Memories of Departure: A Theory of GIFs

Memories of Departure: A Theory of GIFs was my senior capstone project at USC. I began working on this project in the summer of 2017 and finished in the spring of 2018. I tried submitting the essay to a few journals for online publication, but after they discovered that the essay had been posted on my website, it was disqualified. I've reposted it here to keep it available. My deepest thanks to my friends and professors who pushed me to reach further with this project, and to write into existence what I did not have at hand.

In loving memory of my grandfather, Bill Robbins.

grandpafalls.gif

Fragment: the text is fragile. It’s nothing but. It breaks and yet it doesn’t break, in the same place. Where? Someplace, always someplace, an unassignable, incalculable place.[1]

— Jean-Luc Nancy


I began thinking about GIFs as objects of theory about a year ago. My grandfather’s Parkinson’s, which had been affecting him increasingly for the past seven years, had reached a point at which he had to be moved into an assisted living facility. He had slowly lost the ability to walk, speak, and move his body in the ways he once could.In a poignant moment of lucidity, he told my grandmother one morning, “I’m going to be leaving you”. When my grandmother told me this, the phrase repeated itself in my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’m going to be leaving you. The more I repeated it, the more I realized that my grandfather had been leaving for a very long time. He had begun this slow departure years ago.

I’m going to be leaving you. I started looking for the beginning of this leaving, and in this search, I arrived at a memory of a vacation I took with my family to Vancouver when I was eleven. We were one a hike through a forest, my parents, my brother, my grandparents and me. I was walking ahead with my dad when I heard my mom scream. “Dad!” Her scream echoed around me as I turned around. But I was too far ahead to see anything but more forest. All I saw was a green blur. My grandfather had slipped on the trail and fallen. It was the first of many moments of Parkinson’s causing his muscles to tense up. It was the beginning of his leaving.

There are many different kinds of leaving. As a child, my grandparents spent time with me every Wednesday after school. They left in the afternoon, returning again the following week. These were short leavings, temporary leavings. When I see my grandfather now, I hope that I will see him again. But as people age, we must always grapple with the ways in which we may be leaving them for the last time. These are more open-ended leavings. My grandpa’s Parkinson’s is a part of a different kind of leaving, a much larger leaving, one that takes years, and one that offers no return. For me, this leaving began in the forest, on a hike. When my grandfather fell.

Searching for the beginning of his leaving, I arrived at this memory. And at that beginning I found only a memory of fear and confusion: the repeated image of a green blur as I turned again and again in my memory. In a journal entry last summer, I wrote:

What is the opposite of no memory? If images are memories, what is the opposite of no image? Perhaps it is not the clear, clean image, but the corrupted image, a sea of digital noise.An image so full that it has forgotten its original purpose. It overflows with so much meaning it becomes unreadable, interpreted, but uninterpretable, unintelligible data, a swirling sea of unreadable information.

I was thinking about memory and the ways that I catalogued many of my own memories visually. I felt that images were memories, and memories were images. When I arrived at the memory of my grandfather’s fall, the image in my mind was visually hard to make out. It was a swirling sea of unreadable information. It wasn’t clear. It was not an image of muscles tensing up, a root sticking out of the ground, and my grandfather slipping on something he could have otherwise easily passed over. It was not an image of my mother watching her father fall on a single-track trail on a steep incline, nor was it my grandmother’s reaction to watching her husband tumbling.I had been walking ahead, I had only the memory of a trail, of green, and of turning. My memory of that fall was a memory with the wrong image. My grandfather falling in the forest looked only like a green blur. Its meaning had everything to do with what I didn’t see, with what the image couldn’t show.In its illegibility, it held a kind of truth. The truth that I didn’t see everything, that I couldn’t see everything. It was an image about everything around it. It was not about the forest but about the fall. It held its importance in what was beyond its edges, in my grandfather slipping. I saw it again and again. There was the turn, then it happened again, then again. No matter what I was thinking about I could return to the memory, watching the turn as it looped in my mind. It seemed to play forever as long as I looked at it. It was a GIF, a short sequence of images that repeated itself. Like the GIFs from films and television shows that I casually sent to friends and saw in memes, it played on loop. It was stuck in the same place, but in that place, I could watch it as it repeated. In another entry I wrote:

Thinking in writing, remembering in degraded, looping images. Images forgetting their origins, becoming their own origins. Reposted GIFs, moments without reference to the bodies they originate from. Losing an origin and becoming their own origin. The origin of the self within the self. On repeat. On loop. Arpeggiators, larger chords, melodies broken down and repeated. Arpeggiated memories broken down and listened to again and again until they have built themselves up into something else, something new, multiplicity in remembering. Multiplicity in forgetting.

