The Speed of Thought

This has been a weird year in blogging for me. I haven’t written nearly as much as I used to, mostly because of moving and dealing with intense pressure at school—finishing a master’s thesis and starting a Ph.D. program. The thoughts that I’ve had, if I attempted to reconstruct them, are fragmentary at best and incoherent at worst. I’m somewhat comfortable with the fragments, and disconcerted by my own incoherence.

I used to be able to spew things out nearer to the speed I was thinking at. But I’ve grown a bit alienated by the distance generated between what “normal” people are concerned with and what I actually care about. Often, it seems best to just keep my mouth shut because it takes so long to defend what I really want to say. So after periods of hiatus I can only seem to cough up small bits from my research that might be interesting to some people, and surrender any attempt at coherence. It takes nearly everything I can muster to create something comprehensible out of it all. I used to feel pretty confident with my ability to tell people what I was thinking about, but somehow I’ve lost my way.

That’s about all the year-end reflection I can muster for the moment. Life is good in most ways. My emotional life is better than it has been in years, but my intellectual life is so turbulent and battered by deep doubts about nearly every position that I take that often I feel it would be better if I just shut up about it. I have done that from time to time, to try to regain some sanity. But it’s worked against me, really. These fleeting thoughts disappear all too soon if I don’t write something about them, no matter how disconnected or incoherent. So that’s what I’ve been doing here, mostly. I miss trying to come up with clever stories and such, but there has been little time for that. I traded them in on a little more reflective time—time to try and make sense of the “pictures” in my head.

Over the course of the year, my traffic here has dropped by half. I am kind of glad. I often feel like I’ve “violated” the spirit of blogging by being more selfish and insular this year—I sometimes feel bad for the long-suffering readers who drift in and might wonder what happened to the “early funny Jeff.” Perhaps that side is closed for the duration of graduate school. I hope not, but I can’t worry about it that much. Right now I’m thinking too fast.

Visible and Invisible

The chemical action of light, so far from being confined to the most refrangible rays, we now know extends over the whole spectrum, visible and invisible, the action only being shifted from one ray to another, according to the substance upon which its peculiar functions are exerted. It is extremely difficult to explain many of the phenomena of light by either of the rival theories; and as we proceed in our inquiries, the question of the materiality or immateriality of light becomes more and more complicated. A matter of much interest arises out of these considerations, which is, are the different rays in similar electrical states, or do they vary in this respect with their refrangibility? Those philosophers who have adopted the undulatory theory of light, put the question aside with a smile, or show how completely the electrical notion is at variance with their theory. There exist many very great difficulties in solving this problem, but although a good theory will often aid us in discovering the truth, we must not allow our researches to be stopped, because they may appear inconsistent with the received notion. If we could establish the fact of a peculiar electrical action existing in the different rays of light, we should then have the means of reducing to something like a system, the many anomalous features which come under our notice in prosecuting our studies into the character of the solar system. “In this instance, says M. Arago, “it is upon the unforeseen that we are especially to reckon,” and every new discovery goes to prove the correctness of this. (Robert Hunt, A Popular Treatise on the Art of Photography (1841) 91-92)
The conflict between wave and particle theories of light continued across the 19th century, and photography was thrust in the middle. Though wave theory dominated, more atomistic approaches are found in many writings, particularly Oliver Wendell Holmes writings on the stereograph.

This is important to me because the “identity” of photography which emerges in scientific approaches seems to point at its ability to extend vision, while the identity prevalent in aesthetic discourse points at its it limitations when applied to human affairs. This is one of many binary divisions which are neither intuitive nor uncomplicated in discussions of photography’s status as evidence.


I was thinking about Dave Weinberger’s post as I was flipping through a bit of ephemera I found tucked inside my newly acquired copy of Commercial Photography of Today (1914) by Geo. W. Hance. It is a booklet on filters, Color Plates and Filters for Commercial Photography from Eastman Kodak without a date, though it might be dated from their recent purchase of Wratten and Wainwright mentioned in the frontis. Their advice, though targeted at photographers, seems appropriate in a political context. I think we need a “B” filter.

