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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Richard Powers, in his debut novel Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, constructs a story about the identity of the three farmers in August Sander’s 1914 photograph of that name. The novel takes on not just the three farmers, but three storylines too. The many characters in his three-thread narrative each, in some way, contribute to the larger story about technology, photography, philosophy, and knowledge. I’ve touched on as much in earlier parts to this series (and more directly in Part 7). There is much to say about Sander’s ambitions as a photographer and Powers’ elegant fictional delivery of those ambitions, but I’ll cut to the chase to keep it in touch with Errol Morris’s Cannonball Run.


Powers reports on Sander’s writing in a 1927 Exhibition, wherein Sander (and thus Powers too) evokes commentary that Morris later echoes:

“We must be able to endure seeing the truth, but above all we should pass it on to our fellow men and to posterity, whether it be favorable or unfavorable to us. Now, if I, as a healthy human being, am so immodest as to see things as they are and not as they are supposed to be, then I beg your pardon, but I can’t act differently….Therefore let me speak the truth in all honesty about our age and the people of our age.”

Powers then describes Sander as a man of his time. That time, as Daston and Galison elsewhere characterize it, is one where the mechanical objectivity ideal of objective representation (one of many historical forms of objective representation) was still in the ascent, in large part because of the ascendancy of photographic evidence. (This is what I started with in the preface.) So, Powers again (pp. 44-45):

But this very belief that he could get at the objective truth dates him, marks him as an anachronism. The nineteenth century had held to the doctrine of perfectibility. Aside from a few holdouts, most of the thinkers of the last century believed in the upward spiral of rationality, which would at last triumph over the imperfections of nature. Sander forsook such meliorism in favor of dispassionate observation. But the main current of the new century broke with reason altogether, embarking on a course of eclectic irrationality. Even the cold machinery of the camera was turned, by the true moderns, to the cause of surreality, absurdity, and abstraction by such devices as composite doctoring, odd and illusory angles, and trick exposures.

Sander, at the same time as those working in physics, psychology, political science, and other disciplines, blundered against and inadvertently helped uncover the principle truth of this century: viewer and viewed are fused into an indivisible whole. To see an object from a distance is already to act on it, to change it, to be changed.

In meeker versions of this, the notion that to see an object is already to change it would be slotted under a Heisenbergian theory, that the act of measuring the position of an electron, say, changes the position of that electron. (Forgive me, physicists, for being slim in the description.) Powers isn’t making an overture to Heisenberg or indeterminacy or theories of the universe. He’s talking about the more fundamental question Morris locked into, about the value of the image, the identity of the viewer, the saliency of visual evidence.* I’d say Powers is more interested in the identity of the viewer in his book. So there’s this, about two-thirds into it (p. 209):

I continually write my own biography by my actions, mixing involvement with knowledge, accountable to those moments when both drop away to reveal the act of mixing–something a priori recognizable. This process doe not differ measurably from the way I come to understand others, my time, or past times. Memory, then, is not only a backward retrieval of a vanished event, but also a posting forward, at the remembered instant, to all future moments of corresponding circumstance.

We remember forward; we telegraph ourselves to our future selves and to others: “Rescue this; recognize this, or not this, but the recognizing.” If we constantly re-form the continuity of our past with each new experience, then each message posed out of an obscure or as yet unexperienced past represents a challenge to re-form the future. No action unchanged by observation. No observation without incriminating action. Every moment of unsponsored recognition calls me to return to the uninspired world, to continue the daily routine of invention and observation, to dirty my hands in whatever work my hands can do.

A nice bit of writing there, I think. But if Powers is more interested in the identity of the viewer in his book, Morris is more interested in the meaning of visual images in public debate, and Daston and Galison are more interested in the historical context within which those subjects are pursued. Powers has technology and identity; Morris has photography and veracity; Daston and Galison have history and objectivity.

Although that’s not entirely fair–because Powers is as much interested in the historical context as Daston and Galison, and it turns out Morris is too. They just come at it down different roads. In fact, I’m re-reading that Powers quote just now, and it gives me a sense of the value of historical inquiry in the first place: “If we constantly re-form the continuity of our past with each new experience, then each message posed out of an obscure or as yet unexperienced past represents a challenge to re-form the future.”

I think what’s gotten me over the past few months, wending my way through the authors, picking up more along the way, is that each of them is to some extent pursuing the same thing by different means. The scientific, historical, technological, fictional, and investigative journalist approaches are neither superior nor inferior to one another a priori, but born of the same cultural circumstances. And they cohere. Like a good Jonah Lehrer book about the neuroscientific resonance of Proust’s writing, the Morris/Powers/Daston/Galison juncture is neither art nor science but meaningfully both.

Which means this one ends with a final Powers quote, describing one of the three farmers, Peter, sharing the pride of his true image:

Peter created a sensation in his old neighborhood by showing the photo that the boys had purchased …. He explained how this one was better than a formal studio portrait because it showed them as they were, really, on that day, with no lies or covering up. An old Dutchman, dubious, remarked that they had been taken: if they wanted ‘as they were’ they could look around them anytime and get it for free. If they were going to pay good money for a photograph, it ought to be for ‘as they ought to be’.

In the final part of this series, coming next, I promise, I’ll see if I can look at those cannonballs as they ought to be.

* The sociologist and sciences studies scholar Kelly Joyce discusses much the same with respect to medical knowledge in her book on MRI, Magnetic Appeal. If you didn’t get a chance to read about it, check out the thumbnail version offered in this conversation.