Images and catastrophe. A dialogue on photography and presentism
Interview by Roberta Agnese for CALAMITA/À
François Hartog, is a French historian and professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, in Paris, where he holds the chair of modern and contemporary historiography. He contributed to the creation of the concept of presentism and of « Regimes of historicity ». Ancient scholar at the École Normale Supérieure, he followed the work of the historian Jean-Pierre Vernant and is interested in the work of Reinhard Koselleck. His recent works focus on the contemporary experience of time, on the process of temporalization of time and on the notions of catastrophe and apocalypse. He directed for the Musée du Louvre the conference cycle « Prophecy, apocalypse, time », where he talked about the catastrophist allegories of history in Art History. He published, among other works: Le miroir d’Hérodote (1980), Mémoire d’Ulysse. Récits sur la frontière en Grèce ancienne (1996), Régimes d’historicité. Présentisme et expériences du temps (2003), Évidence de l’histoire. Ce que voient les historiens (2006).
CALAMITA/À: As an historian, you worked on the concept of time, history’s raw material, a concept that forges its knowledge but that at the same time remains external to the discipline itself and that, nevertheless, encounters other disciplines and practices. You worked in particular on those concepts and notions that determine and characterize our relation to time and historicity, as humans « dans le temps », as you say by quoting Proust. Among all these concepts that contribute to a temporalization of time, you payed a special attention to those notions that can be defined as tools to forge time, as the catastrophe and the apocalypse. How do these notions structure and give form to time and how do they influence our world today?
François Hartog: Apocalypse and catastrophe exist for us since a long time. But a difference exists between them. The apocalypse arrives, if I may say so, before the catastrophe. Its thematization appears in a specific context, that of the hellenistic judaism and the beginnings of the Christian era. And also what each of them implies, is very different. The apocalypse, in its first use, is what we find in the Book of Daniel, which dates back to the 2nd century BC. In a context of crisis, that of the occupation of the Temple by Anthiocos, who perpetrated sacrifices according to Greek customs, Jews saw no other possible solution than of an end to come. The end of a negative history, of the awful time of the « abomination of desolation », as we find written in the Book. They didn’t see any other exit than a radical change, a total renewal and the beginning of something new. So, Apocalypse is what « comes », its warning signs have to be observed, because the point is to know « when? ». That’s why apocalyptic writers calculate frenetically how long this time of pain will last? How long sufferings and persecutions will last? This renewal means the institution of a different world, « a different earth and a different heaven », that we prevent from representation. We know that it will be completely different and the apocalyptic author goes as far as the edge of the collapse and of the renewal. He’s the one that knows the way out, he is the one that can understand, in light of the « revealing », everything that happened before and make it meaningful.
Through centuries, we can observe how the notion of apocalypse has been used in a more or less aseptic or euphemistic way, because it is a scheme that never ceased to actively function during all western History, with some moments of reactivation and intensification, that clearly correspond to periods of crisis, when human groups had the conviction to live in a context with no way out, with no other way out than that of a complete change, that could bring the defeat of the evil and the revenge of the vanquished. So, this apocalyptic scheme is there, it is present in manifold ways, according to ages, and it is always employable. So, the modern revolutionary scheme has retained something of this apocalyptic structure, with the vision of the revolution as « grand soir » and new dawn. As the apocalyptic authors asked themselves if it was possibile to accelerate the « end », revolutionary movements have sharply discussed the possibility to know whether it was possibile to accelerate the event of the Revolution or not.
Catastrophe is something different: the apocalypse, in principle, happens only once, even if today we can observe daily apocalypses, nearly every day, or we can observe some situations described as apocalyptic, according to a trivial or degraded use of this notion. But, in principle, it can happen only once, and it is the good one! The catastrophe is different, it repeats itself, it is its own nature. And it is the way our society conceives it. Since twenty years or so, we currently talk of a time of catastrophes, or an era of catastrophes, that we should have entered in. So, we try to avoid the catastrophe (unlike apocalypse, that we are afraid of but that we also wait for as a radical change and deliverance), to warn or to prevent it. In our world, in our time, we know that the catastrophe is there, that it corrodes and that the best that we can do is to get ready to it. This is the main theme of the « Enlightened Doomsaying » by Jean-Pierre Dupuy, whose topic is the certainty of the catastrophe, a climatic, sanitary, nuclear one or whatever: it is certain but we don’t believe in it. What we have to do is to act as if it was already there. It is a radically different perspective from that of the apocalypse and the « promotion », if I may say so, of the catastrophe is characteristic of our contemporaneity. Unlike the apocalypse, that according to its religious perspectives, had a meaning and gave a meaning to what had happened before and what could happen in the future, the catastrophe, at the end, it doesn’t have a meaning: etymologically speaking, it is what falls on you! What we expect from the public authorities is first of all that they react as quick as possible to the catastrophe, without really understand what’s going on.
