Curating the Archive

The prima materia of perception is not the world. The prima materia of perception is memory.

As our eyes linger on the object of their gaze, the memory gives way to what is really being seen. The eyes do not travel; they travel with the body. 

Charles Sanders Peirce established a trichotomy of signs, which Silverstein explains thus: “the three sign types, each characterized by its own type of meaning for the users, are icon, index, and symbol. Icons are those signs where the perceivable properties of the sign vehicle itself have isomorphism to (up to identity with) those of the entity signaled. That is, the entities are ‘likenesses’ in some sense. Indexes are those signs where the occurrence of a sign vehicle token bears a connection of understood spatio-temporal contiguity to the occurrence of the entity signaled. That is, the presence of some entity is perceived to be signaled in the context of communication incorporating the sign vehicle. Symbols are the residual class of signs, where neither physical similarity nor contextual contiguity hold between sign vehicle and entity signaled. They form the class of ‘arbitrary’ signs traditionally spoken of as the fundamental kind of linguistic entity” (1976: 27). Irrespective of the fact that, as Peirce noted, in every sign “there is exemplified the progressive relationship of inclusion of the three sign modes” (Ibid. 28), in this post we are primarily concerned with the so-called indexicality of the photograph. 

Earlier we said that the eyes do not travel; the eyes travel with the body. The indexical relation established in the act of perception is maintained as long as the eyes do not avert their gaze or close themselves shut. When they do, what was really seen subsides and gives way to the original memory. As long as the eyes do not close themselves shut and do not avert their gaze, the world momentarily comes to be. The world presents itself as determined by memory. 

Is there a world out there? I know what the world looks like because I have a memory of it, and the world looks like the memory I have of it. 

I have spoken repeatedly about the term ‘representation’ (see here for just one example). Let us return to that argument and toy with the etymological ambiguity inherent in the term ‘representation’. A representation is a presence placed before a certain type of being. Conversely, albeit still true to, and safely within the limits of, its etymological origins, a representation occurs when a certain type of being finds itself before a presence. We can surmise from this that all representations are necessarily indexical. But here we are missing one component of cardinal importance. We spoke of representation as necessitating “a certain type of being”. A representation can only occur if that type of being finding itself before a presence is ontico-ontological – is Dasein, to use Heidegger’s term. The presence is placed before you, you find yourself in front of the presence, because as Dasein you can represent your knowledge (unlike a stone, which knows but cannot represent its knowing). The statue of the goddess is and is not the deity… the deity being inferred either through presence or absence. (It is good to note that all signs mean to communicate and hence are all representations. Thus, communication cannot be a simple sender/receiver process; communication is a complex web of interpreters.) 

The photograph is a sign and a representation that unlike the eye can not only break out of its original indexical relation but can also travel freely. But the photograph looks like the world I remember seeing, a world, let us repeat, which presented itself as determined by memory. Memories, being intangible, necessitate that photography dramatizes, be “a drama, a dramatic move to action (passage a l’acte), which is a way of seizing the world by ‘acting it out’” (BAUDRILLARD 2000). Thus, the photograph’s indexical relation is not with anything out there; the photograph indexes itself. This, we believe is what leads Baudrillard to say that “the photographic image is not a representation; it is a fiction” (Ibid.). Put in another way, the photograph is a (the?) world. 

Photography brings the world into action (acts out the world, is the world’s act) and the world steps into the photographic act (acts out photography, is photography’s act).


Ħottu dat-tempju, u fi tlitt ijiem nerġa’ nwaqqfu.


There is a very salient ‘current’ trend in the world of photography, with contemporary photographic projects and photobooks being made up almost in their entirety of undecipherable images. Elsewhere (click here to read that post), we said that the post-aesthetic age is a container. As a container, the post-aesthetic age surely can, neigh must, accommodate or contain these images – contain without attempting to contextualise. The post-aesthetic age does not assume it can in any way decipher these images, these hieroglyphs; it only presents them as such. The post-aesthetic age presents these images as the hieroglyphs that they essentially are without roping in explicable arguments on climate change, the refugee crisis, struggling with cancer, domestic violence, the opioid crisis, the LGBTQI+ movement, autism, teen pregnancy, illiteracy, etc.   

Featured Image:

John William Waterhouse / Public domain


BAUDRILLARD, Jean. 2000. Photography, or the Writing of Light (1999). Translated by Francois Debrix. Available at: [accessed 16 April 2020].

ĠWANNI 2:19, It-Testment Il-Ġdid: Bibbja Saydon. 

SILVERSTEIN, Michael. 1976. ‘Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description’. In Keith H. BASSO and Henry A. SELBY (eds.). Meaning in Anthropology. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 11-55.