Digital photography proclaims that the clasp of history has been broken.
The word ‘history’ originated from “Greek historia: “a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one’s inquiries, history, record, narrative”” (HARPER 2001-2020). Thus, history was originally understood as being both the learning gained through inquiry and the account or record of that inquiry. Presumably, the iterative process of learning was already evident to the Greeks: you learnt through direct inquiry and/or through accounts or records of such inquiries; a direct inquiry or an inquiry into an account or record of an inquiry were already understood by the ancient Greeks as processes fabricated with complex feedforward and feedback loops whose endpoint catapulted one into inquiring into the process of inquiry itself – an endless stratagem.
Drawing the etymological origin of the word ‘history’ further back, we are told that the Greek word historia originated from the Greek “historein “inquire,” from histōr “wise man, judge,” from PIE *wid-tor-, from root *weid- “to see.” Related to Greek idein “to see,” and to eidenai “to know.”” (HARPER 2001-2020). And here again is evinced the endless iterative process: he who sees, knows; he who knows is wise, and thus inquires, gaining more knowledge in the process that makes him see more and seek to know further.
What later, in ancient Rome, came to be understood as “narrative of past events, account, tale, story”, namely history for the ancient Romans, the Latin historia, was in origin anything but a record of the past. History to the ancient Greeks was essentially atemporal, an endless iteration in the now – the very antithesis of the meaning the word ‘history’ later accrued, a meaning which has survived down to the present day: history as a “narrative record of past events” (HARPER 2001-2020).
The word ‘historical’ originated from Greek historikos “historical; of or for inquiry,” from historia” (HARPER 2001-2020). To the Greeks, if one saw, one knew; and this knowing made one a wise man, a man who would inquire endlessly because of that wisdom bestowed upon him. To the Greeks, for those blessed with wisdom (read “with healthy eyes”), everything had to be inquired, and therefore both the process of inquiry – the record of inquiry, history – and the object presenting itself for inquiry, the historical, demanded that they, history and the historical, should be (endlessly) inquired (further), that they should be historicised. We can think of the ancient Greeks as perceiving all percepts as ‘bodies’ of potential questions.
History then becomes merely record of the past at that instant when metaphor, understood as the unremitting demand of history, understood as inquiry in present time, on the present, recedes into the background, allowing reality, understood as unconscious metaphor, metaphor incapable of self-reflection, metaphor of itself, of nothing, to take centerstage. What ensues is a maddened obsession with history and the historical, record and archaeological artefact; with everything vintage and somewhat kitsch, traditional and made with craft; homegrown, organic, family-run…
Welcome to the twenty-twenties 🙂
Digital photography is the prime culprit to blame for this ongoing questioning of the veracity or the indexicality of the photograph, the photograph as hitherto unanimously understood as record of an event that happened in the past. The move to digital has engendered the notion of an artefacted history, a history “made or modified by human art” (HARPER 2001-2020).
The digital phenomenon makes possible, ironically, the breaking of the chain linking us to the past, ironically precisely because it is once this rupture is affected that societies vainly want to retreat to some past.
HARPER, Douglas. 2001-2020. Online Etymology Dictionary [online]. Available at: http://www.etymonline.com [accessed 28 February 2020].
Until the End of the World 1991, video recording, Warner Bros., United States. Directed by Wim Wenders.