Punctum, objet a, and the Richterian Blur

By Víctor D. Meléndez Torres

This year I had the opportunity to visit San Francisco for the first time. It was a very memorable experience. The beauty of this city is striking, and the experiences I had during my visit were, well, pretty unique. I will never forget the day that I set out to see the famed Dragon Gate, the entrance to San Francisco’s Chinatown. As I was about to enter Union Square from Geary Street, I was met with a large gathering of well-dressed people, with most of the men wearing black coats, black hats and beards. Then, I realized that I was witnessing a Chassidic wedding, right there on Union Square, surrounded by a crowd of tourists. Long story short, I never made it to the Dragon Gate. 

Another of the highlights of my visit was the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). I was happy to see that there was an entire floor dedicated to German art. Most of that space was filled with works by Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Anselm Kiefer, three of the many internationally-acclaimed artists who studied under Joseph Beuys at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie. Beuys is, by far, the artist who most effectively holds my interest. Sadly, though, it’s been my experience that in the United States, exhibitions of his work are pretty hard to come by. The SFMOMA didn’t have any works by Beuys on display, but it did have some of Kiefer’s best-known pieces. Since I’m also drawn to Kiefer’s work, I spent much of my time at the museum contemplating his traumatic but beautiful-in-their-viscerality monumental paintings. However, much to my surprise, it was Richter’s paintings-from-photographs which, to use Roland Barthes’s words, shot out “like an arrow” and pierced me.1 

Before having had the opportunity to see some of them in person, Richter’s photo-paintings were, to be honest, not of much interest to me. Not anymore.

The paintings-from-photographs that I viewed were Portrait of Schniewind (1964), Administrative Building (1964), Gymnastics (1967), The Ruhnau Family (1969), Brigid Polk (1971), and Reader (1994). With the exception of Reader, they resemble old, out-of-focus photographs. The first four are black-and-white, and the last two are in color. Except for Reader,2 they all have a sinister, threatening quality that can be attributed to their blurring, an act which “causes [the world of objects] . . . to appear as an impenetrable presence.”3

In his 2003 article, Semblance According to Gerhard Richter, acclaimed art theorist Hal Foster used an interesting quote by Siegfried Kracauer as part of his analysis of Richter’s photo-paintings:

“The world itself has taken on a ‘photographic face,’” Kracauer wrote in his 1927 essay on photography; “it can be photographed because it strives to be absorbed into the spatial continuum which yields to snapshots. . . . That the world devours them is a sign of the fear of death. What the photographs by their accumulation attempt to banish is the recollection of death, which is part and parcel of every memory image.”4

This quote seems to suggest that photographs, by being accumulated, become “potentially antimnemonic,”5 and in this way they are a kind of defense against the recollection of death. However, one could also say that photographs are antimnemonic even without being accumulated because they already have “something repressed” that withholds “their essential information,”6 and they are all a “concealment of death”7 in that each one “captures an eternal present, denying death.”8 If this is the case, then it makes sense to think that blurring them, as Richter does, turns them into what Foster calls “potent memory images”:

Richter seems to accept this Kracauerian opposition of photograph and “memory image”: like Warhol he documents the “photographic face” of the modern world—yet he also intermittently overcomes this opposition, reveals the deathliness of this photographic face, and renders the photograph mnemonic in painting, as painting. . . . The Baader-Meinhof suite is only one instance of this transformation of potentially antimnemonic photographs into potent memory images.9

To me, it is in this sense of turning photographs into “potent memory images” that the following quote by Eric Kligerman is true: “Although Richter calls himself a ‘gravedigger’, he is not burying the past but rather digging it up.”10 The blurring produces, simultaneously, a distance between the viewer and the ciphered trauma contained in the photographs, and the near elimination of this distance—one that is close enough to pierce, but not amputate, the viewer. 

