The ethical force of photographic mediation

Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska

blood3Still from If It Reads, It Bleeds (2010) by Joanna Zylinska

‘What is photography?’ yet again

Given that mediation is, like time (or, indeed, life itself), both invisible and indivisible, any attempt at its representation must ultimately fail. In this piece we offer a challenge to the representationalist mode of perception by exploring, perhaps counter-intuitively, a form of media practice that is most readily associated with representationalist ambitions: photography. Our aim is not so much to raise familiar questions regarding photography’s truth claims and its supposed ‘indexicality’, i.e., the relation the photographic image allegedly maintains to an object it is said to represent. Rather, we are interested in foregrounding the productive and performative aspect of photographic acts and practices that are intrinsic to the taking or making of a picture. With a view to this, we propose to understand photography as an active practice of cutting through the flow of mediation, where the cut operates on a number of levels: perceptive, material, technical and conceptual. The recurrent moment of the cut — one we encounter not just in photography but also in film-making, sculpture, writing or, indeed, any other technical practice that involves transforming matter — is posited by us as both a technique (an ontological entity encapsulating something that is, or something that is taking place) and an ethical imperative (as expressed by the command: ‘Cut!’). The key question that organizes our argument is therefore as follows: If we must inevitably cut, and if the cut functions as an intrinsic component of any creative, artistic, and especially, photographic practice, then what does it mean to cut well?

The argument about the special relation between photography and the practice of the cut forms the core of this essay. The reasons for this ‘specialness’ are multiple, the predominant one having to do with the way in which photography highlights rather than hides the process of cutting. It does this both on an ontological level, by carving reality into fragments and framing them in a certain way, and on an ethical level, whereby ethical stakes are raised by photography’s supposedly evidential force that makes a claim to a certain version of reality and demands a response from us.

In introducing a distinction between photography as a practice of the cut and photographs as products of this process of cutting, we aim to capture and convey the vitality of photographic movements and acts. If, indeed, ‘To live is to be photographed’ (Sontag, 2004: non-pag.), then, contrary to its more typical association with the passage of time and death, photography can be understood more productively in terms of vitality, as a process of differentiation and life-making. It is precisely in its efforts to arrest duration, to capture the flow of life — beyond singular photographs’ success or failure at representing this or that referent — that photography’s vital forces are activated, we claim.

blood1Still from If It Reads, It Bleeds (2010) by Joanna Zylinska

Through the chaos

In the concluding pages of What Is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari provide an overview of their theory of concept-formation as a way of organizing the turmoil of the world, of taming its vibrations. They write: ‘chaos has three daughters, depending on the plane that cuts through it: these are the Chaoids — art, science, and philosophy — as forms of thought or creation. We call Chaoids the realities produced on the planes that cut through the chaos in different ways’ (1994: 208). To explain how we deal with the physical reality of the world, Deleuze and Guattari conjure up these three mythical creatures that stand for different ways of organizing matter, physically and conceptually, into forms.

Following their lead, we want to suggest that the practice of cutting is crucial not just to our being in and relating to the world, but also to our becoming-with-the-world, as well as becoming-different-from-the-world. It therefore has an ontological significance: it is a way of shaping the universe, and of shaping ourselves in it. Indeed, Deleuze and Guattari themselves claim that a concept, any concept — which for them does not serve ‘to replicate accurately in discourse specific segments of the world as it really is (as science does), but to propose articulations of and/or solutions to problems, to offer new and different perspectives on orientations toward the world’ (Holland, 2005: 52) — is a ‘matter of articulation, of cutting and cross-cutting’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994: 16). The process of cutting is one of the most fundamental processes through which we emerge as ‘selves’ as we engage with matter and attempt to give it (and ourselves) form.

Cutting reality into small pieces — with our eyes, our bodily and cognitive apparatus, our memory, our technologies — we enact our separation from and relationality with matter in time. Whether these enactments get recognized as legitimate daughters of chaos such as art, science, and philosophy, or whether they remain nameless, unlawful, half-bred, depends on the mobilization of the whole network of institutional responses that give names to cultural practices. What is interesting for us here is not so much the particular acts of legitimate recognition but rather the very process of making cuts — both on the level of matter and on the level of culture.

