Photogrammatology: Writing/Photography

Geoffrey Batchen, ‘Photogrammatology: Writing/Photography’ Art Document, Winter (1994), 3-6

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By projecting photography as a system of representation, each individual photograph becomes an historical, and therefore mutable, artefact of meaning.

This view of photography directly opposes  the one propagated since the late 1960’s by formalist scholars, such as John Szarkowski.

This Kantian historiography therefore entails a continual search for “concepts peculiar to photography,” for a photographic essence (a “photography-as-such”) that is able to transcend the specific contents or historical circumstances of any given image. Thus, for formalists, the object of photographic study is the very essence of photography itself.

Postmodernism has opposed itself to this search for essence, seeing it as both intellectually fruitless and politically conservative.

Motivated not by an essence specific to its own being but by the place it occupies within a dynamic field of intertextuality, a given photograph could mean anything. A photograph has a stable meaning at a particular moment in its history only because other potential meanings are momentarily suppressed. In other words, all meaning comes at a cost – the exercise of power.

[reference to Saussure]

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Solomon-Godeau offers us an historical reading of photography that represses the thing itself in favor of its situated network of deployments, actions, and effects. In similar fashion, Tagg as specifically identified the history of photography with the “diversified field of a history of writing.” Not only does this equation again stress photography’s unbounded ubiquity but it also reiterates the notion that photography has no substantial identity of its own – no specific agency and  no photographic essence at its origin. For like photography, writing is regarded as another of those systems of representation that is merely instrumental in the transference of information and power from one place to another.

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This idea is again central to work of Saussure. In his Course in General Linguistics, writing is presented as an imperfect, even dangerously distorting instrument for the representation of speech, the true expression of language.

So for Saussure, as for Tagg, the relationship between writing and speech is equivalent to the relationship between photography and reality. One is seen as an unequal representation of the other.

In Of Grammatology, Derrida shows how the supposed uniqueness of speech is entirely enfolded within the economy of writing. Writing, the denigrated supplement, the conduit through which true language merely passes, turns out to be the condition of possibility for any language whatsoever. The Saussurean desire to separate writing from its origin, to posit a unified and stable presence which comes “before writing,” involves a conceptual politics that Derrida terms logocentrism. As he points out, it is this same politics that in other contexts also persistently privileges man over woman (phallocentrism) and White over Black (ethnocentrism). And it is this same politics that one finds reproduced in the postmodern attempt to separate photographies from photography, context from thing, and reality from the photographic.

This does not mean that the identification of photography as writing is without value. However, if we wish to do more than reproduce an inverted version of our culture’s existing conceptual and political hierarchies, we need to acknowledge that the notion of writing deployed by much postmodern criticism has tended to ignore the term’s complexity.

Derrida’s grammatology is the practice of this acknowledgement. In his work, writing is transformed from the marking of a surface to an economy of inscription that incorporates surface within depth, speech within writing, and reality within representation, such that each of these terms is radically reconfigured.

Accordingly, a grammatology might look to the origins of photography’s identity, whether these origins purport to be a transcendental essence  (Nature) or a plurality of functions (Culture), and find in every case that an apparently reliable foundation is continually displaced by a dynamic play of differences.

The postmodern critique of essence is the critique of identity “as such” – in this case, a critique of the formalist notion of photography as something unified and undifferentiated. Postmodernism wants to say that photography is nothing but difference, and replace its singular identity with a multiple one, photographies.

In other words, the postmodern identification of photographies with a sphere of operations that is entirely cultural – the assumption that “mutability as such,” can be delimited – is itself an essentializing gesture.

Suggestive as it is, we don’t need to look to the authority of post-structuralist theory to acknowledge the need for a troubling of these binary divisions. We can find this same complication writ large within the archival narrative of photography’s own history. We could look, for example, at aspects of photography’s historical origins and find that, once again, a certain kind of eruptive “writing” is already there before us.

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Discussion of origins of word “photography”

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[…] at the time photography was being named as a form of writing, writing itself was being written as cultural and historical, rather than a natural of God-given, phenomenon. At the same time, as Barbara Stafford has pointed out, “the image of ‘writing’ had expanded until all physical shapes became dimly meaningful forms of script, and each of these forms (physiognomics, botany, mineralogy, or geology) has its own science of decipherment.

Getting back to the question of identity, it is interesting to note that the word “photography” is a compound of “light” (Nature) and “writing” (Culture), a linguistic construction that sidesteps the necessity of deciding to which of these spheres photography should be consigned.

The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, traces the etymology of the Greek suffix graphy to an “abstract noun of action of function.” In other words, graphy could be read as either active or passive. Operating simultaneously as verb and noun, this is a writing that produces while being produced, inscribing even as it is inscribed.

[Further discussion of Daguerre, Niepce and Talbot’s descriptions of photography]

What I have tried to suggest is that, if we look closely at photography’s history, we will find what I have called a photo-grammatology – a disruptive unravelling of all those conventions of identification that anchor both formalist and postmodern accounts of photography.

Recognizing that photography’s identity entails an economy of contradiction, these historical examples of “photography as writing” demand that we rethink the parameters of contemporary debate on this same issue. Resisting the exclusive embrace of either formalist or postmodern historiography, photography’s own complication of oppositional logics continually brings us back to the question of the medium’s deconstruction – back what what Derrida describes as “the experience of the impossible”.

To conclude with another quotation from Derrida, “this concept of the photograph photographs all conceptual oppositions, it traces a relationship of haunting which perhaps is constitutive of all logics.”

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