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Photography and the Optical Unconscious

Edited by
Shawn Michelle Smith
Shawn Michelle Smith

Shawn Michelle Smith is Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the author of At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen and Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture, both also published by Duke University Press.

Sharon Sliwinski is Associate Professor of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario and author of Mandela's Dark Years: A Political Theory of Dreaming and Human Rights in Camera.

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Sharon Sliwinski
Sharon Sliwinski

Shawn Michelle Smith is Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the author of At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen and Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture, both also published by Duke University Press.

Sharon Sliwinski is Associate Professor of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario and author of Mandela's Dark Years: A Political Theory of Dreaming and Human Rights in Camera.

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Duke University Press
ISBN electronic:
978-0-8223-7299-8
Publication date:
2017
Book Chapter

Photography’s Weimar-Era Proliferation and Walter Benjamin’s Optical Unconscious

By
Andrés Mario Zervigón
Andrés Mario Zervigón
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Published:
May 2017

The last thirty years have seen a great deal of scholarship on Benjamin’s optical unconscious, yet much of this work expands well beyond photography, the actual subject of Benjamin’s formulation. This chapter places the medium and its historically specific conditions at the center of renewed inquiry into this topic. It focuses on the multifaceted 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, photographic images in these years seemed fundamentally flawed by their great profusion, the commercial and political conditions that generated this flood, and the very contingency of any one image. The chapter proposes that Benjamin acknowledged these shortcomings and responded by assigning the medium’s revelatory agency to the subjective realm of the unconscious, where contingency played the most important role in perception.

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