THROUGH A BAUDRILLARDIAN LENS: KELLY REID'S PHOTOGRAPHY

_ B. Gerry Coulter



I. Making the World A Little More Unintelligible and Enigmatic

What I bemoan is the aestheticization of photography, its having become one of the fine arts, the photographic image, by its technical essence, came from somewhere beyond, or before, aesthetics.1

Jean Baudrillard’s photographs exist for him as an alternative to writing but they also share at least one thing in common with his writings – they are a way of thinking the world against Truth, Meaning, the Paradigm, or the Real in favour of the unintelligible and the enigmatic. Like his writings, Baudrillard’s photographs share the space of theory – and the point of theory for Baudrillard is to challenge the real.2 Further, a Baudrillardian photograph, whatever else it is, rebukes aesthetics and theories of scientific objectivity for assessing the photograph. This is something a Baudrillardian image and Barthes writing in Camera Lucida share. Indeed, one of the markers of the end of aesthetics and scientific objectivity in our time is this kind of photograph. Rather than attempting to make the world more intelligible, Baudrillard’s photographs, like his writings, make it more unintelligible and enigmatic. We see this in Salins (1998)

where a simple photograph of a piece of the earth looks like nothing on earth. The world we thought we new (where one expects lakes to be green or blue) is hence problematized.

The photographs of Canadian Photographer Kelly Reid share many of the  characteristics we have come to associate with Baudrillard’s photography. Her California (2005) is easily mistaken for a photograph of Baudrillard’s such as Salins. Here once again is the world we thought we knew exposed in the act of challenging our assumptions about it – this is an exchange with theory that also looks like nothing on earth. Here, her camera, like his, participates in an important task of philosophical thought – to press to the very limit of propositions and procedures, even if they are disastrous. What better justification for taking an image, or writing a text, than to participate in these terminal processes? This is where Reid and Baudrillard’s photographs, like his writing, take us – beyond the discourses of truth where the “poetic and enigmatic value of thinking” exist.

Looking at Reid and Baudrillard’s images takes me to several places in his writing as there appears to be a certain longing between Baudrillard’s texts and his images and the images of Reid:

...To duplicate the world is to respond to a world which signifies nothing with a theory which, for its part, looks like nothing on earth. ...It recognizes that there is nothing to be said of the world, that there is nothing that this world can be exchanged for, while at the same time showing that this world cannot be as it is without this exchange with theory.3

Perhaps the desire to take photographs arises from the observation that on the broadest view, from the standpoint of reason, the world is a great disappointment. In its details, however, and caught by surprise, the world always has a stunning clarity. 4

…at the heart of the photographic image there’s a figure of nothingness, of absence, of unreality. It’s this nothingness at the heart of the image that gives it its pure magic…5

It is impossible for me to look upon Reid’s photographs without thinking about Baudrillard’s photographs and his writings. As for Reid, she says she enjoys “a love-hate relationship with Baudrillard’s work” and she refuses to understand her work as influenced by his. Indeed, her photographs shown here were taken before she had seen any of his which makes the coincidences all the more striking. She does however, acknowledge the incredible similarity of some of her images and his. Concepts may be, as Baudrillard says “unrepresentable but the image is inexplicable”. While an impossible distance may separate concepts and images, it may well be fair to say that at the very least “the image is always nostalgic for the text and the text nostalgic for the image”. 6 It may well be the case that Baudrillard’s text and images long for each other. It may also then be the case that Reid’s images and Baudrillard’s images and texts also long for each other across a great gulf. For me, Reid’s photography, like Baudrillard’s, is a way of theorizing the world, so long as we keep in mind that the task of theory is not to clarify or simplify, not to participate in the construction of the real. As such the photographs of Kelly Reid, like those of Jean Baudrillard, participate in making the world we think we know more unintelligible and enigmatic – that is – they participate in a Baudrillardian understanding of the task of philosophical thought. It is also impossible for me to look upon either the photographs of Reid or Baudrillard without thinking of Barthes and this takes us to the heart of the matter for Reid’s photography – the denial of science and aesthetics.7

