Spring 2014

Friday 07/04/2014


Notes on "Double Negative" by Ivan Vladislavić, by Emmanuel Iduma

Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavić


A novel works like a photograph. Things happen in a past-present that retreats from view. The periphery is easier to notice than the center; the moment is in view, the past is not past. It’s the world of Kafka, in fact, which seems puzzling because he appears to invite the reader to “assume high-powered symbolic and allegorical meanings” to it, and at the same time repel such assumptions. “Yet when the narratives are examined, it discloses more than what it literally means.”[1] And it is also the world of Ivan Vladislavić, where the land lies open like a book and it is impossible to “ever do justice to something so rich in detail.” At the heart of any quintessential novel is a form of implacability, a double negative, a stream of sub-plots that cancel themselves out, the irony of an irony.


The world Vladislavić makes is true to its ethics of perception. Enabled by history, which at the fall of apartheid “steps down from its pedestal to meet you in the street,” it is an an account of a “peculiar passivity”, used in the novel in reference to Saul Auerbach, the famous photographer whose way of seeing gives the novel its ethical pulse. What kind of ethics? Toward the end of the novel, the narrator Neville Lister, who in his youth was instructed by his Dad to spend a day with Auerbach, is said to be a man of his times, “disaffected but not disengaged.” In this book, the photographer’s lot is charted in many ways. But a disaffected engagement is peculiar; it asks you to waltz through time without being swallowed by it. In other words, to possess a peculiar passivity.

Photography, in a sense, like a timestamp, bears the fate of history. If you want to talk about the past, in a present continuous tense, you would have to hold up a photograph. What you are assured, however, is not that you can outride every historical storm. You cannot learn from a photograph what you ought to do at an instant moment.

Neville knows this: “History would break me over like a wave that had already swept through the manor house and bear me off in a jumble of picture frames and paper plates.” The question that presents itself time and again in Vladislavić’s novel is the value of a photograph. A photographic object, in time, is replaced by newer photographic objects. The riddle of the photograph, and the task of the photographer, begins with acknowledging obsolescence.

Auerbach is not deceived. He knows his worth will not be decided by the reception of his photographs by the world. “I’m not trying to demonstrate a proposition or substantiate a claim. I’m just looking for what chimes. Let’s say there’s a disequilibrium in me, my scales are out of kilter, and something out there, along these streets, can right the balance. The photograph – or is it photographing? – restores balance.” To balance is to render adequate, but you never get to the point where all balances are righted. This is why this book reads, in part, like a coming of age story in which Neville Lister never came of age. Its chronology is basic, but the spaces between one phase of the narrator’s life and the next are heavy with the strides of photography’s big ontological questions, photography’s disequilibrium.

Says Auerbach, “Even if I show you what I do in the darkroom, the tricks of my particular trade, where I like to crop things, the lines that hit the spot, I can’t tell you how I see. I can only show you the result.” This is the essential disequilibrium within an artist; the knowledge that the world wants answers that cannot be provided. In Auerbach’s case, and what would become equally true of Neville, the awkward truths of a photographer’s life take shape in their negative spaces, not in the space deemed important by an audience—in fact the photographer is always frustrated by the camera’s inability to capture the inexactitude of what he sees. So perhaps what Auerbach is saying is that the result of what he sees will surprise him as it will surprise any other person who looks at his photographs. This sort of admittance keeps the photographer perpetually engaged. To be engaged, you cannot merely “point the camera out of the window and hope for the best.”

What causes disequilibrium in the photographer, and ultimately in the photographed universe? It is, possibly, as Neville explains a concatenated universe. Perhaps, he says, “every gesture will beget its twin, every action find an echo, every insight become a catechism, like some chain reaction that can never be halted.” As the technology for capturing and storing technical images improves overwhelmingly in our time, decoding the overabundant images become more difficult. It is in this sense that photographs are said to “annihilate memory”, swallowing the available light and casting everything else into a shadow. I react to this apocalyptic tendency of photography with the least worry, or anxiety. My faith is in the disequilibrium of the photographer, his state of unease in a world overflowing with images. His task is not to halt the chain reaction or pause the endless stream of photographic images. The production and display of images has already been coveted by global capitalism. A photographer begins with Vilém Flusser in mind: “The task of a philosophy of photography is to analyze the possibility of freedom in a world dominated by apparatus; to think about how it is possible to give meaning to human life in the face of the accidental necessity of death. We need such a philosophy because it is the last form of revolution which is still accessible for us.”[2]

And this is the only way in which his disequilibrium would make any sense.


Both photographs and novels have to account for their presence in the world. It is not difficult for a novel to do this, because a novel deals with the world in the form of a creative act of construction. Notice how Neville’s narrative in Double Negative defies chronology; it remains true and consistent with the version of itself that it allows the world outside it to see. But a photograph accounts for its presence in the world in a more contentious way. This is how Neville, a fresh returnee to South Africa, explains it:

“A gap had opened up between me and the known world. When I approached the places and people I thought I knew, they took a step back, recoiling as if I meant to do them harm. It’s no wonder I did not feel like touching a camera in the beginning. Nothing would keep still.”[3]

Photographs deal with gaps in the known world. They seek out a balance between what is visible and what is not. The difficulty is that the camera approaches the visible as though it is all that there is. But the photographer knows that there are fractioned moments that cannot be captured by the camera—it doesn’t matter how powerful the camera as an apparatus gets, the photograph will remain “flimsy” in relation to the world.

