Winter 2007–2008

Os Innominatum

Thomas Zummer

Photos Emeline Zummer, undated. Courtesy Linda Zummer.

One morning, by now almost twenty years ago, I received a small package from my sister. She is two years younger, and we are very close. In the package was an envelope containing a number of black-and-white photographs with a note explaining the circumstance of their retrieval. She had been surveying the random accretions of photographic stuff lying around our parents’ home when she came across a roll of 35mm film, exposed and undeveloped, that had fallen behind one of the drawers in an ancient cabinet full of papers, pictures, and artifacts. The film was approximately twenty years old, but appeared to be in a good state of preservation, so she developed the roll. Surprisingly, all of the images were legible, and it was this collection that she sent to me. They were remarkable for a number of reasons.

I have an uncommonly good memory, and I recall precisely the events enframed by these photographs. They were taken by my aunt Emeline with an Argus C3 35mm camera (she had later given me that very camera) in late summer, at my grandparents’ place on the shore of Lake Huron, in Arenac County, just outside the small village of Au Gres, Michigan. I am the subject of many of these pictures; I was around three years old, and also present were my mother and grandmother, and my infant sister. It was late in the day, what cinematographers refer to as the “golden hour,” and the sand was cool; the water was calm, the sound subliminal and musical. I was standing on a towel, a checkerboard pattern of green and white with a series of complementary black lines. My pants were tan corduroys; my shirt a pullover T, sky-blue, black, olive, and tan. I have a stone in my mouth. It is a small, smooth, well-rounded green sedimentary stone, a form of littoral precipitate of which I am still particularly fond (I also still have the stone). My posture, I had noticed, is curious—I look as if I am doing a three-year-old’s imitation of Max Schreck in Murnau’s Nosferatu. Behind me, the boat hoist on the right side of the image is home-made from welded angle iron, and painted forest green, one of a great many details which come unbidden to memory. But what is most curious is that I was—as I am still—unable to suture this photographic image to the order of memory of those events. I cannot “put myself into” the image, or think through it, such that it is bound to the same time and circumstance of remembrance. I am similarly unable to “consume” this image, to integrate and make it a part of me, to secure its prosthesis as my own, an invisible and unrecognized insertion of the photographic as artificial memory. It confers only a salient and exterior supplementarity. 

There is a second photograph, also taken by my aunt Emeline, this time in the house where I grew up, in Saginaw, Michigan. It’s around three in the afternoon, in my parents’ living room, and I am a bit older than in the previous photo. The composition is diagonal, and I am sitting on a couch that has been covered in plastic. There is an ornamental shelf, carved black walnut, above me, and two framed images hang on either side of it. At the far end of the room, there is a fireplace. What is not visible within the photograph is the large picture window directly across from the couch I am sitting on, and a second couch, under that window. I am facing the camera, and my face is screwed up, not only because of the flash of light, but also because I am annoyed. The camera had startled me, interrupting my observation of the events occurring outside, on the sidewalk, in our front yard. I had seen something through the window that was quite unusual in our neighborhood at the time, something which was, for me, absolutely novel: strolling leisurely along the sidewalk, unaccompanied, were two large black dogs, the first I had ever seen, and I was thoroughly fascinated. Something in my countenance must have impressed itself upon my aunt, and she snapped a picture. By the time my vision cleared, the dogs were gone. As I looked at the photograph of this event —an image I had never before seen— I noticed that, just visible in the lower portion of one of the framed pictures on the wall, to the right above the wrapped couch, were the reflected heads of the two dogs I had been observing. While this is, in exegetical terms, a triviality, one which is both private, and accessible only through the testimony of a witness of unverifiable veracity, it also, in its minute provisionality, touches upon certain philosophical issues concerning memory, cognition and mediation that are of a broad and pressing import.

What is opened to question is the relation, via the traces rendered salient by an interceding technology, that one has to one’s self, body, and memory, a species of re-cognition that takes place in relation to other forms of reflection. Technologies embodied as a stratum of technical unconscious produce an artifactuality wherein the distinctions between natural and prosthetic perception are suspended. The somatic relation between images and sensations, especially where transmission and reception are coextensive in a “live” imaging of the body (e.g., sonogram, but also television, radio, surveillant, or online systems) are indistinguishable, even when such evidentiary traces are superimposed with virtual, probabilistic, normative, or generalized models.

