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AfternessFigures of Following in Modern Thought and Aesthetics$

Gerhard Richter

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780231157704

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231157704.001.0001

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Afterness and the Image (I)

Afterness and the Image (I)

Unsettling Photography

(p.118) 6 Afterness and the Image (I)

Gerhard Richter

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the medium of photography—arguably the first “new” medium of modernity—as an instantiation of the relation between the figure of following and its representations. It places the theories of photography found in Franz Kafka’s writings and those that emerge in Jacques Derrida’s work into a constellation. By situating Kafka’s and Derrida’s reflections on photography in the context of the work of German photographer Stefan Moses, the chapter problematizes the afterness of a photograph and its relation to an allegedly referential original subject, particularly with regard to Moses’s series “Selbst im Spiegel” (Self in the Mirror), a collection of photographic self-portraits of well-known German writers, philosophers, scientists, and artists.

Keywords:   photography, modernity, following, Franz Kafka, Jacques Derrida, Stefan Moses, afterness, photograph, self-portraits

Having considered the relation between afterness and translation, we are now in a position to turn to a specific kind of “translation”: photography—arguably the first “new” medium of modernity. As the British scholar Graham Clarke, echoing Hubert Damisch, suggests in his standard work on the cultural history and theory of the photograph, because the photograph interrupts time and removes its subject from history even as it records it for posterity, there is a sense in which every “photograph … has no before or after: it represents only the moment of its own making.”1 And yet, we could say that the photograph possesses an afterlife, a temporal structure of experience and ghostly reception that will not let it rest in its separation from the before or the after. Even the very first photographic image ever taken, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s “View from a Window at Gras” (1826), a heliograph that required an exposure time of some eight hours, demands, in all its graininess and darkly spectral remove, that we come to terms with its “after” in the history of the medium. Indeed, the non-self-identity of the (p.119) ghostly photographic image that announces itself as a relation without relation ultimately cannot be thought in isolation from the effect of a coming after, a certain afterness.

Encrypted in a series of relays and relations, promises and deferrals, the ontological status of the photograph itself deserves to be rethought. No longer simply a material entity—the product of a more or less mimetic process of recording and archiving the traces of an object’s former presence—the photograph offers a model for conceptualizing thought itself. To the extent that this radical model of thinking exceeds the themes and motifs that structure the history of metaphysics—that is, to the extent that it holds open the possibility of the unexpected, the surprising, and the unprogrammable—the photograph rightly can be said to portray the reality of such thinking. Thought in this way, the photograph no longer can be viewed as merely an inscription with light by the pencil of nature, but rather ought to be seen as the point at which a multiplicity of uncontainable self-differentiation intersects in a purposeful, irreducible dance of light and darkness or, in the age of digital reproduction, in an inexhaustible proliferation of plus–minus information. Contrary to conventional notions of the image as ontological substance, as once canonized in such works as André Bazin’s “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” the reality effect that the photograph occasions bespeaks not simply the absence of a former (and, in principle, re-presentable) visual presence but rather the reality of a thinking of alterity and even the alterity of thinking itself.2 Having departed from the view (and worldview) of the photograph as an ontologically stable object, we are led by the photographic image into a distant land of alterity and dissimulation, an idiosyncratic strangeness that provides us with erratic glimpses of a thinking yet to come. This future thinking will have been more rigorous than the merely conceptual, even while it cannot do without concepts. It will have been more indebted to the aesthetic and presentational specificity of the image than conventional philosophizing has dared to acknowledge. The photograph not only exhibits the openness of thought itself; it is this openness.

But let us backtrack in order to consider the relation between afterness and photography more closely.

And who took the photograph ? Is it some sort of family occasion ? Your father and brother appear to be in dark suits, with white ties, but the so-called brother-in-law is wearing a coloured one. Dearest, how powerful one is, face to face with a picture, and (p.120) how powerless in reality! I can easily imagine your whole family stepping aside and removing themselves, leaving you on your own, while I lean across the big table searching for your eyes, finding them, and dying of joy. Dearest, pictures are wonderful, pictures are indispensable, but they are torture as well.”3

To confront the photograph, as Kafka just did—in the darkness or dark-room of the night from December 6 through 7, 1912—always also is to confront a moment of unsettling, a moment in which the photograph, in its refusal to yield its non-self-identity to our identity-seeking gaze, unsettles us by unsettling itself. I wish to set in motion a polylogue among Derrida and the figures whose proper names frame his own in the “group portrait” that this chapter records—Kafka to the left, the German photographer Stefan Moses to the right—a kind of unsettling freeze-frame of unsuspected family relations taken on a holiday or holy day of technical illumination. In the course of our engagement with Derrida and Moses, we will be interrupted periodically by incoming missives from Kafka, the great unknown theorist of photography, sent on their way between September 1912 and August 1913. Kafka’s snapshot-like reflections on the difficulties and explosively charged minitragedies of promising, taking, sending, receiving, interpreting, and missing photographs in his love letters to Felice Bauer will illuminate our polylogue as embodiments of the interplay between the luminous (photo) and the trace (graphy).4 Kafka’s obsessive engagement with photography can be said to belong to a larger, heterogeneous orbit of literary meditations on photography, reflections that in the French modernist tradition encompass such texts as Baudelaire’s “The Salon of 1859”; Proust’s The Guermantes Way (1920), a volume of In Search of Lost Time; and Breton’s surrealist novel Nadja (1928). In the German tradition, the literary discourse on photography extends from Weimarera texts such as Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) and Tucholsky and Heartfield’s collaborative book of texts and photomontages, Deutschland, Deutschland über alles! (1929); through postwar projects such as Brecht’s book of antiwar poems and photomontages, War Primer (1955); to the discussion of photography in Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum (1959) and the recent hybrid novels of W. G. Sebald.