One could say that the blurring turns the reality alluded to by the photograph “into a shadow,”11 and in doing so, the final image brings forth “a positivization of [the] lack”12 at the center of our being and becomes “more real than anyone could have supposed.”13 The positivized lack brought forth via “turning the tables on reality” by “turning it into a shadow”14 is the unnamable element in these paintings-from-photographs, only to be experienced as a “felt affective disruption.”15 For example, when I viewed Richter’s The Ruhnau Family, I experienced what seemed to be a mix of low-moderate anxiety and confusion which, unlike like Lacan’s tuché, could be described “as a painful intrusion, as a trauma,”16 a trauma that is Real “in so far as it remains unsymbolizable—a kernel of nonsense at the heart of the subject.”17 If that some-Thing in the painting that elicited in me a combination of anxiety and confusion “could be interpreted and integrated it would become part of the symbolic whole, but remaining unnamable, it evidences itself as a felt affective disruption.”18

Roland Barthes’s notion of the punctum is useful in illuminating the nature of that some-Thing that elicited my intensified affect. Barthes talks of the punctum as “this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. … A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).”19 Although Barthes’s talk about the punctum makes explicit reference to the medium of photography, it makes sense to think that this notion might apply to paintings as well, especially when we consider its similarity with the objet a.

“What I can name cannot really prick me,”20 says Barthes. “The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance.”21 Isn’t this the key trait of both the punctum and the objet a? In other words, in photography as well as in painting, the “incapacity to name” signals the presence of a phantasmatic entity, a traumatic surplus, an excess that “interrupts the spectator’s absorption with the image and forces her/him to reflect not so much on what she/he is seeing, but on what is not shown.”22

For Margaret Iverson, “Barthes’s punctum is equivalent to Lacan’s gaze or, in other words, to that which is elided in classical optics.”23 This makes sense in that both, the punctum and the Lacanian gaze, are indicators of lack: the punctum involves an “incapacity to name,”24 and the gaze is “a hole, a lack in [the subject’s] visual field—a something that, because it is present but cannot be seen, functions as a point of failure of the visual field”25 (in other words, it is what is irrevocably excluded from the field of the visible). Like the punctum, where “[t]he incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance,”26 the gaze as stain disrupts the field of the visible; it “inevitably looms up in the visual field and disorganizes it … .”27 And what is this stain if not the objet a which, like the punctum and the gaze, is an indicator of lack, “a positivization of a lack”28 in the field of the visible? As Žižek writes, 

Objet a is the strange object that is nothing but the inscription of the subject itself in the  field of objects, in the guise of a blotch that takes shape only when part of this field is anamorphically distorted by the subject’s desire.29

According to Foster, “Whereas Barthes locates the punctum or traumatic point in details of the photograph, Richter produces it in his blur—the blur that also serves as buffer against this ‘punctal’ trauma.”30 In Lacanese, one could translate this as saying that the objet a in Richter’s painting, its “uncoded, unassimilable”31 element, resides in the surplus quality of the blurring of the image. In other words, the blur produces meaning that is unrepresentable because it exceeds the “demands of reality”: it is an irruption of the Real manifested as “felt affective disruption.”32 Without the possibility of coding, naming, assimilating this surplus of meaning, the objet a arises as “a nonspectacular element that ‘gives body’ to a felt lack”33 (a felt lack in that it is experienced as “uncoded, unassimilable”) and, in this way, the painting resists being reduced to a symptom (that is, its meaning resists being decodable by the Other; it resists being “fully integrated in the network of signifiers”34). Instead, because of the irreducibility of its surplus of meaning, the painting becomes a sinthome. 

