Notebook (optics)

May 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Careful examination of the relationship of the optics of the myrioramas to the time of the modern, the newest. They must surely be registered as the base coordinates of this world. It is a world of strict discontinuity. The always-again-new is not old stuff that persists, or the reoccurring past, but is rather a one and the same, criss-crossed by countless interruptions. (Just as the gambler lives in the interruption.) Interruption entails that each gaze into space hits upon a new constellation. Interruption the tempo of film. And the result: the time of hell” – Walter Benjamin, ‘Pariser Passagen’, quoted in Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism

The ‘hell’ of which Benjamin writes is that of the factories, slums & prisons of the 19th & early 20th-century metropolis. It is this world that gives rise, first to daguerrotypy (contemporaneous w/ the rise of organised, revolutionary workers’ movements) & then to film. (No coincidence that the Lumiere brothers’ earliest film is of workers leaving their factory in March 1895.) Simon Reynolds, in Retromania, makes a slightly cheap reference to Hipstamatic as a means of giving to present reality the look of yesteryear (b/c we are obsessed even w/ the look of the past). I can’t help thinking that we should give slightly more thought to Instagram (& the transformation of photography more generally) as a ‘way of seeing’, w/ its own historic/social/economic understructure. One is tempted to read Hipstamatic as a kind of visual false consciousness, investing the liquid life of the contemporary w/ the solidity & ‘authenticity’ of the lived world of the late 20th-century. It would be, therefore, not a democratic mode set against the dominant, but secretly at one w/ ‘cultural’ capitalism’s regime of appearances (said regime being its primary contemporary form of production). This partially attractive thesis begs a question. What exactly is it about photographs that people miss? My own encounters with photographs in my parents’ possession, almost all of family members from the 60s until the early 90s, w/ a few stretching back to the 40s, are slightly odd. Studium, punctum, the index, death-in-the-future, certainly, but what I always confront is a basic & primitive fascination with the persistence of (a) time; time that fills the photograph as water fills a fish-tank, time that has now disappeared save in the photograph. For Proust, whose conception of the memory-image was, as Benjamin showed in the great essay on Baudelaire, allied with that of Bergson, the photograph was a technology of horror, a pharmakon to permanently banish temps perdu: consider the passage on the narrator’s grandmother, in wh/ she appears to become a photograph of herself, “sitting on the sofa, beneath the lamp, red-faced, heavy and common, sick, lost in thought, following the lines of a book with eyes that seemed hardly sane, a dejected old woman whom I did not know”. From the unstoppable, fluid onward spillage of time the photograph brings to an absolute standstill a single sliver, only as long as the period of exposure’; its contravention of the Bergsonian dogma of mobility & flow condemns the photograph to become the harbinger of mortality. This seems to me unfair, at least in my encounters w/ working-class photographs. The consistency of this time is strange. It is not the full, present time of lived experience as imagined by neoliberalism, but time suffused with a crackling sense of otherness. This is partly down to the simple fact of the chemical grain of photographs (keep in mind here the Lumieres’ factory). It is not simply that we imagine the time captured by the photograph as better/simpler/more present. Rather, the photograph tells us that time was always already, then, other than what we thought it was. Photographs & film reconstitute the imageworld of Fordism in constellations of dialectical thought. In Benjamin’s myrioramas, as in the translucent reservations of the arcades, the enchanting abundance of the commodity world parades in front of the viewer, “in hellish intensification”. Similarly, food, cats, sunsets, rainbows, faces, dresses (usually flowery), coffees parade through the Instagram stream. There is no intensification, however, each image covered in the same dreary filter. Hipstamatic can be considered as a rather specialised version of the seamless stare that digital photography casts on the contemporary world. In it, the administered world is presented as the limit of what can be thought by itself. It deploys melancholy as the compensation for & acknowledgement of its own insufficiency, an imposed simulacram of chemical flaw, of its ultimate complicity w/ the absurd, disgusting monotony of the world that wage labour creates, its dreams of itself as dismal as the work that it conceals & is created by. There is no loss here: the world of lived experience, as in publicity, becomes an infinite & phantastic parade of petrified satisfactions, to wh/ we must aspire. Instagram is capitalist realism made visible. In this it is what our own period deserves: w/ its financial institutions built over docks & brownfield sites, arts centres, start-ups & consultancy offices crammed into former warehouses, it is, to the inferno of 19th century Paris, something like the asphodel meadows: a world of endless greyness, where the shades of living beings carry out the daily tasks they performed in life, until finally they fade to nothingness.


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