Images that demand consummation Postdocumentary photography, Art and Ethics Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (detail), 1974-1975
Preamble Documentary photography is a tradition with its own history and reflection. Since the Seventies, however, there has been such a blurring of boundaries and mixing of disciplines that the distinction between the photograph as document, as registration or as work of art can hardly be made any more. In today's post-media age, where many voices rule and where numerous critical positions are appropriated by different disciplines, we would perhaps do well to speak of postdocumentary photography. In this way, the many intermediate forms and counter-movements also gain the right to speak since they belong to the same representation.
This essay will touch on a number of difficulties that are widely acknowledged within the postdocumentary discipline and that inspire critical action. Yet my intervention is interdisciplinary and will chiefly focus on the ethical positions of artists, many of whom make use of documentary photography. Indeed, I am interested in the way that image-makers are managing to stretch the boundaries of perception in such a way that space is offered to that which exists beyond the stereotype or the already known. Such an expanded form of aesthetics, where aesthetics and ethics meet each other again, is not reserved for postdocumentary photography, film or art. Images that demand consummation traverse all disciplines.
Introductio The dubious role of our capacity to aestheticise occupies an important place in this essay. Aesthetics is a complicated concept, which can scarcely be employed without numerous long discourses and footnotes. Looked at etymologically, aesthetics has an ethical foundation. In antiquity, aesthetics stood for the capacity to remove yourself from your own framework so you could learn to see the unprecedented from that new viewpoint. Aesthetics grew from an 'ethics of perception' into a concept that appeared to be more and more autonomous and was no longer accountable to anything or anybody. Except to itself. In the meantime, the tension between ethics and aesthetics is such that nobody wants to burn their fingers on it now. Whereas previously the beautiful and the good meant the same thing, thoughts about beauty and truth seem to have ended in stalemate. The media merely see ethics and aesthetics as antitheses. Aesthetics, as always, manages to seduce, to open and to broaden. It makes you notice what you had not previously observed. However, a faded aesthetics can be presumptuous, elitist, arrogant, undemocratic and even fascistic at times. Such a constricted aesthetics values, judges, censures, discriminates, stereotypes and restricts. Having now become part of the image-saturated mass culture, aesthetics has lost much of its original frame of reference and has mutated into a barely reflected dogma capable of doing considerable damage. We seem no longer capable of anything but perceive and (re)cognise according to this endlessly repeated principle. Aesthetics is threatening to colonise our gaze. Its function of promoting perception oriented towards knowledge and insight is proving to be its opposite: it gets in the way of our view, it makes us experience every break as an irritation, conjures up barriers and creates deep abysses between people. Postdocumentary photographers, filmmakers and artists are asking themselves whether their engagement can perhaps be defined on the basis of an ethical instead of purely an aesthetic perspective - a critical position that, since the Eighties, certainly after the advent of postmodernism and photographic theory, also found its adherents in the Netherlands. Oscar van Alphen, originally a documentary photographer, was inspired at the time by Barthes, Foucault and Bataille to give a form to his engagement and to turn away from aesthetics and images that functioned as illustrations of other people's interpretations. 'I have therefore followed the reverse path', says Van Alphen, 'my engagement first alienated me from the accepted views on photography, but finally brought me closer to the photograph.' (1) Such positions will be discussed below, regardless of the discipline operated in. Indeed, I would contend that the identity of persons operating publicly, in the above-mentioned sense, is far from fixed. In the argument that follows, 'the artist' will regularly be put between quotation marks so as to indicate that a broader definition than normal is being applied. Whoever acts in public, deploying his individuality and creativity to make his or her voice heard or to show an image and attributing to himself a certain autonomy in regard to the world and its institutions, is, sooner or later, 'an artist'. No form of identity whatsoever can still be defined statically at the present time, regardless of training or even the institution one is working in. The ideas of a number of philosophers and cultural critics who offer insights regarding the positioning of 'the artist' in an ethical sense, will be deployed in an attempt to restore the old connection between ethics and aesthetics. It goes without saying that this will be done interdisciplinarily and particularly in terms of the consequences for the ethical position of the beholder.