Everything was becoming a GIF. My memories were not complete narratives, but fragments, they were a collection of GIFs.[2]The GIF that I arrived to was a moment that I had completely forgotten, or thought I had forgotten, until I started looking for the beginning of this leaving. Or had it always existed, and I just hadn’t seen it, hadn’t known? I wrote and wrote and wrote, trying to find words that might wrap themselves around these GIFs that populated my mind. The thoughts in writing spoke to the memories as GIFs. When my memories were GIFs, I was able to hold them differently, look at them differently. They could be fragments without being incomplete. They repeated themselves endlessly, refusing to be placed into narratives. Because they had no stable beginning or ending, they could simply be repeated as their own kind of truths. As GIFs, my memories didn’t ask to be arranged into a narrative, for if they were in a narrative, with a beginning,middle, and an end, they would cease to be fragments and become whole—no longer GIFs, they would be something else entirely. I kept my memories as GIFs, as incomplete, as fragments, as repeated moments, and I studied them, wrote about them, and tried to learn what it might mean to hold memories in this way.

In the year since I first began thinking about GIFs I have delved into film and photography theory, art history, and visual culture. I have attempted to find a framework to understand why framing my memories as GIF fragments felt so profound. I have attempted to come to some kind of understanding of the GIF. In doing so, I have come to learn about digital images, theories of representation, relationships between part and whole, and the production and presentation of history. What follows are pieces of this research and thinking. I have organized them into different fragments of thought that speak to the same GIF. Each section begins with the GIF and moves through different ways of understanding it. Although this theory is nowhere near complete, I hope that it speaks to the ways new forms of media can be engaged with in deeply personal and intimate ways.

A driving question in this project has been: how can we understand and find value in digital objects as more than simply virtuals of their analog counterparts? Anne Friedberg’s clarification of“virtual” is useful here: “The virtual is a substitute––‘acting without agency of matter’––an immaterial proxy for the material. The term becomes a key marker of a secondary order in the relationship between the real and its copy, the original and its reproduction, the image and its likeness.”[3]Virtual is a signifier of a relationship. It is a substitute for something else. From material thing to immaterial virtual. Many times, virtual images are discussed in terms of what they lack. Yet, as Deleuze tells us, “We know that the virtual as virtual has a reality.”[4]This is the reality that I am interested in: the reality of images, the reality of memories, the ways that the two blend together, and arrive to us tied up in ways we may never untangle. 

Citations in Translation

What does it mean to cite something? What is the significance of pulling a few sentences, words, a fragment, from whole? In this essay, I cite many other scholars and thinkers, pulling bits and pieces of their thoughts in order to build my own framework around a GIF of my grandfather’s fall. Indeed, we could say that the GIF itself is a kind of citation, a fragment that speaks to something larger, outside of itself. What is this relationship? Initially it might seem simple: the GIF is a representation. It’s a citation. But are these words really so interchangeable?

The GIF differs largely from a photograph of my family taken in the morning on the day of the hike. A group photo of all of us huddled in order to fit my dad and brother, both of my grandparents, and my mom and I into the frame. Such a photo would be something other than grandpafalls.gif. It would be closer to that day, those people, my family and my grandpa. Photographs are linked indexically to what they depict. The camera has touched the subjects of the image. Roland Barthes famously comments on this while looking at an image of Napoleon’s youngest brother. Staring into the eyes in the image, Barthes is struck by the fact that the eyes he is looking at looked at Napoleon.[5]There’s a certain kind of touching going on here, a touching of sight. That one’s eyes could hold a relationship to what they have seen, simply because they have touched through sight.

An image of my family on the trail,smiling toward the camera, would have held this relationship through touch. Looking at my family’s eyes in an image taken in the hours before the fall, I might wonder not what those eyes have seen, but what they haven’t seen. In such an image, my family gazes into the future, one that they couldn’t have imagined.That photograph would be a citation of sorts, a quote from a day that would reverberate through my family’s history for years. The literary theorist and writer Eduardo Cadava writes on this very idea of the relationship between citations and photographs in his close readings of the writings of Walter Benjamin. “Citation, I would argue is perhaps another name for photography.When Benjamin claims that ‘to write history is therefore to quote history’, he suggests that historiography follows the principals of photography.”[6] Inciting Walter Benjamin’s words on history, Cadava himself follows what he has described as “the principals of photography”. Cadava expands the notion of photography towards one that has more to do with its relationship to time and history than its medium. Photography is not only a medium, but a way of understanding, seeing, and witnessing history. Initially this may seem strange,but photography has always been expanding beyond its medias. From early Daguerreotypes, appearing on polished mirrors, to film photography, to digital images, photography has never been bound to its material support. It is rather,as Cadava puts it, a method of citation. It is a flash. A fixing of a moment as time flows by. It is a trace, a fragment of something that once was.

Cadava’s notion of photography expands to the writing of history itself. History arrives to us in the form of the image. Photography, a writing with light, a writing of history. A quote from Benjamin appears as the epigraph to Cadava’s first chapter. “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. .. . For it is the irretrievable image of the past that threatens to disappear with every present that does not recognize itself as intended in it.”[7]Images of the past are fleeting, understanding itself comes in a moment, in a constellation of meaning, then disappears. It is only in an image of the passing of time that we are able to come to an understanding of history. As Benjamin warns, this image threatens to disappear if we fail to see ourselves within it. A photograph is then not only a citation, a possibility. It is a citation with power to activate the past, but only if we are able to see it as such.