Let us begin with Derrida’s polylogue about the photograph, which in turn will open onto a polylogue among Kafka, Derrida, and Moses. (“Polylogue” is the formal designation that Derrida first gives his 1978 engagement—in many voices and various personae at once—with Heidegger’s and art historian Meyer Schapiro’s competing readings of Van Gogh’s painting A Pair of (p.121) Shoes [1885], depicting a pair of peasant shoes, in the section “Restitutions” of The Truth in Painting. Derrida will take up this fractured voice heard in his engagement with painting in his later reading of another visual medium, photography.) First, then, a series of open questions. What would it mean to think of the photograph neither in terms of reproduction nor with an eye to the reproducibility of that which is said to exist already, but rather in terms of a force field of relations that erratically thematize, always one more time, their own status as a relation, a relation that differs from and with itself even while suspending itself? In other words, what would it mean to alter our assumptions about the nature of the relation between the photograph and that which it appears to reproduce as well as the relation of the photograph to the very idea of relation itself? Learning how to read the ways in which the téchne of the photograph perpetually illuminates and obscures the relation of the relation to itself and to its referential function then would emerge as inseparable from the experience of learning to learn from the medial specificity of photography and from the idiomatic and unverifiable language of a given photograph. In contemporary work on photography, whether analog or digital, such issues are implicitly encoded—but rarely addressed directly—by writers such as Susan Sontag on the relation of photography to the pain of others; by philosophers of the image such as Vilém Flusser and his concern with a positively inflected “telematic” society; by historians of photography such as Geoffrey Batchen and his understandable preoccupations with the photograph’s material and cultural inscriptions; and by theorists of photography such as Hubertus von Amelunxen and his ongoing investigations of how certain indexical and postindexical modes of seeing have rendered the late modern subject a “homo photographicus.”5

What, then, would our stance be vis-à-vis the referential pull of these ontic commitments, given the impossibility of ever viewing photography as such and the concomitant necessity of only ever viewing a particular instance of photography, this photograph’s here and now that arrives before my gaze as a translation of the specificity of a particular there and then. It seems that the photograph perpetually resists our Hegelian effort to see the universal of the absolute manifest itself in the singularity of the particular. We could say that, viewed from the perspective of these concerns, the photograph reformulates the three central preoccupations of philosophy according to Kant (What can I know? What should I do? What can I hope for?) as photography’s abiding question: What can I relate to? Or, more precisely: What is my relation to relation?

(p.122) As Derrida writes in Right of Inspection, his 1985 engagement with the images of a photo-novel by the Belgian photographer Marie-Françoise Plissart:

In terms of the exteriority of the referent its being-in-the-past certainly cannot be eliminated. But when the referent itself consists of frames that are themselves framed, the index of the wholly other, however marked it may be, endlessly defers reference. The chimera becomes a possibility. If there is an art of photography (beyond that of determined genres, and thus in an almost transcendental space), it is found here. Not that it suspends reference, but that it indefinitely defers a certain type of reality, that of the perceptible referent. It gives the prerogative to the other, opens the infinite uncertainty of a relation to the completely other, a relation without relation.6

The relation without relation that one of Derrida’s voices casts—in the polylogue that is his text—as the art of photography itself, the relation that, within the image, announces itself as relation but that never fully can guarantee the hermeneutic key to its internal and external networks of reference, gives rise to a multitude of senses and experiences that are mediated by the mise-en-scène of the relation itself. Therefore, one of the voices in Derrida’s polylogue says: “You will never know, nor will you, all the stories, nor even the totality of one single story, I kept telling myself as I looked at these images.” These lines open, and periodically return to punctuate, Right of Inspection. Here, the language of photography is inseparable from the experience of plurality and the plurality of experience. This double plurality encrypted in the photograph works to transform the aesthetic experience of time, language, gender, and genre, along with the very logic of a hermeneutics of seeing. Decoupling perception from cognition, Derrida’s engagement with photography works to open the medium to its own alterity, to the ways in which photography exposes the non-self-identity and internal self-differentiation that, for him, ultimately condition any act of aesthetic experience and its ethico-political futurity. The concept of a photographic relation without relation illuminates syntactic linkages among some of the major claims of a Derridean aesthetics as it unfolds in the language of technically mediated images. From this perspective, Right of Inspection would need to be understood in the context of Derrida’s other sustained engagements with photographic aesthetics—especially “The Deaths of Roland Barthes”; Athens, Still Remains; and his extended conversation with Amelunxen and Michael Wetzel, Copy, Archive, (p.123) Signature—as well as in terms of the supplementary status that photography assumes in relation to Derrida’s major aesthetic claims about the visual arts and visual culture more generally, especially in The Truth in Painting and Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins.7

The relation without relation that the photograph relates to us cannot be thought of in isolation from a certain adherence to the referent and the idea of referentiality, even though reference cannot remain immune from the unrelatedness of the relation. As Derrida reminds us in “The Deaths of Roland Barthes,” the photographic referent “does not relate to a present or a real but, in an other way, to the other, and each time differently according to the type of ‘image,’ whether photographic or not.”8 Therefore, we are faced with the question of how to name the relation in and of the photograph without having to decide between referent and reference once and for all, always choosing both and neither as we engage the singular tenses, past and present, of the photograph. The having-been of what was photographed, then, opens a space that always unfolds after the event and with—that is, both in tandem with and according to—the reading of that event’s history-marking occurrence.

