Unreal Nature

June 28, 2017

The Activation of the Idling Picture

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:38 am

Barthes recognized the shape, the negative space, of absence, and sought the image to fill the space.

This is from The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space by Mary Price (1994):

… The concepts of absence, negative space, and the idling machine are all telling metaphors for an aspect of seeing. In the vocabulary of sight as well as in the vocabulary of literary criticism, the concept of “negative” is significant. Artists use the term negative space to mean the space between things where nothing is, between solid volumes, a space like the memory gap that holds a sufficiently precise outline so that none but the missing word will fill the gap. Only the exact shape of absence can be remarked. The boundaries of solids not only define the solids but define the space the solids exist in. If clouds in the sky are foregrounded in attention, the space visible between clouds is negative. One can learn to see negative space as shape.

The phrase “negative capability” was invented by Keats to mean a state “when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” It is better, according to Keats, to reach for the “fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery” than let that go in order to construct the whole, which in any case remains mysterious and unknowable.

[line break added] The “irritable reaching after fact & reason” is that necessity for completion, connection and generalization or abstraction that cannot be absolutely reconciled with the uncertainties and mystery of the individual and particular. The uncertainties of reality contrast with models constructed to correspond to reality. Models inevitably simplify. Keats is saying let the uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts remain.

In Roland Barthes’s peculiar search for the photograph that would recall his mother to him after her death, he rejected all of the apparently realistic photographs left from his knowledge of her lifetime. He chose, as the use he required of the picture taught him the meaning, that picture of his mother when she was five years old. This act of choice recalls Wittgenstein’s metaphor of a machine “idling” as a paradigm of potential movement from which the impulse or lever to start has not been activated.

[line break added] Barthes’s search is an instance of the engine idling until the one picture activates the full flood of feeling and memory. Barthes recognized the shape, the negative space, of absence, and sought the image to fill the space. It is a sign of our times that Barthes looked for a photograph. Beyond the fact that many photographs of his mother existed, he sought the verification of her being that only a photograph could give him. He wanted something beyond “simple resemblance,” something only he could provide and the existence or effect of which he could never prove.

[line break added] The evidence was the authentication of her existence. For Barthes the point was of crucial importance. The something beyond “simple resemblance” was the aura without its object. The activation of the idling picture within his own startled attention could not be foreseen. He did not know for what he was looking, until one among the photographs he examined could give it to him.

My most recent previous post from Price’s book is here.

-Julie

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