We all know the experience: we turn on our computers and encounter a suggestive series of questions. Would we like a hotel room in New York on 5 May, a rental car at Newark Liberty Airport on 5 May, a good price on a hot water heater? Search engines are, even as we speak, officiously enlisting more supports for our actions. They don’t appear simply as versions of some eager servant—like the Jeeves once revived for an advice-gathering website that has now died the death or changed its name. They know what we like, and they know where we live. All the tracks of what we have seen, of what we have done, constitute our signatures, our profiles. D. H. Lawrence called such collections of preferences and tastes evidence of our “personalities” and contemptuously described the world in which people recognize that they have congruent preferences and tastes as one in which they imagine themselves to be in love—are in love—because they are “‘thrilled’” with one another’s “personalities.”
Triggered by a photograph. That’s one way to put it.
The question that I wish to discuss here, a methodological question about how to articulate the ontological specificity of the photographic image or about how a philosophy of the image can contribute to an understanding of the particularity of photography, emerged while spending time looking at Karen Knorr’s The Pencil of Nature (1994). Knorr’s photograph is part of her Academies series and was taken in a corridor of the Swedish Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm. Between a large neoclassical statue of a standing nude man on a pedestal whose head cannot be seen and a medallion relief depicting a man’s head in profile (hanging on the wall and seen through a glass partition), the photograph presents a staged scene that evokes an anecdote or myth which is immediately familiar to the art historian. At the very center of the picture, two women are intensely engaged in a mutual endeavor, one tracing the shadow of the other’s face that falls against a wall (fig. 1).
I don’t know the source of this insight, but I first heard it at Cornell University during a conference on modern opera in 1986 or thereabouts. Someone giving a paper on Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1901) made the point that many works of modernism retell one of two tales, the story of Oedipus or the story of Parsifal—and sometimes both. In this young music scholar’s characterization, Oedipus (“the lamed man”) is the smart bastard who, when he meets the riddling sphinx, seems to know all the answers. Parsifal (“the pure fool”) is the dumb bastard (in the sense of unable to speak), who, when he first observes the ceremony of the Grail, doesn’t know the questions to ask; he must go away, learn what they are, then return to try again. (I wish I remembered the man’s name so I could credit him for the observation.)
For students of settler colonialism in the modern era, Africa and America represent two polar opposites. Africa is the continent where settler colonialism has been defeated; America is where settler colonialism triumphed. My interest in this essay is the American discourse on the making of America. My ambition is to do this from an African vantage point.
Europeans who came to the New World were preoccupied with the ways in which it was not like Europe. Over the centuries that followed, there developed a body of work known as American exceptionalism. The benchmark text for this scholarship is the mid-nineteenth-century reflection on America by Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America remains required reading in most programs in political theory or American politics. Among the arguments Tocqueville advanced in Democracy in America was that the key feature distinguishing America from Europe was the absence of feudalism; not tied down by the baggage of feudal tradition, America could enjoy the benefits of revolutionary change without having to pay its price. My concern here is less with Tocqueville than with how the Tocquevillians understood him.
The prospect of this problematic landscape is represented for us in Edward Haytley’s Extensive View from the Terraces of Sandleford Priory, near Newbury, Looking towards the Village of Newtown and the Hampshire Downs, a painting commissioned by the Montagu family in 1743. Popularly known as The Montagus at Sandleford Priory, and now in private (and anonymous) hands somewhere in the United States, the image articulates themes that are now widely recognized as central to the social and economic history of the eighteenth-century English countryside. It represents the complex and ambiguous nature of the relationships between those who presided over the rural landscape as lords of the earth and those who lived off its soil by the sweat of their brows. By definition, Haytley’s painting artificially fixes that relationship, capturing social and economic relations in motion at a time when strategies of estate management (especially engrossing, enclosure, and emparkment) were rapidly evolving. During the middle decades of the eighteenth century, landlords revised not only their economic but also their aesthetic judgments about the appropriate balance between landed and human resources on their estates. Those judgments were informed by the perception, which (largely for ideological rather than empirical reasons) had become increasingly common during the century between 1650 and 1750, that the working population could rarely (if ever) be persuaded to engage wholeheartedly in unremitting toil. This doctrine of the utility of poverty—the idea that increasing wages bred only idleness and indigence among the laboring poor—proved ever more persuasive to pamphleteers and social commentators and inevitably found expression in artistic representations of agricultural work. The unfortunate omission of any consideration of The Montagus at Sandleford Priory from Barrell’s analysis of The Dark Side of the Landscape, compounded by the conspicuous absence of any detailed commentary on the painting in subsequent art-historical scholarship, renders the obvious questions all the more urgent: What kind of landscape did Edward Haytley paint? How might we characterize the workforce that “labors” within it? Which side of the landscape is represented and why?
Taylorist breastfeeding constitutes a distinctly Italian phenomenon. The ideal rationalist clinics staged in the propaganda film Alle madri d’Italia (To the Mothers of Italy) serve to naturalize a factory-like vision of women’s healthcare by casting breastfeeding and childbirth as forms of mass production belonging to the state. At this nexus of medical and design history, state imperatives combined pieces of preexisting gender roles from mass media, the Catholic Church, and medical literature to create a new model for industrial motherhood. In doing so, however, the regime implicitly endorsed women’s labor in the public sphere, which had the ultimate effect of undermining its own promotion of socially conservative gender roles.
By the end of 2013, several new climate-related records had been set: twelve of the warmest years ever recorded had occurred between 1988–2013; Arctic ice was at its smallest measured size; and no one under the age of twenty-eight had experienced a month of below-average global temperature. In addition, glaciers had melted; plant and animal seasonal behavior had shifted; heat waves were more frequent; and droughts and intense tropical cyclone activity had increased. Not only are these changes, predicted decades ago by climate scientists, likely to continue, but more changes are expected: increased thaw in permafrost regions; precipitation increases in high latitudes and decreases in subtropical land regions; and decreased water resources in semiarid areas, such as the western United States.
That global warming has been predicted for at least a century and yet little has been done in response—and, even worse, that many in 2013 still did not believe in human-caused global warming—has horrified and perplexed many. Despite the scientific consensus on its existence, a poll by the Georgetown Climate center in 2013 revealed that the majority of the US public (54 percent) did not believe, or were unsure, that humans were responsible for global warming, even though 75 percent of the same Americans surveyed did believe that the globe is getting warmer and 87 percent supported Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) action to establish and enforce greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for power plants and large industries.