Response to Laruelle on Non-Photography

On the occasion of Laruelle’s presentation at Goldsmiths, May 2012.

In the preface to The Concept of Non-Photography, you note that you did not update the essays in that book to reflect the new vocabulary that accompanied the shift from what you called ‘non-philosophy’ to what you now speak of as ‘non-standard philosophy’ and ‘philo-fiction’. It seems that, today, you have done so, and described in a new way the relationship between photography and philosophy. Yet the description of this relationship remains the same in its essential characteristics.

Non-philosophy begins with the observation that philosophy always gives itself thought and the real as divided from each other, only so as to ceaselessly stage their ever-deferred adequation. It presupposes this difference between the conditioned and the unconditioned as, after all (or rather, before and as All) given in thought qua unconditioned. But it is given, precisely, only through what it conditions. Thus, we know the transcendental only through the empirical that it conditions, and yet this knowledge of the transcendental is meant to guide us in the distribution and knowledge of the empirical. A decision that is carried out in the name of thought as already being other than the real, and which therefore, despite itself, presupposes a moment when one is radically immanent to the other. Non-philosophy attempts to grasp this non-thetic moment in which Oneness is given ‘without-givenness’, and to retain this moment as the primary axiomatic basis upon which to think philosophy without thinking in philosophy.

Philosophy, in this sense, as you suggest in The Concept of Non-Photography, has always understood itself in a way that can be qualified as ‘photographic’. An originary ‘flash’ would produce the World – which is always the World of philosophy – a decisive flash that splits the One into a perennial duality of being and its image in thought, a duality whose unification philosophy will eternally desire, only succeeding in rephotographing it, in taking ever new ‘shots’ of it that ramify and extend its difference.

This myth, as you suggest, comprises a fundamental misunderstanding of both philosophy and photography.

As philosophical myth, emerging in advance of the empirical possibility of photography, it already miscognises photography by presenting in terms of philosophy’s originary presumptions. And this because of philosophy’s characteristic tendency to imagine object and subject as already given and already divided; a tendency that will lead it not only to think of photography in terms of model and copy, but also to think of philosophy precisely as a ‘model’, in the Platonic sense, for the ‘copy’ that is photography: photography would merely reproduce the apparatus of adequation-reproduction that philosophy posits as originary. And photography, rethought by aesthetic theories that are tributaries of philosophy, would end up spontaneously thinking of itself in these same terms. What is the result? A philosophy based in this mythic miscognition of photography can never think photography without resulting in a vicious circle: A philosophy of photography will always be a philosophy of philosophical photography, a philosophy of the photography of philosophy.

Thus, paradoxically, philosophy was primordially affected by a photographic thinking before the empirical possibility of photography had emerged.

Inversely, it is perhaps the emergence of photography as technological fact, that makes it possible, in rigorously rethinking the photo, to extract from it a model in the second sense you mentioned – a model that instantiates under empirical conditions a certain axiomatic ‘stance’ of thought that no longer chases philosophically after the originary ‘flash’, but takes this moment as its primary material. Perhaps. And yet you insist, as ever, that the technological emergence of photography would only be an ‘occasional cause’: that is, photography may be a model or a simulation of a kind of thought that would exceed philosophy, but, in constructing our ‘photo-fictional camera’ we must acknowledge that this thought was already assembled and operative in advance of its construction: for, as you often remind us, we should not make the mistake of imagining that thought needs to ‘step outside’ of philosophy – into which, in fact, it never entered.

It is a question of rediscovering in the relation between photograph and photographed, an empirical simulation of the relation between thought and the real, a unilateral relation that is dissimulated by philosophy when it posits this relation ‘under’ philosophical thought.

Here I merely attempt to reinforce the efforts you made to fend off in advance the impression that it was a matter of metaphor or pedagogical simile. Photography, essentially – that is to say, beyond the occasional facts of its social, technological, aesthetic dimensions – opens up to us a way of thinking, of which it is a ‘scale model’. However, one question that remains intriguing is why this happens to be. Why photography? A question that must be answerable, if your contention is to be justified, and if we are to allay the suspicion that we are dealing here, once more, with philosophy’s predilection for the lumino-topological.

