The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Fear and Image: The phenomenology of photography

Photo: Pexels

By Anwar Haneefa

Until 1969, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida did not let himself to be photographed and was very strict with the distribution of his images. Why did such a reputed philosopher like Derrida, in the then global academic and intellectual sphere, have such an uncompromising attitude towards photography? Was this strictness a part of his whole comprehensive universal critical project of ‘Deconstruction’, a critique to ‘constructed image’ and ‘fixed identity’?

It will not be an over-reading, in a sense, to theorize Derrida’s prohibition of getting himself ‘confined inside the fixed frames of the photograph’ with his interesting theories of ‘deconstruction’ and with his idea of ‘transcendental violence’ that he developed from his reciprocal thinking with Emmanuel Levinas, the French Jewish Philosopher.


Jacques Derrida

If one tries to abridge the tensions that caused Derrida to locate himself on the counter platform of photography, it could be better done with four axioms that one can find from reading the book, Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography. First, the photograph  cannot represent what a photographed is, but only what a photographed is not; second, the photograph makes the ‘ever-changing photographed’ a ‘dead body’, that is, makes it unchanging; third, photography breaks the photographed’s right for justice, the justice of being not falsely understood through media, thereby its possibility of making itself withdrawn and escaped; fourth, a fear of killing the self, in Derrida’s own term, ‘a narcissistic horror’, as from the moment of being photographed, an ‘alter ego’, which is deadly non-transformative, is born to the ‘photographed’, who is, to his close ontology, radically transformative. What makes these tensions interesting is, all of them are, rather than being some subjective tensions of ‘being represented’, radical critiques of Aristotle’s philosophy of Arts, Aesthetics, and Being. For Aristotle, ‘Imitation’ is art. The photograph reaches to its ultimate, to the extent it perfectly imitates the photographed. In Aristotelian terms, there is a strict separation between the form and matter – photograph and its content, the photographed. And in Aristotelian aesthetical theory, it’s the content making the photograph worth, and form, the photograph, has no relevance in itself. Throughout his philosophical life, Derrida was trying to negate this ‘imitation’ or ‘being imitated or represented’ and ‘relative relevance of realities’, that is the relevance of something only in regard of its relation to another.

Text and Photograph, the paradox in Derrida

Tracing the history of the wide popularity that photography has gained, it can be marked that human desire tries to conserve the self and its social history from being non-existent in time and photography satisfies by freezing the moments of history from ‘being rotten’. Here the relation and correlated validation between photography and history are crystal clear.


Giorgio Agamben

Drawing this relation in the line of Hegelian thinking, and later Giorgio Agamben’s anti-Hegelian thinking, Derrida’s photographic thinking will seem more illuminated. Since in Hegelian thinking every second in the past and the future is ‘not present’ – is either leftover or to arrive – and is therefore non-existent. So all the existents in the past and future are too non-existents and only the existents in the ‘present’, which is an ever-transforming fluid idea, are existent. So in Hegelian thinking, photography gives existence, in the present, to the historical moments from the past by preserving their ‘dead bodies’, which or else would be extinct and trashed into the garbage of non-existence. So by the provision of existence to the history, photography transforms the non-beings into being. Derrida too was a philosophical proponent of this being and non-being debates and has always centered his thinking on existents. This was why Derrida provided higher consideration to texts than voice, in counter to Ferdinand de Saussure and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Here is the paradox. While Derrida fears of being a dead body through photography, yet in the case of his textual fetishism over phonocentric linguistics, that is, non-fixated and non-dead transformations, he promotes or becomes an Hegelian, by being comfortable with denial of the ‘Idea’s’ right of being escaped or withdrawn from its trapping inside the limits of text. Can Derrida escape from this, self-made, crisis?

Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a little chance left over by Derrida himself that can make his ‘specter’ escape from the alleged Hegelianism in his thinking. Moving towards Giorgio Agamben, a post-Foucauldian Italian philosopher, Derrida’s textual fetishism gets more clarified. In Agamben’s thought, there is an idea called ‘instant’, that is an event or moment, which encompasses the past, present, and future of every existent, which he drew from Stoic philosophy. So every event, even the text, in its every moment is existing with its past, present, and future without any demarcations. As Derrida says the text, which is not quintessentially alike to photography, provides the possibility for the ideas to escape from the contexts than their phonetic manifestations. But photography, since not representing thoughts but material beings, is less liberational in this aspect.