Photography: objective, aesthetic, colonial Photography opens up our world, enlarges our awareness, creates knowledge and makes everyone share in experiences. Station 17 by the portrait photographer Anton Corbijn (ill. p. 00) manages to seduce us into 'another way of seeing'. It is a photograph of a musicians' collective, some of whose members have limited functions, but the way the photograph has been made transcends the cliché of the pitiful handicapped. Their 'otherness' is only noticeable at a second glance. Their identity is no longer brought into line with a functional disorder or handicap, but is as broad and many-sided as that of their colleagues. Such an image, instead of taking advantage of a sensation-seeking desire for freaks or other stereotypes, literally creates space for both the viewer and those who are represented.
Photography can also bring about the opposite. Photographic images, whether they are documents, snapshots or works of art, can turn people into objects, reducing their vitality to a picture, murdering their individuality. According to Susan Sontag, photography has contributed to a 'chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events.' (2) Dulled viewing habits manifest themselves without exception within all photographic practices: amateur photography, reportage photography, documentary photography, (documentary) film and visual art. Sontag concludes that photography has contributed at least as much to the numbing of our conscience as to its development. An overpowering and detached aesthetics takes its toll.
Documentary photography has perhaps made a false start as well. By presenting itself - right from the start in fact - as a mirror of reality, it has too often been subservient to that reality. As a result, photography has too often inadvertently proved to be the opposite of a democraticising instrument. From its earliest roots to far in its historical rovings it degenerated into a pre-eminent means for propaganda and indoctrination. The illusion of immediacy, mechanical recording without the intervention of a third party, hypothesised a public that unthinkingly accepted everything shown to it. Photographic pictures of the world around us are experienced as more real than real. Against our better judgment. For although nobody believes any more in the 'reality effects' of documentary film or photography, everyone is still expected to behave as though they do. In this way image, perception, language and consciousness continually reproduce and confirm each other. (3)
In the past decades, documentary photography has all too often adopted a position of servitude as regards the dominant ideology. This was partly due to its own construction being invisible, and partly to a scarcely reflected and limited aesthetics. And so the status quo of oppressive institutions and practices was confirmed for decades. Although criticism of this blind naivete has come from both within as well as without, and also has both Western and non-Western roots, reflection on the system-confirming role of both document (proof, example) and documentary (instruction, persuasion, indoctrination) coming from East European countries is particularly significant. What we see there is a succession of counter-documents and fictional documentaries in an attempt not only to expose the limits of representation but also its ties to the dominant ideology and power. (4)
Documentary film and photography are having to endure so much postcolonial criticism at the moment that 'documentary practice' seems to have had its day. At the same time, we know that stereotyped or system-confirming messages are seldom hidden in that which is photographed, and that they are far from medium-dependent. Whether in words, images or gestures, it is a matter of the detached, judgmental and fixating way in which people are represented. Representation in its totality is in a crisis. As a result of reputed knowledge and objectivity, of an aesthetically trained gaze, or guided by market mechanisms and the dialectic of present society, the 'subject' in question becomes all too easily the unasked-for product of clichéd representation. And we will never know whether this representation is the result of our everyday perception or is itself constituted by it.
