Friday, October 3, 2014

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag [Tanya Pretorius]

from Susan Sontag’s On Photography:

it was [Walter] Benjamin’s conviction that reality itself invited — and vindicated — the once heedless, inevitably destructive ministrations of the collector. In a world that is well on its way to becoming one vast quarry, the collector become someone engaged in a pious work of salvage. The course of modern history having already sapped the traditions and shattered the living wholes in which precious objects once found their place, the collector may now in good conscience go about excavating the choicer, more emblematic fragments. . . .

Benjamin’s ideas are worth mentioning because he was photography’s most original and important critic — despite (and because of) the inner contradiction in his account of photography which follows from the challenge posed by his Surrealist sensibility to his Marxist/Brechtian principles — and because Benjamin’s own ideal project reads like a sublimated version of the photographer’s activity. This project was a work of literary criticism that was to consist entirely of quotations, and would thereby be devoid of anything that might betray empathy. A disavowal of empathy, a disdain for message-mongering, a claim to be invisible — these are strategies endorsed by most professional photographers. The history of photography discloses a long tradition of ambivalence about its capacity for partisanship: the taking of sides is felt to undermine its perennial assumption that all subject have validity and interest. But what in Benjamin is an excruciating idea of fastidiousness, meant to permit the mute past to speak in its own voice, with all its unresolvable complexity, becomes — when generalized, in photography — the cumulative de-creation of the past (in the very act of preserving it), the fabrication of a new, parallel reality that makes the past immediate while underscoring its comic or tragic ineffectuality, that invests the specificity of the past with an unlimited irony, that transforms the present into the past and the past into pastness.

Like the collector, the photographer is animated by a passion that, even when it appears to be for the present, is linked to a sense of the past. But while traditional arts of historical consciousness attempt to put the past in order, distinguishing the innovative from the retrograde, the central from the marginal, the relevant from the irrelevant or merely interesting, the photographer’s approach — like that of the collector — is unsystematic, indeed anti-systematic. The photographer’s ardor for a subject has no essential relation to its content or value, that which makes a subject classifiable. It is, above all, an affirmation of the subject’s thereness; its rightness (the rightness of a look on a face, of the arrangement of a group of objects), which is the equivalent of the collector’s standard of genuineness; its quiddity — whatever qualities make it unique. The professional photographer’s preeminently willful, avid gaze is one that not only resists the traditional classification and evaluation of subjects but seeks consciously to defy and subvert them. For this reason, its approach to subject matter is a good deal less aleatoric than is generally claimed.

In principle, photography executes the Surrealist mandate to adopt an uncompromisingly egalitarian attitude toward subject matter. (Everything is “real.”) In fact, it has — like mainstream Surrealist taste itself — evinced an inveterate fondness for trash, eyesores, rejects, peeling surfaces, odd stuff, kitsch. Thus, Atget specialized in the marginal beauties of jerry-built vehicles, gaudy or fantastic window displays, the raffish art of shop signs and carousels, ornate porticoes, curious door knockers and wrought-iron grilles, stucco ornaments on the façades of run-down houses. The photographer — and the consumer of photographs — follows in the footsteps of the ragpicker, who was one of Baudelaire’s favorite figures for the modern poet . . .

What is true of photographs is true of the world seen photographically. Photography extends the eighteenth-century literati’s discovery of the beauty of ruins into a genuinely popular taste. And it extends that beauty beyond the romantics’ ruins . . . to the modernists’ ruins — reality itself. The photographer is willy-nilly engaged in the enterprise of antiquing reality, and photographs are themselves instant antiques. The photograph offers a modern counterpart of that characteristically romantic architectural genre, the artificial ruin: the ruin which is created in order to deepen the historical character of a landscape, to make nature suggestive — suggestive of the past.

The contingency of photographs confirms that everything is perishable; the arbitrariness of photographic evidence indicates that reality is fundamentally unclassifiable. Reality is summed up in an array of casual fragments — an endlessly alluring, poignantly reductive way of dealing with the world. Illustrating that partly jubilant, partly condescending relation to reality that is the rallying point of Surrealism, the photographer’s insistence that everything is real also implies that the real is not enough. By proclaiming a fundamental discontent with reality, Surrealism bespeaks a posture of alienation which has now become a general attitude in those parts of the world which are politically powerful, industrialized, and camera-wielding. Why else would reality ever be thought of as insufficient, flat, overordered, shallowly rational? In the past, a discontent with reality expressed itself as a longing for another world. In modern society, a discontent with reality expresses itself forcefully and most hauntingly by the longing to reproduce this one. As if only by looking at reality in the form of an object — through the fix of the photograph — is it really real, that is, surreal.

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