In my opinion, this attitude is linked to the presentism, that is the domination of the category of the present. The catastrophe doesn’t find its place in the futuristic temporality of the development and the progress of humanity. When the catastrophe becomes the horizon, we are not in this perspective anymore. What really matters is the time of reaction, the rush to be the first to react, to be in the place where it happened. The strategy is a communication one. Just have a look to politicians’ way of dealing with it. Moreover, working through grief is also necessary in order to rapidly overcome the event and move on. And wait for the next catastrophe to come.
A/À: The project CALAMITA/À is related to the catastrophe of the Vajont. On 9 October 1963, at 22:39, a landslide of about 260 millions of cubic meters of earth and rocks fell into the dam and caused a massive displacement of 50 millions of cubic meters, that turned out into the valley and destroyed Longarone and other villages as well. It killed about 2000 people, while the dam wasn’t damaged at all. As we can read on the website of the project, this hydrogeological disaster « froze time in an eternal present » and for ever changed landscape’s configuration and people’s lives as well. An eternal present seems to be the characteristic temporal condition of a post-apocalyptic or a post-catastrophist era but, as you observe, an « omnipresent present » asserts itself as the « only possible horizon » in the regime of historicity we are in. Do we live in a post-apocalyptic context without really realizing? Or, if a distinction may be done between the temporality of the « before » and the one of the « after », are we rather waiting the catastrophe to come? How these temporalities interact with bodies, societies, landscapes?
FH: Yes, even if in some way it is more a post-catastrophist context than a post-apocalyptic one. But, one more time, we have these different meanings – more or less degraded – of the notion of apocalypse, as we said. This formulation of a « frozen time » is interesting. Let’s consider, as an example, Hiroshima. It is with no doubt a catastrophe – but somebody talked about it in the terms of an apocalypse too – and at Hiroshima, on the site of the catastrophe, we can still find the clock that still indicates the time of the bombing. So, there, time stopped for ever. And always about this frozen time and the questions that it raises, I’m thinking about this French village, Ouradour-sur-Glane, in the Limousin. This village was completely destroyed on the 10 June 1944, by the « Das Reich » SS commando, that was going towards the north, to Normandy. This commando stopped by this village, suddenly set fire to it and killed 600 people. Immediately after this event, it has been decided to preserve the ruins exactly as they were. So, the idea of frozing time is evident, as the one to preserve the site to make it witness of the nazi barbarity. But how can we deal with it, legally and practically? The only possible way was to approve a law to classify the entire site, a desert ruin, as an ‘historical monument’, with the commitment to preserve all the site in the state of ruins, exactly as they were the day after the 10th of June. But how to preserve ruins in the state of ruins? It is necessary to save them from the ravages of time, from inclement weather, etc. Does it mean that we have to avoid that they become a sort of romantic ruin? Also these kinds of question can rise about a catastrophe’s site. What to do, then? The choice to leave ruins as they are implies however an intervention on them. But to what extent? It could be better to reconstruct, maybe, but then it is necessary to choose between a complete restoration, to rebuild it exactly as it was, or a complete destruction, in order to entirely reconstruct. But what? The same thing or another one? Each time, these decisions imply also some operations on time: which is the time we call on? Do we want to remain in a fixed present, to stop the clock? In order to remain a ruin, Oradour-sur-Glane had been restored many times and in the meanwhile, a new town was being built next to. So, how can we stay in the present of the catastrophe? How to negotiate this requirement, formulated by the legislator in 1945, while years pass by and the witnesses, those who knew the catastrophe, disappear?
