Photography in light of the Death Drive
What is the practice of photography if not the adult re-enactment of the Fort-Da game of Freud’s nephew? What is the lens if not the act of throwing the desired object away, to keep a distance from it? What does the photographer do if not compulsively repeating the act of renouncing the object of pleasure, only to find it again behind the curtains, when the negative is processed?
In the analysis of Photography under the light of the death drive, the first reading we can attempt is that Photography is characterised by a compulsion to remember: very often the photographic practice, professional or amateur, is directed toward the same subject [It is important to precise that within this essay we use the term ‘subject’ to mean the subject of the photograph, being it a person, a landscape or a material/immaterial object whatsoever] through its spatial and temporal changes; the potentially unlimited number of reproductions assure that what is depicted will never be forgotten; the lens is the instrument of choice which avoids the occurrence of the wound, i.e. one of the event that reduces the outbreak of traumatic neuroses.
If we are to agree with this view we then need to ask ourself what it is that the photographer has a desire to remember. ‘What drives you two girls to cut from the mobile continuum of your day these temporarily slices, the thickness of a second?’ asks the protagonist of Italo Calvino’s The Adventure Of A Photographer, ‘the life that you live in order to photograph it, is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself’ (1958).
What the photographer desires to remember is death. And what he desires to remember is dead as well. ‘Strictly speaking, the person who has been photographed - not the total person, who is an effect of time - is dead. (...) Photography, by virtue of the objective suggestions of its signifier (stillness, again) maintain the memory of the dead as being dead.’ (Metz, 1985).
The mode of this desire is the photograph, a relatively small object reproducible a potentially unlimited number of times. A potentially immortal object that testifies about what is not there anymore. Which protects from the loss and affirms the loss undoubtedly. A fetish, a symbolic castration.
At this regard, Slavoj Žižek offers an interesting reading of partial objects in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema - Lacanian Psychoanalysis and Film (2006, 24m:20s):
‘The fascinating thing about partial objects, in the sense of organs without bodies, is that they embody what Freud called death drive. The death drive is not a striving for annihilation, no! The death drive is almost the opposite: it is the dimension of the undeath, of the living death, something which remains alive even if it is dead; immortal in its deathness. This dimension of diabolic undeadness is what partial objects are about.’
With the act of photographing, in truth, the photographer transposes the memory of an absence to an object that reminds him of a death, he transposes death. The photographer wants to be traumatized each and every time by the memory of the death of the subject precisely for the purpose of transposing this death into an object that protects him from the traumatic event itself. The compulsion to photograph is in reality the compulsion to forget that the subject is dying, and ultimately to forget the subject.
The photographer’s desire is to rationalise the death of the subject. Through the lens he establishes a certain distance from it, and through the lens he can decide upon what it is important to him in the world (what is important that don’t die). He wants to capture an original state of the subject which is beyond time and the caducity of life: ‘Photography (...), like death, is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world into another world, into another kind of time (...)’ (Metz, 1985).
The act of photographing then figures itself as an ego-instinct whose desire is to come back to an earlier state, a regressive, conservative instinct that tends to re-instate a precedent status quo. Photography is strictly a death practice.
Every time the photographer acts on the shutter, he is re-enacting the death of the subject, he is pre-staging in his mind the traumatic and unavoidable event of its death in order to avoid the rise of a future traumatic neuroses. ‘All representation is a form of death (...). The power of the image comes from its telling us what is to come’ (Townsend, 2008).
As death can be certainly described as an original state of inertia that is common to all matter before and after it becomes matter, it is innate in all of us and we don’t need to remember it: ‘(...) the power of the image as the power of death does not wait for death, but it is marked out in everything - and for everything - that awaits death’ (Derrida, 1996). Our bodies know that we will return to that state and know that it will be a traumatic event. But this can be considered a traumatic event only to the extent that it acts against certain cells of ours that respond to the life drive. It seems as in the photographer it is these cells’ desire to pre-stage the death of a subject in order to continue to live when the traumatic event will happen.
