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Camera consciousness: on Susan Morris’s ‘Concordances’ and ‘Silence (On Prepared Loom)’

by Margaret Iversen • June 2024 • Journal article


Although the term ‘camera consciousness’ refers mainly to the cultural impact and subjective effects of the invention of photography, it is often extended to include the comparable effects of other technologies of inscription. More generally, it evokes a manner of observation that is automatic and estranged, recalling the opening of Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939), in which the diaristic narrator famously declares: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’.1 However, there is no clear consensus about its meaning. Indeed, camera consciousness may emphasise not impassive detachment, but rather an attitude of selfless receptivity. The literary theorist Ann Banfield, for instance, noted of Virginia Woolf’s prose that it adopts a ‘perspective unoccupied by any subject – a kind of camera consciousness’.2 This is made explicit in the middle section of To the Lighthouse (1927), ‘Time passes’, in which the gradual deterioration of an abandoned house by the sea is observed from a vacated point of view: ‘Now, day after day, light turned, like a flower reflected in water, its sharp image on the wall opposite’.3 With its description of light accidentally projecting unseen images, this particular sentence underscores the point. For Banfield, camera consciousness is a mode of writing that offers a glimpse beyond habitual patterns of perception and personal preoccupations, giving imaginative access to what Woolf called ‘a world seen without a self’.4

Banfield’s receptive understanding of camera consciousness contrasts sharply with that formulated by the media theorist Vilém Flusser. He did not use the term specifically, but in Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1984) he formulated an influential theory of the determining power of the ‘apparatus and program’ of the camera. Flusser argued that the photographer, by mining the ‘possibilities contained within the program of the camera’ becomes, in effect, ‘a function of the camera’s program’, unless he or she is an artist.5 Although he was referring to the analogue camera, his theory is equally applicable to digital cameras and other digital media, as his analysis draws extensively on cybernetics and information theory. Flusser made it clear that the camera is one apparatus among many involved in the production and dissemination of information and, as such, it provides a useful model for reflecting on all media. He thought of it as the forerunner of a range of apparatuses that are ‘robotizing all aspects of our lives, from one’s most public acts to one’s innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires’.6 Therefore, for Flusser, camera consciousness implies the automatisation of perception – the very opposite of receptivity.

This article explores the double-sidedness of camera consciousness through a close examination of two works by the British artist Susan Morris (b.1962), neither of which is, strictly speaking, photographic. The first, Concordances (2005–ongoing), concerns the production and dissemination of information in daily newspapers and how they contribute to the contagion of cliché. The second, Silence (On Prepared Loom) (2021), emphasises the other aspect of camera consciousness, which conceives of the camera not as a generator of clichés, but as a sensitive recording instrument, capable of registering things in all their suggestive opacity. The six tapestries that make up Silence (On Prepared Loom) are graphic visualisations of sounds recorded in a garden. Whereas one work explores the type of camera consciousness tied to an apparatus determining and circulating habits of perception, the other stresses the medium’s receptive indexicality and its power to disrupt such habits. Here, the camera serves as a model or paradigmatic apparatus that combines repetitive and receptive capacities. The present author’s approach to Morris’s work, based on these two modes of what can be called camera consciousness, was suggested by the artist herself who remarked: ‘Perhaps it’s possible to think of my diaristic work in relation to Virginia Woolf’s investigations into the first person, her attempts to describe “a world seen without a self”, and my Concordances in relation to Flaubert’s attack on “received ideas”’.7 Morris has been critically reflecting on these issues in relation to her art practice since embarking on her PhD thesis, ‘On the blank: photography, writing, drawing’, which was submitted in 2006.8



Morris’s Concordance series FIG. 1 takes the language of daily newspapers as its material. A concordance is a list of all the important words that appear in a particular text arranged in alphabetical order. Since 2005, every five years Morris has made concordances of the Guardian newspaper. She chooses editions printed on the two days of the year that were predicted to be the ‘happiest’ and ‘unhappiest’ according to a popular but spurious formula that calculates probable weather conditions, debt levels and so on.9 Morris uses concordance computer software to extract all the verbs in the infinitive and the three following words, creating a list that the programme then arranges in alphabetical order. An ellipsis is then inserted after each phrase. The seventh in the series, Concordance VII Unhappiest Day 2020 (2021), fell in the first few months of the global COVID-19 pandemic.10 On 20th January 2020 an article appeared on page thirty-four of the newspaper about the emergence of a novel coronavirus detected in China with seventeen reported cases and two deaths. This unassuming entry reads ‘to contain coronavirus as 17’ FIG. 2. By July 2020, supposedly the happiest day that year, new terminology had crept in, along with new ways of thinking about the world and of relating to one another. Several references to handwashing and mask-wearing appeared.

