Desiring Dualisms

Having decisively abandoned empirical explanation in favor of poetic metaphor, Talbot finds himself speaking of the new medium as a quite peculiar articulation of temporal and spatial coordinates. Photography is a process in which “position” is “occupied” for a “single instant” where “fleeting” time is “arrested” in the “space of a single minute.” It would seem he is able to describe the identity of photography only by harnessing together a whole series of unresolved binaries: “art” and “shadows,” the “natural” and “magic,” the “momentary” and the “for ever,” the “fleeting” and the “fettered,” the “fixed” and that which is “capable of change.” Photography for Talbot is the uneasy maintenance of binary relationships; it is the desire to represent an impossible conjunction of transience and fixity. More than that, the photograph is an emblematic something/sometime, a “space of a single minute” in which space becomes time, and time space. (Each Wild Idea 11)

The dualities listed by Batchen are all easily to reduced to space and time except “art” and “shadows,” and “natural” and “magic.” The latter examples are worse than superfluous, they are misleading. Art and shadows is not a binary, but a desire—the latest innovation in the art of Talbot’s time was chiaroscuro. Natural and magic is not a binary either—“Natural Magic” was an obsession of many scientists, including Talbot’s friend Sir David Brewster.

Brewster’s book on natural magic sought to explain the scientific principles behind the magical amusements that were all the rage. But this is not to say that Batchen’s observation of a certain binarism as an essential quality of the “spirit of the age” is erroneous—far from it.

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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:

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Henry Fox Talbot, The Oriel Window, Lacock Abbey, seen from the inside c. Summer 1835

Could the window picture be read as an emblem of itself, the very photogenic drawing process that has made its own existence possible? When you think about it, Talbot has set up his camera at exactly the point in the South Gallery where the sensitive paper once sat in his own modified camera obscura. His camera obscura looks out at the inside of the metaphorical lens of the camera of his house (which he later claimed was “the first that was ever known to have drawn its own picture”). He is, in other words, taking a photograph of photography at work making this photograph. (9)

Geoffrey Batchen offers expansive and creative readings of early photogenic drawings by Henry Fox Talbot. I find his exploration of the “desiring production” of photographs in Each Wild Idea and Burning With Desire to be compelling. But the closer I look at his essays, the more I wonder if he is really exploring his own desire rather than the desires of early photographers. Many of his assertions seem quite astute on the surface, but as I think them through they sort of dissolve.

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