Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Summer 1986

Volume 12 Issue 4
    • 631Sacvan Bercovitch
    • For my present purposes, and in terms of my immediate concerns, the problem of ideology in American literary history has three different though closely related aspects: first, the multivolume American literary history I have begun to edit; then, the concept of ideology as a constituent part of literary study, and, finally, the current revaluation of the American Renaissance. I select this period because it has been widely regarded as both the source and the epitome of our literary tradition; because it has become, accordingly, the focal point of the critical revision now under way in American studies; and because, from either of these perspectives, literary or critical, it seems to me a particularly fitting subject for the occasion. For one thing, we owe the idea of an American Renaissance to F. O. Matthiessen, who was a prime mover of the Salzburg Seminar, and a member of its first faculty in 1947. Moreover, American Renaissance was a classic work of revisionist criticism. It reset the terms for the study of American literary history; it gave us a new canon of classic texts; and it inspired the growth of American studies in the United States and abroad. It is not too much to say that Matthiessen, American Renaissance, and the Salzburg Seminar brought American literature to postwar Europe. What followed, from the late forties through the sixties, was the flowering of a new academic field, complete with programs of study, periodicals, theses, conferences, and distinguished procession of scholarly authorities, including many graduates of the Salzburg Seminar.

      Matthiessen figures as a watershed in this development. For if American Renaissance marked the seeding-time of a new academic field, it was also the harvest of some three decades of literary study. I refer, first of all, to the dual legacy that Matthiessen acknowledges of T. S. Eliot and Vernon Parrington—which is to say, the partnership in American Renaissance between the terms “literary” and “history”; or, in the words of Matthiessen’s subtitle, between Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman: “art,” meaning a small group of aesthetic masterpieces, and “expression,” meaning representative works, reflecting and illuminating the culture at large. It was the remarkable achievement of Matthiessen that his book yokes these concepts gracefully together. Somehow, one concept seems to support the other. The historical designation American seems richer for its association with an aesthetic renaissance; Emerson’s and Whitman’s art gains substance by its capacity to express the age. Matthiessen himself did not feel it necessary to explain the connection. But we can see in retrospect that what made it work—what made it, indeed, unnecessary for Matthiessen to explain the connection—was an established consensus, or rather a consensus long in the making, which American Renaissance helped establish. I mean a consensus about the term “literary” that involved the legitimation of a certain canon, and a consensus about the term “history” that was legitimated by a certain concept of America.

      See also: Robert Markley, What Isn't History: The Snares of Demystifying Ideological Criticism

      Sacvan Bercovitch is Carswell Professor of English and American Literature at Harvard University. He is the Author of The Puritan Origins of the American Self and The American Jeremiad, among other works. He has also edited several collections of essays, most recently Reconstructing American Literary History (1986).

    • 654Norman N. Holland
    • Film theorists talk enthusiastically these days in terms of semiotics, sutures, and systems of meaning. I think we can usefully frame these theories by some evidence as to how some actual readers make actual theories from an actual film. To that end, I would like to explore here what three people, Agnes, Norm, and Ted, said about The Story of O. It seems to me that if any film should demonstrate the fixity of semiotic and other codes, surely a pornographic film should.

      You might call this essay, then, the story of this I storying three other I’s storying The Story of O.1 “Storying” is Audrey Grant’s verb, and by it she intends the representing of an event in your own mind and telling somebody about it.2In this essay, then, I propose to tell you how I represent in my mind how these three individuals represented in their minds The Story of O.

      Sometimes we felt or thought about the film more or less alike, and sometimes we squarely contradicted one another. I want to ask two questions of these responses. First, how can we relate their variety to the singleness of the film? Second, how can we relate their variety to the generality of any codes that govern the seeing of films?

