PRINT May 2002


One of the astonishing disclosures in Jacques Lacan’s ethics of psychoanalysis concerns the crucial desire of man, which the analyst views as an insatiable craving for privation. The troubadour of medieval epics, who must submit to debilitating protocols of desire in his courtship of the Lady, is, for Lacan, exemplary of a persistent pursuit of forms of self-denial. As it turns out, literature would remain faithful, long after Malory, to the splendor of negative cravings. Perhaps the principal exponent of the self-mutilating drive in the realm of fiction was Franz Kafka. Kafka threw us mortals an undigested morsel when in his famous yet inassimilable story “A Hunger Artist” he reformatted the image of privation as a kind of pained obsession with one’s own animal body. A radically exposed figure, the Hunger Artist is at once a spectacle and something that languishes in indeterminacy. If for Kafka the Hunger Artist emerged thematically as a circus act, as a literary figure he was—much like Gregor Samsa—strictly speaking, unfigurable: Kafka’s story is precisely about the difficulty of representing, or figuring, the subject of limitless privation.

The eviscerated figure of withdrawal occupies a zone where presumed opposites inhabit the same space: The Hunger Artist is at once abject and proud, celebrity and loser, starving and sated, anorectic and overindulged. There is something that cannot be swallowed. Whatever Kafka was getting at or with drawing from, the fact remains that our relation to hunger, to food and its representation, is uncanny. At once intimate and distant, human feeding time, whether one is cutting down or beefing up, is barely manageable. On the incessant binge that is called existence, we accept, incorporate, and eliminate food. Yet this intimacy remains alien, other to the body, which mutely seeks its correlate in the idiom of the image. And it is precisely this relation, which despite its materiality remains largely imaginary, that lies at the heart of Parisian photographer and writer Suzanne Doppelt’s pictorial project.

An artisan of the detail, Doppelt copublished with French poet Pierre Alferi the highly visible cultural journal Détail. In addition to producing and showing her own work, she is now the house photographer for Vacarme, a journal in which some of Europe’s most engaging thinking takes place. An exhibition of Doppelt’s recent photos at the Institut Français in Naples closed in March; a show of two series of texts and photographs is currently on view at Fnac Forum des Halles, Paris (through June 8); and “Totem: Textes et photographies de Suzanne Doppelt” was just published by P.O.L.

One aspect of Doppelt’s oeuvre might be read by taking a cue from Kafka’s crash diets, whereby we are instructed to pick out those crumbs that, like Lacan’s petit objet a, stand in for desire itself. The crumb, the slice, the sectionized detail—these are decisive features that have no easy relation to generality and are put under intense scrutiny in Doppelt’s work. Something at the level of the detail or splinter resists getting swallowed up in a wave of generalization and questions the need for master narrative. Doppelt’s work shows that one of the artist’s crucial obligations is to shelter the remnants or details from a semantic flood of grandeur. She questions the possibility of producing utterances, whether of a linguistic or photographic nature, that point to transcendental totalities or arise from the exalted ruin. Without feeding on its vocabulary, Doppelt’s work is in fact more existentialist in the way it achieves micrological sustainment and scans the nearly subphenomenal forms of things. She is radically receptive to the crumbs that existence throws us, opening her lens to the minutiae that undermine the allure of the sublime or the promise of transfiguration.

Doppelt refocuses our attention on the speck as it defies the spectacular, exposing the detail’s poignant singularity. Her photographs, the visual correlate of Kafka’s insight, explore the particulars of structures that overwhelm their own constitution. Asked to photograph the Château Pierrefonds in Oise, France, Doppelt reveals the hidden excess of the aristocratic edifice’s elements, bringing into view the toenails of gargoyles or a mouse descending a centuries-old stone staircase. Her photographs of the château capture it as a “theater of loss” and question the château’s capacity to contain the memory of events and incidents that are habitually considered to constitute “history.” She tracks the impact of time on the building, following traces that can take the form of graffiti, bullet holes, random scratches, and other real-time contaminants.

