Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography

Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography

by Jacques Derrida

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This book makes available for the first time in English—and for the first time in its entirety in any language—an important yet little-known interview on the topic of photography that Jacques Derrida granted in 1992 to the German theorist of photography Hubertus von Amelunxen and the German literary and media theorist Michael Wetzel. Their conversation


This book makes available for the first time in English—and for the first time in its entirety in any language—an important yet little-known interview on the topic of photography that Jacques Derrida granted in 1992 to the German theorist of photography Hubertus von Amelunxen and the German literary and media theorist Michael Wetzel. Their conversation addresses, among other things, questions of presence and its manufacture, the technicity of presentation, the volatility of the authorial subject, and the concept of memory. Derrida offers a penetrating intervention with regard to the distinctive nature of photography vis-à-vis related technologies such as cinema, television, and video. Questioning the all-too-facile divides between so-called old and new media, original and reproduction, analog and digital modes of recording and presenting, he provides stimulating insights into the ways in which we think and speak about the photographic image today. Along the way, the discussion fruitfully interrogates the question of photography in relation to such key concepts as copy, archive, and signature. Gerhard Richter introduces the volume with a critical meditation on the relationship between deconstruction and photography by way of the concepts of translation and invention. Copy, Archive, Signature will be of compelling interest to readers in the fields of contemporary European critical thought, photography, aesthetic theory, media studies, and French Studies, as well as those following the singular intellectual trajectory of one the most influential thinkers of our time.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Behind Derrida's remarks on photography stands a vast philosophical knowledge, as well as a keen interest in contemporary media and technology. Richter's introduction admirably situates the discussion both with respect to Derrida's overall work and with reference to certain contemporary interpretations of photography. I can hardly imagine another discussion of photography that would display the same theoretical and philosophical breath and incisiveness that Derrida and his partners bring to bear on the subject."—Samuel Weber, European Graduate School

"The interview that composes this exquisite little book demonstrates again why Derrida remains one of our most cherished resources. Suggesting that we did not have to wait for the invention of photography to learn what it can teach us about memory, inscription, death, mourning, and even love—this is why he can associate the medium with thought in general—Derrida's meditations not only comprehend and anticipate recent developments in reproductive technologies, but they also tell us why we must remain today as concerned with photography's past and present as with its future."—Eduardo Cadava, Princeton University

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A Conversation on Photography
By Jacques Derrida


Copyright © 2000 Hubertus von Amelunxen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6097-3

Chapter One

Copy, Archive, Signature

A Conversation on Photography


Hubertus von Amelunxen: Skiagraphy refers to shadow writing, and to the absence of the referent. You speak of this in your work Memoirs of the Blind. Skiagraphy seems to prefigure the imprint of an absent present. The inventor of the photographic negative, William Henry Fox Talbot, called his invention skiagraphy or "words of light." In 1837 he made a photographic image with an inscription of the alphabet, the name of the place, and the date, as if he wanted to show that the entire alphabet could be taken into the image and that photography was going to be the first optical medium to enter the domain of writing and to bring writing into the very essence of the image. In Memoirs of the Blind you speak of skiagraphy, the writing of shadow, as a simultaneous memory, a memory of the present, a division of the instant. But whence, then, this memory of the instant, whence this archive of the present?

Jacques Derrida: It's a question of point of view, and you are touching on the most acute point [la pointe] of the difficulty. Is it possible to think otherwise than from the point of view of the point? But is it possible also to think from a point of view? How to imagine an archive that is somehow immediate, a present that consists of its own memory or its own reproduction? In that case, which is something more and other than a case, experience itself, the experience of what one calls the present would be constituted as self-preserving, certainly, but in such a way that something may be lost, and something kept and preserved, from the same event, from the point of the event, from its miniscule extremity, its pointedness, its pointe. It is indeed a matter of the pointe, the most acute question, the sharpest and most pointed question about this pointe. For in general one conceives of the instant precisely as a pointe, as stigmê, as Punkt, and the punctuality of the point would be, first of all, indivisible. But in the situation that we are evoking, we have to do, paradoxically, with an experience of the singular, of the non-iterable, of the unique that would, however, be divisible enough for an archive to separate off from it somehow: an archive would remain; it would survive, whereas that of which it is the archive has disappeared-a normal phenomenon-but in this case the archive would not be simply the copy, the reproduction or the imprint of another present. If the archive is constituted by the present itself, it is therefore necessary that the present, in its structure, be divisible even while remaining unique, irreplaceable and self-identical. The structure of the present must be divided so that, even as the present is lost, the archive remains and refers to it as to a non-reproducible referent, an irreplaceable place.