      See also: Norman N. Holland, Literary Interpretation and Three Phases of Psychoanalysis

      Norman N. Holland is Milbauer Eminent Scholar at the University of Florida. His most recent book, The I (1985), develops a widely useful model for thinking about humans’ perceiving, interpreting, reading, and generally I-ing. His most recent contribution to Critical Inquiry is “Interactive Fiction” (with Anthony J. Niesz) in the September 1984 issue.

    • 672Geoffrey Ward
    • The customary assumption about dying is that one would rather not. The event of death itself should be postponed for as long as possible, and comfort may be gained from doctrines which promise a victory over it. We celebrate those who try to cheat it. The dying Henry James thought he was Napoleon, and there is something in that, over and above the pathos of a wandering mind, that exemplifies, however parodically, the mental set we expect to find and what we relish in those who attempt to press their own strong case against the disintegrative flow of time and change. We assume that one should struggle against death, setting such a stamp on life that even if the body must die, something the mind has done may not. Attitudes that run counter to this stubbornness are thought defeatist or unwholesome. In his own decline, Charles Baudelaire, catching sight of himself in a mirror, bowed, thinking himself a stranger. That confusion is more chilling than Jams’ because it undermines the treasured integrity of the self: it shows that death is not an invader attacking suddenly from outside. We are in one sense always in its keeping. In this essay I shall argue that whatever revolt against death may catalyse the act of writing poetry, poems are intimately tied to death in ways that complicate and even undermine that revolt. Indeed, since the inception of Romanticism (within which poetry still comes into being), a poem in order to be a poem has had to engage not only with the fact that in the midst of life we are in its negation, but also with death’s analogues: madness, trance, divisions and questionings of the self. The relationship between poetry and the disruption of the customary self may even be celebratory.

      But before investigating the relationship between poetry and death, we had better be sure that one can indeed die:

      At first glance, the preoccupation of the writer who writes in order to be able to die is an affront to common sense. It would seem we can be sure of at least one event: it will come without any approach on our part, without our bestirring ourselves at all; yes, it will come. That is true, but at the same time it is not true, and indeed quite possibly it lacks truth altogether. At least it does not have the kind of truth which we feel in the world, which is the measure of our action and of our presence in the world. What makes me disappear from the world cannot finds its guarantee there; and thus, in a way, having no guarantee, it is not certain. This explains why no one is linked to death by real certitude. No one is sure of dying.1

      No one can think to cheat death, but to contemplate death is to introduce into thought the epitome of doubt. The one thing I can never know in advance or know demonstrably, by my very nature and by its, is the actual instant of my own death. Conventionally, “I will go when my time comes”: the phrase gestures toward the privacy of each human death, and the Protestant tone of “my time”—part predestination, part ownership—barely hides the inaccessibility of death inside that privacy. There are two certainties in life. One is that death will come. The other is that no one can be sure of this. Perhaps no one has truly died yet.


      1. Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln, Nebr., 1982), p. 95; all further references to this work, abbreviated SL, will be included in the text.

      See also: John Guillory, The Ideology of Canon-Formation: T. S. Eliot and Cleanth Brooks

      Geoffrey Ward is lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. He is at present completing his first critical book, The Poetry of Estrangement. His published articles include essays on symbolism in John Ashbery, Conrad’s English, metaphor in Shelley’s longer poems, the novels of Henry Green, and Wyndham Lewis. He has also published five volumes of poetry, mot recently Not the Hand Itself (1983).

    • 688Charles L. Griswold
    • My reflections on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) were provoked some time ago in a quite natural way, by a visit to the memorial itself. I happened upon it almost by accident, a fact that is due at least in part to the design of the Memorial itself (see fig. 1). I found myself reduced to awed silence, and I resolved to attend the dedication ceremony on November 13, 1982. It was an extraordinary event, without question the most moving public ceremony I have ever attended. But my own experience of the Memorial on that and other occasions is far from unique. It is almost commonplace among the many visitors to the VVM—now the most visited of all the memorials in Washington—a fact so striking as to have compelled journalists, art historians, and architects to write countless articles about the monument. And although philosophers traditionally have had little to say about architecture in general or about that of memorials in particular, there is much in the VVM and its iconography worthy of philosophical reflection. Self-knowledge includes, I hazard to say, knowledge of ourselves as members of the larger social and political context, and so includes knowledge of that context.