Grappling with the château’s unrecorded histories, Doppelt uses the camera to isolate elements without subordinating them to a larger meaning or predictable semantic grid. She breaks down a statue, leaving out any indication of the detail’s position or overall significance. The result of her process of grasping what is simply given in space (without heeding what might be given in terms of codified significance) is an image of an implacable fraction—even though the castle is still solidly standing, meticulously kept up. In effect, all of Doppelt’s images capture the world on the brink of its random dissociation, since what holds it together is the momentary lock on coherence. Siegfried Kracauer called the photograph a site of “disintegrated unity,” where all elements are already revealed in the merely contiguous state into which they will inevitably fall with time. But Doppelt shows little tolerance for the traditional charts that embrace the “rise and fall” of a given entity. The arbitrary conjunction is already inscribed in any history or object and speaks to us from another logic of time. What emerges in her unique dissociative conjunctions is what Foucault called “counter-memory”: Doppelt photographically scaffolds an alternative château that offers another vision of its meaning or truth, one that is not servile to the monolithic meaning of the fortress as the architectural sedimentation of history. The château collapses under the weight of its constituent parts, inverting the logic of synecdoche: The whole is swallowed up by the parts. The parts quietly take over, obdurately questioning the authority of the “big picture.” It is not so much that Doppelt is burning down the house. She sees the minoritized traces—the surprise attack on monolithic surfaces—that parasitically invade larger interests and major aesthetic investments.

Miniaturization has its own history, some of which communicates with Deleuze’s reading of masochism as a process of miniaturized introjections, or portraits, of the humiliated father. The hegemony of paternal logic is at stake where the internal hierarchies of objects and their representation are made to shiver, ever upset. Doppelt, who was dubbed the Man Ray of contemporary photography by the Parisian magazine Les Inrockuptibles (which further claimed that her work recalls the “supple movement of Moholy-Nagy”), has produced a corpus that disposes of obsolescent subjectivities, some of which still permeate the work of otherwise kindred spirits such as Wols.

Doppelt’s oeuvre ranges from alluring juxtapositions of food particles to bizarre jointures of architectural detail. The disruption caused by the detail is in fact a recurring reference to that on which we subsist, obsess, or falter. Her lens captures the flash of the unconscious, offering a momentary glimpse of what might otherwise be given over to immediate repression. Doppelt is not satisfied to use her camera to describe, represent, or even reveal what could be assumed to lie hidden beneath the appearance of things. She is not a metaphysical probe light set to discover what is already there. In keeping with Walter Benjamin’s emphasis on the detail, her camera establishes the articulation of things with the aim of discovering their improbable conjunction and ineluctable complicities. At the same time, she is always scouring the unconscious, whch is to say, the optical unconscious, with its subsidiary branches of longings, revulsions, horrors, fascinations. Doppelt deals in types of underplayed transgression and not in the politics and aesthetics of masculinist overcoming or destructive jouissance. There is another energy at work in her subtly discerning vision. She places the work, or the objects of her probe, at the limit between life and death, desire and its negation. At times, Doppelt is like a child playing with her food, forced to remain at the table long after the others have left, having acquitted themselves honorably of the contract that is drawn every time a child is sat down for a meal. One of Doppelt’s outstanding works is “Mange,” written without an exclamation point. “Mange” might be the injunction uttered by a mother who offers the gift of food to the receptacle we call a child. In the quasi-Beckettian text that accompanies Doppelt’s photographs—the flow of language is ratcheted up to the point of delirium—Suzanne’s mother speaks in a schizoid register of the food she rams down her daughters throat. Maternal intrusiveness is set next to the images that seek to stave it off. It is as if photography allowed a momentary reprieve from the toxic maternal flow, turning the signifier into a more digestible form, as it were, sifting and sorting its permutations, converting its menacing substance. If Lacan was right to remind us that the signifier is a body, Doppelt needs to mollify “Mange!,” to liquefy and divert the course of the word-body that her mother aims at her. Her camera skids on a signifier that joins and mirrors maman while issuing the imperative mange, but it also assumes the form of an imperative to produce an image: mange, image, maman.

