‘The look that gropes the objects’: Derrida’s Photographs

‘The look that gropes the objects’: Derrida’s Photographs


Permit me to begin with a few snapshots; allow these to develop for you; bear them in mind; keep them in sight. I shall not return directly to these, but would merely like to offer these to your view:


There can be no photograph that is not about mourning and the simultaneous desire to guard against mourning, precisely in the moments of releasing the shutter and of viewing and circulating the image. What the photograph mourns is both death and survival, disappearance and living-on, erasure from and inscription in the archive of its technically mediated memory.

Gerhard Richter


We think that which is the most universal in us starting from the most singular.


I do not project on the body of the other an “I think,” but I apperceive the body as perceiving before apperceiving it as thinking. The look that gropes the objects is what I see at first: I see a body that articulates itself in the same objects as I do.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty


And finally, two lines from a poem by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska:


When I pronounce the word Future,

the first syllable already belongs to the past


Still, as she also observes in ‘The Day After—Without Us’, ‘The next day / promises to be sunny, / although those still living / should bring umbrellas’.



It happens frequently that I write without seeing. I begin this essay, that chapter, this keynote, that lecture, without knowing a destination, without being certain of a heading, without seeing my way. I have no ultimate image in mind, nothing has developed. So, I step over a threshold, venturing forth as it were, ‘alone or disconnected in a poorly delimited space’ (MB 3). I wait to see what exposes itself to me, what will—what might, there being no guarantees—come to light. Today’s presentation is no exception to this process, this trial. When one writes, one remains in a dark room until something reveals itself, though all the while ‘remain[ing] silent and exposing [itself] in silence…’ (A169), however haunted by the ‘[i]mminence of the tongue or of language’ (A 170).

One is invited to give a keynote, but the invitation, you know, is too an injunction, a command, it bears in it an authority, before which one can only accept or refuse. There is responsibility either way. This is given. The invitation issued, the acceptance returned, I then remain without decision until the moment comes when I am asked for a title. I will have been thinking, here or there, now and again, of possible subjects, but without any particular decision. The call for a title, and an abstract arrives, and so I find myself having to commit myself. There is a small crisis, a decision to be reached. I have to speak, I must write. Having already committed myself, I have to commit to that commitment. And I say, I write, at first, ‘Derrida’s Photographs’, which will have become, I hope, a ‘written archive’, a ‘graphic memory of this birth of light’ (A 171). Like the photograph, the keynote ‘marks a date’; it belongs ‘irreducibly…to the photographic effect’ (A 174). It’s time, its delays, deferrals, supplement to the call: all the work of a difference so as to present an image of the ‘one time alone [une seule fois]’ (A 174). Except that, even this becoming marked by a date, this ‘one time alone’ is not one sole moment, no singular instant that is not, itself, troubled from within by a certain photographic imminence, and, with that, a ‘waiting without horizon, this waiting that does not know what is coming’ (A 175). How will you receive this? Will you receive it at all? How will you represent this to yourselves? We, each of us, arrive, having taken time to develop in silence that which is already imminent, and each singular presentation ‘becomes, and there is nothing fortuitous about this, the metonymy of all possible acts (in the sense of the event and of the archive that records [prend acte] and preserves memory’ (A 175). The photograph is no mere metaphor here. It reveals the very logic of the event, a conference such as this—and such a conference! Over 200 delegates, here on these days, now and now and now, tomorrow and tomorrow, and on no other days than these—the conference is the consequence of the photograph, its logic, its imminence, its archive.

Derrida’s photographs: why this rather than another phrase? from whence it might have arrived, how it might have arisen? I do not know, in all honesty; this is, I believe, the truth. I am trying here to reveal what we all know to be ‘dark, obscure, nocturnal’ (A 172). And this phrase, not quite a sentence, not yet an idiom, certainly less than focused: what does it give me to say? There still remains that which is ‘not yet arrived, imminent but not yet fully developed’ (Naas WASC 97) When I wrote, to Lynn Turner, to Nicole Anderson, ‘Derrida’s Photographs;’ did I have in mind photographs of Derrida? At the time, I was certainly looking at, looking for certain photographs of Jacques Derrida, for another keynote, on experiment, experience, and the proper name. To make things clearer, to give you a ‘stereotype’, that is, in stricto sensu, a firm ground for a particular image, a substrate from which the image might develop and be reproduced so as to give you a view of the situation, the photographs were at hand because I was preparing a PowerPoint presentation, in order to make a point, open a perspective, a point of view, on the proper name.

