But what is so exceptional about these images? How do they open up another way of thinking about photography? How are they photography not in the mode of simulation but seduction? One of the common, though at first surprising, remarks Baudrillard makes about photography throughout his writings is that photography is fundamentally not representational, or at least representation in the sense of mimetic resemblance is not fundamentally what is at stake in it. As he says: “Between reality and its image, exchange is impossible. There is at best a figurative correlation”. But it is an “impossible exchange”24 – which as we know in Baudrillard is not simply to say it does not happen – that takes place at the moment of the pushing down of the shutter or the printing of the negative, when either the subject is absent from the object or the object is absent from the subject. That is to say, if this exchange does take place in photography – and here the subtle difference from before – it is between the absence of the subject and the absence of the object: “[Photography] is, in a sense, an invocation – an invocation to the Other, to the object – to emerge from the disappearance [of the subject]”.25 Or, more specifically, in a formulation that runs throughout Baudrillard’s work, it is a matter of “making the object, on which the subject’s presence and representation are imposed, the site of the disappearance of the subject”.26 But, again, what could Baudrillard mean by this idea of the object standing in for the disappearance of the subject? Or the exchange between the subject and the object (which is what we think he means by the “imposition” of the subject on the object) as only possible because of the disappearance of the subject? What would be implied by this, and how is it different from that mirror-like or reciprocal relationship between subject and object we saw previously?
We might briefly try to explain here by looking at our chosen photographs. In the photo from Suite vénetienne, it is that moment from the pursuit when the man turns to confront Calle, suddenly aware that he is being followed, when at once Calle succeeds in imposing her will upon him and it is still possible that he is not actually aware of her. In Delahaye, we again have a photo of mutual “eyes closed”,27 to use Baudrillard’s words to describe Suite vénetienne, in which we at once see and are not seen. Literally there in the reflection of Delahaye on the man’s sunglasses, there is a kind of “imposition” of the subject on the object and the man does not appear to see the photographer sitting there opposite him. Finally, to take just one example from Baudrillard’s own work, there is no more perfect an illustration than Punto final of this idea of trying to photograph our own shadow, as in Suite vénetienne, or that which seems to reflect us, as in Delahaye, but all this only because of a certain disappearance of the subject, the subject inscribed as an absence in the visual field (as Calle is to be seen in that upraised arm of the man in Suite vénetienne or Delahaye in the black sunglasses in L’Autre). In each case here, what is miraculously brought together is those two alternatives excluded by that other conception of photography: that of the subject being able to look at the world as though from somewhere outside of it and the absolute equivalence of the subject and the object. As Baudrillard says, for example, of Delahaye: “To do this the photographer must be both non-existent and at one with the people he or she photographs”. (And this might also be why Baudrillard always teams up the expressions “I’ll be your mirror!” and “I’ll be your favourite disappearing act!” throughout his writings on photography.28)
Could we not say that these photos move us so deeply because — to use a psychoanalytic language that is perhaps not so far from Baudrillard — they stage a fantasy? It is the fantasy of seeing the world as though we were not there, of looking at ourselves from the outside, that we would call the fantasy of the primal scene. That is, the singular charge in each of our chosen images is that we are somehow able to look at something from the greatest proximity, with our shadow or touch somehow being upon them, without ourselves being seen.29 It is something implicit in the very set-up of photography, in which, looking through the camera, it is almost like looking through the back of our own head at what we see, looking at ourselves looking. But, of course, this fantasy is impossible: as Baudrillard explains, we cannot look at an object unless it first looks at us; it is always possible that the supposed indifference or unawareness of the object is a ruse; we are always already in a relationship with the Other. And yet, in order for this circularity to be possible, there needs to be something “outside” of it. And this “outside” is suggested by the question: just how did such a system begin in the first place? If Same and Other take on their meaning only from each other — a simulation in which we take photos of the world because it appears to look at us and it appears to look at us because we take photos of it –how did it start at all? And the paradoxical answer given by Baudrillard in The Perfect Crime and elsewhere – following in this regard a suggestion by Claude Lévi-Strauss – is all at once, ex nihilo, in a kind of original “perfection” like the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe.30
