The Mechanical Revolution

The aim of art must therefore lie in something still other than
the purely mechanical imitation of what is there,
which in every case can bring to birth only
technical tricks, not works, of art.

- Hegel, Aesthetics [1]

By kicking poets out of his Republic, Plato simultaneously endeared himself to those aristocratic devotees of the beautiful who prefer to enjoy objects but not to rub elbows too closely with their makers,[2] and formulated an opposition between categories which has served this class through perpetrating this confused opposition. At issue are mimesis and nature, reason and power,[3] thought/discourse and desire. Bernini, one might well maintain, stormed his way back into the Republic or at least into the seventeenth-century temporal version of Augustine's Heavenly City, the Vatican. In the process of a long life during which he worked for many Popes, the artist transfigured the face of Rome, and even as his monumental architecture and illusionistic/ dramaturigical sculptures illicitly magnified the voice of God through smuggling in a new celebration of the senses, his Cornaro Chapel pushed beyond both Plato's bogus dichotomy and its Christianized form as propagated through Church dogma.

European Romantic and post-Romantic artists in increasing numbers rejected mimesis on political as well as other grounds. The eighteenth-century reformulation of ut pictura poesis worked in tandem with the rationalism of the time to view experience with a predominantly mechanical model in which some of the parts had become interchangeable. Accordingly, this doctrine "sought to overcome the separation of time and space, body and soul, by making poetry and painting more similar, adding them together as complementary representations, or reducing them to their common denominator, nature."[4] Blake among others resisted. With evident pleasure in the power with which his skill as a visual artist enabled him to attack the rigidities of verbal-language conventions, Blake emphasized the contrarieties of experience.[5] He alludes to the diabolical nature of the formation of linear imageries through the positive-negative reversal process upon which etching is based. The image is formed through the action of the "mordant" or acid biting (speaking) down below the planar surface of the plate (into hell), which prints up blank. "Reality" is produced, therefore, in a double strategy: a process of violent removal, destruction, is followed by a steady state in which the new results from a balancing of this destruction with its remnants. Hence "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." "Blake wanted to combine spatial and temporal form in his illuminated books not to produce a fuller imitation of the total objective world, but to dramatize the interaction of the apparent dualities in our experience of the world."[6]

This positive-negative process incorporates so-called negative space or background into a more dynamic relationship with foreground elements. In conservative art,[7] curiously, the emphasis gets implicitly refocused onto the dynamic. In order to dominate nature (understood in the vulgar sense of space), it became important to control time, through the progressive elimination of its appearance in the materiality of painting.[8] Thus history, desire, and death are suppressed. Painting comes to structure itself on a notion of space which is in "perfect" consonance with the factory or machine dynamic. In this way the category of perfection is once again redeemed and honored for the long service it has provided to those in power. Now perfection becomes that which moves rather than that which reflects God's image or that which glorifies man's accomplishments. In a stark pattern of emptinesses, Bernini's Teresa saw through the parts of the machine; Blake's cosmology but especially his illuminated books the chief content of which is "illustrations which do not illustrate"[9] reverse the machine's parts so that it works against itself, to generate friction, fire, self-consumption of the system within its own antipathetic energies.

These matters find their most strikingly summative form in the invention of photography, a medium whose technical and aesthetic developments closely parallel those discussed above.[10] The serial and exact reproduction of the conventional illusions of real-time imagery was so urgently required under the altered factory set-up that its appearance in England (simultaneously in France) precisely at the time of the nascent industrial revolution can hardly surprise us.[11] Both of the technical inventions of which photography as we know it is constituted reveal profound parallels with the machine ethic. First was the process by which the optically accessible "outer world" became recordable upon a metal plate without the intervention of the shaping hand burdened with its craft conventions. Nevertheless, in the move to eliminate the gap between image and reality, art and life, appearance and essence, technology flooded in to create a new, much larger division. This consisted of the optics and chemistry which must intercede, the breaking down of the art-making process into distinct steps (exposure, development, printing), thus reinstituting the rupture, but now a machine-controlled one.[12] Photographers became dependent on manufacturing and distribution of equipment and supplies to the same degree that they broke with the individualizing craft conventions of more traditional media.[13] Nièpce, Fox Talbot, and especially Daguerre began to generate likenesses whose presence in society was enthusiastically received by the new middle class. This was done in a positive-to-positive process such that an instant in time was frozen upon the plate, the first level of remove in the extraction of the subject from its traditional locus. However, the individuality of the plate was still identifiable with and analogous to that of the sitter; an auratic presence lingered.