Today, the project of extracting and tabulating the entirety of infinitives used in a daily newspaper is unthinkable without the aid of concordance programmes. Although this form of index is nothing new – concordances of the Bible date to the Middle Ages – it nonetheless epitomises a form of digital ‘distant reading’ in which a text is broken up and reduced to data. Morris first became interested in concordances when she read about the research of the neurologist Peter Garrard, who analysed Iris Murdoch’s novels using concordance software and discovered that early signs of Alzheimer’s disease were detectable in the text of her last novel, Jackson’s Dilemma (1995). Although Murdoch’s syntax was recognisably hers, the concordance revealed a ‘generic and repetitive’ vocabulary when compared with that used in her previous novels.11 Similarly, with the long-term Concordance project, Morris hopes to detect otherwise imperceptible shifts in language usage.

The Concordances explore the extent to which our use of language is determined by the accumulation and repetition of stock phrases. Does our daily exposure to the ‘news’ across television, radio, social media and printed media spread viral speech-gobbets and automatically generated chatter? For over a century, people have been concerned with the potentially corrosive effect of technology on language and thought. Indeed, in her essay ‘New technology for old ideas’ Morris discussed writers who reacted to what they perceived as the standardisation and flattening of language in the age of mass-production and circulation.12 For example, the word cliché is derived from the French word for a stereotype, which refers to common phrases preformatted by typesetters to save time – a mechanical precursor of the text prediction function in word processors. There is also a clear link between the automatic use of language and photography: both require minimal personal intervention because, as Flusser would say, agency has been usurped by the apparatus.13 Moreover, the word cliché, onomatopoetically a clicking sound, also refers to a ‘snapshot’ in French.

Drawing on the writing of the film and literature theorist Stephen Heath, Morris began her essay by referring to Gustave Flaubert and his response to the rise of newspapers and photography in the nineteenth century: ‘Flaubert, who had a particular hatred of newspapers, wrote the novel Madame Bovary in a style intended to criticise society’s endless repetition of “received ideas” […] The novel itself, the flat, empty, sentences within it […] expresses, through mimicry, a dissatisfaction with language, with having no words but the words of others’.14 According to Heath, Flaubert’s style amounted to ‘a strategy of imitation involving an assembly of stereotypes’.15 To create a text by replicating and collaging quotations is to mimic the impersonal, automatic operation of the camera.

Flaubert planned to append a Dictionary of Received Ideas to his last book, Bouvard and Pécuchet (1881). The Dictionary consists of his collection of expressions that assume a consensus about what ‘everybody knows’ and what everyone rages or ‘thunders’ against, for example:

ABROAD – Enthusiasm for everything that comes from abroad: proof of a liberal mind. To denigrate everything that is not French: proof of patriotism.

ACCIDENT – Always deplorable or unfortunate (as if one could ever find in misfortune a cause for rejoicing…)

AGE (of revolutions) – Always ongoing, since every new government pledges to bring it to an end.

AMBITION – Always preceded by ‘mad’ when it lacks nobility.16

Commenting on the Dictionary of Received Ideas, the historian Jacques Barzun remarked that the repetition of platitudes were for Flaubert ‘philosophic clues from which he inferred the transformation of the human being under machine capitalism’.17

In an article published in the New Yorker titled ‘In place of thought’ (2013), the Nigerian–American photographer and writer Teju Cole revived the critique of cliché mounted by Flaubert. Cole created his own compilation of received ideas. In the preface to his list, he denounces our tendency to produce standard formulations, proclaiming them ‘as though they were fresh insight’, for instance:

AFRICA. Poor but happy. Rising. ALMOND. All eyes are almond-shaped. AMERICAN. With the prefix ‘all’, a blond […] CARAMEL. Term used to describe black women’s skin. No other meaning known.18

Gathering such examples, Cole was surprised to discover ‘how close some of them came to the uninterrogated platitudes in [his] own head. Stupidity stalks us all’.19 His dictionary ridicules his own liberal-minded milieu and points to its unconscious racist automatisms. Clichés are contagious and none of us is immune – an observation that is itself sliding in the direction of cliché.

