The motion picture archive is filled with ghosts. To go back, to return to an archive, or, better yet, to return to the past for the first time, is to encounter a spectral presence that permeates the material at which you look. The first use projected celluloid film occurred roughly 120 years ago, and to view these films now, especially on a film print, is haunting. To view a very early Lumière brothers film, for example, like 1895’s Repas de bébé, is to gaze at a family whose members have long been dead. One witnesses the movements, the interactions between them– these actions which leave their mark no where else but on this strip of film. To watch is to feel these individuals, to feel that which is not quite a presence, though not an absence—a spectrality, of sorts.
More haunting is to know where the possibility of the spectre has slipped away, to know one may no longer see ghosts which ought to exist.To approach the beginning of the motion picture archive is to slowly see fewer and fewer films. These early films used a cellulose nitrate base for the film stock, a stock still widely in use until the 1950s, and one with an unfortunate propensity to spectacularly destroy itself. This strange material, a material with a death drive, removes itself in one of two ways: either it auto-ignites, highly flammable and containing oxygen in its chemical composition; or, it decays, producing wonderful patterns that render the film all but useless. Most films that are lost have disappeared in vault fires that consume hundreds of reels at a time (and lots of film has been forgotten, thrown away, or misplaced). When we see a decaying film, then, it becomes all the more painful—this remnant of a lost corpus never to be reassembled, a fluke survival caught in its march toward becoming a heap of deformed, brittle plastic containing no real information aside from the marks of decay.
How do these ideas relate—ideas of remembrance through film and film’s inevitable decay? I offer here a meditation on this question. I work with the idea of cinematic trace in order to ask about nitrate film’s degradation and our response to it a century after the nitrate film was first produced. Put differently, this paper seeks to offer steps toward a cinematographic theory of decay.
Though he wrote sparingly on cinema, Jacques Derrida, in an interview with the French magazine Cahiers du cinéma, offered his comments on spectrality and trace with respect to film spectatorship; this rich paper serves as a useful framework with which to develop ideas of film decay. Derrida remarks, “The cinematic experience belongs thoroughly to spectrality, which I link . . . to the very nature of the trace” (26). The trace—is this an indexical trace? Perhaps, considering indexicality is a trace in the most material sense: light reflects off of the depicted subject, hits the film emulsion, and brings forth a chemical reaction that constitutes the indexical trace. An indexical trace would point to, or index, an object in the context in which it occurs—e.g., a shoeprint in the mud indicates a shoe through the mark it makes in the mud, an index of the shoe made in the mud by the shoe’s very interaction with it. Footprints in the sand; thumbprints on a page; a cast shadow. These are indexical in a fairly strict sense. Mere indexicality, then, seems insufficient for a discussion of cinema’s power over a spectator. Therefore, let us return to the specter, the spectral dimension of “neither the living nor the dead, of neither hallucination nor perception,” (27) the witnessing of the distant past made uncannily visible in a present setting. Derrida writes, “Cinema thus allows one to cultivate what could be called ‘grafts’ of spectrality; it inscribes traces of ghosts on a general framework, the projected film, which is itself a ghost” (27). We may see this at work in a historical film such as a western or a adventure film about the French revolution—in other words, any film about a time when cinema was non-existent. There then exists “the spectral memory of a time when there was as yet no cinema” (28). To be presented with a filmic representation of a past unable to actually have been recorded by a camera is to allow for the introduction of another kind of spectrality on an already spectral medium. Viewing a film is itself a phantasmagoric phenomenon: we see apparitions moving on the wall. We know that we see an image recorded in the past, but it is projected in the here-and-now. Imagined, spectral pasts are allowed to inhabit this space–pasts unable to have been truly recorded by a camera that regardless begin to graft themselves onto the film. In some way, seeing a historical film produces a feeling of perceiving pasts not actually contained in the image. It is not a re-presentation, but a presentation of a past, a new past, a spectral past; we are not seeing again, but experiencing some construction of the past for the first time. And this holds true a fortiori for all films, not simply historical ones. All films are necessarily products of the past, as the camera records the moment at the very instant it slips by. What would it mean to perceive a past actually contained in a film? By virtue of their mediation, the images on screen cannot really be pasts in some objective sense. As Derrida writes, “An image, and what is more in a film, is always liable to interpretation: the specter is an enigma and the ghosts who parade past in the images are mysteries” (30). The enigmatic specter produces an enigmatic past, a past not concretely tenable or interpretable, but nevertheless present in some sense. Recall the Lumière film mentioned at the beginning, Repas de bébé. Who are these people? Where are they? When are they? These images are not quite referents. Instead they oscillate in a space between representing some physical person and simply existing themselves, existing as an apparition in their own right. The people in the film are dead, but what we are seeing is not.
