The Future Perfect

“Photography has frozen the river of time.” 3

In language, the future perfect tense addresses the past as an event in the future. It is a form of grammatical time travel that assumes that at a point in the future, the past will already have occurred. It is an everyday occurrence of grammatical structure and temporal perception. Phrases such as “I will have been” and “by that time” make use of auxiliary verbs that indicate that we are speaking or writing in the future perfect tense.

The still photograph has a temporal relationship to the past. The photograph evokes the presence of an absence that is always tied to a discontinuous moment in time; it is that moment and no other. When we look at a photograph we are looking at the past, at what-has-been. For Roland Barthes, this is the phenomenological essence of all photographs. It is also what constitutes the photograph as a memento mori, a signifier of the memory of our own death. In so far as the photograph acts as an indexical representation of it’s referent (the footprint of this-has-been) and also functions as a “message without a code”4 (photographs do not rely on arbitrary systems of abstract signification such as language), the realism of the photographic image (the obvious meaning) also conceals a meaning that is outside of language and signification. For Barthes, this was the obtuse meaning or punctum of the still photograph. Barthes characterizes this meaning as discontinuous with narrative and metalanguage. It is a meaning that has the attributes of disguise.

Barthes originally discussed the obtuse meaning in relation to a series of film-stills from “Ivan the Terrible” by Sergei M. Eisenstein. By isolating the film-still for analysis, the provisional relation that still photography has to cinema could be articulated. The close consideration of the film-still has had a profound influence on post-modern photography and art, notably in the work of Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall. There is an established genre and discourse dedicated to the critical exploration of the film-still, photography and cinema.

An important feature is the fact that the still retains a grammatical relation to time that is distinct from the moving image of cinema. And it is precisely the question of motion that separates and distinguishes these differences. If the still is anchored in the “past perfect” of this-has-been, then it is film that establishes a present and a future that removes the photograph from its static relation to the presence of the past. For Barthes, the photograph has no future:

“ ….the photograph, taken in flux, is impelled, ceaselessly drawn toward other views; in cinema, no doubt, there is always a photographic referent, but this referent shifts, it does not protest its former existence; it does not cling to me: it is not a specter. Like the real world, the filmic world is sustained by the presumption that, as Husserl says, “the experience will constantly continue to flow by in the same constitutive style”; but the Photograph breaks the “constitutive style” (this is its astonishment); it is without future (this is its pathos, its melancholy); in it, no protensity, whereas the cinema is protensive, hence in no way melancholic (what is it then? – It is, then, simply “normal,” like life). Motionless, the Photograph flows back from the presentation to retention.” 7

But what if the still is moving? In this context the differences that separate the still photograph from movement image in film coalesce to produce a temporal relation that is analogous to the future perfect tense. It is here that the temporality of the still, this-has-been, establishes a relationship of anticipation with what is yet-to-come. The anticipation of the future, a future that may never arrive but is always already past, is structurally significant to the formation of subjectivity itself. The punctum and obtuse meaning that Barthes identified in the still photograph share these attributes of subjectivity, desire and anticipation. We can only anticipate the meaning of an image, a meaning that is already past, perpetually deferred, and is yet-to-come. Jacques Lacan recognized this paradox of subject formation in language as well:

“I identify myself in language, but only by losing myself in it like an object. What is realized in my history is not the past definite as what was, since it is no more, or even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.” 8