I don't know if this introduces us to the specific question of photography, or if this general law would be valid for every archive, or in any case for the phenomena of the signature in the broad sense. It's true that photography performs this miracle as a technology of the miracle, that is, by giving something to be seen. And of course it has often been remarked (Barthes insisted on this) that what seems to give the photogram its specificity is this apparently irreducible viewing of the referent, this pointing at and seeing the referent, insofar as it has taken place only once. In the end, photography seems to say (and to let this be dictated to itself): this took place, and it took place only once. It is the repetition of what has taken place only once. Reference, if not the referent, here seems to be ineffaceable. One would no longer be able to bracket it. That is what Barthes says, with a great deal of good sense. I don't know what you think of this. I think that, in the little text I devoted to Barthes, I hint at a certain reserve regarding this question. I believe I understand what Barthes says, and what he proposes seems necessary to me. I only wonder what, in that case, is proper to photography. Every original imprint is divided as an archive and preserves its reference, as with the original manuscript of a letter, or a signature, for example. What happens, in those cases, when photography reproduces this original without giving to be seen a singular moment of the world, when for example a photocopy is made of this original signature? A photocopy is, after all, a photograph, isn't it?

HVA: Indeed, the photocopy, like the photograph, retraces and reproduces the original by means of light, but whereas the photograph fragments and ruins space, the photocopy seems to preserve the original through an exact duplication. Now the new technology of photography offers us digital cameras. The support is digital, and you have a diskette with twenty-four or fifty or more images, and as with a tape recorder or a VCR you can erase whatever has been recorded, or present it on a television screen. No more negative-and the trace, although it can be read by a computer, becomes invisible to the human eye, to the point that referentiality is called into question. Indeed, what then will be the future status of the referent in a production of images that points toward a repeated obliteration?

JD: This question concerns, perhaps, the name photography and the relation between this name and a certain concept of photography. Its relation to a certain history of this concept-a history that may be finite, that may be reaching an end; a relation in any case with the finitude of this history. That is what I was worried about a moment ago. Given the event and the technical possibility you are speaking of, does what we have available to us now deserve the name of photography? Is it of the same order as what was possible with the earlier technology and with a paper support? If one can erase images, since the imprint is no longer supported by a "support," at least not the support of a stable paper substance, this means that we no longer have to do, one might say, with the recording of an image, even though one is recording something: recording an image would become inseparable from producing an image and would therefore lose the reference to an external and unique referent. As was perhaps always the case without our realizing it, we would be dealing with a photographic performativity, a notion that some might find scandalous and that singularly complicates-without dissolving it-the problem of reference and truth: the problem of a truth to be made, as Saint Augustine would have said, no less than revealed, unveiled, explicated, clarified, exposed, developed. Certain filmmakers, Wim Wenders or Peter Greenaway for example, use technologies of image production in which the essential material does not consist simply in "taking" an image [prise d'image], although this is involved as well. Image taking gives way to image production on the basis of a given material. One then mimics photography or even cinematography, while at the same time bringing the graphic element to a certain completion, to what some might consider a higher dignity, since it becomes productive and "performative" rather than a mode of registering or recording that would be "constative" or "theorematic" (that is, an affair of the gaze and the point of view): it produces the point of view rather than placing itself within one or occupying one. Does this belong to what has previously been called photography and cinematography, or does it introduce a new art for which a new name must be invented? This question may be of interest to us insofar as it takes this novelty into account but also because of what it can teach us about what the structure of the old technology already was. Can we not say that there was already in photography, in the classic sense, as much production as recording of images, as much act as gaze, as much performative event as passive archivization? The indispensible recourse to a certain type of material support (a nonelectronic support such as paper) does not signify an absolute passivity in this respect, nor therefore a recording process without any productive inscription. Is it necessary to recall that in photography there are all sorts of initiatives: not only framing but point of view, calculation of light, adjustment of the exposure, overexposure, underexposure, etc.? These interventions are perhaps of the same type as those in a digital treatment. In any case, to the extent that they produce the image and constituted something of an image [de l'image], they modify reference itself, introducing multiplicity, divisiblity, substitutivity, replaceability. (Here is perhaps the location of a rupture between the photographic and a certain intuitionism, a certain phenomenological principle of principles-and I wonder how to interpret in this sense Barthes' need to inscribe Camera Lucida under the sign of a return to a [Sartrian] phenomenology of the image and the imaginary.) Retrospectively, the digital treatment of the image obliges us more than ever (for we did not need the digital in order to do this) to reconsider the supposed referentiality or passivity in relation to the referent from the very beginning, the very first epoch, so to speak, of photography-assuming that there was only one, for beginning with this "first epoch," there were already technical and therefore structural differences. The question of the epoch, like that of the Husserlian epochê, would need to be reconsidered....

HVA: ... in photography the support determined time, the time of the pose. The sensitivity of the support was an active agent in the image's coming to be; it was constitutive for the time and the future of the photographic image.