II. Beyond Aesthetics and Science

…occasionally a detail attracts me, this detail is the punctum. I feel that its mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value… very often the punctum is a detail , a partial object …the punctum shows no preference for morality or good taste, the punctum can be ill-bred…paradoxically, the punctum, while remaining a detail, fills the whole picture…the detail which interests me is not intentional and probably cannot be so.8

So what are we to do with the photography of Kelly Reid and Jean Baudrillard – a photography that presses a world that is given to us unintelligible and enigmatic, to be even more so? What is at stake here for aesthetics and science both of which are eschewed by Reid and Baudrillard, neither of whom is a professionally trained photographer? Rolland Barthes Camera Lucida can help us to begin to probe some answers.

The singular illusion in which the photographs of Reid and Baudrillard participate is an effort to live in a world that is indifferent to us. Here the role of theory is neither to explain nor clarify, but to highlight, and if possible deepen, an unintelligibility and enigmaticalness already present in a world which hides behind appearances. The task of this photography, like writing, is to function as theory. At their respective best, both theory and photography lose their meaning at their limits – and this does not happen often enough – when it does, the photograph and the theoretical text do not participate in some truth building exercise.9 A provocative logic comes into play, one that recognizes that we can no longer occupy the space of truth.10 Here, photography like theory, can serve as a challenge to the real – to expose itself as illusion. Appearances behind which the real hides see to this and all we can ever photograph are appearances. As such, if the photographs of Reid and Baudrillard share something, it is that they highlight uncertainty – the only certainty we know. Photography then, the kind in which Reid participates is, like theory, a kind of simulation – both simulation and challenge.11

The photographs of Kelly Reid shown here do not attempt to make the world real or to impose a narrative upon it, merely to capture the world where it is, never seeable, always hiding behind appearances. It is these appearances which Reid like Baudrillard is so good at photographing. It is the appearance of the world that we know ever so briefly before its passing. The images of Reid shown here work against a narrative understanding of the world, against linearity, truth and the real. Here meaning, truth and the real appear locally, “along restricted horizons as partial objects”.12

Rolland Barthes, like Reid, understood photography to be an uncertain art.13 In Camera Lucida Barthes gives us the concepts of punctum and studium. The studium, or “the average effect” is a general enthusiasm that one has about photographs and photography – the studium is what allows us to share an interest in many different photographs and photographers although it is highly unlikely that we will like all of the work of any one photographer.14 Punctum is an accident in any particular photo, it is the point where it interests me more than any of the others. Barthes describes it as “a cut, a little hole, the accident which pricks me, but also bruises me, is poignant to me, a wound”.15 For Barthes the photograph is pure contingency, existing outside of meaning.

The above photograph by Reid (Pointe-Claire, 2003) is taken of her twin at a time the later did not know she was being photographed. It is a photograph in which the punctum is the whiteness of the light falling across the face and clothing of a young woman – especially the point of light on her forehead and under her left eye. Barthes says: “I imagine that the essential gesture of the operator is to surprise something or someone and that this gesture is therefore perfect when performed unbeknownst to the subject being photographed”.16 Later Barthes writes that he is “too much of a phenomenologist to like anything but appearances” and this is a liking he shares with Reid. Her surprise photograph may be of a person, a person closer to her than anyone else, but it is essentially a photograph of the physical process of “light writing” (photo – graphy, the writing of light).17 It is a very thoughtful photograph about how each of us is written into existence by light which also happens to capture a brief moment in the history of an individual lost in her thoughts. In Barthes words: “…the object speaks, it induces us, vaguely, to think. …photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks”.(17)18 The above photograph is not only the record of the capturing of light, but at the same time having been seized by that light. 19 Light is the photographers ultimate thought-object.

