Disintegrated into Variables: Of Detritus, Threads, and Time in Photography

by T’ai Smith


1. It is 1927. Siegfried Kracauer looks at two photographs and reflects on the questions of time, history, memory, and obsolescence.[1] One image is from the present; one is from the past. Kracauer strives to locate the texture of history and the material base. It is important to understand this as his aim. Yet photography, he determines, yields the death of any semblance of history. As photography presents a spatial image of the world, it kills an understanding of labour and economy—the vector that stitches the worker to the factory to the commodity, but that stops its life short as property, as exchangeable stuff. Objects and people are deracinated, free floating. For Kracauer, the photograph embodies all that becomes equivalent detritus within society, those fashions repeatedly produced and replaced.


Two figures puncture the field of Kraucer’s essay. One: the “film diva,” the Tiller girl, whose “twelve lashes right and left” are diligently recorded by the camera, in front of the Hotel Excelsior during the month of September (422). Two: “Grandmother,” an old photograph from the family album dated 1864. Grandmother, whose “smile is arrested yet no longer refers to the life from which it has been taken,” is a kind of “archeological manikin” under layers of now-strange, costume stuff (423-424). Hence Kracauer writes: “If photography is a function of the flow of time, then its substantive meaning will change depending upon whether it belongs to the domain of the present or to some phase of the past” (429).  So on the one hand, Kracauer’s photographs register that which is in fashion (current), and on the other, that which is outmoded. Photography presents a condition whose impulses come in spatial blips, contiguous with the fluctuation of markets—the rising and lowering of stocks, of trends.


2. It is 2015. I peruse Shelagh Keeley’s Notes on Obsolescence, examining the photographs that spread through its pages. Are the images from the present, or from the past? It’s difficult to tell. They present a pile of objects and apparatuses, some rendered obsolete long ago. Here, an outmoded means of production—one belonging to a slightly different version of capitalism found in the nineteenth century—is on view in sections so that they no longer cling together, to the workers, but are detached pieces, disintegrated into variables. There, what appear to be close-up images of fibers from a Scanning Electron Microscope, or perhaps scans of neural nets, are found on two pages. Jacquard punch cards (first demonstrated in 1801 by Joseph Marie Jacquard) are juxtaposed with those used in IBM tabulation machines (invented by Hermann Hollerith in 1890). Meanwhile, drawings trace lines across and between images, as though stitching different temporal moments into a complex, anachronistic web. Numbers and threads collide, are pasted or sewn together (the specificity of these techniques now fused, as one, in Photoshop). This is the rhythm of modern life: a flood of stuff and other threadlike things that are incessantly produced and rendered obsolete artificially, simultaneously. Hence: “Never before has an age been so informed about itself,” Kracauer wrote; “Never before has an age known so little about itself” (432).


3. It is 1927. Kracauer’s first figure, the film diva, occupies his present, or rather her smile, rendered to view under the dot matrix page of the illustrated journal, corresponds to the caption that underscores her: She is, for all that recognize her, “our demonic diva” (432). This current-event photograph has an “immediate” relation to the original on the screen, the one seen in the theatre just the other day. By contrast, the image of a once-24-year-old grandmother can never correspond to the “nasty story about her life,” a slew of disconnected memories, imagines (423). Thus, Kracauer writes in conversational style: “All right, so it is Grandmother, but in reality it’s any young girl in 1864” (423). The first is “an optical sign for the diva who is meant to be recognized,” immediately, as the original Tiller girl seen on the screen. The semiotic value of the second, by contrast, has been drained. As the life of Grandmother has ceased to exist, her photograph merely records the accumulation of spatial details, a stockpile of facial and fabric elements—of chignons and crinolines—now out of fashion. “Compared to photography, memory’s records are full of gaps,” Kracauser writes. “Memory does not pay much attention to dates—it skips years or stretches temporal distance” (425).


Kracauer even elaborates a kind of logical framework (or program matrix) to explain the movement of spatial and temporal contiguity that is particular to photography: (a) at first, the transparency of the sign = (equals) immediacy with the present; (b) with the aged photograph, the sign – (minus) transparency loses its connection to the immediate world; (c) (hence) this equation inverts over time. While in the past those costumes (or those photographs) “once clung to our skins as if part of them,” they now give way to the flow of time—they are subtracted from the person and so the details overwhelm her. “If one can no longer encounter the grandmother in the photograph, the image taken from the family album necessarily disintegrates into its particulars” (429). The fashion no longer clings to our skins but detaches itself; it stands out as detritus, or like a ghost that has peeled away to become its own skin.


4. Back to Keeley’s book. Recall that the images belong to a past-present, or present-past. Though the photographs were shot recently (just two years ago), memory and image are out of joint. They are new, and yet also records of an old technology. So the obsolete world of the Textilmaschinendepots near Mönchengladbach, Germany, from which they were snapped, has taken on what Kracauer calls a “photographic face,” but also the face (or skin) of memory, if such a thing exists. And so the past has become a stockpile of details—at once immaterial and material, photographic and fibrous; like memory, it “skips years or stretches temporal distance.” The contradictions are evident on the surface of the book’s pages.


This is the structural logic of obsolescence, presented through collage, an agglomeration of temporal indexes. Time has been spatialized into vectors of different thicknesses and weights. Or: Time is a ghost, what Lucretius called simulacra: “Lucretius’ doctrine of the structures that peel off things like membranes and float round in the air”[2]—like the computer monitors seen on 2 pages of Keeley’s book; but time is also a physical residue: drawings, lines, threads, create textures. If photography “grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum,” and memory images “retain what is given only insofar as it has significance,” we seem to be swimming in both, at once, in Notes on Obsolescence (425).


And so we witness, simultaneously, lines of flight (the uncontrollable running of digital machines whose images function like automatons) and lines that stitch (the matrix of history). Together they form a spatialized or textured time. As a registration of structural-temporal gaps, Keeley’s work posits traces of obsolete and current economies—their apparatuses and experiences. We might say, then, that her book-length portrait of Jacquard looms, from the perspective of a digital universe, figures forth the grain of contemporary life.


[1] Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography,” trans Thomas Y. Levin, Critical Inquiry 19, no. 3 (Spring, 1993), pp. 421-436. All page numbers in brackets refer to Kracauer’s essay.

[2]  Erich Auerbach, “Figura” (1938), in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, trans. Ralph Manheim (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 11-76.