But what we have here, in grandpafalls.gif, is not a photograph nor a citation, at least not in Benjamin and Cadava’s sense of it. What does it mean for history to arrive to us not in a photograph, but in a GIF? In a degraded looping image recreated from a memory of looking, or rather, from a memory of not looking, of not seeing, what do we find? What does the GIF hold that the photograph does not, cannot hold?[8]

The GIF finds itself embedded in conversations, essays, and articles. It is always at home surrounded by text,by a new context. GIFs from films and television shows are cut out of their original scenes, set to loop, and uploaded in online archives of GIFs, like giphy.com and imgur.com. A reaction, gesture, or look is pulled out of its original context because it can be used in a new one. GIFs are gestural. In this way, they are like language, the gestures of words.

In its repetition the GIF replaces context with more of itself. When we look at it for extended periods of time,the gesture that we see loses its meaning.[9]Writing about Cubism through the lens of semiotics, Rosalind Krauss explains how the meaning of signs are always generated by the systems they are a part of. “Meaning is always mediated by the system; it is inevitably, irremediably,irrevocably, processed by the system’s own structural relations and conventions.”[10] Krauss emphasizes that meaning is always made in relation. The conventions and relations of a system dictate the meanings which are possible within the system. In a looped gesture,the more we look, the more meaning begins to disappear. Systems facilitate and maintain meaning, not individual parts. Words only hold meaning in relation to other words. If we write the same word again and again, it starts to look wrong. If we say the same word again and again we start to hear a sound, not a word with meaning. In repetition, we experience the thing as it is, that is to say, as it is outside of the system which gives it is meaning.

When GIFs are created from films,they speak less to the context of the film they came from and more to the new context that they occupy or could occupy. When we start thinking about films in terms of the GIFs they could produce, we begin to engage with the filmic narrative in a different way. We are no longer so interested in making GIFs which serve as citations to the films which they originate from, the context that has previously held these moments. We are interested in what their context could be. Making GIFs from a film, we search not for their citational value, but for their gestural value. GIFs become visual signifiers waiting to be signified. They are an unstable citation. The GIF speaks to the conversation that surrounds it. Usually, it references something outside of its original context. Many times, it has nothing to do with its original context. For just as they can be cut out with a dutiful faithfulness to their narratives, (if you can ever cut a moment out of a narrative faithfully) they can be distorted, edited, and changed.

It is context which dictates the meaning of the GIF. Specific meanings are created through the relationship between the GIF and what surrounds it. Walter Benjamin writes about this same quality in photography in his essay, “A Short History of Photography”. In it,he emphasizes the importance of accompanying text in photography. For Benjamin,as capable as photography is to present a true image of reality, is also just as ready to lie. Context, which for Benjamin is the intervention of history, is what allows a desired photographic meaning to be conveyed. Meaning appears precisely in the relationship between image and text.

The camera becomes smaller and smaller, ever readier to capture transitory and secret pictures which are able to shock the associative mechanism of the observer to a standstill. At this point the caption must step in, thereby creating a photography which literarises the relationships of life and without which photographic construction would remain stuck in the approximate.[11]

Benjamin emphasizes those secret images, created through cameras that are becoming“smaller and smaller”. Writing in 1931 during the rise of fascism, Benjamin sees photography as both politically charged and capable of furthering fascist ideals. Photographs that are capable of “shocking the associative mechanism of the observer” disassociate specific, historically located meanings into malleable ones. Images speak, but they are only able to speak in a dialogue with something else. The caption steps in to free the photograph from being a mere “approximate”, it gives the photograph its specific meaning. It relies on the context of language. This act of captioning an image is the act of contextualizing it.

Sometimes, GIFs are created for the sole purpose of being GIFs. They do not depart from a larger narrative because there was never a larger narrative to begin with. These GIFs, like grandpafalls.gif, embedded within this piece, call out for a context to wrap themselves in. They are GIFs that wait to be contextualized, waiting to enter a dialogue.

As I reach out from my memory of my grandfather’s fall I find that it too is surrounded by a new context. Confusion is contextualized around the slow learning about painful, uncompromising realities of aging. The GIF finds home in a world of text. It is wrapped in words, thoughts, and stories. The image itself is not a story, it is the beginning of a story, it is the middle of a story, it is the end of a search to find a beginning. It is no longer so much citation of that moment as it is a translation of that moment into something else. It is a memory translated into an image.

Translation is the work of decontextualizing and recontextualizing meaning and language. To translate a text, then, is not just to attempt to move meaning from one system to another, it is to attempt tocreate context where such a meaning may have none. The system itself is the context of the meaning. So much of the meaning of words relies on the subtlety,associations, and tone, rooted in their language. Moving meaning from one language to another is to change the text. In his essay, “The Task of the Translator” Walter Benjamin tells us, “…no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. For in its afterlife––which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and a renewal of something living––the original undergoes a change.”[12] The translation is the afterlife of the original. The original has been changed.What we arrive to when we arrive to a translation is not the original text indifferent words, but something else entirely.

“Translation demands the death of the original,” says Edwardo Cadava, commenting on Benjamin’s writings,“…translation names death’s continued existence.”[13] If translation survives on the continued existence of a text after its death, then what are we to make of grandpafalls.gif? What we have is less of a citation, but rather, a translation. In a memory translated into an image, memory is treated as a kind of text, image as a kind of translation. But, I wonder, what lies between the image in my memory and the image on the screen?