In the interview, Derrida puts forth his thoughts on Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, a nearly ten-hour movie about the Holocaust comprised entirely interviews with witness and survivors. Derrida remarks:
Shoah is constantly seizing imprints, traces; the whole force of the film and its emotion depends on these ghostly traces without representation. The trace is the “that-took-place-there” of the film, what I call survivance. For all of these witnesses are survivors: they lived that and say so. Cinema is the absolute simulacrum of absolute survivance. It recounts to us what we cannot get over, it recounts death to us. By its own spectral miracle, it points out to us what ought not to leave any trace. It is thus doubly trace: trace of the testimony itself, trace of the forgetting, trace of absolute death, trace of the without-trace, trace of the extermination. It is the rescue, by the film, of what remains without salvation, salvation for the without-salvation, the experience of pure survivance that testifies. (31).
Derrida seems to point at something beyond a visible spectrality—cinema can elicit something beyond the visible, and it is here where we can think more explicitly about film decay and what it produces.
Trace of the without-trace. Earlier I characterized nitrate film as having a death drive—a misappropriation, perhaps, of that Freudian concept. But a purposeful misappropriation, for the idea may ring as in a material as in an individual. In Archive Fever, Derrida explores the death drive vis-à-vis the archive, and his remarks resonate well with the cited section above. He writes, “[The death drive] works to destroy the archive: on the condition of effacing but also with a view to effacing its own ‘proper’ traces—which consequently cannot be properly called ‘proper’” (10). The drive the film has toward destruction is two-fold: yes, the information in the film is destroyed; we no longer have the image in a proper sense, and we see this. But the march toward destruction that nitrate has is less immediate with respect to history. The self-destruction of this material effaces any retention of certain history, of moments archived and categorized in a certain way—put differently, it resists a transmission of historical milieus, and resists historicization and interpretation, itself a type of archivization of moments. But we are catching this decay in the act. It has not finished effacing itself, but has incidentally produced a new type of trace, a different type of history—not quite an archive, since it does not represent some prior events, and it cannot even recall its earlier self. What then is produced?
The decay itself becomes a specter, a specter that haunts the film in a similar way to other images, but also points beyond. This decay is the trace of the without-trace, a trace of that which is no longer visible, no longer extant. Indeed, a simultaneous visibility and invisibility. Spectrality has gained a true corporeal source, or at least corporeal correlate—this trace jolts us out of phantasy, not presenting itself as moving apparition but a physical presence.
There is an interesting tension in Derrida’s words, at least when we think about decay: “It is the rescue, by the film, of what remains without salvation…the experience of pure survivance that testifies.” Decay is Derrida’s double trace, the trace of decay itself, the process, and the trace of a history rendered invisible, but a trace of history nonetheless. Yet this becomes cyclical: the trace attempts to rescue, while simultaneously making that rescue necessary. Thinking about this nitrate decay places us, paradoxically, back into the realm of material. We see that, ignoring projection and the phantasmatic elements that accompany it, nitrate stock has a spectrality embedded within.
Returning to the motion picture archive places us face-to-face with death: not just images of those who have gone, but a physical manifestation of death or destruction actively working to erase itself. But it is a death that is active, a death that is, paradoxically, not dead. It signals to us a self-survivance, a resistance to itself. More than anything, decay haunts because it lives not in an ether, but within the material—a rootedness to spectrality that is nearly always invisible until it becomes too late, until the decay destroys the information. What haunts, then, is potentiality and violent shake away from a notion of true preservation. André Bazin’s influential idea of a mummy complex in art that peaks with film, a way of “providing a defense against the passage of time… to preserve [a subject] from a second spiritual death” (9-10), feels a deep tremor. This psychological idea, this certainty, begins to feel untrue. For we live in an age where we can supposedly record time and reproduce it infinitely—indeed, technological reproducibility. But continuing with Derrida’s line of thought, neither film is not so easily categorizable as another medium, just another preservative conduit that achieved some type of perfection.
