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In the Beginning was the Image: The Omnipresence of Pictures

Time, Truth, Tradition


Edited By András Benedek and Ágnes Veszelszki

The authors outline the topic of visuality in the 21st century in a trans- and interdisciplinary theoretical frame from philosophy through communication theory, rhetoric and linguistics to pedagogy. As some scholars of visual communication state, there is a significant link between the downgrading of visual sense making and a dominantly linguistic view of cognition. According to the concept of linguistic turn, everything has its meaning because we attribute meaning to it through language. Our entire world is set in language, and language is the model of human activities. This volume questions the approach in the imagery debate.

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Husserl on the Right Timing of Depictions (Javier E. Carreño)

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Javier E. Carreño

Husserl on the Right Timing of Depictions

1.  Chronos and Kairos

The founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, might not come to mind amongst the foremost thinkers who are sensitive to the history and methods of rhetoric. And yet, at the crossroads of the phenomenological analyses of image-consciousness, time-consciousness, and aesthetic consciousness, one may be pleasantly surprised to find Husserl grappling with a basic rhetorical problem pertaining to so-called ‘static’ images (such as representational paintings and busts in the manner of Albertian silhouettes) (Biceaga 2010: 83): how can such images, apparently ‘without a time’, strike us as having a ‘right’ timing?

The claim that images are without time has had to reckon that there are manifold concrete ways in which plastic static images convey temporality to us. It is no accident, for example, that a photograph would present a past time; or that an impressionistic painting could convey movement; or that a sculpture could represent an event. Plastic images often reflect a temporality – be it real and historical, or else imaginary – which can be unfolded through acts of pure phantasy.1 However, images convey a “perfect timing” or kairos whenever the tension between a depicted time-phase and the possible phantasy continuations is won over by the depicted time-phase on account of the maximal awareness it affords of its subject. While the chronos of an image makes the depicted time-phase simply a part of a greater whole, an image with a kairos gives the depicted time-phase as ← 59 | 60 → a “whole,” greater than (or at least preferable to) any of its imaginary temporal continuations (Rodrigo 2009: 180). As I will show, Husserl thus overcomes the binary categories of “static” and “proto-cinematic,” which otherwise polarize the study of the temporality of plastic images (cf. Claass 2014: 10).

Several items will need to be addressed shortly, beginning with the peculiar way Husserl’s phenomenology understands images as representations of an “absent” time. Next, we will address how our awareness of time in images is different from our perception of time, before we come to terms with how an image might communicate not just a time, but in fact a “right timing”.

2.  The Consciousness of an Image ‘Now’

In the order of things, let us begin with how Husserl understands static images as presenting something temporal in the first place. For a phenomenologist, whenever we confront an image, we are not just aware of a thing that happens to resemble another, since things may perfectly resemble something, and yet not serve as images. Rather, when dealing with images, we are necessarily aware “at once” of more than one object. When beholding a portrait, we are aware of 1) a ‘subject’ or ‘motif,’ that appears in 2) the framed image that renders it. Together with Husserl we call the first the “image subject,” and the second the “image object”.

Portraits, then, entail a double objectivity. But since they appear on the basis of the sensuous surface of physical things, the phenomenologist further distinguishes between the “image object” and the 3) “physical image thing,” such as the paint-stained poplar panel (Husserl 2005: 30).

For the phenomenologist, this threefold distinction on the side of images (comprising elements as disparate as the “real” canvas and the “phantasied” image subject) would be altogether impossible without the involvement of a primitive form of conscious intentionality called “image-consciousness”. How image-consciousness differs from positing perception is seen in the fact that one who perceives either posits or seeks to posit the existence of what he perceives, whereas whoever beholds an image is not inclined to take the “image subject” as something actually existing before oneself. From the standpoint of normal perception, the image, then, is a sort of “nullity” or illusion (“Schein”). Image-consciousness, however, contrasts with pure phantasy in that the “image subject” is intended mediately, i.e., in and through an image object – and yet not ‘emptily’, as it might be the case with signitive intentions.

For Husserl, the realization that all depictions are, in a sense, “illusory,” raises the important question of why and how images do not trick us. From the side of consciousness, image-consciousness connects at once a ‘perception’ (Perzeption) ← 60 | 61 → of the image object with a ‘phantasy’ of the image subject. The involvement of phantasy here means, amongst other things, that no matter how “ready-made” an image may strike us, all images require the viewer’s willful, conscious, and imaginative involvement. And from the side of the “image,” Husserl realizes that depictions do not aim to pass for something actually perceived, as images offer an approximate rather than a perfect resemblance of their subjects.