But if, in the case of this somewhat unfocused locution that forms part of my title I am not referring, I do not mean to say, photographs of Jacques Derrida (the ‘of’ suggesting Derrida’s image rather than any photographs he may have taken, if indeed he did, I have no knowledge on this subject), then, perhaps a little more elliptically, I pause to reflect on what I might mean. Is it that I find myself wanting to speak to, and so address, those photographs Derrida writes about, perhaps concerning myself also with the idea of the photograph, the idea of what photographs are, what they do or do not do, in a number of texts, Athens, Still Remains, ‘The Deaths of Roland Barthes,’ Copy, Archive, Signature, Right of Inspection? No, as fascinating as these texts are—and as central as they seem to be to Derrida’s work, as Michael Naas, David Wills, and Gerhard Richter have argued so cogently, and in a much more eloquent manner than I am able to do—they are not what I believe myself to be searching after. Allow me to offer you snapshots of the points of view proffered by Naas and Wills, before, and as a means of, focusing, and diminishing the quality of bokeh that insists here.

In ‘“Now Smile”: Recent Developments in Jacques Derrida’s Work on Photography’, Michael Naas posits that the


theory of photography that Derrida develops in a series of soon-to-be-published or newly translated works centers around questions of the singularity and repetition of the trace, the inevitable deferral, time delay, or time lag of the photographic image, the difference between the now that marks the taking of the photograph and the now that marks its development, in short the very question of time and of the now in general.[1]


Derrida’s reading of photographs and photography proposes a ‘sophisticated and provocative “now theory,” a thinking of the now (NS 206). It should be obvious that the questions concerning photography are, and have been, at the heart of Derrida’s writing from very early on in his work. Such questions, of trace, deferral, temporality, spacing, difference, these persist, return. Thus it would be a mistake to read Derrida on the photograph as merely some occasional response to the work and demands, requests, of others. As Naas continues, the texts in question are no ‘mere supplement’: ‘one must reckon with the fact that the themes they take up—light, appearance, representation, truth, time, death, mourning, singularity and repetition, the event—are some of the central themes of the history of philosophy itself and thus of Derrida’s reading’. (NS 206).

To risk a cliché that is also a truth, iterable everywhere: for Derrida, photography says without speaking, it announces, everything, and all the rest. You could speak of photographs, Derrida observes in Right of Inspection, ‘as of a thinking, as a pensiveness without a voice, whose only voice remains suspended,’[2] and each and every photograph ‘signifies death without saying it’, to cite Athens, Still Remains. As Derrida continues, ‘Each one…recalls a death that has already occurred, or one that is promised or threatening, a sepulchral monumentality, memory in the figure of ruin’.[3] That structural relation is already at work in Naas’ commentary. For while, in 2010 he wrote that Derrida’s texts were ‘soon-to-be-published or newly translated’, that particular ‘now’ has already come to pass. What we receive, in reading Naas’ words, is a snapshot that is haunted by its own futurity, the iterability of its truth returning to displace its temporal certainty even as its truth remains as the iterable itself, ‘having to keep’, to borrow from Derrida’s introduction to Athens, ‘what it already loses’. (ASR 2)

To write, one might say, is thus to take the shot, to proffer the point of view, to frame the perspective, with all the pensiveness of the moment, the thinking of a time, the focus of which bears its own future, its own mourning…because the now is itself archivable and photographable from the very beginning’. A photographic archive simply attests to the fact that ‘the very phenomenalization of [every] time that is never present except as or through its own archive’. (NS 213) Writing is thus merely the indirect confession and revelation, Aletheia itself, of the truth of photography, the truth in photography. And the truth in photography attests, even as it maintains excessively beyond every now, every discrete temporal moment, the inescapably hauntological condition of Being. Though it had been there all along, the spectre makes itself known in that double ‘instant’, of psychoanalysis and photography read so persuasively by Michael Naas in the essay ‘When it All Suddenly Clicked: Deconstruction after Psychoanalysis after Photography’ (this essay, by the way, could not have seen what was to take place around the date of its publication, written in the dark of an event, the magnitude of which we are still dealing with, it came to find itself countersigned, dated, and so haunted, by the month of its publication in Mosaic, September, 2011);[4] the spectre appears from what Derrida calls in The Truth in Painting a ‘break line’, from which observes Derrida citing Benjamin ‘the first photographs make room for the aura for the last time”’ (TP 179). The concept of the photograph does not simply represent or announce, it causes to appear ghosts, defined by Derrida in ‘The Deaths of Roland Barthes’ as ‘the concept of the other in the same, the completely other, dead, living in me. This concept of the photograph photographs every conceptual opposition; it captures a relationship of haunting…constitutive of every “logic”’ (272) that logic for example disturbed from within by the fact that ‘[w]e are in the past of this step [pas] toward that which is not yet and will never be’ (A 178)

