We all know this scene, typified, fatal, imperturbably repeated. But is it enough to smile at it? The tourists get out of the car, take their bearings and glance around at what they can photograph, they put it into the box— it’s done. They then exclaim, with an intake of breath as they chatter among themselves, ‘How beautiful!’ The ‘beautiful’ is fixed as a label on a parcel— as a way of getting rid of it. They have to do no more than go back to their place — to return with a sense of relief. In short, they have done everything to avoid being present at the landscape; passing through it but with the best will in the world, prudently to be aside from it. Do they have any idea about it? To spare themselves the dramatic requirement of actually being there, gazing and gazing still (but is it a matter of simply ‘gazing’?). Rather of allowing themselves to grasp— to deprive — what they have fallen upon and which suddenly overwhelms them under its miracle and could hold them in suspense, interminably, to the point of vertigo, without their being able to tear themselves away.
I’ve said that they return relieved. But ‘relieved’ of what? ‘Prudence’ (faced with an ominous peril), but why? It is clear: they are relieved at having avoided confronting—confronting what appears before them, devouring their attention, and which overflowed from all parts. Photography has been the beneficial tool allowing them to use evasions with what has arisen in front of them and could not be appropriated: to hold it at a distance, ‘in check’. Or designating it more precisely: with the insupportable of what cannot be possessed—inconsumable as this corner of the landscape was. I will even say of any part at all of a landscape. There is no point in going to Venice to photograph (or there is no point in going a long way in order to run into the ‘miracle’). As soon as there is a field, a tree, an end of the road, a roof… Photography has served as a screen, conveniently, sheltering us from the necessity of dealing with what the world suddenly displays—which exhibits the common and the banal, to such an extent that it has been seen before, and yet at the same time is unheard of. Since one is stopped there, one ceases to slip, and forever still sees. Who could effectively roar out: ‘This last light, this evening, when we leave the forest! …’ Without stopping in the literal sense, in other words the giving away all at once of the internal ramparts— our vital defences nonetheless so well hardened—under its irruption: the ‘beautiful’, posited above, already begins to circumscribe and reduce. It will certainly be said that this sort of photography is taken to ‘preserve’ (to remember: it will be rediscovered later, etc.). And even: has he not needed to be attentive, vigilant, in order to choose the best viewing angle and to frame it effectively? But take care, to want to conserve is already to protect oneself in the face of what suddenly attacks, like this corner of the landscape, and which, if I stop just a little before, instead of beginning in this way to arrange it, so soon to set off, affects me to an intolerable extent. And in the same way: to be attentive is to choose well, to frame well, first of all to divert oneself from what the slightest corner of the landscape possesses in itself of the infinite, thus of what is impossible to contain or select. To take a photograph is to place oneself in safety, to interpose: to exempt oneself from what, as in an indentation, is immediately glimpsed as irreducible and finally intrudes there, bare, in sight, without restraint. Faced with what one photographs in order to flee, in order to flee, in other words to avoid ‘being there’—da sien—once, this time, which is unique, in front of this tree, in front of this field. Or rather ‘of the tree’, ‘of the field’. One will then photograph in order to restore to use de l’ usage, again get into the expected, the conventional, and boucher de son mieux to which the panic of encounter, of upset, could point: in order no longer to be exposed to this peril, in fact, that of being close, facing, ‘pre(s)ent’, here and now (or, when one takes a photograph of faces, the effect then escapes us). Photography (the ‘photo memory’) is the instrument prepared for this avoidance. Except to produce a work of art, but it then aims at the inverse, in what is non-consumable ‘art’, this taking of photos serves as a screen to deaden shock and disorder— to reduce the intrusion of an outside, the breaking open of a present. In order to re-establish the continuous slipping so that internal and external (the ‘self’/the ‘world’) remain anew, each on their side, wisely, in their respective aloofness, with a minimum of watertightness, without going to further trouble.
françois jullien. an extract from enquiry on true life. a work in progress.
translated by krzysztof fijalkowski and michael richardson.
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