Philosophical Instruments

Where Niépce and Daguerre both take pictures from their windows, Talbot makes an image of his window. He tells us that photography is about framing, and then shows us nothing but that frame; he suggests that photography offers a window on the world, but then shows us nothing but that window. As Derrida suggests,, “The time for reflection is also a chance for turning back on the very conditions of reflection, in all senses of that word, as if with the help of a new optical device one could finally see sight, one could not only view the natural landscape, the city, the bridge and the abyss, but could view viewing.” This then, is no ordinary picture. It is rather what Talbot elsewhere called a “Philosophical Window.” (Each Wild Idea 10)

Geoffrey Batchen’s reading of Talbot’s “Oriel Window” seems intuitively correct, but for the wrong reasons. The use of optical devices for “self-reflection” (not self in the sense of individual ego, but rather in the sense of a self-meditating device) is not limited to photography. Derrida’s essay cited here is not concerned with photography but with relationship between seeing and knowing. In its full context, the observation about sight is followed by one about hearing: “As if through an acoustical device, one could hear hearing, in other words, seize the inaudible in a sort of poetic telephony” (Derrida, “The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils,” Diacritics 13:3). The “bridge and the abyss” refers both to a perception of the sublime, and the fact that Cornell university installed a guard rail on a bridge to keep students from leaping off it into the abyss, committing suicide.

Batchen localizes the “optical device” to photography; Derrida and Talbot do not. The Talbot quotation regarding the “Philosophical Window” is footnoted thusly:

Talbot uses the phrase “Philosophical Window” in a note to himself in Notebook C, written sometime after March 1825: “If a solar ray be polarized & introduced into a dark chamber thro’ ground glass, or a minute lens, the whole chamber will be illuminated with a polarized light . . . .If thro’ a plate of mica, etc it will give a display of colours— . . .The Philosophical Window—a plate of Mica of a certain thickness which restores the light.”

A photograph of a window and a “Philosophical Window” are not interchangeable—this should be readily apparent from Batchen’s own evidence for his claim. What Talbot describes here is a kaleidoscope. The kaleidoscope was termed a philosophical instrument by its inventor, Sir David Brewster. The same term was used across the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth to describe the camera obscura, the microscope, the telescope, and the kaleidoscope. “Philosophical Window” seems to me to be merely a variant on that general description of optical apparatuses.

Batchen goes on to compare the effect achieved by the negative of the Oriel Window with that of an afterimage, and then with that of a palimpsest. While these effects are true enough, the conclusion which follows seems to rest on shaky evidence:

In Talbot’s hands, photography is neither natural nor cultural, but rather an economy that incorporates, produces, and is simultaneously produced by both nature and culture, both reality and representation (and for that reason is never simply one or the other). (10)

This seems to me to a better description of a kaleidoscope than Talbot’s photography. Talbot’s reference to the mica plates of a kaleidoscope beg comparison to his friend Brewster’s thoughts on the topic:

The crystals which are to give the colors and forms produced by polarized light and its subsequent analysis, may be either uniaxial crystals such as calcareous spar, or quartz,, or beryl, or biaxial crystals, such as selenite, topaz, mica, aragonite, nitre, etc. These crystals must be placed at the end of the reflectors, and when they transmit polarized light, their brilliant colours and forms will vary by turning the cell which contains them, or by giving a motion of rotation to the analyzer. (The Kaleidoscope 123)

The reality of the crystals effects the representation that they create. The economy of the kaleidoscope is much as Batchen claims; the image created within this “philosophical window” is never simply the object viewed, nor the apparatus that creates it, but both simultaneously. In Burning With Desire, Batchen addresses some notebook drawings that compare the effects of light with the effects of magnetism, amplifying the uneasy binaries in Talbot’s thoughts on photography. I think that he is right there, but again, for the wrong reasons. The biaxial plates of mica which obsessed Talbot belong to a different instrument entirely. Batchen’s list of the binaries involved in photographic seeing deserve greater exposition, perhaps tomorrow.

1 thought on “Philosophical Instruments”

  1. cliffhanging serial I appreciate – todays pages are beautiful
    Philosophy reminds me a little of cotton candy – how well your
    exposition furnishes perspective – page reminds me of unclosed
    wall, fluffy white insulation around this opening, prior to sheet
    rockin, man!
    I was slumming thru a comment box recently and picked up the phrase
    – that’s just binary thinking
    and took it back to the publishing house to weigh that

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