Moreover, image appearances are discontinuous with their perceptual surroundings since what appears in the image does not presently exist within the frame space. It is in this regard that Husserl describes the image as “the appearance of a not now in the now” (Husserl 2005: 47). The image appears in the midst of the field of perception, in the midst of all that is now present – but what appears in an image cannot be intended as something actually present. In contrast with its perceptual surroundings, the image is really a “nothing,” although this awareness of an image’s perceptual nullity does not prevent our regular dealings with images. On the contrary, when beholding Mona Lisa, we never quite perceive her as present, and she continues to appear in absentia. Thus, image-consciousness implicates a doubling of time, in the sense that what appears in the image is necessarily intended as belonging to a different temporal nexus from that of things that appear perceptually: “this exhibited something can never exhibit the now with which it conflicts; hence, it can only exhibit something else, something not present” (Husserl 2005: 47).

3.  The Temporal Halo of an Image Now

At first blush, it would appear that Husserl draws an untenable conclusion with regards to images. Why would anybody call the appearing “not-now” in images something temporal? Is not temporality here precisely what is being denied? But for Husserl, a perceptual awareness of an abstract now-point is altogether impossible. Husserl’s consideration of the temporality of images, then, coheres with a basic premise regarding our awareness of time.

True to a time honored philosophical tradition, Husserl never defines temporality. He goes as far as to say that we even lack the right words to speak about time. But just as Husserl addresses image objectivities by analyzing their corresponding intentionality, so does he also address temporal appearance by analyzing the consciousness to which duration and succession appear. To be sure, what falls under the purview of time-consciousness is not real or transcendent time, but the time of appearing. And this immanent appearing time “cannot be measured; there is no clock and no other chronometer for it. Here one can only say: now, before, and further before, changing or not changing in the duration, etc.” (Husserl 1991: 339). ← 61 | 62 →

For the phenomenologist, the temporal awareness of something ‘now’ or ‘present’ (something purely temporal or else spatial-temporal) is always already threefold in character. We are aware of an object as present because we experience it (a) in one of its phases as ‘now’, (b) in one or more of its phases as ‘just-having-been now’, and (c) still in other forthcoming phases as ‘not-yet-now’. But to be aware of anything temporal does not mean that consciousness has to constantly perform a trio of distinct temporal presentations, as if our awareness of time had to piece itself together. On the contrary, Husserl discovers that consciousness always already manifests a temporal structuring, from “the boot, up,” so to speak: we are internally and originally aware of the ‘now phase’ of consciousness in “primordial impression” or “primordial sensation”; of the elapsed phases, in “retentions,” and of the forthcoming phases in “protentions”.

Because of the three-fold structure of perceptual time-consciousness, we can never sensibly experience an object in a now-phase without being conscious of it in those phases that are strictly “not now”. For the ‘now’ is irremediably “a relative concept and refers to a ‘past,’ just as ‘past’ refers to the ‘now’” (Husserl 1991: 68). The same holds in principle for an “image now,” even if it is also a perceptual “not now”. As Brough puts it, the depicted now-moment “cannot be snatched cleanly from its context with all of its temporal references scrubbed away” (Brough 2000: 236).

Still, the formal necessity of characterizing the “image now” as temporal does not yet answer the question of how a depictive image acquires a ‘halo’ of past and future temporal phases. Whichever way one considers this problem, it does not appear to be the case that one can simply complete the “imaged now” by intuitively phantasizing a temporal halo for it. For by phantasizing, the Mona Lisa into phases, in addition to the imaged Mona Lisa ‘now’, one still does not experience a continuous flow. When looking at the Mona Lisa, the only phase that ‘appears’ is the same Mona Lisa phase time and again: it never flows into retention as a no-longer ‘now’ phase. As Husserl remarks, “the modes of appearance are firmly shut off, no matter how they may run over into continuations by means of phantasy” (Husserl 2005: 537). Moreover, and unlike the perceptual awareness of time, there is no determinacy of earlier or later Mona Lisa phases: whether she appears the moment her smile no longer broadens, or whether she appears right before her smile broadens, cannot in principle be decided. And even if one were to say that the depicted ‘now’ “always already” represents temporality; however emptily, the problem remains that the time-phase of the image subject “is ‘presented’ as detached, and does not abide in time, and is not really an enduring phase” (Husserl 2005: 537). ← 62 | 63 →