Freud writes about the compulsion to repeat in retrospective mode, as the repetition of a traumatic event already happened in the past ‘in order to develop the anxiety whose omission was the cause of the traumatic neuroses’ (1961, p.26).
Photography is a compulsion to repeat an event that is already present in us, the death, but in order to develop the anxiety that will prevent a future traumatic neuroses to happen. In the specific it is a compulsion to repeat the very act of forgetting that we are alive so when death will arrive we will be sufficiently ready to receive and accept it (the notion of acceptance implies one of moving on in life). We are looking at a death practice (a real compulsion to repeat death) that serves a life instinct.
The Death Drive in light of Photography
The question that is at the origin of this essay, what does the theory of the death drive explain about photography, is now to be reversed. What does Photography explain of the death drive?
Freud affirms that the Pleasure Principle, a secondary process, serves Thanatos (1961, pag. 57), the death drive, a primary process, and that at the same level of Thanatos there is another primary process, Eros, that is driven by life instincts. These two primary processes work in opposition to each other.
What the practice of photography seems to prove is that there can be a certain degree of dependence between the two primary processes. This imply that it is possible for one to use the other in order to achieve its primary purposes. It seems as the death drive can be used for life purposes.
At this regard I have interviewed Richard Swatton, psychotherapist at The City Psychotherapy Service, London. His view on the death drive is illuminating, for he believes that the death drive is ‘a productive source of evolution’ (2011, 59m:56s):
‘But there is a deeper or a more inclusive way to look at the death instinct: life proceeds by a series of deaths. [Richard gives now a panorama of the major changes that occur in the life of a person: a series of deaths and re-births of the ego]. The idea is that all crisis can be seen not from a regressive point of view but from where you are headed. (...) So the death instinct viewed in that terms is a productive source of evolution. (...) So you can die to an old life and be reborn. And that is a more modern and progressive view about the death instinct: It is healthy but it can become decidedly unhealthy when the person refuses to die.’
The death drive becomes a healthy force, a healthy drive which we need in order to live.
This doesn’t contradict the fact that the ultimate purpose of life is to die. In fact, by finding an example of a death instinct that serves a life one, we can certainly affirm that the opposite occurs too: the orgasm, La Petit Mort. During the orgasm we regress to a state where the conscious system doesn’t apply. We regress to a state that resembles death. This is a life instinct (sexual instincts are life instincts) that serves the purpose of death. And the opposite at the same time: a death drive that serves the very purpose of the prolongation of life (since it is in the communion of cells that life is preserved).
On page 33 of Beyond The Pleasure Principle Freud affirms that the life instincts were originally the myrmidons of death, asserting a certain predominance of one instinct (the death one) on to the other (the life drive). This is just before he rejects his own theory for one of opposition between the two.
In this categoric opposition between forces we can possibly read the most intimate struggle of a father that has just survived the death of his ‘Sunday child’ Sophie in a world struggling after the First World War, on the verge of collapsing under the Second World War.
The example of the practice of photography proves this opposition wrong. The primary instincts work together, they become altruistic: they don’t only act to pursue their own objectives, they can also actively act to pursue the aims of the other primary instinct too.
By eliminating the opposition between the two instincts, what becomes central is how to use them. The dynamic opportunities arising from the possibility of altruistic (instead of opposing) instincts are at the basis of choice and creativity, therefore saving art from being just an expression of the repression of the primitive Oedipal Crime into the unconscious.
We would like now to propose a practical example of this conjugation of primary instincts and nothing appears more appropriate than referring to the practice of appropriation in the body of work of John Stezaker, a survey of whose oeuvre is now on show at the Whitechapel Gallery’s John Stezaker exhibition.
John Stezaker’s work masters the art of appropriation in its collecting-mode of already available images and in its collage-mode of re-assembling them together.
