Sunday, September 16, 2007

Revisiting punctum's puncture

"Then the Meridian said, 'Let us make the Meridian in our own image, after our likeness . . . '"

In the comments section of this post, Conrad of Varieties of Unreligious Experience asks a good question in response to my anxiety resulting from pictures of me that appear to feature less hair than I perceive myself as having: "How about pictures of you in a mirror?" A good question, which this post is a partial response to. In a subsequent post, I'll try my hand at reflecting (no pun) on "us" as it applies to the infinitely-reproducible image.

I: You cannot truly see your own profile. Not in front of a mirror, at any rate.

I took the picture you see here; it is, if I had to say, about six or seven years old. You will have to trust me when I say that I am its maker as well as its subject, for while you see a camera, the image is framed in such a way that you cannot tell that it is by means of a bathroom mirror that that same camera you see here, and not someone else's, is the very mechanism that captured its own image as well as mine.

Two curious things, one more obvious than the other, occur to me as I look at this image more closely. The more-obvious one, to me at least, is that, even though I recognize myself and my camera in the image, what you see here is not what I saw but what the camera saw. If I recall correctly, I had bought the camera earlier that same day and took this and some other, similar pictures in order to experiment with uploading the images to my computer. Those other pictures were, shall we say, less successful: in them, I had no head or only a partial one, or I would be even less centered in the image than I am in this one. What changed in those other images was not my position but the camera's. So: What I see here, even as I look at and recognize myself looking at me, sort of, is, yes, my reflection, but it's more accurately the camera's reflection--its (specular) perspective--on my reflection. The less-obvious thing is something I just noticed only this morning as I have been writing this post: My right index finger in this image is not on the camera's shutter-button. What you see here, strangely, is not quite the image I had told the camera to capture; it's more like an after-image. In that delay of a fraction of a second between the pressing of the button and what you see here, the original moment receded into the past, never to be recovered yet retaining its integrity precisely for that reason . . . and, despite the fact that it itself was "only" a reflection of the thing itself, perhaps it now has acquired its own thing-ness, analogous to a platonic form, via its irreproducibility, and thus its ultimate imperviousness to representation, even in the very moment it came into being.

Still and all, this picture does not undo me as I look at it, and I think that's because this--this basic positioning relative to the mirror--is how I usually see myself in the mirror. But I began to wonder this morning: what if, by these same methods, I had taken a picture of myself in profile? How would I respond to that image? Would I feel the same unsettled feeling that I do when I see images of myself that others have taken?

My initial response is that I would feel more unsettled.

This morning, for purposes of this post, I engaged in a bit of research: I tried to look at myself in profile in the bathroom mirror. It's physically impossible, at least for me, unless I use another mirror positioned at a different angle to see the original reflection. The best I could manage was about a 3/4 turn of the head. But not only is it physically impossible, it defies the very essence of a profile: the subject seen from the side, his/her eyes straight ahead.

Profiles require another agency in order to be genuine.

As two male commenters, interestingly, implied through their comments to the previous post, they are discomfited by pictures of themselves taken by others but take some solace in their reflections in the mirror. I am much the same way. When I see a picture of myself made by someone else, there is space for deniability: "I don't really look like that!" So many people dislike having pictures of themselves made because they feel compelled, more often than not, to have to engage in the dynamic of denial. But when we become the agent by which the picture is made, we lose that space. Assertion becomes a question that is all the more disturbing because it becomes rhetorical in nature: "Is that really how people see me?" The camera's nature--its (presumed) objectivity--by way of reply becomes subjective: "Well, it's what I see, at any rate."

One last, quick formulation:

From this summary of Barthes' Camera Lucida:

The punctum of time, the existence of the dead with the photographed object, forces the photograph into an unreality, a hallucination of sorts: "on the one hand, it is not there, on the other, it has indeed been." (115) It is the paradox that the object must have existed, and yet at the same time, it cannot be there now. The photograph is "false on the level of perception, true on the level of time." When Barthes is struck by a punctum, he "passed beyond the unreality of the thing represented, I entered crazily into the spectacle, into the image, taking into my arms what is dead, what is going to die." It is, he says, madness. Society wants to tame this madness by making photography an art (Barthes says that no art is mad) or by taming it through generalizing, banalizing it "until it is no longer confronted by any image in relation to which it can mark itself." (118) When the image is stripped of its personal, private reading, the potential for madness is gone. When the image is meant to be viewed when flipping through a magazine, it is inert. Society consumes images now instead of beliefs, in order to keep them from reaching madness. (emphasis mine)
Preliminarily, at least, the bolded line prompts me to say this: The reflection is true on the level of perception, false on the level of time. The reflection is the obverse of the photograph.

Later: we'll drag Walter Benjamin into this.


R. Sherman said...

When we met in Wichita and I had the Official Daughter standing with me, she asked, "Do you know what this guy looks like?"

I said, "No, but I've seen his dog." (A photo of you hidden by Scruffy.)

She said, "Why am I here," to which I replied, "Two reasons: To throw yourself in front of the bullet in case things go south and because he'll probably recognize you from my blog."

Her response: "You never post photos of me that look like me."

The fact of the matter is, we never see ourselves as we are. Externally or internally.


Ariel said...

So many people dislike having pictures of themselves made because they feel compelled, more often than not, to have to engage in the dynamic of denial.

What compounds the angst is when someone else looks at the picture you are denying and says, "But...that's what you do look like."

fearful_syzygy said...

Yes, one of the aphorisms from the liner notes to the Talking Heads album Stop Making Sense, if I remember correctly, is "passport photos are what people really look like".

Winston said...

The only photo of me I've ever seen that I thought was good had been airbrushed and doctored -- back in the pre-PhotoShop days -- for use as a publicity shot. Normal snapshots, even ones I have "posed" for, always make me want to hide my head under a bushel.

Ariel's remark reminds me that occasionally I'll see one that is particularly abhorrent, which Roomie will say is "really, really good", or "looks just like you".

John, this exploration could take on a life of its own. It has a Rod Serling feel to it. Twilight Zone redux...

John B. said...

Thanks, all.

Randall, this gradual drip, drip, drip of information regarding our meeting is fascinating, though it's interesting to know that I strike such fear into people who haven't yet met me. Or maybe it's Scruffy who does the striking. But, you're right re the conclusion of your comment: musing on the nature of pictures and reflections is (yet) another way of raising, without, admittedly, solving, the riddle of identity. We're no further along than Oedipus, and it may be that technology (mirrors, too, are a technology), intentionally or not, make that solving just recede more and more.

Ariel, Yup. However, people who see me in pics in which I'm smiling can tell which smiles are genuine, which not.

FS, Yes: Passports and, frighteningly, driver's license pictures. Plain, unadorned, "just the facts" pictures. Here in Kansas, anyway, you're explicitly instructed not to smile for the license pic.

Winston, thanks for the compliment; it made me think as well that there is a bit of Dorian Gray in all of us, I suspect.