Friday, October 7, 2011

Preliminary Notes to Laruelle's The Concept of Non-Photography and Barthes' Camera Lucida

I've been invited to facilitate the initial meeting of an arts criticism readings group at the gallery {Poem 88} over in the Westside Arts District (thank you Robin and Jon!) If you're in the metro Atlanta area, please come join us, it's fun and stimulating! We're taking a vote on next readings, here.

For our first meeting, since October is Atlanta Celebrates Photography and the current show at {Poem 88} is a collection of photographs from Ryan Nablusi we agreed to read excerpts from Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida (1981) as well as from François Laruelle's The Concept of Non-Photography (2011).

I am very grateful to the participants in our conversation on Wednesday night. I also welcome your feedback over the next several months as I will be presenting a modified version of this discussion at Parsons (The New School for Design) in the spring of 2012 at the invitation of some friends teaching there.

Like my friends in the reading group, I am new to the work of Laruelle and his non-philosophy project. So, this reading group serves two purposes for me, as I will also be sharing a paper currently titled "What Is a Thing?" later this month as part of Robert Cheatham's Thresholds series, where I will share some more of this budding speculative/object-oriented/non-correlationist sort of thinking.

And here are the opening remarks I made to facilitate our conversation:

Reading Group Notes
Laruelle's The Concept of Non-Philosophy + Barthes' Camera Lucida
{Poem 88} Gallery; October 5, 2011
Paul Boshears

I really appreciate your enthusiasm and presence here today, thank you. I've chosen these two texts because I think that they speak to each other and since this is Atlanta Celebrates Photography month, it seems fitting to read these. François Laruelle, in a very Deleuzean manner asks, “What can an image do, what is it that can be done in an image?” (56) It's a great question for us as we take part in ACP this month.

I'd like to lead our conversation for a few minutes, to give an overall sketch of the conversation between these two selected passages in these books and I'd like to focus our conversation tonight on a problem that Laruelle presents in his book. Where Camera Lucida, at least in the section we've read together, offers some techniques or rules (it's his word) to appreciate a photograph, Laruelle has significant metaphysical concerns, which we can sense when he states, “The traditional double conception of the image as description and as iconic manifestation, applies to the photo even less than to any other type of image.” (68)

Between the two texts I would suppose we found the Barthes to be more accessible than the Laruelle. Barthes is likely a very familiar figure to many of you and Camera Lucida is unique among his texts because it is written in such a personal manner. As you may have read, this was the book Barthes wrote while grieving the passing of his mother with whom he had lived almost all of his life. The subtitle to the book is “Reflections on Photography” and I think we get a clear sense of this almost meditative quality as Barthes shares particular images and their impact on him.

In the selection from Camera Lucida we encounter two important terms that will, I hope, serve to guide our discussion tonight. Barthes characterizes photography as an “uncertain art” and curiously introduces in that same sentence that this uncertain art is as uncertain as “a science of desirable or detestable bodies.” (18) And here we have the term that is going to guide our discussion of these two very different texts. Both Barthes and Laruelle are presenting us with their criteria for developing a science of photography.

I'd like to bring up another item to guide our talk: both Barthes and Laruelle, in their own ways, present a world of objects that do things. The world is seen, in both authors, as composed of thrumming material “vibrant matter” to take a phrase from Jane Bennett. Barthes discusses how those photographs that “reach” him—unlike those that simply present themselves to him uninvited—animate him and he, somehow, reciprocates and animates the photographs. This exchange of, what? energy?, is “what creates every adventure,” (20) and without advenience or adventure there can be no field called Photography and no objects called photographs to populate that field. (19)

Barthes admits to borrowing and working, self-consciously, with the paradoxes that accompany Phenomenology. He attempts to sketch an eidetic science of Photography (20). But Classical Phenomenology, perhaps frustratingly for Barthes, has never, “spoken of desire or mourning.” (21) This is the first time that Barthes discusses mourning in Camera Lucida and its introduction here is really interesting because he traces a previous interest in the ontology of photography, but that question, “what is the nature of a photograph” is no longer important for Barthes as he no wants, “to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think.” (21)

Barthes, in trying to establish how he assesses the quality of a photograph, uses two words from Latin: studium and punctum. Barthes describes studium as the “application to a thing” a kind of knowledge that has been metabolized through one's cultural filter, this filtering (or screening, if you will) is the means by which we participate in the world. (26)
The studium is that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste [....] The studium is of the order of liking, not of loving; it mobilizes a half desire, a demi- volition; it is the same sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in thepeople, the entertainments, the books, the clothes one finds "all right." (27)
The existence of studia is what underwrites what we might call a social contract as it is the mechanism by which we recognize each other. (27-28) The studium is the result of mutual intelligibility, it's the reason why I can say tree and you comprehend the concept. But you and I may not be referring or reflecting on the same tree.

