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Journal Article

The Evidence of Sight

Julia Adeney Thomas
History and Theory
Vol. 48, No. 4, Theme Issue 48: Photography and Historical Interpretation (Dec., 2009), pp. 151-168
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25621445
Page Count: 18
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The Evidence of Sight
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Abstract

In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault focuses on excavating discursive formations, but he acknowledges that a pre-discursive reality, "the enigmatic treasure of 'things' anterior to discourse," also exists. This divide between the pre-discursive and the discursive is straddled, I argue, by photographs as historians use them. The reason for photography's dual capacity lies with the complex nature of sight, which is both precognitive (primarily so, as neuroscience demonstrates), and also culturally encoded. Historians most commonly rely on mute sensuality; they place photographs in books with little comment, implying that some form of unmediated recognition is possible. Used in this way, photographs cannot serve as the basis for new analyses but may underscore the affective stance of historians toward their topics. Less commonly, historians interrogate photographs much like texts, locating them within the discourses through which they emerged. This strategy treats the experience of sight, in Joan Scott's words, as "an interpretation that needs to be interpreted." Photographs seen as discursive objects may provide understanding of past political and social relations, but we lose any assurance that we can recognize and intuitively understand their subjects. In short, we risk blindness. I explore these two fundamentally different strategies for approaching photographs, using the concepts of recognition and excavation to examine an image made in 1946 by Japanese photographer Hayashi Tadahiko. Photographs, I argue, expose our dual relationship with the past, both visceral and cultural.

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