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The Displacement Project
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The Displacement Project

Toward the end of Johann Goethe’s first stay in Venice in 1786, an experience recounted in Italian Journey, he made two curious remarks about objects. Italian Journey is a record of Goethe’s childlike enthusiasm for the places and objects that had been theretofore known to him only in the writings and engravings of others and that were now about to show themselves to him, one after the other, in place. What Goethe was most eager to see in northern Italy, and had already begun to do so in Vicenza, was Palladian architecture. This is, as we know, a passion that André Bazin came to share with Goethe, especially in his expressed admiration of the forced perspective set of Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico.1 In a letter dated October 12, Goethe first tells us that “Since Palladio keeps referring to Vitruvius, I have brought Galliani’s edition, but this tome weighs as heavy in my luggage as it weighs on my brain when I study it.”2 What Goethe rather cleverly indicates here is a relation between an image and an object—that is to say, a relation between an image and the object that the image also is but need not only be. More simply, what he recounts here is an understanding of an image as an object that has density, form, and matter—so much so that it weighs heavy in his suitcase—and that is also an image that weighs, in an immaterial way, on his mind, that is, even when the object itself remains unseen in his luggage.

Toward the end of this same letter, Goethe makes a second observation about objects: [End Page 235]

My passionate desire to see these objects with my own eyes had grown to such a point that, if I had not taken the decision I am now acting upon, I should have gone completely to pieces. More historical research was no help. The things were in arm’s reach, yet I felt separated from them by an impenetrable barrier. Now I feel, not that I am seeing them for the first time, but that I am seeing them again.3

What I would like to arrive at here is an understanding of what it means to say that one is not only not seeing something for the first time but is also seeing it again, even though one has never before been present to the object. What Goethe articulates in these two passages is not an original experience of a place and its objects in their authenticity, which would follow from a break with mediation—whether in the form of films, books, postcards, or the tales of teachers and parents—and that we find in so many clichéd expressions about the real and in the more recent appeals to an aesthetics of presentation. Nor does it confirm the by now ubiquitous skepticism about the map that has become the territory and especially as such claims are made today in the quasiscientific discourse of biopolitics, in which the brain has taken leave of the mind and is described, in turn, as either a screen or an algorithm, if not both at once. Rather, if I am seeing something that I have never before been present to in its material form as an object in a particular place and I describe this experience as an instance of seeing again, I do so precisely because the image is an object and also nothing material at the very same time.

So, in response to the question that organizes this dossier—is an image an object?—I want to answer that in fact it is but with the necessary stipulation that it is also something immaterial, insofar as an image requires an object for its existence but need not remain tethered in place to that object, where it—the object—stands to be an image of a potentially different sort. Or as Jean Mitry points out in The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema, if we imagine a unicorn—that is, if we form an image of something that does not exist—we cannot help but do...