A note from Elspeth Brown on the study of positive affects in producing commodity relations.
Several of us involved with The Photographic Situation—myself, Thy Phu, Shawn Michelle Smith, and Ann Cvetkovich—have just returned from the American Studies Association annual meeting in Puerto Rico, where we collaborated with Laura Wexler on a roundtable concerning ‘photography, affect, and empire.’ In my short presentation, I wanted to think through how positive affects—love, longing, desire—are central to the history of U.S. market empires, and the role photography has played in producing the “look of love” in commodity relations. A lot of the excellent writing on affect and photography has focused on negative affects and/or political violence, such as Thy’s work on the S-21 photographs, Shawn’s work on lynching, Laura’s work on U.S. imperialism in the Phillipines, or Ann’s recent work on depression. This work is inspirational and indispensable. Yet the history of the U.S. has been, historically, as much about market hegemony as it has been about military violence and the colonization of peoples. For an empire built on market relations more than on sovereignty, U.S. business culture has required a different affective register, one based on the positive affects of desire, longing, and aspiration, as well as the violence of military rule. So in my ten minutes, I wanted to highlight the dystopic side of the ‘positive affects’ in producing and sustaining U.S. market empires, and the essential role photography has played in smuggling in imperial market relations through the Trojan horse of commodity pleasure.
And to complicate my scenario still further, I want to think about how queer relationality has been central to the production and maintenance of U.S. market empires. My examples are drawn from the history of fashion photography, which has been a queer industry since Baron de Meyer was hired as the first paid staff photographer for Conde Nast in 1917. Specifically, in the ASA presentation, I focused on the work of George Platt Lynes in the late 1930s and 1940s, when he was making two main bodies of work: fashion photographs for Conde Nast and Harper’s Bazaar, and gay male nudes for private circulation among friends and queer kinship networks. My presentation concerned the relationship between these two sets of images, in the effort to think though the dystopic aspects of the positive affects when tied to strategies of soft empire: the international garment trade.
To launch our new blog, Sharon Sliwinski (University of Western Ontario and member of the project steering committee) writes about the conceptual framework which informs the network’s thinking about the question of photography.
1. The photographic situation is a conceptual framework that defines photography as much more than a technology for producing pictures. As Ariella Azoulay has made forcefully evident, photography should rather be understood as an event that mediates relationships between people. Its ontology is, therefore, political.
2. The photographic situation is playing an increasingly significant role in mediating relationships between people. As Walter Benjamin proposed, photography is just one of the technologies of mechanical reproduction that revolutionized the masses’ modes of perception. The advent of digital photography marks another, exponential increase in the ways in which people interact with the photographic situation. Its political significance, in other words, has expanded over time.
3. The photographic situation can be imagined as comprising at least three spheres, but it cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts: a) the photographer (the professional photographer, the state official, the layperson, the citizen journalist, the human rights worker, etc.); b) the spectator (the consumer, the citizen, the “world spectator” (Arendt), etc.); c) the “photographed subject” which can refer to any number of things: i) photographs themselves (whether documentary, art, science, advertising, vernacular images, etc.) as well as their various avenues of circulation and use. Photographs can be circulated and recirculated, but they can also be destroyed, withheld, and so on; ii) the referent – that piece of external reality (object or event) that the photograph presumes to re-present; iii) those events that “photography” sets in motion which do not necessarily result in a photograph (images that were not taken, for instance, or even simply descriptions of photographs, which in themselves can carry force).
4. There is much more to the photographic situation than can be seen in any given image.
5. The event of photography can produce a strongly affective situation. The emotions, feelings, and affects that are produced in the photographic situation should themselves be considered events. But the emotional situation is unpredictable, incalculable, and can reverse into its opposite (i.e. lynching photographs circulated both as tools of terrorism and as emblems of resistance to this form of political violence).
6. The various participants in the photographic situation usually do not have an equal role. However, no one individual or institution can clearly claim control or mastery of the photographic situation. In part, this is because photography, as Walter Benjamin noted, is marked by the presence of das Es, the unconscious, or simply “It.” Benjamin’s description of the “optical unconscious” suggests on one hand that the potential for photographic vision has not been exhausted (Blossfeldt’s enlargements, medical imaging, surveillance, etc.), but more radically that this force will belie any effort to master the event of photography: “It” shows.
7. The photographic situation is based on the circulation of images and pictures. These images and pictures can be translated into speech acts but images and words carry different modes and powers of signification. It is an act of translation to bring images to speech.