One unanticipated outcome of Morris’s project is its graphic demonstration of the contemporary condition of print journalism. Since 2005 the Guardian’s format has changed from broadsheet to Berliner format, to the smaller tabloid size. The shrinking paper threatens to disappear altogether as the news is increasingly read online. Additionally, as the number of words per edition has decreased over the years, with fewer and shorter articles, the Concordances, once dense with print, are fading to grey FIG. 3. When the series is completed in 2025, it could serve as a record of the changing format and diminishing word count of print journalism, indicating a cultural depletion of vocabulary comparable to the onset of Murdoch’s Alzheimer’s disease.

The Concordances demonstrate the ‘robotising’ aspect of camera consciousness, but they also, to a certain extent, subvert it. Morris regards the incomplete phrases – the infinitive plus three words, followed by an ellipsis – as fragments of involuntary poetry. Freed from their original context, they engender accidental juxtapositions and accrue new meanings. For instance, the first Concordance begins with the phrase TO ABANDON HIS RELIGIOUS CONVICTION and ends with TO WRITE ANGUISHED LETTERS HOME, bookending an accidental narrative arc. Some excepts even resemble haikus (a traditional Japanese poetic form that consists of three lines, each with a prescribed number of syllables, 5–7–5) in their brevity and open-endedness:


A series of entries from Concordance III Unhappiest Day 2010 conjure a sort of stuttering narrative:


These scraps of found language collaged in alphabetical order are a form of computer-assisted automatic writing. As such, they bear comparison with Morris’s monumental de Umbris Idæarum [on the Shadow Cast by our Thoughts] (2021). The twelve-volume experiment, written over the course of 2011, consists of an accumulation of litter, such as receipts, tickets, downloaded and printed news stories, smart phone snaps and other digitally captured ambient information.20 It is a kind of rubbish writing that is revelatory of what she describes, after Proust, as the intermittence of the self. Morris uses the very technology responsible for the proliferation of clichés to disrupt them.21

Morris also hopes that the viewer will appreciate the overall patterns created by the lists. The verb phrases of varying length create a ragged profile, while the four-letter codes denoting the relevant section of the newspaper form regular columns. She has expressed the wish that:

the little phrases that emerge when you scan down the lines be read. But I also want the concordances to be pleasurable to look at – i.e., they should nod in the direction of conceptual art but also towards pictorial abstraction. I like to play a bit with the spaces around and between the words to emphasise the typographical rivers (normally suppressed by a ‘good’ graphic designer), thus drawing attention to something like the text’s undertow.22

The involuntary poetry and accidental visual rhythms of the Concordances undermine the logic of the algorithm, weaken the coercion of the cliché and suggest the limits of the discursive register.


‘Silence (On Prepared Loom)’

In Concordances, Morris is concerned with the automatising kind of camera consciousness that is informed by a conception of photography as an instrument of reproduction and repetition and implicated in the proliferation and circulation of the viral cliché. In her large-scale installation Silence (On Prepared Loom), she turned her attention to the receptive aspect of camera consciousness. The six tapestries that comprise Silence (On Prepared Loom) were commissioned for the new Library and Study Centre at St John’s College, University of Oxford.23 The work evolved out of the earlier Sundial:Nightwatch (2010–23) tapestries FIG. 4, for which Morris wore a device on her wrist called an Actiwatch. The device records intensity and duration of movement and is used, for example, by chronobiologists to track sleep disturbances. The data was collected continuously over five years and, through the application of a bespoke script, converted, as the artist puts it, ‘directly into coloured thread’ and woven into large-scale Jacquard tapestries.24

The Jacquard mechanism, a device fitted to a loom that automates the weaving process, is a particularly appropriate choice of medium for a work concerned with the cultural and perceptual impact of digital technology. Invented in 1801, the Jacquard loom’s binary code and system of punch card programming anticipated modern computer technology and the mechanisation of human labour.25 The Sundial:Nightwatch works could be described as self-monitoring, except that the ‘self’ that appears in them is only a sort of outline or negative silhouette, an apparition, bounded by patterns of behaviour enforced by social structures, such as imposed clock and calendrical time. Morris regards this shadow self as an anonymous nobody: ‘one of many creatures that creep every day on this planet’. The quotation, which Morris particularly likes, owes its naive charm to the fact that it was first spoken by the artist, translated into German by a reviewer and then translated back into English by Google.26

A number of the Sundial:Nightwatch tapestries incorporate light exposure along with activity data. Some examples, including the Binary Tapestry (Sunshine) series, pulled out only the ambient light levels. SunDial:NightWatch_Sunshine_2012 (2023) shows data recorded by the Actiwatch from 1st January to 31st December 2012. The pattern in the tapestry resembles a mandala formed of rippling horizontal yellow lines. It displays the daily variations in the duration and intensity of ambient light, expanding in the middle for the summer and tapering during the winter months at the top and bottom. It abstracts from actual experience; it does not, for example, register the slow sunsets of summer in northern latitudes because the binary tapestries, as the title suggests, display only light and dark.27 This delicate work, reminiscent of the reflection of a sunset on water, is nonetheless a faithful record of the light rhythms to which Morris was exposed in that year, which included a shift in time zone while visiting New York. Yet, at the same time, it raises questions about the extent to which our digital prostheses might be instilling binary or blunted habits of seeing: how they can both heighten and dampen perception.