The double moment brought into focus by Naas, and with it, this taking place, this coming to pass that is the haunt of ghosts thus announces a certain ‘birth’ of a particular modernity, which, in its appearance, announces, as if at the same time, its being traced by its own archived revenance, which remains to be captured, however belatedly. Mise en scène, already doubling its time as mise en demeure, exposes the en abyme in its reproducibility. (TP 180).  ‘Spectrality’, Derrida observes in Paper Machine, is ‘at work everywhere, and more than ever, in an original way, in the reproducible virtuality of photography’ (PM 158). No ‘phantasm’ therefore, and ‘thus no spectre [phantasmata] without photography—and vice versa’, as Derrida has it in ‘Aletheia’ (A 177). The photograph gives us, as Gerhard Richter tells us, the suspended trace that bears witness to the voice without or beyond presence, the trace being only that of an absence.[5] Every photograph is a testament, even if it appears to have nothing to do with death and mourning (NS 213). By its structure, the photograph survives me, persisting, remaining in an interminable time beyond the now of its having been taken (NS 213). And this ‘one time’, in archiving, as if in an instant, a loss, is just this ‘singular event [that] can always become the metonymic substitution for all others, this one time for all times’. (NS 214).

In his review of Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography and Athens, Still Remains: The Photographs of Jean-François Bonhomme, David Wills answers indirectly, or at least gives sharper focus to my question concerning the difficulty I was, I am, having with my subject; Derrida’s pieces belong to what Wills describes in the review as a ‘growing series…on questions photographic in the broad sense’.[6] It is precisely this broad sense with which I am seeking to grapple. In his review, Wills produces, with the rapidity of the sensor in an iPhone (other phones are available, but really, why bother…), distilling and condensing Derrida’s variable light waves and the flux of intensity into a series of ‘grabs’, those computer snapshots that show the stored thought, the archive of thinking on questions photographic in the broad sense. Derrida’s photographic provocations come down to the following in Wills’ viewfinder: given the originary divide between archive and preservation of reference, can one presume referential specificity? Is digital photography truly a radical shift, or is its condition imminent in, anticipated by ‘classic photography’? Do not framing, perspective or point of view, exposure, and other techniques, already begin, set in process the translation of reference? Once one accepts the difference of time, are we not then separated from any presumed natural perception, and caught up in a question of the technics of temporality? Is it now even possible to think perception ‘before [as Derrida has it] the possibility of prosthetic iterability’? Doesn’t, Wills asks, ‘a difference in light’ admit the ‘first possibility of the trace, of the archive’, and so on? And finally, do we not have to address how there is a constant negotiation to be engaged with between activity and passivity, along what Derrida terms a ‘differential border’ in every act of visual capture’? (R 269) Not so much seven missiles or seven missives, Wills suggests, as seven books, seven seminars (R 269), to which I would only add, seven lifetimes.

So you see, or I hope you have before you a developing image of the enormity of the problem concerning ‘Derrida’s photographs’, and how to think in the light of Derrida’s multiple exposures. Everything comes into focus, and I receive the photographic series passively, coming to see that no amount of activity can give me any agency in grasping what I see, what is being exposed. Derrida has the last word on the photographs. Derrida will have had the last word. But it remains to be brought to light. The last word is just the image of all that remains to come in the name of Derrida’s photographs. You can read this for yourself.

