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Pyrographies: Photography and the good death

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This essay theorizes the ethical potential of photography or what I call “pyrography” by enacting a version of care for death in attending closely to a sort of rehearsal for the deathbed in French photographer and writer Hervé Guibert's photo-novel Suzanne and Louise first published by Gallimard in 1980, the same year as Roland Barthes's famous essay on photography, Camera Lucida. The essay develops the transformative ethical possibilities of and queer political potentialities of pyrography by reading Guibert's project with his two elderly aunts in relation to the work of two of Guibert's intimates: Michel Foucault's “The Social Triumph of the Sexual Will” and Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida and Mourning Diary. In Mourning Diary, Barthes describes the plan for Camera Lucida as an ephemeral monument to his dead mother whose loss he calls, following the last work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott: “the catastrophe that has already occurred.” Through its own writing with fire of the death we fear that has already occurred and that we cannot access directly, photography may enable the kind of “as if” work or projective imaginative enactment for which Winnicott calls. This essay put this concept of the photographic pyre or pyrographies to work to characterize a kind of photographic act. Pyrography is a facture of and with the flammable, not of and about the past, but for the present and future. It is a practice of making volatile structures for feeling with the taboo scenes of the conjunction of old age, desire, and death that create spaces not just for mourning the losses that have actually happened. Pyrographies shape spaces in which one might begin to imagine and transact with care the losses and the letting go yet to come. Pyrographies, I am suggesting, trade in the illusions of presence. They give us the catastrophe that has already occurred in palpable form, enabling us to negotiate shame and fear but also desire toward the seemingly impossible: the good death.

Keywords: photography; punctum; queer; shame; “care for death”; “good death”; “photographic ecstasy”

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Art History,University of Wisconsin, Madison,WI, USA

Publication date: March 1, 2012


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