Project and Exercise 3.6 The Memory of Photography
David Bate (2010) The Memory of Photography, Photographies, 3:2, 243-257,
The notes below are a distillation of comprehensive notes I made whilst reading the essay. They make sense to me but, given my shorthand way of making notes, may not make sense to the reader.
David Bate’s major question appears to be “What contribution has photography made to the practice of memory in human culture”? (p. 243) and he travels a road from William Henry Fox Talbot’s photograph of Trafalgar Square (1843) to answer it
The Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square under Construction: William Henry Fox Talbot (1843)
Bate follows a convoluted route to get to the conclusion that:
As composite formations photographs, like childhood memories, have a sharpness and innocence that belie meanings that have far more potential significance than is often attributed to them, which means that in terms of history and memory photographs demand analysis rather than hypnotic reveries. (2010:256)
In this respect, Sigmund Freud’s concept of ‘screen memories’ offers an alternative framework.
David Bates’s route map is:
- Sigmund Freud’s views human memory and Culture and memory.
- All types of collective memory can involve manipulation and the deletion of historical information, including domestic photography and family albums
- Photographs produced by the state, media, the Arts and independent social groups are also archives that establish the ‘truth’ of social remembrance; events worthy of presentation, a unifying factor, as monuments of and to the past.
- Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1996), ” The ability to inscribe events, descriptions and traces is a site of social power: a means for some social groups to impose their will over others”. (I have already written about this here
- Jacques Le Goff, History and Memory (1992) “The photograph has a capacity to incorporate and absorb many other already existing visual memory devices within photographic re-presentation”. It can store and reproduce other objects as a visual image.
- If we think of photographs as artificial memories what effect do these have on actual human memory? Negative critique (e.g. Michel Foucault on ‘obstruction’ of memory flow. Literature on family photography tends to reinforce these ideas that an archive is never actually accurate anyway. ‘Partial truths’ re-emerge in public debate across fields of practice – state, media and arts – as realms of fiction or the manipulation of facts.
- Freud pointed out how artificial devices/aids are modelled on the human sensory functions they’re designed to supplement – e.g. the eye and the telescope, the retina of the eye and the “photographic camera” – retention of fleeting visual impressions. He also posited a notion of ‘the mystic writing pad’ (1925) as an artificial memory device (NB like an etch-a-sketch toy which can be written on and then cleared yet the trace remains). (See my earlier link to Jacques Derrida and Archive Fever )
- Bate explores what relationship photographs (as memory devices) have to actual human memory. Do these ‘artificial’ memories create uncertainty because they are memories not necessarily experienced or experienced in a different way? Freud – some people remember through sound (auditifs), others as gestures and actions (moteurs) rather than visually (visuels). However, Freud insists that childhood memories are primarily visual and he terms them ‘Screen Memories’.
- Caveat by Freud – unlike auxiliary apparatus built on sensory functions, natural functions have unlimited receptive capacity for new perceptions yet lay down permanent – even though not unalterable – memory traces of them (back to mystic writing pad?). He refers to two different systems of mental apparatus – perception consciousness retaining no permanent traces, so can react like a clean sheet, and “mnemic” systems lying behind this which preserves permanent traces of the excitations which have been received.
- The ‘unconscious’ contains no memories as such, only mnemic inscriptions – the ‘trace’ left by the memory.
- Memory is located in the pre-conscious – can be recalled at will and brought into consciousness – i.e. this also means a ‘temporary forgetting’ so that consciousness has space for the constant new reception and experiences. It is this space of memory which is subject to ‘screen memories’ – fixed images of childhood. Paradox – earliest childhood memories seem frequently to preserve what is indifferent and unimportant, whereas, frequently, no trace is found in the adult’s memory of impressions dating from that time which are important, impressive and rich in affect.
- The ‘screen memories’ serve as a displacement or shield from other significant memories.They are not to be dismissed as ‘false’ but subject to analytic enquiry, as in psychoanalysis, the challenge being to extract the ‘essential thing’ with which the memory trace is occupied that has been obscured by repression and distortion of the trace of the memory left behind.
- Screen Memory works in three different ways in different temporal differences – retroactive, ‘pushed ahead’ of directly connected to what is screens and it functions through repression and displacement. Freud suggests they offer, “a remarkable analogy with the childhood memories that a nation preserves in its store of legends and myths”. Fairy tales can be made use of as screen memories, similar to the way a hermit crab occupies an empty shell.
- A favourite photograph might also be an “empty shell” for the favourite story about childhood, the image being used as a space, a location for memory traces. This notion leads on to a lesson that can be learned from Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1981), with Bates relating Barthes’s concept of the punctum to Marcel Proust’s ‘involuntary memory’ (In Search of Lost Time).
- Studum is akin to voluntary memory (public or cultural associations can be consciously recalled). The punctum is an involuntary response to a photograph, where an image, inexplicably, makes us react and, so, surprises us. If we follow an associative path from the image to our memory it can lead to other memories – even a supressed memory – and, with critical work, to an essential repressed memory-trace.
- Bate wants to suggest that historical and canonical photographs can be treated with precisely this type of critical model for interpretation. Photographs may be considered in analogy with screen memories, “As with human memory, we can no longer verify the original experience or sensation of the photograph, but the image provides a scene in which we may bring voluntary (studum) or involuntary (punctum) memories to bear upon it. Voluntary memory is like the work of history, but involuntary memory belongs to personal affect. These are both often interwoven in complex ways”. Bate provides an example of this from the photograph of Trafalgar Square that he started with – what Fox-Talbot was showing in a historical sense- and Bates’s interest in the photograph – the linkage back to his childhood memories from living in Portsmouth where “The Victory” ship still stands in the old Naval Dockyard. Thus, as an ‘artificial memory device’ a photograph intersects with a ‘natural memory’ in complex ways.
- Photographic images do not destroy personal memories but interact with them in very specific ways, which may not always be conscious. With photographs memory is both fixed and fluid; social and personal. As sites of memory, photographic images offer not a view on history but, as mnemic devices, are perceptual phenomena upon which a historical representation may be constructed.
- Social memory is interfered with by photography precisely because of its affective and subjective status. So, in the demand for an intellectual response to pictures or for the priority of their subjective affect, the concept of “screen memories” offers an alternative framework. As composite formations photographs, like childhood memories, have a sharpness and innocence that belie meanings that have far more potential significance than is often attributed to them, which means that in terms of history and memory photographs demand analysis rather than hypnotic reveries”.
I enjoyed the journey with David Bate, especially as it was a refresher on earlier reading in the Digital Image & Culture Module on Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida and also Marshall Mcluhan (although Bate doesn’t refer to the latter, which is a shame because McLuhan extended Freud’s views on artificial devices and human sensory functions from printing to modern technology ). Bates’s essay was written in 2010 so views on the interactions between photography and memory may have been expanded with new information/research – perhaps from psychologists who follow theories other than Freudian.
The Memory of Photography