Mourning Lost Appearances

Paul O'Neill
May 26, 2021
Bouchra Khalili, "Foreign Office. Hotel El Safir, Ex-Aletti, Algiers City Center", 2015.
Bouchra Khalili, "Foreign Office. Hotel El Safir, Ex-Aletti, Algiers City Center", 2015.

The How of the What


Tell me the story
Of all these things
Beginning whatever you wish, tell even us
—Theresa Hak Kyung Cha1

It is because each photograph always contains this imperious sign of my future death that each one, however attached it seems to be to the excited world of the living, challenges each of us, one by one, outside of any generality…
—Roland Barthes2

Where to start? Or, more precisely, how to begin? How can I talk of anything during a time of extraordinary social change of global magnitude? Things feel like they will never again be as they were before. Despair is confused with overarching blurs of personal loss, combined with collective mourning for an earlier time. Are we a “community in death” while we are social distancing?3 Our world is a politics of populism, protectionism, and discrimination. Exclusion is pervasive. The question of how rather than what to write about what we see seems more pertinent than ever.

Black is everywhere. I am “going about” this writing at a time of loss, and the recent death of a younger sister. I was alone with her last breath. Her gift to me. She waited. Dying takes time, it anticipates time without a future.4 Her prolonged death colors my own capacity to tell. Death taints the photographic. Natalie’s own image archive, what is left behind, aside from a wedding album, is a small assemblage of mostly blurred 5 x 7 cm snapshots. They have mostly faded now into monochrome darkness. Each, a cropped portrait from her younger years. She is generally smiling. As a child her hair was black. Black was her favorite color. Jet black, soot black. Most of her clothes were a striking spectrum of blacks. Derek Jarman loved black, too. He wrote: “Black is beautiful…The world is as black as ink … Black could be humorous. Could be modern. Coco Chanel’s little black dress for all occasions.”5 Black was for him “death’s herald and champion,”6 just like the painter Ad Reinhardt, who claimed it was not absolute. Black, for him, did away with petty incident and the romance of the colored surface. When collated together, my sister’s images do not just make a slideshow of her life, of any life. However, those that remain still cut through me. How to write about them? What can be seen? How to write about what gets left behind, of the (be-)longing, and the startling presentness of another’s absence? This is where “Politics revolves around what can be seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.”7

Writers often struggles with the difficulty of how to translate one’s grief, pain, or private loss into something more communicable. To write of mourning that goes beyond pain and the effects of individual loss and what remains of life when death is nearby must suppose the claims about “pain’s ineffability [as] historically specific and ideological,” as Anne Boyer writes, “is widely declared inarticulate for the reason that we are not supposed to share a language for how we really feel.”8

The human is not identified with what is represented in any form, but neither is it identified with the un-representable. This is art’s limit. There is always something un-representable in representation: capturing the human in any image form is never fully possible. It can also be violent, suggesting something has been taken from the human during representation. In Judith Butler’s appraisal of Emmanuel Levinas, we are reminded that the human cannot be captured through representation. We can see that the same loss of the human takes place when “captured” by the image.9 The face does not represent the human. For Levinas, ethics begin not with the self but with the other’s right to exist—what he describes as “the face of the other in all its precariousness and defenselessness.”10 We cannot hear the face through the face: it does not speak. The image is always also approximate to a lived life. In images, we can see that something of the human is no longer present.

Writing about the precarity of life is about life being displaced into something approaching death; it is immanent, almost already here. The question of how to talk of mortality, the undying, and deferred forms of existence have been evident in a wide range of writing—not only Boyer and Butler but also Anne Carson, Alphonso Lingis, Dodie Bellamy, Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus, Octavia Butler, Jean Genet, Fanny Howe, Roland Barthes, Derek Jarman, Audre Lorde, and Hervé Guibert, to name but a few influencers. Writing can be a form of refusal as much as a form of communing; it becomes a way of accentuating life in all its details. For example, in his final texts, written while going partially blind, being generally unwell, and knowing he was dying from AIDS-related illnesses, Jarman wrote a lot about color, chroma, and memory. He made Blue in 1994 as a feature-length film in which the whole world is blue, nothing but, with words to listen to and reflect upon sight, on life, and terminal illness. Color expressed his desire for the undying, whereas for Roland Barthes the image of his deceased mother at five years old, her specter, certifies her undying presence as much as her irreparable absence as part of his bereavement. Barthes writes of “that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.”11 Similarly, it is in the continuation of writing about his mother’s death that Barthes chooses to live. Circling around his mother while writing is his way of following her ghosts and how he chooses to live, to be with the undying and to mourn.

In Camera Lucida (1980), Barthes produced an elaborate theory of how a single photograph can produce intense emotion in the living, no matter how vague, fragmented, or out of focus is the image of its subject. Kate Zambreno’s slim companion, Appendix Project, is written about all that was left out of her own mourning book about her mother and she reminds us how the ghostliness of a winter garden photo of Henriette Barthes is exaggerated because it is never shown to us. For Barthes, as he writes: “It only exists for me.” In withholding it from us, the photograph of his mother becomes a ghost for us, because we are not allowed to see it. This is what we are forced to see; the unseen, the undying as a potential image of one’s own grief.

In Zambreno’s take on Barthes’ absent mother as depicted in his posthumously published Mourning Diary, an ontological state of undying is not about the living and the dead—the not fully alive, but not quite dead yet. She writes: “What does it mean to write what is not there. To write absence?”12 Writing becomes a memorial as much as a form of desire and mourning, where death is its ultimate outcome. Death is closer. The undying is much more than people, ideas, things. It is also accounted for in images, remembrances, and evidence of these entities as reflections and mediations on the recent passage of life, or processes of mourning, of remembrance or forgetting, and grieving what is no longer fully there.

For Walter Benjamin, photographs reveal secrets as they capture fleeting moments. They are images that could paralyze the associative mechanisms of the beholder, who …

… feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for a tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where lies the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future subsists so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.13

Regardless of how distant they are in time and subject matter, all photographs are ghostly reminders of another time and place, and therefore of many times and places. They can generate many affects and feelings. Photographs can make us smile, laugh, or bring us to our knees with grief.



Excerpt from the draft essay Paul O’Neill, ‘Another Time, and the Mourning of Lost Appearances’ to be published in the forthcoming book Maryam Jafri. Independence Days. Maryam Jafri and Nina Tabassomi (eds.), Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König: Cologne 2021.



1 Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2001), p. 11.

2 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, (London: Vintage, 2000 [1980]), p. 97.

3 Alphonso Lingis, “Community in Death,” in The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 155.

4 Ibid., p. 174.

5 Derek Jarman, Chroma, (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 112.

6 Ibid., p. 109.

7 Jacques Ranciere, “The Distribution of the Sensible,” in The Politics of Aesthetics, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2006), p. 19.

8 Anne Boyer, The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness, (London, Allen Lane, 2019), p. 212.

9 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, (London: Verso, 2004), pp. 145.

10 Ibid.

11 Roland Barthes cited in Kate Zambreno, Appendix Project Talks and Essays, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press and Semiotext(e), 2019), p. 33.

12 Kate Zambreno, Book of Mutter (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press and Semiotext(e), 2019), p. 51.

13 Walter Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography,” in: Illuminations (London: Pimlico, 1999 [1968]).