Throughout this year, I’ll be publishing reader’s posts. Here is an article by one of Nihilsentimentalgia’s special readers: Jonathan Morse.
Seen below, one of history’s little ruins: evidence that in or after 1915, something pressed itself upon a glass photographic negative and broke it. When the cracks radiated through the negative’s matrix and tore its image layer, they had the documentary effect of bringing the image under the discipline of archaeology, the science of shards. From that moment, the spaces between shards took on the interpretive function of spaces between words: the historical intervals that set off their associated signifiers. In 1915, spaces like these were seeable or not, at the viewer’s option. Now, however, they impose seeing on us as an unmediated, uncontrollable reflex. They have become startling and new, as they weren’t in their own time.
That is, they have become defamiliarized. In 1915 broken glass was such a conventional trope in the visual rhetoric of photography that it could be either looked at or overlooked, at will. A century later, however, it has acquired a strangeness which buttonholes us and demands to be introduced by name and title. There above is your demonstration. Through the cracks, an interpretation has started reading itself to us. Down in the glass we can make out the words of its script, and that turns out to have been typed on a caption card in a library. There, in words written after the break and demarcated in brackets to indicate their distance from the actual creation of the artwork, they say, “[RMS Lusitania of the Cunard Line, leaving New York Harbor in the winter of 1915] . . . Title and date devised by Library staff, based on information received with the negative.”
The words are an academic spell. They register the image’s name in the academic grimoire of historiography. Inscribed upon an envelope filled with bits of broken glass, they begin history’s job of reanimating them into a single image capable of filling the mind’s eye. There, displayed to sight and anointed with the magic of a name, the image can begin to be thought of as understandable – understandable as (for example) depicting a ship outbound because low in the water and therefore fully coaled. Then a text may well up from the shards and take form as (for example) a caption: a didactic genre which exists to merge a wordless, timeless image into the secular flow of history, like (for example) this.
A caption’s words will reproduce within their cell wall, then break out, multiply, sequence themselves, and begin explaining. They fill the space around an image with history. A few voyages after this one (say the history-words, explaining), the ship whose beauty was once refracted onto glass during an instant of cloud and American winter sunlight will be torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland and sink in just eighteen minutes, with the loss of 1198 of the 1962 souls on board. The event can become a historical significance, with a date: May 7, 1915. It will influence the United States to end its neutrality and join the Great War on the side of Lusitania, with more significance to follow. To look at the ship’s image with that in mind is to embark on a passage from a domain of glass lighted for a single instant to a domain of time-shadows growing ever longer year by year in the dark that a book encloses.
For us readers, darkening begins when a book shuts behind us and we pass from the domain of sight into the domain of knowledge. In principle, our path ought never to lighten again. After all, what remains for us on the glass is only the trace of a light we never saw making its way across water. We have the light’s story, not the light itself. In the story, the cracks in the matrix glint and go dark and glint again, but only to signify that transparency communicates emptiness. By contrast, the untransparent words of the caption card fill out the plenum of what’s called a permanent record.
There, words specifically associated with the cracks will be seen to say, as of April 19, 2018, “Creator is unknown; the negatives [sic] is broken.” The librarian who wrote those words intended them to be fully transparent to reading, cracks and all. In this case, full transparency wasn’t achieved because of a trivial typing error, but we know exactly how the librarian can delete that blemish from the record. Likewise, it’s not a mere polite imaginative gesture to express a hope that the creator’s name may sooner or later be brought back to light. Within the library, after all, even the roster of names unattached to histories has a name: MARC, for MAchine-Readable Cataloging. As it performs its update routine, the permanent record destroys its every opacity, signifier by signifier, and becomes more transparent.
But you, reader, don’t effect such a transparency on yourself. To name a break in a seen image is not to make the break readable, even though it has been given a name in the hope of being made clear. An archaeological event like the one you are now experiencing is the record of a transfer of knowledge from a wordless incomprehensible past to a word-equipped but still incomprehensible present. The event that you may read out from a slip of pasteboard can take worded form in the gossipy jargon of dramatic irony – “Little do they know!” – but to say “Little do they know” about a fragmented they is not to unfragment it, or know it ourselves. We will have been stopped at the brink of knowledge by a glittering break in the record. As we look at the ship in its lighted glass, the strict laws of history bar us from seeing ahead to the water that will soon take it down into the dark. We can learn of the dark from history’s words, but the words themselves are opaque to the image’s light. Up here on the image’s glassy surface, all we can see is an empty glitter streaking between shards.
. . .
A moral we might draw from such an experiment in looking is, “Be inconsolable, for you will never experience illumination in its historical depth.” But surface has a historical dimension of its own, and it has inscribed itself on this particular glass in the genre of crack and glitter. That genre isn’t inscribed to completion in the full image of a ship; it’s inscribed in the empty spaces between brokennesses. There, it demarcates shard from shard. Seeing that, we deduce that the fragments illustrate a fairy tale. Once upon a time, whispers the fairy tale, there existed an image and a meaning that were whole and simple and unbroken.
After all, without a pre-existing desire to find what we believe must have been lost and reassemble what we believe must have been broken, we could not commence the work of seeing. We need the fairy tale, if only as a manual for putting ourselves together. Even if the image has not been shattered, we need to believe that it once was, and that by telling the story we can repair it and make it one again. Of course we won’t be able to; of course glitter won’t stop making its way through cracks between the meanings. We can no longer envision the ship Lusitania unsunken, as if it had evaded from its history. Its broken image can never again be unbroken. But we can at least look into it through its unhealable breaks. There, what glitters may show itself to be light as such: illumination rising to fill the seen from between the dark shards of what no longer is.
Source of the image and its bibliographical citation: Library of Congress, USA, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012649082/. The image has been adjusted in Photoshop for contrast and sharpness.
Jonathan Morse is a professor of English at the University of Hawaii’s Manoa campus, USA. His blog about photography and language is at www.jonathanmorse.blog
Note: If you’ve been following Nihilsentimentagia for some time and would like to contribute with a post, during this year, feel free to let me know..