Returning to an explication of the interruptive, other-directed punctum that Barthes contrasts with the intentional structure of the studium of the photograph, Derrida suggests a new term to name this photographic relation without relation that manifests itself, among other things, in the strategic refusal to decide between referent and reference. This is what we “might call the unicity of the referential,” a word that allows us “not to have to choose between reference and referent: what adheres in the photograph is perhaps less the referent itself, in the present effectivity of its reality, than the implication in the reference of its having-been-unique.”9 One way to understand Derrida’s logic of the referential is to imagine the uniqueness and singularity of the photographed not merely in the retroactive documentation of its existence that conceptualizes photography as the process of collecting archival evidence, but rather in the very relation that the photographic act allowed the various participants in the scene of photography (the subject, the photographer, the camera, the equipment, the light, and the perspective, among many others) to enter a singular and unique relation to one another. The photograph, then, would not be the record of any extraphotographic, autonomous singularity that had merely waited to be recorded. Rather, the photograph, in its legibility as a form of the referential, could be understood as an inscription with light of the uniqueness of a specific and now irretrievable relation, in a way that both emphasizes the specific relation—or set of relations—assumed (p.124) during the scene of the photographic act and stages in a medium-specific way the general concept of relation itself.

The thinking of this double relation without relation that the photograph enacts in the space of the referential—the singular relation of the specific image and the general concept of relation—could be extended to include another doubling. If this double relation of the relation without relation is specific to the medium of photography, it also exceeds that medium’s specificity in its staging of a certain extended reality of thought. As Derrida suggests, taking “all differences into account, we would not be reducing the specificity of … photography were we to find it pertinent elsewhere: I would say everywhere.”10 What photography teaches us about the referential is that the particular relation without relation that it captures is itself related to other relations without relation. That is to say, the relation without relation that photography relates is itself something of a photograph—and therefore a matter of technical reproducibility—a whole host of relations without relation. Seen from this perspective, the photograph performs in the singular time and space of its own idiom a relation without relation that saturates all relations and the presentational acts without which they would not exist.

Incoming missive: “At the risk of ruining your Sunday, I am sending you my most recent photograph, and three copies at that, since I think I have discovered that in larger quantities it loses some of its horror. I don’t know what to do, flashlights always give me a mad look—the face twisted, the eyes crossed and staring. Don’t worry, dearest, I don’t look like that, this picture doesn’t count, it isn’t one you should carry around with you. I’ll send you another one soon. In reality I am at least twice as beautiful as in this picture. If that’s not enough for you, dearest, then things are indeed serious. In that case, what am I to do? However, you do have a fairly true picture of me; the way I look in the little book [Meditation] is how I really look, at least that’s how I looked a short while ago. And whether you like it or not, I belong to you. Franz.”11

The vexed question of the photographic self-portrait, as a special case in the register of the portrait, resides at the core of a project by Munich photographer Stefan Moses (born 1928), the great chronicler of German life, whose images not only have appeared regularly in such magazines as Der Spiegel and Stern but, since the 1950s, have introduced into German photography a singular precision, rigor, and soberly playful beauty. In 1963 he began facilitating a series of photographic self-portraits of well-known German writers, artists, philosophers, athletes, and public figures, including Adorno, Bloch, (p.125) Otto Hahn, Karl Jaspers, Walter Jens, Ernst Jünger, Erich Kästner, Alexander Mitscherlich, and Max Schmeling, among many others.12 Moses traveled all over Germany with a kitschy chrome mirror on wheels, borrowed from the dressing room of a department store, to visit his subjects in their “own” environments and to encourage them to photograph themselves in front of the department store mirror with his camera. In the process, he too made a series of photographs of these sessions, delivering a perpetual metacommentary on, or portrait of, the very act of self-portraiture. Moses asked his subjects to linger with the scene of self-portraiture, to take their time, to find just the right moment—something akin perhaps to the Greek kairos—to release the shutter; his subjects would sometimes spend an entire morning or afternoon positioning and studying themselves in the chrome mirror to wait for just the right moment that would capture them, in a sudden flash of simultaneous illumination and blindness. No quickies, no half-hearted efforts, no cop-outs or crop-outs.

But what would be the right moment for a photographic self-portrait? What would make a self privilege this moment over that, this possibility of release over any number of others? We recall that de Man commences his Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust with an epigraph from Pascal: “If one reads too quickly or too slowly one understands nothing.”13 In a certain sense, even though this is not spelled out by de Man, his entire project can be understood as returning us again and again to the question of the right speed of reading. Yet, what would be the right speed? And what would be the right moment for me, as the photographer who is also the subject of the photograph, to release—that is, to let go and surrender to the luminous trace that is photography, light-writing? We could say that the task with which Moses’s subjects are charged is one of finding, or, since it can hardly be coaxed, being open to, the simultaneity or interpenetration of two otherwise distinct genders that normally must not touch each other. In German, “moment” has two genders: it is sometimes der Moment, sometimes das Moment. As a masculine noun, der Moment designates a temporal condition, a point to be understood in relation to, and as the product of, time; as a neuter noun, das Moment refers to a conceptual position or philosophical perspective. The subjects who participate in Moses’s theater of self-portraiture are called on to locate a Zeit-raum, or “temporal space,” in which the apparent mutual exclusivity of these two genders—one of which, the neuter, already is something of a nongender—collapse. Where der Moment (p.126) and das Moment become indistinguishable in a dance of light and shadow, illumination and blinding, the right moment, temporally and conceptually, demands to be recognized and affirmed by the release of a shutter, even if a shudder suddenly comes over us and even if we shudder to think what the potentially illicit bringing together of der and das eventually could mean for our captured bodies.

