Subjectivity & Photographic Imagery

The ongoing debates among partisans of a purist separation of areas of critical discourse, those who make special claims for an expanded function for a single kind of discourse, and what I may call pluri-vocality, mask the fear, nostalgia, and reaction which condition a shift in the ratios of cultural power. In one formulation, which moves to expand criticism's traditionally understood explicatory/integrative function, we are told that "The difference between literature and criticism consists perhaps only in the fact that criticism is more likely to be blind to the way in which its own critical difference from itself makes it, in the final analysis, literary."[1] It doesn't matter whether this shift is metaphorically expressed as the death of God, the implosion of representation, the demise of phallocentric discourse, a crisis in the status of master narratives of the West, or an epistemological revolution. A main focus is criticism broadly conceived questioning its own foothold in the world. According to Cixous, "I think one has a hard time escaping the discourse of mastery when using, for example, as a teacher, discourse I'll call 'objective'; by that I mean a discourse that does not involve an easily located subject of enunciation, that speaks at that particular moment not just in the name of but as universal knowledge itself."[2] However one formulates a position on the changes which have occurred and continue to occur, any methodological reorganization of the bases of discourse which refuses to acknowledge those qualities noted above will founder, since it will be forced to account for itself in strictly tautological terms.

As a case in point, let's consider the post-structuralist or postmodern claim for a broader function for criticism (Johnson's position above), one which equates it with artistic creation. On the face of it, such a claim may have an appeal for some in that it permits a seemingly creative reorganization of criticism's purported roles, ushered in under the aegis of "theory," a meta-criticism with laws and dynamics all its own. Furthermore, who would doubt that the contemporary, accelerated breakdown and reconstitution of genres might not have some impact on critical theory, however one might understand the term? Having achieved a degree of genetic autonomy, theory is then free to take exciting new forms according to the requirements imposed by any portion of the expanded field of operations, which its own new hegemony has at least in part generated.

In spite of this rejuvenation, however, theory curiously returns to a preoccupation with the avant-garde, as if a ghost had to be appeased for a genuine aesthetics of postmodernism ever meaningfully to solidify. According to the implications of this view, the avant-garde helps us to think modernism and is inextricably bound up with it, such that a position on the former becomes one on the latter. Theory on its own terms must grasp modernism before it can deal with subsequent developments, whether these be formulations of art-historical periodization, literary movements, or trans-genre aesthetic categories. Thus, for modernism to be rationalized, its most extreme manifestations must be theorizable. In order for contemporary theory to proceed with business, in other words, it must first kill off the avant-garde.


This is the goal Rosalind Krauss sets herself in "The Originality of the Avant-Garde."[3] Krauss's attack on the avant-garde takes the classic form of a move to reveal its false, misunderstood, or inflated motives. In the case of the phenomena in question, the deception hinges on an allegedly false notion of originality. The avant-garde claims "a literal origin, a beginning from ground-zero, a birth," (p. 157), so that in this way "The self as origin is safe from contamination by tradition because it possesses a kind of originary naiveté. " (p. 157) Thus, these "origins" are mythopoeic, meta-origins. Furthermore, in these terms the avant-garde's valorization of innovativeness in art is explicable. Krauss cites as evidence for her claims comments by Marinetti, Pound, Brancusi, and Malevich. She then proceeds with a deconstruction of this understanding of the avant-garde's function, using as her chief instrument the grid. As her analysis of the grid in modern art carries so much of the stress of her argument, it calls for close examination.

Basing her comments on an earlier essay entitled "Grids" (1979), which goes into greater detail on the subject, Krauss sees revealing connections between the uses to which modern artists have put this design element and a general critique of the avant-garde. Accordingly, she says the grid "organizes a metaphor for the plane geometry of the field; through its repetition it configures the spread of lateral continuity. The grid does not reveal the surface, laying it bare at last; rather it veils it through a repetition." (p. 161) However, a dialectical (instead of a formal) reading indicates that this intentionality inheres in the structure of the very visual discourse which Krauss is trying to interrogate. The grid, that is, establishes a mock surface through the ironizing of representation which it engages through its repetitions. As Krauss herself says, "the very ground that the grid is thought to reveal is already riven from within by a process of repetition and representation, it is always divided and multiple." (p. 161) In what respect, however, is the grid "thought to reveal a ground" not divided, deferred? This seems a gratuitous reading, in the service of ends much removed from what the parameters of such discourse will encompass (these ends will emerge as her argument proceeds). I would submit that the resemblance through identity which the grid's basic units capture is not offered as a "laying bare" of surface; rather, representation is rejected in favor of an abstracted reconstitution of the classical matrices of geographically metaphorized space, which places the grid's function very much within the category of postmodernism which Krauss will introduce at the end of her essay. (However, its presence there will redefine the category as such, showing it to be more an extension of modernism than its supersession). To put this another way, the categories "modernism" and "postmodernism" have been insufficiently distinguished.

