Of Photography & Writing

Burroughs' cut ups begin as a photograph begins: with indifferent data of differing speeds, affects, intensities — a kind of RAW file. 

Cameras are funny in that they are thoroughly stupid and indifferent. They don't see faces, people, events, things. Cameras don't take pictures of anything. What they do is something far stranger: they metabolize the inflection of light within a stipulated duration and place.

We add all sorts of things so that cameras serve a humanist purpose — we add knowing software to the stupid hardware. Look at Facebook: every time you upload a picture, it puts these boxes over faces, begging for information. Who is this? We must know! It must be a picture of something! If not a person, then a place! Please, tell us!

The photographer is himself a piece of software. But the terms of the software can, and do, differ greatly. Some enjoy the indifference of the camera's viewing, letting it take up the the patina of life, the wear, glare, and detritus that is everywhere, always. The images that ensue are multiplicities of different times, speeds, intensities, different trajectories of meaning and affect.

Others, meanwhile, work hard to control the camera's indifference as completely as possible. This is certainly true of most Hollywood filmmakers. They work hard, spending millions upon millions of dollars to make sure that everything in the frame signifies some kind of common concept or feeling. We see the camera pan through the room taking note of the black clothing, the messy bed, The Cure poster, the records on the floor before the view lands on our sleeping Emo girl — troubled and smart and little bit spunky, no doubt. Rather than the beautiful and grotesque indifference of the camera, we get the relentless signification of the story. (Wes Anderson rigorously controls what takes place in frame but so as to offer a multiplicity of affects and precepts, different speeds and intensities — the aqueous roll of Steve Zissou alongside the aerial spaciness of his false son, Ned.)

Photography — which, for these purposes, includes filmmaking — is such a strange art and practice in that it begins with absolute indifference. The software qua practitioner then inflects the inflections, lends shape and literal focus (or not unless we consider blur a kind of focus, which of course it is) to what we're seeing. The photographer's fodder is form and light (although it's not really form and light; it's light-form) with no knowing, no concept, no humanity. (Andreas Gursky amplifies his software to amplify this indifference which I wrote about ages ago >.)

Writing seems so different as the writer begins with words and words are so drenched in the human, so already knowing. Words already come with opinions about this and that. If photography begins, in some sense, with indifferent inflected light — light-forms — writing begins with opinionated bodies.

But, then again, where do writing and photography begin? Like photographs, writing does not give us an image of the world. The writer doesn't write about things — about places, people, and events. The writer, like the photographer, orchestrates affects and concepts and possibilities. They give us worlds, not reports (although they can give us reports, as well).

From a certain perspective, too, words may have opinions but they are also light-forms — ethereal shapes of the world, possibilities, inflected space and time, all airy sensibility. As Jacques Rancière says, the image — which can be visual or linguistic — is not the substance but the terms of relations between the elements, between the seen and unseen, between the visible and the sayable. All artists, whether working with pens or cameras, first and foremost distribute bodies, hedge speeds and directions, orchestrate movements between different elements, bodies, and times.

Still, I don't want to conflate all arts. I don't want to suggest that writing and photography are the same. Working with words is quite different than working with light-forms. There is that beautiful moment of indifference that photographers get to enjoy, a distinctly non-human moment of a very human act, namely, seeing. Writers have to work in strange ways to introduce non-human elements, to find this well of indifference.

In his efforts to infuse cinema into writing, William Burroughs introduced that distinctly photographic moment into the writing process. Rather than beginning with a story or even with words and grammar, he began with an indifferent vat of information. He'd take writing from different sources and mix it all up until it became, in some sense, a kind of RAW file — information without knowing, without intelligence, without clear form. Where writing tends towards linear sequence, Burroughs' cut ups begin with radical simultaneity, with so many speeds, intensities, and moments existing side by side, much as the camera sees.

Burroughs' writing, then, is akin to a photograph in that it operates with multiple speeds and intensities at the same time. He doesn't contort his words, as Hollywood filmmakers do, into a sequential story with clear causes and effects. Like the camera with its indifferent presentation of multiplicity, Burroughs gives us a certain allatonceness that is internally distributed.

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