The otherness that traverses every photograph, the very alterity that makes photography what it is even when it seems to record the familiar and the self-same given, is the point at which its unsettlance is properly illuminated. “Photography,” as Jean-Luc Nancy puts it, “is a monster with two subjects, with a double body (human) and a single, cavernous head whose eye blinks on and off. At this point, at this moment, in this place of the photograph in which time blinks and is distended as an immobile surface, the most exact and the most rigorous nous autres is produced.”14 He continues to suggest that “each one affirms its alterity while both together make the request for an identity distinct from every other, in whose distinction they are absorbed into one another, one by the other.” Here, we are reminded of the ways in which it “is the identity of the photograph itself, openly non-identical to itself and thus strangely identical to the superimposition of the two others in it, the view-finder and the viewed surprising one another,” in a way in which we may observe the two “of them together, as a ‘photograph,’ pronouncing a kind of silent nous autres.”15 While in Nancy’s specific example the nous autres unfolds between a portrait of James Joyce and the photographer Gisèle Freund, Moses’s series of self-and other-portraits insists on the ways in which the other-directedness of the non-self-identical photograph is the very condition of possibility for the self-portraiture of a subject that is no longer at home with itself, has become fractured and displaced, inhabited by many others that make it what it is and what it presents to the click of the camera and its analog or digital afterness.

Moses calls his series “Selbst im Spiegel” (Self in the Mirror). Unlike his other sustained photographic series—such as “Deutsche” (Germans), with its self-conscious citation of August Sander’s archetypal photographic portrait of the Weimar Republic; “Couples,” with its gestural citation of such photographers as Freund and Germaine Krull; or his photographic mask project, which is indebted to the masks that play such an important role in the studios of artists such as Kirchner, Klee, Braque, and Picasso—“Selbst im Spiegel” situates Moses in relation not only to the myth of Narcissus and to Lacan’s (p.127) sublimely painful mirror stage but also, in the history of photography, to the work of Polish avant-garde artist Witkacy (Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz). Witkacy developed, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a technique for taking doubled and tripled photographic portraits through the strategic use of multiple mirrors, and his groundbreaking work was rediscovered by young photographers in Germany in the late 1950s.16 The photographs that comprise “Selbst im Spiegel” coalesce around a series of aporias that exhibit each self (but who is this self?) in its Geworfenheit, its thrownness into a relation with itself as an other of which it cannot fully take account, a self that is as much invented as it is mimetically reproduced by the click of the camera, and a photograph that is as much an other-portrait—the empirical embodiment of a consciousness that encounters itself in the guise of a reflection whose difference from the self first gives the self to the self—as it is a self-portrait. Is the photographic self-portrait in the mirror therefore the image of an empirical referent or of the semblance (Schein) of that alleged presence? What the “Selbst im Spiegel” series finally gives us to think is the non-self-identity of the self itself, the dispersal and displacement that make the self what it is. The photographic self-portrait engages a certain relation without relation as the advent of the image. As Barthes once put it, “The photography is the advent of myself as other.”17

If the aesthetic of the photographic self-portrait, in which the self-identity of the relation is suspended, presents an especially instructive instantiation of the relation without relation, we may turn to the most famous in Moses’s series, the photograph of Adorno, to pursue this thought in relation to a particular image. The photograph, reproduced on several book covers—and especially on biographies of Adorno—has become an iconographic signifier in its cultural orbit. A close reading of this image will help us appreciate in a concrete and exemplary way some of the conceptual stakes with which we have been concerned.

Moses’s famous photograph of Adorno in later life shows the philosopher perched on a small chair, the toes of his two feet timidly pointing inward, his facial expression stoic, his gaze averted, one hand covering his knee, the other holding a slim metal object (figure 1).18 The image presents itself as an arrested mirror reflection, the scene of a photographic self-portrait by Adorno as witnessed and photographed by Moses. The shining reflection of Adorno cuts vertically through the dark room in which the standing mirror is positioned, framing an image of its subject within the larger picture. The camera, (p.128)

Afterness and the Image (I)Unsettling Photography

Figure 1 Theodor W. Adorno, “Self in Mirror,” 1964.

(Image courtesy of Stefan Moses [Munich, Germany])

(p.129) which is positioned behind him in the mirror reflection—inverting empirical space—is situated before us in the larger photographic surround. In this way, Moses shows us Adorno in a sharp displacement. The viewing subject is spatially positioned where the referential object must be for its image to be reflectable by the mirror’s surface: the absent referent who bears the name Adorno is located outside the realm of the image, precisely where the viewer is now positioned. Subject and object do not merely trade places but also imbricate each other in a mutual mediation for this scene of vision to become possible. The self-portrait here becomes a kind of “other-portrait,” in which the subject, who has not released the shutter himself but has his self-image taken by an other, portrays himself as an object or, more precisely, as the image of an object. The self-portrait’s legibility is predicated on its multiple removal from the referent. After all, we are not looking at Adorno, at a picture of Adorno, or even at a picture of a picture of Adorno, but at a scene in which the very act of creating the picture of a picture of Adorno is self-reflexively arrested.

Moses’s photograph of an Adornean self-portrait works to transform the self into the image of an object by uncovering the ways in which the self is always already an image. As Barthes writes of photographic portraiture, “Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image. This transformation is an active one: I feel that the Photograph creates my body or mortifies it, according to its caprice.” If, as Barthes suggests, the photograph is “the advent of myself as other: a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity,” then the “madness of photography” can be said to have “transformed subject into object, and even, one might say, into a museum object.” To the extent that I wish to coincide with myself as an image, “I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture (comparable to certain nightmares).”,19 The inauthenticity or imposture of the scene of photography is inseparable from death itself—for what does photography capture if not the prediction of its subject’s finitude, the pronouncement that what once was no longer is (or no longer is exactly the way it is pictured in the image) and that its subject will at some point cease to be altogether? Yet, these questions become especially urgent in the scene of the photographic self-portrait. For it is here that I, as a self-portraying (p.130) subject, actively countersign the displacements and the predictions of finitude that the photographic portrait works to encrypt.

