World's Fair

Preface | Pt. 1 | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3 | (Sidebar 1) | Pt. 4 | Pt. 5 | Pt. 6

Pt. 7 | (Sidebar 2a) | (Sidebar 2b) | Pt. 8 | Pt. 9 | Conclusion

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“Synchroneity. All times at one. My hobby.”*

This one’s about bombs and mercury and milk and Communists and theater and world history. That’s all.

Daston and Galison’s Objectivity (See Preface, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2) begins with a quick prologue setting up the basic ideas of the book. That prologue tells of the physicist Arthur Worthington, who in the 1870s had first hand drawn the results of his experiments in fluid dynamics–”untangling the complex process of fluid flow into a systematic, visual classification.” The drawings were all symmetrical and followed neat patterns. Worthington was recording by hand what he’d seen with his instruments in an objective manner that matched the truth-to-nature phase of image-making objectivity. I’ll start there.


Here are those first images (with apologies that the image reproduces as slightly skewed**):

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A. Worthington (1877) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, as reproduced in Objectivity (p. 12). He even noted that there were “most often” twenty-four arms in Figure 3.

However, when he took pictures of the same phenomenon in the 1890s, using new fangled photography, he was astonished to find that the droplets did not in fact symmetrically splash. Worthington writes with apparent angst that he had earlier used his best training to record, by eye, what he considered the best experimental data he produced. But as it turned out, he noted, the camera did not lie. He had been wrong. It’s D and G’s example to show the difference between the truth-to-nature kind of objective representation and the rising era of mechanical objectivity. (Again, see Pt. 1.)

Here is the instrument’s capture of the sight of droplets splashing:

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A. Worthington (1894) in the Proceedings of the Royal Institution, as reproduced in Objectivity (p. 14). This time the image is of “instantaneous photographs,” and it’s milk, not mercury.

Those drops look to me an awful lot like the explosion of the atomic bomb. (Check out Plate 2 especially.) Better put, something in the two sets of images seems evocative of the atomic bomb’s detonation and dispersion. The technical center of this sidebar is thus the atomic bomb; the non-technical center is the artistic premise and promise of literary and visual synchroneity.

I would be only the most recent to say, if I did, that the atomic bomb–and its nuclear definition, its role in war, peace, power, treaty, spirit, angst, policy, psyche–marks our extended moment in history. Following a lead from Errol Morris, though, and then Lawrence Weschler, and then Khrushchev and Kennedy, I’d offer that the atomic bomb’s place in modern narratives is only a glimpse of a far longer story.

In the midst of the second part of his three essays on the truth-status of photography (or lack thereof), Errol Morris alludes to Khrushchev and Kennedy to explain a strange connection he found when traveling in the Crimea. The cannonball query Morris set off on last year was about finding how and perhaps why Roger Fenton took two different pictures of the same scene at the battle of Sebastopol in the Crimean War in 1855. Morris notes that Khrushchev, a Ukrainian, gave the Crimea to himself–to the USSR–as a birthday present. After the Soviet Union collapsed and the Ukraine was itself again, it retained the Crimea. This happened even though it had part of Russia before the USSR and well before Khrushchev wrapped it up, put a bow on the box, and set it beside his birthday cake back in the 1950s.

Morris, I should say, has been nothing if not committed to his quest. He comes upon the Sontag line about Fenton, tracks back the references, conducts interviews, commissions experts to do measurements, and catalogs it all on the webspace of the most vaunted newspaper in modern history. But that’s just the half of it. Most impressively, he also actually goes to Sebastopol to look around in person. Here I am, going as far as my kitchen to refill my coffee and he’s circling the globe in pursuit of an answer.

In Sebastopol he hires a local guide to help him find his way. His local guide, Olga, is Russian and none too happy that Crimea is part of the Ukraine. Morris finds this out when they walk close to Khrushchev’s dacha–basically a vacation home–which sits on the edge of the Black Sea in a position he considered closest to Turkey (though that pesky curvature of the earth prevents anyone from actually seeing from the Crimea over to Turkey). The detail is not incidental to the larger traffic of world history.

Khrushchev was thinking about the Jupiter missiles Kennedy had placed in Turkey across the Black Sea and aimed squarely at him, at the USSR. As Morris tells it, Khrushchev decided from that dacha to do likewise and set up shop in Cuba with some missiles pointing at the US. Of course we know that since Cuba was then under the rule of that New York Yankee wanna-be Fidel Castro–having been ruling for just a few years at that point–that the Cuban Missile Crisis had set its terms.***

Continued in Sidebar 2b tomorrow, as I’m only halfway there at this point…

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*From Powers, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance

**Go ahead. Come up with something to explain the potential intentionality of displaying the image in an asymmetrical way.

***Morris says this about that crisis and about war more broadly speaking: it “is a difficult, if not impossible thing to understand, yet we feel compelled to describe it as though it has meaning – even virtue. It starts for reasons often hopelessly obscure, meanders on, then stops.” It could be a comment on the Cuban Missile Crisis, the subject he’d just been discussing. Or the Second World War, then only seventeen years past, which “then, stops” with the bombs. (Imagine that – if the Cuban Missile Crisis were today, then WWII would’ve been over only since 1991.) Or the first World War, which Richard Powers’s Three Farmers were nearly walking to on the country road that absorbed August Sander in the picture at the center of Powers’s book (see Pt. 7). Or the Crimean War, which an earlier thread in this series noted was itself of unclear origins and unclear results. Or Iraq, now, unbelievably, having gone on longer than both WWII and the Crimean War.