Desiring Production

Geoffrey Batchen, ‘Desiring Production’, pp.4-24, in:

Batchen, G., 2002. Each wild idea: writing, photography, history. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.


So no one would want to deny that 1839 was an important year in the life of photography, particularly with regard to the direction of its subsequent technical, instrumental, and entrepreneurial developments. However, the traditional emphasis on 1839, and the pioneering figures of Daguerre and Talbot, has tended to distract attention from the wider significance of the timing of photography’s emergence into our culture. This essay aims first to establish this timing and then to articulate briefly something of that significance.


[Quotes Foucault on ‘archaeology’ as a method: “Archaeology is not in search of inventions, and it remains unmoved at the moment (a very moving one, I admit) when, for the first time, someone was sure of some truth; it does not try to restore the light of those joyful mornings.”]


Following Foucault, we might find it useful to shift the emphasis of our investigation of photography’s timing from 1839 to another, earlier moment in the medium’s history: to the appearance of a regular discursive practice for which photography is the desired object. The timing of the invention of photography is thereby assumed to coincide with its conceptual and metaphoric rather than its technological or functional manifestations.

Accordingly this essay will ask not who invented photography but, rather, at what moment in history did the discursive desire to photograph emerge and begin to manifest itself insistently? At what moment did photography shift from an occasional, isolated, individual fantasy to a demonstrably widespread, social imperative? When, in other words, did evidence of a desire to photograph begin to appear with sufficient regularity and internal consistency to be described in Foucault’s terms as a discursive practice?


So the celebrated photographic experiments of Henry Talbot, begun only in 1833, should be regarded as but one more independent continuation of a desire already experienced by many others.


Where Niépce and Daguerre both take pictures from their windows, Talbot makes an image of his window. He tells us that photography is about framing, and then shows us nothing but that frame; he suggests that photography offers a window onto the world, but then shows nothing but that window.

In Talbot’s hands, photography is neither natural nor cultural, but rather an economy that incorporates, produces, and is simultaneously produced by both nature and culture, both reality and representation (and for that very reason is never simply one or the other).



So we get a sense that the desires, and confusions, of the inventors of photography are shared by many others, that the desire to photograph emerges from a confluence of cultural forces rather than from the genius of any one individual.

What a study of this history shows, first and foremost, is that the desire to photograph appeared as a regular discourse at a particular time and place—in Europe or its colonies during the two or three decades around 1800. The inference clearly is that it was possible to think “photography” only at this specific conjuncture, that photography as a concept has an identifiable historical and cultural specificity.


Given that a basic knowledge of the existence of light-sensitive chemicals had been popularly available since the 1720s, why does the discursive desire to photograph begin to emerge only in the 1790s and not before?

It seems a simple, almost trivial question, and yet this matter of timing is a crucial one as far as the cultural meaning of photography is concerned.


Despite plenty of opportunities, there are no episodes in which this idea arose directly from scientific experiment and discovery itself. Similarly, the archive reveals that portraiture—so often said by historians to be photography’s primary aspiration—is only occasionally and belatedly mentioned by its inventors as a possible future use for the medium.

What such investigations might suggest in fact is that the evolutionary, percussive, cause-and-effect, base-superstructure notion of historical development that underlies many of these explanations is simply not appropriate to the empirical data we have on photography’s emergence.

So how is one to read a desire to photograph against the timing of this emergence? We might well begin by noting the broader implications of this timing, for it soon becomes clear that the epistemological status of all the objects in which the protophotographers want to invest their rhetorical desire—landscape, nature, and the camera image on one hand, and space, time, and subjectivity on the other—is at this same moment in the midst of an unprecedented crisis.


[Ref an authorial dilemma suffered in ‘Letters from an Exile at Botany-Bay, a small publication written in 1794 by Australia’s first professional painter, Thomas Watling’, commented on by Ross Gibson]

Gibson sees this authorial dilemma—a dilemma apparently involving Watling’s very subjectivity—as arising on the one hand from the convict’s need to negotiate “an aesthetic crisis that was also inherently theological” and, on the other hand, “as a symptom of the upheaval that was occurring in the history of Western ideas at the end of the eighteenth century.”


Even if we accept that photography operates as yet another process of substitution for a lack, we are still left wondering why it should be this solution, and not some other, that arises around 1800, and not some other time, to fill what is supposed to be a perennial gap in our subjectivity. Psychoanalysis, in other words, seems unable to account for either cultural specificity or historical change.


During his investigations Foucault notices that a “strange empirico-transcendental doublet… which was called man,” “a being such that knowledge will be attained in him of what renders all knowledge possible,” is produced as an integral, indeed necessary, component within each of these apparatuses.