It is not surprising, therefore, that once Krauss sets out the functions of the grid as she does, what she then sees should look strange. "That so many generations of twentieth-century artists should have maneuvered themselves into this particular position of paradox where they are condemned to repeat, as if by compulsion, the logically fraudulent original is truly compelling." (p. 160) The repeating of the very foundations of non-repeatability would indeed seem compelling; as usual, what strikes someone as compelling is super-charged with the "presence" of meaning; in this case, it is the very obfuscation which Krauss herself is creating in order to further her arguments with the avant-garde, teleologically conditioned by conclusions she has already reached.

As if to complement the above, Krauss points out what she maintains is another peculiarity of the grid, namely, its "anti- referential" quality;" she notes that it is "a refusal of speech" and manifests a "hostility to narrative." (p. 158) In this view, speech, narrative, and referentiality can be interrelated through their participation in constructing a dimension of "time," whereas "space" organizes conventional visuality; the anti-illusionistic characteristic of grids then becomes an attack on enlightenment or premodernist discourse and so must be discredited. "Flattened, geometricized, ordered, it [the grid] is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal." ("Grids," p. 9) I would submit recourse to some such gestures (albeit less dyadic than Krauss's paradigm permits) is helpful in order to understand the proliferation of this design element, but not in the sense that Krauss indicates. The unproblematized, implicit use of the categories of "time" and "space" thus get reinforced through their accomodation to qualities in art which their use has helped to extract.

Krauss goes on to say that "the bottom line of the grid is a naked and determined materialism" (p. 10), and "The grid's mythic power is that it makes us able to think we are dealing with materialism (or sometimes science, or logic) while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction)." (p. 12) Actually, unless one falls into the trap of "paradox" and "compulsion" which Krauss herself set, the grid possesses no mythic power at all but rather refuses that constellation; this is its contribution to modernist discourse in the visual arts. There is no "illusion" or "fiction," and to think so is to miss the grid's point completely, applying standards appropriate for viewing nineteenth-century realist/mimetic art to twentieth-century antirealist/antimimetic art, then to seek an "explanation" for the resulting confusion. Krauss would have done better to try to understand what she rhetorically and revealingly refers to as "naked and determined materialism."

By relating the grid's purported functions to what Krauss calls a "discourse of originality" (dialectically related to the "discourse of the copy"), she can then proceed with demolition work on the avant-garde. That is, if the grid's pretensions to originality are laid bare ("it is always already divided and multiple"), and if the avant-garde can be seen as having founded itself on mythic origins ("a beginning from ground-zero"), then it is not difficult for her to demonstrate that modernism's main claim to a status distinct from its actual historical origins is sheer illusion. She says, "modernism and the avant-garde are functions of what we could call the discourse of originality" (p. 162), and "the discourse of originality in which impressionism participates represses and discredits the complementary discourse of the copy. Both the avant-garde and modernism depend on this repression." (p. 168) As I have shown above, however, since her analysis of the grid is logically fallacious, the conclusions she draws are untenable.

It is at this point in Krauss's analysis, needless to say, that other motives for the whole business emerge. She speaks up for what she takes her own work to be an example of, namely, a "demythologizing criticism and a truly postmodernist art, both of them acting now to void the basic propositions of modernism, to liquidate them by exposing their fictitious condition. It is thus from a strange new perspective that we look back on the modernist origin and watch it splintering into endless replication." (p. 170) The process of liquidation, however, belongs preeminently to those very positions which she claims to be superseding (Freud, Nietszche, Marx - masters of suspicion). It is no wonder that her analysis produces effects of strangeness; the "new perspective" she mentions ironically participates in the very discourse of originality she had set out to discredit. Krauss then repositions her notion of a postmodern criticism and art in the vacuum she believes her moves have created. Through her example we get a blunt and disturbing bid for the kind of power of which she had accused modernism (specifically the avant-garde).