The punctum is “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” (27) Puncta disturb studia and do so without any intentionality on the part of the photographer; puncta exist, in this sense, independent of human psychogenesis. Puncta are “partial objects” (43) and do not reveal there reveal themselves except in memory. (42) The relationship between studia and puncta is not one of causality, they are simply co-present when it happens to be the case. (42)

But, when studium and punctum are co-present, we have the potential for subversive and dangerous photographs because the co-presence of these two elements establishes a curious quality in what we tend to say is inert material. The photograph enables an object to speak and this compels us to think (38) and this inducing of thought in the viewer is creates a site of subversive potential, but it's not only in the Spectator, but between the photograph and the view, “Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.” (38)

Such curious object relations here. We would think, then, that the role of the critic or the philosopher would be to facilitate the Spectators' relationship to those objects which happen to possess both studia and puncta. But not so, according to Laruelle. “What can an image do, what is it that can be done in an image? The philosopher's role is not to manifest this to us, but to hide it from us, inscribing the photo in a prosthesis [...] that denatures its truth.” (56) The philosopher, he says in another text, “A philosopher has never looked a man directly in the eyes [....] The philosopher misrecognizes the immediate for he himself is not immediate.” ("Biography of the Eye," 2009)

Where Barthes constantly suggests an interiority to photographs (and perhaps all objects), a certain call to immanence, Laruelle seems to be saying that no philosopher can tolerate immediacy. And this has to do with a maniacal refusal to relinquish the terms by which identity is formed. “Philosophy represses the identity of the photo, divides it or puts a blank in its place, a blank it no longer sees any more than It sees this identity.” (57)

Laruelle's position is that Western philosophy is so entrenched in transcendental metaphysics that no thing can be what it is without first being screened, that is represented. That is to say, processed through the lens of culture.
Any philosophy whatsoever (empiricism, rationalism, semiology and even
phenomenology) will try to conflate the being-photo (of) the photo with a
transcendent content of representation, the ideal or the a priori with the effective,
on the pretext of 'shedding light on' or rendering comprehensible—by reflection
—the photographic irreflective. It simply comes down to an attempt at reification,
an attempt to enclose the infinite uni-verse that every time, every single photon
deploys … (58)
Where did this position come from? Let's try to situate the conversation Laruelle has been having for some time now.

(from Alexander Galloway's Translator's Note in the essay “The Truth According to Hermes: Theorems on the Secret and Communication” in the journal Parrhesia 2010)
“Philosophy needs a nonphilosophy that comprehends it,” wrote Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari late in life. By non-philosophy they point not simply to a general inversion of philosophical thought, but to the work of one particular compatriot, the author and self-proclaimed “non-philosopher” François Laruelle.

Non-philosophy hinges on a rejection of what Laruelle calls the philosophical decision. To engage in the philosophical decision is to endorse the position that anything and everything is a candidate for philosophical reflection. Thus to do philosophy means to reflect on the world, and likewise if one is being philosophical, one is necessarily being reflective or meta-philosophical. Non-philosophy means simply to refuse such a decision. In other words non-philosophy refuses to reflect on things. Instead non-philosophy withdraws from the decision, and in doing so enters into a space of what Laruelle calls science.

Laruelle’s goal is to cut through the correlationist thinking associated with hermeneutics that forever breaks truth in half as: truth and its communication, or the secret and its manifestation. We must instead, as Laruelle writes here, “let the philosophers in on the secret,” so that they may pursue a rigorous science of truth. (18)
Why should we be concerned at all with this distinction between a radical immanence and the traditional transcendental approach which most of us here today are so accustomed to employing, and why would photography be the field or the objects through which we can understand what's at stake in the shifting from the transcendental perspective to that of radical immanence? “As soon as the photo is understood in the context of Transcendence in general, it is the object of a double causality, with one the inverse of the other.” (63) Causality itself goes wonky in this perspectival shift.

Attempts, such as those developed in Deconstruction, may delay the sleight of hand, but ultimately they, too, subsume under the gaze of Philosophy, the very subjects which the practice tries to address. “No philosophical interpretation escapes this illusion, not even those that deconstruct this convenibility of the image and the real, that differ this transcendent mimesis but which do not know that what can be in an image does not stem from the Other but from the One. The Other radicalizes absence and exacerbates the 'symptomatic' nature of the photo [....]” (65)

What Laruelle is putting forward in his redefinition of science is the potential for understanding through relationship that is not mediated, or broadcasted, it is immediate. This immediacy has a reality that we tend to occlude through a layering onto the world an anthropocentrism that is perhaps ill-equipped to provide solutions to real problems facing us.
If there is a photographic realism, it is a realism 'in-the-last-instance'; which
explains why to take a photograph is not, at least as far as science is concerned, to
convert one's gaze, to alter one's consciousness, to pragmatically orientate
perception or to deconstruct painting, but to produce a new presentation, emergent
and novel in relation to the imagination, and in principle more universal than the latter.
Now, this might seem like a bunch of hullabaloo but let me put forward what I believe to be a real-world, practical application of where Laruelle's position can lead us.
Currently we have technologies at work that have amplified and made possible a vast universe of scientific production. Neuroscience, for example, has developed in a manner that presents stunning, Science-fiction sounding headlines, suggesting that soon we will be able to use technologies to read individuals' minds, or record dreams. But this is a claim to realism, that the technologies are presenting images of the universe that are more real than the universes we interact with already. As Laruelle states “If resemblance is a resemblance to the absent but supposed perceptible (or indeed on the contrary, opposed to perception) object, this distinction still inscribes itself within the horizon of transcendence or of the World.” (62) The images that an fMRI scanner present are not how your mind works. We're barely able to understand how the brain works. Nonetheless these images are regularly being called upon to act as empirical proof of criminality and of a curious legal conceit we call intent. Laruelle's critiques of the wholesale subsuming of photography into philosophy isn't unique to only photography, but our worldview itself is in need of a reconsideration.