Photography and the Optical Unconscious

Photography and the Optical Unconscious
A Symposium at the Munk School

October 26, 2013

Organized by Sharon Sliwinski and Shawn Michelle Smith
Speakers include Ulrich Baer (NYU), Mary Bergstein (RISD), Jonathan Fardy (Western University), Gabrielle Moser (York University), Thy Phu (Western University), Mark Reinhardt (Williams College), Laura Wexler (Yale University) and Andrés Zervigón (Rutgers University)

Hosted by the Centre for the Study of the United States (CSUS), University of Toronto.
Location: Room 208N (North side of building), Centre for the Study of the United States, Munk School of Global Affairs, 1 Devonshire Place, Toronto ON Canada

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At least since the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams, photography has been inextricably marked by the presence of the unconscious. The medium recurs as an ongoing metaphor in Freud’s work, although it is perhaps not until the 1930s, with Walter Benjamin’s writings, that the significance of the pairing becomes evident. Our symposium takes inspiration from Benjamin’s still understudied articulation of the “optical unconscious,” a term which he coined in 1931 to capture the realm of the unseen that photography introduced as well as the medium’s unsung role in allowing us to glimpse the expansive terrain of the human imaginary. Benjamin has become one of photography’s most important and influential twentieth-century theorists, and as the interdisciplinary interest in photography continues to expand, our symposium aims to interrogate this connection between photography and the unconscious.

The symposium seeks to engage three overlapping sets of questions:

1. What about photography lends itself to the idea of the unconscious? How does Benjamin’s term allow us to account for and describe that which is unseen and obscured in photographs, that which lies beyond the frame, or what photographs compel us to remember and forget, what they enable us to uncover and repress, what they literally and metaphorically allow us to see and not see? How has this technology of reproduction allowed for new visualizations of history?

2. What are the stakes—the possibilities and limits—of opening an analogy between the “optical unconscious” and what Benjamin termed the “instinctual unconscious”? Does Benjamin’s provocation simply aim to bring to conscious awareness phenomena that would ordinarily be perceived only unconsciously? Or does this term aim at revising or perhaps even deconstructing the very concept of the unconscious? How can photography serve as a new site for exploring the properties, qualities, or effects of das Es or “It,” as Sigmund Freud termed it? How exactly to characterize the modes of representation through which the optical unconscious makes itself known? How can photography enable us to rethink the very mechanisms of the human psyche?

3. How can the optical unconscious help us understand the complex sets of relations that inhere between photographers, photographed subjects, and
spectators? Given Benjamin’s explicitly Marxist orientation to photography (he is well-known for treating the medium within its economic, social, technological context), what are the specifically political stakes of the notion of the optical unconscious? How have these stakes changed as the technology changes? For instance, what effect does the convergence of photography with other technologies (i.e. the cellular phone) mean for the proliferation of the optical unconscious?

Schedule of Events

Saturday October 26, 2013

9:00:9:45 Breakfast (provided for attendees)

9:45-10:00 Welcome remarks from Sharon Sliwinski & Shawn Michelle Smith

10:00-11:15 - Session 1

  • Andres Zervigon: “Photography’s Weimar-Era Contingency and Walter Benjamin’s Optical Unconscious”
  • Ulrich Baer: “Many Worlds in the World: Photography’s Ways of Seeing”

11:15-11:30 coffee

11:30-12:45 - Session 2

  • Mary Bergstein: “Odette in the Abyss: Involuntary Memory and the Optical Preconscious in Proust”
  • Jonathan Fardy: “’To Adopt’: Freud, Photography, and the Optical Unconscious”

12:45-2:00 lunch (provided for attendees)

2:00-3:15 - Session 3

  • Thy Phu: “The Optics of Disability”
  • Gabrielle Moser: “Developing Historical Negatives: the Colonial Photographic Archive as Optical Unconscious”

3:15-3:30 coffee

3:30-4:15 - Session 4

  • Mark Reinhardt: “Vision’s Unseen: On Race and the Optical Unconscious”
  • Laura Wexler: “Photography’s Spoilt Milk: Caption, Affect, and the Meaning in Between”

4:15-4:30 Wrap-up. Conversation to continue at a local pub


We welcome attendance by scholars, curators, and others who are not presenting papers to join us as audience members and discussants. The symposium is geared toward discussion rather than formal presentations, so we ask that all attendees read the papers ahead of time. Symposium papers will be pre-circulated to all attendees before the event through a password-protected website. Please note these papers are NOT for circulation beyond symposium attendees.

