François Laruelle, ‘Photo-Fiction: An Exercise in Non-Standard Aesthetics’

Presented by François Laruelle at Goldsmiths, 10 May 2012

Today, like an artisan or an engineer, I would like to construct before you a special device, what we shall call an apparatus of ‘photo-fiction’, a ‘photo-fictional’ camera; or at least, to put forward a plan for it. This will be an exercise in the construction of a theoretical object.

What can a philosopher, qua philosopher, do with photography, if he is not himself a photographer? Produce an aesthetics of photography? In that case, he would remain above all a philosopher in his relation to photography – he would try to interiorise the latter into the concept.

Another solution I would like to suggest is that of what I call ‘photo-fiction’ – that is to say, the solution of a thinking, of a writing, of concepts perhaps, with which I shall carry out what may seem to you like a sort of mimesis of photography (an interpretation I will try to rectify in closing); a construction that takes photography as its model, but which is not itself photographic in the technical sense.

So, as neither photographer nor aesthetician, what do I do? I do not do aesthetics; I try to construct a thinking that exceeds or replaces philosophical aesthetics and its descriptions. This is to practice a very special type of activity that is not entirely standard, nor recognized. A little as if the artisan, to take a Socratic example, rather than fabricating a bed by following the ideal model of the bed that he has in his head, were instead to take it into his head to fabricate an Idea of the bed that, in a certain way, would resemble the bed. Let’s invert the Platonic examples of objects and Ideas – let’s take an object such as the photograph as a model (in a sense that, doubtless, is no longer Platonic, but instead mathematical or algebraic) – as a model for a theory of the photograph that would be a photo-fiction or a theory-fiction.

Is it a question of creating concepts in parallel with photography? No, it is not even the Deleuzian parallelism between cinema and concept, which is Spinozist, and only succeeds in dividing philosophy into two parallel halves: the real, and thought. I will treat photo-fiction as a chaos yet more intense than that of the photograph, like a mixture of cubism and fractality at work within conceptual matter itself. And I shall do so on the basis of a special logic of photo-fictions. These photo-fictions will be not unities firmly closed upon themselves, but will belong to an algebra of negative ‘quarter turns’ that can be represented as vectors.

I call this gesture non-aesthetics, non-photography, or else non-standard aesthetics (the standard form of aesthetics being the philosophical form). Thus, non-standard aesthetics does not belong to aesthetics – that is to say, to standard aesthetics. What is standard in aesthetics is the notion that philosophy alone can justify art’s attaining of the real; and that philosophy alone can furnish its correct description. My problem is one of delimitation, to take up a Kantian term – with the caveat that here, the delimitation of philosophy is not itself philosophical. Such a project seems absurd. But it will no longer seem so if we agree to change our level of reference; if, rather than treating the photo and the concept of the photo as two given and describable objects or representations, respectively physical and intellectual, we treat them as something entirely other than objects. In order to do so, we must define a level of reality that is no longer empirico-ideal, and which is freed from philosophical couplets of opposites. This level is that of the genre or of the generic. It is obtained when we say that the photo and its Idea no longer oppose each other at extremes of reality; indeed that, at a certain point, they must become identified with each other. ‘At infinity’, should we say, like Deleuze? No, not identified in an infinite photography or a surphotography, a photographic body without photos, like the body without organs. For we are not Spinozist, Nietzschean or Deleuzian; we still want to distinguish not merely the empirical photo but the photo as real, where the photograph is implicated at least as quasi-universal generic photography, from this photographic appearance. This is not a plane of identification in a surphotography, but, we shall say, that of a ‘non-photography’ obtained through a quantum-type ‘superposition’.

This term – ‘non-photography’ or ‘photo-fiction’ – designates the effect of a very special camera, one that we must imagine, for it is not for sale in any store, being more theoretical than technological. Photo-fiction is a generic extension of the photographic camera – that is to say, an extension neutralised with regard to its philosophical or aesthetic pretensions. A ‘scale model’, we could say, but not such as we might see for sale anywhere. It is certainly partly ‘scaled down’, ‘reduced’, but in the manner of a phenomenological reduction, not in the sense that its dimensions are reduced. It has lost its conditions of fabricated metaphysical transcendence, its matter, its geometrical form, its chemical and optical efficiency, its narcissistic or other (for example political) finality. Normally, the photo is required to resemble, through an optical and chemical procedure, its photographic object or subject. Now, our new camera, that of photo-fiction, is not material in the technological sense of the word; and yet it must make possible a certain resemblance between the photo or its subject and the photo-fiction we seek. It must be capable of ‘photographing’ (we can still use this term, with extra scare quotes, since it is a discursive rather than a visual photograph) – it must be capable of ‘photographing’ the artistic photograph itself.