The mourning that Moses’s image of Adorno’s photographic self-portrait stages is not only a function of its status as a memento mori, as Barthes famously suggests, but also a function of its status as the embodiment of an impossibility. The subject’s gaze can never simply be itself; that is, its gaze cannot be available as an object to an other who is looking at it and, in the same moment, observe itself as a gaze that is being looked at. In a conversation about photography, Derrida remarks on the impossibility of this simultaneity. “One thinks,” he says, “that the portrait captures the eyes, the gaze that is, among other things, that for which something like photography exists. The gaze is presumed to be what the subject himself cannot see in his own life. When one looks at oneself in a mirror, one sees oneself either as seen or as seeing but never as both at the same time.” Derrida continues: “One believes that in principle the camera—photographic or cinematographic—should capture or hold a gaze which the looking eyes cannot see. I am seen as you see me speaking … but with a look that I, who am alive now in the present, cannot see. And therefore when I give someone my gaze, my look, the photographed double of my look, I give him something with which I see but which I myself cannot see. This is a situation of heteronomy: I give myself to the other precisely there where I cannot give myself to myself, cannot see myself seeing, in a way.”20 For Derrida, then, to the extent to which I give myself, so radically and irreducibly, to the other, and incapable of seeing or even verifying my own gaze as a gift, I expose myself to the expectations that the other imposes on me in an encounter with my image. In a gesture of deliverance, I as a photographed self offer myself to an uncontainable economy of subjects and objects, an economy that never can be identical with itself or with what is external to it.

If this image is Moses’s perspective on Adorno’s self-portrait, it is also a self-portrait of the self-portrait—that is, a photograph about photography. Here, subject and object, as well as the space that they inhabit, remain suspended in a dialectical play, a serious play that cannot be arrested by any synthesis. The image of Adorno that this scene of a self-portrait captures is caught in a moment of nonidentity, a rupture that can never be glossed over or repaired. As such, the scene of Adorno’s self-portrait presents itself also as a self-portrait of the category of the nonidentical, what he calls “das Nichtidentische,” a fissured concept that centrally occupies his thinking at least from Negative Dialectics to the unfinished Aesthetic Theory. The nonidentical, for (p.131) Adorno, is the irreducible moment within philosophy that opens thought up to its perpetual self-differentiation, rather than providing a way into the absolute. As Adorno writes, a negative dialectic cannot be thought in isolation from decay: “Its logic is one of decay, of the badgered and reified form of the concepts which at first the cognizing subject encounters without mediation. Their identity with the subject is the untruth. With it the subjective preformation of the phenomenon slides in front of what is non-identical in it, in front of the individuum ineffable.”21 The nonidentical exposes itself and its other, identity, to the nonidentity by which they are both touched but to which neither can be assimilated.

While Adorno’s touchstone is Hegel, his own dialectic, as a negative dialectic, differs from Hegel’s in that it refuses to yield the mediation of subject and object, or the identical and nonidentical, to a final moment of identity, a synthetic sublation within totality itself. His thought refuses to assimilate, into the absolute of identity, the irreducible difference that traverses even the concept of difference. While Hegel’s dialectical model, in Adorno’s reading, works to co-opt into its system even those moments of difference and objects of otherness that remain absolutely other to it, Adorno’s thinking self-consciously wishes to remain responsible to what cannot be subsumed, even dialectically, under the concept, the system, the absolute, or totality itself.

In his study of Husserl, On the Metacritique of Epistemology, Adorno illustrates this point. There, he argues that both spirit (Geist) and the given (das Gegebene)—other names for subject and object—to the extent that they are mediated by each other, are equally unreliable as founding principles of a theory of knowledge: “Spirit is as inseparable from the given as the latter is from the former. Both are no first principles. That both are in essential ways mediated by each other makes both equally unusable as ur-principles. If one wished to recognize in such a being-mediated itself the ur-principle, then one would mistake a relational with a substantive concept and would posit as an origin the flatus vocis.” He continues: “Mediatedness is no positive statement regarding Being, but rather a call for cognition not to rest with such positivity, that is, more precisely, a call to perform the dialectic concretely.”22 Motivated as much by epistemological considerations as by ethico-political ones, Adorno privileges a philosophy of negative dialectic that does not pretend to capture the truth more fully than other modes of thinking but that shows itself responsible to the ways in which its pretensions to truth are corrupted and infinitely mediated by a series of presentational dilemmas—such as mimesis itself—and politically inscribed wills to power. The truth of (p.132) negative dialectic is thus the truth of its own impossibility. What remains promising in it is inseparable from the ways in which it does not cease to confront its own limitations. The responsibility of philosophical thought is thus to its own blind spots and contradictions—not to gloss them over but to expose their spectral workings in a world corrupted by falsity and totalitarian impulses. The nonidentical, for Adorno, ultimately names the condition of possibility for thought. The responsibilities and possibilities that the nonidentical opens up, as a form of negative dialectic that turns on its own blind spots, permeates Adorno’s entire mature oeuvre.

