“Why doth this generation seek after a sign? verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation” -Mark 8:12
A few hours ago, I placed an ice cube on asphalt, under the sun. I thought you should know. I could tell you how it slowly transformed through a sad dissolution, shrinking to a fluid, disappearing. I could name it in phases like fusion or evaporation. By the time I’m finished describing it, the cube is gone, but I thought you should know.
If language’s aim is to provide knowledge, crystalized and ready-to-grasp, then its accuracy is narrow. If language is a container for information, then art and poetry and religion are not entirely accounted for. If language’s role is like an impossible lens: pure and transparent signification, pointing to meaning, then understanding should come easily. But language, supposedly, is not always meaningful, nor knowledgeable, nor accurate. Instead, language is steeped in a flow of images that enact the participation of the speaker, or reader, or whomever is engaged.
In Bruno Latour’s “Thou Shall Not Freeze Frame,” what applies to language applies to art and religion: all of these cultural objects, mediating a flow of images, enact the transformation of the speaker and listener into a sense of closeness and presence (like a nonviolent version of Georges Bataille’s intimacy). Experience (this unthinking animality), rather than a frozen and signifying meaning, becomes the priority of our statements. And to “freeze-frame” the process of transformations, or to stop the flow of images, especially in order to analyze their signification, is to miss the point. The experiential transformation of the speaker and listener is the aim of Latour’s language; to freeze a statement, categorizing it as true or untrue, misses the point entirely. Here, language bears no signification, but becomes a mute yet robust practice.
If I speak of an ice cube already gone, its impression is what I communicate to you. And you know, by implication in some chain of referentiality and transformations, that this ice will disappear. Language, like its object, flows through time, removing images from their ponticular stasis. Yet, in this instance, language relies on signification to construct its flow of images, for a single image must signify another.
What, then, might it look like to have a flow of images outside of signification? We might think of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, saying “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Joyce’s sentence seems almost entirely like gibberish, for we expect language to carry some sort of coherent signification. But although language cannot escape its signifying function, it can frustrate our attempts to construct meaning. For Latour, this strategy, like Joyce’s imagery, of rendering images “unfit for normal informative consumption,” breaks “the habitual gaze of the viewer so as to attract his or her attention to the present state,” so that the viewer “takes upon herself to repeat” the experience of the image “in the same rhythm and tempo.”
Here, I would like to make a quick shift to thinking about photography, because the medium, as one that freezes a world continually shifting, is fucked. Photography has no “pulse and tempo” that gives language its transformative power. One image cannot be a flow of images! And, in order to construct a referential flow from a single image, a photographer risks, in Latour’s language, fitting their image into the realm of “normal informative consumption,” relying on tropes anachronous to a stream-like perception of life. Photography’s only salvation, which might also be its downfall, is to become a mute yet robust practice, engaging the viewer and (implied) photographer into an exchange without words. If photography takes up narrative or story, which are techniques of signification, it must also break the habitual gaze of the viewer (beyond mere signification as information) into that present state we call “experience.”
I cannot tell you how to do this, for it is the perpetual and difficult challenge of culture to be continually renewed by expereince. Latour gives some hints: that we must try to understand images “without searching for a prototype;” that it is iconophily to pretend an image has meaning by itself; that an image must also suggest that we move on and not linger; and that an image must allow us to be seized, in order that we break away from the habitual passage of time. If an image is communication between a photographer and a viewer, then the photographer must move on from their habits; a photographer must, at the very least, try to be seized; a photographer must not search for a prototype; a photographer must not take the image more seriously than the experience that they are immersed in. Here, by forgetting itself, photography ends its role as a preservation of memory, as a static carrier of knowledge, and begins an impossible challenge to direct our attention away from the image and its significations, into the mute presence of experience.
We’ve had our Rothko. We’ve had our Joyce. We’ve aimed at silent experience, entered the world shrugging off its signs, achieved our modernist mysticism, and were left wanting. We’ve come down from the mountain, untransfigured, tabernacleless, instructed “tell the vision to no man.” We’ve moved on. I cannot tell you of the ice exactly. I must move on.
For the mute presence of experience is just that: it is mute. Experience cannot name itself. We cannot take its picture and we cannot correspond it to signification. Yet, this whole time, we have been pretending that the knowledge, information, and meaning that are bound up in language and signification are, in a way, escapable and purified by their imaginary tether to experience. We’ve been rused into thinking that no matter what, experience (like language without signification!) becomes the intangible and legitimating point of the world meanings. Here, experience, according to Robert Sharf, is becomes like an “irrefutable” and “indubitable” epistemological foundation that gains its strength at the expense of signification or discursive meaning. More pointedly, “The category experience is, in essence, a mere placeholder that entails a substantive if indeterminate terminus for the relentless deferral of meaning. And this is precisely what makes the term experience so amenable to ideological appropriation.” If experience is a mute placeholder, it is signification, disjointed from pure experience, that gives experience a character and style, or, in Sharf’s case, ideology. So, to follow Latour’s suggestion (and he resides within his own Catholic tradition, hinting that it should be unproblematically renewed through the transmission of experience), would be to be seized (like it or not!) by the language and imagery that stylizes our experience (once we remove our blinders) by carrying, even implicitly, knowledge, information, and meaning—all of which can (and should!) be freeze-framed and analyzed. For if Latour prizes the experiential transformation of the speaker and listener through language, then, unless ignorance is a virtue, we must also ask, transformed into what?
To question the transformation would be to freeze-frame our discourse; it would be to break the spell of experience. The photographer would stumble over their own self-consciousness (would we realize that we’ve been reproducing a prototype all along? Or realize to take the experience seriously would be to put down the camera entirely?). The only way out, overlooked by Latour, is that knowledge, signification, and information extend the flow of images in new and challenging ways, and that freeze framing enacts an experiential transformation of those engaged in communication. For we have never escaped signification, although we have tried. We have heard, against instruction, of that vision of transfiguration.
Here, a slight change to the Latour’s hints. The photographer constructs the experience that they are immersed in, so that to take the image seriously is to take the experience seriously, and vice versa. An image demands that we linger, for it, too, is frozen. For one image of one moment to be selected over any other, for its capacity for meaning is prioritized, would be iconophily (but who cares?). We will never entirely break away from the habitual passage of time, but only integrate different habits into time. And the mute presence of experience is merely a “well-meaning squirm that will get us nowhere.” But really, an image does not care how we participate, and I, unlike Latour, do not want to walk through life in constant seizure.