The strategic, direct placement of a complex, fully mediated subjectivity in the center of the discourse is the elegant gesture which immediately elevates Victor Burgin's work above the old-fashioned, false transparency of Krauss's project, which pretends simply to be reorganizing given data and re-presenting these as somehow meaningful. This is not a casual advantage, I might add, since artist-theoreticians (those who posit a complex subjectivity using theoretical formulations as well as a traditional "creative" genre or medium) are relatively rare. As well, it serves to ground an understanding of modernism, a serious failing in Krauss's essay. On Burgin's view, then, what distinguishes modernism from its historical antecedent is first and foremost (but not exclusively) what I might call a structural acknowledgement of point of view. Saussure's theoretical contribution in this regard should be recalled: in Culler's words, ". . . alongside Saussure's affirmations [on the relativity of linguistic concepts] we may place the unequivocal statement of the painter Georges Braques: 'I do not believe in things; I believe in relationships.' This is, perhaps, the true Modernist credo."[4] Related to this is the notion of the arbitrary connection between signified and signifier, which for our purposes conveniently carries over directly into photography. According to Eco, "We know that sensory phenomena are transcribed, in the photographic emulsion, in such a way that even if there is a causal link with the real phenomena, the graphic images can be considered as wholly arbitrary with respect to these phenomena."[5] Burgin's idea of the end of art theory as seen from within a context of the functioning of photography, especially as we get it in Between [6] and in related essays, provides a persuasive alternative to Krauss's understanding of the avant-garde. His work seems especially appropriate in this connection as well since Krauss herself has written on photography.

Burgin's work, then, is offered as that of a photographer/theoretician deeply enmeshed in a specific socio-historic formation. In Between, reproductions of photographic series are interspersed with reprints of interviews, talks, and photo- documentation (caption-like notes). This all forms a fabric; "I feel I'm working across the fringe areas for example, as I've said already, where 'art', 'advertising', 'documentary', theory' etc. overlap." (p. 56) These elements can be clearly discerned and exist in juxtaposition. What "unifies" them, as it were, is the forthright inclusion of the speaking subject; the importance of relationship and emphasis on an arbitrary basis to meaning construction provide a theoretically consistent foundation from which one may safely derive an understanding of modernism.

The photographic image is perhaps the best locus for any discussion of "the discourse of the copy." However, not to base one's statements on a strategy of subjectivity leads to error. As Barthes puts it, "the photographer bears witness to his own subjectivity, the way in which he establishes himself as a subject faced with an object. What I say is banal and well known. But I would greatly emphasize this aspect of the photographer's situation, because it is generally repressed."[7] Although he acknowledges his "outsider" status with regard to a truly contemporary (i.e., subjective) discourse on photography, Barthes is honest enough to admit to having trouble theorizing the interconnections between word and photographic image. "I have no experience as a photographer, I am a pure consumer of photographed products. It's obvious that photography and writing don't use the same material . . . photography is not language." (p. 355)

For Burgin, however, who is a photographer, language is very much a part of the photograph even though he does not make claims of great syntactic or semantic sophistication for the photographic image. "Simply because a message is, in substance, visual, it does not follow that all of its codes are visual. Visual and non-visual codes interpenetrate each other in very extensive and complex ways. Metz has put it well: 'In truth, the notion of 'visual', in the totalitarian and monolithic sense that it has taken on in certain recent discussions, is a fantasy or an ideology, and the image (at least in this sense) is something which does not exist.'"[8] This will become the bridge to a theory of representation in visual art, a necessary step if one wants to understand distinctions between modernism and what it superseded. Put another way, photography unpacks visual art's basis in representation, thereby highlighting the false distinction between figurative and abstract art which came to control thinking on modernism. Inclusion of a theory of language broad enough to permit thinking the interconnections between visual and verbal imageries, by contrast, will allow modernism to be more productively theorized.

In spite of the social engagement which Burgin's position entails, he points up the obvious partial autonomy artists justifiably retain: "Artists are not independent socially, economically, ideologically, politically for all it suits some of them to pretend that they are. But neither are they 'a cog and a screw' in the party machine." (Between, p. 55) Only by granting this imbrication of the strategic subjectivity (which the artist posits) in the very stuff of history, specifically through the medium of a socially conditioned, fully "genderized" art practice, by structurally valorizing the artist's point of view, not at all removed from the "contamination" of the past but rather acknowledging it, can we place an understanding of the avant-garde on a workable footing; this and this alone permits a rethinking of modernism.