If Moses’s image of Adorno’s self-portrait enacts certain dimensions of the nonidentical, it too will not remain identical in its nonidentity. The identity of its nonidentity is itself opened to nonidentity by the existence of a second photograph taken during the same session (figure 2). This second image also was created by Moses. In the second image, which at first glance appears rather similar to the first, nonidentity will not remain self-identical but instead returns with a difference. Here, in an additional layer of self-reflexive mediation, we witness the scene of a portrait of a self-portrait that explicitly comments on itself and its own imagistic gestures and inscriptions. While the posture of Adorno’s image in the mirror is almost identical, his head appears slightly more tilted downward, and his facial expression looks more grim, with the corners of his mouth drooping slightly more. In this second photograph, we encounter an image of the referent whose name is Adorno, a referent who is in the process of turning himself into a self-portrait. Shot from behind what one hesitates to call Adorno’s empirical head, the image self-consciously stages the scene of vision that had accompanied the first photograph as well, albeit there only on an implicit level. While the scene of Adorno’s self-portrait is, in both versions, also about the very process of being looked at—caught—in the act of self-portraiture, the second version makes the dimension of spectatorship more explicit. Spectatorship “outside” the enclosed scene of self-portraiture is implied here by the light flooding in through the window on the left and illuminating the left side of Adorno’s head—a sign of the public sphere intruding upon a private act—as well as by the focus on the medial or technical aspects of this photograph and, by extension, photography itself: the camera, the cable connecting the remote shutter release to the apparatus, and the leg of the tripod that cuts through Adorno’s back to the left of the image. The mirror here appears smaller, displaced from the center of the image, because now the focus is shifting ever more toward the act itself, rather than toward its product. Most important, (p.133)

Afterness and the Image (I)Unsettling Photography

Figure 2 Stefan Moses, Portrait of Adorno’s self-portrait, 1964.

(Image courtesy of Stefan Moses [Munich, Germany])

(p.134) this portrait of a self-portrait is actually the portrait of a double self-portrait. It is the image not only of a self-portrait of Adorno, but also of the photographer, Moses, who is conducting the session and taking these images. After all, his left arm, from elbow to shutter-releasing fingertip, partially appears in the upper-right corner of the mirror. Reduced to his function, the photographer here appears as the disembodied hand that takes images, even images of images, without itself ever becoming a full image. This severed hand taking images, with its fingers performing the decisive action, figures for us, perhaps, as a harbinger—a Moses—of, very literally, the digital age, even though in the 1960s, digital cameras obviously had not been invented yet and the photographer used an analog apparatus.

As viewers, we are invited by Moses to watch Adorno photographing himself and watching himself being watched and photographed by a photographer whose acts of watching and photographing make this scene of watching and photographing available to yet another watching subject who is not in the scene but nevertheless is present and watching (we, the viewers). If the first image of the self-portrait allegorizes a displaced subject-object relation in which the infinite mediation that traverses this relation is staged as an embodied figure of nonidentity, then this second image of the self-portrait delivers an additional metacommentary on the mediatedness of this scene of nonidentity. It is a form of nonidentity that is capable of theorizing itself—staging precisely what for Adorno names the promise of a truly negative dialectic in philosophy, art, and politics. In so doing, Moses’s images open up the scene of photographic self-portraiture as a space of ever-shifting relations, relations without relations, as well as implied or future relations.

To elaborate on this photographic non-self-identity that enacts the relation without relation, we may return from Moses’s photographs to those of Plissart, which thematize in a variety of registers the implications of this non-self-identity. Thus one voice in Derrida’s polylogue on Plissart’s photographs reminds the other voices and us that “Benjamin emphasized that very same thing concerning the detail, namely that the invention of photography and the advent of psychoanalysis concur. Through a strange concurrence in the technical apparatus, more or less at the same moment, you can see Ps and Ph unite: a reading of the significant ‘detail’ in a blowup, in a process of increasing enlargement, of découpage or montage, a reinscription of metonymies, displacement, substitution, restaging, analysis of the figurative function of words in the silent Darstellbarkeit.” Alluding to Benjamin’s, and through him Kracauer’s, analyses of the photographic image in “Little History of (p.135) Photography,” Derrida can be read as delivering a metacommentary, from the perspective of the non-self-identity of the photographic relation, on the Benjaminian concept of the “optical unconscious,” which differentiates between a readability of the ontic world by the naked eye and one that always already is mediated by the téchne of the nonhuman or posthuman apparatus. As such, the photographic machine and its products also join the psycho-prosthetic functions of the other technical devices and apparatuses that Derrida later addresses in the mnemonic terms of Archive Fever.23

If one of the voices in Derrida’s polylogue therefore suggests that “you should speak of these photographs as of a thinking, as a pensiveness without a voice, whose only voice remains suspended,” then it is the searching for a voice without or beyond the voice as presence—indeed, the present trace of an absence—that the photograph encodes. This present trace of an absence, even when it is not immediately recuperable in a dialectical sense as the absence that is merely a distant presence, as the singularity that is but a repeatable difference, would then not present the mere object of a thinking, but the image that gives us thinking itself to look at. Speaking of the photograph as a kind of thinking, a reflectiveness that always strives, as in Heidegger, to think what thinking might mean in the first place, means to think thinking not simply as an extension or amplification of what is thought but as a setting into relation of elements or nodal points that Adorno famously calls a constellation, a setting into relation that does not leave untouched the relation of the presence or absence of what is thought or given us to think photographically. The heterogeneous spectral images of former concentration camp sites by contemporary German photographer Dirk Reinartz, collected in his monograph Totenstill, provide a case in point.24 The blurred photo-paintings of Gerhard Richter (the other one) and their oddly translational yet postmimetically mimetic relation to the photograph add another complex layer of mediation.

