Détournement as Optic

I’m very honored to have an article published in the excellent Philosophy of Photography. The advisory board of this UK-based journal features a number of scholars whose work has profoundly influenced my thinking on indexical media: Ariella Azoulay, Stewart Martin and Geoffrey Batchen, among others. My article explores the idea that détournement, a strategy of politicized appropriation, might best be understood in diametrical opposition to the strategy of omniscient depiction at work in the production of aerial views. Here’s a link to the article, entitled “Détournement as optic: Debord, derisory documents and the aerial view,” and an abstract below.

For Situationist, theorist and film-maker Guy Debord, the aerial view reproduced the falsely objective world-view he called ‘the spectacle’. To counter its myth of an infinitely expandable, omniscient perspective, Debord reduced views from above to ‘derisory documents’ of the social and the environmental through détournement, as evidenced in the two films he made while the Situationist International was in existence. The films engage critically with aerial photography as a hegemonic mode of indexical media, with the aerial view’s application as information image and ornament, and with the formal phenomenon of ciné-mapping. This analysis suggests that the détournement Debord performs in and across these films can be best conceptualized as a critical optic that constitutes a practice of seeing, a mode of reception and a call to action in the social space beyond its aesthetic employ. The optic of détournement is the contestational counterpart to the optic of the aerial view. This remains the case today, despite the complexity of photographic views from above and their increased abstraction of social agents and spaces. An alternative to the testimonial function of embodied photographic views, détournement as optic represents an indexical civil contract founded upon representational inadequacy.

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Harun Farocki, 1944-2014

Gif from "Images of the World and the Inscription of War" (Harun Farocki, 1988). Accessed at http://filmigrana.com/2014/06/09/reflexion-sobre-bilder-der-welt-und-inschrift-des-krieges-1989-de-harun-farocki/

GIF from “Images of the World and the Inscription of War” (Harun Farocki, 1988). Accessed at http://filmigrana.com/2014/06/09/reflexion-sobre-bilder-der-welt-und-inschrift-des-krieges-1989-de-harun-farocki/

What a loss for militant filmmaking, for art and for critical thought that Harun Farocki has died.

His fluency in working across so many different kinds of artistic media–in the art gallery and on the silver screen–was inspirational. His devotion to understanding the histories and the ideologies behind scientific and technological development was equally laudable. His insistence that sight lines and their documentation from any era must always be examined as vectors of power was unwavering.

He was a crucially important twentieth-century figure whose work consistently sought to teach its audience without pedantry. His films braid together historical materialism and media archeology without wasteful political rancor or snobby exclusivity. The cold comfort in his death is simply the numerous contemporary artists and theorists whose lives and ideas his touched.

Last night’s Farocki screening thoughtfully organized by the Experimental Response Cinema was a wonderful way to bid farewell; it contrasted the absurd humor and the mercilessness of An Image (1983) with the dense, intricate logic of Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988).

Re-viewing Images of the World, I thought of Nora M. Alter’s explication of the “political anamorphosis” Harocki performs only very fleetingly at the very end of the film. He draws an explicit but easily-missed parallel between the Allied failure to bombard the railways leading to Auschwitz in the 1940s and the need to protest nuclear power as well as nuclear stockpiling in Germany in the 1980s.

Alter suggests that the repeated use of footage taken from within a wave machine in Hannover is a further example of political anamorphosis, alluding to the potential of green energy as an alternative to nuclear energy. How easy it is (and how self-defeating) to view these sequences as representing instead the inexorable, amoral, dialectic translation of measurement to image and image to measurement over the centuries. Knowing Farocki, he clearly intended both meanings.

Here’s hoping that a pair of scholars compile a series of warm and genial conversations on Farocki’s films in the same manner that Farocki and Kaja Silverman did on Godard’s films. That would be a really fitting goodbye.