Nonhuman Collectives

— a blog by Craig Epplin —

A post at Urbanities

Just linking to this post that’s newly up on the Urbanities site.

John Berger

The year is ending, and I’m reading some classic essays by John Berger. I have little to say about “Uses of Photography”–little of my own to add, that is, especially since it already presents itself as nothing but a series of glosses on another essay, Susan Sontag’s book On Photography. But something in it makes me want to write my own addendum, or at least share what I humbly underlined as I read this humble text.

Here are two fragments, from pages 61-62 in the Vintage edition of On Looking:

Photographs are relics of the past, traces of what has happened. If the living take that past upon themselves, if the past becomes an integral part of the process of people making their own history, then all photographs would reacquire a living context, they would continue to exist in time, instead of being arrested moments.

His question–what is photography good for?–here gets resolved by imagining an “alternative photography” that would reintegrate photographs into living history.

The task of an alternative photography is to incorporate photography into social and political memory, instead of using it as a substitute which encourages the atrophy of any such memory.

Photography shouldn’t stand in for collective memory, shouldn’t hypostasize the living process of history. Rather, it should form part of that process, which means making the distinction between photographer and spectator disappear. Here’s one final quotation, also from page 62.

For the photographer this means thinking of her or himself not so much as a reporter to the rest of the world but, rather, as a recorder for those involved in the events photographed.

Reading these passages, I couldn’t help but think of Walter Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer,” where the author holds that the task of the photographer is to give the picture a caption that wrenches it out of its role in the consumer economy and reinserts it in living history–in narrative, in other words, in language.

That said, language has its own photographic units (words hypostasize reality just as a photograph does, and they help us forget just as they help us remember (we can ask Borges and Funes the Memorious about this)), and visual forms have a language of sorts too.

So, then, perhaps it makes sense to think in terms of two different poles–a pole of movement and a pole of stasis. Any discrete sign system would possess such extremes, which is an abstract way of saying that a photograph can live in isolation or in dynamic relationship with its social context. This would hold true for all arts.

To think this way is to remember that art is a communal practice and that we are all responsible for making it live.

Typewriters 3

From Alfonso Reyes:

Y para colmo, una máquina de escribir estilo diplomático ensordecía mis tardes.

And to top it all off, a diplomat-style typewriter deafened my afternoons.

Quoted in Cosmópolis (edited by Beatriz Colombi), originally in El cazador (1921)

Typewriters 2

There are lots of typewriters in Cortázar:

¡Qué alivio esta oficina cubierta de gritos, órdenes, máquinas Royal, vicepresidentes y mimeógrafos!

Such a relief, this office covered in shouting, demands, Royal brand typewriters, vice presidents, and mimeographs!

– “Carta a una señorita en París”

Typewriters 1

Given enough pages, novels set in the twentieth century always arrive at a typewriter scene. Here we get an office water bottle too:

Los empleados se acostumbraron a verlo a unos metros del escritorio donde Carola manipulaba la máquina de escribir sin ver el teclado; cada tanto, abofeteaba el rodillo con suavidad, como si lo elogiara por travieso. A su lado, un botellón de agua electropura esperaba el momento en que alguien presionara el botón para producir gordas burbujas de aire y llenar un cono de papel. A Julio le fascinaba la consistencia endeble de los conos, a punto de diluirse en forma fresca.

The employees got used to seeing him a few meters from the desk where Carola manipulated the typewriter without looking at the keys; every once in a while she would smack the roller, as if praising its mischievousness. Next to her, a vat of purified water awaited the moment when someone would press the button and produce fat air bubbles and fill a paper cone cup. Julio was fascinated by the feeble consistency of the cups, always about to dissolve into fresh form.

– Juan Villoro, El testigo, p. 197

Cortázar, etc.

I’ve been rereading Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela for a class I’m teaching in the fall. It’s somehow both better and worse this time around—tedious and brilliant by turns, sometimes both at once. I’m hoping it’s mostly the brilliance that shines through to my students next term.

In the middle of my reading, I was alerted to a very thoughtful review of Late Book Culture in Argentina. In it, Víctor Goldgel-Carballo makes some really insightful points about my book, including some of its limitations, and it strikes me that Cortázar can help move the dialogue forward.