If it is desired to have a colored object photograph as black, it must be photographed through a filter that will completely absorb the color of the object. No rays of light reflected from it will then reach the plate, and as a consequence, it will photograph the same as though it were black. Suppose, for instance, we have to photograph the American Flag. If we use a red filter the blue will be absorbed and will photograph as black, but the red will pass on through the filter and make almost as much impression on the plate as the white, so the red stripes would scarcely show in a print from the negative. (Fig. 1) Of we use the green “B” filter which absorbs both blue and red, we will get both the blue and the red completely black. (Fig 2)

Cultural Weather Report

I’ve had mixed feelings about Susan Sontag over the years. Peggy’s paean reminded me that I should at least say something on the event of her death. I hated Sontag at first. When I read On Photography as a teenager, I was still struggling with the modernist legacy in photography and thought there was something there to be salvaged. Her prognostications regarding the cultural importance of the topic were fascinating, although she gave many of my sacred cows a good barbequing. I found myself drawn back to her a decade later when a friend gave me a copy of Against Interpretation. The hedonist in me was moved by her argument for an “erotics” of art. But still, every time I read her I got in the mood to argue. I’ve since found that to be a good marker of the fertility of ideas. If I really hate someone, I end up reading them more carefully. Cultural critics like Sontag seem to have about the same accuracy as meteorologists. Eventually, it usually rains—though not necessarily when they predict it.

I still have Catherine Belsey’s striking sentence “Culture is the element we inhabit as subjects” stuck in my head. The complexity of cultural elements and our inability to predict them does not still our desire to divine signs from within them. I always found Sontag’s predictions too ominous and elitist, though I could scarcely look away. Her system was not mechanical, and in that I found it more compelling than many others. I was reminded of the reason why I despise materialist critique while reading an 1858 essay by proto-pragmatist Chauncey Wright from Atlantic Monthly, “The Winds and the Weather”:

AN eloquent philosopher, depicting the desirable results that would follow, if some future materialist were “to succeed in displaying to us a mechanical system of the human mind, as comprehensive, intelligible, and satisfactory as the Newtonian mechanism of the heavens,” exclaims, “Fallen from their elevation, Art and Science and Virtue would no longer be to man the objects of a genuine and reflective adoration.” We are led, in reflecting upon the far more probable success of the meteorologist, to similar forebodings upon the dullness and sameness to which social intercourse will be reduced when the weather philosophers shall succeed in subjecting the changes of the atmosphere to rules and predictions,— when the rain shall fall where it is expected, the wind blow no longer “where it listeth,” and wayward man no longer find his counterpart in nature. But we console ourselves by contemplating the difficulties of the problem, and the improbability, that, in our generation at least, we shall be deprived of these subjects of general news and universal interest. (272)
The philosopher, I suspect, was probably Laplace. If anyone knows for sure, I’d appreciate a comment. The latter quote, John 3:8, is curious to me when examined in parallel translations. The “where it listeth” of the King James Bible has been translated as “where it will,” “where its pleasure takes it,” “where it wants to,” “he willeth doth blow,” and “where it chooses.” Sontag’s position as a cultural critic clearly motivated by “where pleasure takes it.” I admire that. It always seemed to me that she constructed her own demons in her essays, and her spirit was wild. I am taken by Wright’s apt comparison of mankind and weather:
Man finds himself everywhere mirrored in nature. Wayward, inconstant, always seeking rest, always impelled by new evils, the greatest of which he himself creates,—protecting and cherishing or blighting and destroying the fragmentary life of a fallen nature,— incapable himself of creating new capacities, but nourishing in prosperity and quickening in adversity those that are left,—he sees the workings of his own life in the strife of the elements. His powers and activities are related to his spiritual capacities, as inorganic movements are related to an organizing life. The resurrection of his higher nature is like a new creation, secret, sudden, inconsequent. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” (279)

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine, August 1856

Walt Whitman’s Brain

The American Anthropometric Society was established in 1889 at a meeting which took place of the residence of —. The founders were : Harrison Allen, Francis Xavier Dercum, Joseph Leidy, William Pepper, and Edward Charles Spitzka. The chief object of the society was the preservation of the brains of its members. Three of the founders of the society have since died and their brains were duly removed and preserved as were those of members who subsequently joined the society and are now deceased. In the order of acquisition, the list of brains in the collection included the following :

  1. Joseph Leidy.
  2. Philip Leidy.
  3. J. W. White, Sr.
  4. Andrew J. Yarker.
  5. Walt Whitman.
  6. Harrison Allen.
  7. Edward D. Cope.
  8. William Pepper.
The brain of Walt Whitman, together with the jar in which it had been placed, was said to have been dropped on the floor by a careless assistant. Unfortunately, not even the pieces were saved. The brain of Dr. White is not in good condition. The brain of Dr. Yarker had been allowed to remain in Muller’s fluid ever since 1892 and when found was badly broken. Fortunately, there exists an excellent cast of the undissected brain which had been made soon after hardening under the supervision of Dr. Dercum. With the utmost care I was able to restore some of the parts so as to delineate considerable portions of the mesal surfaces as well as to expose and make casts of the insulae. It is to be regretted that like opportunities were not afforded in the case of Walt Whitman’s brain.