To participate in the symposium as an attendee, please email your name and your institutional affiliation to by October 15, 2013.

If you are registered for the symposium, please use the username and password provided in your welcome email to log in here and access the working papers.


Ulrich Baer
Many Worlds in the World: Photography’s Ways of Seeing

Mary Bergstein
Involuntary Memory and the Optical Unconscious in Marcel Proust: Odette in the Abyss

Proust’s mentor Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921) claimed that, “a photograph is a mirror that remembers,” establishing a general relationship between photography, visual representation, and memory, with photography imitating the greater phenomenon that takes place in the human mind. Because photographs were so persistently associated with memory (and memory is the overarching topic of In Search of Lost Time 1913) photography had a special relevance to Proust’s visual imagination.

“Odette in the Abyss” looks at the ways Proust establishes the identity of Odette in the novel via photography and its relation to the Freudian unconscious. The act of looking at photographic images, even in literary fiction, provokes a pleasurable detachment similar to the Freudian spectatorship in a dream. Qualities of condensation, displacement, and timelessness enter into Proust’s uses of photography in identifying (and misidentifying) Swann’s great love and femme fatale, Odette.

But what of the optical unconscious? What resides in consciousness and what is hidden, or repressed? Daniel Simons’s (selective attention) Gorilla test proves that we see more than we think we know, just as Étienne-Jules Marey’s time-stop photographs proved that the camera could see differently from the human eye a century ago.  But perhaps we might consider Adam Gopnik’s suggestion that, “Neuroscience can often answer the obvious questions but rarely the interesting ones,” (New Yorker, September 9, 2013) and look at psychoanalysis  and “involuntary memory” with more attention to content than to function.

Jonathan Fardy
“To Adopt”: Freud, Photography, and the Optical Unconscious
This essay focuses on the relation between photography and the Freudian unconscious by looking closely at Freud’s analysis of his so-called “R is my Uncle Dream” in The Interpretation of Dreams. I argue that the dream is structured by the work of an “optical unconscious” which renders invisible and unconscious the dream’s photographic dimension. I argue that Freud’s dream vision is structured by a way of seeing that Celia Lury calls “seeing photographically,” but this seeing occurs unconsciously.

Gabrielle Moser
Developing historical negatives: the colonial photographic archive as optical unconscious
In her 2009 book, Along the Archival Grain, Ann Laura Stoler proposes a reading of the colonial archive that foregrounds the oppositional play and instabilities already present in the archive’s organizational logic. Rather than trying to identify holes, biases and blind spots in the archive’s master narrative, Stoler looks for the “non-events” contained within the archive’s materials: the conditional, projected and pre-figured encounters that the archive tries to anticipate and manage, often without success. Interestingly, Stoler employs a photographic metaphor to describe the archival researcher’s work in uncovering of these prefigured, planned-for, but never realized events, describing it as a strategy of “developing historical negatives.”

While for Stoler the photographic process functions as a metaphor for how the archive anticipates events before they happen—with the double meaning of the word “negative” also connoting the “worst-case scenario” thinking that characterizes colonial bureaucratic rhetoric—, this paper aims to elaborate the psychoanalytic implications of Stoler’s approach to photographic archives. How might photography, with its ability to initiate relations between producers, subjects and viewers that its operators cannot anticipate or control, allow the unconscious fantasies and anxieties of imperial rule to come into view? And how might the photographic archive, when read with an attention to these repressed desires, operate as the optical unconscious for the colonial photographic project?

Through a close reading of some of the 7,600 photographs produced by the Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee (COVIC) between 1908 and 1911—a scheme developed by the British government that used photographic lantern slides to teach schoolchildren what it meant to look and feel like an imperial citizen—this paper considers how the COVIC archive functions as a repository of impressions that could not be explicitly articulated in the lectures. Paying attention to moments when the images in the COVIC archive undermine the project’s intended narrative of imperial belonging, the paper traces the “negative” fantasies of colonial management that could not be fully “developed” in the final, published lectures but which haunt the project nonetheless. Drawing on Sarah Kofman’s work on photographic apparatus as a model for psychic phenomena, the paper considers how the optical unconscious might offer a way to think about the political work that is done by colonial photographs that are produced but not seen.