If there is a break line that opens en abyme this question of the photograph as that which counters every logic, then, as Naas has argued, the photograph, photography, is no mere metaphor in Derrida’s texts. While ‘photography will prove to be one of the privileged models or metaphors available to us in the archives for thinking not just time as delay but the very temporality of the archives…. It is as if, as we will see, the fundamental notions of deconstruction itself could come to light only in a time that was not contemporaneous with itself’ (Naas 83). The photograph affirms in its silence an ‘originary delay’ that cannot be apprehended ‘as an originary presence that is simply put off and then recollected at some later time’ (Naas 86). Understanding this allows us to shed light on a comment of Derrida’s from ‘Force and Signification’: ‘the entire history of our philosophy is a photology’ (WD 27). Hence the question of the photograph, its profound problematic, if only because we are given to see how, in time, ‘there is already photography…there is no time or space before the photographic machine, no nature before technique or technology’. Our perceptions arrive in the light of this belatedly, both as instances, instamatics, polaroids, phenomenological selfies of the Nachträglich, but also, importantly, as so many moments of Nachbilden, reconstructions, reproductions, belated forms, and, to push the strong reading, developing the trace within the image of form, both bilden and bilder, form and image or photograph; so after-pictures, after-images. (And there must be a machine in order for construction to take place [the event, the crisis of trauma, it strikes me, and to add this in passing, is the instant where the psyche becomes blind, returns to that instance of the event, the effect of an hypomnesic dark room wherein the machine retreats, we fail to register the photographic development that affects us, and we believe the effect to be ‘natural’, not part of a reproduction system, a photographic machinery developing with the rapidity of a violent cinematography]). Photography is then, as Michael Naas persuasively develops, not simply metaphor in Derrida’s writing. What it brings to light about time, the supplement, the trace, is, in essence, that which is always already the machinic and differential functioning of the psyche. Our memories are, if you will, photographs, the timings of which, their perspectives, framings, exposures and developments, their lighting, the zones of focus and bokeh, light and dark, that come to be developed, imprinted, printed and reprinted ahead, in the imminence of, and onto each and every perception, coming to pass in the process of memory’s access to the archive, becoming ‘naturalised’, as spectral presence, quasi-living, moving image, representation itself, the referent as méconnaissance. Photography, as Naas suggests, is


a supplement, a technical or technological invention that has brought to light after the fact a structure or possibility that will have been there from the beginning. What we learn here is thus not only something about photography or the trace but something about the very temporality—the Nachträglich or non-concurrent temporality—of supplementarity and, thus, of deconstruction itself. (Naas 94)


I would only supplement this with the suggestion, however provisional, that there is no deconstruction ‘itself’, every ‘revealed’ or ‘exposed’ ‘instant’ of deconstruction, so called, merely the supplementary revenant, belatedly developed, that counters every logic.

So, to take a step back and start once more: a title arrives; it arrived then, now the subtitle, though it showed up first, and I find myself not knowing—I assure you, I promise you, I confess—where this is leading, if it leads anywhere, or if it is merely an underdeveloped, overexposed snapshot, hastily taken and sent out for inspection. What happens? Well, you all know the procedures more or less, some reading, some gestures toward or resembling take place (I won’t say rereading, that would be too presumptuous). A little more than note taking, a little less than reading perhaps. And with this, a writing begins, scrawled or typed, ink or lead. Not this, not that which is developing for you at this present moment—which is a kind of apperceptive auto-portrait, a more or less indirect selfie of some kind (and this is too, a form of photograph, something is coming to light, however dubious the value, merit or worth; something is exposed, something develops). It is as if in taking a snapshot of another, or the other, I had captured myself, or rather the I as camera; I do not see myself, I am blind to the process but I appear, albeit in some indirect or reflected form. This is not unlike what took and continues to take place in a photograph taken by Julia Margaret Cameron of a child, at the request of a friend (the child subsequently died and is said to haunt Cameron’s house, Dimbola Lodge). By accident, in a mirror, Cameron’s camera is captured, Cameron’s camera, blindly, unknowingly captures itself, archiving itself in the process of taking the shot.