Binary Tapestry (Sunshine) precedes Silence (On Prepared Loom), which, instead of registering light levels, focuses on the ambient soundscape in the garden behind the library at St John’s College, where the tapestries now hang FIG. 5. The six tapestries register, in visual graphic form, random sounds in the garden recorded by the artist over the course of fifty minutes on 12th November 2019. Again, working with a specially written algorithm, the ambient sounds were translated into six colour-coded graphs or spectrograms that display variation in duration, volume and amplitude. The tapestries, therefore, are a simplified graphic visualisation of the sound recording, which displays, for instance, just three volume thresholds. As its title indicates, Morris’s Silence (On Prepared Loom) FIG. 6 is informed by the work of John Cage. In addition to the title of his 1961 book of lectures and writings, Morris’s parenthetical subtitle evokes Cage’s celebrated compositions for prepared piano, which involve inserting bolts, screws and other items under the strings. Of course, Morris could not tamper with the strings of the Jacquard loom in this way, but she was able to ‘send the loom a set of specific instructions – data – to produce an outcome [she] could not entirely control or predict but which nevertheless remains true to its source’.28

An important precedent for the Silence (On Prepared Loom) tapestries is Cage’s well-known 4’ 33", which was first performed in August 1952 at Maverick Concert Hall, Woodstock NY. The score instructs the performer to sit at the piano or any other instrument and play nothing for three chance-determined durations. Cage made several different scores for the work that are, in fact, inconsistent, but one is particularly relevant in this context. It has vertical lines at varying intervals dividing the otherwise blank horizontal pages and indicating the durations of the three movements. This version, called In Proportional Notation, alludes to one of Cage’s sources of inspiration. In his essay on Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), Cage acknowledged that 4’ 33” was indebted to the artist’s White Paintings (1951), which he saw exhibited at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1952. The paintings are modular, that is, made up of a number of panels that articulate the otherwise empty expanse of white roller-painted canvases. Yet, Rauschenberg’s paintings are only white if one ignores the way they gather light, shadow and dust. As Cage observed, ‘The White Paintings caught whatever fell on them’.29 Or, as Rauschenberg himself put it, they are ‘hypersensitive’.30 In the White Paintings and 4’ 33”, expression is replaced by a receptivity to whatever falls, involuntarily and without meaning.

Like Rauschenberg’s white panels, the empty structure of 4’ 33” is filled during the performance by chance. Cage’s composition is silent only in the respect that it includes no sounds intended by the composer or performer. Although it does not overtly involve any recording technology, it has been persuasively argued that this and other Cage compositions responded aesthetically to the implications of the invention of the phonograph and tape recorder, which do not discriminate between intended and unintended sound.31 Magnetic tape records, indifferently, music and meaningless acoustic events. In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986) Friedrich Kittler pointed out that this lack of distinction between noise and articulate sounds provided a model for ‘an aesthetic of indifference’.32 In their introduction to the book, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Hurtz drew out the implications of the new technology, noting that both gramophone and film:

recorded indiscriminately what was within the range of microphones or camera lenses, and both thereby shifted the boundaries that distinguished noise from meaningful sounds, random visual data from meaningful picture sequences, unconscious and unintentional inscriptions from their conscious and intentional counterparts.33

Morris’s understanding of silence accords with Cage’s sense of the word to mean unintended noise. Her process, like Cage’s, involved a predetermined empty structure and the collecting of ambient sound. In both cases, structure serves to frame and focus attention on otherwise disregarded phenomena. Although Morris’s Silence (On Prepared Loom) is an installation rather than a performance, it retains some of the durational character of its source-recording, as the reception of the tapestries necessarily unfolds over time; they are also subject to environmental contingencies, such as the shifting light conditions in the sun-filled library. Chance plays an important role in Silence (On Prepared Loom), as it does in Cage’s compositions. The use of chance, like the use of predetermined structures, is a strategy employed by both artists to short-circuit agency and therefore depersonalise the process.

