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Alan Sekula: The Body and the Archive

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Isabel Neal

on 2 March 2011

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Transcript of Alan Sekula: The Body and the Archive

Allan Sekula:
The Body and the Archive "...photography is not the harbinger of modernity, for the world is already modernizing. Rather, photography is modernity run riot...an incendiary leveling of the existing cultural order." "potential for a new juridical realism" in the 1840s was recognized as a form of regulating the "dangerous classes" Henry Fox Talbot's articles of china in their cabinet:
"should a thief afterwards purloin the treasures - if the mute testimony of the picture were to be produced against him in court - it would certainly be evidence of a novel kind."

A new "order of realism" is presented here - "legalistic truth" and "indexical inventory," the photograph as document of ownership/property. "Oral 'texts' of criminal/pauper yield to the mute testimony" of the photographic image, which is singular in the face of the imagined multiplicity of criminal voices.

Photography as INSTRUMENTAL -
it serves as a (social/cultural) tool

a "silence that silences" A definition through opposition:

the (photographically idenifiable) criminal body
VS
the (not-criminal, invented)
"social body"

"Photography came to establish...the terrain of the other" through typology and deviance. What connects the two poles of "portrait practice," then?

Honorific and bourgeois/
repressive and regulatory "Here was a machine for providing small doses of happiness on a mass scale..."

Marcus Aurelius Root, daguerrotypist and photographic historian: argued for a "moral economy of the image," utilitarian uses of photography.

"family photographs sustained sentimental ties in a nation of migrants" - the image could act for social cohesion.

Easily distributable, meant that everyday experience was subject to the parade of "moral exemplars" (photographs of famous people).

Finally, Root encouraged the use of photography by police in a sort of Panopticon-like logic; having visual records of faces meant that police and "citizenry" would be detectives. "photography welded the honorific and repressive functions together" "Every portrait implicitly took its place within a social and moral hierarchy."

The private moment is shadowed by public gaze upwards and down. The generalized archive (a shadow archive) of images carries both senses of encompassing and positioning - everyone is both included and classified.

Relatedly, physiognomy and phrenology - two interpretive pseudo-sciences - become popular. Physiognomy Phrenology Both were instrumental in constructing the archive they claimed to interpret, and ultimately legitimated ("organically") the dominion of the head over the body, the "thinking classes" over the "laboring classes".

In a capitalist system based on such a division of labor, "progress" could only be achieved if such division was codified - if the ruling class could congratulate itself on its "cleverness and cunning." Criminal jurisprudence - author and activist Eliza Farnham commissioned engravings for Marmaduke Sampson's 1846 book which united photography and phrenology:
inmate portraits - stated goal that a therapeutic approach could cure them of the criminal tendencies apparent in their skull structure How to reassure the law-abiding public, who recognized its "threatening other" self in the criminal body?

1. the "exceptional criminal:" criminal genius, outwardly indistinguishable
2. "biotype" of criminality --> criminology "The bourgeois self is inherently autonomous, interior, self-conscious, active and unique" (Joanna Woodall, 1997) And... how to reconcile typology and the specific nature of the individual's photo in the filing system?

Realism/typology vs. nominalism
Criminology vs. criminalistics
Search for "criminal type" vs. search for individual criminals
Francis Galton vs. Alphonse Bertillon
Composite portrait vs. filing cards Both approaches fit into eugenics and "racial betterment" inspired by pre-sociologist Adolphe Quetelet's concepts of the average man, criminal statistics, and crime as a description of urban life.

"All which is beautiful...all which is good" (average) is at the center of the bell curve, and Quetelet framed his studies as aesthetically important, like Dürer's studies of bodily proportion - to avoid the true impossibility of visualizing society. Parisian records pre-1859 had been burned, so identities could be invented, multiple - Bertillon sought to register the social field, to "hunt recidivists."

"Is not at bottom a problem...of the everlasting popular melodrama about lost, exchanged, and recovered children?"
Sekula: "No."
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