Many traditional theories fall by the wayside in The Concept of Non-Photography, as you insist that the analyses of ‘philosophies of photography’ invariably make the mistake of considering the primary relation in photography to be that between an image, and the object that it is an image ‘of’ – a relation of adequation between an object and what is perceived of it ‘in-photo’, both given spontaneously to the gaze. Thus, a relation that supposes a prior correlation between photographed and photograph even as it posits limits on the latter’s purchase on the former.

Looking beyond the relation of a photograph with what it is supposedly ‘of’, you suggest that what is seen in any photo is Identity, or the One – or, in the new vocabulary you have used today, that we must think these two ‘sides’ according to their superposition.

Rather than a transcendent realism which, staying within the horizon of philosophy’s complementary dualisms, suggests that the photographic image adequates to a real that transcends it, you mobilise an immanent realism or a realism ‘in the last instance’. According to this ‘reduction’, the photograph and the photographed are ‘of’ the same One, they are superposed in a real phenomenon that is no longer objectified, but lived.

Photography itself produces new presentations of the real which on one hand you qualify as ‘scientific’, given the automatic, blind, irreflective nature of its process; and on the other hand, as pertaining to ‘fiction’, given its infinite capacity for the production of aleatory images (but this term ‘fiction’ is one that I would like you to clarify). It is in this sense that it suggests a type of thinking that is no longer philosophical, for it no longer immediately re-places its irreflective symbolisation within a reflexivity supposed to be the highest power of thought. But it is also a type of thinking that falls short of ‘science’ in the sense of a specific established science – for, as photograph pure and simple, its irreflective manipulation of symbols is not subordinated to any finality – hence the ability of this technical apparatus to give rise to art, or to fiction.

Photographic thinking therefore has an immanent relation to the real; it ceaselessly writes symbols of the real without cleaving it and without presupposing an adequation with what it symbolizes.

Here I would like to introduce another interlocutor. Vilém Flusser, in Towards a Philosophy of Photography, proposes that we have to learn to read photographs: read, because photographs are not images but a type of writing.

The reign of the photograph seems to belong to a resurgence of the image – images are everywhere. But (according to Flusser) photographs are not what they seem to be – faithful and accurate images of a world.

In fact, he suggests, the photograph belongs to an historical dialectic between magical consciousness and historical consciousness, between imagination and conceptualization.

In historical consciousness, we think the world through concepts. But the photographic image corresponds to a sort of automation of concepts: in the photographic apparatus we think the world through concepts pre-packed into an apparatus, through a sort of technical magic, without even realizing it. – He thus argues that ‘the function of technical images is to emancipate their receivers from the need to think conceptually, by substituting an imagination of the second degree for conceptualization.’

It seems that, availing ourselves of your photo-fictional apparatus, we could turn Flusser’s argument against him. He calls for reflective conceptualization to ward off automatism. But for you, it is philosophy that effects an insidious, silent, spontaneous mediation: philosophy claims to present us with reality, whereas it presents us with a ‘world’ that is always already philosophy’s conceptually-mediated image of the real – that is. So perhaps, inverting Flusser’s formula, it is through a thinking inspired by the automatism of the camera, pared down to its most essential gesture, that we might escape from philosophy’s ‘technical magic’.

Now, photography has since its appearance been understood as heralding a new way of seeing – one that would depose painterly representation, one that was ‘scientific’ and unmediated, one that was ‘objective’, and so on. The very process of painting’s decoupling from expression and depiction is initiated when Seurat, at once thrilled and mortified by the shadow cast by photography upon painting, turns himself, his hand and his eye, into an automated, passive machine of reproduction, simulating with his pointillised grisaille the chemical grain of the photo. Which opens the way to the ‘phenomenological reduction’ of impressionism, the crucible of modern and contemporary realisms. In presenting the painting as nothing but an assemblage of colored paint from a tube, it also allows the thinking of the tube of paint as readymade – as minimally-mediated presentation of the real as art. (See the stimulating exchange between Thierry de Duve and Éric Alliez on this topic).

