24 September 2012

The Half-life of Ephemera

Or: That which we have now, having never been (Slight return)

Something that used to happen to me fairly often, but hasn't in a long while...

Acquiring a book from either a library or a second-hand bookstore, books that had passed through other hands. A photograph found between the pages, or falling out from someplace therein. A photographs no doubt having been haplessly placed there as a bookmark many years or decades previously, before the reader had returned the volume to the library or sold it off to whomever.

One of these I can remember quite well. A black & white snapshot, with the blank white frame of a border. A man and a woman leaning against the side of a broad and bulky car. Behind them, beyond the car, a few homes marking the point where a short stretch of residential block gives way to an open vista, the road receding to the horizon over a terrain of rolling hills. The model of the vehicle and the man and woman's hair and clothes suggest that the photo was taken no later than 1952. The landscape and the sky have me thinking the location might be the outskirts of San Francisco or possibly Seattle -- some place like that, someplace coastal and right off the water, in California or the Pacific northwest, back when large portions of that region were still thinly and spottily populated, when many of the roads had only recently been laid down.

 Despite the fact that someone had them stand against the car -- to stop just here for a moment, so that someone could capture an image of the occasion -- they position themselves toward the camera quite loosely, but can't really be bothered to fully, formally face the camera. Their posture is relaxed and casual. The man grins, the woman appears to be on the verge of laughter. The way they are interacting suggests that they are something other than lovers or man and wife. Perhaps instead an old dear friend or sibling was visiting from elsewhere, making the rare trek across a large expanse of the country, for a few days of catching-up and spread over several days. With the photo having been taken in that last hour before the visiting party had to say goodbye, departing homeward.

At one point a had a small collection of these photos, amounting to only a few. Don't know at what point -- in which move or purging -- I lost them, but I had them for a while. I kept them as I had encountered them, as physical objects; as flotsam from other people's lives that had been unintentionally (one assumes) set into indeterminate circulation. The sort of photos you look at and deduce what you can from the information they contain. The sort of photos you look at and wonder: Who are -- or were -- these people? What did this moment mean to them? Where are they now?

* * * * *

Susan Sontag, from her 1977 essay "the Image-World," as it appeared in On Photography. Between the citations of Feaerbach, Plato, Proust et al., and amidst the urgent coldness of her analysis as she proposes the need for an "ecology of images," a few pertinent observations...
"Photography is acquisition in several forms. In its simplest form, we have in a photograph surrogate possessions of a cherished person or thing, a possession which gives photographs some of the character of unique objects. Through photographs, we also have a consumer's relation to events, both to events which are part of experience and to those which are not -- a distinction between types of experience that such habit-forming consumption blurs. A third form of acquisition is that, through image-making and image-duplicating machines, we can acquire something as information (rather than experience). Indeed, the importance of photographic images as a medium through which more and more events enter our experience is, finally, only a by-product of furnishing knowledge dissociated from an independent of experience." 
 And slightly later:
"It is as if photographers, responding to an increasingly depleted sense of reality, were looking for a transfusion -- traveling to new experiences, refreshing the old ones. Their ubiquitous activities amount to the most radical, and the safest, of mobility. The urge to have new experiences is translated into the urge to take photographs: experience seeking a crisis-proof form." 
 And later still:
"Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality, understood as recalcitrant, inaccessible; of making it stand still. Or they enlarge a reality that is felt to be shrunk, hollowed out, perishable, remote. One can't possess reality, one can possess (or be possessed by) images...one can't possess the present, but one can possess the past."

* * * * *

Some random thoughts above, prompted by the circulation of this bit that recently appeared on The Society Pages, a piece about "The Faux-Vintage Photograph" and the recent popularity of cellphone camera filtering apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic. Many of author Nathan Jurgenson's emphasized points are obvious ones, and serve more to summarize consensus since they've been made by others elsewhere: By artificially "aging" images the app endows the resulting photos with an auratic "faux-authenticity," Instagram makes everyone's photos look alike, the novelty and effect of the app all-too-quickly nullifies itself through ubiquity and overuse. New Yorker contributor Ian Crouch summed up a fair number of these points far more succinctly when he wrote about the app this past spring:
"It might be said, though, that all Instagrammed photos emphasize photography as an elegiac or twilight art, one that rushes and fakes the emotion of old photographs by cutting out the wait for history entirely, and giving something just a few seconds old the texture of time. We are creating a kind of instant nostalgia for moments that never quite were." 
That last part perhaps pinpointing what Jurgenson was trying to address with the "Nostalgia for the Present" notion his essay's third portion, at which point he gravitates to an cultural obsession with documenting and "sharing" and archiving, a compulsive mode of behavior that has come to supplant personal experience. All very Spectacle 101, of course; except that in this scenario, it's not being handed down through legitimate (i.e., sanctioned and monied) media channels and pipelines, but in the realm of a "democratized" media landscape in which each person -- providing they have the access to the technology -- is their own channel and broadcaster.