As one might expect, given the previous remarks, for Krauss there is a barrier maintained in the surrealist photograph between those verbal and visual codes which Burgin sees as interpenetrating. She accords a special presence to the surrealist photograph: "Is that [i.e., writing] not entirely foreign to the purely visual experience of photography a visuality itself symbolized as heightened and intensified by the presence of the microscope? Faced with this image and its caption, are we not confronted with yet another instance of the constant juxtaposition of writing and vision, a juxtaposition that leads nowhere but to theoretical confusion?" (Originality, p. 103) as well it might. Her attempt at a "dialectical synthesis of opposites" (p. 103) through montage falters since it is based one way or the other on the (for her) theoretically puzzling still image. It would seem, then, that the surrealist photograph forms a polar opposite from the grid, although both are founded in a "refusal of speech," an "imperviousness to language," a "hostility to narrative." But for Burgin, the photograph best yields to a structuralist or relational analysis, which due to its arbitrary (what he calls "ideological") dimension permits, even necessitates, a psychoanalytic reading: "An ideology is the sum of taken-for-granted realities of everyday life; the pre-given determinations of individual consciousness; the common frame of reference for the projection of individual consciousness . . . it is contingent and. . . within it the fact of its contingency is suppressed" (Thinking Photography, p. 46), and "the technical means of production of photography readily offers a plurality of images. The image therefore represents a contingent repression of latent practices: it is in this that it is ideological." (p. 67) By applying the metaphorical discourse of psychoanalysis to the photographic image, Burgin will make a structuralist move comparable to Saussure's notion that a distinctive feature (a phoneme, say) can only be defined through analyzing what it is not, that is, through focusing on the relations to the suppressions by means of which "it" is constituted. The "it," then, is made up of a system of relations some of which tie directly into the current social formation.

If photography (in its "specific work") deals in resemblance and if this then opens out onto an ontology of content, of a world-space populated by "objects," then a structuralist critique must detonate resemblance (simultaneously detonating the molar "subjectivity" upon which it is based). This Burgin does through problematizing so-called photographic seeing, revealing it as a bogus category designed to smuggle mystification into photographic art in order to place it on a financially competitive footing with easel painting. If we tend to forget this mystification with regard to easel painting because of its longer history, we can see the process more readily in photography; as Sekula puts it, "The invention of the photograph as high art was only possible through its transformation into an abstract fetish, into 'significant form.'"[9] If verbal and visual codes indeed interpenetrate in the photographic image, and if an understanding of this image must be based in a complex hermeneutics of seeing, then Burgin's theory directly engages the social formation, and in fact his early interrogation is carried forth specifically in the domain of sexist advertising conventions. Through the specific interconnections which advertising maintains between text and visual image, a capitalism concealing its inherent sexism retains its grasp. Burgin's series "VI" (1973), "Lei-Feng" (1974), "U.K. 76," and "U.S. 77," through parody turn these visual conventions against those societal uses for which they are created. Fetishism's role in this inverted process is crucial: ". . . photographic representation accomplishes that separation of knowledge from belief which is characteristic of fetishism. It is this pervasive structure of disavowal which links fetishism to the image and to phantasy. The motive of the disavowal is to maintain the imaginary unity of the subject at the cost of (fetishism)/in the face of (phantasy) the subject's actual splitting."[10] Yet this splitting is repressed from Krauss's understanding of surrealist photographic reality, as well as the grid, which may account for her feeling that they place their creators in a "truly compelling" situation of "paradox." Burgin, in the meantime, has taken the next step, increasingly incorporating feminist positions.

This returns us to Krauss's failure to reposition the speaking ego at the center of critical/artistic discourse. In what amounts to a challenge to critics issuing from some such understanding of modernism's unique contribution, Burgin says, "Today, any critic making this complaint ['we do not have the art we need'] should 'put up or shut up'." (Between, p. 201) That is, at a period in history when art-making no longer requires lengthy immersion in a workshop or guild-craft tradition of training through imitation, the production of art has been liberated from the traditional matrices of social control (these are maintained in the distribution networks). For critics like Krauss to claim that true postmodern criticism is "criticism without the Argument"[11] without offering a necessarily altered notion of the function of a theory of representations, amounts to the failure of postmodernism's murder attempt on the avant-garde. And as I indicated above, according to the logic of the dominant forms of critical discourse, no meaningful affirmative statements can be made about postmodernism until the avant-garde is defined/denied. Consequently, one can only conclude that special claims for a postmodern criticism or art are simply disguises for a bid for traditional cultural power, in other words, the working out of ideological processes in the realm of culture. Burgin confirms this: "In our present so-called 'postmodern' era the end of art theory now is identical with the objectives of theories of representation in general: a critical understanding of the modes and means of symbolic articulation of our critical forms of sociality and subjectivity." (Between, p. 204.)


