The Image-World of Westwardness

I have no background in photography, nor do I claim any professionalism on the subject or practice.  But, like all people in a technological world, I am outfitted with a camera at nearly all times.  What do I take images of, and why?  Sometimes I take images of particular items so as to remember them later, a practical use of the camera as a note pad.  A car is for sale, for example, and I could either write down the information or just snap a photo and refer to it in the future.  Other times I take images in order to send them to someone else in that very moment, a sort of instant postcard that later proves to hold little value as the immediate context has lapsed.  And finally, I take images in the way that one makes photographs, wherein we attempt to aesthetically capture and frame the phenomenon before us.  It is of these images that I reflect upon as I pull them up from their digital stores.

Walter Benjamin writes in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility that the changing circumstances of art touch "on a highly sensitive core, more vulnerable than that of any natural object. That core is its authenticity. The authenticity of a thing is the quintessence of all that is transmissible in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical testimony relating to it. Since the historical testimony is founded on the physical duration, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction, in which the physical duration plays no part."  Benjamin is referring here to the way in which technological reproduction removes art from its original (and largely authentic) situation, and "enables the original to meet the recipient half way."  This changing of context or circumstance challenges the authentic core in the same way that an image of Rodin's "The Clenched Hand" necessarily and inescapably fails to communicate its weight, strength, and stress.  In the case of Rodin, the physical duration of the piece is of primary importance.  In the case of something more abstract such as westwardness, the physical duration is infinitely impermanent, moving with the world such that Salvadorian poet Roque Dalton can write in May of 1962:

The sea and the moment are for now indecipherable.

The sea is the moment materialized.  

In Critique of Everyday Life: Volume Two, Henri Lefebvre defines moment as "the attempt to achieve the total realization of a possibility."  A moment is an attempt--that which is itself the creation of possibilities--towards "the realization of a possibility," in other words, its materialization.  The sea is thus not only the moment materialized but, in Lefebvrian terms, it is the power of totality.  "The Moment wants to be freely total;" Lefebvre continues, "it exhausts itself in the act of being lived."


We will see in a bit that Marshall McLuhan saw the writer in the age of mechanical reproduction to be forced inward, to turn from translation to generation.  If McLuhan is right, how does one generate a materialized moment in the Lefebvrian sense?  This is to say, how does one write the sea?  Dalton does this question justice in a portion of the poem "Words in front of the Sea":

Let's go, sweet-terrored helmsman,
let the ocean be our unending epitaph,
our widest route,
rough carpet full of stars for an indecisive soul.

The moment is the "our unending epitaph" and "our widest route."  It is materialized but open, changing, and free like a feeling.  Westwardness is a moment.  

Few artists are able to generate this moment of westwardness in their work.  This said, the cover image for this post is a color woodcut by Micah Shwaberow and is a feat to this end.  I find it interesting, then, that Marshall McLuhan writes in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man that "if there had been no prints or woodcuts and engravings, there would never have come the photograph."  A bold claim, but one that he supports in noting how "the woodcut and engraving had delineated the world by an arrangement of lines and points that had syntax of a very elaborate kind."  Syntax here refers to the second definition in Merriam-Webster: "a connected or orderly system: harmonious arrangement of parts or elements."  Indeed, the process of print-making is a syntactic art and one which McLuhan claims has long since ended.  "With the photograph," he writes, "[...] men had discovered how to make visual reports without syntax."  

What is the "visual report" that I try to make with my images?  Beauty, the crispness of the air, the tumbling of the sea, that feeling I get when walking in beach sand?  My report is amateur.  It pokes at the visual in a weak fashion and carries no real authority or power.  It is, as Lefebvre might like to say, a small totality.  And this fact is a result of my poor tools and lack of skill in using them.  Moments are fleeting and westwardness is thin like the horizon on a foggy day.  To refer back to Benjamin, my attempts to remain close to the authenticity of a phenomenon ultimately fall short.  I am, in the end, attempting to capture "a strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be."  Benjamin describes here the aura, that unique phenomenon that we breath in when we experience authenticity.  He argues that the aura is denigrated and destroyed by the reproducible nature of the photograph.  And this may be true, but in terms of westwardness, the photograph's purpose is not the preserve a moment but to stimulate the aura's reserve within us.  When I cannot be at the coast and breath in the aura of the waves I can look at Schwaberow's piece or at my own images.

But I do not look at my own images.  No, they pile up like digital debris and get swept into the dustbin of history.  There they mount higher still until there are tens of thousands of them, far too many to cull and curate.  Am I reducing authenticity, the moment, and westwardness to uniformity, sterility, and binary ephemera?  Is each image a tiny aura prison?

Benjamin continues, writing that "as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics."  If this is so, and it appears to be a viable and accurate theory, we must ask whether the subject of reproduction can resist the politicization inherent in this technology.  This is to ask whether something ritualistic and definitively apolitical, such as westwardness, can undergo technological reproduction and at the same time resist its own politicization?  To answer this we must return to McLuhan and a small passage from the chapter "The Photograph: The Brothel-Without-Walls."

McLuhan writes of the revolution produced by the photograph and how the painter no longer painted what had now been photographed.  "He turned, instead, to reveal the inner process of creativity in expressionism and abstract art. Likewise, [...] the poet and novelist turned to those inward gestures of the mind by which we make ourselves and our world. Thus," McLuhan continues straight to the point, "art moved from outer matching to inner making."  Perhaps it is through this perspective of media that we can answer our question regarding Benjamin and resistance.  Unlike the subjects of a still-life, flowers resting in a vase and fruit quietly gathered upon a table, westwardness cannot be definitely objectified.  At the same time, however, it cannot be fully subjectified, for even the finest account always feigns.  Like the coast itself, westwardness is a state of flux, a quantum substance of spirit that is defined and takes form only through its power of binding.  The coast binds the land to the sea and, for some of us, westwardness binds the spirit to the world.

Cover image Ebbtide, Bodega Bay, color woodcut by Micah Schwaberow; image courtesy of The Annex Galleries.

Other than the cover linked here, all images were taken by myself with an iPhone 5.  None have been altered in any way.