But how are we to grasp this original moment of perfection within our imperfect world? What trace is left of this founding event within a system that wants to do away with it? What stands in for this impossible beginning within a semiotic or symbolic system that appears to account for itself? The answer to these questions is to be seen in that fantasy we have spoken of, in which we appear to see ourselves from the outside, witness our own birth, or even our own death, as Baudrillard suggests is at stake in seduction. In which we disappear to allow the exchange between subject and object. And, to make all this clearer, we might turn here to an analysis by the Lacanian social critic Slavoj Žižek, in which he precisely makes an equivalence between the fantasy gaze of the primal scene and that “signifier without signified” that allows a semiotic system. Žižek’s point is that the inability to explain our origins by way of the primal scene demonstrates that the subject is never to be accounted for synchronically, because there is always something that remains left over (at least the gaze that would look on at us) – and that it is this very excess that is the subject. The subject is always as it were “split” – and it is just this split that Baudrillard speaks of as occurring at the origin of the universe which is the source of that permanent “antagonism” running throughout it – between being accounted for within the symbolic order of signs and being that empty place for which these signs stand in. As Žižek writes:
One has to look for the key to this enigma [of the primal scene] in the asymmetry between synchrony and diachrony: the very emergence of a synchronous symbolic order implies a gap, a discontinuity in the diachronous causal chain that led to it, a ‘missing link’ in the chain. Fantasy is an a contrario proof that the status of the subject is that of a ‘missing link’, of a void which, within the synchronous set, holds the place of its foreclosed diachronic genesis.31
And the equivalent to this subject within the photo is what Baudrillard, following Barthes, calls the punctum. The punctum is the very sign of the “reality” of the photograph, what seems to precede its passage into the symbolic order (what Barthes calls the “studium”), and yet it does not simply exist before the photo, but can only be given expression to within it. This is why for Baudrillard the punctum is the “poignant moment of the object, but one which is the very moment of the photograph, of the instant in which it is taken, which is immediately past and gone and cannot be found again”.32 And yet, as this “nostalgic” moment within it, it is the reminder – exactly like that “perfection” Baudrillard speaks of – of the impossible origin of the symbolic order. However, once again, it is not a matter of directly aiming at this punctum, for it exists only in retrospect, in the very form of its loss. This is Baudrillard’s argument for a necessary “acting out” (passage à l’acte) involved in photography.33 It is always a matter of acting precipitously, “all at once”, when taking a photo. The punctum, if it exists, comes about only as that for which everything else stands in or as a detail that is always missing. But it is this detail – and here the coming together of subject and object that Baudrillard speaks about – that seems especially meant for me, that is what I peculiarly identify with, where I most am in the picture. Hence the Lacanian formula for fantasy, which Baudrillard repeats in his own way: $ (the barred or divided subject) & a (the object a or punctum).
We are perhaps now in a position to return for the last time to our chosen photos, for we can say that what we see in them is precisely the conjunction of subject and object qua this impossible fantasy gaze. Of this look on from the outside and the detail in the image that seems especially meant for me. In Suite vénetienne, we find it in that out-of-focus hand that is a kind of anamorphic death’s head, which at once is the sign of Calle’s victory over the man, the way she has been able to follow him without being seen, and reaches out towards her in its blindness, captures her in its grasp.34 In L’Autre, we find it in that subtle distortion tilting the girl’s face to the side, which distorts her beautiful features, giving us the impression that there is something monstrous about to emerge from behind her otherwise vacant eyes. In Punto final, there is a slight angle to the wall that creates a kind of shadow within the shadow, which means that the photographer is never entirely able to construct a mirror-image of himself and haunts the photographic space – an equivalent perhaps to that fugitive gaze from the side that we see in those figures running around the corner of the building in New York (1997). In all of these we have a kind of blankness or blindness, something invisible to the spectator, that is nevertheless where they find themselves most compelled to look into the image. And it is just this unseeing connection, occurring across a shifting, non-representational space, that Baudrillard means by the “imposition” of subject and object that takes place where the spectator is absent. As the psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller explains:
It is precisely
because the object a is removed from the field of reality
that it frames it. If I withdraw from the surface of the picture the
piece I represent by a shaded square, I get what we might call a
frame: a frame for a hole, but a frame of the rest of the surface.
Such a frame could be created by any window. So object a is
such a surface fragment, and it is its substraction from reality
that frames it. The subject, as barred subject – as want-of-being –
is this hole. As being, it is nothing but the subtracted bit.