To ask what is between the thing and its representation is precisely what the French philosopher and historian, Pierre Nora, asks in his essay, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”. History and memory may initially seem synonymous, but for Nora, the two are in fact opposites. He distinguishes memory, which is alive, embodied, and ever-changing, from history, which is a text, open to contestation. Nora writes:

Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name. It remains in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation,susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived. History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer. Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past.[14]

Note Nora’s word choice when describing memory. Memory is evolving, vulnerable, an actual phenomenon. It is life itself. Memory holds us in the present. History, as Nora notes, is problematic, incomplete, a reconstruction. History is not the same as memory, “History is perpetually suspicious of memory,” Nora continues, “and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it [. . .] History’s goal and ambition is not to exalt but to annihilate what has in reality taken place.”[15]For Nora, the writing of history annihilates true memory. Memory is living,changing, and embodied. It is intimately personal and is lived within the space of the body. It changes, develops and grows. History, a representation, is incomplete. History is a kind of attempt to translate memory into a readable text. But as both Benjamin and Cadava note, translation is something other than the original. In the attempt to translate memory, it is destroyed. The ultimate goal of a representation then, like translation, is not likeness, but the replacement of the original.

History is opposed to memory because for history to function, it must turn memory into a text. “Not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory, […] but it actually blocks memory,quickly becomes a counter-memory.”[16] A photograph is not a memory, Roland Barthes reminds us. Memories are embodied.Photographs are disembodied; they are a certain kind of ghost. Images may not be memories, but they can activate the memories that surround them. It is the captions, the text, the words that form a context images that make them rich.

Context speaks to the entirety of something. To reach for context is to reach for what holds a text at its edges.The word derives from the Latin contextus: a joining together, which in turn derives from contexere: a weaving together. con(together, with) texere (to weave, to make). Context: the weaving together, the bringing together. In placing a GIF within a body of text, history wraps itself around an image. Two fabrics, image and text, holding each other together. A memory translated into an image, held by theories and thoughts, attempting to understand what it might mean to find aGIF in search for the beginning of my grandfather’s leaving.

The Arrival of Departure

For years, Parkison’s has slowly pulled my grandfather away. As the disease has progressed, he has lost the ability to move like he once could. Once limber and strong, he has become stiff and weak. The muscles in his body have tightened, his vocal chords have been stretched in ways that make it incredibly difficult to speak. His presence in my life has slowly receded. I return to the beginning again and again. A hike through the forest, a family vacation, a moment that plays on loop. In my mind I see not a story, but a series of fragments. I see the beginning of the slow leaving in an image that spins. Departure arrives. Then it arrives again. And it continues to arrive as long as I look. grandpafalls.gif always shows departure as it begins, as if the years that separate me from that moment have dissolved away, and all I am left with, in a sea of departure,is an image that loops.

The context of grandpafalls.gif is departure. The image is surrounded by departure, and it is within this departure that it makes itself known. Perhaps I could locate many beginnings. Departure arrives and never stops arriving. A slow leaving. I’m going to be leaving you. My grandfather’s words speak to a leaving that is yet to come, as though the leaving isn’t really happening now,hasn’t yet begun. As though we can only find the signs of disappearance after the fact, and only anticipate them as we look towards a future we cannot see.

I’m going to be leaving you. Words that mark a truth that can always be said. From the moment we are born, these words ring true.[17] One day, will be leaving each other. Departure rests as a vague point on the horizon, obscured and difficult to grasp onto, until we look back at ourselves and realize that we may have left long ago. We leave the people we once were, we leave the places we once lived, we leave the memories we once held close. Forgetting, too, might be seen as a kind of departure. The slipping away of the past. A larger departure with no return, until memories flood back to us, in an unexpected remembering. What remains of my childhood after I have grown up? What survives the forgetting that takes place in every moment, every day? I find images,fragments, departure as it begins. And begins. And begins.

The repetitive nature of my memory of the fall recalls Freud’s notion of repetition-compulsion as he describes it in Beyond the Pleasure Principal. What interests Freud is not simply that a traumatic event repeats itself, but that the experience of such repetition is passive—it is unexpected as it returns again and again. Turning to Tasso’s romantic epic, Gerusalemme Liberata, Freud describes the story:

Its hero, Tancred, unwittingly kiss his beloved Clorinda in a duel while she is disguised in the amour of an enemy knight. After her burial he makes his way into a strange magic forest which strikes the Crusaders’ army with terror. He slashes with his swords at a tall tree; but blood streams from the curt and the voice of Clorinda, whose soul is imprisoned in the tree, is heard complaining that he has wounded his beloved once again.[18]

Freud uses this passage to illustrate the passivity of repetition-compulsion. It is as though the repetition is something happening upon Tancred, even though it is Tancred who swung both blows. The writer Cathy Caruth, whose translation of Beyond the Pleasure Principal I quote, takes a different interest in Freud’s use of this passage.[19] She highlights the voice of Clorinda who cries out from the tree. “Tancred does not only repeat his act but, in repeating it, he for the first time hears a voice that cries out to him to see what he has done … a voice that witnesses a truth that Tancred himself cannot fully know.”[20]Caruth lays forth a theory of trauma and its repetition that is not based simply on its inability to be left behind, and the passive return of a memory,but on the fact that the traumatic event itself was not fully experienced the first time. She writes:

It is not simply, that is, the literal threatening of bodily life, but the fact that the threat is recognized as such by the mind one moment too late. The shock of the mind’s relation to the threat of death is thus not the direct experience of the threat, but precisely the missing of this experience, the fact that, not being experience in time,it has not yet been fully known. And it is this lack of direct experience that,paradoxically, becomes the basis of the repetition . . . the attempt to overcome the fact that it was not direct, to attempt to master what was never fully grasped in the first place.[21]

Recognition of the threat is not only late, but never fully available to us. The event happens too quickly and without warning. For Caruth, it is this missing of the event, and the subsequent recognition not only of what the event was, but of the fact that we could not know it when it happened, that is at the center of trauma. It is the forgetting and later remembering that gives rise to the return of the event.  In repetition, we attempt to hold what we cannot fully know. My experience of my grandfather’s fall is entirely centered around the fact that I did not see it. I missed the event. What also rests around my memory of the fall is not only that I missed it, but that I could not,and still am unable to know what the fall actually meant. In signaling the beginning of departure, the memory speaks to one that has not yet taken place. I will be leaving you. My grandfather’s slow decline continues. He is still alive. grandpafalls.gif then, is animage that anticipates a death that has not happened, and speaks not only of this future leaving, but of my own non-leaving, non-falling, and non-seeing. As Caruth notes, it is the indirect nature of the trauma that is at its center.The fall did not happen to me and that its meaning is impossible to fully grasp, as the departure that is signals is one that continues to take place. The meaning of departure is still unknown and unstable, repeating itself again and again.

And yet, grandpafalls.gif is also departing. Its presence marks the departure from private, intimate memory to pixels on a screen. It appears in the passage between memory and representation, between the image in my mind and the one I see on screen. We could say that GIFs are always reaching for a kind of departure, always departing. As sequences pulled from films they have departed from their narrative origins. They are digital files, moving from one computer to another, from one screen to the next. GIFs are unique as image files because they have the capacity to display motion in the form of short animations. They are the product of turning a large video file into small,easily sharable series of images. They are compressed in order to maximize their ability to be sent, uploaded, downloaded and viewed. In this compression,they lose data and clarity. In their departure, they degrade.

In degradation, the meaning of an image too is in a state of departure. Its clarity is dissolving. Its representational value, our ability to see through the image to what it represents, is disrupted. We see the material presence of the image. The GIF, with its low resolution and restricted color palette, shows us an image as image. We see a GIF, we cannot see through the GIF. The medium, the compression algorithm of the GIF, has a visible presence. This visibility though, might be a kind of arrival. The arrival of what it might look like to see an object in a state of departure.Artist and writer Hito Steyerl gives these degraded images in departure a name: the poor image. She writes:

The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and reedited. It transforms quality into accessibility, exhibition value into cult value, films into clips, contemplation into distraction. The image is liberated from the vaults of cinemas and archives and thrust into digital uncertainty, at the expense of its own substance. The poor image tends towards abstraction: it is a visual idea in its very becoming.[22]

For Steyerl, the poor image is about the reality of networked culture. Through transfers, edits, uploads and downloads, clear, clean images are compressed, losing data. The poor image speaks to something other than its origin. Its degradation, in obscuring one meaning, displays another. Departure appears in the structure of the image. We see what is otherwise invisible: the medium of the image itself. As an image in a state of departure, the poor image displays this departure as a new kind of information. The poor image is in fact rich with meaning. It is, as Steyerl tells us, “about its own real conditions of existence.”[23]This existence, this movement through networks, is a perpetual departure, “a visual idea in its very becoming.” The poor image shows us the loss of data that takes place when an image is in constant transit, when it is always in departure. Departure appears in an image which is cryptic. Its meaning is thick and difficult to read. Illegibility itself becomes a kind of information.

It is the image itself, as an object, that holds its history within it. For the film theorist Laura U. Marks, these images are called “recollection objects”. Marks defines them as “an irreducibly material object that encodes collective memory . . . What is important about these object-images is that they condense time within themselves, and that in excavating them we expand outward in time.”[24] Marks explains that many filmmakers in diaspora, working in and around the departures caused by colonialism and imperialism, center these recollection objects in their work. These degraded objects and poor images hold truths of displacement, violence, and histories of departure.

For Marks, the recollection object can be both a physical object we can hold, as well as a digital object with their own limited materiality. As the image degrades, meaning is derived not from what can be seen in spite of the degradation, but what the degradation itself tells us about the image’s conditions of existence. Objects remember. The wound speaks. Just as Tancred’s beloved cries out from the tree, images call out to us. Recollection images, Marks says, “cry out to tell the forgotten histories of which they are the index.”[25] These objects and images hold untold, many times untellable, forgotten histories. In the material presence of the image, history shows itself as illegible scars.[26]

But grandpafalls.gif is not a recollection object in the way Marks describes. It is a GIF that I created. The GIF speaks less to how the image remembers, and more to how memory degrades. In time, I replaced clarity with a memory that resembles a degraded GIF more than a cohesive story. It is in the fragment that departure arrives to me, for the memory which it represents was only ever known in fragments. In new contexts, within this essay, the GIF takes on a new meaning, as a stand in for a memory which works outside of the narrative from which it came.