How is this new ‘box’ constructed on the model of the empirical camera, for we must construct a new type of concept (a concept of non-standard aesthetics)? Here are the internal operations, which are no longer materially or physically optical, but intellectually optical, since this photo-generic camera is neither empirical nor idealist in the sense of a Platonic Idea. It assures or produces a fusion, as superposition (whence an effect of a special kind of resemblance which, as we shall see, is not that of metaphor). A fusion of the photographic apparatus and philosophical discourse, or of the photographer and the philosopher, through and in a subject=X that is neither photographer nor classical philosopher nor aesthetician. Fusion means, first of all, that there is an equality of the two roles as means or forces, an equality obtained through the subtraction of their proper finalities. The philosopher, without renouncing his technique, which is his real force, will no longer believe himself able to dominate the photographer by determining his meaning, his truth, and the artistic value of the photo. And for his part, the photographer will not abandon the technical ability he boasts, but only the belief (in reality also a philosophical belief, albeit dissimulated) that, as artist, he attains the truest real. In other words, the two of them will put aside their competition, in a common labour – that of photo-fiction. Fusion also means that, if there are means that are, by subtraction, of the same genre or the same type, forces equal in so far as they are both forces that have lost their own auto-finality and auto-teleology (but not at all without all ends, all form, all matter, all efficiency), the solution for the generic subject=X is to bring them together or even to multiply one by the other, as if they were its properties, since it is capable of exerting this double activity, or of drawing out part of the effectiveness of these two agents. All the same, the equality of the two forces at work is not absolute, or under all relations; indeed they are very different. And therefore the fusion will not be merely that of two forces of the same type, like a multiplication of two whole numbers indifferent one to the other. The fusion will be affected by a special movement that we shall call that of inclination, or the movement of the clinamen – a movement that asssures the subtraction of forces in relation to their representation, rather than their sur-elevation.

We seem to be assembling this photo-fictional camera bit by bit, in pieces or parts, like a photographic camera. But in reality, it exists already, before its pieces, functioning as a whole, with the immanence of a machine. So that the matrix of photo-fiction is all that is concrete – and philosophy and photography are no longer anything more than its forces or its parts. It is photo-fiction that gives this movement of the clinamen to the subject=X and this becoming to forces. I would just say here that this clinamen that affects the matrix is essentially mathematical, or more precisely, algebraic; that it depends upon what is called an imaginary or complex number (like the square root of minus 1). That is to say that it is geometrically representable with a vector, an arrow oriented according to an angle that is also called its phase. My model of construction is thus technologically photographic, as I said; but its Idea or its form, its formal cause, is physical and mathematical, essentially quantum-algebraic. In other words, and more generally, photo-fiction is an extension – a ‘generic’ extension – of the apparatus of quantum physics, an experimental camera constructed on the quantum model in all its dimensions. A technological extension of the photographic optics that exist within quantum thought (the production of a photo-fictional resemblance), a formal extension of its algebraic ingredient (photo-fiction as science), an extension of its material and optical aspect (photo-fiction as the neutralised lived experience of a certain, still indeterminate subject=X and of its objects, which are now symbols), an extension of the finality of the subject=X (photographer-as-philosopher and philosopher-as-photographer).

These four extensions of the photographic apparatus (technical efficiency, form, materiality and finality) are also restrictions defined by algebraic subtraction. It is said that philosophy and photography under these four angles are, and in a certain way remain, heterogeneous, although they both share these four dimensions; but it is above all in relation to their spontaneous representation that they are both distinguished. So that we can say of the matrix, that, in each of its dimensions, it is not so much determining as under-determining; it is a weak or weakening causality that withdraws, from the determination to the resulting image, which is more vague, more aleatory or more indeterminate, in relation to the overdetermination that aesthetics or philosophy produce, since they are on the contrary overdetermining or overloading.

Why, you will ask, why thus deprive ourselves of the benefits of philosophy? In reality we deprive ourselves of nothing, for philosophy still plays a part in formulating photo-fiction, and enters into it as an essential materiality. It is only its excessive claims to the absolute that we deprive ourselves of, so as to protect human subjects from its sufficiency. For example, it is efficient and produces fiction, that is to say a thought less sure of itself than philosophical discourse. It is formal, and contains some objectivity, but of a modest, non-apodeictic, or axiomatic kind. It produces materiality, but in the form of jouissance or lived experience. Finally, it deals with the ends that humans propose for themselves, but at the same time orients them toward generic humanity rather than toward the narcissistic delirium of the modern individual. In each of these four dimensions, it suspends what I would call the Principle of Photographic Sufficiency, or photocentrism.