A number of examples Shortly after photography was invented, photographic documentation was applied within numerous scientific disciplines. The objective nature of photographic images meant that the camera was not only suitable for building up an archive, but also as a research instrument. So too within the medical and psychiatric orders. Electric shocks were tried out under the eye of the camera, and the convulsions of an epileptic suffering a grand mal were recorded photographically. The pictures taken were never shown to those depicted; such a confrontation would be a torment for 'the subject' in question. Why were the photographs made? In order to collect 'objective' facts about the illness and to be able to learn about the sickness. The images were not only intended to record reality, but in fact to explain that reality. In order to objectivise the dualistic distinction between healthy and unhealthy, normal and abnormal, employed and unemployed. Not surprisingly, these types of images are a major violation of the life and personality of the one who is photographed. You can compare it with the use in genetic research of blood samples from persons declared non compos mentis. 'Objective' means that the other, through the recording of his disease or ailment, is relegated to just a syndrome. This medical view of people, which even now is too little put into perspective, became perverted to a monstrous degree during the Nazi regime. An example of this is the Tötungsartz photo-album presented to Walter Schmidt in 1941 by his department colleagues at the Eichberg Institute. It is in two parts: the first part contained photographs of children (mostly snapshots, like in a family album), while the second part consisted of pictures of the same children - or at least of their brains, removed from their skulls after their death and photographed separately. (5)
A similar, and to our way of thinking nineteenth century, hegemony as the basis for a so-called objective view of the world, influences - albeit to a much less extreme degree - the creation and maintenance of social systems until today. The role that documentary photography, or the way that we are expected to believe in documents, plays in this has been critically scrutinised by the American artist, writer and activist Martha Rosler. Although not a documentary photographer herself, Rosler regularly makes use of documentary photography in her work. Her projects are aimed at calling into question numerous media-related presuppositions within film, video, documentary photography, text, exhibition. She manages to subvert such generally accepted qualities as factuality, veracity and objectivity in relation to both the photographic image and the word. Not only is the vulnerable position of those represented brought up for discussion, but it is also partially undone. An early example is her installation of photographs about homelessness and alcoholism, titled The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-1975). Rosler used photographs as well as texts intended to reflect the hopelessness and brutality of the problem of alcoholicism in her own neighbourhood. By emphasising the incompleteness, inconsistency and thus inadequacy of these descriptive documents, she manages to relativise claims to truth and to give the people in question the space to regain control. These people get back their individuality - rather than an identity judged by their condition and thus fixed - and hence their life. Rosler's projects often embrace different disciplines and media. If you lived here (1987-1989) (ill. p. 00) comprised a series of exhibitions, debates and publications about housing, homelessness, architecture and urbanism, complemented with work by artists, the homeless and school children. Rosler's works are conceived on the basis of an ethical awareness and are never just about people. They are collaborative projects with people. Carefully chosen contexts, coupled with a critical (re)formulation of already existing systems of representation, give people a voice once again. The viewer can then give these voices the weight to which they are entitled.
A similar approach is evident in the work of Allan Sekula, likewise an artist, who has appropriated documentary photography as his domain. In comparison with Rosler, however, he opts more consciously for a recognisable aesthetic approach, with the goal of involving the viewer in a world full of ambiguity and pitfalls. His projects focus on social, cultural and political-economic developments in today's (post)capitalist society. The photographic work never stands by itself. Like Rosler, Sekula wants to control the context, the installation, the links between photographs and texts and between the images themselves. The appeal of the photographs and the low-key humour which his work is shot through with manage to bind and engage the viewer with the subject (ill. p. 00).