But what we do see is that film is not so easily thought of as a definite retention of memory or history. It is volatile and self-destructive. The trace of the decay points to that which normally leaves no trace, or that which never leaves a true trace; it points to the slipping-away of history, the loss of an incomprehensible amount of information; of affect, of memory, of whatever it is that might be captured in a somehow-rescued moment of time. The trace of the decay becomes such a haunting signifier for it signifies something that we never wanted to believe: that no true preservation through a physical medium is possible. A cinematographic theory of decay must look to the spectrality of film itself, the unique way in which it presents a past. It also must return to the material, to acknowledge the complications that arise when face-to-face with its destruction.
But it perhaps seems self-evident that there is no universal retention of memory, no system that can guarantee such a bold request. Regarding the psychological, yes, decay reminds us of this. Yet a clear problematic arises: nitrate film is obsolete; we do not screen nitrate film, let alone decayed film, on a regular basis. Moreover, film generally is hardly shown. It is tempting to attempt to ignore theoretical considerations of film stock in a digital age, but it remains a sizable presence in the archive.
Hence my shift to a spectrality of the material places emphasis away from thinking of film in terms of spectatorship and toward a reconsideration of film as an archival and historical medium. I utilized Derrida’s musing as a basis to think through the issues presented above, but this starting point is not meant to be a simple transposition of his ideas onto nitrate decay. In many ways, Derrida’s ideas do not easily correspond to how we perceive film today, nor to how decay itself functions within our viewing or consumption of nitrate film stock. In this final section, then, I want to clarify this breach, pointing more sharply point outward beyond Derrida, to pinpoint contextual limitations in his ideas and sketch more clearly a direction toward a theory of decay.
Though an expansive concept, I want to return to a foundational Derrida text on representation and suggest that thinking of traces of decay as correlative to Derrida’s ideas of the “supplement” is somewhat tricky. In Of Grammatology, the section “…That Dangerous Supplement” begins to articulate supplement with the following: “I renounce my present life, my present and concrete existence in order to make myself known in the ideality of truth and value” (142). I point this out to indicate a centeredness on a supplement resulting from or directed toward a subject. Toward the end of the chapter, we read: “Thus Rousseau inscribes textuality in the text. But its operation is not simple. It tricks with a gesture of effacement…” (163). We recall a sense of a false duality between absence and presence in this effacement—an effacement that rests upon an act of writing, of inscribing. This is not to return to some notion of authorial intent (that Rousseau purposely does this inscribing, etc.), but merely to point out that Derrida’s argument rests on a language system that is reproduced through actors, through generative processes brought about by individuals.
Decay, on the other hand, is produced spontaneously. Moreover, we are not dealing with a series of significations. Decay does not signify so much as it signals, by which I mean it signals something being lost, something decaying. This does not render issues of spectrality moot; on the contrary, decay is as haunting as ever, and can indeed signal loss. But we must be aware that even if films are considered texts or a language (a notion that is not unanimously agreed upon), decay within it is not. We can still think about effacement and the duality between presence and absence, but not in the same schema as we do with language. Recall the suggestion of a death drive of the material, of a self-effacement, of a cyclical rescue/destruction. These are problematics that ought to be considered from a decentered position; that is, these are not issues of any subject but of a material. We must reconsider the implications of spectrality as it arises from a de-subjectified, non-linguistic space.
With respect to the archive, attempting to reconsider of the idea of supplement through a non-linguistic lens is a worthy project. That is, what does decay offer us in terms of self-narrativization, in terms of the need to archive history? Derrida writes: “[T]here is lack in Nature and that because of that very fact something is added to it” (149). One may suggest that we lack a proper way of archiving history, a proper Natural way. We need recourse to materials in order to create this, but in turn we create something unnatural, a system where a sign or image makes ‘the world move,’ where nature becomes supplement to the image (147). But perhaps decay questions this. Film stock, this lifeless material, has its own progression toward its destruction, a move away from information—nature has perhaps attempted a reversal of its supplementation to and of a sign.
What implications does this have on humanity’s self-temporalization, on its memory, on its conception of itself? In the end, I am pushing away from theories of spectatorship, away from a paradigm of textuality or reading this decay as a text/language. Nitrate film has a strange archival position and cannot be read in the ways suggested by Derrida or previous film theorists, the way they interpret narrative films or the act of consuming movies. One must recognize that consumptive patterns and the historicization of our pasts are rooted in and structured by the material. In a broader sense, nitrate decay de-centers the subject, defamiliarizes them with their own practices, and pushes us to consider how every medium is embodied and how it influences our practices to a degree we may not always comprehend.
HUNTER KOCH is a junior at Columbia University majoring in Film Studies where he studies early cinema.