Materials against language

At the laundromat today, I was reading _Japanese Photobooks of the 1960’s and 70’s_, and I came across this delightful passage from the manifesto of _Provoke_, an influential publication of the time.

>The image by itself is not a thought. It cannot possess a wholeness like that of a concept. Neither is it an interchangeable code like a language. Yet its irreversible materiality—the reality that is cut out by the camera—constitutes the opposite side of language, and for this reason at times it stimulates the world of language and concepts. When this happens, language transcends its fixed and conceptualized self, transforming into a new language, and therefore a new thought.

>At this singular moment—now—**language loses its material basis**—in short its reality—and drifts in space, we photographers must go on grasping with our own eyes those fragments of reality that cannot possibly be captured with existing language, actively putting forth **materials against language and against thought**. Despite some reservations, this is why we have given Provoke the subtitle “provocative materials for thought.”

I found this notion quite striking. I’m sure it appeals to me in no small part because I find it so hard to combine photography and written language. Writing about photography is incredibly difficult for me. Writing around photography is easy. We do this all the time by taking up peripheral topics like equipment, technique, biography, and social commentary. All of which is very useful if your interest is in being able to make small talk while looking at a photograph, but not necessarily so useful if you want to actually say something about the photograph.

Another popular approach is, of course, to fall back on artspeak, which I don’t do a lot of mainly because I don’t really know artspeak. I’m sure if I was fluent in artspeak, I would make regular recourse to it. Of course, it’s really mostly still talking around photography, but on the plane of abstract concepts rather than the plane of physical facts and realities. These concepts give us handles by which to manipulate the photograph and make it give up its secrets. Or, rather, they appear to do so.

Often, the manipulation of those concepts doesn’t really take us any farther than the recording and recitation of the technical data related to the photograph’s creation. One is fooled in very much the same way as one is fooled when one thinks, “If I use the same camera as he did, and the same settings, and stand in the same place, I will make the same photograph.”

Of course, there are also photographs which can be truly and exhaustively understood with recourse to mere ideas, just as there are photographs which can be truly and exhaustively understood with recourse to mere technical details. But both types are essentially worthless, except insofar as they can be sold for money.

All of which is just to say, I am used to thinking of language as inadequate for describing and understanding photography. But that _Provoke_ manifesto–I’m not sure that I had ever thought of the photographic image as being or becoming the _enemy_ of language. It is immensely appealing in the way that anything which explains away an incapacity is appealing. And it is, in a peculiar way, rather optimistic, presuming the authors were serious about the prospect of a new language and a new thought emerging.

However, I think I rather approach which I had relied upon previously, and that is Simone Weil’s way of interpreting our speechlessness in the face of art:

> Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.

But I have always been susceptible to mysticism…

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