Thy Phu
The Communist Camera

Walter Benjamin frames his analysis of photography’s impact on the work of art with cryptic claims about its usefulness for communism. Despite this political commitment, the essay does not take up the issue of politics explicitly except by linking in a telling, if passing, way, the advent of photography with the rise of socialism. Photography, Benjamin writes, “is the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction.” While this passage captures his main argument that photography signals a revolution in art, he also meant that in so doing, it offers techniques congenial to communist revolution. Yet the important question of how this is possible lies outside the scope of his essay. This vaguely outlined vision of a communist camera lends a political dimension to Benjamin’s famously under-theorized concept of the optical unconscious. Indeed, the optical unconscious is linked to a political unconscious. This paper considers the implications of this linkage, by exploring how Benjamin’s anticipation of a communist camera is realized decades later in socialism’s visual theory.

For the Eastern Bloc, photography and revolution went hand-in-hand: not only was photography a revolutionary technology, it was also conducive to revolution. Perhaps no other communist figure comprehended this felicitous connection more keenly than Ho Chi Minh, who learned during his time in France both the lessons of revolution and, in his brief stint as a photo-retoucher, the potential of photography. Focusing on the work of select Vietnamese photographers who documented what was for them the “American War,” I argue that, when considered together their collective vision of struggle is forged through the auspices of the communist camera, defined as a socialist visual theory conceptualized through its practice. The communist camera relies on the generosity of allies such as the USSR and China for equipment; and draws on the resources of the ready-made, by transforming the Ho Chi Minh trail into a darkroom for film-processing, and repurposing mangrove swamps into exhibition spaces. The most distinctive features of the communist camera, however, are that unseeing and the unseen remain core paradoxes. The “unseeing” and “unseen” qualities of the communist camera take two major forms, first, in the disabled optics of an asymmetric photographic encounter, which sometimes resulted in blurred images, and lens-flare. These barely visible images are the record of the blind, both in a metaphor sense (through the inferior technologies available to the National Liberation Front) and in a literal sense, as evident in the photographer who lost vision in one eye during a battle—but who still kept shooting. Second, “unseeing” describes the position of Western spectators, who despite belatedly acknowledging the possibility of this counter-perspective, nevertheless dismiss it as merely propaganda.

Mark Reinhardt
Vision’s Unseen:  On Race and the Optical Unconscious
My paper will use Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “optical unconscious” to explore American racial formations and, secondarily, use the prism of race to refract influential critical discourses on the Benjaminian lineage in visual study.  I will draw on a variety of nineteenth and twentieth century photographs and photographic practices to do so.

For the analysis of racial formation, the optical unconscious appears as both an invaluable theoretical refinement and a destabilizing force. “Race” has always been, at least in part, a visual artifact: its inequities and indignities are tied to and produced through systems and habits of seeing human difference and organizing the perceptual field. Benjamin’s understanding that photography captures visual details of daily life that escape the eye during the course of ordinary experience expands our sense of the visual field and thus promises to broaden the terrain on which the production of race operates. But it also poses a puzzle: How can one speak—what sense might one make—of the role of the invisible in “visual construction” and what might this tell us about racial perception? I call the line of inquiry potentially destabilizing because it leads ineluctably to the most disruptive sense of unconscious: the invisible element in visual construction involves all of the unmasterable forces of which Freud wrote in his own account of the unconscious. Yet I also wish to explore the possibility that the disruptions run in the other direction, too. If all race is in part a visual artifact, so that visual studies can contribute something distinctive to understanding racial construction, it is also the case that vision in the Americas over the past several centuries has been so pervasively racialized as to render dubious any sequestering of the analysis of visual artifacts from problems of race. Yet that segregation has been common in some forms of visual study, including art history in a putatively Benjaminian vein. It is instructive, for example, that Rosalind Krauss’s book, The Optical Unconscious, has so little to say about those problems and their place in visual culture that “race” does not merit an entry in the index. I will take up this example, too.

Laura Wexler
Photography’s Spoilt Milk:  Caption, Affect and the Meaning Between

“Photography,” says Roland Barthes, “is unclassifiable because there is no reason to mark this or that of its occurrences; it aspires, perhaps, to become as crude, as certain, as noble as a sign, which would afford it access to the dignity of a language; but for there to be a sign there must be a mark; deprived of a principle of marking, photographs are signs which don’t take, which turn, as milk does.  Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.”

