Two of the soldiers have lost their faces to motion, and the form of a third, passing rapidly behind a shroud, has been reduced all the way to blur. Simplified and diminished, he will never again be anything except a blemish on his own record. If we’re even to imagine visualizing him as a man, we’ll have to work outside the photographic values of his image frame — for instance, at a carrel in an archive.
As it happens, some carrel labor has already been expended because this image is already resident in an archive: the archive of the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, where it has been enrolled in history with a caption (“Empress of Japan leaving for Vladivostock [sic]”) and a tentative metaphysics: “Date(s) [ca. 1919] (Creation).”
The archaeologist who descends to the sub-basement of such an archive and begins to dig there will be able to unearth nothing but history. The artifacts that come to light under the fluorescents of the archive will be visible only in history’s delimiting temporal way: by reference to what lies buried in time before them and what will be interred in time afterward. Immediately, in the present, we are in the act of seeing something in the pit, but it’s the nature of archives to defer the understanding of what they show us. In the archive, everything that once was seen in unarchived immediacy has passed under an opaque patina of memory and explanation. When we try to get closer to the formerly immediate for a second look, that new outer layer will repel us. We won’t be able to understand how the light falls in this image, for instance, unless we can chisel it free from the archive’s scrupulously blurring word “Circa.”
Fortunately, the archive also provides us with a chisel. The moment they passed under archival control, everything in and around this photograph — the military uniforms, the date, the words Empress of Japan and Vladivostok — were organized by archive into an extra-photographic history — in this case, the history of the allied expeditionary force to Siberia that attempted to intervene against the Bolsheviks during the Russian civil war. Once we’re equipped with information like that, we’ll find it easy to chisel our way through the stacks to (for instance) a University of Victoria website called “Canada’s Siberian Expedition” at
And there we’ll be able to work on the archive’s replica in words of what it may be that we once saw in an image: a ship on whose deck soldiers sit and stand and vanish into blur. As the archive built its facsimile man by man, it became one more document in the archival literature whose one story always ends, “As if they were still alive.” There in the archive, a caption now carols that the replica ship is, and will be as long as the archive endures, that which history has lovingly named, forever! Empress of Japan. In token thereof, the archive has also bestowed on the ship a choice of instants of namable, rememberable being: either October 11, 1918, or February 12, 1919, the only two times in history when the pre-facsimile Empress of Japan, carrying soldiers, weighed anchor in Victoria and set out for Vladivostok.
Heartened by feeling ourselves closer to something that existed before it could be archived, we may now try to see one of those two instants in detail. We might begin wondering, for instance, what the people in this image said when circumstances brought them together for a shared last moment under the rainy sky of Victoria, British Columbia. Did they talk about, for instance, the weather? As soon as we think that particular trivial thought, we’ll notice that nobody in this picture is bundled up against the cold, and then we’ll be all primed to join the men on the ship in some ice-breaking gossip. From the archive at
we’ll learn that there was no weather station in Victoria in 1918-19, but just across the strait in Vancouver the high temperatures for the two possible sailing dates of the Empress of Japan were 13.9 C (57 F) on October 11, 1918, and 5 C (41 F) on February 12, 1919. Welcomed into the archive and accessioned into the stacks surrounding the replica ship, this sociable little pair of new readings on the thermometer could fill out a whole archival newspaper. The paper’s fashion writer, for instance, could point out that the models shipping out on the replica are dressed for a cool fall day, not a cold winter day. Fine distinctions of couture will have acquired a significance, and that acquisition will reduce the degrees of historical freedom within the image’s range of datability to near-zero. Because the men’s hands are ungloved, their picture was almost certainly taken not in February but in October.
The paper’s feature writer could then check with other dates in the archive and report back that the photograph’s October reality grants it special historiographic status: the unique depiction of the very first departure into history of the Canadian expedition. If that still seems trivial, a future book reviewer suffering from Titanic in the head could hit the keystroke combination for Sentimental and alert us by bulletin to what would happen one month to the day after October 11, 1918: the end of the Great War. Sooner or later, right? we’ll be able to stop talking about the weather and move on to important things.
But somehow I can’t think of any important things. Stuck in the archive, I’m still just killing time by talking about the weather before the ship leaves and we can start getting lurid about the Bolsheviks.