Since 1990, all of this has been drawn into the huge whole of the « heritage ». That’s why a memorial center has been built, through which it is necessary to pass if you want to reach the site itself. The risk is that ruins left as ruins become silent. Seventy years after, ruins are places of memory and a step in the heritage path.
A/À: « Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence. ». These lines are a quotation from the post-apocalyptic novel « The Road », by C. McCarthy. Literary production is rich of this kind of examples and Art History too has many representations of apocalypse, not to mention cinematographic examples.
Another kind of artistic production, that tries to shape and understand our world, as photography, is interested in the theme of the catastrophe, by considering it a typical condition of our time, and it does so in different forms: to see the world’s destruction (Robert Polidori), to see in the world’s destruction how it is made (Ian van Coller) or see and show the time of the destruction (Wolfgang Tillmans e Hans-Christian Schink). In your seminars and research, you often quote literary examples; moreover, you recently curated the conference cycle at the Louvre Museum « Prophecy, apocalypse, time ». This was the occasion for you to talk in particular about the historical allegories of the apocalypse. Which are the images that help you to think these concepts? Are there some images that you consider as fundamental for you research?
FH: If we look at Tillmans’ photos, we can see his intention to show the moment, or rather the instant, of the catastrophe. Could it be a variation on the theme if the decisive instant of Cartier-Bresson? We are confronted to an artifact too, of course, because it consists of giving the spectator the impression (the illusion) that he sees « live » the very moment of the event (the beginning of the avalanche). To be as closer as possible to the moment of the event and stop the fall, that is the time. The images of Katrina (Polidori) are conceived in a different way. Here, we are in the aftermath, in the disorder and the desolation, and what strikes here is the absence of the human. There are only ruins, many kind of ruins, but no one. So, we are in the time of the aftermath and we don’t know if something can start again: a life, but what kind of? Tillmans’ perspective is different. He gives the impression of the very moment, by stopping the fall or the avalanche. We know for sure that they will smash, but if we look at the image, we don’t know it anymore. I think that here the photographer is trying to show the moment of the upsetting.
With the images of the Tsunami, we are again in the aftermath, in the devastation and in the absence of the human. What we see, is a destroyed world: the life of the village is captured in a mortal standstill.
But in all of these cases, what is significant is that photographers who try to catch their own age, show a time of catastrophes. What they see in this moment and, probably, what we expect from them to show us. Either by positioning themselves in the very moment of the event, or immediately after, but we always have to deal with a time that stands still. And it is either the almost-present of the catastrophe, the moment it happens (by the way, this is how they show it) or the aftermath, but it is a stopped time, because nothing remains: only ruins that will surely collapse little by little. There’s no aperture towards a future of reconstruction.
These photos operate differently from the allegories of the catastrophe that I choose for my book « Croire en l’histoire ». The famous Angel of History by Paul Klee, or as it is seen by Walter Benjamin, shows a catastrophe going on, that is a History that, since the beginning, is nothing more than a cumulation of catastrophes. The angel sees this catastrophic course of history but, carried by the wind of progress, he cannot stop to accomplish the funeral rites that would be necessary. From his dominant position, he perceives what we could call the reverse of the modern regime of historicity: not the glorious going forward of the Modern, but the march hand-to-hand of progress and barbary. According to Benjamin, this angel by Klee links catastrophe and apocalypse, denounces the course of history, but leaves open to the possibility of another history, able to combine messianic breath with the revolutionary ideal. Because Benjamin is not at all a singer of the end of history.
With Anselm Kiefer’s « Angel of History » we are confronted to something different. The angel is now a plane, a bomber maybe, made of lead and in very bad condition. This plane will never fly again. It is fixed to the ground. We can see in it a mechanical and degraded form of Klee’s angel. We can even think that it played a role in the cumulation of war’s ruin. According to the way Kiefer sculpted it, we have the impression that it has just been exhumed from an archeological dig, witnessing a frozen present, a history that we thought past but also a catastrophe that effectively happened. Fixed to the ground, it witnesses a stopped time. In this sense, it is closer to the photographs we talked about than to Benjamin’s angel. It expresses the time of the aftermath, exhuming a past that was not past at all, that comes back. How to live after the catastrophe, is there still a possible history? These are the questions that the spectator is driven to ask himself.