The photographs in “Mange” are organized around two different appropriations of food. On the one hand, Doppelt refuses the intrusive violence that her mother, a force-feeding machine, primes. On the other hand, it is doubtful that the camera can ever be stably located on the side of refusal, or that it enables the photographer to surrender to what is in front of the lens. The temptation is to decide in favor of one of these options, to dwell in abjection and overlook the beauty of these incontrovertibly compromised, desiccated images. It would be equally shortsighted to stand transfigured before them. Doppelt, whose name already indicates a doubling and division, forces her viewers into a relentlessly split position between attraction and repulsion. Precisely this may capture the human relationship to food, which at any given moment can tip from appetizing and attractive to nauseating and existentially defeating.

Every photograph preserves a referent that may have fallen prey, by the time of the picture’s viewing, to death, disappearance, and decay. André Bazin considered this process the “mummification of the referent. “Photography,” Bazin wrote, “does not create eternity, as art does; it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.” In Doppelt’s images, the corruption of time is not a simple loss. It also implicates the process of decay by which food is turned into some- thing inedible and by which the maternal command to eat, Mange!, which is the command to internalize the mother, become her, absorb her, and preserve her, might also be interrupted.The camera mechanically frees objects “from their destiny,” Bazin writes, and in Doppelt’s work this liberation from the natural course of things becomes an opportunity to free herself, by fixating its command photographically, from the maternal bond.

Doppelt obsessively arranges food items in order to “cure” them with her camera, preserving what cannot be preserved. At the heart of her project, at once withholding and inviting like the furry insides covering the heart of an artichoke in one of her images, is an unresolved tension between temptation and sheer revulsion. In fact, Doppelt’s work is focused on objects that might tilt in an instant from absolute allure to irremediable repulsiveness. With her camera Doppelt explores this instance, which does not register properly as a moment but can only be captured after the fact, when close scrutiny turns what we are about to eat, interiorize, or consume into something alien and repellent. The camera, which has never lost its threat of seizing the essence of what it depicts and leaving behind only empty shells, allows Doppelt to master what cannot be digested. In her images, food becomes an allegorical sign for a memory that is not hers but has been passed down to her, likk the parsley and roasting hen her mother brings back from a local market, in the middle of the day, garnished with incessant instructions—reprinted in Doppelt’s text, which reads as if it had been skimmed off Molly Bloom’s kitchen surfaces-on how to prepare the food, how to eat, how to absorb, store, preserve what could be taken away by force, depriving the receptacle-child. Mange! eat, devour, internalize, absorb the hairy last layer of the artichoke before it reveals its naked whitish heart, surrounded in Doppelt’s work by the remnants of destroyed artichokes. A harmonica gapes like a clenched-toothed mouth, the steel fangs of the melancholic melody that accompanies this meal.

Edgar Morin has stated that photographs might serve as “the rearguard of memory, struggle against time, defend their shreds of living presence against oblivion, against death.” But such a defense is also a melancholic retention of the referent. In Doppelt’s work, which ranges from relics of Corsican sorcery (such as abandoned goat skulls) to depictions of the houses of Goethe and Freud, the photographer reconfigures the relationship between the photographic sign and its purported historical and symbolic meanings. The relay between sign and meaning is not securely established nor seen to originate in any conceptual authority but capitulates to ever-renewed pressure from yet to be determined configurations of the past. This past-there are many histories, marked and unmarked, in Doppelt’s work, alternately manifest and subterranean—is not so much exposed to effacement as it is revived by scrupulous attention to its explicit as well as unintended modalities of meaning.

Avital Ronell and Ulrich Baer teach in the department of Germanic Languages and Literature at New York University.