One conclusion to be drawn here is that the formal determinations of image-consciousness and of time-consciousness which made it necessary to speak of an image temporality do not yet suffice to grasp it. For what these formal determinations emphasize is precisely the fact that the temporality of images does not compare to any perceived or purely phantasied duration. If there is time in images, it is certainly not a linear or sequential reconstruction of perceptual time. Thus, when Husserl says that “in the ordinary static image, which depicts by means of an unchanging image object, a movement might appear” (Husserl 2005: 489), it is clear that the latter apparition does not happen by an imposition of intuitive phantasy.

And yet, could one not claim that it is in this transition or passageway between phenomena and the possibility to phantasy along that an image time opens up to us – as a duration that cannot flow in a succession of phases, but cascades from image into phantasy daydreaming? Is this not what we mean by “almost seeing what is about to happen” or almost “seeing what comes from happening” without losing sight of the image now? Is it not precisely in the contracting interstice between a perennial ‘now’ and an evanescent phantasy temporality that we begin to suspect ‘time’ on the side of the image since the image, as it were, has begun to re-organize my awareness of its time?

4.  Aesthetics of Kairos and Nonintuitive Phantasy

In the final part of this paper, I would like to propose that the awareness of the “right timing” of an image is a temporal awareness that an image triggers by intensifying the awareness of the depicted subject in a particular time-phase. And Husserl understands this particular intensification of the awareness of the object in a singular phase takes place, amongst others, in the context of aesthetic experience.

Husserl’s comments on aesthetics are on the whole deeply influenced by the Kantian thesis of the disinterestedness of the judgment of taste (Husserl 2005: 145). And Husserl takes up this aesthetic disinterestedness in any case as a matter of abandoning the existential, natural attitude, so as to become attentive to aesthetic forms (Husserl 2004: 134). Whenever depictions are involved in aesthetic experience, however, we derive pleasure not only from how the image object renders the image subject, but also from how we become aware of the image subject as a depicted objectivity (Husserl 2005: 390). Concretely speaking, when I contemplate an artistic depiction I am moved, on one level, by a “maximum stock of sensuous moments and their particular combination” (Husserl 2005: 145). On another level, I am moved by “the clear awakening of the consciousness of the object” (Husserl 2005: 145). This consciousness of the depicted subject, even if ← 63 | 64 → not positing its existence, nonetheless co-excites to a degree the awareness of an object’s function or purpose.

It is safe to say that for Husserl, an image’s aesthetic satisfaction is more a matter of expressing than of impressing, and that aesthetic pleasure increases the more clearly recognizable the image subject appears – e.g., in a characteristic position – and the more keenly aware one is of what is happening to the depicted subject in the image world. In the example of looking at an ancient sculpture of an athlete, Husserl is struck by how nothing appears to be random or indifferent: “every nerve, every muscle” seems “attuned to action” (Husserl 2005: 146). We become aware not just of a thing, but more importantly, of the momentary tension between its “doing and suffering”. And “[t]hat,” says Husserl, “would be a beautiful aesthetic object: A pugilist or discus thrower who simultaneously has a stomachache” (Husserl 2005: 146).

So at first blush Husserl seems to merely suggest that from out of a possible series of objective temporal and spatial phases, the artist selects the one that is ostensibly most expressive. The viewer, in turn, contemplates the image in the awareness of its maximal expressiveness compared to other perceived or freely imagined objective phases. This contemplation of a subject in the manner of its representation is not, per se, an accomplishment of intuitive phantasy.

But Husserl’s own aesthetic contemplation of the pugilist, and particularly of the athlete’s unapparent inner struggles, rather reveals a deep imaginative engagement with the image world other than by phantasy continuations. It is clear that the viewer who experiences such things before the image has entered into a fictionalizing attitude that attentively responds to what is portrayed.2 When the observer takes on this phantasy “fictionalizing attitude,” the appropriate timing of an image can dawn upon her as a temporalizing experience. And in the case of a “perfect timing of images,” the viewer will be drawn towards the “image now” phase in its completeness to a degree that can even disengage further phantasy continuations.