The GIF, a gestural loop, thrives on departing from its narrative origins. As images degrade and take on new meanings, they move further and further from what they originally represented.GIFs, when cut out of films and television, depart from the narratives they previously occupied. In his essay, “Leaving the Movie Theater”, Roland Barthes begins with a conceit. “There is something to confess, your speaker likes to leave a movie theater.”[27] Is this the same conceit that GIFs must make? A need, perhaps even a desire, to leave the space of cohesive narrative? Barthes describes his love of the space that surrounds the cinema. Images of actors on billboards excite him. He is fascinated by the architecture of the theater, the way that the lights of the cinema illuminate the intimate darkness. He finds pleasure not only in the film itself, but also in the distance he is able to create between himself and the film. He writes:

What I use to distance myself from the image–that, ultimately, is what fascinates me: I am hypnotized by a distance; and this distance is not critical(intellectual); it is one might say, an amorous distance: would be there, in the cinema itself (and taking the world at its etymological suggestion) a possible bliss of discretion?[28]

For Barthes, it is not simply the filmic space that pleases him, but the push and pull, the erotic distancing of his attention and the image. On the verge of sleep, in a space that seems to mimic that of a dream, Barthes is between the image and himself. He rests between the slipping into the narrative and the resisting of the narrative. His ability to depart from the narrative, leave the theater, leave the narrative,is where he finds this “bliss of discretion”.

In his earlier essay, “The Third Meaning”, Barthes analyzes Eisenstein film stills, finding another kind of meaning outside of the narrative. Looking at various stills, Barthes attempts to describe a certain kind of meaning that can only be seen in the film still.He describes three levels of meaning. The first is the obvious meaning, simply the information in the image: the costume, place in a narrative, and setting.The second is a symbolic meaning: the ways that symbolism is at work in a given image. The third meaning seems to escape Barthes, it is not informational, nor symbolic. He names it the “obtuse” meaning.[29] Its meaning is peculiar. It can only be seen in the still image. It disappears when the film is in motion.

The obtuse meaning approaches abstraction, but in that abstraction holds a specific kind of presence that is lost when the film is in motion. Barthes writes, “The still, then, is the fragment of a second text whose existence never exceeds the fragment; film and still find themselves in a palimpsest relationship without it being possible to say that one is on top of  the other or that one is extracted from the other.”[30] That there is a second text on top of the narrative film is to say that the film is potentially filled with these instances, waiting to be seen. They make up the material substrate of the film yet disappear in movement.

In “Leaving the Movie Theater”, Barthes is consciously distracted from the narrative. In departing the theater,the memories of the film mix with the city at night. There is meaning in this space, in this distance from the narrative. In “The Third Meaning” Barthes again locates a meaning that appears only with a kind of distance from the narrative. The third meaning can be seen only when the film is stopped, only when the narrative ceases to be presented as movement. The meaning can only exist as a fragment, outside of the film’s story. Like the “amorous distance”within the space of the theater, there is a distance between the still and the continuous narrative of the film. In both cases, the narrative content of the film is subverted, or rather averted, by another meaning. The architecture of the theater, the light of the projector, and the fragment of the still hold this second text which exists alongside that of the film narrative. It is in their simultaneous connection and disconnection, this push and pull between proximity and distance, where Barthes locates his discussions.

We might locate the GIF in this space, in the push and pull between narrative, in the departure from the film to something more transportable, more compressed, more illegible. The GIF holds meaning as a fragment, as something that has departed from the narrative. The GIF speaks to departure in its many forms. It speaks to the inability to fully know any more than fragments of the past, looping memories that tell us of forgotten wounds. Although grandpafalls.gif is not pulled from a film, the memory that it represents has departed from its narrative, floating now as a degraded looping sequence of images. Like Marks’ recollection image and Steyerl’s poor image, grandpafalls.gif fails to present a legible history of itself. It calls out to be contextualized, explained, to have the history that it attempts to represent be told. grandpafalls.gif asks to tell a story of a strange remembering, a remembering of forgetting, of not seeing, and not knowing.

To Begin, Again

Traveling on a train from London to Bristol, the artist Victor Burgin stares out of the window at the English landscape passing by. Suddenly, he is flooded with images in his memory. Yet they are not images from his own life, they are images from films he has seen.Images from a scene in A Canterbury Tale (1944) arrive to him:

Emerging from a stand of trees [a young woman] is suddenly confronted with a view of the cathedral. The screen frames her in a close-up as she seems to heart ancient sounds on the wind: jingling harnesses, pipes and lutes. She turns her head swiftly left and right, as if looking for the source of the sounds—which abruptly stop as the close-up cuts to a long-shot of her alone and small in the bright expanse of grassland. The young woman on the Downs experiences the unexpected return of an image from a common national history and ‘hears’ sounds from a shared past that haunts the hill. On the train to Bristol I experienced the involuntary recall of her image, and others, from a shared history of British cinema.[31]

