Behold the Hundred Universes

“The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.”

– Marcel Proust, from “The Prisoner,” in In Search of Lost Time


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In this photograph, my father holds me at a distance. I cannot help but imagine there are layers of aura. My own understanding of the term conflicts with Walter Benjamin’s definition of aura as a distance or uniqueness from a work of art: “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.” For Benjamin, “aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face.” Aura disappeared from the photographic medium in the age of mechanical reproduction because there was no longer a distance between the original work and that reproduced by the photograph.

Without abandoning Benjamin’s concept of aura, I want to rework the term. I want to explore aura alongside Barthes’ notion of punctum, or the subjective feeling (with little relation to the grammar of analyzing photographs) when viewing a photograph that hits you as a deeply personal meaning. The aura of the photograph of my father and me oscillates between both the distance and uniqueness of my view right now and the view (experience?) I as a baby had of my father. Is it a problem that I cannot remember this interaction (as I was a baby) even though I know it was me? But the aura of the photograph has disappeared. There is no more distance because I have viewed the reproduction of that moment many times. The object remains the same every time I view it. The one-time experience of aura is gone. But it does not seem to have disappeared.

In this photograph, it is as if my father is being prophetic. The photo is held together perfectly: the watch on his arm facing the camera keeps me at a distance with time as our gazes meet each other. (Would that I view this photograph in this context all these years later…) I am learning from him as babies do. I curiously stare at his smile. Is he teaching me about smiling as parents do? The camera gazes at us. The punctum sets in. The photograph is now for me, an object to make sense of my situation. Our gaze is for each other (at least I am little aware of the power of the camera at that age). I do not recognize myself in the photograph. By some habituation to personal images, however, I understand that it is me. But I am caught up by my father. I know his face and there is nothing foreign about him.

The existence of the punctum: yes it exists. (To me, punctum as a feeling seems asymptotic: it can approach nothing, but there is always some degree of it above nothing. The reason is that if we were to only define punctum as that strong, emotional, inexplicable feeling that we rarely experience, then we approach something of a Sorites paradox of how much feeling constitutes punctum. I think, then, there must always be some punctum when experiencing a photograph. However, there are times when I have viewed a photograph and felt nothing. So I am left unsure about the ever-present existence of the punctum.)

I am not overly aware of the studium of my gaze upon this photograph. Perhaps there is no reason for me to see this photo as historical – to look at the clothing of the period, my father’s glasses, or the colour schemes. But I am very aware of the punctum. I feel it and it hits me fully. If I try to grasp it and play with it, it flees. I am in constant flux to look at the photo and feel the punctum. Usually the punctum is ‘purest’ when I first feel it without choosing to feel it. However, unlike Barthes inability to recognize his mother other than simply understanding that it is her, I recognize my father completely. There is nothing foreign about him. I do not recognize me. I am a baby. I know it is me but I cannot recognize myself. So then, what is the authenticity of this particular photo? If authenticity lies in the aura (or if authenticity even matters at all), then, since there is no aura in photographs, there is no authenticity.

Perhaps it is best to reimagine the first time I saw the photograph after my father passed away. I remember recognizing how young he was. I knew it was me as a baby, but he was so young. I was caught by the way he held me up into the air and the perplexed, curious face with which I stared at him. But I know it is my father. And when the photograph is out of my sight and I imagine it, the distance from that photograph is infinite as I reimagine it again. This is the death of the photograph. But that death is not complete. There is a constant reemergence of life and death. My own experience with the photograph cannot give punctum the complete power of death. The dichotomous nature of life and death cannot hold here. There seems to be some sort of aura to a photograph. The aura exists when I avert my gaze, or, in my imagination.

I can easily connect to Barthes’ interpretation of photographs through punctum. The lack of grammar for reading photographs is not a fault in Barthes’ Camera Lucida. However, I do not know if we can prescribe such a reading of photographs as phenomenologically true for all people. Punctum is a vague and fluid term as is. I must be careful using the term. As well, unlike Barthes, I want to reproduce the photograph for you. I struggle that “[this photograph] cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound.” Barthes makes no mention of punctum through human empathy (quite understandably in his grief) meanwhile he appropriates other photographs. Sure, you can never know the punctum of this photograph for me – you do not have my wound. My father is now gone and that is personal. Barthes worries that the photograph can only be viewed for studium and thus pleasure. It cannot provide the punctum for you that speaks volumes of love and death – that is, the ‘appropriate’ way with which to approach photography. Barthes, struggling with the phenomenology of images, suggests that only he holds the authentic feeling towards the photo of his mother. I cannot suggest the same for this photograph of me an my father. There is too much involved here: can I even suggest that is me? (That is, is the self continuous?) Is the punctum you get from this photograph any greater than mine (after all, the punctum I feel changes each time I approach or reimagine this photograph)?

You can, in fact, empathize in any way with the photograph. Whether you are closer to me and, understanding my grief, you feel a particular punctum with the photograph; whether you know nothing of me, but know the context of the photograph (perhaps by a label and short description with the photograph); or whether you know nothing of the photograph and its context, maybe the punctum will hit you because of your contingency. In fact, I would argue, the punctum always hits you because of your particularities. You could be my brother, sharing every pain in the death of our father, but on this particular day, for example, there is no punctum viewing this photograph. But a stranger on that same day views this photograph and the punctum is overwhelming. Maybe this stranger thinks of picking up their child as a new parent and this subjective punctum makes them heavy.

Human empathy, then, in its many forms, makes punctum possible for any photograph. This may simply be a repositioning of Barthes’ punctum as photographic subjectivity but one I feel is important to make. Adding empathy as a vague term to our understanding of punctum is important to the subjectivity of photographs. Shawn Smith also problematizes Barthes’ subjective reading of photographs. Smith notes that in a James VanDerZee photograph, Barthes misidentifies a piece of jewellery worn by a black woman. It is not the misidentification but the “effacement of an African American woman under the sign of Barthes’ aunt.”  By rendering the historical subjects unintelligible, Barthes “disregards his most compelling claims about photography as a unique sign system” to represent those from the past. Smith contests Barthes’ apathy towards the studium of the photograph which, she argues, is paternally racist. We cannot so easily disregard Barthes’ studium-reading of the photograph to get at the punctum.

What Smith importantly gets at is not an issue with punctum itself, but the reflexivity involved with punctum in viewing photographs. Punctum seems an automatic act insofar as it is a feeling that hits you. Smith argues similarly that “Barthes cannot be faulted for remembering his aunt when contemplating the VanDerZee photograph.”

The subsequent analysis, however, such as Barthes’ own approach to the necklace in the image requires one to be self-reflexive of their own feelings and appropriations. A subjective description like punctum can incorporate empathy without reappropriating the photograph. Punctum (or subjectivity generally) need not hibernate loudly in our individualism, but should explore the depths of subjectivity without ignoring historical actors. It requires a Proustian approach akin to the quote I opened with. I cannot say how this would particularly work.

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