When we cannot remember, sensory-motor extension remains suspended, and the actual image, the present optical perception, does not link up with either a motor image or a recollection image which would re-establish contact. It rather enters into a relation with genuinely virtual elements, feelings of déjà vu or past ‘in general’ (I must have seen that man somewhere…), fantasies or theatre-scenes (he seems to play a role that I am familiar with…). In short, it is not the recollection-image or attentive recognition which gives us the proper equivalent of the optical-sound image, it is rather the disturbances of memory and the failures of recognition.
—Gilles Deleuze

Otherwise the recording can take place but remains unknown.
—Jean-François Lyotard

For all of its increasing sophistication, the camera, mobile or static, remains an instrument of citation, a “writing in/of movement and light” that secures only the most minute movement as it flashes by. Still, when we see what a camera has recorded, there is nonetheless a reflex, hardwired within us, that perceives movement, and even reflection, as substance, a reflex which compels us to recognition in/for/as response to an other, an artifactual other seen as having appeared either within the frame of the image or operating at its presumed point of origin. Facial recognition, for example, is one of our earliest unconscious accomplishments, and the camera intervenes in that, to present a technically reproducible shadow, an apparition of presence, one that operates at the same time as an index of loss. Benjamin’s substitution of an “unconsciously penetrated space” where prosthetic perception introduces us (via the intercessionary technics of the camera) to an “unconscious optics” (and to similarly unconscious impulses) but only at a remove, a certain proximity outside the image or scene, couples the compulsion to repetition with the promise of recuperation. There is, in this uncanny doubling of the camera’s unconscious optics with our own impulses, a technico-philosophical sleight of hand that purports to secure the whole of the real, so that cinematic perception is folded back into our own experience, an artificial memory, naturalized and subsumed, holding forth the proleptic promise of recall, even as its disturbance circumscribes a doubled site of absence.

What we thought were sensations have become ghosts, transfixed in a flash, mere afterimages. There is a phantasmatic aspect in the naturalization of the cinematic: we are haunted by images, traces of an elsewhere that we have made our own, domesticated fragments that we have compelled to enter into strange and familiar relations, differential economies of sense. Presence deferred to an impossible proximity, but not lost entirely. What happens when the phrasing, or parsing, of such phantasmata appear as having already taken place, where there is an anteriority revealed, brought to light, within the paradoxical necessity and impossibility of the prosthetic?

Recently, I have been having difficulty with my hands. This has taken form in the onset of an intermittent loss of feeling in the thumb and first two fingers of both hands. This numbness subsides readily, simply by moving from a stationary position, and there is no apparent diminution of fine motor control, but the effect is nonetheless disconcerting. In exploring the possible reasons for this condition, I was prescribed a set of X-rays of the upper thoracic region. The X-rays were surprising, and revealed an odd and hitherto unsuspected condition: there are two extra, fully-formed ribs in my upper thorax. Moreover, they both exhibit fully articulated double joints at the attachment, at C7/T1, with an unusual inclination, crossing in front of the two ribs immediately below, to attach, in the common manner, to the sternum. The condition is unique. These unnatural supplements are likely contributors to the loss of sensation in my hands and fingers, a kind of spectral passing in and out of sensation, due to the sudden appearance, within, of an entirely unperceived register of the body.

A field of images, hybrid and heterogenous, variable and permeable, intimately linked to destabilized subjectivities, distributed and deferred in space and time, configured as a demarcation or boundary—an interface—between two discrete registers, biological and technical, becomes porous and permeable. Within the diffuse materialities of these transformations questions arise concerning the relation between bodies, systems, and technologies. How does one begin to rethink this relation without reversion to cumbersome robots, dumb collectivities, or unwieldy cyborgs? How does one re-think the reflexive relations between body and image without reinscribing the hard borders of monstrosity? How to think the economies, limits and extent of the prosthetic? In moving from the ubiquity of technical reproducibility to the inevitability of “ambient findability,” where—and how—do we think of ourselves?
An X-ray of the upper thoracic region of Thomas Zummer. Courtesy Dr. Richard Bachrach.

Thomas Zummer is a Brooklyn-based independent scholar, writer, artist, and curator. He is a frequent lecturer and author on the relations between philosophy, aesthetics, media, and the history of technology. He currently teaches in the Media Studies Department at the New School, and is Regular Visiting Professor in the Transmedia programme/post-graduate in Brussels and Visiting Professor at the Transart Institute in Linz, Austria. His artworks have shown worldwide and he is represented by Frederieke Taylor Gallery in Chelsea.