      Architecture need not memorialize or symbolize anything; or it may symbolize, but not in a memorializing way, let alone in a way that is tied to a nation’s history. The structures on the Washington Mall belong to a particular species of recollective architecture, a species whose symbolic and normative content is prominent. After all, war memorials by their very nature recall struggles to the death over values. Still further, the architecture by which a people memorializes itself is a species of pedagogy. It therefore seeks to instruct posterity about the past and, in so doing, necessarily reaches a decision about what is worth recovering. It would thus be a mistake to try to view such memorials merely “aesthetically,” in abstraction from all judgments about the noble and the base. To reflect philosophically on specific monuments, as I propose to do here, necessarily requires something more than a simply technical discussion of the theory of architecture or of the history of a given species of architecture. We must also understand the monument’s symbolism, social context, and the effects its architecture works on those who participate in it. That is, we must understand the political iconography which shapes and is shaped y the public structure in question. To do less than this—if I may state a complex argument in hopelessly few words—is to fall short of the demands of true objectivity, of an understanding of the whole which the object is. To understand the meaning of the VVM requires that we understand, among other things, what the memorial means to those who visit it. This is why my observations about the dedication of the VVM and about the Memorial’s continuing power over people play an important role in this essay.

      See also: Garry Wills, Washington's Citizen Virtue: Greenough and Houdon

      Charles L. Griswold, associate professor of philosophy at Howard University, is the author of Self-Knowledge in Plat’s “Phaedrus” (1986) and has published widely in the areas of Greek philosophy, German Idealism, hermeneutics, and political philosophy. He is an editor of the Independent Journal of Philosophy and a recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. Currently he is working on a project which centers on Adam Smith’s notion of the “self” and Smith’s relationship to Stoicism and to the American Founding.

    • 720Henry Staten
    • Heart of Darkness is the story of a quest for truth but a quest, we discover, that is veiled in ironies. But just how radical are these ironies? When Marlow tells us that Kurtz’s dying whisper enunciates a truth, does he give us a solid kernel around which we can build our further questioning, concerning, for example, whether Marlow preserves or betrays the truth he has been given?” This has been the assumption of most critics; regardless of the ingenuities by which the varieties of interpretation has shown that Marlow in the end lies or does not lie, the axis of interpretation has almost always been defined by Kurtz’s presumed truth. Why should this be so? Why should Kurtz’s whisper be more significant than, say, the cry of the Intended with which the story culminates? But there are presuppositions in force here so strong that it seems senseless to ask this question. Classic presuppositions: the woman is dominated by emotion and desire, and her cry is at the other pole from the nonlibidinal utterance of truth. Marlow would agree with this assessment—for him, women are “out of touch with the truth” which you have to be “man enough” to face. So our truth-seeking criticism, which doubts much of what Marlow says, does not doubt the terms in which Marlow conceives of truth and its authority.

      Let us consider an example of the truth-seeking reading of Heart of Darkness, examining the ideology that sanctions this form of interpretation and showing how its presuppositions cooperate with Marlow’s. Our specimen will be a fairly recent PMLA article by Garrett Stewart called “Lying as Dying in Heart of Darkness.” Stewart’s “existential” reading invokes an economics of truth: Kurtz truthfully confronts death, facing and passing judgment upon the corruption of his being that emerges as fulfilled in his final moment; Marlow “lives through” Kurtz’s death and has the opportunity to preserve and transmit Kurtz’s “legacy of insight”; his lie, however, “kills the meaning of a death,” “squandering … Kurtz’s delegated revelation on a squeamish deceit.”1


      1. Garrett Stewart, “Lying as Dying in Heart of Darkness,PMLA 95 (May 1980): 330, 329, 326; all further references to this essay, abbreviated “L,” will be included in the text.