Photography fits perfectly into this dualist schema due to its uncertain ontological status: it is both an act of carving the world into manageable, temporarily stabilized two-dimensional images of it and a set of institutions and conventions that arbitrate over doing things with a camera in a variety of different contexts. However, photography is more than a sum of solidifying acts and stabilized objects. Mobilizing the thinking on time, movement and creation by two philosophers who did not have many positive things to say about photography — Bergson only ever talks about ‘snapshots’, which stand for him for compromised attempts to give form to duration, while Deleuze is clearly much more interested in cinema — we want to look more closely at this elision of photography from the materialist philosophy of duration in search of a more productive engagement with ‘the photographic cut’. We also want to address the inherently creative potential of photographic practice, as something that exceeds the realm of human creativity. One way to explain this is by saying that there is always more to photography than a series of photographs already in place: its potentiality includes all the photographs ‘not yet taken’, all those cuts ‘not yet made’. In making incisions into duration, in stabilizing its flow into graspable entities, photography is inherently involved with time.

Most people’s everyday experience positions them as collectors of memories, viewers of moments of captured temporality, and producers of such moments. Arguably, over the last half century, photography has become so ubiquitous that our sense of being is intrinsically connected with being photographed, and with making sense of the world around us through seeing it imaged. Yet even though photographs are indeed ubiquitous and even if their primary mode of functioning is that of recording (the passage of) time, and of introducing a differentiation between the now-time and the-time-that-once-was, this relational, dynamic aspect of photography arguably gets lost amongst the plethora of photographic objects and artifacts. This problem is exemplified in Barthes’ position as presented in Camera Lucida, whereby his search for the essence of his dead mother in the Winter Garden photograph, which supposedly represents her (and which we never see), ‘supersedes, and overlays, his search for the essence of photography. It leads him to replace photography with the photograph, memory with the memory, virtual existence with actual existence, and, ironically, perhaps, (her) life with (his) death’ (Kember, 2008: 177).

blood4aaStill from If It Reads, It Bleeds (2010) by Joanna Zylinska

A categorical imperative to make a cut

However, if we are to think about photography in terms of mediation — whereby mediation stands for the differentiation of, as well as connection between, media, and, more broadly, for the acts and processes of producing and temporarily stabilizing the world into media, agents, relations and networks — we need to see the ontology of photography as predominantly that of becoming. After Bergson, intuition stands for more than mere feeling or inspiration: it is a form of knowing through practice. Bergson’s turn to intuition is an attempt to recapture this not quite yet atrophied instinctive mode of relating to reality which does not posit a prior separation between the knower and its objects in the way the intellect does, but which rather presents knowledge to us ‘from within’. The intellect’s manner of functioning is mechanistic: it ‘represents becoming as a series of states, each of which is homogeneous with itself and consequently does not change’ (Bergson, 1944: 179). In other words, the intellect cuts up reality into fragments, which it then passes off as truthful representations of this reality. It seems that the intellect can therefore understand photographs but it cannot understand photography; it can understand media but not mediation.

We want to suggest (with Bergson and Deleuze, but perhaps also against them) that this call to intuition can be understood as a call for a temporary suspension of the method of knowing, i.e. carving, the world. This is not to offer instead a ‘go with the flow’ attitude, but rather to postulate what could be termed ‘differential cutting’ — which is another name for ‘cutting well’. Further, if cuts are inevitable and if cut indeed we must, then photography can be seen as a transintuitive practice of working through the cut, of re-cutting and re-cising things ‘for good measure’. It is precisely in the gap between photographs as media objects, and photography as a practice of mediation that aims and fails to capture the passage of time, that an ethical imperative presents itself to us. This imperative entails a call to make cuts where necessary, while not forgoing the duration of things. Rather than being reduced to a technique for providing false renderings of the world which is ultimately unstable and moving, photography can be said to lend us a helping hand in managing this duration of the world.