Emmanuel Levinas

The injustice of capturing: Phenomenology and photography

Why could photography only represent what a photographed ‘is not’, in Derrida’s fear? To find Derrida’s concern, there is a need to understand the axiom in the shades of ‘Phenomenology’, a philosophical project instigated by Edmund Husserl that concerns about knowledge and subjectivity. Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Heidegger contributed to the later developments of phenomenology.

For Emmanuel Levinas, representing or comprehending, or at least, knowing an ‘Other’ means ‘killing’ him, or in Derrida’s term making him a ‘dead body’. This is because everything or ‘every other’ is in constant and infinite transformation, and anybody could hardly comprehend ‘the other’ in his infinity. A comprehension can only make possible, to its utmost possibility, an understanding or representation of ‘the Other’ at any of its singular moments. But at every moment since ‘the Other’ is in transformation, does the comprehension do justice to ‘the Other’? It’s a ‘death-effect’ or an act of making non-transformative the ‘transforming other’, a killing, made through comprehension. Jacques Derrida polished this idea to his own philosophical neology as ‘Transcendental Violence’, a violence committed on the ‘infinite other’ against its right of being transformative, withdrawn, and escaping. It’s in both of their terms an ‘injustice’.


Gilles Deleuze

Substituting the ‘comprehending one’ with the camera, the ‘comprehended concept’ with the photographic image and ‘the Other’ with the photographed, it is easy to get Derrida’s line of photographic critique. Can the camera or photographic image comprehend or represent the photographed, which is in infinite transformation, within its right of being represented genuinely with all its comprehensiveness of transformity? ‘No’ is the answer. So there is no difference between what a comprehending one does to ‘the Other’ and what a camera or photo click does to the photographed. Both are variant manifestations of ‘transcendental violence’.

Moment, self-completion and post-phenomenology

There exists also a possibility for a post-Derrida understanding of photography, within the planes of post-structuralism itself. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s idea of ‘moment’ is a comfortable reading station in this aspect. In post-structuralism, every atom, in Baruch Spinoza’s term ‘monad’, is complete in itself, without its relation to any other part of a structure.


Laura U Marks

Laura U Marks, an art theorist of Deleuzian continuity, states that capturing a photograph, which is only a moment of the photographed’s life, exposes with its visualizing of that moment, the self-complete comprehensiveness of that moment broken from all its attachment of a transformative existence. To simplify, photography visualises the beauty, absurdity, indeterminacy, irreducibility of every moment of the photographed in its ‘moment’, without the need of any other moment to make that moment worthy and complete, much alike Arne Naess’ concept of ‘deep ecology’ in which every part of the nature is complete in itself without any need of other natural existents or the idea of nature as a whole. It tries to proclaim, even in the transformability of the other, which is irreducible, every event in the transformative process is complete, and completion and comprehensiveness are not an ‘idealistic concept’, which only can be found with the last point of transformation or with the full structure of transformation. Being a post-Derrida understanding, this reading can also be called ‘post-phenomenological’ understanding.

Why Derrida killed camera, the ideology?

What ethics does photography keep finally? Does the photography ‘kill’ the photographed, without the photographed knowing of this murder? Like what Slavoj Zizek says about ‘ideology’, that makes the objects oppressed, without them knowing about the oppression. Interestingly, is photography an ‘ideology’? Or does it expose every photographed’s self-completion and comprehensiveness in its every moment, and makes them realize about their ‘complete and transformative’ potential?


Slavoj Zizek

These debates make photography an interesting object of discourse even for the anti-photographic philosophers like Jacques Derrida and narcissist philosophers like Michel Foucault. In a humoristic reading, it could be concluded, in fear of camera’s comprehension – transcendental violence – of the photographed, Derrida comprehended – killed – the idea of photography in itself, a universal transcendental violence over the camera. Let everybody think which of the violence was acute.

Anwar Haneefa is a graduate student, Department of History, University of Calicut, Kerala, India.


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