Representation - interpretation - counter-presentation How harrowing and abject photographic documents can be, particularly as a result of the merciless way they are turned into commodities, is demonstrated by the reception of photographs that were made at the time of the genocide in Cambodia. During Pol Pot's reign of terror (1975-1979) portraits of prisoners were made on his orders, just before their brutal execution. 6 These S-21 photographs, named after the prison where they were produced, later acquired a status as morbid artifacts of a 'collective reminder of inhumanity' in the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. What happened then, because of a 'well-intended' but mainly economically motivated intervention from outside, illustrates the distortion and perversion of what should be a shared memory. After a visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum, two American photographers, Douglas Niven and Christopher Riley, developed a project to save the threatened photo archive from oblivion. 7 From 1994 onwards, parts of the S-21 archive were presented to an international audience by means of exhibitions and they gained worldwide fame through intensive attention in virtually all media. All this was rewarded with the publication in 1995 of Niven and Riley's book The Killing Fields. In this form, however, a cultural history was constructed with the S-21 photographs that reproduced a totally different dialectic. Suddenly, instead of something that concerned everyone, it now seemed to manifest a clear class difference between the prisoners sentenced to death as representatives of naked life and those observing from a safe distance. A dialectic of society that, according to Giorgio Agamben, is characterised by a dichotomy: those who are deprived of all rights and those who can enjoy life as subjects, namely as citizens with a political status. 8 As an object of overwhelming global interest, the S-21 photographs became increasingly liable to the corrosive forces of negation and aesthetic (dis)interest. A confusion that connects seamlessly with Derrida's reflection that the archive is created at precisely the moment when the memory that one is trying to preserve is about to disintegrate. (9)
In 1997 the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited a selection of the S-21 portraits, oblivious to their problematic role in the politics of representation. Elaborating on an existing tradition, the photographs were selected and presented on humanitarian grounds. (10) The public, however, regarded the photographs as art, an aesthetic appreciation that was nurtured with no shame whatsoever. Visitor numbers did not lie, after all, and the exhibition was extolled everywhere as one of the best in years. Innocence, tragedy and beauty were often heard superlatives. Sufficient reason to bring the photographs to France, Christian Caujolle must have thought. In 1998 he showed the series under the title 'Un dévoir de Mémoire' at the International Photography Festival in Arles. Caujolle pointedly announced that it was not a question of art. He did everything he could to prevent the photographs from acquiring a museum context with its corresponding aura, up to and including the possibly naive decision to present the photographs in a dilapidated shed, which only contributed to the aesthetic and thus artistic appreciation of the weather-stained photographs. And all this while the photo exhibition was intended to question not only the role of the photograph in accomplishing an exercise of memory but also the responsibility of everyone involved in the transfer between photographer and viewer: from the press, press agency, publisher, gallery, museum to photo album. (11)
Of course the presentation of the S-21 archive also came in for criticism, mainly concerning the 'muteness' of those portrayed. The medium of photography was seen as preventing the deceased subject from speaking. In other words, the medium revealed its powerlessness to give the subject a voice at the moment when it still lived and was photographed. An echo once again of Susan Sontag's analysis of the ethically unjustifiable power relation between filming and being filmed, between photographer and the one photographed. The topicality of her commentary was recently demonstrated with the photographs of Iraqis being tortured and (sexually) abused in the Abu Ghraib prison, which were sent out into the world like trophies. (12) It is scant consolation for the already faltering reputation of photography as a self-reflecting medium that in this case it's not actually a question of the photographs themselves. The victims had already been turned into objects long before the intervention of the digital camera.
Alienation as strategy The art world reacted to the attack on the Twin Towers in New York with shock but also impotence. What to do, what to make, what image to set against it? Although the meaning and consequences of this terrorist act made a deep impression on the majority of people, an awareness of the aesthetic impact of the drama also emerged. After all, the impact was more spectacular than many an action film could rival. While the idea of a terrorist attack in the form of a strike using aeroplanes had long been supplied by Hollywood B-films, better known as 'disaster movies'. It all goes to show how much we have become part of a postmodern 'society of the spectacle' in which artificial images are so able to seduce us and determine our behaviour that it is only with difficulty that we can countenance other realities. It is not for nothing that Slavoj Zizek talks about an impending implosion of symbolic reality to the extent that nothing any longer has meaning beyond what it appears as. (13) The way in which the 11 September footage (the planes smashing into the Twin Towers) was repeated every day on TV in a battle for the highest ratings speaks for itself. Artists and documentary makers are certainly engaged. But how to express this engagement, in view of the dizzying turnover of the most extreme and shocking images, seductively succeeding each other, and with their well-nigh magnetic attraction to the spectator, is another matter. What is there that could still be depicted that could locate itself beyond the framework of a film and media aesthetics directly aimed at an emotional response? Beyond images intended to be immediately consumed, preferably causing as one-dimensional a reaction as possible and, as such, making a lasting impression?