Returning to the act of writing, to the photograph that just is writing: what happens is that I write without seeing, hoping to develop something in a dark room of sorts. I am not making any special claims for the singularity of my experience. Like many snapshots, it is all too repetitive, familiar, mechanical, programmed. It is however, to cite Derrida from Memoires of the Blind,


as if a lidless eye had opened at the tips of the fingers, as if one eye too many had just grown right next to the nail, a single eye…. This eye guides the tracing or outline, …it is a miner’s lamp at the point of writing, …the prosthesis of a seer who is himself invisible. The image…is sketched out within me …[co-ordinating] the possibilities of seeing…taking up time rather than space in us…like a code for the nonseeing, but speak[ing] to us, in truth…. At once virtual, potential, and dynamic, this graphic crosses all the borders…its being-in-potential [coming to light]. Later, its form will come to light like a developed photograph. (MB 3-4; emphasis added)


This miner’s lamp. Fantastic image of the eye, the lidless eye, an optical device placed at the point where articulation begins to trace, what is always already underway, which comes in, from, the dark, to illuminate. There is, no mere series of already shifting metaphors or sliding similes gradually giving way to the truth of, in photography, a matter of the hand, of tekhné at work in complex way. What the trope of the eye, the lidless eye encourages, gives us to see, as it were, is the point of writing, the particular point, perspective, invisible at the time, causing to come into sight, to come to light, not writing in the narrow sense but instead, at first a sketch. We do not see writing taking place but there develops in the time of the passage an image, the photograph of writing. The sketch or image, already ‘sketched out within me’ makes possible what is seen after the blind, or nearly blind act of mining. The ‘natural’ phenomenal simile of corporeal synecdoche appears only to be supplemented, the supplement always already imminent, but brought to light, through the light that illuminates itself, of a technology of illumination, the miner’s lamp. The ‘natural’ eye, is no longer one, if it ever was. Without the lamp, the eye could not see. But without the lamp, we could not witness the eye. The machine makes possible perception, there is no natural, immediate perception; neither is there the illusory instant of presence, only the deferral and delay, the temporal Nachbilden of the photograph, the snapshot that this passage is. Without the technological aid, this would be a blind scene of writing, as unseeing as it would be invisible. The eye has at least this double function, guiding in the first place, appearing so as to seem to illuminate the place for, of the outline, and then illuminating later the act itself, as if one were looking at the image of an image in which an image is being sketched, a photograph developed. The eye cannot remain the eye however, both a lamp and exposed by the lamp, its passive activity, active passivity, is focused on. Seeking to read actively, we are the passive witnesses to an experience of ‘acti/passivity’, of passactivity that ‘activity and passivity [that touch together and are articulated along a differential border’ (CAS 12, 17). Derrida’s photographic passage performs the experience it recounts; from the ‘point of view of time, from the point of view’, as he puts it in Copy, Archive, Signature, of taking a view [de la prise de vue]’ (CAS 12). This lamp, this single eye belonging to a blind visionary — you see, don’t you? — appears machinic and unthinking, to make the sketch, the image. It causes it to appear, as if all at once, though taking its time, a duration impossible to measure. Immeasurable because, well, you see, we have go back over what has been revealed; not seeing at the time, we have to look back at what has taken place, what has come to be exposed, what has developed, in order that the form, shifting as it comes to appear, an apparition both slowly and quickly making itself manifest, might ‘come to light like a developed photograph’.

Allow me to re-trace a somewhat obvious sketch of what has occurred, what is occurring, and what keeps taking place, what remains with an abyssal opening to come. Permit me to frame this for you, in an effort to throw the image into relief: eye —finger — lamp — writing — tracing — prosthesis — image — sketched — time —code — virtual — dynamic — graphic — being-in-potential —developed photograph. If I wanted to ask, to sum up, what is going on here? what do I think, what do I imagine I’m seeing? I might be tempted to respond that I (come to) see an image, a graphic outline that sheds light on itself and its constellated traces, while bringing into focus for me, exposing to me, and exposing me to, the development of the (photo)graphic, the virtual, mutable presentation (a performative vision, without referent, which affirms the survival of writing). There is here not just presentation, but re-presentation, re-presentation, to use Husserl’s term, not of representation; for there is no referent here save for the performative unveiling—as if the lines were appearing from below the surface of a chemical bath—of the times of exposure and development. We see, in effect and in practice, ‘the look that gropes the objects’. A certain ‘technics’, more than one, takes place, intervening from the extended moment ‘a view or shot is taken, and beginning with the time of exposure’ (CAS 12). There is neither in this the pure activity of a naive phenomenological perception; nor is there any simple passivity. Activity does not efface passivity, as Derrida argues in Copy Archive Signature, for it is ‘a question of another structure, another sort of acti/passivity…in the opening to (or “aperture”) to light’ (CAS 12). In this passage, the passage that performs the time of photography, we have the archival registration of ‘the trace, of the archive and of everything that follows from it: memory, the technics of memory, mnemotechnics, etc.’ (CAS 16) Thus exposed to our view, put on display, is an act of invention:


