The Subjectified Background


/1/ – Setting the terms

Background – the term itself invokes at least two meanings: one temporal, the other spatial. In the former, one’s background is indicative of history ancient (a family’s background) and more recent (a background check). In the latter it is purely functional (what is behind the subject supporting it) or more vaguely visual (in terms of scenery).

In the temporal and spatial senses the two prongs are both divided into proximity near and far. Furthermore, these proximities are codified, albeit less directly, in terms of organic and inorganic: the hard-edged backgrounds on the one hand and on the other the soft curves of environmental scenery.

The softness or hardness of is of course not completely reliant on the creator of the subject/object, whether nature or human hand, but is also necessitated by the measurement of spatial distance. One last broad point to finish figuring the range of our discussion: the bounded and the unbounded and their relation of magnitude to the subject and object.

Large backgrounds, whether photographed, painted, sketched, et cetera, allow a subject (here we are continuing to use subject in the ontological sense and not the more direct artistic sense) to scale or be scaled. The tiny human figure reiterates for us the sublimity of the colossal mountain, the abysmal ravine and so forth. Conversely, the small background redoubles the frame of the picture to emphasize the centrality of the subject – think of the prototypical senior class photo – the vined swing set, the tacky furniture.

/2/ – Distinction fusion

The above statements do not exclude any possibility for third terms or terms of mediation. Taking Žižek’s theoretical thread that he discusses in The Ticklish Subject and The Parallax View, the terms of subject and object are permanently skewed by the errancy of one another’s existence. Žižek states that the relation of subject and object can be thought of in the other meaning of those words, simply that the object objects and the subject is subject to the object. Reversing the common primacy of the subject, Žižek argues that the object as such upsets the attempted functioning of the subject (The Parallax View, p. 17). The relation between subject and object is always mediated so that (here Žižek gives the scientific notion of parallax a philosophical twist) the change of perception in the viewing subject also causes an ontological change in the object.

To bring in the background, let us approach the same issue from a different theoretical perpsective – a Deleuzian one. In Parables for the Virtual, Brian Massumi addresses the common problem of relating the individual to society, of the relation between form and content and the battles of structuralism and post-structuralism. Massumi points out that while foundationalist approaches have been heavily criticized, particularly by deconstructionists, swathes of postmodern theory relying on deconstruction, such as queer theory, still discuss a structural periphery by maintaining the centrality of certain forms such as normativity (p. 68-69). Massumi goes on to argue that one must think the concept of relation as such, that there must not simply be a relation of two things, in our case subject and object, but a very being of relation qua relation (p. 70).

Massumi takes the concept of a soccer game as an example. Clearly, in terms of any sport, the rules did not come into existence before the game despite the fact that the game is obviously bound by them. The field, both literally in terms of sports and in philosophical terms, is what the game prior to being a game, as proto-game, and the formalized game have in common. Massumi goes on to say that the field is polarized by attractors (the goals) and that the ball is the catalyst- it makes the field the field (p. 72-73).

What brings us back to Žižek’s use of parallax is that Massumi says that the ball is part subject and that the players are part object. The ball objects to the subject, the player, through its “actionability.” The ball demands the kick from the player and therefore the kick is not an expression of the subject but of the object (p. 74). In Massumi’s definition, the field seems to be the functional background, one that supports the subject and not the more grandiose background of scenery. However, as we have noted, the field encroaches on the subject even though it does not threaten to swallow it in its sublime weight (even though the field is usually seem from afar – the distant camera or spectator seat.)

To explain this a photographic detour is proper.

/3/ – The Camera before or after or between modernisms

Marlena Donohue, an online arts writer, gives the following description of photography:

“In its modern and post-modern incarnations, photography has had to sort out its two functions. The modern function (the Cartier Bresson, Alvarez Bravo, Robert Frank camp) says the photo records life, reveals a priori formal, emotional or existential truths that are inherent in real time, the viewing of which pleases, moves or improves us.”

The post-modern function recognizes that in our information age photography is a fictive medium able to create realities the viewing of which poses complex questions about how we think, how we ascribe meaning, how we define the real and how we inculcate norms and collective signs (enter folks like John Baldessari, Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman)” (link).

This introduction serves as a figuring of the field before discussing the photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia. DiCorcia purposefully blends the ‘staged’ and the ‘natural’ taking everyday subjects and placing them in highly designed settings, facilitating a kind of surpa-naturalness. In an interview with Josefina Ayerza, diCorcia points out that there is a humor to his photography, not that they are funny per se, in the choice of their subjects, but that the very idea of representation, staged or not, is fundamentally humorous.

To bring us back to our initial terms which set us on the current trajectory, when choosing a photographic scene one is not simply going to pick the scenery for itself, or the subject for itself, but for the interplay between the two, of the event itself. Depending on whether we are following more Platonic traditions and listening specifically to Badiou, taking the fact that the Event is something that can never be photographed, or the more Deleuzian route, exemplified above by Massumi, in that movement itself is an event, then diCorcia’s photos seem to fall somewhere in between. diCorcia has, in the past, set up a scene and waited for passerbys to come and become subjects. In another on-line piece by diCorcia, his photographs are said to capture the non-event, the moment that does not purport to be a moment.

diCorcia’s photographs re-edify the use of background as scenery, as simply visual buttress to the subject’s movement which, due to the very nature of the camera, is frozen and mortified. The article goes on to describe diCorcia’s role as photographer as one of voluntary passivity but, in actuality, doesn’t his role equate to an activity similar to that of the soccer player, where, more than a passivity, it is that diCorcia is demanded to act by the actionability of the moving subject. However, whereas in the game the ball was the catalyst, in this case, the very scene or field itself is. Once the fabricated scene is encroached upon by the happenstance movements of the wandering subject, diCorcia is impelled to capture them. diCorcia’s quasi-setting can be equated to the soccer ball as quasi-object – both are tainted by subjectivity while remaining deceptively inert.