The second level was achieved when the negative-to- positive(s) process was invented,[14] permitting a complete standardization through repeatability and therefore effective banishment of the subject (who controls the appearances controls reality). This was purchased at the expense of the introduction of yet one more step in the photographic process. The body was thereby reduced to potentially infinite and identical versions of itself in this structural representation of the triumph of the machine's entry into and conversion of the social formation.

Photography's impact upon painting was twofold. First, painters of likenesses found themselves usurped by the newcomer, which sought every means of dignifying itself through adopting conventions of easel painting, such as Oscar G. Rejlander's elaborate allegorical set-ups, the use of selective soft-focus, printing on papers with surfaces that mimiced canvas, and actual hand-alterations of the physical image through coloring (before the invention of color processes). However, these proved unnecessary since the medium itself was suited to the production of likenesses, delivering the most exact replicas[15] which Western culture had known, and it was the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to this alone which spurred the search for the negative-to-positive process. This mimetic power then freed painting from its centuries-long enslavement to its Renaissance notion of the realistic, enabling it to transit into the inner world of symbolism and to surface upon the layer of pigment itself in the various schools of abstraction.[16] Such developments, however, should be seen as ancillary to the uses to which society was putting photographic images, most of which served (still serve) nostalgic or commercial purposes. Photography, whose structure is the outer appearance of an economic process, appropriately came of age during the great heyday of commodity capitalism; indeed, its successes may easily be attributed to the ability of photography to externalize its energies through objectifying job-created levels of dissatisfaction which it then persuades can be overcome through buying.[17] As such, photography was tightly implicated in the economic structure and in spite of the early efforts of Stieglitz, Steichen, the f- 64 group, Strand, and several others, it really began to achieve a generally accepted "fine-arts" status only as late as the 1960s, and this only for black-and-white.

The photographic image, a snapshot of history physically/chemically ripped out of the flow of time, can only be adequately understood by seeing through its false hypostasis as the ultimate deception in which we are told, "Look; this is just the way it was" whereas such formulations in fact deny history, desire, and death. In this sense the photographic image is false, but only in this sense. Realism, I am suggesting, is precisely the wrong category with which to approach the photograph; rather, if we use the term we must expand its applicability to include that which it was designed to exclude, which means that the photograph itself must be raised to the coefficient of weirdness (to be found in the gaps between positive and negative) so as to allow its repressed Other a voice. Voice is the right word here-- multivocal unfolding of the articulatory phonetics which the realist image chokes in the body's throat.[18] Barthes comes to a similar conclusion with his notion of the "photographic ecstasy" in which photography's madness is an absolute realism, "obliging the loving and terrified consciousness to return to the very letter of Time"[19] (emphasis added). Madness, as Foucault has indicated, is the social suppression of speech. "Madness, in the classical sense, does not designate so much a specific change in the mind or in the body, as the existence, under the body's alterations, of a delirious discourse."[20] But such a notion, if one assumes a "reasonable" structure to society, is itself madness, since discourse is the shining outer raiment of reason itself. That is, within the context of discourse and its constituent presuppositions, "delirious discourse" is contradictory (i.e., "insane sanity"). The photograph, I am arguing, resides in the space between reason and its converse, and can be identified with one or the other only by doing damage to its "innere Notwendigkeit" or concealed fractures (positive/negative). These splits are its madness, consequently the source of its real aesthetic power.