Morris also engaged with Cage’s work in yet another way. She adopted his ‘Lecture on nothing’ (1950) as a readymade structure to determine both the divisions within each tapestry and the variations across the series as a whole. In his notes, Cage provided a kind of ‘score’: ‘there are four measures in each line and twelve lines in each unit of the rhythmic structure. There are forty-eight such units, each having forty-eight measures. The whole is divided into five large parts, in the proportion 7, 6, 14, 14, 7’.34 The printed version of the text of Cage’s lecture is broken into four columns per page to encourage a rhythmic reading interrupted by gaps and silences, which in turn would be filled with the sounds from the room in which the piece was being performed. The distinctly visual nature of the grid-like structure of the printed text has the effect of undoing habits of reading or listening. In the lecture, he declared that structure is ‘like an empty glass into which at any moment anything may be poured’.35 He also adapted a well-known Kantian aphorism declaring that ‘structure without life is dead. But life without structure is un-seen’.36

Each of the panels that make up Silence (On Prepared Loom), with its faint graph-paper-like ground, is consistently divided vertically into four equal parts delineated by red silk thread. The horizontal subdivisions in a yellow cotton thread vary in accordance with the number of subsections in each of the Lecture’s five parts: 7, 6, 14, 14, 7 (plus an extra seven-part panel, which loops back to the first). Panels no.4 FIG. 7 and 5, divided into fourteen horizontal registers, display a great compression of data and introduce a marked variation in rhythm, like a symphony with two consecutive scherzo movements.

In place of the usual wall-mounted explanatory text, Morris supplied a brief caption with the title of the work and directions to a book she made about the project, located in the library at St John’s College with its own shelf mark: ART/900/MOR. The book, also titled Silence (On Prepared Loom), contains an essay by Rye Dag Holmboe, which lists the work’s many layers of technological mediation:

First, the audio device, which recorded the world’s dictation in the garden outside the library at St John’s College, sounds Susan didn’t make, sounds that were open to chance; second, the computer and algorithm, which translated these sounds and organised them into visual form; finally, the Jacquard Loom, which wove them into textiles and turned them into something for us to see.37

He remarks that these layers ‘make the tapestries feel distant, impersonal, like the dream of a dream. They induce a small vertigo. It is as if the creative process always took place on another scene of articulation’. These layered remediations, he notes, account for the specific aesthetic quality of the piece, ‘involuntary, automatic, open to chance – perhaps this inhuman aspect accounts for the starkness of the tapestries’ beauty’.38

Holmboe emphasised the machinic beauty of the tapestries, their ‘starkness’. However, his remarks also gesture towards something more elusive and ephemeral, which, the present author suggests, is owing to certain aspects of the tapestries that unravel their initial appearance as computer-generated graphic displays of information. Firstly, the tapestries are not ordinary bar charts based on statistical data, but rather hybrid signs: part index, part diagram. They are based on waves and vibrations gathered by a ‘hypersensitive’ digital recording device. As such, they are traces that, like the jagged lines of a seismograph or electrocardiogram, display in graphic form inscriptions of phenomena that vary over time and often elude direct observation.39 Although the tapestries have a recorded source, they are not the result of an analogue process and so have a complicated relationship to the sounds in the garden. The effect is comparable to digital photography, in which continuous gradations of tone are approximated by variations across a grid. For Morris, this aspect of digital technology ‘makes it possible to record something that is connected to a cause, but in a much more remote, complex and mysterious way’.40 She understands her digital process as preserving a quasi-indexical relation to its object. The near-obsolescence of analogue processes does not, then, imply an end to the receptive mode of camera consciousness.

The tapestries’ elusive character is heightened by their subtle shades of blue and their overall rhythmic pattern. The colour fades, almost imperceptibly, from the left to the right sides of each panel; across the whole series, they fade from inky blue to cloudy white FIG. 8. In fact, just six colours of thread are used to produce this gradient, with variation in saturation created by greater or lesser density of each thread in the weave. This latter fading necessitates a sudden reversal, mid-series, from a light pattern on a dark ground to the opposite – although a bar graph cannot really be said to have figure and ground since marked and unmarked areas carry equal signification. Viewing these tapestries involves setting aside our deeply ingrained habit of processing information and assuming a more passive, open-ended mode of reception. They then lose their graphic, colour-coded legibility and acquire a quality beyond intentionality and interpretation. What at first might appear to be a series of informational graphs dissolves into to something rhythmic and shimmering. Rosalind Krauss described a similar effect in her account of Agnes Martin’s grid paintings in which, at a certain distance ‘the weave’, the materiality of their surfaces, ‘go atmospheric’.41 Morris enhances this effect with light-reflecting gold thread to highlight sounds above a certain volume threshold FIG. 9.

