"There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more" – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1974: 156)
One eye sees, the other feels.
I’ve been finding it hard getting the Tarkovsky polaroids out of my mind over the past few days. Quiet moments between writing sessions find me flipping through them. I spent most of the afternoon sitting in Lee Rosy’s trying to put pen to paper…
My point of departure is an interview published at the back of Bright, Bright Days with the art historian Boris Groys. He describes the effect of the polaroids as one of “documentary romanticism.” For Groys, these are images that speak to the romanticism of a Caspar David Friedrich painting while attending to the documentary impulse of the photographic medium. Here’s Groys’s gloss: “It’s like a combination of Chekhov and Caspar David Friedrich – a kind of cottage-life with a bit of the decadent Russian aristocracy. These images are nostalgic, but not for the Soviet culture of the Russia that he left. Rather, they’re nostalgia for Russia before the Revolution” (2008: 124).
While there is something to recommend in these views, I don’t think they get the full measure of the signficant aesthetic claims at stake in the polaroids. That they ‘imagine’ a kind of intimate utopian refuge amidst the “collective space” of the Soviet Union is hardly remarkable. They were, after all, intended for private consumption. I would like to pursue another line of flight, however, and read them alongside the recent work of the philosopher Jay Bernstein.
Bernstein has written extensively on German philosophy and Critical Theory in its various incarnations and afterlives (see especially his magnificent Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics) and his first sustained foray into modernist art, Against Voluptuous Bodies: Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting, tracks these concerns as they find concrete form across the range of modernist artistic production. The argument draws on a now familiar story involving “the disenchantment of nature” (Santner, 2009: 286) under the sign of an advancing modernity. As Eric Santner has recently noted in a re-reading of Bernstein:
“‘Disenchantment’ signifies here a process that delegitimates our experience of ourselves and our being-in-the-world as vulnerable and dependent beings, disqualifies the dimension of emphatic experience in which sentient embodiment, the felt-fact of aliveness, still bears a normative significance in relation to the object world and other human subjects” (2009: 286).
Santner also seizes on a passage in Bernstein where he focuses on “what has been excised from the everyday” which is to say “the emotional significance of sensory encounter, sensory experience as constitutive of conviction and connection to the world of things” (Bernstein, 2006: 3). These are, I realize, dense opaque passages. What Santner is, I think, interested in working through are the affordances that Bernstein makes for reclaiming “lost forms of human vitality and animation” (2009: 284). If this has been for Bernstein at least, a defining characteristic of modernist art, I’m especially interested myself in the degree to which the kind of picture-making we find in Tarkovsky’s polaroids can plausibly be understood as an exercise in capturing and holding onto a form of sensuous particularity. Whatever claims to modernism are at stake here, I do think it is possible to explore these images as scenes of “significant sensory encounter” (Bernstein, 2006: 7) that are capable of relaying both the felt materiality of the polaroids as well as the dense sensuous textures that are conveyed in the images whether they are portraits and scenes of everyday life or atmospheric landscape compositions. Taken together these images represent a significant contribution to advanced photographic practice and, if anything, only further radicalize the kind of demands that they put on the way in which photographs are meant to be seen.