Derrida Accidentally Wrote About The Power of the Selfie in 1981

Time: the metonymy of the instantaneous, the possibility of the narrative magnetized by its own limit. The instantaneous in photography, the snapshot, would itself be but the most striking metonymy within the modern technological age of an older instantaneity. Older, even though it is never foreign to the possibility of techne in general. Remaining as attentive as possible to all the differences, one must be able to speak of a punctum of all signs (and all repetition or iterability already structures it), in any discourse, whether literary or not. As long as we do not hold to some naive and “realist” referentialism, it is the relation to some unique and irreplaceable referent that interests us and animates our most sound and studied readings: what took place only once, while dividing itself already, in the sights or in front of the lens of the Phaedo or Finnegan’s Wake, the Discourse on Method or Hegel’s Logic, John’s Apocalypse or Mallarme’s Coup de des. The photographic apparatus reminds us of this irreducible referential by means of a very powerful telescoping.

Jacques Derrida, “The Deaths of Roland Barthes” in The Work of Mourning, p.61

This is a quick explanation, but I like this paragraph a lot, and in true Derridean fashion it only makes sense if someone takes the time to explain it–so here we go.

Derrida is working through Roland Barthes’ concepts of the studium and the punctum. The former is what you see when you look at a photograph, sort of laundry list of objects and their history that you could account for it you were to make a kind of explanatory table of everything in a photo. The latter, the punctum, is Barthes’ work for something in a photograph that grabs hold of the viewer and refuses to let go, a kind of bear trap of affect that both draws attention and drains the viewer of her or his ability to do anything but focus on the single thing. It is a powerful, overriding force, and it is different for every single viewer.

What Derrida is arguing here is that the punctum is not unique to the photograph–the fixating function is inherent to any sign delivery system. The need to fixate and be drawn into something is something inherent in the transfer of meaning (Boris Groys’ theory of suspicion comes to mind here).

Arguments about medium specificity aren’t unique, but what’s special about this passage in the argument that Derrida is making about the particular affordance of photography that allows for a kind of highlight of the punctum: “The photographic apparatus reminds us of this irreducible referential by means of a very powerful telescoping.” By “telescoping,” Derrida doesn’t mean mere zooming. Instead, we have to think about what a photograph actually is–a moment and an incredibly small fraction of space trapped in stasis for eternity.

I bring this whole thing up in relation to the selfie because I think that selfie culture (whatever that might be) has come to the same conclusions about the punctum as Derrida did. It isn’t merely about framing or capturing the perfect picture–we’ve moved beyond the MySpace angle and the bathroom mirror. The selfie is not just about the creation of the self, of picking angles, of making my face look less dysmorphic and strange. Instead it is about attempting to craft a particular kind of punctum, a focal point, a haunting/lingering that stays with the viewer long after she or he has forgotten the studium of the photograph (clothes, facial hair, sand, umbrellas, the hotel balcony).

Or not, whatever.

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