Silence (On Prepared Loom) calls to mind the busy, discursive, digital world we normally inhabit and, at the same time, demonstrates its limits. Although the tapestries obviously encode information, they are undecipherable. They both evoke and evade symbolisation, and this tension is the reason why they are so appropriate in the context of a library. The accompanying publication includes photographs of the library stacks printed in blue tones FIG. 10, so that the spines create their own accidental bar graphs. This hints at the kinship between the digitally encoded information in the books and the tapestries – although the implied analogy might also allude to the threat of the replacement of one medium by the other.


Cage recognised that new recording technologies alter our consciousness of sound and silence and so also affect musical composition and art more generally. However, his interest in silence was equally bound up with his adherence to Zen Buddhism. Morris shares his Zen-inspired interest in egolessness and non-discursive intuitive awareness. She is also a great admirer of Roland Barthes who, in his later work, was inspired by Zen Buddhist and Taoist thought. His most extensive discussion of the subject in The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France (1978–1979 and 1979–1980) (2011) takes the form of a lengthy account of the haiku and the sensibility that informs it. His discussion touches upon the themes this article has broached thus far: technology, repetition, receptivity, silence and the avoidance of cliché. He regarded the haiku as an exemplary form of notation registering a fragment of life. This structure serves as a formal constraint, an empty glass, for the poet’s notation describing some fleeting phenomenon, such as the sudden gust of wind observed by Matsuo Bashō:

A gust of wind
And the water birds
Become whiter.42

The haiku asserts nothing; it only draws our attention to whatever occurs or falls inadvertently. Barthes believed that the task of poetry, epitomised by the haiku, is to rescue a sense of nuance in a culture intent on standardisation and subjected to the mass-circulation of the cliché. He is emphatic on this point: ‘Mediatic culture can be said to be defined by its (aggressive) rejection of nuance’.43

In The Preparation of the Novel, Barthes quoted an atypical haiku by Bashō, which expresses the haikuist doctrine perfectly, precisely in its evading of cliché:

How admirable
He who does not think ‘Life is ephemeral’
When he sees a flash of lightening.44

As Antoine Compagnon put it, for Barthes, ‘the haiku emblematises, individuates, nuances the world, instead of abstracting and conceptualising it’.45 Furthermore, the haiku touches on a ‘language void’ in the subject – a void, not owing to despair, but rather to jubilation – to the sense that life is worth living. It is the loss of language that comes when one is ‘alive to the world’.46 It ‘retains a trace, a scent of this resistance to meaning’.47 It sparks the satori, ‘an empty flash within consciousness’, which Barthes would later associate with the photographic punctum, although the punctum has a more a traumatic, ‘wounding’ quality than the haiku’s satori.48 In any case, it is the revelation of what Jacques Lacan called the Real, an aspect of reality that eludes the grasp of language and which accounts for the piercing, poignant quality of both the photographic punctum and haiku. Barthes’s discussion implies that, although the haiku may be a poetic form dating back to the seventeenth century, it nonetheless anticipates the receptive model of camera consciousness that resists the mediatic flattening of language, thought and perception. Although newly couched in the language of Eastern aesthetics, this concern with nuance was constant in Barthes’s writing. In The Pleasure of the Text (1973), for example, he condemned the official institutions of language – school, sports, advertising, popular songs, the news – as ‘repeating machines’ and called for a ‘release of the bliss repressed beneath the stereotype’.49

The noisy technological discursive field we normally inhabit is both evoked and silenced in Silence (On Prepared Loom) and, to a certain extent, in the Concordances, in which involuntary, haiku-like fragments and accidental patterns subvert a predominantly informational presentation. Both works invite us to reflect on the losses and gains in the transformation of everyday life as a result of digital technologies. They demonstrate the double-sidedness of camera consciousness as manifested in contemporary technologies of inscription. On the one hand, the works signal the way that these technologies instil restricted perceptual habits; yet, on the other, they suggest the possible restructuring of the imagination as receptivity to an otherness. This duality is grounded in the hybrid nature of the camera as a model that is both an engine of automatic repetition and a sensitive recording instrument that captures particularity, nuance or, as Barthes would put it, whatever falls involuntarily, like a leaf.50



This article is informed by many years of discussion with Susan Morris about the relationship between technology and daily life, and in the means that art has both to understand its impact and resist it. I am grateful for her generous collaboration.


