photograph, memory with the memory, virtual existence with actual existence, and ironically, perhaps, (her) life with (his) death.

The second rule of intuition as a method requires us to distinguish between differences in degree, and differences in kind – or between false and true differences. Photographs can only be different in degree, but photography is a difference in kind. What makes it so is the existence, within photography, of memory.

Memory, in the abstract, exists somewhere between the particular subject who remembers, and the particular object that stimulates the remembrance (Proust, and his madeleine). Memory, in the abstract, exists virtually – as a potential and endless reserve of actual memories – but its existence is real.

One of the false problems which dominates debates on photography is the failure to distinguish between virtual memory and actual memories. Photography cannot be equated with, or reduced to, a supply of memories. That is simply how it is marketed. Photography neither fabricates nor fixes memories, and is therefore wrongly judged when it is deemed to be either more, or less, than them. In fact, it is other than them.

[The Winter Garden photograph did not capture or create a memory of Barthes’s mother] What it does is to actualise his memory of her (as an adult, as a parent) through a process, or perhaps a method, that he calls “affect”, and Bergson would call “intuition”. Neither affect nor intuition can be sustained. They do not last long.

Momentarily, they bring the referent, the real, to life, but they do not reside in the image which, by conveying memory into perception (and thus actualising it), simultaneously conveys life into death, movement into stasis. Photographs (analogue or digital) do not move, and are not vital, but photography (analogue or digital) is.

By pursuing a sequence of hermeneutic distinctions, in line with Bergson’s method (photography/photograph; virtual/actual; memory/perception), I will attempt to demonstrate how memory, as an ontology of becoming, constitutes the virtual life of photography, and how intuition enables us, however fleetingly, to connect with it.

Intuition may afford us a privileged access to the ontology of photography, but there are two reasons why it remains relevant to consider photography from the outside. The first is that we cannot help but do this. Our primary mode of understanding is intellectual, not intuitive, and our intellects are dominated by the sense of sight.

The theory of photography as-we-have-known-it has been preoccupied with the conjunction of perception, representation, knowledge, power, and subjectivity which Barthes ultimately assigned, or in fact consigned, to the realm of the studium.

Like Barthes, having distinguished two themes in photography – what he calls studium and punctum, and what I’m referring to as “exteriority” and “interiority” – I will occupy myself first with one, and then the other.

However, the second reason for doing this, beyond that of necessity, has to do with their ultimate, and in fact original, co-existence.

As a medium that is simultaneously technological, social, and economic, photography, like other media (we are dealing here with exteriority, and therefore with differences in degree), can never really be new.

Photography can never really be new, because new technologies do not necessarily create new uses; quantitative changes do not necessarily produce qualitative changes of equal extent.

There is no cause and effect of digitisation. Thinking in terms of cause and effect is part of the false evolution of photography.

The other part is thinking in terms of endpoints. Photography does not culminate in anything, including the variously named phenomenon of ubiquitous computing (or ambient intelligence, pervasive computing, intelligent media) – even if its invisibility as a technology is being enhanced.

Strictly speaking, Bolter and Grusin’s concept of remediation reduces the designation of new media to an oxymoron. There are no new media without old media: remediation is the structural condition of all media.

The idea, for example, that the code, the algorithm or the pixel has “substituted” for the image – rather than engaged in a relationship of continuity and transformation with it – is technologically deterministic, and entirely false. It is false in that it divides the technological aspect of the medium from all others. It is also false in that it equates technological convergence with revolutionary progress towards an ultimate goal. [Citing Manovich]

Photographs, like the forms of artificial intelligence and artificial life, have the capacity to appear relatively autonomous, animated and agential. They can seem life-like in a way that the introduction of digital photo frames is presently only hinting at, and there is no reason why they should not correspond to the criteria for life established within the field of artificial life: self-organisation, self-replication, evolution, autonomy, and emergence [Boden].

Photographs can never become life-like, but photography already is. It is not (techno)science or the intellect that reveals this to us, but intuition as a method, and as a biological, not a psychological, tendency […]

Intuition brings us into direct contact “or community” with the object.

The intellectual tendency constitutes an evolutionary divergence from the intuitive tendency, especially, perhaps, in humans. Its purpose is to know and represent, in order to act and intervene in the material world. This is a world that the intellect perceives to be divided spatially into discrete entities or things, which may succeed each other, but do not in themselves change. From an intellectual point of view, the material world, reality itself, is inert.

This, for Bergson, is a fundamental misconception. Contrary to being inert, reality is a continuous process of becoming. The intellect, as it culminates in science, cannot know or represent reality as movement (or time). It can only misrepresent it as stasis (or space). It does this on the basis of evidence provided by the primary sense of sight, and although the knowledge it produces is, strictly speaking, inaccurate, it is nevertheless useful.

By conceiving only of things, and the relations between things, we are able to manipulate them, adapt them, and control them – albeit at the cost of imagining ourselves to be separate, or distinct from them. If intuition is a kind of bond that connects us to reality, “intelligence is essentially external; it makes us regard reality as something other than our life, as something hostile that we may overcome”.

Photographs are part of that attitude to reality when they are used, or utilised, as intellectual artefacts.

But as Barthes demonstrated in his discussion of the studium and punctum, photographs are always, potentially, more than that. They can provoke, be disturbed by, a very different attitude. Both are integral to photography.

Intuition is akin to instinct, and in evolutionary terms it is actually instinct from which the intellect has diverged. Instinct is the unconscious bond with reality that provokes bodily action and reaction in all animals, but perhaps least of all in humans.

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