From “A Study of the Brains of Six Eminent Scientists and Scholars Belonging to the American Anthropometric Society, together with a Description of the Skull of Professor E. D. Cope,” by Edw. Anthony Spitzka, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Ser., Vol. 21, No. 4 (1907), 175-308.

I run into the strangest things while doing research . . .

Galtonian composite photograph, frontispiece to The Criminal by Havelock Ellis (1890).

Losing Face

[Camera] operants, with not very numerous exceptions, bore a reputation similar to that of itinerant portrait painters, who anticipate the death of their victims, by destroying every aspect of life-likeness in the faces they execute. (M.A. Root, The Camera and the Pencil, xv, 1864)

Alan Sekula’s “The Body and the Archive” is a masterful piece of writing. Sekula proposes that the growth of photographic archives in the 19th century follow two paradoxical models. There is the nominalist position of Bertillon, who amassed files of criminal photographs and catalogued their various facial features. The other position could be characterized as essentialist, marked by Francis Galton’s composite photographs which sought to determine the essential “look” of the criminal face by synthetic means. Bertillon’s attempt to identify criminals by their faces was later displaced by Galton’s invention of fingerprinting—the bureaucratic difficulty of sorting and cataloging faces was greater than the more easily quantifiable fingerprint. But this did not deter the effort to identify qualities of character through images; Galton’s method was applied to ethnography and anthropology more successfully than it was in criminology.

While Sekula cites Marcus Aurelius Root to support his thesis that photography was used to generalize mass quantities of data, and to promote cohesive social bonds, I believe this reading is skewed. Root’s writing reflects to a larger extent his desire that photographs be individuated. Root devotes an entire chapter to “Expression—Through the Face”:

In the course of this work I have repeatedly and most emphatically urged that expression is essential to a portrait, whether it be taken with a camel’s hair pencil, or with the pencil of the sun. Nor can this point be pressed too often or too forcibly. For a portrait so styled, however splendidly colored, and however skillfully finished its manifold accessories, is worse than worthless if the pictured face does not show the soul of the original,—that individuality or selfhood, which differences him from all beings, past, present, or future. The creative power never repeats itself; but in every successive performance presents somewhat varying from all existences that have been or are. (143)
There is a pronounced division between the aesthetic response to the face as a window to the soul and the “scientific” approach to faces as a generalizable datum of types of mind. It isn’t that Sekula is wrong, so much as that he is concerned entirely with the construction of the nineteenth century “mind” as reflected through its statistical approach to quantifying the behavioral as a function of appearance. I am more concerned with the construction of the face as an ethical “call to conscience.” That Root equates bad portraits with murder is intensely fascinating to me.

C.S. Peirce was tremendously influenced by Galton’s work. The way we read someone’s personality at a glance to determine if we like them or not is likened to a comparison with a Galtonian composite photograph:

In general, we virtually resolve upon a certain circumstance to act as if certain imagined circumstances were perceived. This act which amounts to such a resolve, is a peculiar act of the will whereby we cause an image, or icon, to be associated, in a peculiarly strenuous way, with an object represented to us by an index. This act itself is represented in the proposition by a symbol, and in the consciousness of it fulfills the function of a symbol in the judgment. Suppose, for example, I detect a person with whom I have to deal, in an act of dishonesty. I have in my mind something like a “composite photograph” of all the persons that I have known and read of that have the character, and at the instant I make the discovery concerning that person, who is distinguished from the others by certain indications, upon that index, at that moment, down goes the stamp of RASCAL, to remain indefinitely. (Of Reasoning in General, 19-20)
However, it is also notable that for Peirce all photographs are composites:
Even what is called an “instantaneous photograph,” taken with a camera, is a composite of the effects of intervals of exposure more numerous by far than the sands of the sea. (21)

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