Realism as such, of course, was not completely displaced by the appearance of the photograph. As a way of seeing and bodying forth such seeing, it became the increasingly stressed seam between an interiorizing imaginative realm and that of society, the place of people in the world. By allowing the peasantry into the picture, Millet helped to create the kind of realism which was energized by its "political" criticism. "The Sower" (1850), painted shortly after the political upheavals of the mid-century, was at first interpreted as an ominous, symbolic prefiguring of the rise to power of the peasantry; later in the century, after the revolution had failed again, the new petty bourgeoisie was pleased to see in such images a reflection of its country cousins raised to semi-heroic status. Even though a mass exodus from the country was occurring, corn was still being planted, wheat harvested, traditional work being done, and so there was nothing to worry about.[21] That Millet himself was divided in his uses of realism can be seen from such diverse reactions[22] as well as from his tendency to idealize his peasants, visually mitigating the inhumanity of their social condition through sweet coloration of the skies or the gold shimmer he spread over his harvest and threshing scenes, monumentalizing the peasants through raising the vanishing point, and concentration on socially stereotyped activities. In his "Shepherdess and Flock at Sunset" (1868-70), for example, there is a last burst of light preceding sunset which bathes the figure, a female Savior, with mystical illumination. Such subject matter in mid-century France, then, was simultaneously a (somewhat innocuous) social statement and almost the most effective imaginable means of robbing art of its potential for serious engagement. What had been repressed by realism in painting (i.e., its structural, intimate interweaving with the social formation) was slowly beginning to work its way back in, which necessitated the ultimate dissolution of the very constituent elements of such a manner. Hence Millet's ambiguities. In order for a realist mode to work successfully, it was not enough to re-present previously excluded subject matter; the internal structure of representation itself had to be reformulated. The whole school of French Impressionism, indeed, can be seen as realism's death rictus, a swan song whose now nostalgic and safe beauty still enchants the masses.

What such painting could no longer ignore appeared under other guises. Artists either introjected the conflict in a contemporary psychomachia (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Millais, Holman Hunt, Toorop, Böcklin, Huysmann, the symbolists) or pursued the alternate course through the chilling ironies of the naturalist style with its brittle, glittering, paranoid surfaces (Flaubert, Stendahl, Norris, Zola, the Joyce of The Dubliners). Zola's so-called experimentalism, for example, set itself up as an ironic reflection upon the all too ostensible social failures which the "triumph" of vulgar science in the pay of rampant industrialization perpetrated. He launched an attack on the "rotten. . . lyricism" which had become the hallmark of degenerative Romanticism's misbegotten flight from the more obvious ravages of the industrial revolution. Curiously, Zola assumes the persona of the objective, neutral observer, the prototype mask of the emergent scientist, as if to take on the enemy with his own weapons. As he succintly puts it, "we are very much mistaken when we think that the characteristic of a good style is a sublime confusion with just a dash of madness added; in reality, the excellence of a style depends upon its logic and clearness."[23] Zola's comments (recalling a neoclassical view of style) are not based on facile distinctions between sublime and vulgar, elevated and demotic, which come down from the Greeks, passing through the Renaissance doctrine of decorum (analyzed by Rosamund Tuve), into the nineteenth century. He seeks rather to undermine by donning the white lab apron of sanitized objectivity in order to smuggle a charge of subjectivity back into the formula. Zola thus pretends to look frankly to science as a curative balance. The specific discipline he cites is medicine, which provides him with appropriate metaphoric overtones of sickness and health in the realm of culture. He praises Claude Bernard's treatment of the experimental method in medicine and goes on to say that "experiment is but provoked observation. All experiment is based on doubt, for the experimentalist should have no preconceived idea, in the face of nature, and should always retain his liberty of thought."[24] This Cartesian flight from preconception as a dangerous dilutant of the "truth" grows out of the natural-science methods which had their origins in the Latin Middle Ages. It was not until the Enlightenment had seemingly purged the mind of superstitious adherence to religious and primitive complexes (read preconceptions) that this experimental method began to deliver dramatic results (Copernicus, Boyle, Priestley, Newton, Pasteur). With the triumph of Enlightenment principles of logic, reason, objectivity, balance, and the middle way came the illusion that at last the ontological Archimidean point had been discovered. Although there were occasional significant counter-opinions (Blake, Rimbaud), disinterested experimentalist objectivity, backed to the hilt by the "official" justifications provided by analytic philosophies (Locke, Bentham), continued to make ground right through the nineteenth century; indeed, mainstream Romanticism (Don Juan, Childe Harold, "Ode to the West Wind," Novalis, Friedrich, Runge, "Ode on a Grecian Urn") simply underlines these gains, providing rich shadow detail whereby the profile of reason is cast more prominently into view.