The French Situationist Guy Debord predicted already in 1960 that every relationship we enter into with others will be increasingly staged on the basis of a similar 'instant' approach to the world. We no longer live life, but act in a film, which we call life. It is this world that keeps us prisoner, at the same time that it alienates us from reality.
Slavoj Zizek wrote about the attack on the Twin Towers and Michael Moore made a documentary film about it, Fahrenheit 9/11. What is striking is how Moore represents the moment of impact - the picture is black for several minutes, with only the sound coming to the viewer. More and more filmmakers are turning to deliberately not showing images, a tactic that goes back to Guy Debord's 1952 film without images, Howls for Sad. The strategy of not showing is likewise employed by the Chilean-American artist Alfredo Jaar. Photographic and digital presence and immediacy have become so overpowering that the word 'presentation' is being introduced once again, but then in a negative sense. At present image and sound are determining the here and now to such an obtrusive degree that any art that still displays some compassion is having to free itself from this ubiquity. (14) In 1994 Jaar travelled to places in Rwanda and took thousands of photographs of the gruesome sights following the mass slaughters there. A year later, he made an installation about the genocide under the title Real Pictures. The installation contained many photographs from Rwanda, but only one could actually be seen. The rest lay in piles of closed black boxes. He also employed this inverted tactic to stimulate the spectator's involvement in his installation Lament of the Images, first shown at Documenta XI in 2002. Images are lacking in this light installation. Not out of distrust, but out of respect. And as critique - for example of Bill Gates' private archive of innumerable documentary pictures which should be part of our common memory.
In 1950, in her book The Human Condition, the philosopher Hannah Arendt described the effects of what she called alienation from the world. Keith Tester decided in 1995 to update Arendt's book and wrote The Inhuman Condition. (15) Tester underlines Arendt's earlier diagnosis about man's alienation from the world and from himself, but concludes that the remedy proposed by Arendt is no longer relevant. In today's society, which in Tester's eyes scarcely offers any moments of calm, if only because of the continual over-stimulation of the senses, and where produced reality - 'instant' reality' - has turned into our first nature, the whole idea of 'contemplation' has become implausible. Tester argues that it is not in taking distance from the world that we are able to be brought to ourselves, but that it is precisely an alienation in the world that determines the place and direction of engagement. The choice is to no longer accept the world as it is or as it appears, but to see the world that we experience and participate in as a complex of problems and challenges that we have to face. In order to be able to attain such a choice, artists, documentary makers, or any other persons performing and thus acting in a public sense, have to enable themselves and others to experience alienation in the world. Only in this way can a fracture be created within an indolent culture that seems to accept the greatest crimes against humanity as belonging to the order of the day.
Perhaps this is the grey area that the South African artist Kendell Geers is searching for in his photographs and works of art which invariably deal with the subject of evil. The evil that Geers shows is not even recognisable as such any longer. Evil that, in his eyes, has passed the moment of the unsayable and is assuming such extreme forms that it can no longer be justified. There is nothing that even motivates it any more. It is evil for the sake of evil: an aesthetic evil. Kendell Geers has few scruples when it comes to confronting his viewers with the gruesome way in which evil as an aesthetic commodity appears to be controlling the world (ill. p. 00)
'The artist' in aesthetic terms The philosophy of Alain Badiou is close to Tester's suggestion of alienation in the world, except that Badiou has doubts about whether it can be a 'conscious' choice. In his book Ethics. An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (2002), Badiou typifies 'the artist' as someone who, as a result of a deeply encroaching, often traumatic event, feels the necessity to pursue a personal truth and to remain faithful to it in spite of considerable opposition. According to this argument, being an artist and ethics are inextricably bound up with each other.