…the photographic experience is situated at the internal edge of a division that divides the two senses of the concept of invention: on the one hand, invention as a discovery or a revelation of what is already there […]; and then, on the other hand, invention as a technical intervention, as the production of a new technical apparatus that constitutes the other instead of simply receiving him. So of course there is a concept of photography as the simple recording of the other as he was, as he appeared there, but it is immediately contaminated by invention in the sense of production, creation, productive imagination. (CAS 43).



To continue, another snapshot, taken two years ago, on the tenth anniversary of Derrida’s death, deaths that appear with every instance of the proper name, with every photograph of Derrida. ‘Ten years ago,’ writes Dragan Kujundzic, ‘Jacques Derrida passed on into an image…. Of this image…we know the beginning, but we do not know the end. It opens like an opening of a shutter, marked by a loss, a shudder in the shutter’.[7]  We carry, we bear witness to the image, the shade, the traces of light and dark into which Derrida has passed—into which, in every word, every passage, every snapshot his passage was always already imminent. ‘What does one have in one’s head?’ asks Michael Wetzel, as the final question of the interview published as Copy, Archive, Signature. Starting to answer his own question, but leaving the answer unfinished, as Derrida intervenes, Wetzel observes ‘one has photographs…’ (CAS 54) This is what remains, for us all, always at particular borders, and often seeming, in Derrida’s words, ‘to belong to a previous and internal time, to private space or to a space that is not yet public, …stolen, torn away …[and] all the more precious in that it appears to be aleatory, exposed to its own loss, mortal.’ These will have been therefore Derrida’s photographs, to which, without answer, I expose myself. And, ‘to the extent that I give myself,’:


so radically and irreducibly, to the other, incapable of seeing or even verifying my own gaze as a gift, I expose myself to the expectations that the other imposes on me in an encounter with [the] image. In a gesture of deliverance, I as a photographed self offer myself to an uncontainable economy of subjects and objects that never can be identical with itself or what is external to it.[8]


The understanding of Derrida’s photographs presented by Gerhard Richter captured here in this snapshot of the photographic scene is highly instructive. The gesture of giving is double: at once passive, it is an act of surrendering to the inevitable; yet also it is active, bespeaking a commitment, a response to the call that arrives, a response that is radical and irreducible, and therefore absolutely singular, wholly and totally the other of the other. The subject exposes himself, as Richter puts it, with a kind of nakedness before the gaze of the other, which comes with expectations. Imposition and response. Crisis and decision. The imposition makes its demands, from a point where the other cannot see, is no longer there, is blind, and absent—structurally or radically, not in that place, perhaps not even alive. In this, the self is revealed (to itself, the exposure being of the order of the coming to being of the selfie, phenomenologically grasped) and realizes its own gaze as a gift. This gift is, once more, double. For, on the one hand, the gaze just is that gift which one gives in seeing the other, seeing truly, properly. On the other hand, the sighting, the coming to see one’s gaze for what it is, is also the gift: it ‘gifts’, there is, there, not here, a ‘gifting’ the il y a, the es gibt of the spectral other. And part of the es gibt, the structure of what we might call the donnant donnant of the situation snapped by Richter in this exorbitant, performative scene, is that very ‘uncontainable economy’ of a ceaseless reciprocity, which, far from closing hermeneutically in the photographed mise en scene, stages a mise en demeure which is also, at the same time, from within the same, the opening of an impossible duration, the temporality, if one can say this, of the mise en abyme. There is in play in this particular exposure a ‘given giving’, in which the one cooperates, corresponds, with the other, and comes to see, is given to see, in seeing, the silent correspondence through the passive activity, the active passivity.

