When, in 1844, William Henry Fox Talbot published his collection of essays and photographs titled The Pencil of Nature and so officially staked his claim to the mantle of inventor of photography, the question of who made photography first hung upon the answer to another question altogether: what exactly makes photography photography? Is it the combination of undistorted images and portability that allowed the prism-based camera lucida to displace the lens-cast shadows of the darkened room that was the camera obscura? Louis Daguerre's technique for fixing images on metal plates? For Talbot, the plausibility of his claim to priority rested, I want to suggest, on his locating his invention of a technology for both fixing images and rendering them endlessly reproducible within a history other than the one we might retrospectively assume, a history other than that connecting one light-casting technology to the next. (1)
To illuminate this alternative history, which will eventually lead us to John Stuart Mill, I want to begin by considering a reflection by Talbot. On an early October day in 1833, by the shores of Lake Como, the erstwhile inventor, whose photographic experimentations drew on his training as a mathematician, chemist, and linguist, suddenly halted in frustration his efforts to take sketches by using William Hyde Wollaston's camera lucida. "When the eye was removed from the prism--in which all looked beautiful--I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold," Talbot recalls in his essay "A Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art." (2) In 1839, six years after the failure of the Lake Como sketches set him casting about for an alternative method for storing images of light, he announced the success of his experiments before the Royal Society, having hit upon a mixture of silver and iodine that produced negative images that could be printed repeatedly before they faded. By the time he finally published this reflection "A Brief Historical Sketch" along with a quarto of his own prints as The Pencil of Nature in 1844, Talbot no longer understood himself to be presenting the wholly unfamiliar: "The term 'Photography' is now so well known, that an explanation of it is perhaps superfluous; yet as some persons may still be unacquainted with the art, even by name, its discovery being of very recent date, a few words may be looked for of general explanation." For Talbot, photography was not simply a new technology. It had become a discourse as well. Any "explanation" he might offer of photography's meaning needed to take account of the term's public proliferation and reception, as well as its technical details. Discursive and technological histories join here. Nestling his "Brief Historical Sketch" within his Pencil, Talbot redoubles his title's metaphor and so infuses it with a new descriptive instability in what was the world's first volume to bring together photos and text. His pencil both traces images of light and details the chemical experiments leading to the technology of photographic storage. Talbot thus creates an expansive rubric that brings together drawing and writing as a unified representational medium born of a common technological history.
To appreciate Talbot's claim to innovation and, more significantly, to understand the social and political possibilities made available by his new technology, we need to examine the contours of the history constituted by this expansive rubric: we need to consider photography, as I am arguing Talbot himself does, as an innovation within a history of writing. Nor does Talbot confine his interest in interjecting photography into a history of writing/ drawing to a metaphorical register: Talbot's oldest surviving photograph, dated 20 June 1835, is an image of his own handwriting--the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet. (3) By figuring a Nature wielding its own pencil so as to represent what it sees of itself, Talbot presents us with what has become the most familiar account of photography's revolutionariness: the collapse of seeing and storing that would seem to enable, as if by magic, the representation of perception without the mediation of a human agent. Yet, as he extends and elaborates this initial writing metaphor in the form of the written history that is his "Brief Historical Sketch," the version of photography Talbot offers at once highlights the technology's contingency--but for the precise combination of silver and iodide, it may never have come into being-and implicitly anatomizes the writing it revolutionizes. If nature "writes itself," everyone sees the same image, the logic goes, because photography circumvents mediating perceptual agency. Seeing and storing are conflated. But because Talbot presents this conflation as the outcome of a specific technological development, (4) the relation between seeing and storing-as well as the common vision that supposedly follows from such a relation-appears to be something less than absolutely necessary or inextricable. Rather, this alignment of seeing and storing seems a produced effect that depends upon a pointedly contingent process of experimentation and invention whose outcome might never have occurred and which might be marshaled for not-yet-determined ends. (5) Here's Talbot:
They are impressed by Nature's hand; and what they want as yet of delicacy and finish of execution arises chiefly from our want of sufficient knowledge of her laws. When we have learnt more, by experience, respecting the formation of such pictures, they will doubtless be brought much nearer to perfection; and though we may not be able to conjecture with any certainty what rank they may hereafter attain to as pictorial productions, they will surely find their own sphere of utility.
