Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Burke Hilsabeck reviews Kaja Silverman’s The Miracle of Analogy

Kaja Silverman. The Miracle of Analogy, or the History of Photography, Part I. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2015. 240 pp. Hardcover $65.00. Paperback $21.95.

 Reviewed by Burke Hilsabeck

The photograph that ornaments the cover of the first volume of Kaja Silverman’s The Miracle of Analogy, or the History of Photography was taken by the artist John Dugdale. Two faces under cool blue light: on the left Dugdale himself, his eyes closed; to the right, the death mask of John Keats. As Silverman recounts at the conclusion of her book, to say that Dugdale “took” the photograph is not quite right. Dugdale is blind, and he posed with this image of Keats in the natural light of dusk while someone else exposed the negative. As Silverman reads it, this cyanotype consists of a series of analogies: between Dugdale and the image that we see, between Keats and this mask, between the photograph and the world.

We are witnessing a major reevaluation of classical theories of photography and film, occasioned both by the appearance of tools for digital image making and by the exhaustion of a certain register of critical theory. This reevaluation has resulted in a repudiation of the photograph as indexical and a more enigmatic frustration with the sense of photographs as representations. Silverman’s book sketches an alternative and entirely novel history (and hence theory) of photography, one that proceeds from the idea of photography as analogical. Photography, she says, is “an ontological calling card. It helps us to see that each of us is a node in a vast constellation of analogies,” each linked to another, it to another, and so on (p. 11). Such analogical transfer, she says in reference to the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, represents the “second coming” of the world (p.33).

As these passages indicate, the book takes an ethical cast. (Indeed, like certain earlier theories and practices of photography, it flirts even with the mystical.) As Silverman puts it, to think of photography as analogical is to understand it as “disclosive, rather than evidentiary” (p. 10). The figure of analogy helps to point out the photograph’s undeniable relation to becoming and hence to the relation between perception and knowledge. It also has the virtue of avoiding many of the pitfalls associated with thinking of photographs as bearing indexical relations to their objects (not the least of which is the fragmentation of the history of photography) and returns to photography some of the autonomy that it loses in through the construct of representation.

One wonders, however, whether these concepts that make up the history of the theory of photography are not implicated within each other. The disclosive potential of photography seems to rest, at least in part, in its evidentiary status, however uneven or unrealized that status may be. A thing can only be disclosed if it has already come into being. Regardless, this is a highly valuable reconceptualization of the history and theory of photography, one that recounts, in rich and sometimes provocative detail, its uneven technological and aesthetic development.

Volume One of Silverman’s history spends most of its energy in the nineteenth century, in the tension between photography’s disclosive possibility and its instrumentalization. Looking back still further, I found myself wondering about a different point of origin for her story, and that is in Kant. To my ear (and eyes), it is a submerged point of origin for her nimble readings of individual photographs, from Niépce’s “heliographs” to Joan Fontcuberta’s Googlegrams to Dugdale’s self-portrait, within which she is concerned to demonstrate a kind of analogical freedom provided by these images. Nowhere does Silverman herself employ the concept of beauty, but a Kantian sense of the beautiful is never far from the surface of this history. (Indeed, it appears with frequency in the nineteenth-century commentary from which Silverman quotes.) In a sense, photography satisfied the Kantian requirement that the “purposiveness” of fine art “seem to be as free from all constraint by arbitrary rules as if it were a mere product of nature” (Critique of Judgment, §45). The connection with this history of photography as possessing a disclosive power lies in the idea that the exercise of aesthetic judgment registers the presence of human freedom. It is a striking correspondence, even an analogy: between the Kantian interest in the non-conceptual, the revelation of the world (and our situatedness within it), and the free exercise of reason.