The Burden of Representation

Tagg, John (1988) The Burden of Representation.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


Yet the daguerreotype survived, at least until the introduction of carte-de-visite photographs, patented by Disderi in France in 1854. Carte-de-visite photographs were paper prints from glass negatives, mounted on card and produced by use of a special camera with several lenses and a moving plate holder. With such a camera, eight or more images could be taken on one plate and the prints from it cut up to size. Since unskilled labour could be used for many of the operations involved, the productivity of the operator and printer could be increased virtually eightfold. The basis was laid for a mass production system in which the actual photographer was no more than a labourer.


The extreme development of the socio-technical division of labour has produced a multiform ensemble of experts and technicians – including all kinds of photographers – who have direct and localised relations with particular domains of knowledge and particular institutions, who have an intimate familiarity with the specific constraints which hold there, and who are therefore capable of locating and marking the weak points, the openings, the lines of force.


From its very beginning, the history of photography had been the history of an industry. The impetus for its development came from a vast expansion of the market for reproductions – especially portraits – which both necessitated and depended on a mechanisation of production which could guarantee the cheapness and availability of the images but also, so it seemed, their ‘authenticness’. Its subsequent growth was that of an arena of enterprise ripe for entrepreneurial exploitation, driven by needs alternatively manufactured and supplied by an unlimited flow of commodities. It was, in short, a model of capitalist expansion.


We have seen how the production of still photographs was already by the 1880s subject to an elaborate division of labour controlled by entrepreneurs like Nadar who, on returning to photographic portraiture in the changed economic conditions of the last quarter of the century, took control of an extensive photographic business even though he did little more than receive sitters into the studio and direct the setting of poses.


Photography as such has no identity. Its status as a technology varies with the power relations which invest it. Its nature as a practice depends on the institutions and agents which define it and set it to work. Its function as a mode of cultural production is tied to definite conditions of existence and its products are legible and meaningful only within the particular currencies they have. Its history ~as n.o unity. It is a flickering across a field of institutional spaces. It is this field we must study, not photography as such. 


Photographies (the word does not sit happily in the plural) are discursive practices and, as Foucault has stressed: “Discursive practices are not purely and simply ways of producing discourse. They are embodied in technical processes, in institutions, in patterns for general behaviour, in forms for transmission and diffusion, and in pedagogical forms which, at once, impose and maintain them.”  For this reason, one cannot ‘use’ photography as an unproblematic ‘source’. Photography does not transmit a pre-existent reality which is already meaningful in itself. As with any other discursive system, the question we must ask is not, ‘What does this discourse reveal of something else?’,but, ‘what does it do; what are its conditions of existence’ how does it inflect its context rather than reflect it; how does it animate meaning rather than discover it; where must we be positioned to accept it as real or true; and what are the consequences of doing so? 119


Photographs and photographic practice appear as essential ingredients in so many social rituals – from customs checks to wedding ceremonies, from the public committal of judicial evidence to the private receipt of sexual pleasure – that it has become difficult to imagine what such rituals were like and how they could be conducted before photographs became widely available. It is difficult precisely because the internal stability of a society is preserved at one level through the naturalisation of beliefs and practices which are, on the contrary, historically produced and historically specific. It is in this light that we must see photographs and the various practices of photography.


Photography is a mode of production consuming raw materials, refining its instruments, reproducing the skills and submissiveness of its labour force, and pouring on to the market a prodigious quantity of commodities. By this mode of production it constitutes images or representations, consuming the world of sight as its raw material. These take their place among and within those more or less coherent systems of ideas and representations in which the thought of individuals and social groups is contained and through which is procured the reproduction of submissive labour power and acquiescence to the system of relations within which production takes place. In this sense, while it is also used as a tool in the major educational, cultural and communications apparatuses, photography is itself an apparatus of ideological control under the central ‘harmonising’ authority of the ideology of the class which, openly or through alliance, holds state power and wields the state apparatus. 


