Interview with Joanna Zylinska [PART 1]

December 2018

Andrew Dewdney is a research professor at London South Bank University whose current research is focused upon the intersections of art, media and technology.

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Last July, Andrew Dewdney interviewed Joanna Zylinska for Unthinking Photography, on the occasion of her recent publication ‘Nonhuman Photography’ (MIT Press, 2017). Zylinska talks about her research on the nonhuman, its relation to photography and its politics, while she reflects on creative as well as institutional practices in the age of the Anthropocene.

In this first excerpt, the discussion unpacks the notion of the nonhuman.

Andrew Dewdney

Before we go into specific arguments contained in the chapters, I would like to discuss the title of the book…What does the term nonhuman do in the analysis and why did you call it Nonhuman Photography?

Joanna Zylinska

It’s a conceptual provocation aimed at challenging the more humanist discourse around photography. But ‘nonhuman’ here is not opposed to the human and it doesn’t mean that no humans are involved in photography. Specifically, I defined nonhuman photography as photography that is not of, by or for, the human. I was trying to play with this idea of displacing the human from their position as the key agent and narrator of history. I also wanted to look at photography in the so-called ‘deep time’ framework, by thinking about photography’s relationship to geology, fossils and other kinds of deep-time imprints on surfaces.

Then, going back to this idea that we are all photographers today, I wanted to consider that maybe all humans are to some extent nonhuman, running on algorithms as much as exercising their own ‘individualism’. If not, then how come most people’s Instagram feeds or wedding photographs look almost the same? Again, it’s a certain provocation, you can call it an intellectual joke, but it’s a serious joke aimed at getting people to think about how we produce culture, and how we think about, but also with, machines. Do machines make us? Do they impose certain decisions on us? Are we all, to some extent, machines? By saying this I’m not suggesting we fully abandon notions such as rationality or free will, but rather recognise that our free will is always, to some extent, constrained. And then, to return to the question posed by the philosopher of technology Vilém Flusser, whose work inspired my book to a large extent, what would it mean to photograph in a universe which is partly constrained by these algorithmic forces – and that is inevitably moving towards entropy?

Andrew Dewdney

You define nonhuman photography as photographs not made by, for or of, humans. However, the term nonhuman photography also names certain kinds of procedures in photography and they’re all gathered up under this title. How do you think about the nonhuman and its relationship to technologies?

Joanna Zylinska

I’m thinking here with philosophers such as Bernard Stiegler, in particular his analysis of the human being as "originarily technological", which means that the human has emerged with and via technology. In the early days those technologies included fire, stones – which then became tools and mirrors, or sticks – which became weapons but also pointing devices, writing devices, trace-leaving devices. To evoke this relation to our pre-historical past is not say that nothing’s changed now. Our technologies have of course been significantly altered, there’s been a lot of acceleration. But rather than seeing technology as something coming from Silicon Valley or only appearing after the Industrial Age, I’m looking at technology as shaping us humans since time immemorial. This line of thinking can offer us a less panic-stricken narrative about technology, with phones and cameras, and their underpinning algorithms, being seen as just another element in the long history of human entanglement with technology.

Andrew Dewdney

I’m interested to know if you see the human entanglement with technology as fitting with McLuhan’s view of a medium as an extension of the body?

Joanna Zylinska

To some extent yes, although I don’t follow McLuhan all the way. My book is very much inspired not just by McLuhan but also by other thinkers from the realm of Canadian media theory, especially McLuhan’s predecessor Harold Innis, who looked at media in terms of infrastructures. Innis did a study of fur trade in Canada, examining how goods travelled alongside the road network – which for him was an early communication system.

So you can perhaps see roads or railway networks as early forms of the Internet. That historical understanding of media, which inscribes them in the time of human and nonhuman history (with a continuity posited between photographs and fossils), debunks the hysterical narrative about the fragility and terribleness of the present moment, in which there is too much photography that it’s actually over as a meaningful medium of expression. Recognising that there is a long history to all these technological entanglements can encourage us to slow down and revisit those assumptions.

Andrew Dewdney

Trying to tease out the title a bit more; a key aspect of your argument for the nonhuman is that it is a position to renegotiate and relook at the human. You speak very specifically about a kind of politics that arises from making that separation between the human and nonhuman. Can you say a bit more about what you call the ethico-political? It seems to me something which encompasses a range of practices as well as being a philosophic outlook.

Joanna Zylinska

If I may just take a step back and reiterate that for me it’s important to point to this dual relationship: seeing photography as both technical-algorithmic and geological. So those two modes of understanding come into this definition of "nonhuman photography". I would hope this proposition is seen as more than just an intellectual exercise. I very much imagined this renegotiation as being tied to an ethico-political agenda. It stems from a desire to rethink our position in the world and to ask whether we can develop better ways of being and of living in the world, through this displacement of the human as the central point of history.

So the ethico-political question is about the demand put on the human to give an account of his or her position in the world. Challenging the human doesn’t of course mean getting rid of the human, because that in itself would be a very humanist gesture. Only the human can declare getting rid of the human, at least for now. Yet the theoretical gesture of announcing the end of the human or the arrival of the post-human, unless done critically or with a certain realisation that it is the human still doing something to him/herself, would be quite vacuous. So the reason for engaging in this exercise is not a desire to move beyond the human and towards some new species, but rather an attempt to ask questions about the human that is the subject of culture, of making photography, but also of making the world, and making it better.

The notion of nonhuman photography addresses the political issues that photography traditionally brings to the fore: issues of injustice, representation, privacy. Yet, like many other scholars, I’m slightly suspicious of representational photography and what it can actually achieve. I’m also concerned about privacy, surveillance and other issues that machine vision and machine learning are now bringing to the fore. Photography in a way becomes a filter that casts a certain light over a lot of the current political issues that need addressing. But I think that it would be helpful to address them beyond the ‘human vs machine’ position. If we recognise our human entanglement with machines, with technology, then what kind of politics can we develop from here? It doesn’t of course mean that we have to accept any form of entanglement, or that any forms of being with technology are equally valid or good.