Whence the equivalence of the subject and object a.35
VI. The missing “subject” in Baudrillard’s work
What is this finally to say, this idea that certain photos show us that reality stands in for a missing “subject”, that the subject at once allows and is excluded from the symbolic order (simulation)? First of all, it is surprising, given that all this talk seems to go against not only Baudrillard’s specific conception of photography but his work in general. After all, when it is put to him in interviews that his system is a result of subjective choice or that he is pursuing a deliberate strategy, he insists on the contrary that he is merely following the objective order of the world, without adding anything. He affirms that he does not choose but is chosen. And this is undoubtedly true. Baudrillard’s thought is absolutely deterministic, not just in the relatively weak sense of symbolic causality, but in the strong sense of that fatal destiny he elaborates throughout his work. And yet, as Baudrillard emphasises in his rethinking of the relationship between free will and destiny in the chapter "The Fatal, or Reversible Imminence" in Fatal Strategies, it is not simply a matter of opposing free will and destiny, or indeed of seeing free will arising within destiny, but rather – in an argument that connects him to a whole line of German Idealism, from Hegel to Schelling on – of thinking destiny itself as arising out of a prior act of free will. Or, to put it in terms of what we have been considering here, the whole sequence of cause and effect only stands in for, takes the place of, the “missing link” (impossible to account for within the system it initiates) of the subject. As Baudrillard writes there:
And if we can put it this way, it is just this “subject” (not subjectivity, but the subject as object a) that introduces a kind of undecidability into the systems Baudrillard analyses. That is to say, what is it that constitutes their limit? What is it that means they cannot go all the way, that beyond a certain point (always unlocatable) they reverse upon themselves, produce the opposite effects from those intended? In one way, as Baudrillard says, it is an “objective” limit, an “objective” irony, but in another way – it is the same thing – it is a “subjective” limit, a “subjective” irony. The system cannot go all the way, cannot entirely get rid of its Other, because of the necessity for this end to be observed. It cannot be all-encompassing because there must remain somewhere “outside” of it for this fact to be recorded. But this “subject” is not a simple exception to the system because there is nowhere outside of it. And it is this that constitutes the world (and the subject) as split. It is a split not between two different possibilities or between the world and some alternative to it, but between the world and what it stands in for, takes the place of. Indeed, to think for a moment of Baudrillard’s notion of Evil, it is not merely something opposed to the Good, but precisely something like the “freedom” – and here again the connection with German Idealism, and particularly Kant’s conception of “diabolical Evil” – that precedes the very choice between Good and Evil.
This is why it should not surprise us that in a recent interview Baudrillard characterises himself as a “man of the Enlightenment”: “I don’t resign myself. I want clarity, a lucid consciousness. When we know the rules of the game, then we can change them”.37 But it would be to speak of a freedom that is not opposed to determinism or that is expressed as a moral choice, but a “freedom” that “precedes” and “allows” all this, an “assumption” of the world as it is – an “assumption” that splits appearances and introduces something “beyond” them which means that they are not all that is. Perhaps this attempt to become equal to the object might even be thought of as a moral law, something that we can never fully be equal to – this would be the very sign of our freedom – because this object is finally us.38 And it is this that is seen in photography and that Baudrillard thinks through photography. It is not the narcissistic identification with the Other, which we see as our reflection. Nor is it our symbolic relationship with the Other, in which we seek to see ourselves from their point of view. It is rather the impossible, blind exchange – this is the sublime, Kantian mimesis that is at stake in Baudrillard – that occurs between two things insofar as they are both unrepresentable, excessive, beyond themselves. This is the enigma of how photography resembles the world, which is also the enigma of Baudrillard’s thought. As Baudrillard writes: “Now, to grasp someone in their singularity is to grasp in them what is beyond their own grasp, to grasp the way they escape your grasp”.39 It is this “impossible exchange” that Baudrillard seeks to delineate throughout his work: the way both that the impossible is already a form of exchange and that exchange cannot occur without this impossibility. Baudrillard’s writing in this sense would resemble the world as a photograph would. He is perhaps finally a man of the Enlightenment insofar as he writes with this light.
is a Professor in the Department of
Art History at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.
