Photogenesis: Brokering World

Peter Burleigh

conference: DARE 2017: aberrant nuptials
date: November 21, 2017
venue: Orpheus Institute, Penthouse
format: in words
practice: image
keywords: photography, singularity

abstract about the author(s)


From their inception, the nexus of practices that later became named photography were characterised as being the production of images “impressed by Nature’s hand.” It was a technology seemingly without want of human agency—albeit one where the earliest full proclamation of photography, published by Henry Talbot in a scurry to claim the priority of his “art of photogenic drawing” following Daguerre’s earlier announcement in January 1839, is replete with the reconstruction of human agency: a reflection back in time, documenting Talbot’s discovery of the photogenetic after the event. Precisely such after- the-eventness fully centred in photography’s historiography gives the lie to it as a natural medium, while simultaneously being the very process of making the past present again. It is Talbot’s claims for priority in a radically new technology that fractures the history of representation that he retraces on post hoc reflection. That is, his reconstruction of the paths to his discovery emulates the very character of the technology that leaves residues that may be traced back to an originary juncture—what I call the photogenetic event of image. This temporal singularity, actualised in a condensed spatial form (the image), is then stretched in durational trajectory as a time capsule of the past that constantly recurs in the present. The photographic in general appears to us visually as the totality of these (amassed) residues—a recording of world that accumulates after the event. This is, after all, what we see first in the immediacy of the billions of images we now produce: the optical visibility of seemingly automatised technique: mostly banal, unary, mundane. Yet, it is my argument that the photographic also renders visible something other than that which it pictures whether iconically, indexically, or symbolically. In its very make-up, the photograph does more than represent the world; it manifests the photogenetic event:   it makes visible, it actualises flows of difference, bringing the world into image form. In this rendition of photography, then, the trite, calcified image is folded over the erudite image through which we learn about how such islands of meaning—each time-machine that the photograph is—stretch archipelago-like through time and space as a shifting, moving mass of  sensation that is both a topography of  miniature zones of  intensity  and a physical form of signalisation. The photographic radically shifts from an inductive technique, representing the world, to a first virtual medium intervening in making the world as image.

In Towards a Philosophy of Photography (2000), Vilém Flusser suggests that authentic, magical images—a visual form of the Real—were first demystified by a regime of text tying them to explication, then to be superseded by technical images (photographs) that functioned in a radically different way: rather than replace traditional images with reproductions, technical images displace them and, rather than make hermetic texts comprehensible, they distort them by translating scientific statements and equations into states of things, i.e. images.

Technical images, then, “absorb the whole of history and form a  collective  memory going endlessly round in circles.” They replace a “prehistoric ritualization” that operates myths “with a new kind of  magic,  i.e.  the  programmed  kind.”  Flusser’s  reading  of  the programmation of image is essentially pessimistic: a Frankfurtian gesture that commiserates the loss of the authentic track to experience in an image-to-world relation that is dependent on a mis-representation that in any case can only occur under a regime of representation. Significantly, Flusser’s circularity locks photography into a chain of signalisation that never gets outside itself, that never has an end meaning, exactly as   we now experience in the proliferation of image that does not just inhabit our world but habitats it.

Where Flusser yokes the photograph to a misreading of its technical base, Deleuze latches it to a different shortcoming in his complex ontology of image: in a chameleonic bluff, he dismisses what he sees as the calcified “dreary” signifier (Deleuze and Guattari, AThousand Plateaus) of the fixed photograph, while paradoxically celebrating an observance of the cinematographic photogram as the singular entity that sits at the base of a complex grammar in time-based media. For Deleuze, it was the beguiling movement of the cinema—its subsequent asymmetrical divisibility into the registers of telic movement- image and ontic time-image—that distracted his attention away from the photogram qua photogram. Crucially, my claim is, then, that an alluring ontological territory constituting a particularly subjective elasticity of time and an objective fixity of space, what I am calling the photogene—an actualisation of virtual multiplicities and differences that circulate in the technical diagram constituting the photogenic event—was overlooked by Deleuze, and to a great extent has been overlooked by Deleuze scholarship.

Photography is not merely the overarching technicalisation of the stream of images: a utopia gone wrong—as Flusser might argue. Nor are those images each just a singular point in a visual rendition of the already given and fixed world—as Deleuze claims. Rather, a single technical image is one of  a myriad of  potential forms that only emerges from    a flux in a virtual domain when actualised as a unary surface image. Internal to this genetic process of becoming, the photogene as a registering of time cuts synthetically into our world to generate a medium-specific signalisation that at essence undoes our configurations of the myth of the representational image. For photographs are more than a sedimentation of image that sit on the world, referring to the world, a kind of shingle that lays on top, a map. Rather, as real enfoldings of the virtual and actual, they are territories that activate an intensity of affects in the subject that are micro-becomings or image- forms of the plasticity of time realised as space. Thus, the photogene is both an external, technological concretisation of temporal and spatial dimensions, and an emergence of our coming into being—subjectification—through a particular modality of signalisation. Thus, laying photography open to the virtual, to multiplicity, to a rhizomatic nature, allows a thinking of the affective in photogenetic zones of intensity, engages with temporal dislodgment, and determines the event of photogenesis, the photogenetic moment as differentiation actualised. And it can go further than that: by taking photography as a model of genetic signalisation rather than representation, it is possible to indeed think photographically in modes and media that in their actual specificity are non-photographic, but in their virtual practices fold adjacent to the diagram of photography. This extension from a critique of classical photographic theory to an eradication of a specific, subject- centred, willed human agency in artistic practice is one form of posthuman discourse that recuperates Deleuze and  Guattari’s  notion  of  affects  and  percepts  independent  of a human subject at play in the “being of the sensible.” Finally, then, plateaus of the circulation of sensation that render photogenic, performance and built worlds uncannily incommensurate will be explored in this paper by considering a triangulation of the physical text/sculptural performance work of Sophie Jung, the viral/virtual/actual assemblages of Andreas Angelidakis, and the conceptual photogenetic moment.

about the author(s)

Peter Burleigh

Peter Burleigh teaches English culture, language, and linguistics at the University of Basel, and critical and aesthetic theory at the HGK, Basel. His interests lie in the theories and histories of photography, and forms of visual representation. He is currently working on a post-Deleuzian framing of photography: while exploiting Deleuze’s conceptual toolbox, he attempts to undo Deleuze’s scepticism towards photography, in particular thinking how the graphic paradigm can be replaced by genesis. His most recent essay appears in the European Month of Photography 2014 catalogue.

info & contact


University of Basel, CH


p.burleigh [AT]