Sensation and Photography

Zahid R Chaudhary, ‘Sensation and Photography’, pp.1-35, in:

Chaudhary, Z.R., 2012. Afterimage of empire: photography in nineteenth-century India. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis; London.


How might we reorient our understandings of colonial representations if we shift our focus to that interface between bodies and world that is the precondition for making meaning?

In Afterimage of Empire I argue that, following the well-traveled routes of global capital, photography arrives in India not only as a technology of the colonial state but also as an instrument that extends and transforms sight for photographers and the body politic, British and Indian alike.

These transformations show that while sensing the world is inseparable from, though not identical with, making sense of it, the traffic between sense perception and ideation is historically conditioned.

The global dissemination of photography in the 1800s has had irreversible effects on the modern formation of the senses.

A viewer’s relationship to a photograph at first involves sight, only in order to set sight itself within the play of other sensate experiences: smell, hearing, touch, taste, but also embodied experiences of memory, desire, pleasure, and pain.


I assume that a key aspect of early photography is not simply to represent or to produce images but to help form a newly technologized body on a mass scale across diverse social formations. If, following Marx, the “formation [Bildung] of the five senses is the work of all previous history,” then in this study I understand photography as establishing a new Bildung that is global in scope.


The history of photography in India begins almost concurrently with its inception in Europe; it became available in India within a year of Louis Jacques Daguerre’s experiments in 1839 but proliferated widely on the subcontinent only after 1857.

Thus I situate the history of photography in India in the context of the seismic upheaval that was the Sepoy Revolt of 1857–58, in which Indian recruits in the British army rebelled against their superiors. The constitutively tense tri- partite relation among photographer, camera, and represented colonial subject or object was produced, for the most part, in the aftermath of the Sepoy Revolt.

Immediately after the last rebels were hanged and shot in 1858, direct crown rule replaced the rule of the East India Company, and Charles John Canning, the first viceroy, began encouraging army officers to take cameras on their travels to photograph the people of India and to deposit copies of the plates with him. This was the beginning of the first state-sanctioned archival photographic practice in India.


For us the words interest and interesting are overdetermined by notions of (ethical) concern and (psychological and economic) investment, both of which are at once key players in the domain of knowledge and contain within themselves barely concealed traces of fear for all manner of loss, from the economic to the psychological. The newest technological apparatus for the articulation of this nexus of concern–investment–knowledge was the camera, with which the army officers planned to “shoot” their interesting subjects.

It was in this conjuncture, then, that photography in India came to have its most extensive and profound application.10 It entered the ever-expanding archive of Empire, taking its place beside the more or less fetishized archaeo- logical and ethnographic artifact in the public museum or in the bourgeois interior with its unique form of private appropriation, consumption, and ideological reproduction.


[On a photograph taken by Tosco Peppé]

The colonial forms of knowledge intervening in the lifeworlds of these two figures frame them with forms radically foreign to the two figures, not only because the concept of the “primitive” itself marks the site of the colonizer who produces this concept, but also, more literally, because these two women normally wear Manchester saris rather than leaves and beads.


These photographs record the radical transformations (epistemic, political, and economic) in social relations that pass under the sign of the colonial encounter. Such transformations are of a piece with the logic of the colonial scene of technological reproduction.

Colonial photography produces a visibility that legitimates and records the “value” of the colonial effort in the same frame as it measures the colonial subject. It aids in the production of regularities, showing us ghostly series of racial forms, sublime vistas of foreign lands, or history distilled into picturesque ruins.


Here we come across an insurmountable limit to colonial discourse analysis, and the specific limit, in our case, is made possible by the medium specificity of photography itself. We cannot pursue a Saidian-derived methodology of reading colonial photographs, because the phenomenology of the photographic image prevents us from doing so in good faith.

If the rhetoric of photography is such that we are persuaded by it at some un- conscious level, then the forms of specific persuasions are not predetermined. Put simply, photography can just as easily fail as succeed when pressed into the service of a particular ideological agenda. This is because photographs inevitably record more than the photographer’s intention; certain details and contingencies recorded by the camera and yet unseen in their own time can either buttress or undo the aims of any project that mobilizes photography.

In spite of photography’s use as one technology among others of colonial control and discipline, it is a medium that itself resists control. This has been the case since its inception; the modern proliferation of increasingly mobile and “uncontrollable” digital photography is simply a corollary to this fundamental phenomenological aspect of the medium.

This aspect of photography is paradoxical, since it hinges on a play of the visible and the invisible: certain details in photographs become legible only under certain historical conditions. On the one hand, the photograph shows too much, in fact more than we can see, and by that same logic, something we cannot apprehend is inevitably present in every photograph, something beyond the reach of our sight, bound as we are to the horizon of our own present perceptions. Walter Benjamin referred to this dimension of visuality as the “optical unconscious,” and no doubt certain details make themselves manifest to the camera lens in a way that the naked eye is incapable of seeing.


Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in a fragment to his posthumously published book, The Visible and the Invisible, puts it best in his discussion of touch: “The untouchable is not a touchable that happens to be inaccessible; the unconscious is not a representation that happens to be inaccessible. The negative here is not a positive that is elsewhere (something transcendent). It is a true negative.” So if photography allows us to make visible the infinitely small steps involved in the flap of a bird’s wing, such a visibility only points to a field of the hereto- fore unknown, invisible, and unconscious.

The senses constantly come up against their limits, and the invention of photography showed, retrospectively and sometimes triumphantly, the “poverty” of vision that predated it.

Insofar as it extends sense perception, the camera, I argue, encompasses both aspects of consciousness: it functions both as a sensory prosthetic and as an armor against the world.

There, to make sense of the world means necessarily to keep certain elements from becoming available to sensation. Aesthetic forms must restrict the presencing of objects in the world in order to make these objects manifest. In that respect, aesthetic forms are similar to the phenomenological understanding of habit. Habit is critical to the business of perception, because it is what allows us to filter out objects from consciousness in order to get through the day; if every object were subjected to our attention we could never move forward. Habit straddles the boundary between sensation and judgment.


The acquiring of habit, although indispensible, necessarily entails, for Husserl, a continual reaffirmation and recognition of the newly habituated self, which is the same as recognizing a familiar judgment as one’s own. Like aesthetic forms, habits can be cultivated, improvised upon, assumed, made invisible, and be subjected to scrutiny.

[Ref Merleau-Ponty]

The body is the pivot between sensation and intellection; we learn by doing and responding, and the acquisition of skills and knowledge is a bodily phenomenon. Judgment and sensation are already conjoined in the originary sense of the Greek word aisthsis. We must recall that the original meaning of aisthsis refers not to a rarified discourse on art but rather to “sensation,” “perception,” and “feeling.”

Aisthsis refers first and foremost to the effects of the world striking our senses, including the feelings evoked by such stimuli. Aesthetic form, then, is the process by which one makes sense, habitually, of worldly stimuli; it is not a rarefied term referring to a realm that hovers above politics and the crude, primitively material world.


Rather, aesthetic form, because it arranges the world into sense, necessarily has its shielding aspect, in the same way that habit does. That is, aesthetic // forms allow permeability between the sensing subject and the world, but in this traffic between things and thoughts, perceptions and conceptions, the material and the immaterial, certain elements must be filtered out.


The terms under which aesthetic forms perform this kind of shielding and filtering— however inevitable and necessary—are places where politics enters into the business of sensing and making sense of the world.


Afterimage of Empire situates photography within a colonial genealogy of mimesis, here understood broadly as a means of bodily engagement with the other, and recognizes it as precondition to building a world.


This understanding of mimesis as an originarily bodily phenomenon stems from Adorno and Benjamin’s work, as well as Taussig’s recent elaboration of it. It emphasizes not only semblance and copying but also the sensory circuit of stimulus and // This understanding of mimesis as an originarily bodily phenomenon stems from Adorno and Benjamin’s work, as well as Taussig’s recent elaboration of it.


It emphasizes not only semblance and copying but also the sensory circuit of stimulus and response between the body and the world that is the precondition of all mimetic practices.

The photograph as souvenir encapsulates the longing at the heart of colonial photography; like all souvenirs, the photograph seeks to authenticate experience, not by offering up the lost experience itself, which is lost forever, but by marking the distance from it.

[Ref Susan Stewart]

Like all souvenirs, the photograph is a defense against the inundation of the senses experienced by tourists everywhere, and it becomes a material anchor for a narrative about the past. This explains the photographic habits of tour- ism: if habit secures a certain map of the world, making it manageable and legible to the senses that would be overwhelmed otherwise, then the touristic photographic shots, sometimes snapped obsessively, become a kind of buffer against such an overload of signification and sensory stimulation.


It is remarkable how quickly colonial photography sediments into such genres; just years after its invention these generic tendencies became apparent. Mikhail Bakhtin, for whom genres were “organs of memories,” notes, “Always preserved in a genre are undying elements of the archaic,” and such archaic elements can be preserved in a genre // “only thanks to their constant renewal, which is to say, their contemporization.”


This is to say that generic differences are themselves subject to the vicissitudes of history and are not “natural” forms. Since genres exist not only in relation to other genres (which define them) but also in relation to history (which transforms and determines them), the narrative of sensing and mean- ing making offered by Afterimage of Empire is necessarily relevant to other colonial photographic genres.

Thus far I have spoken of general transformations in perception and the arrival of photography in India, without considering the phenomenological scene of photographic practice itself. Keeping the foregoing discussion of the affective, historical, and aesthetic place of colonial photography in mind, we should find it worthwhile to analyze the scene of the photographer and camera and their corollary, the spectator and the photograph, in order to arrive at a more textured understanding of how exactly photography transforms the perceptual apparatus.

I read the phenomenology of photography as a phenomenology of sense perception.