Cortázar makes only a small appearance in my study. This isn’t an oversight; it rather owes to the fact that, initial appearances aside, I don’t think he has a ton to tell us about the book as a medium. I have the feeling, however, that this conviction, which I’ll explain below, does not line up with the conventional wisdom. After all, his novel Rayuela is often thought of as a forerunner of hypertext and other nonlinear forms of writing. For just one example, check out his inclusion in the Electronic Labyrinth.

This often assumed parentage with later forms of writing, forms at odds with the putatively linear nature of regular books, has to do with the structure of Rayuela. This book, the first page tells us, is many books, but mostly it’s just two. The reader selects one of two ways of reading: straight through from chapter 1 through chapter 56, or skipping around, reading those same chapters mostly in order but with others, numbered 57 through 155 interspersed among them. “Rayuela” means “hopscotch” in Spanish; hopping from one square to another is inscribed in the name of the novel.

I think that there is a limited measure of freedom for the reader in this form, but it’s basically the freedom to choose among two preset options, one of which eschews the normal pattern of page-turning but doesn’t really alter the experience of reading in an order laid out by the author. In this way, I think that the structure of the novel actually shores up the position of the author, rather than empowering the reader.

But it also does something else. It proposes a certain model of reader—one that makes the “right” choice (the nonlinear one) at the outset, a reader that is open to literature as an adventure or experiment. This is why Cortázar subjects his reader to very boring passages like that of chapter 133, where the redundancies of an obscure writer are reproduced for us to plod through, even as the character reading them criticizes this redundancy. It’s why he criticizes the sentimentality of Benito Pérez Galdós, interspersing a passage from one of his novels among his protagonist’s condescending comments on it. It’s why this same character, the often intolerable Horacio Oliveira, criticizes not just this passage but the woman (his lover) who would read it. Rayuela is, above all, a lifestyle guide, and it seeks to inscribe its ideal reader into a certain sort of reading practice, which is also a practice of living.

That literature should be more than entertainment, that it should wound us, that it should take us beyond the crummy, tawdry reality of everyday life—this is an old idea. One of the clearest influences on this novel, André Breton, made as much clear in Nadja. So did numerous contemporaries of Cortázar. So does he in numerous passages of Rayuela.

For example, take one part that I do cite in my book: the theory of the “male reader,” who ventures undaunted into the serious business of experimental literature and who is unlike the “female reader,” who demands “demotic writing” or else regrets the money wasted on the book. This is where Cortázar has something to say about the book as medium, or rather the book as commercial object. And what he says is that when it’s conceived as such, well, it’s a real shame. The book is meant to be something better than just a commodity, something like a pack of gum or a pack of cigarettes.

To make this point, I think, is to take the book for granted, at least the book as conceived within the parameters of modern literature, where it is understood as the vehicle for something really very important—a convenient container for expressions of a national identity, a human universality, a transcendent encounter. And this taking-for-granted is why Cortázar doesn’t make much of an appearance in my study, for which the central point is that, in the corpus I outline, the book is a problem to be solved, not a given object.

This brings me to the review, and in particular the question that seems most pressing in it, which is prestige and the multifaceted social machine that confers it on certain writers. After all, Cortázar was, still is for many, a very prestigious author. So are, among a (significant) minority of readers, the writers I study in Late Book Culture in Argentina. But they work differently. Cortázar was and is also really popular. César Aira, less so (though he’s not entirely unpopular either). I think we might explore this comparison further.

Specifically, if experimentation with the medium of the book owes partially to technological change, as I claim, then why is it not more widespread today? After all, as Goldgel-Carballo points out, my corpus is identified with a minority of readers. In spite of their successes, they are certainly not (Aira’s recent international acclaim aside) bestsellers. The logical question to ask is, why study them as representative of anything at all, given their relatively small reach?

It’s a good question, and I think that Goldgel-Carballo is basically right when he holds that my study ultimately and unwittingly reveals that, in many ways, literature hasn’t really changed much since the modern period. It still works as a relatively autonomous field, guarded by gatekeepers. And yet, it is precisely that relative autonomy that allows writers to play, to experiment, to say something about the world that might not be said otherwise. In other words, I believe still believe, somewhat naïvely and really only sometimes, in the avant-garde and its importance. And without that faith, there would be no reason to think much about writers who write for a (shrinking) literary public.