With the big installation by Liliana Porter, we are immersed in ruins in the same way: a long overview of ruins, of different kind and dimensions. A lot of time would be necessary to inventory them : we find a piano, but also Kennedy’s car in Dallas, a hammer and a sickle, some nazis and Mickey Mouse! The installation’s title is « Man with axe ». And actually, placed at one of the extremities, we find a little figure that raises an axe. Is he maybe the author of those devastations? Or he is only somebody who continues mechanically destroying what was in part already destroyed? Does he moves forward or back? Does he face the past or turn his back to the future? Is this axe the history’s axe? Never mind what it is, this long overview of deteriorated objects, of destructions, shows to the spectator a sort of more or less confused history, but whose shade is clear: material history of modernity, a history that produces waste, the history of the violences of the XIX century. A history in ruins. According to me, the installation of Liliana Porter, an Argentinian artist who lives in New York, is another revisitation of the theme of the Angel of History. It really shows this vision of the history (that Benjamin says to be the Angel’s one) as a cumulation of catastrophes. With one more degradation: the Angel sees everything, he has a synoptic vision of history, while the man with the axe, who has a similar position, doesn’t see anything, maybe he can hardly see his feet, and probably he doesn’t understand what he’s doing and why. In the case of this installation, the one that can have a synoptical vision is the spectator. But from this synoptical vision, he cannot take out a narrative. He sees everything but he doesn’t really understand, because maybe, at the end, there’s nothing to understand. Since a lot of time, history has no more meaning and time stopped. And here we cannot see anything that could restart it again.
A/À: It is often said that photography can freeze the instant and time. Actually, photography is a practice that aims at the very heart of time and that is made by the same stuff of time. As the English photographer Paul Graham says: « the creative act at the heart of serious photography » is « nothing less than the measuring and folding of the cloth of time itself » (Paul Graham at the MoMA Photography Forum, 16th February 2010). To measure, to fold time: it calls to my mind the historian who does his job, it makes me think about your research on the temporalization of time. It reasserts the theoretical closeness between history and photography, that has already been underlined (Kracauer, Barthes, Chéroux, Rancière) and shows, moreover, that photography not only allows us to see the past, but that it can allow us also to « think » history. What do you think about those theoretical affinities, as an historian?
FH: For a long time, I actually didn’t care, because I worked on those periods when photography didn’t exist! But, at the same time, I always questioned the dimension of seeing and of the visible. « What do historians see » is the subtitle of my book, « L’evidence de l’histoire ». For the historian, the dimension of the visible has always been important, most of all since the Greeks made the vision the principal instrument of knowledge. The question of the seeing goes along with the one of showing. The historian, as the photographer, sees to let a spectator or a reader see a scene, a place, a character, etc. With a difference: the historian often shows what he didn’t (directly) see, without pretending that he saw it. In contrast with the historical novel, for example. It is an important aspect of his work. To show, without seizing the place of the eye witness that he is not.
Today, contemporary history, the history of the present, the immediate history are what is privileged and so the images (instantaneously visible) are; the difference between the historian and the photographer tends to reduce itself. The historian cannot ignore the images anymore, and everybody can become a photographer. More in general, we live in a period where the eye witness has become a central figure. There are no reportages, no tv-shows without witnesses. Many debates raised to sustain that, at the end, we don’t need the historian anymore, that he is only a parasite and that what we want is a direct and dramatic face-to-face between the witness and the spectator or the reader, without the intervention of a third person that mix up things and introduces a distance. This valorization of the immediacy and authenticity has given, at the same time, a central place to the photographic image. Because it is the proof that something « has been », that « happened » (despite the opening of the huge domain of the retouched images). At the time of the École Méthodique, in XIX century, the witness was, at best, a source. Today, we expect from the historian that he tries not only to erase himself in the presence of the witness, but also that he sees things as the witness does, and shows, if possible, what the witness himself saw. The risk is that the historian turns himself into a « delegate witness » or into a substitute. It would be interesting, I think, to analyze in parallel the position of the photographer too : how does he mediate society’s expectations? What is his role?
