A Blind Field

Roland Barthes, an influential theorist for photographers, speaks of the flatness of images made to shock, and of his boredom with images that provoke a general interest in a non-particular subject. Against photos that are “simple” and “free of useless accessories,” (think of journalistic photos that attempt to directly tell you everything in an event, with precision) Barthes prefers a “photo that thinks;” a “blind field” in other words. Barthes prefers “texture.”

Long live texture. For Barthes, any photo that contains a mechanism to “conceal, delay or distract” might be one that textures its object. Against a composition striving for some sort of clean unity, he prefers a photo that disturbs with duality and indirection, opening up a “blind field” that intrigues us. Somehow, texture is part of this blind field.

In more complex terms, from an article by Tom Gunning, this textured, concealing approach to photography allows us to shake photography from its exclusively referential, semiotic, truth-bearing role (though not entirely abandoning it). It is truth that shows our fantasies to be empty and unfulfilled, which destroys our imaginations, suggests Giorgio Agamben. So when photography stops bearing the responsibility of truth, I guess our imaginations are at play. (It is strange and problematic that the texture of an image, like digital grains and film looks, speak, for many, to the authenticity of an image. Because the image is flawed, possessing a sort-of blind field opposed to hyperreal images, it must, to some, feel authentic. So, in the inability of the image to convey perfect truth in detail, the image becomes a representation of earnestness, of that feeling of truth. But, you know, earnestness becomes kitsch with time.)

I’m not quite sure if or how texture plays the imaginative role. Maybe for photography, a textured photo reveals itself as a photograph of its object. I guess that could be disarming, to feel that something is just a photo and not an immediate reality.  And because it is just a photo, our imaginations come into play, allowing us to bring a subjectivity to a silent, indifferent object that would otherwise refuse us.


    Some part of me says that if you make your “living” with photography (or, really, just try to take it seriously and become a better photographer at all) you might be incentivized to do something visually compelling with your time. Which is to say, if you want to capture something interesting, you must go out and find something interesting. I think this becomes a habit. Somewhere, sitting simply close to the center of your life, develops a belief that there are interesting things happening around you. To me, that seems more radical every day, but I won’t get too polemic about it. Or maybe I’ve just got a feeling that it’s fun to make boring or pointless things look good.

    These days, I leave my camera at home more often than not. That photographic principle, however, is baked in. Life around you can be interesting. So, make a movie of your life, or make a sequence of synecdochic stills holding space for some large, orchestrated life. I don’t really know. Here is an example.

    I walk on the beach during sunset. The clouds are out, so the golden light is muted across the landscape. Everything looks soft and slightly dull. My friend comes along, wearing a red jacket. The wind is cold, so no one is on the beach. We stumble upon a heap of rocks. My friend climbs it, taking his jacket off and holding it up, letting it waver in the wind, and finally he throws it in the air. Here is the image: a man perched on rocks with his arms high, reaching towards a streak of red cloth unfolding in the air, in front of a limitless ocean that casts the entire background into a subtle gray blue.
    It’s fiction so I have no picture of it, but you can imagine that it might look cool. 

Triggering Town

Richard Hugo, a writer, published a book of lectures on how to write. If you’re curious, it’s called The Triggering Town. On the first page, he says that one learns to write not by reading, but by writing. We only read to exercise the imagination, he says. But the imagination is much more easily excited by other things (like taking a walk?). And I thought it would be stupid to continue to read the book, so I have not finished it.

The other day, sitting at a coffee shop, I pointed to my copy of Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, asking my friend, “how does this long-form kind-of experimental styled book translate to the type of content that you create for other people? I mean, this man uses hardly any paragraphs, and has a unique style…and it seems so abstract compared to paid ‘creative’ work. Maybe I’m conscious of this because I create so many short-form tiktoks and Instagram reels these days, and do not know how something longer-form and thoughtful translates to that.”

            “There does not need to be a direct translation,” he said. I am not content with that, for if there is no direct translation, I am worried that there is no translation at all.           
            The other week, or month, I donated half of my books. Most were theology (good riddance!) and some others, like “Wombs and Alien Spirits,” just collected dust, unread. I kept some Georges Bataille books though, even the misogynistic ones (!!!). For some reason, I thought the library would be shocked and excited to receive my pile of books, while I was excited to lose that mediation between language and experience that felt so pointless to me. I even posted a short video about it. 

