… Baker shores up a wrinkle in what would seem to be the endlessly smooth fabric of abstraction ad infinitum. Call it atavism if you like. (I quite enjoy the perversity of thinking of the implications of embedded DNA that is carried along over generations, but I would like also to challenge the genealogical model, which begs its own set of problems — teleological, patriarchal, ect. …) Perhaps I’d call it something else: deep tissue memory or, even more overdetermined, battle scars.
… against all odds, something exceeds the parameters of “second degree abstraction,” jams the machine that would seem to find a use-value for everything
This is from a forum response by Johanna Burton to a George Baker essay, Photography and Abstraction, in the book Words Without Pictures. I’m not going to give any of the Baker essay (which I didn’t particularly like) but I’m giving Burton’s reaction almost in its entirety because I think it’s good:
I will happily sign on to George Baker’s characterizations of abstraction as it has operated (and now operates) with regard to photography; these are (if I read Baker correctly) signposts, not meant as entirely stable or iron-clad, but postulates, abstractions if you will, that nonetheless hint at the shape of things as they articulate themselves and are articulated (and re-articulated) over time. Such an operation allows us to throw a net, to make sense, if only in order to unsettle it again. My signing on as such does not mean we couldn’t debate Baker’s terms; I would like to discuss with the author, for instance, the ways in which abstraction is not only a “voiding and recoding of objects” but also a wholly necessary tool for human comprehension (as it allows for the illusion of graspability), and the ways in which abstraction flirts with notions of “essence.” But to sign on lets me get to his essay’s big questions, the ones that I want to think about most.
Indeed, here’s what I find so valuable in “Photography and Abstraction”: it’s an experiment in trying to imagine what changes when everything does (but when everything also seems to stay the same). If, five years ago, Baker’s question to himself was “What would an abstraction of an abstraction look like?,” then he was writing from within a context that yielded — in its perfect metaphor of money as abstraction — a force both omnipotent and absent. Looking back at that situation from the one we now find ourselves in, where that very omnipotence and absence would seem to have forcefully inverted [she is writing in December 2008] (though, in fact, there is evidence that they are really only gathering a new kind of speed), Baker shores up a wrinkle in what would seem to be the endlessly smooth fabric of abstraction ad infinitum. Call it atavism if you like. (I quite enjoy the perversity of thinking of the implications of embedded DNA that is carried along over generations, but I would like also to challenge the genealogical model, which begs its own set of problems — teleological, patriarchal, ect. …) Perhaps I’d call it something else: deep tissue memory or, even more overdetermined, battle scars.
But no matter, whether atavistic outgrowth or site of reparation, Baker’s postulation argues that against all odds, something exceeds the parameters of “second degree abstraction,” jams the machine that would seem to find a use-value for everything. Whether these breakthroughs are, as Baker suggests, instances of “true realism” is a question, but they are certainly contradictory, in the sense that they offer up material and historical arguments (which is to say that they are contentious) in their very being. In hauling the past into the present, they insist on a layered futurity, a strangely hybrid heap. Unlike second order abstraction (or to return to a related model, Roland Barthes’s “secondary mythification”), which promises to undo an operation but often-times only redoubles its effects, Baker’s atavism promises nothing at all; but it does believe that things and ideas surface spontaneously, erratically, productively.
Lacan reminds us that “there is nothing missing in the Real,” … That there is nothing missing in the Real we know (and Lacan knew) only because we cannot access the Real; we cannot represent it. That this is the most profound space of the “unrepresentable” does not, however, align photography so neatly with the unconscious, with the traumatic, nor does it mean we should think of the Real as wholly abstract. But there is something important about these overlaps, and about the way they dialogue with Baker’s atavism, a model which, like the unconscious, seems to let previously inaccessible elements drift up and into representation — as in atavism, in unwanted horns, or tails, or feet; and as in the unconscious in slips of the tongue, in dreams, and in desire. …