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Thursday, 7 February 2013

Photography contra sublime

Is there still ‘the sublime’?

If the sublime requires a conceptual mastery of the experience of terror/awe when confronted with the image, how then might we understand the operation of the sublime through the image that replaces the memory of the event?
We rely on the indexicality of photography and assume, even while aware of the ease with which we manipulate the digital image, that there remains a functional representational value to the photographic document. At the same time we conveniently forget Barthes notion of the photograph supplanting the memory it represents[1]. Barthes was describing the portrait of the face of the beloved in the first instance, but extrapolated his theory of photography and memory from that analysis. If this aura of photography still holds and can be expanded to include cultural not just personal images; and if the sublime can still be experienced through representation; then at the intersection of cultural memory & the image lies a complex process of displacement. So much so that historical images come to stand in for the trauma they document, and simultaneously cover over their complex cultural meanings. This order of representation – the historical, perhaps cultural – sublime[2], allows us to master our terror, but simultaneously, by its continued circulation, to experience an unbearable forgetting. The images become a collective stand in that allows us to master the horror for which they are the mnemonic.
If we consider the photographic image of the Hiroshima or Nagasaki A-bomb cloud; or the films from the liberation of the concentration camps amongst several others of the same order, they become through their cultural saturation a kind of shorthand for far more complex and far more frightening histories because we prioritise the experience of mastery: it makes history bearable.
The constant televisual projection of the twin towers falling is of another order I think, and the marker of a change in era. Its relentless transmission means it has entered a Western, perhaps global, domain alongside the historical sublime. This order of photography and its intensity constructs images through which we as a culture attempt to master not just our terror, but our individual and collective powerlessness, and not through an experience of the sublime, but through the replacing of the memory of the event with an image.
In this compulsion to repeat, actually or symbolically, we are served by ever more efficient 24 hour digital flows of images and information: as Wark[3] has argued these flows are not the same in all times & places, and this in turn privileges and silences, exposes and hides, just as previous forms of information circulation have done.
This sleight of hand creates a politicised hierarchy of images: and therefore a hierarchy of terror. Systems of representation, and transmission; and our consumption of images and media, mean we cannot but collude in this hierarchical structuring; attempting to keep those that are unbearable at arms length, and adjudicating their meaning in the process. It is no coincidence that this intense visuality of the event comes about at the same time as a turn in the nature of politics, whether conventional politics of the governmental kind, or the politics of representation in all its forms.

Liz Bradshaw

This précis is part of a much larger project on art & politics, and the end of postmodernity.

[1] See Barthes, R Camera Lucida trans Howard, R Vintage Books London 1981/2000
[2] See Doane, M A ‘Lost and Found Footage: The Historical Sublime’ presentation at ‘Out of the archive: artists, images & history’ Tate Modern November 18 & 19 2011
 [3] See Wark, M Telesthesia: Communication, Culture & Class Polity Press 2012