This description seems very much like one common description of affect. In fact, this is what affect theory teaches us too- one need not “aspire to the dignity of a language” to make meaning. To quote Melissa Gregg: “Affect need not be especially forceful (although sometimes, as in the psychoanalytic study of trauma, it is). In fact, it is quite likely that affect more often transpires within and across the subtlest of shuttling intensities: all the minuscule or molecular events of the unnoticed. The ordinary and its extra:  Affect is born in in-between-ness and resides as accumulative beside-ness.

Roland Barthes here meditates on the history of classification, on the relation of the sign to classification, to caption, and to the history that photography as a not-quite-sign either does or does not “grant to vision.”  But ultimately, he misses the “mark.”   Both his affect and the photograph shift meaning - and accumulate meaning - precisely thus.  It is exactly in all the “minuscule or molecular events of the unnoticed,” in the ordinary and its extra,” that the meaning of photography accumulates.  If, in the process, the photograph curdles as the beloved must - as all of us must - die;  that is to say, secretly, in tiny bits, every day, until the accretion tells (or turns), a new intensity makes itself known.  

My paper will analyze this new intensity as the “meaning between” affect, caption and the spoiling of the picture.

Andrés Mario Zervigón
Photography’s Weimar-Era Contingency and Walter Benjamin’s Optical Unconscious
The last 20 years have seen a flurry of enlightening scholarship on Benjamin’s optical unconscious. Yet much of this work expands well beyond photography, the actual subject of his formulation. My essay uses the occasion of this symposium to place the medium and its historically specific conditions squarely at the center of inquiry. Taking Frederick Schwartz’s Blind Spots as a model, I plan to discuss the anxious reception of photography in late Weimar-ear Germany and the relationship between this disquiet and Benjamin’s identification of an optical unconscious. My talk will not expand on the modernist practices with which many observers of the moment are familiar and that Benjamin sporadically endorsed. Instead, I will discuss the multi-faceted concern around 1931 that photography had broken its modernist and populist promise to reveal unseen worlds for the good, teach rational modes of perception and operate as a straightforward means of enlightenment. Instead, photography’s visions in these years seemed fundamentally contingent on the era’s calamitous political context and other factors such as heavy commercialization and the rise of personality cults. I wish to suggest that Benjamin acknowledged these shortcomings and responded by assigning photography’s revelatory agency to the highly subjective realm of the unconscious where contingency played the very most important role in perception. Although he partly abandoned this notion after embracing Soviet polymath Sergei Tret’iakov’s photographic “operative art” in the same year, the optical unconscious nonetheless represents a significant product of the surprisingly productive ambivalence about photography that addled the Weimar era.


Ulrich Baer is a professor of German and Comparative Literature, and the Vice Provost for Arts, Humanities and Diversity at New York University. He is a widely published author, editor, and translator, he is an expert on modern poetry, literary theory, and photography, and has published extensively on poetry, photography, and issues in contemporary art and culture.  He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, NYU’s Golden Dozen Teaching Award (twice), a Getty Research Fellowship, and an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship. Among his books are Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma, the anthology 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11, Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters on Life (translator and editor), and Beggar’s Chicken: Stories from Shanghai.

Mary Bergstein won the American Psychoanalytic Association’s “Courage to Dream” Book Prize for her book Mirrors of Memory: Freud, Photography, and the History of Art (Cornell 2010) in January 2013. Her forthcoming book, In Looking Back One Learns to See: Marcel Proust and Photography is forthcoming from Editions Rodopi later this year. Bergstein is currently working on a book project to be titled, From Science to Eros: Visual Culture in Freud’s Vienna. Bergstein has published numerous articles and reviews. She has been professor of History of Art and Visual Culture at the Rhode Island School of Design since 1990. 

Jonathan Fardy is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism at Western University in Ontario. His dissertation focuses on the emergence of the photographer as a historical figure and subjectivity in the nineteenth century. His research examines the writings of three key photographers of the period: Henry Peach Robinson, Oscar G. Rejlander, and Julia Margaret Cameron. He has published essays on Baudrillard, Guattari, and others.