Rather than adding one more stroke to the shaded area, Zola opts for the other side of the dialectic. He claims that "the experimental novel is a consequence of the scientific evolution of the century. . . the literature of our scientific age,"[25] and he speaks of the "impersonal character" of the method.[26] Zola's "experimental novel" sought to generate character through a solid basis of all narrative data in concrete social situations.[27] These situations, however, were drawn from the lower-class degradations spawned by the new manufacturing economy. A class situation was delineated; characters were "placed" in the social milieu much as a rat might be placed somewhere in a maze; the author/reader then "observed" the outcome (the all-seeing, removed eye), which was morally disastrous as would be expected, since the "preconceptions" had entered through the process of selecting the situation. Contrary to the intrusion of an all-knowing narrator (as in Trollope and Thackeray, for example), in the experimental novel incursions of the ego were supposed to be held to a minimum. In this way Zola emulated the suppression of the subjective factor, taking as his model scientific empiricism; however, insofar as his works are in fact selective (structured on "preconceptions"), they derive value from the presence of this factor, which Zola reconstitutes in accordance with those changes in the social/economic structure he perceived as important. "It is the characteristic of the experimental method to depend only on itself. . . It recognizes no authority but that of facts, and it frees itself from personal authority." [28] This principle of impersonality will become increasingly germane to an understanding of modernism.

Thus the methods of both Millet and Zola show evidence of internally contradictory impulses at work, which surface precisely upon our questioning the political thrust of their efforts. The positive/negative dialectic built into Blake's cosmology as well as his aesthetics, and the splittings or removals by means of which photography came to triumph over the limitations of representational realism in painting are preludes to the major directions in European art in the mid- and late-nineteenth century. Both realism in nineteenth-century painting and the literary naturalism of the same period, being bound into the social formation through representation with its necessary, constitutive suppressions, prove structurally unable to accomodate difference (read political subversion).

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1 G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Vol. 1. London: Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 45.

2 Cf. the following from Villiers de l'Isle Adam's Axel: "Vivre, nos serviteurs ferons cela pour nous," after which both hero and heroine commit suicide.

3 "Reason and power are one and the same thing." Jean- Francois Lyotard, Driftworks, New York: Semiotext(e), 1984, p. 11.

4 W.J.T. Mitchell, Blake's Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978, p. 33.

5 See H. Bloom's commentary in Blake, The Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Garden City: Doubleday, 1970, pp. 811-12.

6 Ibid., p. 33.

7 John Berger's Ways of Seeing (London: BBC, 1972) indicates that most oil painting done between roughly 1500 and 1900 (and perhaps since) has been concerned primarily with providing predetermined "views" based on property, prestige, status.

8 "The logic of the Gaze is therefore subject to two great laws: the body (of the painter, of the viewer) is reduced to a single point, the macula of the retinal surface; and the moment of the Gaze (for the painter, for the viewer) is placed outside duration. . . the disappearance of the body." Norman Bryson, Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983, p. 96.

9 Mitchell, p. 4.

10 "The speed with which the possible uses of photography were seized upon is surely an indication of photography's profound, central applicability to industrial capitalism." John Berger, About Looking, New York: Pantheon Books, 1980, p. 48.

11 That is, factory production is predicated upon the mechanically achieved repeatability of the quantifiable. This redefinition of "the object" (now no longer the abstract values so cherished by theology and ethics) drove the classical "subject" from its traditional haunts in Church and aristocracy; atomistic philosophies of sensation and utilitarianism's Byzantine quantifications of pains and pleasures replaced earlier systems of idealist justification; mid-century reforms came in response to mounting social unrest; theories of social betterment were to "work" indirectly to elevate the new industrial army of the poor from step to Tennysonian step through the clouds of pollution incidentally produced by manufactories to a golden and grand synthesis of reason with desire.