Reid and Baudrillard have refused formal photographic training preferring to operate as primitives within their own culture. This is a characteristic Barthes recognizes in himself as he analyzes photographs: “I am a primitive… I dismiss all knowledge, all culture, I refuse to inherit anything form another eye than my own”. 20 For Bathes the punctum “can be revealed after the fact, when the photograph is no longer in front of me… the punctum is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there… the punctum then, is a kind of subtle beyond – as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see”.21

The key to photography is the punctum and there is a deeply personal aspect to recognizing the punctum of a photograph. Reid will not allow herself, anymore than does Baudrillard, to be reduced as a subject to the disaffected socius science is concerned with.22 Similarly, I operate as a reader of Reid’s photographs as you operate as a reader of this article, without the artifical support of aesthetics or scientific objectivity. If what I take to be the punctum of these photographs has no impact on you, then your interest will remain at the level of studium and no science and no aesthetics can properly change that. We are truly, each of us, on our own. Photography suffers when reduced to aesthetics and dies when reduced to science. This article then, like Barthes Camera Lucida, is simply the record of our experience of “…that unexpected flash which sometimes crosses this field of the studium”.

Barthes reminds us, against aesthetics and science, that we know only deep within ourselves the reasons why we like one photograph more than others (even of the same photographer). Writing of a photograph of his mother as a child in a Winter Garden, Barthes tells us that “it would tell me what constituted that thread which drew me toward photography”.23 This solitary photograph is for Barthes deeply personal. He tells us he cannot reproduce it in his book because:

It exists only for me. For you it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of thousands of manifestations of the ‘ordinary’; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound.24

To appreciate a photograph as Barthes does is to stand in a world where aesthetics and science no longer exist. We are truly on our own but is this not the case with any text? Perhaps this is the most important message we can take from Reid’s images, that in photographs, as in writing, there is always a secret to be preserved 25 – an unintelligibility and enigmaticalness that makes both worthwhile. Aesthetics and science are disciplines, perfect crimes against independent thought as they seek agreed upon truth and meaning. Photographs, like fragments, take us beyond the discourse of objectivity and truth and in them we find the poetic and enigmatic value of thinking – the most quintessential act of being human. Why not assume that the world is unintelligible and problematic and respond to it in writing and photography in a way that makes it even more unintelligible, even more enigmatic?26 Here the fragment and the photograph provide energy for the theory that sets them in motion. Both serve as tools for renouncing the truth and the possibility of verification, to remain as long as possible in the enigmatic, ambivalent, and reversible side of thought.27 It is precisely here that theory operates as challenge to the real and that photography may participate in that challenge. While writing may indeed be the more seductive form and photography the more stupefying, both can cast a powerful light on one another as they participate in theory as challenge. In place of objectivity, truth, and meaning, a more pleasant collection of effects under a certain name, where truth and meaning appear as multiples along restricted, local horizons. This is the world which we inhabit, a world of appearances, and it is only by achieving escape velocity from the terroristic force of aesthetics and science that we can experience the refreshing disappearance of the Real and its twin, Truth (capital “T”). 

Kelly Reid likes to quote a passage from Jean Baudrillard: “The real has never interested anyone”. 28 Her photographs privilege the independent knower at war with disciplined knowledge. They also provide us, as do the photographs of Baudrillard, with a reminder, via Barthes, that photography still has a chance against aesthetics and science.29 The hostile takeover of photography by art and aesthetics is not complete, and the photographs of Kelly Reid, read by the light of Barthes Camera Lucida, like those of Jean Baudrillard, are devastating weapons in the struggle to preserve photography from those who have attempted to enslave it. Reid’s photographs come to us from a place beyond science and aesthetics and this is perhaps why they share such a high degree of integrity with the words and images of Baudrillard.

 

* Gerry Coulter is Canadian Correspondent to European Art. He is Professor of Sociology at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada where he has recently been named the 2006 winner of the Turner Prize for Teaching. His research interests are in art and contemporary theory. He is founding editor if the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (Online): www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies.