After all, my insensitivity is not unreasonable. While the replica is still pierside in the archive, the archive will cautiously remind us that Canada’s part in the Siberian Intervention of 1918-1922 was only a token contribution which ended after six months without a single Canadian death in combat. On the other hand and not a part of the reminder, Rasputin . . .
Now that was an interesting story. And the smudge of the barely worth remembering that’s now stuck to the top of my blogpost is also tiny.
In the course of time its history has suffered entropic loss, too. With Photoshop I’ve been able to reverse some of the chemical damage. But because the image and its story were never anything but small, I can’t restore them to a life-size that they never possessed. Try to enlarge your understanding of the little you can see and it will immediately vanish beneath pixelation and blur. Out of sight under the blur, the image’s many men and one woman must remain beyond the reach of archive’s power to grant eternal life in replica. The real collective image of their fraction of a second in history will continue being unseen in the dark. It will remain the archive’s secret.
And locked within its tiny casing will remain one more secret, image’s own: a knowable visible enlargeable generalizable meaning permanently sealed against being understood as what it once, for a fraction of a second on October 11, 1918, was.
Ostensibly a work of modern non-fiction, Martin Heidegger’s autobiographical essay “Why Do I Stay in the Provinces?” (text below) is written in the language of a pastoral genre that had been popular in Germany since the nineteenth century: the novel of blood and soil (Blut und Boden), “which idealized its subject and painted the mythology of peasant life, far from the crossroads of the world” (Mosse 138). During the Third Reich the genre was cultivated like an agribusiness crop, and as its formulas became part of the vocabulary of the state they acquired a derisive nickname, Blubo. Heidegger himself disliked the term Blut und Boden, but the narrator of his essay speaks its language like a native.
“Why Do I Stay in the Provinces?” was published in 1934. As of 2015, many wars and a holocaust later, an international consortium of astronomers is attempting to build a great telescope atop Hawaii’s 14,000-foot extinct volcano Mauna Kea, one of the world’s premier sites for an observatory. However, the road to the construction site is being intermittently blocked by a group of native Hawaiian cultural practitioners who claim that to build anything atop Mauna Kea except altars to the volcano goddess is (as their media releases put it) a desecration. Speaking of desecration, Heidegger’s great object of hate René Descartes wrote a theory of the telescope, and I’m sure that if Heidegger were in Hawaii now he’d be up there at the roadblocks himself.
As he raised his voice in a chant of protest, he’d be joined by some of my post-colonialist colleagues from the University of Hawaii. For them and for Heidegger, then, this collegial contribution in the rational language of Descartes and Photoshop. It depicts the mountain hut where Martin Heidegger grew his deep thoughts out of the Boden. One peak higher, goddess willing, will arise the Thirty Meter Telescope.
George Mosse, ed. Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural and Social Life in the Third Reich. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1966.
Heidegger’s “Why Do I Stay in the Provinces?”:
Interviewer Thomas Vašek: You speak of a “metaphysical antisemitism” . . .
Donatella di Cesare, vice president of the Martin Heidegger Society and author of Heidegger e gli ebrei. I “Quaderni Neri” [Heidegger and the Jews: The “Black Notebooks”], forthcoming in English translation: [Heidegger] outlines a metaphysics of the Jew. That is, he doesn’t speak of specific Jews in their individual differences and he isn’t interested in the history of the Jewish people. Rather, he asks: What is the Jew? What is the nature of the Jew? And when he does that he falls back into metaphysics, against which he guards himself at all other times. That’s why I would speak of a metaphysical antisemitism.
Sources: “Heidegger-Enthüllung” [“Unmasking Heidegger”]. Hohe Luft 10 February 2015, http://www.hoheluft-magazin.de/2015/02/heidegger-enthuellung/. Online.
The Warsaw Ghetto in Photographs: 206 Views Made in 1941. Ed. Ulrich Keller. New York: Dover, 1984.
In waters off Chicago the 1901 race for the Canada’s Cup is on, and judges on board the yacht Pathfinder are recording the progress of its history. From a distance, a man with a black curtain over his head watches the racers as they move upside-down across ground glass in an apparatus belonging to the Detroit Photographic Company. Between it and the boatload of judicial sportsmen rides another craft, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Morrill, and off Morrill’s quarter can be seen one of the yachts competing for the cup, the American Cadillac of Detroit or the Canadian Invader.