The point to which I want to return and lend real emphasis is that when we deal with photography as ideology we are not dealing with something ‘outside’ reality: a looking-glass world related to the real world by laws of reflection and reversal. According to Althusser, ‘An ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices. This existence is material.’ ‘Therefore,’ as Pierre Macherey has argued, ‘to study the ideology of a society is not to analyse the system of ideas, thoughts and representations (the “history of ideas” approach). It is to study the material operation of ideological apparatuses – to which correspond a certain number of specific practices.’


The photographer turns his or her camera on a world of objects already constructed as a world of uses, values and meanings, though in the perceptual process these may not appear as such but only as qualities discerned in a ‘natural’ recognition of ‘what is there’. By more or less conscious adjustment of an infinite field of significant determinations ranging from the arrangement and lighting of this ‘world of objects’ to the mechanics and field of view of the camera and the sensitivity of the film, paper and chemicals, the photographer abstracts from the distribution of reflected light from the objects to procure a pattern of light and dark on paper which can in no way be regarded as a replication of the ‘given’ subject. This pattern on paper is, in turn, the object of a perception – or reading – in which it is constituted as a meaningful image according to learned schemas.


From this point of view, ideology will be seen as a mode of accommodation between the regime of truth and the domain of prohibited desires, whose effectivity lies in the manner in which it can bring both into play: on the one hand, naturalising the regime of truth and, on the other, ameliorating the disruptive effects of desire, the sources of whose prohibition is, in the process, completely erased. It is this form of collusion of power and the unconscious which remains entirely unmoved by ‘rational’ analysis.


If the institutions or apparatuses which constitute the technology of power in a particular society form a cluster, not an organic system, then an intervention in one apparatus, or around the conditions of possibility of struggle within it, does not threaten to collapse the whole structure nor necessarily entail any effects in the other apparatuses or mechanisms which make up that structure. This is not to say, however, that such an intervention may not affect the others, which may be non-continuously directed towards some common or convergent, emerging or incoherently defined end, without sharing a common ruling and prior-existent ‘purpose’ in the Hegelian sense, even where a consciously arrived at ‘plan’ may exist.

What is opened up is the possibility of the emergence, construction, restructuring or re-orientation of the various apparatuses.


What Berger appeals to is a ‘future’ which serves both as a hope, a profession of faith, and a standard by which present actions may be judged. What historical research produces is no such grand plan but a constantly changing ground of tactical actions whose strategy may be stated only in terms so generalised as to be of little analytical use, though they may have a function in political rhetoric. What such historical analysis offers practitioners is not the heroic chance to measure themselves against the future, but a multiplicity of points of intervention, limited objectives, courses of action open now, ends that can be achieved through struggle: an unremitting ‘war of position’ in which the smallest gain may hold significance for a chain of related struggles.


Such a prospectus for action may lack the emotional appeal and attraction of the Utopian projection. It may not offer the guarantees of historicism. But it does have the incomparable advantage that it begins in the present, in the topography of existing apparatuses and institutions, in a concrete analysis of the uneven terrain in which the struggles must be waged. Its ‘revolution’ is not to be put off till the millennium. Its forces are not to be gathered for the ‘moment of becoming’. Its ‘revolution’ is a potential now and everywhere.


We must not allow ourselves the expedient of imagining something existing ‘before’ representation by which we may conveniently explain the representation away. Where we must start is with concrete material activity and what it produces. We must begin to analyse the real representational practices that go on in a society and the concrete institutions and apparatuses within which they take place. We must plot the network of material, political and ideological constraints which bear on these institutions and constitute their conditions of existence and operation. We must describe the function of ‘specific’ individuals within them and their production of ‘operatives’ to staff them. We must establish the material, social and symbolic contexts in which they are sited, in which they operate and in which they intervene .

Only in this way will we come to understand how ideologies are produced in real representational practices, in material apparatuses; how these representations are disseminated, consumed, elaborated, modified and sustained; how they are meaningful; how they affect and are affected by other productive activities within the same social complex. And all this is to be done by studying actual material entities and processes, entirely without the need for pregiven mental or spiritual phenomena. This, then, would be the beginnings of a materialist account.