The practice of appropriation is, within the photographic art, the one where the presence of death is the most evident, it being a death practice the most compelling. Historically its birth is marked by the release of Barthes’ The Death Of The Author: ‘the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, writing begins’ (1967). The interesting concept that Barthes advances in his short essay is the central point that the reader assumes in the fruition of the work of art as well as in the very production of meanings and interpretations of it. It is the birth of the reader. The photographer dies as the author of the image and re-born as the reader, the interpreter: ‘I remember I begun collecting things in which I began to see [to read] the manifestation of an archetype. (...) At that time [mid ‘70s] I used to talk about things taking on the vantage point of the consumer rather than the producer of images’ (Stezaker, 1997 in Evans Ed. 2009). Talking about his Marriage pieces during an interview with Gallois and Herrmann, carried in occasion of the John Stezaker exhibition, the artist affirms that it is precisely because the images don’t merry perfectly that the beholder has to participate in creating the marriage, that is, the image.
The practice of appropriation is also tightly intertwined with the one of collecting: in Stezaker this is manifest in its simplest form of grouping together different images that already exist (its existence being a necessary quality of the object that has to be present at the moment of collecting, in order to be collectable); in other practices such as, for example, Richard Prince’s, the act of collecting is exercised trough re-photography. During the interview with Gallois and Herrmann Stezaker states that he thinks of the collection ‘as the “afterlife” of the image; there is a deathly aspect to all collections”; but in particularly to his collections as, he explains, ‘I collect from what has already had its day, its moment of currency’. Despite this he says that he still ‘get a sensation [of] its aliveness [of these images] (...)’ (2011).
Another way to read the art of appropriation is through the pieces that it produces, ‘a vampiric re-animation only. They are the undead’ (Mellor, 1998). This recalls the definition of Žižek of the partial objects and that of the undeathness of the fetish along with its origin, the taboo. And again Stezaker confirms this view:
‘the big question for me was why my fascination always seemed to take me beyond the contemporary world, into something that came from the recent past but nonetheless a world that no longer exists. I felt that this relationship with old images was almost taboo. (...) I was interested in the obsolescence, the point at which they become illegible, mysterious, at which they touch on another world’ (2011).
The point they touch is death, after having lost their function and their context: they are images out of time and out of currency. This is the state of inertia of the image, the death in which it is latent the prospect of a new life. And Stezaker’s gift of a new life comes through the ultimate ceremony of their death. He, in fact, cuts, omits, covers up, blinds them, voids and disfigures them in a rite that seeks their eternal death and, with it, their immortality. ‘Death is rather a matter of expediency, a manifestation of adaptation to the external conditions of life’ (Freud, 1961, p. 40). With no life, death doesn’t occur. Through the final, definitive celebration of his images’ death, through a second annihilation of the subject, after the one perpetrated by the oblivion that accompanies the passing of time, through his compulsion to repeat the death of these images, he gives them a new immortal existence. ‘I feel I have returned these stereotypical figures to a certain kind of humanity, that I have breathed life into them’ (2011).
Stezaker’s oeuvre is not the manifestation of the opposition of Eros and Thanatos, but of them working in unison, of the altruistic nature of the primary instincts. In his work the two forces find an equilibrium that is as firm and delicate as the cut of his Blind I, 2006, the first image at the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition: the blindness of the man is present only in a thin, precise cut in the paper, a quick blink of the eye, what it takes to die. And whilst the image travels on this line that is the passage from life to death, at the same time it finds another route, a route to infinity, as the line becomes a cut in the perception of the perspective of the image and a door sprang open on immortality.
It seems superfluous to say that not every appropriationist practice, and photographic practice in general, are as successful as Stezaker’s in finding this equilibrium of primary instincts. What it is not superfluous to repeat, though, is that by eliminating the opposition between the two instincts, the riddle to be solved by the new generation of artists becomes how to use them altruistically in order to disclose creative opportunities.
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