Karen Barad’s notion of ‘the agential cut’ developed in her book, Meeting the Universe Halfway, can provide us with some ideas on how to engage with the agency of matter and how to raise ethical questions in a world which is relational, durational, constantly becoming. Drawing on Niels Bohr’s work, Barad develops a philosophical position that remains attentive to ‘matter’s dynamism’, recognizing as she does that matter is ‘an active factor’ in any ongoing and further materializations of the world. Commenting on the use of apparatuses in physics experiments, she recognizes that they are not ‘passive observing instruments; on the contrary, they are productive of (and part of) phenomena’ (Barad, 2006: 142). If we apply this to photography, we can see how the camera as a viewing device, the photographic frame both in the viewfinder and as the circumference of a photographic print, the enlarger, the computer, the printer, and the photographer (who, in many instances, such as CCTV or speed cameras, is replaced by the camera-eye), are all active agents in the constitution of a photograph. In other words, they are all part of what we understand by photography. Indeed, Barad points out that causal intra-actions within the world ‘need not involve humans’ — although the semiotic designation of a set of these practices and actions as ‘photography’, and the cultural valorization thereof, does (2006: 140). The role of the agential cut, enacted by human and nonhuman agents alike, is to divide photography into photographs, but then to reconnect the latter to its beyond: i.e., photographic duration whose stabilizations into artifacts are only ever temporary.

If the cut is indeed ‘enacted rather than inherent’, and if its task is to enact ‘a resolution’ (Barad, 2006: 142), then we can see how this kind of agential cut has both an ontological and an ethical dimension: it is a causal procedure that performs the division of the world into entities, but it is also an act of decision with regard to the boundaries of those entities. Naturally, only some of these de-cisions will be true ethical decisions in the sense of having been made by (or with) a human agent, but the majority of them will have moral consequences. What we mean by a ‘true ethical decision’ here differs from the position on agency in traditional moral philosophy, whereby an ethical decision is made by a transparent, self-contained, liberal subject who is capable of evaluating the available options and making a rational choice from amongst them. For us, a decision is always to some extent a-rational, made by the (inhuman) other in me, and necessitating a leap of faith beyond the scope of available options. To answer the question posed at the beginning of this piece: ‘what does it mean to cut well?’, we want to suggest that a good cut is an ethical cut, whereby an in-cision is also a de-cision. Cutting well therefore means cutting (film, tape, reality) in a way that does not lose sight of the horizon of duration, or foreclose on the creative possibility of life enabled by this horizon.

* The material presented here has been adapted from chapter 3 of Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska’s 2012 book, Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), in which the authors propose a theory of mediation as a dynamic framework for understanding our relationality with media.


Barad, K. (2006) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bergson, H. (1944) Creative Evolution. New York: Random House. (First published in 1911)

Deleuze G. & Guattari, F. (1994) What is Philosophy? New York: Columbia University Press.

Holland, E. (2005) ‘Concepts and Utopia’, The Deleuze Dictionary, ed. A. Parr. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Kember, S. (2008) ‘The Virtual Life of Photography’, photographies Vol. 1, Issue 2 (September): 175-203.

Sontag, S. (2004) ‘Regarding The Torture of Others’, The New York Times, May 23, accessed on July 14, 2011.

Sarah Kember is Professor of New Technologies of Communication at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her work is concerned with new media, photography and feminist cultural approaches to science and technology. She is the author of a novel, The Optical Effects of Lightning (Wild Wolf Publishing, 2011) and a short story, ‘The Mysterious Case of Mr Charles D. Levy’ (Ether Books, 2010). Her experimental work includes an edited open access book, Astrobiology and the Search for Life on Mars (Open Humanities Press, 2011). Her latest academic monograph, co-written with Joanna Zylinska, is Life After New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process (MIT Press, 2012). She co-edits the journals photographies and Feminist Theory.

Joanna Zylinska is Professor of New Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. The author of four books – most recently, Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process (with Sarah Kember; MIT Press, 2012) and Bioethics in the Age of New Media (MIT Press, 2009) – she is also a translator of Stanislaw Lem’s major philosophical treatise, Summa Technologiae (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). Together with Clare Birchall, Gary Hall and Open Humanities Press, she runs the JISC-funded project Living Books about Life, which involves publishing open access books at the crossroads of the humanities and the sciences. She combines her theoretical writings with photographic art practice and curatorial work.

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