Foster’s assertion that Richter produces the punctum “in his blur”35 seems to suggest that in painting, the punctum can be produced by an intentional act. However, for Barthes, in photography the punctum is only present where intentionality is absent. This is how he puts it:

Certain details may ‘prick’ me. If they do not, it is doubtless because the photographer has put them there intentionally. … Hence the detail which interests me is not, or at least is not strictly, intentional, and probably must not be so; it occurs in the field of the photographed thing like a supplement that is at once inevitable and delightful; it does not necessarily attest to the photographer’s art; it says only that the photographer was there, or else, still more simply, that he could not not photograph the partial object at the same time as the total object (how could Kertész have ‘separated’ the dirt road from the violinist walking on it?). The Photographer’s ‘second sight’ does not consist in ‘seeing’ but in being there.36

It can be argued, however, that this is not necessarily the case in painting. Here, the punctum can be produced from something intentional. While in a photograph an intentional detail automatically becomes codified, part of the Symbolic, in a painting an intentional mark can produce something uncodifiable. One could argue that this is the reason why Foster asserts that “Richter produces [the punctum] in his blur.”37 While, for Barthes, in photography the punctum is only present when intentionality is absent, in painting the punctum can be produced by an intentional act of the painter. In this sense, it is reasonable to talk about painting as having the quality to endow an image with punctum or, more specifically to Richter’s paintings-from-photographs, the ability to transform “potentially antimnemonic photographs into potent memory images.”38 To me, this is the same as saying that, in painting, intentional actions—such as the Richterian blur—potentially can bring us face-to-face with an excess in the form of a “positivization of a lack”39 in the visual field, i.e., a positivization of “our blind spot in relation to the picture”40: the Lacanian gaze.

Richter once said, “My own relationship to reality has a great deal to do with imprecision, uncertainty, transience, incompleteness.”41 In this way, in Richter’s photo-paintings, the punctum, just like the objet a, “awakens the real of [subjective] loss.”42 This Real “is ultimately an encounter with the persistently denied fact of one’s own mortality,”43 an encounter that, I think, is well illustrated by one of André Gregory’s revelations to Wallace Shawn in the classic 1981 film, My Dinner with André:

See, what I think I experienced was, for the first time in my life, to know what it means to be truly alive. Now, that’s very frightening, because with that comes an immediate awareness of death, ‘cause they go hand-in-hand. You know, the kind of impulse that led to Walt Whitman, that led to Leaves of Grass, you know, that feeling of being connected to everything means to also be connected to death, and that’s pretty scary.44

Notes

1 Roland Barthes, Camera lucida: Reflections on photography, New York: Hill and Wang, 2010: 26.

2 Reader is, in my opinion, not blurred, which makes it essentially an exact copy of Richter’s daughter reading a newspaper or magazine.

3 G. Koch (1992), as cited in Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen, “Nanotech, blur, and tragedy in recent artworks by Gerhard Richter,” Leonardo 41, no. 5 (2008): 485. 

4 Hal Foster, “Semblance according to Gerhard Richter,” Raritan 22, no. 3 (2003): 168.

5 Foster, “Semblance,” 168.

6 Michael Herr (1977), as cited in Eric Kligerman, “Transgenerational hauntings: Screening the Holocaust in Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977 pantings,” German Monitor 70, no. 1 (2008): 41. The full quotation is as follows: “I can remember the strange feelings I had when I was a kid looking at war photographs in Life, the ones that showed dead people or a lot of dead people lying close together in a field or a street […]. Even when the picture was sharp and cleanly defined, something wasn’t clear at all, something repressed that monitored the images and withheld their essential information […]. I didn’t have a language for it then, but I remember now the shame I felt, like looking at first porn, all the porn in the world.”

7 Jan Campbell, “Are your dreams wishes or desires? Hysteria as distraction and character in the work of Siegfried Kracauer,” New Formations, 61 (2007): 139.