“For the first time, the houses I lived in, the people I passed in the street were at the right distance to be grasped fully. They looked so solid; they were so there, I felt I knew them all. And yet there was a levity to them as well, because a photograph is a flimsy thing when you compare it to the world.”[4]

My ambition is to find a way to understand a photograph as I understand a novel, and to berate this flimsiness. Perhaps the world of the photograph stands apart from the known world. The gap that opens up between the photographer and the known world is what is captured in the photograph. It is similar to what happens in a novel. The novelist is at work to capture the vibrations within the gaps of the world. A great novel will not necessarily conform to the inferential laws of the known world. It will work based on its own laws.

Every photograph works based on its own inferential law: the moment determined by the photographer when it must come to being. Neville, who was present when Auerbach took a photograph, reports that, “He waited for something to happen. Or not happen. Something imperceptible to the rest of us had to become clear before he could release the shutter.” When he released the shutter, Neville says it “fell through the moment like a guillotine,” creating a decisive moment, and hence inferring its own existence.


Arguably, photography is a tangent in Double Negative. The definitive impulse is Apartheid. On the blurb, we find this: “Perhaps the freight of the past had to be lightened if the flimsy walls of the new South Africa were not to buckle. How much past can the present bear?” Photography is the strange tangent of the book, then. If things are seen through the eyes of a fledging, reluctant photographer (“I’m a photographer, a commercial photographer and not a very good one”, Neville says), who took pictures just to prove he “wasn’t seeing things”, then I ought to aim to determine how it was possible to consider Apartheid through the immanence of photography. I wouldn’t look too far. Walter Benjamin wrote about the revolutionization of the entire social function of art:

“But as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics.”[5]

The truth is ample in its evidence. To be true to its calling, a novel about apartheid would be founded on the ritual of photography. Images, of any kind, have no importance as useful surfaces if they have no political referents. Vladislavić’s genius lies in how he took Neville’s trouble with the political history of his country and imposed it on his trouble with the magical universe of photographs. This antinomian pair of trouble is a double negative—the contradiction in photography cancels off the contradictions in politics, but we always come back to the same ironic and incestuous relationship between them.


We have to return to Kafka. There is a riddle in every photograph, as in every world Kafka invites us to inhabit. Tell me, why do we never tire of seeing certain photographs? Flusser saw the same magic in Kafka:

“The code Kafka uses helps to disguise the level of meaning of his message. Although it is not difficult to decode this code, there is a certain doubt with respect to the validity of the decoded message as a consequence of the absurd incompatibility of both….A prophet…who quietly confesses the inauthenticity of his encoded message, thus making the message doubly authentic. If I wanted to conjure an image, I would say that Kafka does not try to hide the key to his code. Instead, he secretly admits the possibility that he has provided the false key.”[6]

If I wanted to conjure a meaning, I would say that Double Negative is the riddle Vladislavić offers to express the inauthenticity of his post-apartheid message. It’s a strange account of the dead letters from the past, which are freighted into the present not to provide any form of illumination (or consolation), but to always refer us to the circumstances in which they were written in the first place—the letters are “disaffected, but not disengaged.” Novels today offer too many illuminations, consolations, and disengagements.[7] In this way they are closer to selfies than experimental photographs.[8]


Let’s talk about freedom, and how to account for an everyday Africa. The photographer’s freedom lies in his honesty. When Auerbach is praised during a retrospective exhibition of his work, we are told: “The thread that joined all these works, disparate as they might appear…was their honesty. The hand may have trembled, but the eye had never flinched.”

It is deeply idealistic to think that the eye cannot flinch. If you work in Africa you know that there’s a hurricane of change. The population under thirty is over seventy percent, and the notorious consequence of this fact is evident in urbanism, technology, and the economy. Honesty is reacting to this with trembling hand but a steady eye. Irony is present in the thought that a trembling hand would mean a flinching eye. But freedom, always an ideal, will make a trembling hand into an unflinching eye.

The trembling hand is a thick metaphor for apparatuses, like cameras, that are programmed to make the photographer subservient to it. It is also a metaphor for the changing realities of everyday life in Africa.

All of Vladislavić’s tangential imperative in Double Negative can be taken as an articulation of a philosophy of photography. But the subject of photography in the novel, resorting to a factual analysis, is not tangential, but the axle on which it turns. It was written in conversation with David Goldblatt’s photographs of Johannesburg beginning in the early 1960s, and first published together with TJ, Goldblatt’s 2011 photo book.

Neville is like many photographers today who are constantly questioning the task of photography in a world saturated with images. Thankfully, Auerbach – Goldblatt? – Is the ethical pulse of the novel, pointing to freedom?


[1] Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetics of Silence” in Styles of a Radical Will (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), 29

[2]VilémFlusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, trans. Anthony Matthews, (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), 82

[3] Ivan Vladislavić, Double Negative, (New York: & Other Stories, 2013), 175

[4] Ibid., p. 182

[5] Walter Benjamin, “The Production, Reproduction, and Reception of the Work of Art” in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, eds. Michael W. Jennings et. al., trans. Edmund Jephcott et. al., (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008), 25

[6]Vilém Flusser, “Looking for Kafka” in Writings, ed. Andreas Ströhl, trans. Erik Eisel, (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 153

[7] For more on the current state of Global Literature, and especially in relation to disengagements, see The Editors, “Global Lite”, n+1, (August 2013), accessed 19 February 2014, http://nplusonemag.com/world-lite

[8] Flusser argues that experimental photographers are “consciously attempting to create unpredictable information, i.e. to release themselves from the camera, and to place within the image something that is not in the program.” (Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, 81)

From the African.org online posting by Emmanuel Iduma on July 3, 2014.