Burgin’s experience puzzles him.What is this shared experience of the return of the memory from cinema? He struggles to describe this experience with visual language and turns to music.He compares it to “a rapidly arpeggiated musical chord, the individual notes of which, although sounded successively, vibrate simultaneously.”[32] Burgin names this a “sequence-image”. The sequence image is ephemeral; it is passing. But, Burgin says, “It is a fact—a transitory state of percepts of a ‘present-moment’ seized in their association with past affects and meanings.”[33]

The sequence-image has departed from its narrative. “The narratives have dropped away, like those rockets that disintegrate in the atmosphere one they have placed their small payloads in orbit.”[34]These fragments, detached from their origins, populate our minds. Burgin also likens them to bits of pre-linguistic thought, these moments, images, and memories, outside of a narrative. Before the stories have been told, before the narratives have been written and rewritten, we hold onto these fragments.

Burgin’s sequence image is the appearance of the past in its relation to its passing, its having been and having been broken. The sequence-image appears saturated in memory. Perhaps,what Burgin describes is a series of GIFs, each one displaying the presence of an image, or sequence of images, repeatedly. The GIF holds onto one phrase, one gesture, one look. As it moves, it articulates itself again and again and again. In grandpafalls.gif, the arrival of departure makes itself seen again and again and again.

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”, T. S. Eliot writes in his conclusion to The Wasteland.[35] Like Eliot, I find fragments arriving. But my fragments are unstable, they are moving, the repeat the same blurry, degraded sequence of images. The fragments that arrive to me are cryptic and constantly in motion, in a state of departing from the moment that they arrive. They are pieces of a narrative under constant construction, for the moments, phrases, and gestures that might make up a narrative are in motion. The sequence-image is the momentary coming together of these fragments, memories that have been borrowed from films, having left the contexts that they arrived in, held by the contexts which hold them as they continue to move, always in a state of departure.

In its repetition, departure it has an unusual presence. grandpafalls.gif is shows departure without end. It continues to begin as I spin in the forest.It is always arriving, presenting itself. The presence of departure: departing.Deleuze defines “pure becomings” through a series of paradoxes. He looks to the work of Lewis Carroll in order to provide literary framework for these ideas.For Deleuze, Carroll’s writings include a very specific thing: pure events.Within pure events, pure becomings. Deleuze explains to us:

When I say ‘Alice becomes larger,’I mean that she becomes larger than she was. By the same token however, she becomes smaller than she is now […] She is larger now; she was smaller before.But it is at the same moment that one becomes larger than one was and smaller than one becomes. This is the simultaneity of a becoming whose characteristic is to elude to the present. Insofar as it eludes to the present, becoming does not tolerate the separation or the distinction of before and after, or of past and future.[36]

Alice becomes larger. Yet in this change, this movement, she also becomes smaller. Becoming larger in relation to her state in the past, becoming smaller in relation to her state in the future. This, for Deleuze, is the paradox of pure becomings. In this state of always becoming, the subject is never at rest. Pure becomings allude to the present. In movement, the present is never fully grasped. I wonder, could GIFs allude to the present? In their state of always moving, always repeating, they move simultaneously toward their end and beginning.

For me, the image of becoming is the image of departure. My grandfather leaving me.Just as “Alice becomes larger”, my grandfather becomes further. He is in a state of leaving. But in what direction? Is he moving towards the past, the future? He is getting further, but further from what? The paradox of pure becomings would say that my grandfather is leaving but also arriving. As he leaves, he must also be getting closer. He is getting closer to where he is going. We could, perhaps crudely, say that he is going to die. He is moving toward death. But is death a place? A state of being? What does it mean to be dying, to be moving toward death, towards not-being?

As my grandfather is leaving me, he is also arriving to me as memories. As he leaves from my future, he arrives again in my past. He arrives in fragments of memories, images before they have been wrapped into a story. In many moments I see him. We are walking down the dirt road next to the horses, I am running ahead in my red boots. We are filling empty yogurt containers with blackberries,reaching as far into the bushes as we can without getting pricked. We are eating pieces of a dark chocolate bar with almonds after lunch with my brother.We are standing next to the fire station as a fireman drives away, waving at us. We are sitting at the table eating unpeeled carrots as he is learning about the assisted living house he will be moving into. I am sitting with my grandma and I see how she holds his hand. “It’s so nice to see you,” she says. I am spinning around on the trail, hearing my mother scream.

He is leaving me. He is retreating into a body, a mind that can no longer communicate the things that have happened, that are still happening. But is there any way to communicate what it is to lose one’s body? One’s mind? “I’m not the man I used to be,” my grandfather said to me when I saw him a month ago. How can words hold what it is to leave like this? All that can be said is that he is not now what he once was. What I wanted to say to him, but didn’t: neither am I. When this began I was a child, unable to comprehend what it meant for things to change in the ways they would. We have both changed, become someone else.

