Photography is—as I hope to demonstrate—radically anti-Cartesian. It shows us that there really is a world, that it wants to be seen by us, and that it exceeds our capacity to know it. Photography also shows us that the world is structured by analogy, and helps us find our place within it. When I say “analogy,” I do not mean sameness, symbolic equivalence, logical adequation, or even a rhetorical figure—like a metaphor or a simile—in which one term functions as the provisional placeholder for another. I am talking, rather, about the “vast similitude” that Walt Whitman describes in a famous passage from Leaves of Grass. “A vast similitude interlocks all/,” this passage reads, “All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets,/All distances of place however wide, /All distances of time, all inanimate forms, /All souls, all bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,/All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the brutes,/All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,/All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,/All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future….”13
I quoted this passage in its entirety because it anticipates everything I have to say about analogy. Each of us is connected through similarities that are neither of our making or our choosing to countless other beings. We cannot extricate ourselves from these relationships, because there is no such thing as an individual; the smallest unit of Being is two interlocking terms. There is also nowhere else to go. Analogy runs through everything-that-is like a shuttle through a loom, weaving its threads into the All, or what I call the “world.” But this does not mean that there is no dissent. Analogies contain difference as well as similarity—sometimes in small proportions, but sometimes in such large proportions that they seem at risk of falling apart. The world is also an untotalizable totality, because it is in a constant state of transformation. Since analogy prevents similar things from collapsing into, and disparate things from going their separate ways, it is ontologically democratizing. Everything matters.
Since we refuse to acknowledge most of the analogies that link us to others, our ontological equality seldom translates into social equality, and might therefore seem irrelevant. However, these analogies destabilize all of our hierarchies, and undermine all of our antitheses. The world also sends us constant reminders that there is another kind of relationality. These reminders are photographs—either literally, or by other means. Photography is able to disclose the world, show us that it is structured by analogy, and help us assume our place within it because it, too, is analogical. A negative analogizes its referent, the positive prints that are generated from it, and all of its digital offspring. It also moves through time, in search of other “kin.” We are no more the authors of these analogies than we are of those that define us; the photographic image is an ontological calling card—the vehicle through which the world presents itself to us, and reveals us to ourselves.
The most classic way of responding to an analogy that ones does not want to acknowledge is either to treat its similarity as “sameness,” or its difference as “otherness.” Most of us have done this so often that we are no longer able to perceive either quality when it falls below a certain level. In the last chapter of Flesh of My Flesh, I argued that Gerhard Richter renews our capacity to apprehend small differences as differences by making paintings that analogize photographs, and that he includes photography in these analogies because there is something inherently photographic about this kind of relationship. The analogies that link one print of a negative to all of the other prints of the same negative also turn on variations so slight that we have a hard time seeing them, and many photographs are startlingly “like” their referents.
I address this sort of analogy here as well, but I am more concerned with analogies in which there is an overwhelming amount of difference, and that are held together though reversible reversals, or what Merleau-Ponty calls “chiasmus.” This is also a quintessentially photographic kind of analogy. Photography models it for us through the inversion and lateral reversal of the camera obscura’s image-stream, the positive print’s reversal of the reversal through which its negative was made, the two-way street leading from the space of the viewer to that of the stereoscopic image, cinema’s shot/reverse shot formation, and the cross-temporal practices of some contemporary artists. I say “model” because we, too, are bound to each other through reversible reversals, and because it is there, and only there, that the promise of social happiness can still be glimpsed.
Not only is the photographic image an analogy, rather than a representation or an index, analogy is also the fluid in which the so-called “medium” of photography develops—and often in unexpected directions. This process does not begin when we decide that it should, or end when we command it to. Photography develops, rather, with us, and in response to us. It assumes historically-legible forms, and when we divest them of their saving power, generally by imputing them to ourselves, it goes elsewhere. The earliest of these forms was the pinhole camera, which was more “found” than invented. It morphed into the optical camera obscura, was reborn as chemical photography, migrated into literature and painting, and lives on in a digital form. It will not end until we do.