            According to some of the authors I read, there is this thing called pure experience, the void, eternity stilled, the mind empty and at ease, a place with no conception, and time with no beginning and no end. I think it’s religious, but it’s at your feet instead of up beyond the stars in heaven. And these authors point to a profane swamp of experience rather than a holy realm above the intellect. Maybe Spirit is involved too, dwelling both in heaven and below. I’m not sure. But both magnificent heaven above and this unintelligible liberated experience underneath our feet are just out of reach. You have to search for them. And I don’t think you’ll ever find them. But there’s no knowing without the search.

            I work with social media often, which is a form of collective effervescence. Ask Durkheim about it. I get lost in it.

            I stopped reading to do more “creative” stuff, as if I’d lose some stagnant mediation with language and just be purely immersed in “creative” “energy.” I’d get the vibe back probably. No brain just vibes. Obviously that’s stupid: becoming an ignorant participant in a world with no direction.            

            The thing is, I could tell you that I enjoy creativity that hovers over the face of the deep, stuck in language but pointing to that pure experience. I enjoy that limited process, for it is the only thing that can try to grasp that which is out of reach. It’s a utopian creativity, but that keeps the heart moving, I guess. I could tell you all about this creativity that reaches beyond itself, I could tell you about a language that grasps only to fail; I could tell and it would do little—it’s too polemic, it’s too prescriptive, it’s too much like an instruction manual.

            Instead, you could read someone else who’s actually doing it. I’d recommend Richard Hugo, who would probably say to go outside.

Deep Listening

            A tape recorder, a microphone, and headphones were the three objects that, for Pauline Oliveros, began a lifelong listening practice. The everyday environment, filtered through the microphone, became a new field of sounds that had escaped Oliveros’ perception. For the first time, Oliveros became aware of the direction of her attention. She noticed how her listening sculpted the environment around her. And her experience of the world broadened, opening up to the possibility of objects beyond her everyday awareness. The familiar became unfamiliar and new through the medium of a tape machine. Beyond that specific medium, what was once noise became an ordered part of her intentional listening. She noted that even without the recorder, she could create a new world by listening carefully, opening up a generative and creative practice.

            Pauline Oliveros practiced what she called “Deep Listening,” which is a conscious form of listening that tries to “[go] below the surface of what is heard,” and is “listening in as many possible ways to everything that can possibly be heard.” Here, to break beyond the surface is to, in a sense, play with (every) other possible surface. That deep practice of listening is tied to possibility, generating (potentially!) non-conventional approaches to objects we take for granted. Although you could literally just go out and buy audio equipment to reproduce Oliveros’ experience, Oliveros considers the practice of Deep Listening meditative, and others, focused on other fields, consider it a form of contemplative practice.

           Willa Miller, however, does not run around silly with a tape recorder. Instead, she is a scholar of religion versed in Buddhism and Christianity, using the term “Deep Listening”  to categorize something beyond Oliveros’ experience (though I’d still recommend running around with an audio recorder for fun). As a cultivated quality of a space, deep listening becomes a relational practice, or a conversational skill that can be improved over time. It both focuses on the narrative content of speech and the non-conceptual elements of the present moment.

            This means that there are a few simultaneous approaches to listening: the first is to be in touch with a non-conceptual sort-of ground, noticing the space upon which the conversational narrative unfolds. This is where you chill out, or the “deepest” part of deep listening. I like to think of it as being in touch with the world oustide yourself, beyond your immediate control. The second is to encounter how the conversation lands in the body, utilizing sense perception to be aware of the present moment. The third is to be aware of the content of speech (you actually have to pay attention to the conversation!!), in order to formulate a compassionate response.

            For others (AKA Duane Bidwell, who seems to be a Buddhist Christian engaged in psychotherapeutic practice), Deep Listening is a discipline of engaging mystery and doubt without reaching for facts or reasoning. It is pre-conceptual and a form of “peaceful abiding” that directs attention towards the unknown and unexpected. Necessarily, chilling out with the unknown and unexpected becomes pre-conceptual.