Naturalness and transparency here bespeak not the absence of a process of experimentation, but the achievement of such experimentation's goals. And it is in this regard that the emergent technology of photography at once evokes and announces its departure from a history of writing. In writing, as Friedrich Kittler reminds us, the representation of perceptions and the storage of that said representation are one and the same. Whereas we can easily imagine, not least because Talbot narrates such scenes for us, the casting of an image of light that does not outlast the instant at which it is produced and perceived, whether falling victim to an inept sketcher or a faulty combination of chemicals, in the case of writing, the act of representing an event or perception and the storage of that representation are thoroughly inextricable from each other. (6) This inextricability of perception and storage is what makes the mediating agent and act of writing impossible to circumvent.
Contextualized in this way, Talbot's "history" presents a photography in which the relation between seeing and storing is both contingent and conflated and thus frames a technology that is capable of abstracting perception from particular and localizable "events" of seeing, knowing, or experiencing. Crucial to photographic technology, at least in Talbot's account of it, is that it brings together and renders noncontradictory a material world that is the consequence of human actions and interventions--the combination of silver and iodide that might not have been-and a realm of perception that makes such distinct actions and interventions beside the point, a realm of perception in which perceivers need not be, or do, anything at a particular place or time.
What we can begin to see is that photography's capacity to yoke together such seemingly contradictory accounts of the necessity of human action allows it to function as a framework for organizing forms of social community or commonness in the absence of moments of self-creation, polity building, legislation, or shared historical experience that are usually understood to undergird modern conceptions of community. No longer tied inextricably to clearly delineable acts or moments of seeing, visual perception-indeed sensory perception more generally construed--emerges as the foundation of a new sort of publicness, one in which commonness need not presuppose a moment of agreement. (7)
Although Talbot's immersion in a process of experimental invention enables him to glimpse both the possibility of such a perceptual notion of publicness and the tenuousness of such a notion, he cannot quite be said to invent the concept. Nor is it confined to his technological innovation. The emergence of a perception-based publicness also helps us to make sense of certain movements over the course of the career of one of nineteenth-century Britain's foremost theorists of the concept of the public: John Stuart Mill. This framework makes it possible to see connections among various elements of Mill's oeuvre that might otherwise seem distant from one another. The argument I will be making is in part historical and chronological: we can discern the contours of such a public in Mill's thinking as early as his 1833 essay "What Is Poetry?" (the same year Talbot produced his imperfect Lake Como sketches and consequently launched his project of photographic storage), but Mill is unable to imagine this new public's establishment so long as he understands writing to be the primary medium for conveying feelings to large numbers of people. As we shall see, Mill's most well-known and influential writing on publicness, his 1859 On Liberty, is dogged by the difficulties surrounding the sort of writing-based public he first identifies in the poetry essay, and his famous discussion of public debate can be understood as his effort--ultimately an unsuccessful one--to circumvent the coercive effects of this notion of publicness. Only in his final work, The Subjection of Women (1869)--published after the 1867 Reform Bill fundamentally altered prevailing notions of electoral representation, and the development and popularization of photographic technology made it possible to abstract and separate seeing and hearing, as well as to detach visual perception from delimited "acts" of seeing--was Mill able to realize the concept of the perceptually generated, rather than written, agreement-based public he gestures toward in "What Is Poetry?" (8)
I am hardly the first to claim the central importance of the 1833 poetry essay and of poetry more generally to the shape of the development of Mill's career. Indeed, Mill himself famously in his Autobiography (9) identified Wordsworth's poetry as the antidote to what he termed the "Crisis in My Mental Condition":
I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment of pleasurable excitement ... In this frame of mind, it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself, "Suppose that all your objectives in life were realized; that all the changed in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?" And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, "No!" At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constituted fell down. (10)
Mill's story is by now familiar, as is its interpretive gloss. Together, the flatness, the savorlessness of the imagined satisfaction of his life's goals and the remarkable efficacy of the poetic remedy he comes up with can signal only one thing: Mill's recognition of Utilitarianism's failure to value complex feelings adequately. Certainly there is plenty of evidence to support such a reading: "What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind was that they expressed, not outward beauty, but states of feelings and of thought colored by feeling, under the excitement of beauty." From this time on, Mill observes, "the cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed." (11) That the goals of Utilitarianism might be attained and that the value of this attainment might be taken measure of "at the very instant" of the goals' framing and their accomplishment might be seen to testify to their exiguousness; a more expansive and complex vision of human needs and aspirations would resist both instantaneous implementation and instantaneous measure.