A/À: In your book « L’evidence de l’histoire » you underlined the importance of the seeing for ancient historians. And so, as you write, the evidence, the clear and distinct vision, the vividness, its strength « allows to put a sight on…: it shows, by creating and effect or an illusion of presence. Through image’s power, the listener is affected as if he was really present ». This « effet de réel » characterize, mutatis mutandis, the photography of history too: it turns us into spectator of what has been, as if we have had the possibility to directly watch at what we see in the photographic image. Photography historian Michel Frizot writes: « To see a photography, it means to be present – or to pass – in a very brief instant, inside the black box, the one who was in front of history, for real ». What do you think about the possibility to « see » history? Can photography renovate the ancient historians’ gesture, for whom history was an « eye and vision affair »?
FH: Yes, in some way, because we find this ideal of immediacy: « I am there, I am in the black box, me too ». Now we have no black box anymore, but « I have my smartphone ». There is still a part of illusion, because the presence of the photographer is constructed, through the choice of framing and of all that makes that we don’t take pictures of anything and anyhow, even if sometimes we pretend to. This is not so different from the practice of the historian that, he too, always chooses, frames, selects, erases, moves to the foreground or to the background, makes an ensemble blurred, focuses on a face or on a detail. As Kracauer underlined, we can find some analogies between the practice of the historian and that of the photographer, that find themselves in front of the confusion of a street scene or of an historical situation. Each time, you have to choose, for some reasons, to see that thing and not another one. It is bricolage, montage. But, of course, nor the photographer or the historian underlines it all the time. It seems to me that, despite all, instantaneity, in which we live today and that implies also the values of authenticity and transparency, could also support the oblivion of the artifact component in each photography, in each snapshot, as in each page of history.
A/À: We talked about Paul Graham, an english photographer who made a great work about the representation of the time and the present. Let’s have a look at his series « The Present », that clearly shows the fact that photography would be, in some way, naturally related the present and its representation. Some of these images make me think at Don DeLillo’s atmospheres, that you often mentioned during your seminars. What do these images suggest to you?
FH: I think that it is a critique towards the « decisive moment », or its problematization, because Paul Graham shows us that each moment can be decisive. So there’s no a decisive moment at all. This person, for example, is here and in the next photo turns right round and crosses the street. Is the first photo more decisive than the second one? It suggests that we have a mere succession, not a concatenation. A succession of instants. We are in the present, a present that decomposes itself in a succession of instants, without any link between the instant before and the one after. So, we have the same person in the two photos, but if he turns right or left or does three more steps, what does it say to us? Nothing. We can imagine of course a narrative, but the photographer, in taking these pictures, shows what I call the presentist present: a break of time, with no past and no future. Does the second before belong to the past, and the one after to the future? Not sure. Sometimes a link is sketched between two images, because we have the same person in two photos, but it’s not always the case. Everyone here walks alone (where are they going to? And to do what?) without any interactions with the others, wrapped around by their own present. So it shows that there is nothing else than the present and that this present is made of a succession of instants. No causal or logical link. No narrative, no history.
A/À: An important theme that links photography and history is the representation of the war. Concerning photography, what is at stake in the representation of such events is not only an aesthical matter, but also a political and strategic one. We do know well the importance of the images, since the first representation of the war in 1855 (Roger Fenton), for the shaping of the discourse and knowledge on conflicts. Over the years, photographic representations of the war changed a lot and besides the reportage, that in its manifold forms shaped our public imagination of war, other ways of representation are born. If the « real-time » shooting and the rapid diffusion of the images still constitute one of the main means of the communication on the war, another photographic practice is nevertheless gaining ground, a practice that dedicates a bigger attention to the « edges » of the events. Actually, a lot of artists and photographers choose to work on long-term projects, in order to attest the impact of the conflicts on territories and populations, they do not concentrate on the event itself but, like micro-history does, operate something like a « scale game ». As an example, Lisa Barnard is interested in the bodies, the faces, the traumas of those who lived the war, Simon Norfolk is interested in the way the war forges landscapes and societies, the duo Broomberg & Chanarin realized what they called the « sequel » of the Bertolt Brecth’s oeuvre « War primer », but following an hyper-contemporary declination, by talking about the global war on terror. It seems to me that we can find a tension between photography as historical document, photography as witness of history and photography as a critical point of view on the historical events. What do you think about the role and the use of photography in the historical discipline? How a photo can tell us something about the history and about time?