As I hope the above comparison has made clear, one needs to radically revise critical practices in order to understand avant-garde practices in a broader context of modernism; this revision must adopt as a strategy a theory of language which acknowledges a complex, gendered, historically conditioned subjectivity at its center. That is, the avant-garde (and therefore modernism itself) cannot be "understood" unless the discourse of understanding (power) itself is simultaneously interrogated: this scrutiny opens up onto the language matrix detailed above. In Paul de Man's formulation, "One is interested in the subject-matter primarily because it confirms that the unseen can be represented: representation is the condition that confirms the possibility of imitation as universal proof of presence. The need for the reassurance of such a proof stands behind many characteristic statements of the period and confirms its orthodoxy in terms of a metaphysics of presence."[12] De Man goes on to give a characterization of modernity which is not based on the flat rejection or acceptance of an unproblematized notion of history: ". . . modernity, which is fundamentally a falling away from literature and a rejection of history, also acts as the principle that gives literature duration and historical existence." (p. 162) This permits further efforts in the direction of theorizing the avant-garde, as does Buchloh's notion that "It seems more viable to define avant-garde practices as a continually renewed struggle over the definition of cultural meaning."[13] This emphasis on a fully mediated struggle of a strategically constructed subjectivity in a particular historical context necessarily implies a feminist hermeneutics. As Showalter says, ". . . the fullest expression of the problematic of a feminist criticism [is] how to combine the theoretical and the personal."[14] "According to Foucault, the threshold from classicism to modernity was crossed when 'words ceased to intersect with representations and to provide a spontaneous grid for the knowledge of things'. The nineteenth century brought with it, according to him, the two most significant forces of modernity: the return of language as no longer naturally linked to the world; and the appearance of Man along with his unthought."[15] It is important to place this notion of subjectivity in a theoretically expanded perspective, as does Bürger: "The avant-garde not only negates the category of individual production but also that of individual reception."[16] Efforts such as those of Burgin establish viable alternatives to the comfortable classicizing of Krauss's postmodernism.

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1 Barbara Johnson, The Critical Difference. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1980, p. 12.

2 Hèléne Cixous and Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 137.

3 First published in October, 18(Fall, 1981); reprinted in Krauss's The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985. All subsequent references will be to the 1985 reprint.

4 Jonathan Culler, Saussure, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985, p. 148.

5 Umberto Eco, "Critique of the Image," in Thinking Photography, edited by Victor Burgin, London: Macmillan, 1982, p. 33

6 Oxford/London: Blackwell/ICA, 1986.

7 Roland Barthes, "On Photography," The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, New York: Hill and Wang, 1985, p. 356.

8 "Photographic Practice and Art Theory," in Thinking Photography, p. 83.

9 Allen Sekula, "On the Invention of Photographic Meaning," in Thinking Photography, p. 103.

10 "Photography, Phantasy, Function," in Thinking Photography, p. 190.

11 "Poststructuralism and the Paraliterary," in The Originality of the Avant-Garde, p. 293.

12 Blindness & Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, New York: Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 124-25.

13 Benjamin Buchloh, "Theorizing the Avant-Garde," Art in America, 72, #10(November, 1984), p. 21.

14 Elaine Schowalter, "The Feminist Critical Revolution," in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature & Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter, New York: Pantheon Books, 1985, p. 4. Showalter specifically identifies feminine writing with the avant-garde. "L'écriture féminine is not necessarily writing by women: it is an avant-garde writing style. . ." (p. 9)

15 Alice A. Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985, p. 85. Note also that Jardine confirms Showalter's insight above: ". . . a certain definition of truth, based in a highly personal, naturalized 'reality,' is not only intrinsic to but also the last line of defense for feminism as hermeneutic." (p. 147)

16 Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, p. 53.

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