I discuss in detail later in this essay the ways in which Mill's conception of poetic production and reception works to dissolve the possibility of such local "events" of institutionalization and valuation. But in resisting what philosopher of science William Whewell elsewhere called Utilitarianism's "Downwards Mode," (12) Mill effectively affiliated himself with a set of positions with a great deal of contemporary currency, perhaps the most famous articulation of which being Thomas Babington Macaulay's 1829 denunciation of James Mill's "deductionism." In his reading of James Mill's On Government, Macaulay roundly criticized the elder Mill for his reasoning by way of logical syllogism, arguing that Mill's pious eschewal of metaphor and his disregard for the existence of actual governments with real and varied practices of ruling were part-and-parcel of one another.
"It is one of the principle tenets of the Utilitarians," Macaulay writes,
that sentiment and eloquence serve only to impede the pursuit of truth. They therefore affect a quakerly plainness, or rather a cynical negligence and impurity of style. The strongest arguments, when clothed in brilliant language, seem to them so much wordy nonsense.... They do not seem to know that logic has its illusions as well as rhetoric--that a fallacy may lurk in a syllogism as well as in a metaphor. (13)
Clearly, part of what is at issue for Macaulay is a misguided, though consistent, Utilitarian commitment to asceticism: only a political philosophy that could reduce human motivation to the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain and the role of government to the management of these minimalist motivations would see virtue in a disdain for expressive forms. Only such an ascetic philosophy would aspire to the communication of pure argumentative content by way of logical syllogism or mathematical equation. But, in Macaulay's view, Mill's commitment to principle follows from the Utilitarians' contempt for metaphor. In pointed contrast to the "quakerly plainness" of Utilitarian deduction, "the inductive method not only endured but required a greater freedom of diction. It was impossible to reason from phenomena to principles, to mark slight shades of difference in quality, or to estimate the comparative effect of two opposite considerations between which there was no common measure, by means of the muted and meagre jargon of the Scholastics. Of these schoolmen, Mr. Mill has inherited both the spirit and the style." (14) Arguing inductively, from facts to principles, requires metaphor to bridge the various kinds of differences among the iterations of objects deemed to be, when all is said and done, fundamentally alike. In this regard, metaphor can be seen to register the fact that induction takes time: to the extent to which it involves the comparison of a series of phenomena--events, facts, objects, effects--that share only certain, not entirely self-evident, qualities in common, such an empirical mode of necessity takes place over time, and in that sense can be understood to take place at no particular instant.
Macaulay's suggestion that James Mill's Utilitarianism might have a characteristic temporality would thus seem to offer us an alternative framework for understanding the younger Mill's crisis: Utilitarianism is as disheartening for the possibility it offers of instantaneous realization as for its indifference toward feeling. But given that the younger Mill began his intellectual life as a committed Utilitarian means we should hardly be surprised to discover that the process by which he marks his distance from Utilitarian premises and methodologies was more fraught than it was for Macaulay.
Mill explicitly announced his abandonment of a deductionist "syllogistic method" in his essay "On the Definition of Political Economy, and on the Method of Investigation Proper to It," written in 1833 (the same year as "What Is Poetry?") and …