Allow me to make clear the meaning of my previous statement by referring to Sigmund Freud’s famous commentary on Michelangelo’s Moses. As it is well known, Freud disagrees with commentators who take the Moses as appearing either at a moment of great anger or “on the point of leaping up from its seat and rushing away to create a disturbance”(Freud 1997: 220). Freud comments that ← 64 | 65 → at some point this, too, was his expectation, but he was disillusioned by the fact that in repeatedly visiting the statue of Moses at San Pietro in Vincoli, in Rome, he never had the impression that Moses was about to break into movement: “this Moses would remain sitting like this in his wrath forever” (Freud 1997: 221). The sculpture seemed to convey no particular movement or duration. But when Freud focuses on the way that the right hand of the Moses holds a lock of the beard, suggesting a retreating motion, he then completes “in imagination […] the scene of which this movement, established by the evidence of the beard, is a part” (Freud 1997: 224). More precisely, Freud takes the Moses to appear at the end of the movement and point of completion: “what we see before us is not the inception of a violent action but the remains of a movement that has already taken place” (Freud 1997: 229).

Regardless of whether Freud’s interpretation is persuasive, it seems to me to illustrate how the “right timing” of a depictive image operates. Clearly, Michaelangelo’s Moses conveys a potent and vivid awareness of the subject in his doing and suffering. But one might fail to see the volume and point of expressiveness altogether by simply and intuitively fantasizing subsequent Moses phases. Having entered into the appropriate “fictionalizing attitude,” the viewer might experience his temporal awareness of the image time undergoing a subtle re-organization, e.g., seeing the Moses in a now-phase as the culmination (and not as a beginning) of an event in phantasy time. That other temporal reorganizations are possible is already clear from Husserl’s own example of the pugilist appearing like in media res. But the fact that some temporal re-organizations are more suitable than others is a matter settled by how the subject is rendered in the image now – and this is the difference that having a kairos ultimately makes. An image with a kairos gives what it represents as the fruit of a temporal unfolding to a subject that receives it as the seed of a unique aesthetic temporality unfolding in her.


Biceaga, Victor (2010): Picturing Phenomena: Husserl on Photography. Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 41/1: 78–93.

Brough, John (2000): Plastic Time: Time and the Visual Arts. In: Brough, J. – Embree, L. (eds.): The Many Faces of Time. Contributions to Phenomenology vol. 41. Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer. 223–244.

Carreño, Javier (2013): The Many Senses of Imagination and the Manifestation of Fiction: A View from Husserl’s Phenomenology of Phantasy. Husserl Studies 29/2: 143–162.

Claass, Arnaud (2014): Du temps dans la photographie. Paris: Filigranes. ← 65 | 66 →

Drummond, John (2008): Historical Dictionary of Husserl’s Philosophy. Lanham: Scarecrow.

Freud, Sigmund (1997): The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XII. Translated by James Strachey. London: Hogarth.

Lalande, André (1988): Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie. Paris: PUF.

Husserl, Edmund (2005): Phantasy, Image-consciousness, Memory. Translated by John Brough. Dordrecht: Springer.

Husserl, Edmund (1994): Briefwechsel. Edited by Karl and Elisabeth Schuhmann. Dordrecht: Kluer.

Husserl, Edmund (2001): Logical Investigation. Vol. 2. Translated by J. N. Findlay. London: Routledge.

Rodrigo, Pierre (2009): L’intentionalité créatrice: Problèmes de Phénomélogie et d’Esthétique. Paris: Vrin.

1 English translations of Husserl (in the Edmund Husserl Collected Works) have opted to render Husserl’s Phantasie into English as “phantasy,” amongst others to avoid two shortcomings with the English alternatives of “imagination” and “fantasy”. “Imagination” irremediably links Phantasie with the having of “mental images” even though Husserl, as early as the Logische Untersuchungen, criticizes any and all psychologistic “picture theories” of consciousness (Husserl 2001: 125–127). “Fantasy” in turn triggers associations connected with the literary genre and with the imagining of objects with which we are not readily familiar as proximately actual or historical, while I can and often do phantasy with objects corresponding to those of a really possible perception (Husserl 2005: 2). While some commentators do translate Phantasie as “imagination” (Drummond 2008: 106), Husserl’s own preference for “phantasy” would appear to be clear from his own entry to the term “fantasie” in André Lalande’s Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie (Lalandé 1988: 342).

2 As Husserl remarks, “art is the realm of phantasy that has been given form, of intuitive phantasy, but also, in part, of non-intuitive [unanschaulicher] phantasy” (Husserl 2005: 514). On non-intuitive perceptual phantasy see Carreño (2013).