      See also: Henry Staten, Rorty's Circumvention of Derrida

      Henry Staten is associate professor of English and adjunct associate professor of philosophy at the University of Utah. He is the author of Wittgenstein and Derrida. The present essay is part of a book in progress on mourning and idealization in Western literature.

    • 741Lee Bartlett
    • W. H. Auden, the sometimes Greta Garbo of twentieth-century poetry, once told Stephen Spender that he liked America better than England because in America one could be alone. Further, in his introduction to The Criterion Book of Modern American Verse Auden remarked that while in England poets are considered members of a “clerkly caste,” in America they are an “aristocracy of one.” Certainly it does seem to be the individual poet—Whitman, Williams, Olson, Plath, O’Hara, Ginsberg—who has altered the landscape of American poetry and prosody, not the group. And most American literary “movements,” as Robert Creeley has pointed out, are simply comprised of a few people who on occasion drink together, and who are as likely as not to end the evening in violent argument over an aesthetic or political point. Yet the notion of schools or movements remains, in mainstream historical criticism at least, a vital one. How many introductions to anthologies of American poetry, for example, continue to use such rubrics as the Transcendentals, the Populists, the Black Mountain poets, the Beats, the New York group? And while established poets often rebel from any sense that they are part of a larger community, which by definition is self-limiting, they are often complicit in their initial categorization. For poets as well as critics the idea of a school is often a useful fiction (Emerson knew this, as did Pound and Rexroth) serving as both a kind of protective hothouse and a platform for getting a hearing.

      The most recent “group” of American poets—the first since the anthology wars of the early sixties (when many powerful aesthetics were scrambling for position) really to be of more than passing interest and perhaps to be actually capable of bringing about a major shift of attention in American poetry and poetics—is the so-called “Language” school. Individual volumes by poets often considered part of this group number well into three figures now and there have been important journals and anthologies produced in a serious and sustained fashion by these writers. Yet in part because of what seems the essentially hermetic character of the project (which is too multifaceted and diffuse to be called a project at all), there has been little notice of this activity by academic critics or reviewers.1 What I’d like to do here is briefly map a few major aspects of the territory, describing some of the practical and theoretical questions which seem to occupy many of these writers in their ongoing critique of the “workshop poem.”


      1. Two important exceptions are discussions of some of this work in Stephen Fredman, Poet’s Prose: The Crisis in American Verse (Cambridge, 1983) and Marjorie Perloff’s review “The Word as Such: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry in the Eighties,” American Poetry Review 13 (May/June 984): 15-22. All further references to Perloff’s article, abbreviated “WS,” will be included in the text. For a discussion of the various Language poetry journals and anthologies, see my chapter “American Poetry, 1940s to the Present” in American Literary Scholarship: An Annual/1983, ed. Warren French (Durham, N.C., 1985), pp. 349-74.

      See also: Jerome J. McGann, Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes

      Lee Bartlett, an associate professor of English, has directed the University of New Mexico’s creative writing program for five years. Coeditor of the critical journal American Poetry, his Talking Poetry: Conversations in the Workshop with Contemporary Poets will be published this fall. Currently he is writing a biography of William Everson.