FH: Fenton’s shoots came as a bolt from the blue. Suddenly, one could have access to the battlefield, something that until then nobody could do. About the battlefield, one knew only what the protagonists could or wanted to narrate. Let’s think about the Borodino battle as depicted in Tolstoj’s War and Peace (Pierre doesn’t really understand) or about the Waterloo battle, in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma (Fabrice del Dongo asks himself if he really did take part in the Waterloo battle). What novelists are interested in, is the distance between the vision of those who are involved in the action and that, in end, couldn’t understand what was going on, and what Borodino or Waterloo could become. While Fenton shows us the point of view of the Chief of the army, that Tolsotj, for example, considers illusory because nothing happens as it was expected. Strategists are liar. In Fenton’s pictures, the strict alignment of the tents shows and pretends that everything is under control: ready for the official inspection!
Broomberg & Chanarin’s proposal is different, it is based on the juxtaposition of two photos that belong to two different moments, more or less separated by a lapse of time. For example, we have the World Trade Center captured while the first tower is already burning and the second plane is going to crash on the second tower. This photo is presented together with another one that shows an air raid (maybe during the II World War) and more precisely it shows pillars of smoke that raise towards the sky. In this way, two instants that belong to two distinct temporalities are associated. The same principle is practiced for other photos of the same series, but nothing suggests how we move from one episode to another: the more recent event is a consequence or an effect of the first one? Here, again, there’s no linear time. We have two instants, two presents gathered together without temporal interruption. We pass over and the spectator has the task to elaborate, if he wants to, the transitions. To tell the story. Photographer can be satisfied with showing you the pictures. Historian, on the contrary, cannot proceed with collage. We expect him to link today’s present with the present of the past, that he acts like a « bridge ». To the juxtaposition he has to prefer the transition. Since a long time, the historian does not believe anymore to history’s law, nor to a simple casualty, he rather questions the condition of possibility. What has been necessary to move from the first photo to the second one? But still, is it maybe already the effect of an analytic gaze?
A/À: Very recently, a war and observation instrument is drawing the attention of the visual studies. The drone, war weapon and at the same time observation device, it shoots : it takes photos and it kills at the same time. With the drone, we have a radical change in the ways war is done and in the way it is showed and represented. Kilometers far away from the battle field, drone’s operator controls his instrument by remaining in his civil ambiguous dimension, that merges with a military one. His control gaze is constant and continuous, as the philosopher Grégoire Chamayou suggests in his book « Théorie du drone ». Images that are transmitted by the drone are stunning and if we think that this mechanical eye goes more and more towards an autonomy from its operator, this boosts the astonishment affect. This gaze, moreover, records and transmits the events in real time, it witnesses devastations, disasters, killings and so on. In your book, « Régime d’historicité”, you affirm: « the 9/11 takes to the limit the logic of the contemporary event, that is shown while it happens, and it is immediately historicized and so becomes its own commemoration : under the eye of the camera. » Do we have here, with the drone, an extreme presentism case? Can we talk about a presentism of the images?
FH: I would answer yes. The presentist event par excellence is – maybe – still the 9/11. Because its representation was already there while it was ongoing. It was filmed while it was happening, as we saw with Broomberg & Chanarin.
Concerning the drone, yes, it is a presentist machine. It can see and kill at the same time: to shoot in real time, while its pilot is kilometers far away. What before had two different phases (the recognition flight before and then the action), nowadays is simultaneous. The drone sees and we see it in action. It is like a fugitive avatar of the angel of history! But it is conceived to operate in non-declared wars or in no delimited battlefields, wars that can be everywhere and that can be endless. With the images of the drones, we are very far from the classic war reportage. Today, more in general, the image in real-time has become necessary, the image that circulate immediately on the social media. To see and to show have now the distance of a click. With all the risks that this enthusiasm can imply, because to the immediacy of the sharing must correspond the immediacy of reaction. Each time is like a competition, because it as about being the first to show or to react to the image that is rapidly shared on the social media. To see, to show and react: everything must happen in real time and simultaneously. Yes, only the present, there’s nothing else than the present.