About the author

Margaret Iversen

is a leading international authority in the field of art theory and contemporary art. Her first book was on one of the founders of art history as a discipline: Alois Riegl: Art History and Theory (1993). She continued to write about the history of art history, but made her main area of study psychoanalytic art theory. Her publications include Beyond Pleasure: Freud, Lacan, Barthes (2007) and Photography, Trace and Trauma (2017). Her present research is devoted to the overlapping fields of photography and contemporary art.


  • C. Isherwood: Goodbye to Berlin, New York 2012, p.3. For a discussion of Isherwood and other writers of the 1930s and 1940s who adopted the metaphor of the camera to describe a manner of seeing, see L. Feigel: Literature, Cinema, and Politics 1930–1945: Reading between the Frames, Edinburgh 2010. footnote 1
  • A. Banfield: ‘“L’imparfait de l’Objectif”: the imperfect of the object glass’, Camera Obscura 8, no.3 (1990), pp.64–87, at p.76, Banfield referred to Gilles Deleuze’s use of the term ‘camera-consciousness’ in G. Deleuze: Cinema I: The Movement Image, Minneapolis 1986, p.95. footnote 2
  • V. Woolf: To the Lighthouse, London 1927, 2000 (rev. edn), p.141. footnote 3
  • ‘How describe the world seen without a self?’ is a question repeatedly put by one of the characters in Woolf’s novel The Waves (1931). This topic is discussed in M. Iversen: ‘The world without a self: Edward Hopper and Chantal Akerman’, Art History 41 (2018), pp.742–60, footnote 4
  • V. Flusser: Towards a Philosophy of Photography, London 2000, pp.26–27. footnote 5
  • Ibid., p.71. footnote 6
  • S. Morris: ‘New technology for old ideas’, in U. Kopp, M. Reisch and B. Siebert, eds: darktaxa-project: NoPublication, Cologne 2021, pp.602–03, at p.603. footnote 7
  • S. Morris: ‘On the blank: photography, writing, drawing’, unpublished PhD thesis (University of the Arts London, 2006), available at, accessed 26th May 2024. footnote 8
  • Information about the ‘formulae’ for the happiest and unhappiest days of the year can be found in the Wikipedia entry for ‘Blue Monday’, available at, accessed 26th May 2024. footnote 9
  • Concordance VII Unhappiest Day 2020 and Concordance VIII Happiest Day 2020 were produced as foldable newspapers, in a limited edition run. footnote 10
  • P. Garrard, et al.: ‘Iris Murdoch: days without writing’, in S.E. MacPherson and S. Della Sala, eds: Cases of Amnesia: Contributions to Understanding Memory and the Brain, New York and London 2019, pp.336–53, at p.339,; see also P. Garrard, et al.: ‘The effects of very early Alzheimer’s disease on the characteristics of writing by a renowned author’, Brain: A Journal of Neurology 128 (2005), pp.250–60, footnote 11
  • Morris, op. cit. (note 7). footnote 12
  • The invention of widely accessible AI chatbots has given this topic a renewed urgency, see A. McCosker and R. Wilken: Automating Vision: The Social Impact of the New Camera Consciousness, London 2020. footnote 13
  • Morris op. cit. (note 7), p.602. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was first serialised in the Revue de Paris in 1856 and the resultant public outcry led to a trial for obscenity; the story was published in book form in 1857 following Flaubert’s acquittal. footnote 14
  • S. Heath: Flaubert: Madame Bovary, Cambridge 1992, p.27, footnote 15
  • G. Flaubert: The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, transl. G. Norminton, Surrey 2016, pp.3–5. footnote 16
  • J. Barzun: ‘Introduction’, in G. Flaubert: The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, transl. J. Barzun, New York 1967, pp.1–11, at p.5. footnote 17
  • T. Cole: ‘In place of thought’, The New Yorker (27th August 2013), available at, accessed 26th May 2024. footnote 18
  • Ibid. footnote 19
  • See M. Iversen: ‘The diaristic mode in contemporary art after Barthes’, Art History 44 (2021), pp.798–822, footnote 20
  • Sheila Heti’s Alphabetical Diaries, with its repetitive, fragmentary form and use of everyday language, shares certain affinities with Morris’s Concordances and diary project, see S. Heti: Alphabetical Diaries, London 2024. footnote 21