Here’s where the parallel with Cortázar can be instructive and revealing of what actually has changed. Both he (in the sixties) and Aira (in the nineties on), were or are experimenting with how literature could take form. Of course, they did or do so against the backdrop of the assumptions typical of their respective eras. Cortázar, I think, really wanted to find out what sort of experience he could inflict on his reader within the literary medium available to him: the print book. I think Aira wants something else—to explore the continuum of literary economy and literary medium and literary enunciation. Both experiment, in their own way, but for Aira (and a significant cluster of loosely affiliated writers) the book is the—or at least a—main object of this experimentation. And I think this change has largely to do with our technological horizon, in which the book is less easy to take for granted.

Networked images

Earlier this week I remembered having once read this very good essay by Barry Schwabsky, which was published a while back in Triple Canopy. His point of departure is the observation that art photography over the past decades has tended to take on large dimensions. He mentions probably the most recognizable exemplars of this tendency—Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky, both of whom are masters of the large-format tableau. Their prominence notwithstanding, however, and also despite the convenience of this format for art’s commercial interests, Schwabsky finds this tendency out of step with the dominant direction in photography today.

Summed up in terms I think Schwabsky wouldn’t disagree with, that tendency is toward increased amateurism, increased artistry outside the realm of art proper, and, most importantly, increased accumulation of images. Never before, probably, have so many of us non-artists taken so many photos so well. Of course, we lean on fancy technology to do so, but that’s not a caveat—it’s precisely the point.

These many images, these often-pretty-good images, and also the ones that aren’t good at all—they are accumulated with or without their visualization. Or at least, when they do become visual to someone, the scene of viewing will tend to be ephemeral. Schwabsky notes that very few photographs are printed today. This is true, but the stronger point he brings up is that the destiny of most photographs is simply “to have been seen.” That is, their existence matters, but they are not objects to contemplate at length.

Didn’t Barthes write that the message of any photograph was, this was here (or something along those lines)? The situation I’m describing takes this testimony to the next level—not this (this photographed thing) was here, but rather there was a photograph here.

Innovations in photographic technology have made this scenario possible—the massive amount of photographic accumulation today is simply not possible in a film-only photographic universe. But this isn’t only a story about digital cameras. It’s also about the way our cameras, most of them, are networked to interfaces meant for storing and sharing the pictures they take.

These interfaces are not all the same. Some of them—Facebook and Instagram, for example—foster a constant, often laborious construction of the self. They are identity-forming technologies. But others can make us anonymous—Schwabsky mentions the (now-defunct) app Color, which once allowed “users to see all images captured by strangers within 150 feet.” Despite Color’s demise, anonymity is still part of much photographic culture. Anyone who has scrolled through a Flickr search or gone down the rabbit hole of Airbnb’s “Discover” feature knows about the pleasure of browsing photos with no real interest in the photographer.

This scenario has antecedents from the analogue world. Schwabsky mentions Vivian Maier, and his comment on her boxes of undeveloped rolls of film—that the “posthumous printing and exhibition of these images is arguably a distortion of her work, which was only ever the archive itself”—is correct, as I see it. I don’t know if this distortion is a good thing or not, but I do think that the archival element of her work is more important than the nature of the images themselves. Or maybe they matter together. What that means for how to display her work is for other, more qualified people to say. This is a digression anyway.

The point is that once we decide that the archive matters more than, or at least as much as, the images housed in it, we’ve come to a very different concept of photography than that associated with the tableaux introduced at the outset.

We’ve come, that is, to the idea that photography is more an apparatus for seeing than a technology of production. The camera always has been a vision-transforming tool, but in years past it seems that the crucial aspect of the photographic event was the production of the object—the photograph—itself. Today, for many people, this is less the case.

To understand this difference, it might make sense to look at the other side of the camera lens, particularly the sorts of behaviors that the camera has trained us to enact. Sitting still, for example. Especially in the early days, when exposures were very long, the camera taught its subjects to sit very still. But anyone who claims to have a “good side” has also internalized an effect of the camera. The much derided duck face and sparrow mouth are both implausible phenomena without photography. These are all behaviors that exist to achieve a certain effect in the image, but they have effects on our gestural life beyond the photographic event.

And I think that analogous repercussions might be lying in wait as we wade further into the sea of image accumulation. Cameras might be teaching us to see differently, but not just because they train us to think in terms of composition or a succession of still images. That is, what we’re learning from cameras today likely doesn’t owe to anything inherent to the photographic medium itself. Rather, I think that networked cameras and the ephemeral or disposable images we generate with them teach us more about the network we inhabit than they do about our visual environment. They teach us to think of ourselves and our world as things that don’t necessarily last—more a chain of many networked reproductions, less a series of subjects to be represented.