On Morrill’s lower deck some sailors have grouped themselves into a pyramidal composition signifying youth and eagerness. Over the course of the century that is beginning around them, their pose will be restruck again and again, in posters and movies and wartime photoessays in a magazine that will comprehensively call itself Life. As of 1901, however, the sailors and their way of being in the body haven’t yet become a cliché. Just now they are only angled over the rail that way because they want to see the race. Immediately influenced only by the physical law that prevents two objects from occupying the same space at the same time, the array of sailors’ bodies immediately communicates nothing more than subjection to force. During the open-shuttered instant of that communication, the sailors’ entry in the historical record need be read only innocently.
Innocence also seems to govern the rest of the image. It’s an image of events unfolding by game plan in accordance with a kind of prehistory, but during a single instant in 1901 a shutter opened and closed on the sequence and demarcated it from time. The shutter was open for only a fraction of a second, and when it closed it separated the time now secured in the camera from time’s slow accretions of win and loss, closure of the record book and judgment, good and evil.
Here, then, during the innocent instant before the close, the judges on Pathfinder are executing historiography under a pair of delicately rigged awnings. Atop Morrill’s bridge ride more observers of the yacht speeding from right to left across the negative. These observers, three civilian men and an officer, are depicted in costumes and body language connoting a dignified connection with the boys below them. Filled full with its boys and men (and, by my count, one woman), Morrill displays itself to the light under some such name as “diorama” or “microscosm.” In the light, before the camera that has been waiting for it per plan, it models a life as regulated as the universe. Black smoke tumbles from its funnel and a white wake streams behind. Inside the white hull, men we can’t see are busily at the boat’s work. Outside, the Great Lakes’ waves are their customary tidy selves. On the shore of Lake Erie a month later, the President of the United States will die at the hands of an assassin and a team of surgeons, but here on the water of Lake Michigan this August day, everything that the camera is capable of recording appears shipshape.
However, this particular shipshape happens to be blemished. Click the image to enlarge it and you’ll see: at either end of the line marking the horizon, somebody in 1901 touched the image’s gelatin matrix and marked it with the print of a finger or (I’d guess, as I think of the surgeons probing President McKinley’s abdominal wound with ungloved fingers and then try to visualize how a man in 1901 would hold a wet 8-by-10 inch glass negative) a thumb. The cute little freshwater waves, the tumbling smoke, the pretty boats, the eager young men, everything that filled this fraction of a second of the Detroit Publishing Company’s place in the chronicle of 1901, were intended to fill a sheet of hard transparent permanent glass to overflowing with photography, from margin to margin, instantly. That instantaneous filling is the unique trait of being in time that Emily Dickinson realized on behalf of photography when she said, “Forever is composed of nows.” But here a pair of thumbs has come blundering into the forever, birthmarking the glass with two smudges left by the not photographic.
You see what a problem that is: the thumbs have become a permanent, physical part of a conceptual record where they don’t belong. The record was intended to immobilize time forever in a realized idea of light and shadow and silver halide crystals. Then, however, two thumbs supplemented it with the illiterate X-marks of life. More, and something terrible: those marks are now as clear and as permanent as anything on this plate that was recorded by the camera. Made hard and historical by the chemistry of fossilization, they require us to see them in the same way we see the boats and the waves. But they can only be seen. Unlike the images of the boats, they can’t be interpreted because they aren’t a part of any record. Off the record, the only power they possess is the power to remain silent in the face of question, communicating nothing. As Wallace Stevens observed of the guest of honor at a funeral,
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
The Chicago Tribune’s record of the Morrill event is less a photograph album than a sentimental movie in two scenes, segueing from a captain yelling on his bridge to a yachtsmen’s chorus singing “Hear, hear” back on land.
The ability to segue is what enables a movie or an epic poem to turn what is seen into narrative. Photographs and lyric poems don’t command this power to create sequence and story. Because they are unmoving amid the flow of time, they can do nothing with remembered events but illustrate and exemplify. But one August afternoon in 1901, a blemish moved itself so far into a photograph that the photograph took on the blemish’s property of warm, soiled life. Its glassy image has been tainted ever since by life’s grease spot of the mortal.
You could call that a spoiler alert. It gives away the surprise ending in which a photograph turns into a story.
“The revenue cutter Morrill and yacht Pathfinder.” Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994004837/PP/. Photoshopped.
“Canadians Win Back Their Cup.” Chicago Tribune 15 August 1901: 4. http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1901/08/15/
Emily Dickinson, “Forever is composed of nows,” Fr690.
Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”