This being is, he says, a completely new development, “an invention of recent date… a figure not yet two centuries old.” Like the viewer desiring production inscribed by and within the gaze of photography, Foucault’s “man” “appears in his ambiguous position as an object of knowledge and as a subject that knows.”


The panopticon is, in other words, a productive exercise of subject formation operating such that its participants “are not only its inert or consenting target; they are always also the elements of its articulation.” Thus Foucault reads panopticism’s reverberating economy of gazes as constituting each of its contributors as a self-reflexive doublet—as both the subject and object, effect and articulation of a netlike exercise of disciplinary power.

We might read photography in similar terms. As we have seen, the desire to photograph is expressed by its pioneers in circular and contradictory terms that are remarkably reminiscent of Foucault’s account of panopticism.


Think again of the palimpsestic inscription/erasure of viewer, viewed, and act of viewing that we find enacted in Talbot’s early window pictures—or of the first attempts to describe photo-desire, so fraught with problems of nomenclature and articulation, problems that are themselves suggestive of an unresolved philosophical uncertainty.


Each of these descriptions maintains a reflexive movement within its rhetoric that comes to rest at neither of the two possible poles (invariably nature and culture or their equivalents) that present themselves. By the early years of the nineteenth century, intellectuals across Europe and its colonies have begun to question the presumed separation of observer and observed, locating all acts of seeing in a contingent and subjective human body.

The observer is no longer imagined to be the passive and transparent conduit of God’s own eye but now is regarded as someone who actively produces what is seen (and if how one sees determines what one sees, then everyone must be seeing a little differently).

To represent this new understanding of the viewing subject, artists and poets had to conceive, as Coleridge put it, “a self-conscious looking-glass” or even “two such looking-glasses fronting, each seeing the other in itself and itself in the other.”

The camera obscura alone could no longer fulfill this radical new worldview. What had to be invented instead was an apparatus of seeing that involved both reflection and projection, that was simultaneously active and passive in the way it represented things, that incorporated into its very mode of being the subject seeing and the object being seen. This apparatus was photography.

We are given a sense here of the desire to photograph as something appearing on the cusp of two eras and two different worldviews, something uncomfortably caught within the violent inscription of our modern era over and through the remnants of the Enlightenment.

Some historians have tried to argue that photography was in fact a conceptual effort to reconcile these tensions—to resolve prevailing representational uncertainties and provide a positivist confirmation of an objective and discrete outside reality. Strangely, this desire for a positivist certainty is again absent from the discourse produced by the protophotographers (although it certainly appears as a dominant concern among commentators in midcentury and beyond).


Consider again the concept-metaphor that the protophotographers conjure up to relieve their frustration: a mode of representation that is simultaneously fixed and transitory, that draws nature while allowing it to draw itself, that both reflects and constitutes its object, that partakes equally of the realms of nature and culture.


Situated within a general epistemological crisis that has made the relationship between nature and its representations a momentarily uncertain one, photography is conceived in these first imaginings as something that is neither one nor the other, being a parasitical spacing that encompasses and inhabits both.

The desire to photograph would therefore seem, at its inception at least, to involve a reproduction of that same empirico-transcendental economy of power-knowledge-subject that has made its own conception possible. This is a process of reproduction that does not operate only at the level of ideology (the “idea” of photography). Nor are its effects confined to the finished photograph and those depicted in it.

For the discourse of photo-desire confirms that we must, as Foucault puts it, “grasp subjection in its material instance as a constitution of subjects,” and this includes the photographer as much as the photographed. Consider for a moment how the photographer, for whom the camera is, as Niépce put it, “a kind of artificial eye,” is constituted by photography as the prosthetic trope around and through which the complicitous economy of photo-desire necessarily turns.

This conjunction of photographer, image, and camera produces more than just a surface reorganization of power; it is productive of a total symbiotic assemblage such that “power relations can materially penetrate the body in depth.” To put this Foucaultian proposition simply, if photography is a mapping of bodies in time and space, then it is also a production of both those bodies and modernity’s particular conception of the time-space continuum.

By shifting the focus of the question from a singular moment of invention to the general appearance of a certain desiring production coinciding with the advent of modernity, photography’s emergence is at least made an inescapably political issue.


The writing of its history must henceforth address itself not just to developments in optics, chemistry, and individual creativity, but to the appearance of a peculiarly modern inflection of power, knowledge, and subject, for this inflection inhabits in all its complexities the very grain of photography’s existence as an event in our culture.