Some of the more interesting ideas fall in the essay's second part, "Grasping for Authenticity." Firstly, it's the point at which Jurgenson enlists Jean Baudrillard, bringing -- if only by way of inference -- the French theorist's notions about hyperreality into the discussion. Which, yes, is appropriate enough for the topic at hand, since we're talking about a mode of representation aestheticizing itself; or in this instance, a means of mediation doubling back on itself, interpolating back into its own evolution by way of technological mimicry.*

But perhaps it'd be worth reaching further back in the theorist's ideas, back before Baudrillard became Bauldrillard™, to an earlier stage of his writings. In his first book, The System of Objects (1968), Baudrillard sought to subject the politcal economy of the postwar boom in consumer goods -- the "proliferation of everyday objects" in an age of middle-class affluency -- to a sort of Barthian semiotic critique. Amidst his proposed "sociology of interior design" and furnishings, Baudrillard at one point took some time out to discuss how antiques factored in as far as the flood of "all mod cons" lifestyle options.

The antique, Baudrillard argued, is a "marginal" (or at least marginalized) object in the deluge of mod furnishings, existing as an "exoticism" or a fetishized "primitive object" to the degree that its quaintness and aestheticized outmodedness embodied "previous cultural systems." In this respect, Baudrillard argued, the antique had a "double meaning;" signifies on a dual and contradictory level in the political economy of manufactured consumer goods. Its symbolic value is "mythological" to the degree that its value generates more from the ideas of origin and authenticity rather than that of mere function or utility. As Baudrillard states at one point, "The tense of the mythological object is the perfect: it is that which occurs in the present as having occurred in a former time, hence that which is founded upon itself, that which is 'authentic.'"

But perhaps the more pertinent remarks occur in footnotes to the Baudrillard's discussion of antiques, where he observes:
"Just as naturalness is basically a disavowal of nature, so historicalness is a refusal of history masked by an exaltation of the signs of history -- history simultaneously invoked and denied."
And slightly later, in relation to exoticism and the notion of origins:
"The fascination for hand-made items or native products, for bazaar items from all over the globe, arises less from their picturesque variety than from the anteriority of their forms or their manufacture, and from the allusion they contain to an earlier world -- invariably a throwback to the world of our childhood and its playthings."

* * * * *

At any rate, we weren't talking about antiques originally, we were talking about photographs. What's more, we weren't talking about photographs as such, but rather about digital snapshots. Meaning that we were talking about something that doesn't exist as a personal, tactile, material object that gets passed from hand to hand, but rather about a profusion of user-generated ephemera that circulates in the democratized realm of social media. It's this matter of physicality, or the lack of, that Jurgenson addresses in the essay's second part:
"Physicality, with its weight, smell and tactile interaction, grants a significance that bits have not (yet) achieved. The quickest way to invoke nostalgia for a time past with a photograph is to invoke the properties of the physical, which is done by mimicking the ravages of time through fading, simulated film grain and scratches as well as the addition of what appears to be photo-paper or Polaroid borders around the image. [...] That an old photo was taken and has survived grants it an authority that the equivalent digital photo taken today cannot achieve. In any case, that the faux-vintage photograph aspires to physicality is only part of why they have become so massively popular."
Or perhaps the popularity the app is simply because it provides a way of dressing up the shittiness and sterility of most cellphone snaps.

But returning to where I started up there at the top. Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida wrote about photographs in relation to narrative, history, memory, and mortality. Materiality didn't enter into his (or Sontag's) account, because it was a given -- the most common form in which photographs circulated, at the time. With Barthes, these matters of history, memory, and mortality all imply the same thing, that being a sense of loss in one form or another. Perhaps it is a sense of loss -- however small it might be -- informs the Instagram aesthetic of artificial aging, insofar as it (and similar apps) endow an image with a simulated aura of material origin, lend it a fictive history.** It is maybe that materiality constituted not only something of the photograph's aura, but also something of its essence. The way in which the residue of a life -- as captured/recorded by oneself or another -- is given not only documentation, but also its own small claim to mass, weight, and volume. An experience given substance, given tangibility, or some slight degree thereof, in a way that serves as a reassurance of our own corporeal existence, perhaps. Given form or body enough to serve as a makeshift bookmark, weight enough that it could much later -- and by sheer change -- tumble out of that same book and into the hands of someone else. A small fragment of a life unintentionally set adrift, eventually -- and randomly -- finding its way into that of another.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

*  Baudrillard's notion of hyperreality is the one point in his writings that most reveals his indebtedness to the work of Marshall McLuhan, particularly McLuhan's "the medium is the message" rubric. In the case of something like Instagram, McLuhan's idea proves especially apt.

**  In the world of art and antiques, this is effectively a matter of an acquired versus an applied patina.

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