Every visualisation is a predication, which presumes as anterior to it an object (or event) of which it is predicated. But it is only a predicate: the real of which it is predicated is produced as Real by the fact of its absence from its predication. It is not simply that representation somehow misses its goal, but that in representing we constitute the object of representation (the referent) as missing.
The famous image of his mother that Barthes adduces in his plea – much repeated – for the privileged indexicality of the image is pointedly excluded from his book. It is a classic case of the fetish; that which stands in for the impossible sight which itself is evidence of an absence of that whch one may be but not possess, or possess but not be. The union of image and Real which would constitute the object as true (as statement of the truth, as indexical union of symbol and Real) is the fantastic resolution of the absent body of mother, site of the primal absence on which not only the fetish but the impossible origin of originary separation constitute the “I” as subject of the object – the Real – for which it never ceases to hanker, and of which, in consequence, it makes, in consort with its symbolic media, its endless representations.
In the escape of the real, and even more so in the perpetual assertion of an I from which it has escaped but which nevertheless perpetually names it as its own lost Real, lies the origin of the split subject who needs what it cannot possess – its originary and imaginary unity – and who therefore creates fetishes that not only stand in for what has been lost but unify the proliferating symbols surrounding it.
The photograph, as a crystallised form of time past, is absolute in that it is time that has fulfilled itself. In so doing, it is no longer a temporal object but spatial, time become space at the moment it fulfils itself. A photograph is thus evidence of an ending and a completion. Such absolute completion is inimical to life in the sense that life is intrinsically temporal because it is unfulfilled. What Barthes' photo give him is an image of a life fulfilled, as it can never be for the living. Life is divided and unfulfilled: the image offers itself as whole and complete. What is whole and complete cannot do – it can only be (It is actual). If Barthes is right, and the photo of his mother exists as a whole and complete image, and is thus an index, then any other effect it has is supplemental. Yet Barthes affirms specifically what the image is for him (and underlines it by denying his readers the chance to see it, so cancelling any proliferation of readings). This 'for him' of the image is an action, an effect of a cause. But if the photo causes an effect, it no longer 'is' in its absolute fulfilment. The photograph of his mother desires to reach out to the son, with a desire that is only possible because it is unfulfilled, reaching across time to fulfil the lack in the son. In their mutual need, Barthes and the photo of his mother must exist together in a cycle of desire and lack; and Barthes clearly felt that circle needed to be exclusive: a monad constructed of mutual absence constructed as co-presence, and a co-presence that divides the unity of the image in the necessity of its presence to its uniquely privileged but equally bereaved and abandoned viewer. That which is unity cannot act on itself (this is why it was necessary to construct the Holy Trinity); and that which is whole and complete has no resources left to become other than it is (that is, to become a cause) nor any reason to seek a fulfilment it already possesses.
So we must recognise that the photo of Barthes' mother is incomplete. It must be so in order for it to function as it does for Barthes, as evidence that 'she was there'. It can serve as a fetish, as unitary image that disguises lack, because it is itself divided and lacking. Only thus can it have the effect of truth, the subjective effect caused by the photograph as agent. The truth of the image depends on its not being the whole truth.
In the Epistemological-Critical Introduction to the Origins of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin distinguishes origin from genesis. Origin, he insists, is historiographical: as Agamben notes, origin 'manifests itself only through a double structure of restoration and incompleteness' (Potentialities 156), only to be completed inits own history, its trajectory through time and the accounts given of it retrospectively. For Benjamin, the past is the object of redemption, but a redemption which must rip the elements – events, ives, deaths, things – out of the hands of heritage to allow them to stand again naked to Judgement. Origin is not that nakedness: it is the unredeemed ascription of existence to what is actually the effect of the very historicisation that constructs its particularity, peculiarity, even singularity. Every claim of origin, every cathexis we build with origins, is a fetish: an absolute symbolic unity cast over the radical incompleteness of every moment of life, human technical or physical, today, millennia ago, last week. 'Origin' constitutes the living, striving, desiring and dying past as fact: as the actual in which action is exhausted by completion, that needs nothing but its description to be resolved, absolved and effectively refused in its untidy becoming, turned instead into the datum, the Aeschylean horror of “What is, is”.
The absent image on which is built the theory of indexicality is absent because it is both holy and abject. It is a picture of his dead mother, birth, death, desire, prohibition, the tangle of emotional identifications and veilings of the maternal in any son, gay or straight. The image is an index and whole because it cannot be seen, and only on that condition, a condition which, by making the image invisible, ensures that bizarre twist: that in order to exist as evidence of his mother's existence, the index itself must not exist. It is not therefore that Barthes mother did not exist, nor that the photo didn't or doesn't, nor even the poetic absence of the image that intends to prove the indexicality of all images. It is instead that, as index, an image flickers constantly between its own non-existence and that of its referent. Either the image predicates the truth of the object it constitutes as object, or it confronts its own existence as constitutive predication. Since it cannot do both at once, it oscillates around the polarity of its own temporality, its performance of history as heritage, its refusal to be merely data. It is only on condition that we abandon the concept of image as truth that we can truly love an image.