Badiou argues that contemporary ethics (as laid down in the Declaration of Human Rights) comes dangerously close to nihilism. Ethics, after all, is equated with a number of predetermined, standardised norms and values, and then translated into rules and regulations that everyone is supposed to keep to. In Badiou's view, this is a form of ethics that is divorced from life. Instead of continuing to connect ethics with abstract categories, he wants to bring ethics back to concrete situations. And rather than being reduced to a form of sympathy for victims, ethics should become the enduring principle of individual processes. Moreover, instead of being just a conservative position testifying to a good conscience, ethics should be concerned with truths in the plural. In brief: Badiou is looking for an initiating, active and processual from of ethics. (16)
According to Badiou, abstract ethics is a farce, if only because there is no such thing as an abstract subject. A human - a 'multiple-complex form of being' - can at the most develop into a subject, but only when the conditions of a truth arise. Drastic events can make a human decide to take a new ontological path, says Badiou. The singular truth-process only starts at the moment that the subject in the making decides to remain true to this traumatic event and to consider every new situation in relation to that event. In this sense, the moment at which the truth-process makes its entry can be interpreted as a fundamental and immanent break with the specific order in which the event occurred. Badiou follows Lacan in using the word 'break' to indicate that that which helps to mobilise the truth-process - the event - has no value whatsoever in the context of the dominant language and established knowledge at that moment. (17) Such a truth-process literally makes a hole in the then existing knowledge. And it is this process, according to Badiou, that creates the subject.
Truth is therefore not something that can be communicated, it is not just a matter of opinions. Truth is something you encounter (in the form of an event); truth seizes you through being faithful to the process that follows. It is something that happens to you. Which does not mean to say this makes the path to it any easier. It is here that Badiou introduces the notion of evil - not as preceding the good, but precisely as inextricably bound up with and resulting from the ethic of truths. Evil as the direct result of one of the three dimensions in which, according to Badiou, the truth-process can come about. And where the difference between good and evil is at times wafer-thin. Examples of this evil are the following of a pseudo-truth or simulacrum (Nazism), no longer being able to be faithful to the truth-process, in other words treachery (the Bush government), and, lastly, the disaster scenario resulting from the equating of a singular truth with total power by trying to name the unnameable at whatever cost (Al-Qaeda terror).
Personal is political Martha Rosler argues that, in contrast to much ideologically-biased photography from the Thirties through to the Sixties, today's documentary photography no longer allows itself to be seduced by the Grand Narratives from the time of Modernism. Photographers and artists have shifted their attention to 'the small', the personal. Their goal, it seems, is no longer to change the world but to know it. And to do all this with a minimum of theory. According to Rosler, the danger of such an apolitical form of documentary photography is that it becomes swallowed up into what you could term the general visual culture and is then made harmless by the system. In the meantime, the opposition between grand narratives and the smallness of the personal is outdated, as Rosler herself shows in her installations. It is indeed possible to change the world, precisely by means of the personal=political approach of Badiou, among others. The Atlas Group's pictures show how, on the basis of personal experience, truths can be formed and put into context in such a way that the viewer can supplement them with his/her own experiences and observations. (ill. p. 00) These photographs and films challenge viewers to see beyond what is already known, beyond their own limits, so as to 'leave the realm of the known, and take oneself there where one does not expect, is not expected to be '18 Such photographs can, in their turn, lead to personal events on the part of the spectator - events that result in insights, to wanting to stand by one's personal and singular truth-processes - precisely Badiou's definition of ethics. Aroused by what pricks, stabs and cuts as it were through the image, in the process of which something 'other' is revealed, the viewer becomes subject. The ethical, or extended method of perceiving thereby created can complete the image and make it more than the sum of its parts. Photographs themselves have no weight. Only those images acquire meaning that have it in themselves to unleash such a truth-process, followed by a process of completion encompassing artist, image and viewer. It is up to the viewer as co-author to give weight to the image. (19)
Is this what Roland Barthes called the photograph's punctum? Perhaps. The 'event' that Badiou says is the precondition of any truth-process demonstrates an affinity with Barthes' punctum, the extra that is seemingly added to the photograph, but which was actually already there the whole time. 20 It makes us come to life as viewers, shaking us awake for a moment, realising ourselves and merging as it were with that which manages to broach the image. That is the moment when we no longer just appear to be collecting information in an appropriately distanced manner - aesthetically in the narrow sense of the word -, but when, in a moment of being affected, we add something to it. And consequently don't let go of it. Such images teach viewers to perceive differently. They inspire the discerning (accepting as true) of what was not previously seen. Such a gaze (of a photographer, of an artist, of a viewer) releases, extends, sets in motion, shows us what in fact falls outside the limits of the observable. A process that can give the viewer a 'moment of insight' which is able to help resist the prison of quotidian perception. A process that enables not only the first maker but also the 'one who consummates' to become someone. A subject in Badiou's terms. A photographer à la Barthes.
