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En cela, donc, l’image brûle. Elle brûle du réel dont elle s’est, à un moment, approchée (comme on dit, dans les jeux de devinette, «tu brûles» pour «tu touches presque l’objet caché»). Elle brûle du désir qui l’anime, de l’intentionnalité qui la structure, de l’énonciation, voire de l’urgence qu’elle manifeste (comme on dit «je brûle pour vous» ou «je brûle d’impatience»). Elle brûle de la destruction, de l’incendie qui faillit la pulvériser, dont elle réchappa et dont, par conséquent, elle est capable aujourd’hui d’offrir encore l’archive et la possible imagination. Elle brûle de la lueur, c’est-à-dire de la possibilité visuelle ouverte par sa consummation même: vérité précieuse mais passagère, puisque vouée à s’éteindre (comme une bougie nous éclaire mais, en brûlant, se détruit elle-même). Elle brûle de son intempestif mouvement, incapable qu’elle est de s’arrêter en chemin (comme on dit «brûler les étapes»), capable qu’elle est de toujours bifurquer, de brusquement partir ailleurs (comme on dit «brûler la politesse»). Elle brûle de son audace, lorsqu’elle rend tout recul, toute retraite impossible (comme on dit «brûler les ponts» ou «brûler ses vaisseaux»). Elle brûle de la douleur d’où elle vient et qu’elle procure à quiconque prend le temps de s’y attacher. Enfin, l’image brûle de la mémoire, c’est-à-dire qu’elle brûle encore, lors même qu’elle n’est que cendre: façon de dire son essentielle vocation à la survivance.

☛ “L’image brûle” by Georges Didi-Huberman, Art Press, special issue no. 25, 2004, p. 73.

I was reminded of this article by French art historian Georges Didi-Huberman while reading a post (and its follow-up) written by veteran photoblogger Joerg Colberg over at his website Conscientious. The topic of the posts relates to the nature of our relationship with images, particulary with disturbant images. Colberg’s main argument calls for us to rethink this relationship: “We need to add ourselves back in.”

Georges Didi-Huberman wrote a rich and moving plea along the same lines back in 2004. The conference, first pronounced on June 18, 2004, at the Pompidou Center in Paris was later shortened and published in Art Press magazine. On April 20, 2006, Didi-Huberman presented an English version of the text titled “Aesthetic and Ethic – The Image Burns” at the Northwestern University (Illinois, USA). I couldn’t find the full text online, neither in French nor in English. However, a substantial English review of a keynote address given by Didi-Hubermam a few weeks before is available online (PDF). Since the keynote has the same title as the article discussed here, one can fairly assume it’s the same text, if not a slightly modified version (a comparative reading of both the French article published in Art Press magazine and the English review available online will lead to the same conclusion).

Didi-Huberman, like others before him, observes a phenomenon and the threats commonly associated with it. Most of us are exposed in our daily lives to an increasing number of images. This overwhelming presence, it has been argued, could render us numb: seeing too many shocking images on the news, for example, could lead us to experience them as being ordinary, common.

Nous vivons à l’époque de l’imagination déchirée. L’information nous donnant trop par démultiplication des images, nous sommes incités à ne plus rien croire de ce que nous voyons, et finalement à ne plus rien vouloir regarder de ce que nous avons sous les yeux (2004:71)

The French art historian, in an agile demonstration, argues for the adoption of an attitude that could prevent this: an ethic stand for an aesthetic experience. The whole article is dense with ideas and written in a poetic and moving prose. Here are, drastically summarized, two of its strongest ideas mixed with my own comments.

L’une des grandes forces de l’image est de faire en même temps symptôme (interruption dans le savoir) et connaissance (interruption dans le chaos) (2004:69)

The image is both a symptom of our time (in the way it proliferates, in its content) and the knowledge we have about the context of our life. However, in order for the image to become knowledge, we have to acknowledge our responsibility towards it. What does it mean for one to be responsible toward an image? Another author, Günther Anders, once explained that responsibility is the capacity to give a response, to answer for something, to someone. In order for us to become responsible for the images filling our everyday lives, we must be able to answer for them. It means that we need to think about them, to produce explanations, to identify differences between them, etc. The discussions which accompanies an image may be, in this regard, more important than the recognition of a single authoritative explanation. Such an endeavor asks for the permanent development of one’s own iconographic culture. This development is not the prerogative of artists and art historians: it’s a shared social responsibility.
In order to think about an image (rather than being passively exposed to it), one must engage in a relation with it. However, this relation bears a double threat. On one hand, one risks indulging himself with his own emotional response (be it of fascination or repulsion). It’s the fall of reason in favor of affect. On the other hand, one could conclude that one needs to walk away from the image, to break the relationship (invoking moral reasons, for example). It’s the fall of affect in favor of pure rationale. Didi-Huberman argues that both those stances are necessary, but remain insufficient if not conjured together. He cleverly writes:

Une forme sans regard est une forme aveugle […] Réciproquement, un regard sans forme et sans formule demeure un regard muet. (2004:71)

He goes on suggesting that one should root the rationale of his experience into the ground of his emotional response: an appropriate answer to an image could therefore grow out of the reunion of those two opposite attitudes.
Therefore, one could say that an image has the value of the relationship it helps to create and develop with its spectator. At the same time, someone’s ideas have the value of the relationship in which one’s willing to engage himself while experiencing an image.
Or to put it differently (more bluntly) : one deserves the image he or she sees.
Two of Georges Didi-Huberman’s essays on images have been translated to English: Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009) and Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz (tr. by Shane B. Lillis, University of Chicago Press, 2008). Both are highly relevant to the topics at stake here.

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