7 Dec 2021

Might as Well Jump (Jump!)

Philippe Halsman:  
Grace Kelly Jump (1954) 

As much as I admire Byung-Chul Han - and as much as I enjoy reading his books - I do slightly worry that he's just a teensy-weensy bit of a miserabilist. 
That is to say, the sort of philosopher who, when asked if he's a happy person, responds by first pointing out that, in his view, this is a meaningless question before then insisting that happiness is not a condition that he aspires to anyway.
Or the sort of philosopher who finds the world cruel and confusing and thus almost impossible to comprehend: "That is also why I am not happy. I rarely understand the world. It appears quite absurd to me. You cannot be happy living in absurdity. To be happy takes a lot of illusions, I think." [1]
And the sort of philosopher who, when offered a nice piece of cake, says: I don't eat cake ...
This perhaps helps explain how it is that Byung-Chul Han has kept his trim, somewhat boyish figure and also why it is that he hates people jumping with joy (particularly in front of a camera lens) ...   
In a short piece first published in Die Zeit, in 2016, Byung-Chul Han claims that young people being photographed these days love to "jump around wildly" and that this phenomenon seems to have spread "like an epidemic" [2]
He asks: "Are they really jumping with joy? Is jumping an expression of the increasing vitality of our society? Or are these jumps rather pathological twitches of the narcissistic ego?" [3] I'm not sure I know the answer to these questions, but I do know that individuals jumping in front of cameras is nothing new (even if more widespread).  

One recalls, for example, the astonishing pictures of Philippe Halsman, about which I have written previously on Torpedo the Ark [4]. This includes the above photo of American film star (and future Princess of Monaco) Grace Kelly, taken in 1954, which I will always love, no matter what arguments Han puts forward.  
However, I am prepared to consider his arguments ...
According to Han, in earlier times, when photos "served primarily as mementos, people being photographed presented themselves in a calm and civilized manner" [5]. No one, he says, would have dreamt (or dared) to leap about in front of the camera:
"The aim of a photograph was mainly to preserve the moment [...] People held back, and the event came to the fore. They receded behind the moment or occasion that was to be remembered. No one wanted to present themselves, let alone make an exhibition of themselves." [6]
Looking at old photos - and I'm talking about very old photos - there's obviously some truth in this. But perhaps this is for the same reason that, in most old photos, people aren't smiling either; namely, that early pictures required such long exposure times that the subject had to stay as silent and as still as possible. 

Of course, it's true that after 1900 exposure times became much shorter, thanks to the invention of the box Brownie, which ushered in the age of the snapshot. And yet, smiles were still uncommon in early 20th-century pictures and people were not, as a rule, jumping about in front of the camera; thus there were doubtless cultural conventions in operation (and not merely technological considerations). 
For example, photography was still not regarded as a unique art form with its own aesthetic; it was still heavily indebted to the tradition of portraiture in painting. People may or may not have taken themselves more seriously then than now, but they certainly took photography more seriously; having a picture taken was still a big deal and one didn't want to be immortalised acting or looking the fool.    
Han says that today, in the age of Facebook, self-exhibition is an absolute value and people vie for attention and for likes. That they have lost that which once gave photographs a certain austere charm and aura (lost their inwardness, their reserve, their humanity) and the world become "merely a pleasant backdrop for the ego" [7].
Han concludes: 
"We are witnessing the development of a kind of photography that is free of remembrance and history, a photography that is permanently on the hop, so to speak, that has an altogether different temporality, which lacks width and depth, a photography that exhausts itself in moments of fleeting emotion, a photography that is not narrative but only deictic." [8] 
The thing is, however, I rather like this kind of photography. One is even tempted to call it (à la D. H. Lawrence) the photography of the immediate present; instant photography in which there is "no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished" [9] (or, as Han would have it, no age, no fate, and no death). 
I don't want to stare at old black and white photos of the past, or Roland Barthes's mother, and think this is how it was ... If that makes me a spider monkey who leaps about jumping for attention whilst remaining fettered to the moment and "devoid of the [human] virtues of understanding and wisdom" [10], then so be it.

[1] See the conversation between Byung-Chul Han, Niels Boeing and Andreas Lebert, entitled 'I am Sorry, But These Are the Facts', in Capitalism and the Death Drive, trans. Daniel Steuer, (Polity Press, 2021), p. 135. 
[2] Byung-Chul Han, 'Jumping Humans', in Capitalism and the Death Drive, p. 49.  

[3] Ibid.
[4] Let me remind readers who can't be bothered (or don't have time) to click here, that Halsman produced a celebrated series of pictures of famous people jumping in the air, 178 of which were published as a book in 1959, along with an essay containing his philosophy of jump photography that he termed jumpology
      Essentially, Halsman was interested in seeing his subjects lose a little self-control and reveal character traits that would otherwise remain hidden. I suppose, that being the case, I would understand Byung-Chul Han's opposition to the project on the grounds that such a desire for transparency has fatal consequences.
[5] Byung-Chul Han, 'Jumping Humans', Capitalism ad the Death Drive, p. 49. 
[6] Ibid., pp. 49-50.

[7-8] Ibid., p. 51. 

[9] D. H. Lawrence, 'Preface to New Poems', in The Poems, Vol. I, ed. Christopher Pollnitz, (Cambridge University Press, 2013), Appendix I, p. 646. 

[10] Byung-Chul Han, 'Jumping Humans', Capitalism ad the Death Drive, p. 52. 

Readers might like to be reminded of my own contribution to jump photography (and the poetry of the present), in a 2017 post featurning the Lithuanian artist Gedvile Bunikyte: click here.  

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