JD: Let us open a parenthesis on this question of time. A chrono-logic of the instant, the logic of the punctual stigmê, governs Barthes' interpretation, which is in fact the common interpretation of the ineffaceable referent, of what has taken place only once. This Einmaligkeit-this "onceness"-supposes the undecomposable simplicity, beyond all analysis, of a time of the instant: the moment as the Augenblick, the eyeblink of a prise de vue, of a shot or of taking (in) a view. But if the "one single time," if the single, first and last time of the shot already occupies a heterogeneous time, this supposes a differing/deferring and differentiated duration: in a split second the light can change, and we're dealing with a divisibility of the first time. Reference is complex; it is no longer simple, and in that time subevents can occur, differentiations, micrological modifications giving rise to possible compositions, dissociations, and recompositions, to "effects," if you like, to artifices that definitively break with the presumed phenomenological naturalism that would see in photographic technology the miracle of a technology that effaces itself in order to give us a natural purity, time itself, the unalterable and un-iterable experience of a pretechnical perception (as if there were any such thing). As soon as one takes into account the calculability of time, in perception as prise de vue, as soon as one considers time not as a series of irreducible and atomic instants but as a differential duration that is more or less calculable, a duration that is correlative to a technics, the question of references becomes complicated, and therefore so does the question of art, of photography as a technê. For one of the things suggested by Barthes, or at least something that lies outside his rich and moving discourse on death, the studium, and the punctum (the point, the poignant, the miniscule emergence of a point), is the beyond of art: however artful the photographer may be, whatever his or her intervention or style, there is a point where the photographic act is not an artistic act, a point where it passively records, and this poignant passivity would be the chance of this relation with death; it captures a reality that is there, that will have been there, in an undecomposable now. It would be necessary in sum to choose between art and death. Or else to choose between an art linked to technics, on the one hand, and on the other, an art that would exceed art and technê, while also fulfilling their authentic destination, in order to set-into-the-work truth itself (in a sense close to what Heidegger appears to say in Origin of the Work of Art). This would be the beauty or the sublimity of photography but also its fundamentally nonartistic quality: suddenly, one would be given over to an experience that fundamentally cannot be mastered, to what has taken place only once. So one would be passive and exposed; the gaze itself would be exposed to the exposed thing, in the time without thickness of a null duration, in an exposure time reduced to the instantaneous point of a snapshot-an instantané, as it's called in French. Art would itself be conditioned by nonart, or what amounts to the same, by a hyperaesthetics, by a perception that is somehow immediate and natural: immediately reproduced, immediately archived. But if we admit that there is a duration, that this duration is constituted by a technê, the totality of the photographic act is, if not of the order of technê, at least undeniably marked by it. This would enjoin us also to rethink the essence of technê.

Michael Wetzel: This is also the decisive question of memory. With respect to photography one can show that this act of recording is not a passive act but rather one that arises out of an elaboration of material, an elaboration or processing of information. The relation between photography and psychoanalysis, of which you speak in Right of Inspection, is condensed into that paradigmatic metaphor used by Freud, the "mystic writing pad," with which he showed that in order for the trace to be preserved, it must be renewed. Likewise, we now have what is called information processing, which means that in order to preserve information, one must process data. And in this sense I see in your discourse a certain reserve with respect to Barthes' ontologism of the photographic "take," at least when it comes to the distinction between the act of photographing and what in photography is called development. Art also enters into the development process and, to a certain extent, into the handling of data. We have to do with a deferred time, or with a time of deferral, and the question of intensities and of decisions comes up here as well: at the moment of processing, one must decide, limit, exclude. In relation to the temporality of the shot, the objective reference, we find here the intervention of another temporality, of a certain context, of a signification.

JD: The process, here, would begin before what is referred to as processing. This is, in fact, the term used in English for the development of the photographic negative and of the image, view or "shot" thus "taken"-and the process of this processing has never had to wait to begin. Certainly, it would be necessary to reelaborate this entire question of an auto-affection, at once passive and active, from the point of view of time, from the point of view of the time of taking a view [de la prise de vue]. And for this it would be necessary at least to explicate oneself courageously in relation to Heidegger's great meditation in the wake of Kant, and as an interpretive repetition of his thought. We will do this neither in an interview nor in a photograph, however knowledgeable or free from the capture of clichés it may be. If technics intervenes from the moment a view or shot is taken, and beginning with the time of exposure, there is no longer any pure passivity, certainly, but this does not simply mean that activity effaces passivity. It is a question of another structure, another sort of acti/passivity, if I can express it thus in a single word. Even when technics intervenes in a more and more complicated and differentiating way, it continues to treat passivity in a certain way; it continues to deal with it, to negotiate with it. In the opening (or "aperture") to light and to what is supposed to be an object, photography does not do everything. (The question of) "matter" remains-however many quotation marks we put around it-precisely as a remainder that cannot be reduced to a given substance, nor even to the onto-logical presence of a present-being, on, or of an object (the present-at-hand, Vorhandenes), whether it be the object in front of the lens (the photographed thing) or the object-support of the print, the photograph that one holds in one's hand or before one's eyes and of which multiple copies can be made.


Excerpted from COPY, ARCHIVE, SIGNATURE by Jacques Derrida Copyright © 2000 by Hubertus von Amelunxen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) was Director of Studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and Professor of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine. Among the most recent of his many books to have been translated into English are the two volumes of Psyche: Inventions of the Other (Stanford, 2007 and 2008). Gerhard Richter is Professor of German and Director of the Graduate Program in Critical Theory at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Thought-Images: Frankfurt School Writers' Reflections from Damaged Life (Stanford, 2007). Jeff Fort is Assistant Professor of French at the University of California, Davis.

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