In short, then, photo-fiction and the photograph itself are both matrices with two inputs. The photo is an apparatus involving two variables: the subject or the world, and the camera and its technology, which form an integral part of the resulting photo. But what we must consider as an indivisible whole is the ‘photographic stance’ – a conjugation of perceptual, optical and chemical properties, which cannot be understood fully like those of the generic matrix.

What is more, they are matrices that I would refer to as oriented or inclined, through a doubling of one of their variables as an index. The photo is overdetermined by a second intervention of philosophy or of the world; but this doubling generally goes unperceived: the world, or philosophy, are thought of as simple phenomena whereas in fact they are doubled, and can thus be brought to bear twice – once as simple object, and once as principle or superior norm, which constitutes their sufficiency. The photo is reprised or repeated by the world, its technological and other variations included. And this repetition imparts to photography its trait of being a reflexive operation. It is indeed already a generic matrix in itself; it is philosophising, but not for itself. It does not assume itself to be overdetermined by philosophy, or governed by the Principle of Sufficient Photography. In photo-fiction, on the other hand, the technological camera is replaced by a purely theoretical device, operating via the imaginary number, always in confrontation with the world (that is to say, philosophy). It conjugates concepts (or philosophemes) with algebra, in an indivisible or intricated whole. And this photo-fictional camera is no longer indexed to or inclined toward philosophy, but repeated mathematically; it does away with the pretentions of philosophy, without denying it completely.

There is a great difference between the knowledge produced by the photo, which may still be uncertain, and that produced by indeterminate photo-fiction, as generic aleatory or ontological probability. In photography as in photo-fiction, images or concepts are produced. And, in a sense, they are the same – they are both appearances of the world or objects; on this point, therefore, there is no difference between them. But in the photo, these appearances of the world bear a reference to the world according to a certain realist and determinist relation (the Principle of Sufficient Photography), where the world returns to overdetermine objective appearances; whereas in fiction, the conceptual images remain objective appearances, which are not lived as objects in themselves and are not reorganised a second time by the cosmic order. In fiction, the objective appearances are materially the same as in the photo, but they do not auto-confirm themselves according to sufficiency, and it is in this way that they form a negative chaos via the absence of the world or its sufficiency.

The superposition of intentions or postural, technological or perceptual conditions that is supposed to be produced in ‘good’ photography, in photo-fiction constitutes a failure (or is not possible at all). From the superposition of vectors or variable conditions of the act of photo-fiction, there results, paradoxically, an indetermination of the result, an indetermination that is expected but unforeseeable. The aleatory nature of photographic thinking owes not to the intervention of new factors or conditions, but to the intrinsic production process of the conceptual image expected from it. This is to come back to the Kierkegaardian, theatrical meaning of ‘repetition’, as opposed to the automaticity of repetition (with the determinist necessity that it often implies), in such a way that the individual subject-agent who manipulates the camera founds himself in the general process in which he is implicated, as a factor of variability that defines his style as quasi-photographer.

The flux of acts or the photo-fictional repetition contributes the world or the subject in a partial, or even quartial, form as conceptual particle. This means the end of the subject-Other relation, as it is generically generalized, vehiculated or contributed by the interfering fluxes of vision. Photo-fiction is no longer a phenomenological-type sketch, or even a partial outline, like a part of a body without organs, but instead is like the quartial object of a transfinite photosphere. The world of the photo had already become more quantum than mechanical; it now heralds the end of realism through excess of the real, the quantum dissemination or deconstruction of photocentric or macroscopic entities.

Which leaves us with a last objection, a strong one: Isn’t photo fiction a metaphorical usage of photography – that is to say, a language-based idealisation, a transfer of photographical acts to the sphere of philosophy? If so, the situation is as follows: If philosophy is the metaphor of photography, a superior photography of things and of the world itself, then this formula brings with it its reverse or inversion: that the photo is a deficient modality of philosophy – the photo is aesthetically conceived as an act of the auto-modelisation or auto-reduction of philosophy. I believe that we must refuse to think in these terms, in the terms of Idea and empirical model in a metaphorical relation. Instead, the passage from the photo to philosophy must be made through the mediation of science, of mathematical physics, which will interrupt these relations of mimesis, and articulate the problem otherwise. Photo-fiction is indeed a theoretical universalisation of the photo – but a generic one, by way of science. And the photo as art is a model for philo-fiction, but a model that is no longer Platonic. It is a model in the sense that an axiomatic always has one or more models, that is to say effectuations of the model according to empirical conditions. These are not mere modalities of philosophy, but precisely models with their own autonomy. It is thus a matter of preserving photography as art, and not only the photographer as man who, perhaps, has his own existence but not the whole of his essence, so to speak, in the art of photography. Photo-fiction is not at all photographic fiction; neither, indeed, is it philosophical fiction; we must rather understand it in the sense of science-fiction – as a genre.

[see also my response, from the same event]