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Public Culture 14.2 (2002) 349-359

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Scenes of Life/Kentucky Mountains

Kathleen Stewart
Photographs by Anya E. Liftig


The photograph documents the charged border between image and matter, the framed and the unframed, the seen and the noticed. The uncanny fullness of the photographic image points to the aesthetic acts of a photographic genre in social and political use and privileges discovered objects made vibrant in the moment they sink into the image and become impalpable. In its still life of framed matter, it enacts the generativity of cultural form and marks the moment of emergence in which the virtual becomes actual, the private becomes public, and the unmarked, discarded, or forgotten becomes newly and suddenly framed. As an act of cultural [End Page 349] poesis—an aesthetic act that animates and literally makes sense of cultural forms and forces at the point of their affective, material, or imaginary emergence (Feldman 1994; Seremetakis 1994; Stewart 1996)—the photograph is not just a marker of a preexisting code or representation, but an active, transformative process that mimics the shifting practices of everyday life, the vitalities and exhaustions captured in a bodily gesture, the force fields and modes of agency resonating in a scene.

In this particular moment in the commodified hyperstimulation of the senses (Beller 1994), the cult of distraction (Gunning 1999), and the hypervigilant surveillance of spectacles (Dorst 1999), the power of cultural poesis is animated by the tactility of the common image (Taussig 1991). The still life fulfills a desire for respite from the fast-moving sensory stimuli in circulation (Stewart 2000a) and enacts a moment in which disparate elements come together in the density of a scene. The scene captured in a frame can grow luminous; its pictured objects can reach out and grab you; its very stillness can signify the capacity for elemental historical creation (Berger 1984; Seremetakis 1994; Stewart 2000a). The image becomes a fetish when it promises to house the enervated senses in a scene resonant with unplumbed meaning. Its charged particularity records the trajectory of an idée fixe in search of its material trace. Yet because it holds the gaze in desire's search for its object, the image presents the viewer with an ambivalent mix of pleasure and anxiety; it simultaneously attracts and repels precisely because its material insistence can be neither incorporated in a generality nor expelled (Shaviro 1993).

In looking at the photographs before us here, I suggest that the task of the critic is not simply to resist or admonish the fetish quality of modern culture but to acknowledge the very sensibilities of the fetish itself and attempt to channel them (Benjamin 1978). The critic's words can be deployed as captions that mimic, underscore, and complete the interpretive moves and generative forces emergent in the object of investigation (Buck-Morss 1991). By pushing the now standard critique of representation past the hermeneutics of suspicion in which a critic gazes across a critical divide to plumb its object for secrets decoded, we can craft a form of investigation that develops like the photograph itself, deepening the definition and contrast of an imprint to reveal its simultaneous eye-stopping force and transitoriness. The critic's effort to map the fetishized images that animate plays of power and resistance begins with a seduction in which the image displays its dual power to manipulate and subvert (Shaviro 1993).

The photographs presented here literally draw us into the fetish quality of contemporary scenes of life and incite labors of looking. As figures of Appalachia [End Page 350] surge into view in the tactile, weathered forms of bodies, porches, trucks, trees, and signs in varied states of use and seeming disuse, we are left not simply with the question of whether an order of representations is to be loved or hated but with the more profound question of cultural poesis, or generativity, itself. The photographs' fetish quality is not only represented (and subverted) by the content of the chosen images but also actively performed. The appearance and disappearance of objects within a frame...


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pp. 349-359
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Archived 2004
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