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Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-Century India

by Zahid R. Chaudhary
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2012
272 pp., illus, 13 col. 74 b/w. Trade, $90.00; paper, $30
ISBN: 978-0-8166-7748-1; ISBN: 978-0-8166-7749-8.

Reviewed by Aparna Sharma


Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth Century India studies the aesthetics and philosophical meanings of photography within the context of nineteenth century colonialism in the Indian subcontinent. Key to this period is the revolt of 1857, and Zahid Chaudhary begins by offering a rigorous analysis of how this event impacted coloniser imaginaries of the colony and how those got transacted in Indian photographers’ practices. This revolt, while successfully suppressed, provoked a deep anxiety within the colonial establishment spiraling further the colonizer/colonized, self/other binaries. This becomes the basis of Chaudhary’s phenomenological study of photographs from this time. Very early on the text situates the philosophical postures that shape his readings. Chaudhary is geared to analyze how history permeates embodied experiences of modernity, here specifically colonialism and the visual regimes it engendered. This is a very crucial move in the field of South Asian and postcolonial Visual Studies. Deriving from Walter Benjamin’s wide oeuvre that takes up Marx’s concepts such as commodity fetishism, while at the same time resisting the obvious economic determinist line as exemplified in the Frankfurt School scholarship particularly surrounding mass culture. Chaudhary’s invocation of Benjamin is two-fold. He takes up Benjamin’s key argument that perception is shaped in relation to history and changes alongside it, not abstracted from it. This allows Chaudhary to work with Benjamin’s critique of Bergson for whom memory remains more exclusive of history. Chaudhary persuasively contends that his approach in reading nineteenth-century photography from the Indian subcontinent aims to examine how embodiment interfaces with history, not in an effort to plot direct correspondences between both, but to explore what possibilities arise for visual discourse in relation to both.

For Chaudhary photography’s ‘reality effect’ extends from its ontological properties, and he turns to Andre Bazin’s postures in explaining this. But he extends this discussion, which takes up the ‘indexical likeness’ in relation to a reality effect by terming it photography’s rhetoric. Chaudhary’s use of rhetoric is not in a literal linguistic sense; instead, he derives from Cicero’s designation: ‘to please, to move, to teach’ and this allows him to unpack the unstable nature of photographic rhetoric (2012: 42). This is a very useful move and aligns Chaudhary’s interventions with recent scholarship in the fields of trauma and catastrophe studies as also the post-digital revisitation of C.S. Pierce’s semiotic categories including indexicality as taken up by such figures as Laura Mulvey (2009). The reader is positioned to appreciate the instability in photographic meanings and discourse that in turn facilitates understanding the competing and conflictual uses of the medium. However, while Chaudhary does not adhere to the rigid ‘realist’ aesthetics’ as prescribed by Bazin through the concept of the ‘reality-effect’, it is limiting to situate the discussion of photographic rhetoric upon a primarily ontological schema. This becomes particularly telling in the first chapter of the text where Chaudhary examines how death is evoked in post-1857 revolt images by photographers such as the Tytlers and Beato. Can a political deciphering of the photographs Chaudhary examines be sustained without necessarily following an ontological line of thought? It seems plausible given that references to death in the photographic images he examines are often staged and that, as Chaudhary himself proceeds, positing Pierces’ categories of the symbol, icon and index as not necessarily compartmentalized and oppositional. Ulrich Baer, as referenced by Chaudhary, has argued for how the stillness of the photographic image, the instant when it is clicked, can approximate and reflect states of trauma. This stands to be suppressed in an ontological line of the Bazinian sense. There the negotiating force-field between subject and photographer — the very field that Baer and Chaudhary are entering and positing as negotiated, is subsumed under the weight of the trace in the photographic image. In the text, this is not so much a lack of questioning the limits of Bazin’s ontologically-grounded postulates. Instead what is missing is a more fuller discussion and explication of the author’s own stance in relation to the ontology of the photographic image that is more complex than in Bazin’s thought.

The text includes four chapters each taking up specific photographic practices and themes. The first deals with death and photography’s rhetoric; the second with modernist shock, anaesthesis and violence; the third with Indian photographers’ use of European picturesque aesthetics; and the last deals with famine and discourses of sympathy. In the second chapter’s discussion around modernist shock, Chaudhary commendably teases out how nineteenth century technologies of attractions and curiosities problematically inscribed the colonized subject to a position of what he terms as numbing self-preservation. Drawing from Benjamin, Chaudhary exposits how these technologies sit within a wider context of arcades, fair grounds, and world expositions — all epistomising how bourgeois life was conditioned by a global-political economy upheld by colonial transactions. He states:

“Experiences of shock under modernity eventually block the openness of this system and reverse its role, numbing the organism instead of enabling perception. Consciousness then becomes a numbing shield against excessive stimuli, and this marks the impoverishment of experience under modernity, destroying the person’s ability to respond politically even when self-preservation is at stake. In the nineteenth century, in addition to the body’s self-anesthetizing defenses, methods for intentional manipulation of the synaesthetic system proliferated, including a plethora of new intoxicating substances and therapeutic practices.” (2012: 91)

It is plausible how modernity’s shock-effects provoke ‘self-anesthetizing defenses’ within the colonized subject. But as persuasive and explicit this reasoning is, one cannot but ask whether the classist underpinnings of this reading of nineteenth century technologies and commodity discourses is limited for the history of modernist thought, in the arts and cinema particularly, is dotted with the uses of shock as a counter-strategy against bourgeois values. Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism gestures towards this possibility with relation to literature, as have some Film Studies scholars working on early cinema in the Indian subcontinent at least. Also, when we examine the oeuvres of filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov — who are usually not considered to be ideologically or aesthetically aligned — we can nevertheless observe that the modernist aesthetics of shock have followed a more variegated and textured trajectory that certainly involved the impact on the colonized on the terms as articulated by Chaudhary, but also successively led to more complex possibilities that become the foundation of a critical visual discourse surrounding colonialism and postcolonialism. Take for example, Vertov’s lesser known work A Sixth Part of the World (1926), and in India, the parallel cinema movement with figures such as Ritwik Ghatak who clearly worked with and rearticulated Eisenstein’s montage shock aesthetics for a critical cinema discourse in the postcolonial context.

These criticisms of Afterimage of Empire are not in the spirit of interrogating its interventions as much as pointing out that some of the propositions this text makes open lines for further investigation, and while Chaudhary focuses on photography, there are potentially rich conversations to be pursued with other art forms including cinema and painting. It is through such lines of investigation that a more complex and richer discourse around visual cultures ought necessarily to be devised so that critical scholarship does not inadvertently reify the rather convenient, colonizer-colonised binary. Afterimage’s third chapter that examines the picturesque aesthetic adopted by Indian photographers in a gesture of mimesis reflects such complexity. Afterimage of Empire is a crucial text that advances visual culture studies in the Indian subcontinent but it will also be of interest to scholars and students in the disciplines of art, modernism and cinema.

Last Updated 3rd May 2013

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