    • 753David Carrier
    • Adrian Stokes (1902-72), long admired by a small, highly distinguished, mostly English circle, was the natural successor to Pater and Ruskin. But though his place in cultural history is important, what is of particular interest now to art historians is his theory of the presentness of painting, a theory which offers a challenging critique of the practice of artwriting. From Vasari to the present, the most familiar rhetorical strategy of the art historian is the narrative of “the form, prophet-saviour-apostles,” in which the first artist poses some problem that his successors develop and their successors solve.1 Such very different books as Art and Illusion and Art and Culture deploy that plan. The three periods of naturalism in E. H. Gombrich’s narrative—antiquity, Renaissance religious narrative, nineteenth-century landscape—function like Clement Greenberg’s sequence—old master art, early French modernism, American abstract expressionism. Gombrich and Greenberg disagree about how to narrate art’s history and about which works to include in that narrative—Gombrich asserts that cubism closes the canon while for Greenberg analytical cubism anticipates Jackson Pollock—but in each case, the art historian aims, as the novelist does, to tell a satisfying story and achieve narrative closure, and so how we think of the artworks the historian discusses depends in part upon the structure of the narrative. In a certain mood, we may find this fact intolerable. Why should a mere text tell us how to see the painting we may stand before?

      Stokes’ attempt to respond to this mood belongs to a tradition of early twentieth-century antihistorical thinking. For Rainer Maria Rilke, Rodin’s sculpture aimed to “refer to nothing that lay beyond it.” For Ezra Pound, an image “is real because we know it directly”; Henri Gaudier-Brzeska could read Chinese ideograms without knowing that language because those ideograms are transparently meaningful images. For Wyndham Lewis, a musical piece is inferior to a statue, “always there in its entirety before you.”2 Such an artwork need not be interpreted because it contains “within itself all that is relevant to itself.”3 All art is accessible to the gifted observer, and time is, in an interesting double sense, irrelevant. We see directly the meaning of works even from distant cultures; the visual artwork is experienced all at once, outside of time. If these claims are correct, what is the artwriter to do? Speaking of the Tempio Malatestiana, Hugh Kenner points to this issue:

      There is no description of the Tempio in accordance with good Vorticist logic: one art does not attempt what another can do better, and the meaning of the Tempio has been fully explicated on the spot by Agostino di Duccio with his chisel.4


      1. Michael Baxandall, Giotto and the Orators: Humanist Observers of Painting in Italy and the Discovery of Pictorial Composition 1350-1450 (Oxford, 1971), p. 75.

      2. Rainer Maria Rilke, Rodin, trans. Jessie Lemont and Hans Trausil (London, 1948), p. 19; Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (New York, 1970), p. 86; Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man (Boston, 1957), p. 174.

      3. Frank Kermode, Romantic Image (London and Glasgow, 1971), p. 107.

      4. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1971), p. 428.

      See also: Charles Harrison, On the Surface of Painting

      David Carrier, associate professor of philosophy at Carnegie-Mellon University, is coauthor, with Mark Roskill, of Truth and Falsehood in Visual Images and author of the forthcoming Artwriting, a study of recent American art criticism. He is working on a history of art history.

    • 769Jerome Christensen
    • In his recent book Criticism and Social Change Frank Lentricchia melodramatically pits his critical hero Kenneth Burke, advocate of the intellect’s intervention in social life, against the villainous Paul de Man, “undisputed master in the United States of what is called deconstruction.” Lentricchia charges that “the insidious effect of [de Man’s] work is not the proliferating replication of his way of reading … but the paralysis of praxis itself: an effect that traditionalism, with its liberal view of the division of culture and political power, should only applaud.”1 He goes on to prophesy that

      The deconstruction of deconstruction will reveal, against apparent intention, a tacit political agenda after all, one that can only embarrass deconstruction, particularly its younger proponents whose activist experiences within the socially wrenching upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s will surely not permit them easily to relax, without guilt and self-hatred, into resignation and ivory tower despair. [CSC, p. 40]