Ethics and aesthetics merge here. Images that initiate something that is expressive of more than what the material thing 'an sich' reveals, have the potential to appeal to the viewer in an aesthetic/ethical sense. At least, if the personal truth motivating the making of images, documenting, intervening or writing resonates in an 'event' on the part of the viewer. An event that can lead to insight with major consequences for both perceiving and acting. Naturally, this is unrelated to the maker's professional identity. Other conditions count here, namely that the viewer must be able and willing to consummate the image in his or her turn. For only then can an image, a documentary photograph, a written intervention, a staged situation, give the other the opportunity to become involved and engrossed, to make an effort for it. Only on that condition can there be a guarantee of a free place for all those involved - the photographer, those represented and the viewer -, a place that is all too often overlooked. This free place is called autonomy. Autonomy that is not purely dependent on individual skills, personal characteristics or institutionalised agreements, but that is granted to a person by others. Such autonomous zones give people the confidence that they can exist as separate individuals in all their versatility. That they can be seen and heard unconditionally and in any capacity whatsoever. Such an autonomy can only be offered to people by an environment that does not differentiate, categorise, disassociate and judge in advance. A broad-minded perception is the beginning. And it is precisely there that ethics and aesthetics can achieve a great deal in partnership.
* in reference to Mikhail Bakhtin, who prefers the term 'consummation' rather than completion.
1 Oscar van Alphen, 'Een heilzame vorm van schizofrenie', in: Ine Gevers, Jeanne van Heeswijk (eds.), Voorbij Ethiek en Esthetiek, SUN, Nijmegen 1997, pp. 16-29. 2 Susan Sontag, On Photography, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 1973, p. 11 3 Perception, language and consciousness enlarge our world but at the same time keep us imprisoned. Language, our window onto the world, is also our prison, says Wittgenstein. 'We are all caught in (...) ordinary language. We do not command a clear view of the use of our words', Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell, Oxford 1976, paragraph 122, 49. See also Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein. A Memoir, London 1959. 4 Joanne Richardson, 'Est-ethics of Counter-Documentary', lecture at the special retrospective program curated by Marina Grzinic: Sex, Rock-'n-Roll and History: Photo, Video & Film from Eastern Europe 1950-2000, 46th Oberhausen Kurzfilmtage Festival. 5 Heike Zirden, Günther Heinrich, 'Anmerkungen zu einer Ethik des Sehens', in: Bilder, die noch fehlten. Zeitgenössische Fotografie, Deutsche Hygiene-Museum, Dresden 2000, p. 17. 6 For a thorough and critical study of the history of the S-21 photographs' reception, see: Rachel Hughes, 'The abject artefacts of memory: photographs from Cambodia's genocide', in: Media, Culture & Society, Vol. 25, No. 1, 23-44 (2003), SAGE, London 2003. 7 100 of the 6,000 photographs were cleaned, indexed and printed in an edition of six. Two editions remained in Cambodia, the other four were taken away 'for safety's sake'. Statements by the two photographers express the humanitarian interests justifying the photographs' preservation and dissemination. It should be 'impossible to ever forget the faces of the victim', thereby motivating people 'to become aware of what had taken place in Cambodia'. For these reasons, it was deemed acceptable both to restore the S-21 photographs on the spot and to circulate the images by means of various media outside the Cambodian context. In exchange for their work, the freelance photo journalists Douglas Niven and Chris Riley acquired the rights to 100 images, which they shortly afterwards distributed worldwide through exhibitions and the book The Killing Fields, Twin Palms Publishers, New York 1996. 8 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 133. 