Memories of Departure

We are always changing, becoming, departing. We hold onto fragments, traces of the past, of what once was. We hold images and words,memories of people we once knew and loved. In some moments, these fragments organize themselves in a flash, a constellation of meaning around the present. Fragments are arranged so that they contextualize each other. A fabric forms. A narrative is told. A narrative is retold. When stories collapse, we return to the pieces that they were constructed out of and we build something new. The substance of these narratives comes from many places, memories, words, images, a look, a turning blur. GIFs are these fragments on loop. As bits and pieces, these looping images are arranged into new truths, new understandings, and tell us what we may have never known about ourselves.

GIFs hold a kind of potential. The potential for narrative, for truth and for meaning. And yet, simultaneously the potential for lies, misplacement and misunderstanding. Here is where we find the work of study. The study of narrative, the asking why. Why do we place this here and not there? Why does one moment return, again and again, in the form of a GIF that will be created,studied, and written about. We learn the most about things when we look at their edges, at the places where the fail and cease to work, looking at images that exist on the boundary of narrative.

GIFs are unstable. They arrive without having stable origins and they hold silent histories of departure within them. They are difficult to place in narratives because of this. Their beginnings are rarely known and hardly ever accessible.They are difficult to hold onto, for when we look at them for extended periods of time they lose meaning, becoming empty gestures.

GIFs are poor images, replacing clarity with pixilation, cohesive narratives with fragmentation. A GIF is a coded image. It is a technology of absence. It presents us with the absence of a source. Absence rests at the edges of the GIF, the space in which some context might arrive. grandpafalls.gif speaks to a different kind of absence. It shows the absence of an event: my grandfather falling, and the absence of an ending:it asks for a narrative to continue to begin. If there is anything to be learned by studying GIFs, it is that narratives are unstable. Always in a state of change, they reach out for reinterpretation, recontextualization. Like words and phrases, GIFs can be the building blocks of a larger story. But many times,the origin of a GIF is itself an existing narrative, and the GIF has become a fragment of that narrative, floating, leaving its origin, awaiting a new context in which to wrap itself in. The GIF finds home in a new context, in a state of constant departure.

A theory of GIFs might also be a theory of departure. Departure is many times intangible, slow, and largely invisible. It is seen to us only as it passes. It appears in an image that was forgotten, remembered, and relearned. Departure makes itself seen in its passing, in the way it opens up space for absence,leaving traces of the past behind. In this passing, the departure from one moment to the next, from one beginning to another, from this generation to the next, l’dor v’dor. To my grandfather and his departure, as it continues to begin.


In loving memory of my grandfather, Bill Robbins.

Works Cited


[1] Jean Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, “Noli Me Frangere” trans. Brian Holmes in The Birth to Presence (Stanford University Press, 1993), 266.

[2] This pattern has been highlighted by Alexander Streitberger as a shift in contemporary thought from a linear relationship to time to “a heterogeneous fragmented, and synchronized mode of temporality linked to phenomena such as mass-medialization, globalization, and postcolonialism.” As master narratives are destabilized, fragmented moments become a different way of holding truths. Alexander Streitberger, “Futures Past: Imbricated Temporalities in Contemporary Panoramic Video Art,” in The Photofilmic: Entangled Images in Contemporary Art and Visual Culture, (Lueven University Press, 2016): 44.

[3] Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), 8.

[4] Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 100.

[5] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 3.

[6] Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton University Press, 1997), xvii.

[7] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Concept of History,” quoted in Cadava, 3.

[8] Static photographs are slowly being replaced (in many but not all) spaces, with GIF-like images. iPhones by default shoot “live photos” which include a short animation of the moment before the image was taken. Our keyboards are now embedded with GIF search engines in order to provide the perfect reaction in the form of a short loop.

[9] This is why GIFs of police shootings of young black men have been criticized when they circulate on Twitter. In the repetition of a movement, the gravity and significance of violence is lost into a meaningless motion. See Monica Torres, “Instant Replay,” in Real Life, 2016 November 22, http://reallifemag.com/instant-replay.

[10] Rosalind Krauss, “The Motivation of the Sign,” in Picasso and Braque: A Symposium (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992), 273.

[11] Walter Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography,” Screen 13, no. 1, (1972 March 1): 25. https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/13.1.5

[12] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 1 1913-1926, (Harvard University Press, 1996), 256.

[13] Cadava, 18.

[14] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire,” Representations, no. 26 (1989): 8.doi:10.2307/2928520.

[15] Nora, 9.

[16] Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 91.

[17] My thanks to Akira Mizuta Lippit for insightfully pointing this out to me.

[18] Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principal, quoted in Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience:Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 2.

[19] Thank you to Bea Sanford-Russel making me aware of Caruth’s text.

[20] Caruth, 2-3.

[21] Caruth, 62.

[22] Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of thePoor Image,” e-flux, no. 10 (2009) http://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Laura U. Marks, The Skin of The Film (Duke University Press, 2000), 77.

[25] Marks, 71.

[26] Marks, 163.

[27] Roland Barthes, “Leaving the Movie Theater,” in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), 345.

[28] Barthes, “Leaving the Movie Theater,” 349.

[29] Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning,” Image Music Text, trans.Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 54.

[30] Barthes, “The Third Meaning,” 67.

[31] Victor Burgin, The Remembered Film (London: Reaktion Books, 2004), 20.

[32] Burgin, 21.

[33] Burgin, 21.

[34] Burgin, 59.

[35] T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland (1922).

[36] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 1



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