thinking about photography and “truth”

Nothing earth-shattering, just some notes that won’t make it into a review.

For me, the classic, single-viewpoint photograph is a seduction. It threatens to convince us that it is imparting a “truth” about the world by its seemingly straightforward presentation of a view. Art’s use (and more importantly, abuse) of the medium and its formats has been instrumental in disabusing us of the static image’s privileged status as a purveyor of truth. So these days no one should be under any illusion about these fixed perspective, mono-directional images—neither for their depiction of reality nor for the value of their meanings.

Play. Being, Put into Play. Bottomless Chessboard.

A ‘bottomless chessboard’ with ‘no meaning beyond itself’?

More radically than Heidegger and Gadamer, it is Jacques Derrida who deconstructs metaphysical assumptions about origins, foundations, and transcendence. Derrida would opt for the interpretive practice ‘which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name of man being the name of that being who … throughout his entire history – has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play’. He offers the metaphor of a ‘bottomless chessboard’, to which ‘there is no meaning beyond itself, no deep, underlying ground that supports it and speaks through it’. The difference between Eliot and Derrida is that whereas Derrida affirms the endless regression and play of interpretation Eliot, with his acute sense of the element of error in all interpretation, doe not. His vision, in his early philosophical work, may have approximated to that of Derrida’s ‘bottomless chessboard’, but he looked for a meaning beyond it. Unlike Derrida, Heidegger, and Gadamer, Eliot does not rest at at critique of foundational knowledge.1 [my emphasis]

For Derrida…texts are an endless series of ‘traces’ or ‘tracks’; they are traces in the sense of being products of previous traces, and tracks in the sense of moving ‘on the way to’ other traces. If language is like a chessboard, Derrida uses the metaphor of the ‘bottomless chessboard’: there is no underlying ground to support it, and play has no meaning beyond itself…Because the sign is a trace or a mark, it needs to be left intact. But because the sign is a trace in the sense of a track that encourages onward movement, the mark also needs to be erased. It stands both as a fleeting presence, and as that which must be ‘under erasure’. Thus Derrida will write a word, cross it out because it is not accurate, and print both the word and its deletion because, in his judgment, both are necessary.2

  1. Jain, Manju (2004), T. S. Eliot and American Philosophy: The Harvard Years, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 151.
  2. Thiselton, Anthony (1992), New Horizons in Hermeneutics, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, p. 108.

“‘Coefficients of friction’ of function, raw material and technique…”

A quote from Edgar Wind’s essay on how Aby Warburg’s library aims to “cater” for problems generated by art history. The piece was written in the 1930’s and addresses the legacy of Riegl and Wölfflin, but—for me—it’s the point right at the end that caught my attention, Wind naturally applying an engineering concept to the interplay of forces necessary for the production of cultural objects.

If we consider the works of Alois Riegl and of Heinrich Wölfflin … we see that, despite differences in detail, they are both informed by a polemical concern for the autonomy of art history, by a desire to break it free from the history of civilization and thus to break with the tradition associate with the name of Jacob Burckhardt. I will try briefly to summarize the forces behind this struggle and their consequences for the methodology of the subject.

3. The antithesis of form and matter thus finds its logical counterpart in the theory of an autonomous development of art, which views the entire process exclusively in terms of form, assuming the latter to be the constant factor at every stage of history, irrespective of differences both of technical production and of expression. This has both positive and negative consequences: it involves treating the various genres of art as parallel with each other—for, as far as the development of form is concerned, no one genre should be any less important than another; it also involves levelling out the differences between them—for no one genre can tell us anything that is not already contained in the others. In this way we attain, not a history of art, which traces the origin and fate of monuments as bearers of siginificant form, but, as in Riegl, a history of the autonomous formal impulse (Kunstwollen), which isolates the element of form from that of meaning, but nevertheless presents change in form in terms of a dialectical development in time—an exact counterpart of Wölfflin’s history of vision (Of course, this conceptual scheme is quite different from Wölfflin’s. There is no simple division of form and content, but a complex relationship of dynamic interaction between a conscious and autonomous ‘formal impulse’ and the ‘coefficients of friction’ of function, raw material, and technique.…)*

  • Wind, Edgar (1930). ‘Warburg’s Concept of Kunstwissenschaft and its Meaning for Aesthetics’ from The Eloquence of Symbols: Studies in Hamisi Art (1983). Oxford: OUP.