Incoming missive: “I am enclosing a snapshot of myself when I was perhaps five years old; at the time the angry expression was put on as a joke, now I suspect it was secretly meant. But you must send it back, it is owned by my parents, who own everything, and want to be part of everything. (Today of all days I had to write about your mother!) When you’ve sent it back, I’ll send you others, including a recent bad and silly one, which you may keep if you like. I can’t have been five years old in this photograph, more likely two; but as a lover of children you will be the better judge. When children are around I prefer to close my eyes. Franz. This would be the most inappropriate moment to ask you to give or lend me a photograph of yourself I just mention it.”25

(p.136) “Concurrence and recurrence, you say,” Derrida writes, “but since what is lacking is the name or noun for it, the idiom, and the country, I see them chase after it. They both pursue and flee the name. They are after it. They come after it, in other words follow it, but, since they run behind it, in fleeing it you see them here depart before it, run to meet it, which amounts to the same thing.” The temporal-spatial disjunction that Derrida puts his finger on, the afterness of the scene of photography, decouples perception from cognition, Wahrnehmung from Erkenntnis, so that something becomes what it is only from the perspective of what it will have been and what it will have ceased to be even before it has become itself. The image’s afterness here is encrypted in its presence-toward-absence, which thereby also is disrupted. To become an image—that is, a true, melancholic image in the deep experiential sense of Erfahrung, rather than in the giddy experiential elation offered by a mere Erlebnis, the splinter in one’s eye that Adorno memorably tells us is the best magnifying glass—also means to encode a future decay, a ruin or trace that is already silently at work in what is: not, however, in the Blochian sense of an aesthetic Vorschein, or “anticipatory illumination,” but in and as a memento mori that every photograph also already embodies. “He is dead, and he is going to die,” as Barthes writes of Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner’s haunting “Portrait of Lewis Payne” (1865), of a handcuffed young inmate in a Washington, D.C., prison waiting to be hanged. As Barthes reminds us, “each photograph always contains this imperious sign of my future death.”26

Incoming missive: “That wonderful, excessively and undeservedly long letter! Dearest, you made me so happy. And with it the picture, strange at first, because of your unfamiliar posture and surroundings, but the longer one looks the more it falls into place, till now, in the light of the lamp on my desk—as in the sunlight of long ago—the dearest face becomes so lifelike that one longs to kiss the hand on the edge of the boat, and does. At that time you looked in better health than you do now; on the other hand—perhaps because of all that well-being—you look extremely sulky. What were you holding? A peculiar little bag? And who stuck the leaves in your belt?… And now you hold out hopes of more pictures. Dearest, you must keep this promise. One can’t tell from the envelope, one rips it open as though it were just a letter … but then one finds a picture inside and you yourself slip out of it, as one fine day I will see you getting out of a railway carriage.… To rid you of all doubts (not for the sake of creating any doubts), I am sending you a flash photograph of myself. It is rather repulsive, but then it was meant not for you but for a power of attorney for the Institute.”27

(p.137) The other-directed polylogue that is photography embodies a discourse that an aesthetics of light-writing, if there is one, can hardly do without. “Therefore,” Derrida writes in Right of Inspection, “a primal scene exists before and after the fall. It belongs in any case to the time of writing on light, to the history of photography … let there be light, the story of the fall, the negative, Lucifer, angels of light and darkness—it’s all there, no more, no less.” It is as though photography were able to capture this primal scene, giving it to us to learn to read, appropriating for itself all the revolutionary force and refractory brilliance with which William Henry Fox Talbot, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century with his photographic “pencil of nature,” developed the process of turning a positive into a negative before it reemerges as a positive.

Unexpectedly, the photograph, a relation without relation, an openness that nevertheless has a form, can be viewed as belonging to the aesthetic or artistic sphere of which Heidegger speaks in his 1935/1936 lecture “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Heidegger’s reflections are concerned “with the enigma of art, the enigma that art itself is. It is not a matter of solving the enigma. The task is to see the enigma [Zur Aufgabesteht, das Rätsel zu sehen]. One has called this reflection, almost from the inception of a separate reflection upon art and artists, aesthetic.”28 The thinking that aesthetic presentation can open up for us is thus not meant to explain and, by extension, to explain out of existence what in fact remains irreducible, singular, and resistant within the work. Rather, learning to think aesthetically, to think with and through the work of art, means learning to see what exactly the enigma or riddle is. Thinking means remaining open to what threatens to make thinking impossible. In other words, it requires a certain humility with respect to the hidden difficulties that gnaw at it—whether they be ossified modes of institutionalized philosophizing, encrusted worldviews that are taken to be selfevident, unexamined ideologies that mistake contingencies for universal truths, or other hidden assumptions that prevent us from seeing the full complexity of what is to be thought and of the task of thinking itself. We could say that the photograph offers us an unexpected mode of seeing that aids us in our task to learn to see the difficulty of thinking. Zur Aufgabe steht, das Rätsel zu sehen: The photograph constitutes a snapshot of our learning how to think and of the myriad difficulties that always conspire to prevent us from doing so. “What greater anxiety is there today than the anxiety before thinking? [Welche Angst ist heutegroßer als die vor dem Denken?],” Heidegger asks.29 This anxiety is brought into the open by the photograph. The (p.138) photograph neither celebrates nor eradicates this anxiety. Instead, the photograph gives this anxiety over to reflection by exposing it.

