It seems, to me, completely appropriate—or oddly rash—for us to enter into correspondence under the heading suggested by Foto Colectania: ‘Reading images’. Appropriate, in the sense that both of us dedicate a great deal of our time to writing, meaning that the reading/writing duality forms part of the basis of our intellectual and ideological output. However, it is also rash, precisely because it is within this gap between reading and writing that many antagonisms (that are not actually so) either slip or plunge—depending upon one’s standpoint: for example, the contrast between author and reader, or between image and discourse.
“in this Benjaminian era par excellence, […] we have borne witness to the appearance of such a rash of authorised readers, set against a mass of illiterate viewers”
There are two questions that, to me, seem crucial when it comes to reading images. One is who is doing the reading, the other is what to say. With regard to the former, I think that Pierre Bourdieu’s old argument, that ‘historicising our relationship with reading is way of freeing ourselves from what history may impose upon us as an unconscious supposition’, still holds true. Or, put another way, universalising individual forms of reading—and any reader, any image and any text are set in a particular historical time—entails a sort of interpretative limbo that is the prelude to a matter I would like to tackle below, one associated with the authority of reading. This is why I have the impression (and you’ll forgive me the obvious joke) that, today, the field of reading images has become imprisoned in a ‘long structuralist summer’: in other words, that there is a contemporary positioning, in my view one that is somewhat messianic and slightly sentimental or petit-bourgeois (forgive me, again, for using such a nowadays passé expression), which consists in standing in front of images in order to extract from them some hypothetical ineffable and concealed message, some arcane secret that can only be perceived by those of a particularly refined sensibility, using a jargon that can equally only be understood by ‘insiders’. Yet it never ceases to amaze me that, in this Benjaminian era par excellence, in which the reproducibility of images is not just a way of producing and distributing them, but their very condition of use, we have borne witness to the appearance of such a rash of authorised readers, set against a mass of illiterate viewers, a select chosen few (rather like in The Matrix) standing before and above the multitudinous rank and file of the image.
I believe it was this to which Georges Didi-Huberman referred—far more poetically, obviously—when he said that the Auschwitz negatives are, in fact, ‘images despite everything’. In other words, if we remove our reading of the conditions under which they were taken, what remains left behind is an amalgam of generic or ahistorical figures, mouldable from any moral standpoint and thus capable of being manipulated in support of one political view or its antithesis.
This is why I feel that it is absolutely necessary we free ourselves, once and for all, from the commonplace according to which we are experiencing a totalitarian inflation of images. Even if we accept that this is actually the case, that we have high-performance technological prostheses allowing us, extremely easily and cheaply, to compulsively produce and distribute images, it is no less true that, as a result of this new fear of images, due to this visual hypochondria, old elitisms, optical guidance systems and images with a noble lineage compared with others of humble origin are beginning to worm their way into our collective consciousness.
“we have more than enough reverends of the image, that I am exasperated by the sheer number of parapsychologists bent on cheerfully decoding what is not seen but should be seen and said about an image”
Hence the earlier mention of faded structuralism, since, as Bourdieu suggested in a conversation with Roger Chartier, which I have attached and which is well worth reading, from the structural dust regarding the definitive and foundational reading of the image rose this reactionary sludge with regard to the values of visuality. And, in much the same way (and once again begging your pardon for my vehemence) I would like to make it clear that we have more than enough reverends of the image, that I am exasperated by the sheer number of parapsychologists bent on cheerfully decoding what is not seen but should be seen and said about an image, that when we read images we are by no means entering into a previously-sterilised hermeneutic operating theatre of perfect interpretation or into a confessionary where we shall find redemption for our sins of interpretation. Quite the opposite, in fact: those very social, cultural, political and historical conditions under which we have been moulded as readers are those that read the images with us, and perhaps the only way of freeing ourselves from these influences is to be aware of them, to critically consider what their imperatives are, to put them into proportion and question them, and not fall into the trap of that most vacuous of mysticisms, becoming so very pleased with ourselves and our ability to grasp that which others—the Lumpenproletariat of the image—are unable to perceive and which lies beyond the reach of their witless faculties.
This being said (and after taking a deep breath), let me assure you that I have not forgotten the second issue I mentioned to you, on what to say, which is—in my view—a considerably thornier one.