Gabrielle Moser is a PhD candidate in the art history and visual culture program at York University in Toronto, Canada. Her dissertation investigates the construction of imperial citizenship in photographs produced by the Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee: a project developed by the British government in 1902 that used geography lectures and photographic lanternslides to teach colonial schoolchildren about the land and peoples of the Empire. She has curated exhibitions for Access Gallery, Gallery TPW, Vtape and Xpace and teaches classes at OCAD University. Her writing appears in venues including, ARTnewsCanadian Art, Fillip, n.paradoxa, Photography & Culture and the Gallery 44/Ryerson University volume, Emergence: Contemporary Photography in Canada.

Thy Phu is associate professor in the English Dept. at Western University, where she teaches courses on cultural studies, critical theory, and American studies. Her book, Picturing Model Citizens: Civility in Asian American Visual Culture is published by Temple University Press. Feeling Photography, a collection of essay co-edited with Elspeth Brown, is forthcoming from Duke University Press. She currently serves as editor of the Americas region for the interdisciplinary journal Photography and Culture.

Mark Reinhardt is a political theorist who teaches in the Political Science Department and American Studies Program at Williams College. His current project, Visual Politics: Theories and Spectacles, draws on art history, theory, and practice, as well as the broader field of visual studies, to bring visuality more fully into political science. His previous work on the politics of images and visual practices includes co-curating the exhibits and contributing to and co-editing the catalogues for Kara Walker: Narratives of a Negress (MIT, 2003; Rizzoli, 2007) and Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain (2007).

Sharon Sliwinski is associate professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies and the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism at Western University. Her research interests range across a number of topics, from the intersection of politics and aesthetics, to the genealogy of key concepts in human rights discourse, to more theoretical investigations in psychoanalysis and the terrain of the imaginary. A common thread has been photography – with individual photographers, subjects, and images, but also with the medium itself as a means through which humanity can become a community of witnesses to world events. Human Rights In Camera (Chicago 2011) considers the history of human rights as a series of aesthetic scenes. Her current book project is called Dream Matters, which is a study of the social and political significance of dream-life.

Shawn Michelle Smith is an Associate Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  She has written several books about photography and visual culture, including American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture (Princeton 1999), Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture (Duke 2004), and At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen (Duke 2013). She is co-author with Dora Apel of Lynching Photographs (California 2007), and co-editor with Maurice Wallace of Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Duke 2012). Smith is currently guest editing a special issue of the journal MELUS on visual culture and race (June 2014), and she serves on the editorial board of the journal Photography and Culture. She has published articles in the Journal of Visual CultureAfrican American ReviewNka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, and the Yale Journal of Criticism, among others. She has been awarded fellowships from several institutions, including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Smith is also a visual artist and her photo-based work has been exhibited in art galleries and university museums across the country.

Laura Wexler is the author of Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U. S. Imperialism (University of North Carolina Press, 2000) and Pregnant Pictures (Routledge, 2000), co–authored with photographer Sandra Matthews. Tender Violence was awarded the 2001 Joan Kelley Memorial Prize of the American Historical Association for the best book in women’s history and/or feminist theory. She also co–edited, with Laura Frost, Amy Hungerford and John MacKay, the volume Interpretation and the Holocaust, as a special issue of the Yale Journal of Criticism. Professor Wexler’s many other publications on photography and American visual culture include a recent essay entitled “’Laughing Ben’” on “The Old Plantation’,” in Photography and Race Forum, edited by Elizabeth Abel and Leigh Raiford, in English Language Notes 44.2 (Fall/Winter 2006); and a chapter entitled “The Fair Ensemble: Kate Chopin in St. Louis in 1904,” in Haunted by Empire; Geographies of Intimacy in North American History, edited by Ann Laura Stoler (Duke University Press, 2006).

Andrés Mario Zervigón is Associate Professor of the History of Photography at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. His first book, John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage was published by University of Chicago Press last year. He is currently working on a second book project Die Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung The Worker’s Illustrated Magazine, 1921-1938: A History of Germany’s Other Avant-Garde, for which he received the 2013-14 Paul Mellon Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts. Zervigón has recently published articles and reviews in New German Critique, Visual Resources, History of Photography, Rundbrief Fotografie, Études Photographiques and he contributed to the catalogues Avant-Art in Everyday Life (Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, 2011) and Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012).

Photo credit: Walter Benjamin’s Passport Photo, c. 1928, Berlin, © Akademie der Künste, Archives Walter Benjamin