Actipassivity or, if you prefer, passactivity captures, as it were, with the fleeting decision of a holiday snap, the negotiation, the give and take, donnant donnant, traced in the apparently paradoxical ‘uncontainable economy’ of which Richter speaks. In this, the self as other, as photographed self develops, comes into the light, being illuminated in the impossible to measure temporality of the photographic act (the gift that keeps on giving). For the self as other, marked and traced, re-presented in the event of the photograph as always already structurally (and eventually, imminently radically) absent, gives itself over / is given over to that ‘uncontainable economy…that can never be identical with itself’.



There is clearly a question of death, the figure too of mortality’s ‘imminence’, as this comes to be captured in the photograph, as the photograph’s ownmost truth, the truth in photography. But this is also a matter of a certain immanence, immanence within and as other of imminence. Imminence is ‘of photography, of the photographic snapshot’. (A 175)  If the time of the photograph is impossible to measure, if it comes to appear in hindsight, if it comes to reveal itself in retrospect as having about it something of immediacy, or an instantaneity that is impossible to measure, then death as a future moment, an ‘instant’ always arriving, a future that is both a certainty and one the moment of which we cannot tell, which we cannot determine.[9] Death is at once haunted by a double exposure: of on the one hand la future and, on the other, l’avenir. Immanence is the negative awaiting development from within the imminence that is death; it is this that comes to light, is always waiting for full exposure to consciousness: photography as the Aletheia of Endlichkeit, not in a nutshell, but in a snapshot. Henceforward, every photograph would bear, as its title and truth, this German, this Heideggerian word. And Endlichkeit is predicated as the imminent-immanence, the one doubling, ‘overprinting’ the other as that which every photograph is: the auto-selfie-instamatic-immanence of and as a negative awaiting development, the ‘negative of a photograph already taken with a “delay” mechanism, the memory of what survived me to be present at my disappearance’. (‘Circumfession’, 39). Already, Jacques Derrida once remarked in expectation of a futurity he would never witness as such, but which, in anticipating the impossible (non-)witnessing, he foresaw as the development of every photograph, for every subject, bearing witness for each of us in our singularity, in our otherness, ‘I catch them out seeing me lying on my back, in the depth of my earth… in prayer, tears and the imminence at every moment of their survival from which “I see myself live” translates “I see myself die,” I see myself dead cut from you in your memories…’ (‘Circumfession’, 39; emphasis added). Thus there is an economy, possibly uncontainable, of the uncanny come to arrive with each and every photograph, the self is pursued, haunted in and by the photographic look. A look without a subject, ‘invisible witness’ (A, 169) that sheds light from the dark on darkness as finitude, remaining ‘still at the heart of the dark abyss from which it emanates’. (A 171)

This is what, as we know, following Derrida, photography attests to, what the technical apparatus makes possible. The ‘invisible witness’ sees and gives to see. (A 171) What is given to see, what the there is, the gift of photography, the truth as Aletheia that photography gives us to see, to each and every one of us, at one time or another, a potentially infinite series of moments, at every moment (for, at every moment there is photography, there is the photograph, in which I recognise the ‘I am’ that follows, belatedly recognising the ‘I am’ as the finitude of Being. Photography, the photograph, as invisible witness belonging to an uncontainable economy, admits that ‘since so long ago…’ before there was any photographic apparatus, any Tekhne as such, some other had been looking at us, I we can say this. What other? The animal, the gaze of which causes Derrida to ask himself ‘who I am…when, caught naked, in silence, by the gaze of an animal’ (ATTIA, 3). One is exposed, one exposes oneself ‘in silence to silence’ (A, 169), just to see…in the insistent gaze of the animal, a benevolent or pitiless gaze…. [an] extra-lucid blind one…. [a]t the optical center of this reflection…this incomparable experience’ (ATTIA, 4).