The other-directed polylogue called light-writing therefore can be thought of as taking place in the pictorial scene of what Heidegger calls a Lichtung, or “clearing”: not an illumination per se, since the flash always also blinds, but the stage that provides just the right conditions—fleeting, finite, precarious, mortal—in which the intricate dance of light and darkness is given the opportunity to open onto a serious play of significations. The ecstasy and tragedy that Kafka, Derrida, and Moses frame are the blurred focal points of a snapshot that, in its theatricality and other-directedness, knows no common measure with the certainty of hermeneutic closure. In its elusive afterness, the photograph smiles, knowingly, even when it grimaces, and speaks of its pain and deferral even when it appears to be joyously and fully itself. As Kafka tells us, photographs are “wonderful,” photographs are “indispensable, but they are torture as well [aber eineQual sind sie auch].” Viewed from this perspective, a photographic afterness shares something of the experience that suffused Derrida’s last words on October 8, 2004, relayed by his son Pierre at the grave and that now conspire to yield an image of Derrida, not a final or funeral image, to be sure, but another image, a final image without closure, an image of finality that is nevertheless always also just one image among so many others, an afterimage that is no longer and that is no longer simply one. Derrida said: “My friends, I thank you for coming. I thank you for the good fortune of your friendship. Don’t cry. Smile, as I would have smiled at you. I bless you. I love you. Wherever I am, I am smiling at you.”30


(1.) Graham Clarke, The Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 24. Clark’s account should be supplemented by Bernd Stiegler’s recent history of the theory of photography, Theoriegeschichte der Photographie (Munich: Fink, 2006), and by Martin Schulz’s investigation of whether there can be a “science” of the image or only of images in Ordnungen der Bilder: Eine Einführung in die Bildwissenschaft (Munich: Fink, 2005).

(2.) André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” trans. Hugh Gray, Film Quarterly 13, no. 4 (1960): 4–9.

(3.) Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice, ed. Erich Heller and Jürgen Born, trans. James Stern and Elisabeth Duckworth (London: Penguin, 1978), 202.

(4.) (p.234) Jean-Luc Nancy reminds us of this etymology of photography in “Nous Autres,” in The Ground of the Image, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 100–107, here 104.

(5.) Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003); Vilém Flusser, Für eine Philosophie der Fotografie (Berlin: European Photography Verlag, 2000); Geoffrey Batchen, Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001); Hubertus von Amelunxen, “Fotografie nach der Fotografie,” in Fotografie nach der Fotografie, ed. Hubertus von Amelunxen, Stefan Iglhaut, and Florian Rötzer, with Alexis Cassel (Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1995), 116–123.

(6.) Jacques Derrida, Right of Inspection, with photographs by Marie-François Plissart, trans. David Wills (New York: Monacelli Press, 1998). The pages of this edition, both those containing Plissart’s photographic plates and those containing Derrida’s commentary, are unnumbered. Quotations from this work therefore appear without page numbers in the text.

(7.) Jacques Derrida. “The Deaths of Roland Barthes,” trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, in The Work of Mourning, ed. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 31–67; Athens, Still Remains, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010); Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography, trans. Jeff Fort, ed., with an introduction, Gerhard Richter (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2010); The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); and Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). For a more extensive discussion of the entire range of Derrida’s work on photography, see my “Between Translation and Invention: The Photograph in Deconstruction,” introduction to Copy, Archive, Signature, ed. Richter, ix–xxxviii, 55–64.

(9.) Ibid., 57.

(10.) Ibid., 49.

(12.) A representative selection of this series is now available in Stefan Moses, Die Monographie, ed. Ulrich Pohlmann and Matthias Harder (Munich: Schirmer / Mosel, 2002). This magnificent volume of Moses’s photographs includes numerous essays and other texts by such critics as Ilse Eichinger, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and Alexander Kluge, among many others.

(13.) Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979), epigraph without pagination.

(15.) Ibid., 104–105.

(16.) (p.235) Matthias Harder, “Bilder einer deutschen Gesellschaft: Das fotografi sch-epische Theater des Stefan Moses,” in Moses, Die Monographie, 13–26, here 23.

(17.) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Noonday, 1993), 12.

(18.) An early version of part of the following paragraphs devoted to a close reading of Moses’ portrait of Adorno appeared in Gerhard Richter, “A Portrait of Non-Identity,” Monatshefte 94, no. 1 (2002): 1–9. Long after composing these lines, I found out that my friend Hubertus von Amelunxen, in the context of his meditation on the relays between photography and the figure of the echo, had devoted a paragraph to the discussion of these Adorno portraits, in “Das Echo: Zu einem Zustand der Fotografie,” Fotogeschichte 40 (1991): 31–39. I thank Hubertus von Amelunxen for making a reprint of his illuminating essay available to me and am glad (and amazed) to see that there appears to be such a strong, quasi-objective pull in the logic of the matter itself, a pull capable of being shared, invisibly, by a community of kindred spirits.

(21.) Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970), 148.

(22.) Theodor W. Adorno, Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie, in Gesammelte Schriften (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997), 5:32.

(23.) Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

(24.) Dirk Reinartz, Totenstill: Bilder aus den ehemaligen deutschen Konzentration-slagern (Göttingen: Steidl, 1994).

(26.) Barthes, Camera Lucida, 97. Derrida expands on Barthes’s conjunction of photography and death when he writes that it is the modern possibility of photography (whether art or technique matters little here) that combines death and the referent in the same system. It was not for the first time, and this conjugation of death and the referent did not have to wait for the Photograph to have an essential relationship to reproductive technique, or to technique in general, but the immediate proof given by the photographic apparatus or by the structure of the remains it leaves behind are irreducible events, ineffaceably original. … By the time—at the instant—that the punctum rends space, the reference and death are in it together in the photograph. (“Deaths of Roland Barthes,” 53)

(28.) Martin Heidegger, “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes,” in Holzwege (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1980), 1–72, here 65.

(30.) Derrida’s last words were first recorded for us by David Farrell Krell, “Shudder Speed: The Photograph as Ecstasy and Tragedy,” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 37, no. 4 (2004): 21–37, here 21n.1. Krell’s essay also represents a fine meditation in its own right on various experiential and conceptual aspects of photography.