9 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever. A Freudian Impression, University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 11. 10 Fully in the humanitarian tradition of The Family of Man, a series of photography exhibitions launched by (ex-)curator and photographer Edward Steichen. The MoMA displayed no responsibility at all with regard to the public's reception of the photographs. 11 Miriam Rosen, 'Le Travail de Mémoire. Photo Exhibits and Panel Discussions', Artforum, October 1998. See also the lecture by Thierry De Duve, 'Over trauma, geweld en beeldende kunsten', Strombeek, 27 November 2004. 12 Susan Sontag, 'Regarding the Torture of Others', The New York Times, 23 May 2004. 13 Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates, Verso, London 2002. 14 Paul Virilio, Art and Fear, Continuum, London/New York 2000. 15 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958; Keith Tester, The Inhuman Condition, Routledge, London 1995. 16 Alain Badiou, Ethics. An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, Verso, London 2002. Badiou sets himself up a follower of Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault and as an opponent of the way that philosophers of difference, following Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas, regard 'the other'. Badiou gives short shrift to what he firmly believes are the philosophically hardly tenable deconstructivist foundations upon which multicultural and postcolonial ethics are based. For Badiou, 'The Other' cannot be an ethical category, simply because of the fact that 'being itself' presents itself in an infinite variety. People are different in all respects. In Badiou's eyes, thinking in terms of radical difference is actually more the result of ethical disinterest than the other way round. Ethics really only deserves to be called ethics when it holds up despite differences. Ethics should be about what binds people beyond differences. 17 An 'event' implies a break with the symbolic order at that moment. Here Badiou is referring literally to Jacques Lacan's 'Le Reël'. Here too it is a question of a traumatic event that is so 'real' that there are no words for it. It usually takes a considerable time before people are capable of giving their trauma a place (putting it into words, giving it a place in the symbolic order) and then going on with their lives. 18 Trinh T. Minh-ha, 'Cotton and Iron', in: Russel Ferguson et al (eds.), Out There. Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, MIT Press, Cambridge 1990, p. 335. 19 Weight can only be assigned to images that demand consummation, a process that takes place between maker, image and viewer. In this process of the image's consummation, ethics and aesthetics (as the 'ethics of perception') come closer to each other again. Objects or images themselves have no weight or intrinsic meaning, as Mikhail Bakhtin argues. (see Michael Holquist, Vadim Liapunov (eds.), Art and Answerability. Early Philosophical Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, University of Texas Press, Austin 1990.) Bakhtin makes a distinction between material aesthetics (the aesthetic form) and what he calls aesthetic wholeness. The 'aesthetic object' thus created always passes over the thing, the image, the organisation of material. In such a process of comsummation, aesthetics no longer makes a distinction. It embraces ethical and cognitive categories as part of itself. Bakhtin's aesthetics enlarges and completes instead of differentiating, stereotyping and distancing. The role of the viewer - including the maker as first viewer - is essential in this est-ethical process. 20 Roland Barthes was an adherent of the Russian formalist school in which Mikhail Bakhtin was a leading figure. Bakhtin's research into the plural quality and meaning of prose and poetry anticipated in many respects poststructuralism and Barthes' belief that meaning is not fixed but is always tested and completed in society. The poststructuralist line runs via Jacques Lacan also to Badiou.
Published in Documentary Now! (ed. Frits Giertsberg, Maartje van den Heuvel, Hans Scholten), NAI publishers, Rotterdam, september 2005