This, from the opening pages of The Animal That Therefore I Am, is well known, well read, occasionally misread, overread, and already overdetermined from some quarters. It is read, rewritten, applied and followed with all the fervour of the acolyte who follows blindly, or seeing in a limited manner, seeing without seeing, without being able to see the whole picture, staring hard in the dark for the least moment of illumination. Focus too hard, and the detail is missed in this recalled, imagined, re-presented, narrated snapshot. For this is, in recollection, indirectly as a reflection on recollection, the trace, the memory of, as a certain snapshot that crosses, dissolving, stepping across particular frames, parerga, borders, from self to other, from other to self, human to inhuman, Tekhne to human, human to animal to human. Here are the various mise en scènes that Derrida gives us to consider, so many scenes that remain, even as the illuminate from the dark heart of an abyss onto which reflection and the photograph open. Yet, in concentrating on the animal one misses precisely the photographic quality, the aspect, the capture of these recalled moment. Not simply in its being, in its description, analogous with the instantaneity of the snap, but also in the situation of a non-human gaze, a silent witnessing by which the self comes to see itself in the capture of the lens of the other. Narrative frozen in the capture, the taking place of the moment, as scene, as photograph. The animal-camera exposes me to the photograph that therefore I am.  The question of the animal, one of Derrida’s photographs, is also, in a different language, a different register, the question of the photograph after which I (am) follow(s). Both animal and photograph reveal to me, expose me to the sight of my being, to modes of being as ‘being-with’ (ATTIA, 10). And as to what is ‘at stake in these questions….


One doesn’t need to be an expert to foresee that they involve thinking about what is meant by living, speaking, dying, being, and world, as in being-in-the-world, or being-within-the-world, or being-with, being-before, being-behind, being-after, being and following, being followed or being following, there where I am, in one way or another, but unimpeachably near…. After and near what they call the animal and with it—whether we want it or not, and whatever we do about this thing…. the wholly other that call “animal”…. Yes, the wholly other, more other than any other… (ATTIA 11)


As a result of this coming to light, that there is given in the gaze of the animal the exposure to, development of the captured image of the invisible witness which, in silence, renders visible the uncontainable economy, I come to see in my finitude that, ‘as with every bottomless gaze [and what is both more bottomless, more abyssal, than the gaze, on the one hand, of the animal, and the gaze, on the other of the camera?], as with the eyes of the other, the gaze called “animal” offer to my sight the abyssal limit of the human: the inhuman or the ahuman, the ends of man, that is to say, the bordercrossing from which vantage man dares to announce himself to himself, thereby calling himself by the name that he believes himself’.(ATTIA, 12) Far from any logocentrism therefore, ‘man’ [sic] is snapped at the margins of the ahuman, the inhuman by the chance complicity of a zoophotographic / photozoographic technicity, animality as technicity and vice versa.

Is this far-fetched? Am I stretching the analogy too far? Or is the analogy merely another photograph, by which we are given to see from another perspective, seeing ourselves as others see us, even, or especially when the other does not know that it sees as such, or as a human? In tracing an effect of writing, Derrida speaks of the ‘photozoography of a black pigeon’ in Athens, Still Remains, one of the many phantasmata enumerated from a single image. (ASR 23) And twice, of the camera, in his series of stills, Derrida refers to the ‘animal-machine’ set on a ‘Delphic tripod’ (ASR, 13, 21), the two phrases almost precisely the same, as two stills in a sequence taken with some automatic device for the production of multiple frames, so many instances of the instant, the differences within, of the same moment, event or scene.







[1] Michael Naas, ‘“Now Smile”: Recent Developments in Jacques Derrida’s Work on Photography’, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 110:1 (Winter 2011): 205-222; 205-06. All further references are given parenthetically as NS.

[2] Jacques Derrida, Right of Inspection, trans. David Wills, photographs Marie-Françoise Plissart (New York: Monacelli Press, 1998), ix.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Athens, Still Remains: The Photographs of Jean-François Bonhomme, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 2. Hereafter referred to parenthetically as ASR.

[4] Michael Naas, ‘When it All Suddenly Clicked: Deconstruction after Psychoanalysis after Photography’, Mosaic, 44:3 (September 2011), 81-97.

[5] Gerhard Richter, Afterness: figures of Following in Modern Thought and Aesthetics, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 135.

[6] David Wills, Review of Jacques Derrida, Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography and Athens, Still Remains: The Photographs of Jean-François Bonhomme, Oxford Literary Review, 33:2 (December 2011): 267-72; 267. Hereafter R.

[7] Dragan Kujundzic, “Passing the Image: Jacques Derrida Ten Years After”, Oxford Literary Review 36:2 (2014): 230-32; 230.

[8] Gerhard Richter, ‘Unsettling Photography: Kafka, Derrida, Moses’ The New Centennial Review, 7:2 (Fall 2007): 155-173; 161-162.

[9] With the exception of suicides, where the future moment is determined, or at least there is the attempt to determine the moment. However, the temporal logic of the photograph still ‘applies’ in this problematic example.

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