- The Miracle of Analogy: Or The History of Photography, Part 1 by Kaja Silverman
According to Kaja Silverman's website, this is the first in a three-volume series "reconceptualizing" the history of photography. The title of the third volume, The Promise of Social Happiness, implies that for Silverman our understanding of the ontology of photography has important implications for how we see ourselves and how we interact with one another. In other words, in Silverman's interpretation, the relationship of humans to photography is an analogical one. Given that since its industrialization in the late nineteenth century, photography has been associated with indexicality, evidence, reproduction, and the actions of producing a photograph described as "taking," "pointing," and "shooting," Silverman wants her readers to think critically about these attributions. But more to the point, Silverman emphasizes that this "ontology" of photography was never a [End Page 91] simple fact but was rather arrived upon, even insisted upon. That is to say that the evolution of photography as much informs as it is informed by the desire of humans to "conqu[er] the world as picture."
At bottom for Silverman, it is the conception of the Cartesian cogito that undergirds (if unconsciously) the seemingly teleological development of photography to the point-and-snap reproductive technology we know today. While in some sense, then, The Miracle of Analogy reads like a technological history, it is an original one given that it ultimately relies not on a thesis of technological determinism but instead what we might deem a philosophical or even Cartesian determinism. The thematic organization of the book as a work of history is nonetheless critical to Silverman proving this argument. Rather than giving merely a decontextualized theorization or deconstruction of photographic ontology, Silverman relies on the archive to reveal what was an ongoing evolution of both the medium and its conceptualization in the early history of photography. Interestingly, the first chapter of The Miracle of Analogy does not begin its history of photography conventionally in the mid-nineteenth century but rather with the much older history of the camera obscura. As the historical work of this chapter illustrates, the evolution of the camera obscura technology precipitates the development of photographic technology to the point-and-snap camera of Eastman Kodak. Like later chemical photography would likewise do, the camera obscura begins as an emergent, analogical technology of similarity and evolves to become one of reproduction and sameness.
If the novelty of the camera obscura begins in its ability to produce an ongoing stream of imagery reflecting the phenomenal world, it ends as a device for capturing and reproducing this imagery rendered in ever more realistic detail. Silverman argues that the externalization of the subject from the chamber room of the camera obscura and its increasing miniaturization are crucial to giving the subject the illusion of mastery over the camera obscura as a technology of use. And heightening the illusion of the user's mastery, Silverman shows that the wearable version of the camera obscura functions as if the image is the product of the user's own vision. As was the case for Metz or Baudry in relation to the cinematic apparatus, the design of the camera obscura for Silverman has ideological implications, and specifically in perpetuating the myth of the Cartesian cogito. In other words, although in the seventeenth century, the science of the retina had revealed that vision in fact works much like the camera obscura by producing an inverted and thus only analogical likeness of the environment, this fact had to be repressed to support the notion of subjective agency and mastery as elaborated by Descartes. The redesign of the camera obscura as wearable technology is but one way in which this repression was successfully enforced.
An eerily similar process of technological development as Cartesian determinism occurs in the history of chemical photography, and interestingly, Silverman turns to an essay by the contemporary photographer Jeff Wall to provide a structuring metaphor. In his 1989 essay, "Photography and Liquid Intelligence," Wall argues that chemical photography has...