So, it is true that art is confronted just as crucially as philosophy, if not more so, with the problems of representation and realism. Maybe you will agree that here a certain ‘modernity’ has been achieved in art which philosophy has yet to attain to. There have been many attempts to define and redefine what ‘realism’ would be in art: how to present, rather than a depiction, the real itself? The readymade, and the minimalist object, attempt to do so, but ultimately immanentize the real and the artwork only to present their object, once again, ‘under’ art – objectified according to certain finalities specific to the artistic ‘world’. In this respect, as Baudrillard suggests, perhaps the true power of the photograph lies in its essential indifference to art: the fact that its affect is not that of artistic beauty or conceptual edification, but that of pure visual fascination, so that it loses its proper nature when appropriated by/as art.

Nevertheless, artists have presented photographs as representational images, as documentation, but also as non-representational records of process, as abstracts, as sculptural objects … In the British artist Simon Starling’s 2004 work ‘One Ton’, by placing a platinum-print photograph in the context of an investigation into the mining and extraction of platinum, he makes it oscillate between an image and a ‘receptacle for a certain quantity of metal’ – both a minimalist sculptural object and a representation. Now, just as, in non-standard philosophy, you seek not to negate philosophy but to retain it as material, so you describe the photograph as symbolic image of the World which, however, revokes the World’s governing philosophical structure of representation. However, the type of collapsing of representative realism into materialist realism in this work, does not seem to be what you intend. It is not the photograph as matter that you wish to invoke, but the photograph as materiel, the phenomenon of the photo as bloc of lived experience. This is the photograph seen according to the vision-in-One.

This recalls a problematic presented by Art and Language, when they ask: what is a picture ‘of’? The question can solicit a descriptive or a genetic response; that is, a picture can be ‘of’ something in so far as it resembles that thing; or it can be ‘of’ something in so far as it retains a genetic or causal link to that thing. Sophisticated forms of realism eschew the former in favour of the latter; and at the limit of this thinking, we could say that any work, any image, is indeed ‘of’ the same thing – once we take the ‘photographic stance’, reducing the transcendence of the photographic image, its reaching from within itself to a world at once divided from and presupposed by it, once we treat it instead as pure phenomenon, then every photo is an ‘identity-photo’, a photo of identity or of the real. Photographs ‘superpose’ themselves on the real without doubling it – or, in Martin Creed’s idempotent equation (and excusing his ignorance of non-standard terminology): ‘the whole world + the work = the whole world’.

In the same way, rather than philosophical concepts being concepts ‘of’ a real from which they are divided but which presupposes them as condition of this division, non-standard philosophy proposes to treat them, let’s say, as artist’s materials, with which to create new fictions that never double the real, but each time write it in new symbolic combinations, graphisms whose syntax is no longer transcendentally prescribed. The photograph’s implacable flattening of the World would indeed be a model of philo-fiction in its refusal to articulate itself according to philosophy’s planning and planing [planification] of the real.

You describe the photo itself as non-worldly and as giving rise to a paradoxically realist fiction. But it is ultimately overdetermined by the World, by the relation of image to its represented. Whereas in its ‘theoretic universalisation’ or axiomatisation, which is photo-fiction, the concept-photo is ‘of’ Identity or the One, with the World acting merely as the occasion upon which each shot produces ever new images of the One.

But then, what kind of knowledge is or could be produced by this writing, given that it is subtracted from philosophy but falls short of being an effective science? Freed from philosophical neurosis and its photographic avatar, wouldn’t it become a sort of psychotic writing, fabricating speculative concepts on the basis of snapshots of lived experience? Must we, after Seurat’s example, turn our minds into passive machines that merely register intensities, a kind of conceptual pointillism? Furthermore, in what way would they be, any longer, concepts, unless they were once more charged with a certain role of representation?

It is this transfinite multiplicity of shots, and the chaos we expect them to produce, that seems paradoxical: what is it that constitutes the productivity of photo-fiction, once the World is ‘out of shot’; is it purely sterile, or if not, what kind of texts could it produce? Or, if there can be no answer to this question, how should we proceed, following its construction, to power-up and put this machine to work?