Kelly Reid is a Canadian photographer who is currently working towards her M.A. in Sociology at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

 

Endnotes


1 See Jean Baudrillard. “For Illusion Isn’t the Opposite of Reality” in Photographies: 1985-1998. Ostfildren-Ruit, Germany: Hatje-Cantz, 1999:139-140.

2 Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault, Forget Baudrillard. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987:124.

3 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:150.

4 Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil (c1990). New York: Verso, 1993:155).

5 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm. New York: Verso, 1998:93.

6 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV. New York: Verso, 2002:2

7 Kelly Reid is but one example of many photographers today who share with Baudrillard a Barthesian denial of aesthetics and science. It is for each of us to decide who they are as Barthes reminds us.

8 Rolland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (c 1980) New York: Hill and Wang, 1981:42-47.

9 Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault (c 1977), Forget Baudrillard (c1987). New York: Semiotexte, 1987:38.

10 Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault (c 1977), Forget Baudrillard (c1987). New York: Semiotexte, 1987:129-130.

11 Ibid.:133.

12 See Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994:108.

13 Rolland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (c 1980) New York: Hill and Wang, 1981:18.

14 Ibid.:26.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.:32.

17 Jean Baudrillard. “Photography, Or The Writing of Light” in Ctheory.net
See www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=126

18 Ibid.:38.

19 Jean Baudrillard. “It Is The Object Which Thinks Us” in Photographies: 1985-1998. Ostfildren-Ruit, Germany: Hatje-Cantz, 1999:146.

20 Ibid.:51.

21 Ibid.:52-59.

22 Ibid.:74.

23 Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (c 1980) New York: Hill and Wang, 1981:73.

24 Ibid.

25 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm. New York: Verso, 1998:89.

26 Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:83.

27 Ibid.:68.

28 Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault (c 1977), Forget Baudrillard (c1987). New York: Semiotexte, 1987:46.

29 A longer version of this argument and several more photographs of Kelly Reid and Jean Baudrillard will appear as “The Baudrillardian Photograph As Theory: Making The World A Little More Unintelligible and Enigmatic” in Volume 4, Number 1 (January 2007) of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies.

 

 

 

 

 

 



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B. Gerry Coulter gcoulter@ubishops.ca
He is Full Professor of Theory, Art and Cinema in the Department of Sociology at Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. He is the founding editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies ). His recent writings include: "Jean Baudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming" appeared in the SAGE journal Games and Culture (Volume 2, Number 4, December, 2007:358-365) - also available on-line at:
http://www.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/2/4/358.

His recent Article: "A Place For The Non-Believer: Jean Baudrillard on the West and the Arab and Islamic Worlds", appears in Subaltern Studies: http://www.subalternstudies.com/?p=476; An essay "A Way of Proceeding: Joseph Beuys, the Epistemological Break, and Radical Thought Today" appears in Kritikos: A Journal of Postmodern Cultural Sound, Text, and Image (May - June, 2008): http://intertheory.org/gcoulter.htm; and his quarterly column for Euro Art (On-line) Magazine: "Kees van Dongen and the Power of Seduction" (Spring 2008) is available at: http://www.euroartmagazine.com/new/?issue=13=1&content=156. A recent paper: "Baudrillard and Hölderlin and the Poetic Resolution of the World" appeared in Volume 5, Number 4 of Nebula: A Journal of Multidisciplinary Scholarship in December, 2008:145-64: www.nobleworld.biz/Coulter.pdf

Another recent paper: "In The Shadow of Post-Democratic Capitalism - A Fascination for China" appeared in Avinus - European Magazine for Media, Culture and Politics (November 21, 2008): http://magazin.avinus.de/2008/11/20/coulter-gerry-in-the-shadow-of-post-democratic-capitalism-%e2%80%93-a-fascination-for-china-20112008/ . Dr. Coulter's teaching has been recognized on numerous occasions most recently by Bishop's University's highest award for teaching - the William and Nancy Turner Prize.