Representative Thoughts

Representative thoughts

It never came together. I was too distracted by the rain and the rumbling thunder. But I’ve got to note the shards, just so I can come back. The chain began with “Spare Parts: The Surgical Construction of Gender” by Marjorie Garber. She considers the word “make” in its gendered connotations. A self-made man, compared with making a woman— to make a man is to test him, to make a woman is to have intercourse. I was scratching my head. To “make a man out of him” can also mean to have intercourse— I think the distinction is forced. I think the real power is in the contrast of “making” as a testing of sexual limits, and “taking” as an expression of dominion in the same sexual context.

Then the comparison occurred again in Richard Bolton’s introduction to Contests of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. It contemplated “make” in the sense of making a photograph, compared to taking one. To express the sentiment of making implies the creation of an object, rather than stealing a view of one. Are photographs made or taken? Bolton’s article spins around this to land on a chord against “art for art’s sake”— for if art only makes, rather than participates in an interchange, a taking of the world in order to give it back with a point of view— it can have little practical impact. This made me think about the separation of rhetoric and poetics by Aristotle— art makes, rhetoric takes what is given in order to use it to advantage. Can they be separate? Is taking always an exercise of dominion?

Reading Paul de Man’s lecture on Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator,” he quotes Geoffrey Hartman’s thoughts on Benjamin’s paradoxical sense of history, a union of the rhetorical and the poetic, of hope and catastrophe:

This chiasmus of hope and catastrophe is what saves hope from being unmasked as only catastrophe: as an illusion or unsatisfied moment of desire that wrecks everything. The foundation of hope becomes remembrance; which confirms the function, as the duty of a historian and critic. To recall the past is a political act: a “recherche” that involves us with the usage of a peculiar power, images that may constrain us to identify with them, that claim the “weak messianic power” in us. These images, split off from their fixed location in history, undo concepts of homogeneous time, flash up into or reconstitute the present.

So it seems to me that those who take shelter in the idea of poesis, of making, ignore the true constitutive power of history. To take, in the sense of taking a photograph, is also to make history spiritual and present for us. To take is also to make, in the sense of testing assumptions of the present in the face of evidence from the past. The two words blur for me, and since power relations are defined entirely by context it cannot be said that to concentrate on taking photographs either subdues, rapes, or modifies the present. The reading of the past is outside the photographer’s hands, and resides in the viewer. I have always viewed working as a photographer as performing a real history, measured in fractions of a second, not as a rapist, harvesting the world for sinister purposes. Whether directed inward— as a personal history— or outward as a social one, photographs because of their position within time always constitute a history. Taking is making.

All histories always seem to carry with them a moral purpose. That’s why I wonder at the displacement of ethics from poesis, and the misreading of making as something disconnected from catastrophe. Is making just a test? Or is it intercourse with something larger outside ourselves? I’m still trying to figure out how to get this all together.

1 thought on “Representative Thoughts”

  1. A very rich mine to explore. One thing to possibly consider is, where Hartman chooses to talk of splitting, I believe Benjamin used images more suggestive of violence, which would be consistent with your critique of making as somehow sheltered from catastrophe. Also, WB wasn’t only speaking of images, but of quotations. Hope you pursue this.

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