/4/ – Change of scenery

A certain amount of paranoia would certainly be alleviated if backgrounds remained dead, but they do not. The close background, is one of immediate utility whereas the more distance form, that of natural scenery, is of possible utility, of resources to be eventually plundered. What separates the two, despite their proximity, is their deadness.

As k-Punk has pointed out here, Nigel Cooke’s paintings exhibit a kind of ontological rot, a crumbling scene of meaning in which nature and the unclear remnants of something. Cooke is less concerned with the specifics of what he is painting and more attentive to shifting quickly between styles as its paints it. The entropic state of Cooke’s work, the whole scene as a kind of energy death, denies the splitting of the subject and the object as well as the organic from the inorganic. While everything is bound, carefully rendered, at the same time the entire scene is bled together by a kind of dystopian disregard.

In Cooke’s work, as well as the work of the Duncan Weller the background is graffited and written upon in a way that highlights the unnaturalness of the any attempt to move across the backdrop. This discrepancy is indicative of the fundamental divide between subject and structure. As Žižek points out in his introduction to Adrian Johnston’s Time Driven, there is a fundamental Kantian divide in the subject as well as the subject from its background. In a broader sense, Kant’s divide speaks to the experience of modernity, that one is fundamentally alienated from the outside world.

The dominant technique in traditional animation, as well as its appearance, speaks to the odd imposition of the subject over the background. The Multiplane camera, a device used by several groups but most notably by Walt Disney, used several glass planes on which cels could be placed and the images would be super imposed. In addition, the various layers could be moved at different speeds in a process called, interestingly enough, parallax scrolling. Isolating one layer from another gives one an odd feeling in which the background in the animation appears more real then the moving figures themselves.

/5/ – The Subject as stain

Lacan’s definition of the subject, as that which resists symbolization, as the very crack in the symbolic, is well known. But in a more contextualized way, the subject is the substance which resistants forms of (traditional) ideological identifications ie labels, the subject emerges at the point which these identifications falls short. Now, as Žižek points out in the documentary which bears his name, the new form of ideology is not to fall into a externally implemented category, but the more vague and seemingly personal function of ‘I’m not just X I am in fact a warm human being who enjoys simple things et cetera.’

Or, in Kantian terms, Žižek points out the Kant was not simply in error (as some have alleged) when he stated that the subject was both noumenal (unaffected by external forces) and phenomenal (accessible and effected by external forces) but did so purposefully. In Tarrying with the Negative Žižek writes: “Kant is compelled to define the I of transcendental apperception as neither phenomenal nor noumenal because of the paradox of auto-affection; if I were given to myself phenomenally, as an object of experience, I would simultaneously have to be given to myself noumenally” (p. 16).

Žižek goes on to argue that Hegel takes Kant’s logic to its end by defining the subjective ultimately as the pure negativity in between the phenomenal and the noumenal, the ‘night of the world (p. 21). In the current feverish post-modernism, or post-post-modernism, we are labored to accept the meaningless of our position as such (in terms of ‘differing view’ et cetera) but we are lo to abandon all meaningful substance connected to our being. The background, whether spatial or temporal, seems to be the ground which we refuse to surrender.

Alex Gonzalez’s work, more than showing the object as a stain, shows the primacy of the background over the subject. While graphical work such as Cooke’s plays on the artificiality of the subject, through stylistic means, Gonzalez’s photographs, like the one above, deny the assumption of focus on the subject and/or the organic. Whereas one could see this simply as another example of the subject as stain, as the subject as that which cannot be arrested symbolically, one could also see the blur as an insertion of distance, as a quantitative shift and not a qualitative one, instead of exposing the ‘subject as out-of-joint’ or as a break in the symbolic, the use of the blur as distance, questions more broadly the need to have the subject (in the philosophical sense) be the subject (in the sense of the photograph’s setup.)

The wonderfully agonizing effect of the photograph above is its dismissal of the background as the last moor for the subject, as the final object which gives the subject its ontological status. Ultimately it is a kind of defamilairization, the photographic background, instead of being either passed through as passive or reconstructed as a kind of stage, the background becomes a threat instead of a possible vessel for history to support ontogenetic development. Backgrounds start to become the danger of a kind of being-there (Da Sein) which appears more and more distinct from the human subject which has lost all horizon.

3 Responses to “The Subjectified Background”

  1. 1 John

    Please find a completely different understanding of the camera as a metaphor for “point of view”, and subjectivity altogether via these references.


  1. 1 » Blog Archive » links for 2007-11-18
  2. 2 A Green State of Mind » THE DESIRE OF EVERYDAY PEOPLE

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