12 "Ideology" thus enters the picture. ". . . there are factors that go beyond the predelictions of the person handling the photographic apparatus, to the ideologically charged nature of the apparatus itself." Brian Winston, "A Whole Technology of Dyeing: A Note on Ideology and the Apparatus of the Chromatic Moving Image," Daedalus, Vol. 114, #4(Fall, 1985), 105. Winston confines his discussion to color processing.

13 By extension, of course, film is an even more "communal" medium than still photography.

14 "Photographic Drawing, the first negative-positive process, was described by William Henry Fox Talbot in a paper presented to the Royal Society (London) on January 31, 1839 seven months before the daguerreotype." John M. Sturge, ed. Neblette's Handbook of Photography and Reprography: Materials, Processes, and Systems. 7th edition. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977, p. 4. However, this process proved unworkable; it was not until 1851 that a better process was invented. "In 1851, a more practical process, using collodion, was pubolished by Frederick Scott Archer of London. It was not a simple process, nor was it convenient, but it produced sharp negatives from which any number of positive prints could be made on silver chloride printing-out paper. It soon replaced all other processes, including the daguerreotype." Ibid., p. 5.

5 See Bryson's discussion of the traditional notion of the effect of the real as being produced by the degree of approximation of art to a "Universal Copy", in Vision and Painting, p. 3.

16 "In Flaubert's 'Dictionary of Received Ideas' the entry under 'Photography' reads, 'Will make painting obsolete. (See Daguerreotype.)' And the entry for 'Daguerreotype' reads, in turn, 'Will take the place of painting. (See Photography.)' No one took seriously the possibility that photography might usurp painting. Less than half a century after photography's invention such a notion was one of those received ideas to be parodied. In our century until recently only Walter Benjamin gave credence to the notion, claiming that inevitably photography would have a truly profound effect upon art, even to the extent that the art of painting might disappear, having lost its all-important aura through mechanical reproduction. A denial of this power of photogrpahy to transform art continued to energize modernist painting through the immediate postwar period in America. But then in the work of Rauschenberg photography began to conspire with painting in its own destruction." Douglas Crimp, "On the Museum's Ruins," in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983, pp. 51, 3.

17 "Publicity is, in essence, nostalgic. It has to sell the past to the future." Berger, p. 139.

18 Not the voice of the bankrupt metaphysics of presence, but rather that of intimacy: "For vision [i.e., photography] is hardly disinterested; nor is it indifferent, as Luce Irigaray has observed: 'Investment in the look is not privileged in women as in men. More than the other senses, the eye objectifies and masters. It sets at a distance, maintains the distance. In our culture, the predominance of the look over smell, taste, touch, hearing, has brought about an impoverishment of bodily relations. . . . The moment the look dominates, the body loses its materiality.' That is, it is transformed into an image." Craig Owens, "The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism," in The Anti- Aesthetic, p. 70.

19 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981, pp. 118-9.

20 Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Vintage Books, 1973, p. 99.

21 "Towards the end of the century, when the economic and social stability of capitalism was more assured, his paintings offered other meanings. . . . The pride with which a class first sees itself recognisably depicted in a permanent work of art is full of pleasure." John Berger, "Millet and the Peasant," About Looking, pp. 74-5.

22 "The Sower became both the trademark for a US bank and a symbol of revolution in Peking and Cuba." Ibid., p. 69.

23 The Experimental Novel and Other Essays. New York: Haskell House, 1964, p. 48.

24 Ibid., p. 3.

25 Ibid., p. 23.

26 Ibid., p. 43.

27 The novel, of course, is defined as that art form which is constituted of social narrative itself; as such, it must reify. With regard to a view of narrative which is expanded and realigned with scientific discourse itself as seen from our own time, note the following: "the continuous differentiable function is losing its preeminence as a paradigm of knowledge and prediction. Postmodern science by concerning itself with such things as undecidables, the limits of precise control, conflicts characterized by incomplete information, 'fracta,' catastrophes, and pragmatic paradoxes is theorizing its own evolution as discontinuous, catastrophic, nonrectifiable, and paradoxical. It is changing the meaning of the word knowledge, while expressing how such a change can take place. It is producing not the known, but the unknown. And it suggests a model of legitimation that has nothing to do with maximized performance, but has as its basis difference understood as paralogy." Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, p. 60.

28 Ibid., p. 44.

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