We are talking of reading images, which leads use to two fields particularly tangled with the aforementioned thorns: that of interpreting and that of understanding. I would like to distance myself at this point from certain recent approaches to visual reading, which either hold that there is a certain balance to be maintained between what is comprehensible and what is incomprehensible about an image, or advocate that everything about an image is discursive, everything is sayable. Let me explain this another way, using specific cases.
If we analyse the argument between Susan Sontag and Sebastião Salgado regarding the legitimacy of photographs in terms of being honest or dishonest about the pain that they portray, we see that this is a specifically moral issue, a controversy that revisits, under different scenarios, Catholicism’s doing good and evil, the figures of the educational demiurge and the shepherd of souls. Naturally, I have much more sympathy for Sontag but, at the same time, I believe they are both putative children of interpretative redemption, of that metaphor of the author as an authority employing a steam hammer to ram home a truth that is worth holding onto, considering and imitating.
At the opposite extreme, that of a kind of postmodern decategorisation, there is a celebration of the fact that we finally find ourselves at the ‘great shindig of categories’, that utopia where all arguments are one and vice versa, without this meaning that any of us need to make a commitment or feel singled out.
From this perspective, the fabled ‘post-truth’, rather than striking me as a correction of the hegemonic Truth with a capital ‘T’, appears to be just the opposite: that is, a subdivision of what is truthful for all tastes. Here, I can’t help but adapt Marx when he spoke of capital ‘as its own enemy’ as, in a way, post-truth appears to me to be a likeable and easily digestible synecdoche of that other Truth, which is always found to be pressing down from above.
Given all the above, I suggest—and I don’t know what you think about this, Mercedes—that, in the argument about what ethics we should employ with regard to the production and interpretation of images, but also in light of the ecumenism according to which, basically, anything can be said about them (and this discursive pervasiveness could be a new condition for the contemporary image), I feel that new ways of reading images could be taking shape, ones that do not entail apologetic intellectualism or argumentative furore, that do not involve the myth of deciphering or that other hogwash encouraging us to question all judgements.
“What should an author, an image, seek—brilliance or accuracy?”
Mediation, one of today’s great socio-aesthetic keywords, and its second cousin, empowerment, are placing us in a mechanism that, when transposed to the world of images, places them within some very out-of-touch frameworks, transforming them into places where we ‘measure’ our critical vocabulary, where we show off or acquire the ‘power’ of being listened to.
I’m drawing near to my conclusion, but, before I get there, I would like to remind you of a book that I read some years ago: one that, as clichéd as it may sound, drastically changed my view of what it means to read. It is a book not about images, but about literature: nonetheless, I believe that all the arguments it makes can be of use to us, at least as we begin to consolidate our opinions. I’m referring to La cena de los notables (2008) by Constantino Bértolo, someone who I resort to, from a distance, when I have ‘problems of understanding’, in other words, the kind of figure that used to be called a mentor. Well, within the book, Bértolo offers an example, in reference to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, to illustrate something that I, personally, find most interesting about reading images. What should an author, an image, seek—brilliance or accuracy? In light of all the unknowns arising in all photography, should the photographer and the interpreter, the author and the hermeneut, choose to be dazzling, or to be intelligent?
There is a ‘pact of responsibilities’, to once again borrow a term from Constantino Bértolo, between image, author and reader. A concord that, far from soothing, activates all the tools lying scattered there on the table: language as a collective heritage, the political and historical conditions of reading, the documentary statute managed at that time, etc. This is what I understand by ‘reading images’: assessing, measuring, sounding out, propagating or dissenting from all the above circumstances. This is why, instead of a certain narcissism that may seem wedded to reading, I feel that reading fosters a general opening outwards, an encounter not with what the images are, but with what they represent and document. So, reading images would mean, as La cena de los notables puts it, ‘learning to understand the keys to these depictions of the “other”’.
Let me conclude, my friend, with a kind of pompous conviction that I hope does not sound too bad to you. I believe that images do not teach you to read reality, but the other way around: that it is reality that teaches you to read images, without losing or suspending your judgement, to use that old Kantian trope. Or, put more simply, to read images is, I believe, to fight against everything that, instead of providing a complex reading, aims to mislead. I hope that we may be able to establish, in our forthcoming letters, why, where and how we went astray.
 Georges Didi-Huberman: Imágenes pese a todo. Memoria visual del holocausto, ed. Paidós, Barcelona 2004
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