He is the author of Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real,
SAGE, 1999. His latest book, Slovoj Zizek has just been
released by Continuum International Press (May 2004). He is an
editor of IJBS.
1 This is a revised version of an essay originally published in Victoria Grace, Heather Worth and Laurence Simmons. Baudrillard: West of the Dateline. Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press, 2003:245-258.
2 Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime (c 1995). Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 1996.
3 Jean Baudrillard. “The Ecstasy of Photography: Jean Baudrillard Interviewed by Nicholas Zurbrugg”, in Nicholas Zurbrugg (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. London: Sage Publications, 1997:32.
5 See endnote three (above) and: Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange (c 1999). Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 2001. and Jean Baudrillard. Photographies 1985-98. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 1999.
6 Jean Baudrillard. “Please Follow Me” in Art & Text 23/4, March-April 1987:104.
7 Jean Baudrillard and Luc Delahaye. L’Autre. London: Phaidon Press, 1999:np.
12 Jean Baudrillard. “The Art of Disappearance” in Nicholas Zurbrugg (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. London: Sage Publications, 1997:29.
13 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. London: Verso, 1999:99.
14 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. London: Verso, 2001:146.
15 Nicholas Zurbrugg (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. London: Sage Publications, 1997:37.
16 Jean Baudrillard. “Objects, Images and the Possibilities of Aesthetic Illusion”, in Nicholas Zurbrugg (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. London: Sage Publications, 1997:10.
17 Jean Baudrillard. “It is the Object Which Thinks Us”. In Photographies 1985-98. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999:145.
18 Jean Baudrillard. “It is the Object Which Thinks Us”. In Photographies 1985-98. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999:149.
19 Nicholas Zurbrugg (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. London: Sage Publications, 1997:15.
20 Jean Baudrillard. “It is the Object Which Thinks Us”. In Photographies 1985-98. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999:145.
21 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. London: Verso, 2001:140.
22 Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981:26-7.
23 Gilles Deleuze. Cinema I: The Movement-Image. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986:6.
24 Jean Baudrillard and Luc Delahaye. L’Autre. London: Phaidon Press, 1999:np.
26 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. London: Verso, 1999:92.
27 Jean Baudrillard. “Please Follow Me” in Art & Text 23/4, March-April 1987:108.
28 See, for example: Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. London: Verso, 1999:92; and Jean Baudrillard. Photographies 1985-98. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999:131-3.
29 It is this same “fantasy” that we would say is at stake in the following passage from Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and what accounts for the “aura” he speaks of there: “We define aura as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be. If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch”, Walter Benjamin. Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1969:222-3. This passage is discussed by Baudrillard in D’un fragment l’autre: Entretiens avec François L’Yvonnet, Paris: Albin Michel, 2001:138.
30 Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. London: Verso, 1996:57. See also Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. London: Verso, 2001:9.
31 Slavoj Žižek. For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. London: Verso, 1991:198.
32 Jean Baudrillard. “It is the Object Which Thinks Us”. In Photographies 1985-98, Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999:151.
33 See Nicholas Zurbrugg (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. London: Sage Publications, 1997:33-4; Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. London: Verso, 1999:99; Jean Baudrillard. “It is the Object Which Thinks Us”. In Photographies 1985-98. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999:146; and Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. London: Verso, 2001:143.
34 In some ways, this photo reminds us of René Magritte’s paintings, i.e., Son of Man, where an apple hovers in front of a man’s face, but where a glint of pupil can be seen behind the apple – this would be a perfect example of what we speaking of as the “gaze” here.
35 Jacques-Alain Miller. “Montré à Premontré”. Analytica 37, 1984:28-9. Cited in Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991:94-5.
36 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. London: Pluto Press, 1999:160-1.
37 Jean Baudrillard. “This is the Fourth World War: The Der Spiegel Interview with Jean Baudrillard”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume. 1, Number 1, January 2004: http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/spiegel.htm.
38 If we could choose one Baudrillard photograph to “illustrate” this, it would be Corbiéres (1995), in which we have a door with light shining through from behind, a structure we find in a number of other Baudrillard images, e.g., the two Rios (1997). We are reminded here of that passage from Barthes’ Camera Lucida which goes: “The Photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both: the windowpane and the landscape, and why not: Good and Evil, desire and its object”, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981:6.
Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit.
London: Verso, 1999:94.
©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)