Unlearning the Origins of Photography

Ariella Azoulay: Imagine that the origins of photography go back to 1492.

What could this mean? First and foremost, that we should unlearn the origins of photography as framed by those who were crowned its inventors and other private and state entrepreneurs, as well as its association with a technology that can be reduced to discrete devices held by individual operators. In The Civil Contract of Photography, I proposed to displace photography’s origins from the realms of technology to the body politic of users and reconstruct from its practices a potential history of photography. My attempt to reconfigure photography was still defined by the assumption that it can be accounted for as a domain apart, and hence situated in the early nineteenth century. In what I’m going to post here in the coming weeks, based on my forthcoming book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, I also question imperial temporality and spatiality and attempt to account for the world in which photography could emerge. It is not about questioning the exact moment of the inception of photography and proposing that it was this optical device or that chemical substance that made it possible. It is about questioning the political formations that made it possible to proclaim — and institutionalize the idea — that certain sets of practices used as part of large-scale campaigns of imperial violence are separate from this violence and unrelated to it, to an extent that they can even account for it from the outside. Let me frame the question directly: How do those who wrote different histories and theories of photography know that it was invented sometime in the early nineteenth century? They — we — received this knowledge from those invested in its promotion. Accounting for photography based on its promoters’ narratives is like accounting for imperial violence on the terms of those who exercised it, claiming that they had discovered a “new world.”

The invention of the New World and the invention of photography are not unrelated.

Suggesting that the origins of photography go back to 1492 is an attempt to undermine the imperial temporality that was imposed at that time, enabling people to believe, experience, and describe interconnected things as if they were separate, each defined by newness. To put it another way, for photography to emerge as a new technology in the late 1830s, the centrality of the imperial rights on which photography was predicated had to be ignored, denied, or sublimated, or in any case pushed into the background and not perceived as constitutive of its operation as a technology.

Foregrounding these rights requires a simultaneous exercise — unlearning the accepted origins of photography and those of the “new world,” their familiar spatial and temporal connotations, which even today are still closely associated with modernity and “the era of discoveries,” and attending instead to the configuration of imperial violence and its manifestation in rights. By imperial violence I refer to the entire enterprise of destroying the existing worlds of signs, activities, and social fabrics and replacing them with a “new world” of objects, classification, laws, technologies, and meanings. In this so-called “new world,” local populations and resources are perceived as problems or solutions, opportunities or obstacles, and are assigned specific roles, places, and functions. Through these processes, existing sets of rights that were integral to each world and inscribed in its material organization are destroyed to allow imperial rights to be imposed.

Among these rights are the right to destroy existing worlds, the right to manufacture a new world in their place, the rights over others whose worlds are destroyed together with the rights they enjoyed in their communities and the right to declare what is new and consequently what is obsolete. The attachment of the meaning “new” to whatever imperialism imposes is constitutive of imperial violence: it turns opposition to its actions, inventions, and the distribution of rights into a conservative, primitive, or hopeless “race against time” — i.e., progress — rather than as a race against imperialism.

The murder of five thousand Egyptians who struggled against Napoleon’s invasion of their sacred places and the looting of old treasures, which were to be “salvaged” and displayed in Napoleon’s new museum in Paris, is just one example of this. In the imperial histories of new technologies of visualization, both the resistance and the murder of these people are nonexistent, while the depictions of Egypt’s looted treasures, which were rendered in almost photographic detail, establish a benchmark, indicating what photography came to improve.

I’ll come back to this point in my fourth statement, when I’ll discuss the Great March of Return, the march against imperialism and the apparatuses that sought to render obsolete and bury the just claims of the marchers under the “statute of limitations,” negating their attempt to rewind the declaration of a “new” state in their homeland. More here.

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