  • Susan Morris, quoted from ‘Concordances’, Studio Aves, available at, accessed 26th May 2024. footnote 22
  • Silence (On Prepared Loom) was commissioned by St John’s College, Oxford, and curated by Vivien Lovell, Modus Operandi Art Consultants. footnote 23
  • S. Morris: ‘Sun Dial:Night Watch’,, available at, accessed 26th May 2024. footnote 24
  • M. Iversen: ‘Diagramming the day’, in S. Morris and R. Schroth, eds: exh. cat. A Day’s Work, Soest (Museum Wilhelm Morgner) 2019, pp.60–87. footnote 25
  • See J. Ignatowitsch: ‘Ausstellung “No Secrets!” Reiz und Gefahr digitaler Selbstüberwachung’ (‘Exhibition “No Secrets!” The appeal and danger of digital self-monitoring’), Deutschlandfunk (24th March 2017), available at, accessed 4th June 2024; see also S. Morris: ‘Some notes on the work for “Archival Strategies” show’, (2017), available at, accessed 4th June 2024. footnote 26
  • See B. Fer, F. Lunn and S. Plant: exh. cat. Susan Morris: Self Moderation, Biel/Bienne (Kunsthaus Centre d’art Pasquart) 2016. footnote 27
  • S. Morris: ‘Silence’, in idem: exh. cat. Silence (On Prepared Loom), Oxford (Library and Study Centre, St John’s College) 2022, n.p., available at, accessed 26th May 2024. footnote 28
  • J. Cage: ‘On Robert Rauschenberg, artist and his work’, in idem: Silence: Lectures and Writings, London 2004, pp.98–108, at p.108. footnote 29
  • Robert Rauschenberg, quoted in C. Tompkins: The Bride and the Bachelors: The Heretical Courtship in Modern Art, London 1965, p.203. footnote 30
  • S. Aeberhard: ‘Writing the ephemeral: John Cage’s “Lecture on nothing” as a landmark in media history’ [2017], in Morris, op. cit. (note 28), 2022, n.p. footnote 31
  • F.A. Kittler: Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Stanford 1999, p.23. footnote 32
  • G. Winthrop-Young and M. Hurtz: ‘Translators’ introduction’, in ibid., pp.xi–xxxviii, at p.xxvi. footnote 33
  • J. Cage, ‘Lecture on nothing’, in idem, op. cit. (note 29), pp.109–127, at p.109. footnote 34
  • Ibid., p.110 footnote 35
  • Ibid., p.113. footnote 36
  • R.D. Holmboe: ‘Inlines’, in Morris, op. cit. (note 28), n.p. footnote 37
  • Ibid. footnote 38
  • See M. Iversen: ‘Index, diagram, graphic trace’, in idem, ed.: Involuntary Drawing: Time, Motion, Capture, The Body, special issue of Tate Papers 18 (autumn 2012), available at, accessed 26th May 2024. footnote 39
  • S. Morris: ‘Inarticulations’, in M. Sheleg, ed.: Lifework: On the Autobiographical Impulse in Contemporary Art, Writing, and Theory, Manchester (forthcoming 2024), pp.41–68; see also M. Iversen: ‘Diaristic diagrams’, in ibid., pp.21–40. footnote 40
  • R.E. Krauss: ‘Agnes Martin: the /cloud/’, in idem: Bachelors, Cambridge MA 1999, pp.75–90, at p.79. footnote 41
  • Matsuo Bashō (1644–94) was a celebrated Japanese poet of the Edo period. For the haiku, see R.H. Blyth: The Haiku, Tokyo 1982, IV. footnote 42
  • R. Barthes: The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France (1978–1979 and 1979–1980), transl. K. Briggs, New York 2011, esp. pp.23–93. footnote 43
  • Matsuo Bashō, quoted in Barthes, ibid., p.79. footnote 44
  • A. Compagnon: ‘Roland Barthes’s novel’, October 112 (spring 2005), pp.23–34, at p.31, footnote 45
  • R. Barthes: The Neutral, New York 2002, p.117. footnote 46
  • Ibid footnote 47
  • Ibid.   footnote 48
  • R. Barthes: The Pleasure of the Text, transl. Richard Miller, New York 1975, p.41. footnote 49
  • Idem: Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, transl. Richard Howard, New York 1977, p.150. footnote 50

See also

In Real Life: Hannah Starkey’s staged photographs
In Real Life: Hannah Starkey’s staged photographs

In Real Life: Hannah Starkey’s staged photographs

29.03.2023 • Reviews / Exhibition

‘What the hell’: narrative and mystery in the work of Keren Cytter
‘What the hell’: narrative and mystery in the work of Keren Cytter

‘What the hell’: narrative and mystery in the work of Keren Cytter

by Tilde Fredholm • Journal article