A couple of Chronicles ago, I referred to the technological progression from nineteenth-century panoramas and magic lanterns to modern film (and recordings). With each generation, our ability to reproduce the feel of reality increases. Cinema adds sound, color, deep focus, wide screens, computer simulations… Films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Jurassic Park perform the Promethean feat of peopling human reality with the products of our reconstructive imagination or our childlike fantasy.

The point of originary analysis is to situate this “natural” human tendency in the scene of human origin. The minimal linguistic sign designating the central object contrasts with the reproduction of the scene as a whole in ritual. Minimal or formal representation is mediated by our understanding of the sign as standing for its referent–an understanding that reflects the sign’s origin in an aborted gesture of appropriation of its unappropriable object. But the formal ostensive sign that represents the central object in its presence is inadequate to substitute for it in a reproduction of the scene. The absent object is “supplemented” by material elements that reproduce something of the sensuous effect of the originary crisis. The temporal-peripheral elements of music and dance recreate, as Girard has remarked, the rhythm of the agon, the “fearful symmetry” of the potential conflict that must be deferred. Ritual also includes synchronic representation of the central being itself in drawing, mask, statue. However formalized, these are material figures, not pure signs. They are, to use C. S. Peirce’s term, iconic, resembling their referent in more or less detail.

But the creation of photography leads us to question the simplicity of the iconic category of signs. As Peirce himself observed, despite appearances, a photograph is not an icon, a man-made attempt at resemblance, but an index or “natural” sign, a trace produced by mechanical means. The distinction is not between two degrees of precision or detail, but two qualitatively different types of signs. This gives us an insight into the horizon of realism: it is not to reproduce the “real,” the phenomenal stuff of human experience, with utmost accuracy, but to do so independently of human desire. This realist horizon defines the heroic tale of the high-cultural artist who learns painstakingly to copy the nuances of appearance by deferring or “sublimating” his own desiring relationship to the object.

A horizon is not a goal but an incentive; its attainment is not a realization but a transformation. The invention of photography, the first means of mechanical reproduction, gives the artist’s tale an unexpected subjective twist that inaugurates the age of modernism. The modernist abandons the realism of shared experience for the incarnation of his own “pre-cultural” vision of Being; rather than sacrifice his desire, he sacrifices himself to his desire. This is a clever coda to the high-artistic narrative, but a dead end nonetheless. The horizon of iconic resemblance was “natural” resemblance–the ever-inaccessible phenomenon in itself. But once technology allows us to preserve an indexical trace of the object, this transcendental frontier of human effort becomes a banally mechanical reality; the sacrificial framework of artistic askesis is evacuated. Like John Henry fighting the steam drill, the heroic artist must give way to a device to which the human concept of heroism is inapplicable.

In prephotographic times, the indexical sign was a relicVeronica’s veil or the Shroud of Turin as opposed to a mere image. Walter Benjamin’s famous discussion of the loss of aura misses the essential point that the mechanical reproduction of the referent’s own trace is the direct heir to the sacred aura of the object itself. Because it preserves a trace of its object, a photograph has more aura than a painting. We daydream for hours before artless old snapshots; they are precious relics of a time lost. Paintings, however valuable, evoke not a real but an imaginary world; they are traces, not of reality, but of human intention.

Yet photography, while ruining the heroic project of iconic realism, cannot occupy its esthetic terrain. The photograph tells the story of its object with no need for formalization beyond the framing of the scene. But the story that it tells is true; there is no such thing as fiction photography. I can draw a picture of a Biblical heroine or a Greek goddess, but I can’t take her picture. Which is to say that photography, although it destroys the artist’s narrative of askesis, does not disturb the fundamental iconicity of art itself.

What makes photographic fiction impossible is precisely what gives the photograph its aura: its indexicality. The heroic tale of the artist is incarnate in the artwork. The neo-Marxist notion (developed most notably by Pierre Macherey) that the “bourgeois” artwork disguises or represses its process of production is just an inversion of the silly socialist utopia where, in the absence of exploitation, reality corresponds with desire. The value of the artwork comes from the care that went into its production–a feature that Heidegger, for one, clearly recognized. That there isn’t a lot of paint left slopped around as a trace of earlier stages of production doesn’t mean that the production process has been repressed, merely that it’s been treated as a means to a (socially acceptable) end. The opposite idea, as illustrated by the process art of the recently deceased Willem de Kooning, was anticipated in 1832 in Balzac’s prophetic “Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu,” but as folly rather than art. I hope you will forgive this old dix-neuviémiste for siding with Balzac.

A photograph can be set up with care, can be a kind of documentary artwork, but its fictional transformation can’t embody the heroic deferral of desire that generates esthetic oscillation between the sign and an imaginary reality wholly dependent on it. The esthetic of the photograph is generated by the oscillation between the trace and an absent reality, which is a very different thing. A photograph may arguably be viewed as a portrait with the intentionality of the artist en moins, but the photograph of a model in costume that purported to be a historical or mythical scene would be ludicrous. It is the aura of this woman you find in the photograph, not that of Cleopatra or Diana. The photographer has not won through heroic askesis the right to transfigure her. He has not generated the transcendent from the immanent, merely added some superficial detail to the immanent before recording its trace. What in painting is the pathos of the iconic representation of the (necessarily) absent becomes in such photography the equivalent of a faked relic.

Hence photography, the mechanical making-present of the horizon of mimetic art, does not itself intrude upon art’s “heroic tale,” although it forces a change of plot. No one could have anticipated that showing a lot of photographs in quick succession would produce something altogether different. What Lumière may not have realized, Méliès and the rest of film history took advantage of: the cinema was not limited to documentation, it could represent fictions. The ascetic care-as-deferral unrealizable in the photograph could be realized in cinematic narrative as in any classical narrative form. A photograph is like a painting, yet it cannot replace it in its esthetic function; cinema has no such limits.

Although film is just as indexical as still photography, filming the false Diana makes of her an actress if anything more believable than one on stage. Cinema’s temporality allows an unfolding of the caring askesis short-circuited in the photograph. If we extend the temporality of the photograph, we see the model put on and take off her costume. Cinema defers this insertion of the actress in our own life-world; the world beyond this image is another image from the world of fiction, an image we understand as intended by the players, actors and director alike in “heroic” deferral of their own worldly desire. We react to film actors as we do to live actors; in this sense, cinema is always “filmed theater”–whereas photography conveys at best a theatrical moment–Sarah Bernhardt as Lorenzaccio.

We can now understand cinema’s particular contribution to realism. As a derivative of photography, film is indexical, it aspires to the feel of reality. But like literary, dramatic, or pictorial narrative, and unlike still photography, the cinema is not bound by historical reality; its content possesses the freedom of art to represent what it at the same time creates.

Revolutions in narrative, like the French New Novel, come and go, revealing only that there can be no real revolution in the age-old sacrificial narrative structure. Since the beginning, revolutions in cinematic technique have been subordinated to this structure rather than the reverse. Those not too obtrusive, like color and wide-screen, become new standards for narrative cinema; novelties that distract from narrative, like 3-D and cinerama, quickly fade. The same will no doubt be true of next century’s animated holograms and whatever innovations the distant future reserves. The only way cinematic technique could transform narrative would be in the form of virtual reality that abolishes its ascetic, sacrificial structure altogether to provide visceral (no doubt largely sexual) wish-fulfillment. But so long as human society exists, it is inconceivable that the possibility of such satisfaction would put an end to traditional narrative, the temporal mode of our unceasingly renewed deferral of violence through representation.