Take, for example, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s famous scene of the blind man making his way through the world with a stick. This method of sensing the world becomes, over time, a habit, and the stick itself forces us to reconsider our commonsensical understanding of the body, the senses, and even habit.

It is not only an extension of the body, whose materiality proves remarkably supple in its incorporation of objects in the world, but has also become, in effect, a sense organ. It simultaneously points, of course, to the man’s blindness and is therefore not a replacement of sight but provides a parallel experience.


The nature of our body image is such that it morphs during the course of a day, and historical and technological transformations inevitably make possible new forms of perception and new spaces into which body image and bodily space may extend in unexpected ways.

Moreover, not only do we appropriate objects as instruments in order to extend our perception, but also we transplant ourselves into such objects. The stick is both a point of sensitivity (a corollary to a sense organ) and an instrument at hand to be appropriated.

This movement between transplanting ourselves into objects and making objects instrumental for our perceptions is left unaddressed by Merleau-Ponty, and we are to assume that these two aspects are indissociable. I suggest below that the camera mediates this movement between points of sensation and instruments, and this is the source of the phenomenological specificity of photography itself.

The senses are radically open to the world and can overrun the limits imposed on them.

At first sight, the camera would seem to be another instance of the blind man’s cane: it gives us the capacity to see differently, to extend our sight into heretofore unknown spaces, to note the presence of objects in a way unseen before, and so forth. But the camera also radically changes the terms of visibility itself because of the persuasive power of its images.

The phenomenology of the photographic image must necessarily account for photography’s persuasive power.


Recall that Merleau-Ponty refers to habit as the means by which we trans- plant ourselves into objects (turning them into points of sensation) and appropriate objects as instruments. The same object, in our case, the camera, can be both a sense organ of sorts and an instrument. At the pivot between these two aspects of photography lies its rhetorical power. It is photography’s rhetoric, which includes its power to transport us, to lend an aura of truth to the object, to crystallize previously half-known notions, to bear away our faith, that ex- plains the slippage between the two aspects of photography: camera-as-point- of-sensation and camera-as-instrument.

When considering the camera-as-point-of-sensation, we are primarily considering photography at the level of production. At this level of perception, movement, motion, and inhabitation of the world take place for the most part below the threshold of language and consciousness. The composition of the shot, however conscious or unconscious, is the result of certain habits, and habit strides the boundary between consciousness and the unconscious.

For the photographer, the photograph is created as an extension of the senses and the body, by incorporating the camera into the bodily field. For the spectator of the photograph, however, incorporating the photograph into his or her bodily field means to be in thrall to photography’s rhetorical effects, which come from the medium itself.

Of course both the photographer and the spectator are captivated by photography’s rhetoric, even if the point of production emphasizes sense and the point of reception emphasizes making sense.

What might this classic scene of phenomenological incorporation have to do with colonial representations? How does colonial history enable us to reconsider the phenomenology of the photographic image?


Certainly the alienating, blinding experience of large-scale industrialism be- comes possible only at the height of colonialism, as the commodity form (itself a play of the visible and invisible, as Marx has shown) becomes the basic unit of global political economy.


Early photography in India is marked by the same spirit of experimentation and wonder that it is marked by elsewhere in the nineteenth century, but with the key addition that its circulation in the colonial economy of signs freights it with meanings not entirely captured by photography’s theorizing within the European frame.

Especially when speaking of colonial discourse, one has an understandable tendency to inquire into the possibility of narratives of resistance on the part of the colonized, in order that current discourse does not represent the colonized as wholly subjugated and victimized.

While such a move is theoretically laudable, one must keep in mind several things, including the obvious: at certain moments in history, populations are in fact subjugated and victimized.

The question of photography also necessarily takes into account that in the early days of the medium only the upper levels of the indigenous bourgeoisie could afford to commission photographs, and even then the forms and conventions of these photographs were often borrowed from the British aesthetic conventions. An identifiable Indian “counter-photography” does not exist in the first few decades of photographic practice.


By analyzing the cultural work done by the photograph itself (at its very surface), we gain insight into the sensory conditions of possibility that render things visible, and these conditions do not preexist the appearance but are commensurate with it.

Moreover, in colonial discourse analysis representation is curiously divorced from embodiment and is abstracted as pure conception, when in fact to be confronted with representation already assumes a bodily engagement with it; Afterimage of Empire concerns itself with the ways in which images penetrate bodily space and how bodies incorporate themselves into images. Hence, much more can be said about colonial photographs than their imbrication in colonial forms of violence.


That the formation of the senses is a political matter has been clear at least since Marx’s remarks on the education of the senses. This book explores the politics of such formation; in order to do so, it deploys phenomenology it- self like the blind man’s stick, prodding a nearly invisible colonial terrain. The historical specificities of photography’s phenomenology in colonial India are indispensable to my aims in this book.


I am interested in tracking tendencies in colonial photography that reveal its imbrication in the aesthetic and political // dimensions of the photographic medium and in examining the nature of sentient experience as constituted through the practice of photography.