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  • Labors of Likeness: Photography and Labor in Marx’s Capital
  • Daniel A. Novak

[T]he purpose of the paper I am about to read … is to induce you to do in photography something similar to that which the old Greek did in painting … to take the best and most beautiful parts you can obtain … and join them into one perfect whole.

—Henry Peach Robinson, “On Printing Photographs from Several Negatives”

This essay provides a new technological and discursive context for Karl Marx’s theory of the laboring body and reproduction, and in doing so, seeks to change the way we read Marx’s relationship to visuality, photographic reproduction, and mechanical realism. In the most general sense, critics have distanced Marx and Marxist theory from the camera—variously defined as a product of (and having produced) a form of naïve realism and empiricism, bourgeois ideology, or faith in the machine rather than the human.1 Marx’s famous description of ideology as offering a picture of social relations “upside-down as in a camera obscura” serves as a common and useful starting point for such an argument.2 Exploring Marx’s own use of visual tropes, Ann Cvetkovich in particular argues that Marx’s aim is to critique both empiricism and idealism—“to redefine the nature of ‘vision’ in order to challenge the idea that capitalism can be understood simply by looking in the right place.”3 From this point of view, photography, with its claims to “empirical” and “objective” representation would only embody what Marx seems to reject. As Siegfried Kracauer put it in 1927, “[I]t would be well worth the effort to expose the close ties between the prevailing social order and artistic photography … [Photography] is a secretion of the capitalist mode of production.”4

To intervene in this conversation, in which Marx seems to both correct the way we see the world under capitalism and critique the reliance on vision itself, [End Page 125] this essay offers a simple but important proposition; namely, that Marx’s critique of commodity production and bourgeois ways of seeing is actually aligned with, rather than in opposition to, the discourse of photography—a seemingly “empirical” and technological vision. Responding to the new medium, both consumers and producers used tropes of alienation, anonymity, fragmentation, and abstraction to describe the effect of being captured by the photographic lens.5 In this way, we can read photography not merely as a “secretion” or product of capitalist practices, but rather as a medium for analyzing such practices. And as I will show, Marx’s reading of the laboring body is not a repudiation of mechanical reproduction or “empirical” vision, but rather an engagement with a wider nineteenth-century conversation about the impact of visual technology on the body and identity.6 Moreover, reading Marx through such an engagement with the discourse of photography complicates how we read the conceptual and economic climate in which Marx wrote his critique, as well as how we read that critique itself. That is, if Marxist discourse is anticipated by the language of photography itself, how does this change how we read Marx?

In order to begin to answer this question, my focus will be fairly narrow—resting on two specific and interrelated tropes that we find both in photographic discourse and in Marxist analysis. The first of these is bodily fragmentation and reassembly. As Marx puts it, the generic “expenditure of human brains, muscles, nerves, [and] hands” shapes the “body of the commodity”: “all these membra disjecta come together for the first time in the hand that binds them into one mechanical whole.”7 Marx describes the process of production as a form of artistic bodybuilding—one that mechanically “takes” pieces of bodies and puts them together. Given the mechanical or technological character of both taking and “binding” these bodies, Marx’s description recalls the art of photography more so than other visual mediums. In fact, in the 1850s and ‘60s “art photographers” such as Oscar Gustav Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson were creating photographic images by combining figures from different images and even suturing single bodies from multiple models (see figures 1–3). As Robinson argues...


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pp. 125-150
Launched on MUSE
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