      Such is Lentricchia’s strenuous conjuration of a historical moment in which he can forcefully intervene—a summons fraught with the pathos excited by any reference to the heady days of political enthusiasm during the war in Vietnam. Lentricchia ominously figures a scene of rueful solitude where de Manian lucidity breaks into the big chill. And maybe it will. But Lentricchia furnishes no good reason why it should. De Manian deconstruction is “deconstructed” by Lentricchia to reveal “against apparent intention, a tacit political agenda.” And this revelation is advertised as a sure embarrassment to the younger practitioners of deconstruction—sweepingly characterized as erstwhile political activists who have, wide-eyed, opted for a critical approach that magically entangles its proponents in the soul-destroying delights of rhetoric and reaction. Left unexamined in Lentricchia’s story, however, is the basis for the initial rapport between radicalism and deconstruction. Why should collegiate activists have turned into deconstructionsists? Is not that, in Lentricchia’s terms, the same question as asking why political activists should have turned to literary criticism (or indeed literature) at all? If we suppose this original turn (to criticism, the deconstruction) to be intentional, how could the initiates of this critical approach ever be genuinely betrayed into embarrassment by time or by its herald, Frank Lentricchia? On the face of it, the traducement of a secret intention would be unlikely to come as a surprise, since deconstructing deconstruction is not only the enterprise of Marxist critics like Lentricchia but also of Jacques Derrida, archdeconstructor, who unashamedly identified the embarrassment of intention as constitutive of the deconstructive method. If deconstruction is at once a natural outlet for activists and the first step on a slippery slope that ends in apostasy (for surely it is that hard word which Lentricchia politely suppresses), it suggests a phenomenon with contours more suggestively intricate, if not less diabolically seductive, than the program Lentricchia outlines. And it is a phenomenon as worrisomely affiliative as it is bafflingly intricate. We need to know whether the relations between deconstruction and radical politics, between deconstruction and apostasy between deconstruction and criticism, and between apostasy and criticism are necessary or contingent, or neither and both at once.


      1. Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago, 1983), p. 38; all further references to this work, abbreviated CSC, will be included in the text.

      See also: Jerome Christensen, The Romantic Movement at the End of History

      Jerome Christensen, professor of English at the Johns Hopkins University, is the author of Coleridge’s Blessed Machine of Language and the forthcoming Hume’s Practice: The Career of an Enlightenment Man of Letters. He is currently at work on a study of Byron and the issue of strong romanticism.

    • 788Stephano Rosso
    • Rosso: Can you say something more about the differences between your work and Derrida’s?

      De Man: I’m not really the right person to ask where the difference is, because, as I feel in many respects close to Derrida, I don’t determine whether my work resembles or is different from of Derrida. My initial engagement with Derrida—which I think is typical and important for all that relationship (to the extent that I can think or want to think about it at all) which followed closely upon my first encounter with him in Baltimore at the colloquium on “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man”—had not to do with Derrida nor with me, but with Rousseau. It happened that we were both working on Rousseau and basically on the same text, by sheer coincidence. It was in relation to Rousseau that I was anxious to define, to try to work out some … not discrepancies … but some change of emphasis between what Derrida does and what I’m doing. And there may be something in that difference between us that remained there, to the extent that in a very genuine sense—not as denegation or as false modesty (though whenever one says “not out of denegation” one is awaking the suspicion to be even more denying than before … so you can’t get out of that bind … )—my starting  point, as I think I already told you, is not philosophical but basically philological and for that reason didactical, text-oriented. Therefore I have a tendency to put upon texts an inherent authority, which is stronger, I think, than Derrida is willing to put on them. I assume, as a working hypothesis (as a working hypothesis, because I know better than that), that the text knows in an absolute way what it’s doing. I know this is not the case, but it is a necessary working hypothesis that Rousseau knows at any time what he is doing and as such there is no need to deconstruct Rousseau. In a complicated way, I would hold to that statement that “the text deconstructs itself, is self-deconstructive” rather than being deconstructed by a philosophical intervention from the outside of the text. The difference is that Derrida’s text is so brilliant, so incisive, so strong that whatever happens in Derrida, it happens between him and his own text. He doesn’t need Rousseau, he doesn’t need anybody else; I do need them very badly because I never had an idea of my own, it was always through a text, through the critical examination of a text … I am a philologist and not a philosopher: I guess there is a difference there … I think that, on the other hand, it is of some interest to see how the two different approaches can occasionally coincide, at the point that Gasché in the two articles he as written on this topic (and which are together with an article by Godzich certainly the best things that have been written on it) says that Derrida and myself are the closest when I do not use his terminology, and the most remote when I use terms such as deconstruction: I agree with that entirely. But, again, I am not the one to decide on this particular matter and I don’t claim to be on that level …