            Unfortunately, Byung-Chul Han, trying to re-enchant our depressed and burned-out capitalistic world, hates that pre-conceptual aggregate because it, apparently, is noisy. Agh! He wants beauty! Yet, he also likes the idea of a negative aesthetic experience, which would sometimes be painful, sometimes be ugly, and, in some way, offer us a resistance that would require us to step outside of ourselves. A beautiful object brings an event of emptiness—disastrous and terrible—where we are no longer related to, but can still contemplate, the object in front of us. This experience of “resistance” might be something that noise, in spite of Han’s protests, actually enacts. For noise, often removed from immediate recognition, invites a “disinterested lingering” (Han likes that) that allows us to contemplate the object in front of us while also becoming “immersed in it” (Han also likes that). Han’s mostly just likes the idea of “stillness contemplating beauty.”  

            Yet, Han’s dismissal of the pre-conceptual experience forces him to place narrative and concept as a one of the foundations of reality (narrative, unlike stillness, moves). He lives in a world of concepts and narrative, which is an approach that strikes me as very bookish. Han stops short where others would go “deeper” beyond the narrative structure, or that non-conceptual realm of experience where others would watch the narrative unfold. In other words, some might risk an encounter with noise in order to find creative, generative, and contemplative ways of being, where Han defaults back to narrative and conceptuality, even while acknowledging the importance of aesthetics that are not immediately consumable (which may realistically be different forms of narrative and concept that aren’t instantly recognizable). Yet, where noise, beyond narrative and concept, might be bad in Han’s thinking, noise finds a positive place in others’ thinking.

            Martin Laird, a contemplative writer, deals with noise too, and sees it as a way of deepening a contemplative practice. He tells us of a man named Gareth, who escaped into a weekend-long contemplative retreat in a mountain village. Unfortunately for him, his mountain neighbors decided to use an electric table saw during his prayer time. Like everyone who thinks noise is noisy, Gareth preferred birdsongs or rain sounds or something warm and inviting. Nobody goes to the mountains to hear a sporadic electric saw! And so annoyed Gareth grit his frustrated teeth at his neighbors, thinking of how stupid the buzzsaw was in his mountain-retreat prayer practice, and could not focus on the contemplation retreat, which he probably paid for too! The saw developed into a concept, which grew into a narrative in Gareth’s mind, which, in fact, is what contemplation tries to avoid. So much for Han’s stillness that contemplates beauty: the saw is not included in that.

            Heroically, (this is why the story is in a contemplation book) Gareth learned to retreat into that non-conceptual space that simply listens to the saw. Here, I imagine that the saw is just as natural as a birdsong, which sounds literally insane. But if you were Gareth and tired of being annoyed, like most of us these days, wouldn’t you simply just accepted the existence of the buzzsaw? Most of us would grumble at that. So maybe he learned to enjoy noise music, in a way that turns your experience into an aesthetic one, as if he put headphones on. He probably encountered stillness after doing that. Sure. And maybe his thoughts no longer became “immersed” in the saw, in spite of Han’s theory, and he was able to linger “disinterestedly” and step outside his own pettiness. Peaceful abiding with the saw: that’s spirituality, apparently.

            Which brings us back to “Deep Listening” as a contemplative practice. When Pauline Oliveros put on tape-recorder headphones to become re-immersed her environment, she hears the familiar as unfamiliar, with a distanced curiosity that transforms “noisy” sounds into an intentional part of experience. And underneath this, her “deep” listening points to an experience of depth into that non-conceptual swamp of stuff, where unfamiliar sounds can emerge without being attached to any particular object, opening up listening to potentiality. The same goes for our Buddhist-Christian theorists, who might see narrative and embodied senses as helpful to approach the non-conceptual stillness and a part of the space cultivated for listening, but continue to prioritize the mysterious. And Laird even relates Gareth’s story as a way of escaping from the conceptuality of the saw, reframing it without needing to comment or narrate its existence. Only Han is our outsider, expecting beauty but also expecting us to, somehow, contemplate things that make us uncomfortable without recourse to a space of non-conceptuality. Without that space, Han is incoherent compared to these contemplative writers, and if this was his intention, he may have effectively led us into this non-conceptuality that he seems to dislike.