8 Campbell, “Are your dreams,” 138.

9 Foster, “Semblance,” 168.

10 Kligerman, “Transgenerational hauntings,” 44.

11 Susan Sontag, On photography. New York: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1990: 180.

12 Slavoj Žižek, Less than nothing: Hegel and the shadow of dialectical materialism. London: Verso, 2013: 598.

13 Sontag, On Photography, 180.

14 Sontag, On Photography, 180.

15 Vicki Daiello et al., “Complicating visual culture,” Studies in Art Education 47 no. 4 (2006): 320.

16 Margaret Iversen, “What is a photograph?” Art History 17 no. 3 (1994): 452.

17 Iversen, “What is a photograph?,” 454-455.

18 Daiello et al, “Complicating visual culture,” 320.

19 Roland Barthes, Camera lucida: Reflections on photography, New York: Hill and Wang, 2010: 26-27.

20 Barthes, Camera lucida, 51.

21 Barthes, Camera lucida, 51.

22 Kligerman, “Transgenerational hauntings,” 52. The sentence from which this phrase was obtained includes a direct quotation from Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida and ends with a superscript (21) that suggests that the portion of the sentence that is not a direct quotation is instead a paraphrase of content located somewhere on pages 26-27 of Camera Lucida. I reviewed pages 26-27 of Camera Lucida, but I did not find such content. This suggests that the superscript used by Kligerman, although placed at the end of the sentence, probably refers only to the direct quotation he included in it.  

23 Iversen, “What is a photograph?,” 457.

24 Barthes, Camera lucida, 51.

25 Henry Krips, “The politics of the gaze: Foucault, Lacan and Žižek,” Culture Unbound 2 (2010): 94. Accessed December 7, 2018, http://www.cultureunbound.ep.liu.se/v2/a06/cu10v2a6.pdf

26 Barthes, Camera lucida, 51.

27 Iversen, “What is a photograph?,” 457.

28 Žižek, Less than nothing, 598.

29 Slavoj Žižek, How to read Lacan. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007: 69.

30 Foster, “Semblance,” 171.

31 Iversen, “What is a photograph?,” 455.

32 Daiello et al., “Complicating visual culture,” 320.

33 jagodzinski (2004), 41, as cited in Daiello et al., “Complicating Visual Culture, 315.

34 Iversen, “What is a photograph?,” 453.

35 Foster, “Semblance,” 171.

36 Barthes, Camera lucida, 47.

37 Foster, “Semblance,” 171.

38 Foster, “Semblance,” 168.

39 Žižek, Less than nothing, 598.

40 Žižek, Less than nothing, 598.

41 Gerhard Richter, as cited in Foster, “Semblance,” 171.

42 Iversen, “What is a photograph?,” 456.

43 Iversen, “What is a photograph?,” 451.

44 My Dinner with André, directed by Louis Malle, performed by André Gregory and Wallace Shawn, The Criterion Collection, 1981, film.

Works Cited

My Dinner with André. Directed by Louis Malle. Performed by André Gregory and Wallace Shawn. The Criterion Collection, 1981. Film.

Barthes, Roland. Camera lucida: Reflections on photography, New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.

Campbell, Jan. “Are your dreams wishes or desires? Hysteria as distraction and character in the work of Siegfried Kracauer,” New Formations, 61 (2007): 132-148.

Daiello, Vicki, Kevin Hathaway, Mindi Rhoades, and Sydney Walker. “Complicating visual culture,” Studies in Art Education 47 no. 4 (2006): 308-325.

Foster, Hal. “Semblance according to Gerhard Richter,” Raritan 22, no. 3 (2003): 159-177.

Iversen, Margaret. “What is a photograph?” Art History 17 no. 3 (1994): 450-463.

Kligerman, Eric. “Transgenerational hauntings: Screening the Holocaust in Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977 pantings,” German Monitor 70, no. 1 (2008): 41-63. 

Krips, Henry. “The politics of the gaze: Foucault, Lacan and Žižek,” Culture Unbound 2 (2010): 91-102. Accessed December 7, 2018, http://www.cultureunbound.ep.liu.se/v2/a06/cu10v2a6.pdf

Nielsen, Kristian Hvidtfelt. “Nanotech, blur, and tragedy in recent artworks by Gerhard Richter,” Leonardo 41, no. 5 (2008): 485-492. 

Sontag, Susan. On photography. New York: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1990.

Žižek, Slavoj. Less than nothing: Hegel and the shadow of dialectical materialism. London: Verso, 2013.

_____ How to read Lacan. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Víctor D. Meléndez Torres, M.A., M.Ed. is a Puerto Rican organizational psychologist currently living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.