      Stephano Rosso teaches English literature at the University of Verona (Italy) and is writing a dissertation in comparative literature at SUNY—Binghamton. Among other works, he has coedited, with Naurizio Ferraris, Decostruzione tra filosofia e letteratura and Estetica e decostruzione. He is presently translating Paul de Man’s Resistance to Theory into Italian.

    • 796Edwin Martin
    • Kendall Walton says that photographs are “transparent” (“Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism,” Critical Inquiry 11 [December 1984]: 246-77). By this he means that “we see the world through them” (p. 251). That is,

      With the assistance of the camera, we can see not only around corners and what is distant or small; we can also see into the past. We see long deceased ancestors when we look at dusty snapshots of them…. We see, quite literally, our dead relatives themselves when we look at photographs of them. [Pp. 251, 252]

      Walton is explicit on one point: he does not mean merely that we have the impression of seeing ancestors, or that photographs supplement vision, or that they are duplicates or reproductions or substitutes or surrogates. Rather, “the viewer of a photograph sees, literally, the scene that was photographed” (p. 252). In what follows I will urge that Walton’s argument for this view is insufficient.

      Walton is led to his conclusion by an account of the nature of seeing. He claims that “part of what it is to see something is to have visual experiences which are cause by it in a purely mechanical manner” (p. 261). The mechanical connection is important here. For “to perceive things is to be in contact with them in a certain way. A mechanical connection with something, like that of photography, counts as contact” (pp. 269-70). Paintings and other “handmade” representations fail to have the required mechanical connection; they are humanly mediated rather than mechanically produced. Consequently, Walton thinks, paintings are not transparent. On the other hand, “objects cause their photographs and the visual experiences of viewers mechanically.” And “so we see the objects through the photographs” (p. 261).


      Edwin Martin is associate professor of philosophy at Indiana University. He is currently completing a photographic portrait of American tent circus life.

    • 801Kendall L. Walton
    • My great-grandfather died before I was born. He never saw me. But I see him occasionally—when I look at photographs of him. They are not great photographs, by any means, but like most photographs they are transparent. We see things through them.

      Edwin Martin objects. His response consists largely of citing examples of things which, he thinks, are obviously not transparent, and declaring that he finds no relevant difference between them and photographs: once we slide down the slippery slope as far as photographs there will be not stopping short of absurdity. The examples fail in their purpose, but they will help to clarify the reasons for the transparency of photographs. Several of them can be disposed of by noting that they jeopardize the transparency of (ordinary) photographs only if they jeopardize the very possibility of perception. The others appear to reflect a misconception of the issue before us and the nature of my claim.

      To perceive something is, in part, to have perceptual experiences caused by the object in question. This is scarcely controversial. It is also uncontroversial that additional restrictions are needed—not all causes of one’s visual experiences are objects of sight—although exactly what the required restrictions are is a notoriously tricky question. One important restriction is that the causation must be appropriately independent of human action (“mechanical,” if you like), in a sense which I explained (pp. 263-64). This, I argued, is what distinguishes photographs from “handmade” pictures, which are not transparent. Seismographs and footprints are caused just as “mechanically” as ordinary photographs are. So are photographs that are so badly exposed or focused that they fail to present images of the objects before the camera. So, also, are the visual experiences of those who look at seismograms, footprints, and such badly focused or exposed photographs. Yet we obviously do not see the causes of these things through them, Martin claims. How is it, then, that we see through ordinary photographs?


      Kendall L. Walton is professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan and author of a book on representation in the arts (forthcoming). His previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism,” appeared in the December 1984 issue.