Where this seems petty, I’d like to bring in an implicit ethical component that the contemplatives reference: that assocaited with Deep Listening is a “compassionate response.” Let me be a bit broad: being able to listen to others in unexpected ways allows us to irredubcibly encounter the humanity of an “other.” Practicing Deep Listening, even with Pauline Oliveros’ tape recorder, might be practice for encountering others in compassionate ways. 

I’ve also started listening to a band called “Old Saw,” which, although it isn’t exactly noise, makes me think of Gareth. And that’s nice.

Thinking through Non-Things

Byun-Chul Han’s writing reminds me of religious writing. In Non-Things, he preaches against technology and digitization (aka the “non-things”), and writes a very bad chapter on photography.

    Han calls for a new “temporal architecture” of lingering, against the fast-paced, unfocused, effervesence of an “information”-based society. Allegedly, this slow-form (“all form is slow” he says elsewhere)temporal architecture would allow people to construct the trust, responsibility, promises, faithfulness, bonding, and commitments that he sees lacking in our digitized society. Yet, he not only calls for that temporal architecture, but space organized for emptiness--which is a stillness that attracts and structures attention. Together, Han envisions a space and time of “negative resistance” to constitute experience of facticity, against a digitized world that, through the proliferation and freedom of digital content, turns people passive. Specifically, negative resistance in a factual world requires us to practice care. 
    Han’s writing often feels problematically uncritical, undercooked, and contradictory. Instead of untangling the shortcomings of his writing, however, I’d like to develop some of his strong points. First, a trivial story:
    The other day, I drove to a bar in Los Angeles to meet some friends. Normally, I’d follow my GPS step-by-step, so that I would not need to think or plan the route. The GPS does the thinking for me. But the map glitched. I needed to look at the route, memorize the highways and exits, and pay attention to where I was at. I put my phone down to navigate highways that I knew, and felt free from the dictation of the GPS, which sounds incredibly dramatic (look, sarcastically, at my holy and pure experience of non-technology!). But now I do not need my GPS to go to that same location, because the sense of place that I cultivated on the highway became my own--an internalized map.
    Mainly, I understood what Han means by care. He says, “If we have a predictable future in the form of an optimized present, we need not care.” Contingency, according to Han, opens us up to care. In this instance, if I do not have a phone to tell me exactly where to go, or, in Han’s words, to “take care of” me, I am open to making a wrong turn. I must pay attention, learn the route, and drive with intention. Additionally, because I care, the knowledge of the route becomes, in some sense, my own. If I am constituted in part by the knowledge that I grasp and internalize, and that knowledge is local, then I can belong to the locality that I know. Really, it’s knowledge that I can now trust in my gut.
    The GPS is a small and silly example. Han’s critique goes further: where we develop care, we can also develop those things like trust, responsibility, promises, faithfulness, bonding, and commitment. Yet, digitization (Han’s focus) is not the only thing that removes us from care (think of knowledge--especially ideology--that closes us off from contingency, from needing to trust another person), and it would be important to reflect on those thing that remove us from the experience of things, or distract us from cultivating character and community. 
        Digital photography, according to Han, is one of those things that removes us from the facticity of the world; for it is automatically fake, and is no longer “magic.” He favors mediums that are not so transparent and smooth, like a vinyl or a film photo, for these preserve a poetic form. And I used to argue something similar, especially when I switched from a DSLR to a mirrorless camera, but I cannot entertain his critique anymore. For although a digital photo can proliferate infinitely without intention or care, severed from a particular instance of expression (which is something Han is nervous about: infinite, valueless content), there is no automatic glory in film. A bad photo on film is just as much trash as a bad photo on a digital camera; it is not the medium alone through which a photo communicates, but through its form. It may just be easier to fill a hard drive with trashy pictures on a digital camera. In the digital world, it may just be easier to be careless.  
    Where Han leaves us is towards a temporal and spatial architecture of “care.” His care requires the attention and stillness of what he calls “knowledge” rather than pure “information,” taking place in everyday rituals that build narratives out of our lives. Which might mean, for him, it is better to abandon the GPS when we do not need it; for me, it means to be attentive to the mechanism and limitations of the digital camera while I am taking a picture.