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You must shut all the chamber windows, and it will do well to shut up all holes besides, lest any light breaking in should spoil all. Onely make one hole, that shall be a hands breadth and length; above this fit a little leaden or brass Table, and glew it, so thick as a paper; open a round hole in the middle of it, as great as your little finger. Over against this, let there be white walls of paper, or white clothes, so shall you see all that is done without in the Sun, and those that walk in the streets, like to Antipodes, and what is right will be the left, and all things changed; and the farther they are off from the hole, the greater they will appear. If you bring your paper, or white Table neerer, they will shew less and clearer (…)

Natural magick by Giambattista della Porta, London, Printed for T. Young and S. Speed, 1658, Book XVII, Chapter VI, p. 363.

UPDATE – 2020.12.23. An extended version of this post has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Imaginations: “Image as Translation: The Ideological Implication of theCamera Obscura for Media Studies.” Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies, vol. 11, no. 3, Dec. 2020, pp. 15-3.

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This description of the camera obscura is found in the seventeenth book of Giambattista della Porta’s Natural magick, which is about “Strange Glasses” (De catopricis imaginibus), in a chapter on the “operations of a Concave-Glass” (Alia speculi concaui operationes). Natural magick was originally published as Magiæ Naturalis in 1558. Google Books has a Latin edition from 1619: see page 545.

Description of a camera obscura in ‘Natural magick’ by Giambattista della Porta, London, Printed for T. Young and S. Speed, 1658, Book XVII, Chapter VI, p. 363. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
Description of a camera obscura in ‘Natural magick’ by Giambattista della Porta, London, Printed for T. Young and S. Speed, 1658, Book XVII, Chapter VI, p. 363. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

What is of interest here is the way della Porta describes the image created in the camera obscura: people will appear “like to Antipodes, and what is right will be the left, and all things changed”. He goes on to explain how it is possible to produce a much more striking effect with the use of a lens:

Now will I declare what I ever concealed till now, and thought to conceal continually. If you put a small centicular Crystal glass to the hole, you shall presently see all things clearer, the countenances of men walking, the colors, garments, and all things as if you stood hard by. You shall see them with so much pleasure, that those that see it can never enough admire it.

One of the first drawings of a camera obscura in ‘De Radio Astronomica et Geometrica’ by Rainer Gemma Frisiu, first published in 1545. Retrieved from Google Books.
One of the first drawings of a camera obscura in ‘De Radio Astronomica et Geometrica’ by Rainer Gemma Frisiu, first published in 1545. Retrieved from Google Books.

Nearly three centuries later, in 1845, Karl Marx will use the camera obscura as a metaphor to describe how ideology works:

The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process. (“The Essence of the Materialist Conception of History. Social Being and Social Consciousness” in The German Ideology, Part I.A, written in 1845-1846, first published in 1932.

In this passage, the camera obscura metaphor does more than convey the process by which reality is inverted. As Sarah Kaufman once observed1, it is also used by Marx to emphasize the fact that the inversion is not autonomous from the reality that is inverted. Again from The German Ideology:

The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. (Ibid.)

Returning to Giambattista della Porta’s description of the camera obscura it is possible to understand Marx’s argument from the perspective of media studies.

An unfortunate reduction in media studies consists in the reification of the concept of media. From this standpoint, media are conceived as autonomous apparatuses. Whenever one thinks of media as the television, the press or, more recently, the Internet, one is granting the power of autonomy to a process that can consequently ―but mistakingly― be thought of as being separated from our own “life process”. Technological determinism stems from this blind spot.

One way to illustrate this mistake is to think about what it would mean to reduce the entire camera obscura system to the single Crystal glass described by Giambattista della Porta: a lens does not make for a camera obscura. Instead, one can clearly understand how it is the whole darkened room where one stands ―along with the lens― that is in fact producing the inverted image. Many different things, carefully arranged together, along with an observer and other subjects, actually account for what is named a camera obscura.

The miniaturization of the camera –as we know it today– does not invalidate this argument. Like its primitive ancestor, the digital camera cannot function outside a delicate network of carefully arranged relations of various natures: technological, economical, social, political, etc. To a large extent, we too belong to the same milieu: we are part of it. This is one way to bridge the alleged gap between politics and technology and, in doing so, to recognize political qualities to technological artefacts, as Langdon Winner once did2.

The most interesting part of this argument, as it was recently discussed by Stuart Elden and Jeremy Crampton3, is how it works in both directions: “the political is always technical” as well (to use Stuart Elden’s words). The political is not something out there, which is the concern of professionals whom we call “politicians”. It is not especially present in the Congress and absent, say, from the restaurant where one brings his family for lunch. It is not a sporadic event, occurring only once every four years and disappearing afterwards.

Louis Althusser may have been trying to convey a similar idea when he compared ideology to cement in a text published at the end of 1966:

When we use an architectural metaphor (that of a house: infrastructure/superstructure) we say that the ideological represents one of the levels of the superstructure. We do this to indicate its position in the social structure (superstructure and not infrastructure), its relative autonomy with regard to the political and the economic, and at the same time its relations of dependence with regard to the political and the economic.

If, instead, we want to suggest the concrete form of existence of the ideological, it is better to compare it to a “cement” rather than to a floor of a building. The ideological seeps, in fact, into all the rooms of the building: in individuals’ relation to all their practices, to all of their objects, in their relations to science, to technology, to the arts, in their relations to economic practice and political practice, into their “personal” relations, etc. The ideological is what, in a society, distinguishes and cements, whether it be technical or class distinctions. (“On the Cultural Revolution”, attributed to Louis Althusser, published anonymously, tr. Jason E. Smith, Décalages, Vol. 1: Iss. 1, 2013; first published as “Sur la révolution culturelle” in Cahiers Marxistes Léninistes, No. 14, Nov.-Dec. 1966, p. 14; available on Scribd).

With Marx and Althusser, we have two general ideas which happened to be expressed through an architectural metaphor. First, ideology is an inversion of our life-process, akin to the way the camera obscura works. Sarah Kaufman provides an excellent interpretation of what this metaphor could mean in her book Camera Obscura: Of Ideology (1999). I’ll leave aside the details. Second, ideology is not an autonomous thing, but the very milieu in which our lives are embedded. It seeps, as Althusser suggests, right into our personal relations.

Although Sarah Kaufman makes no mention of him, those two aspects of the camera obscura metaphor applied to ideology could be said to find their most striking synthesis in Guy Debord’s well-know work Society of the Spectacle. It was first published in France in 1967, a few months only after Althusser’s essay “On the Cultural Revolution”.

Debord does not use the expression camera obscura, but many key aspects of his essay seem to be informed by it. Here are only a few quickly sketched observations supporting this idea. In thesis §2, Debord is quite explicit about the inversion (I use Ken Knabb’s translation throughout):

The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving.

This point is further developed in Chapter 3: “Unity and Division Within Appearances”:

§54. The spectacle, like modern society itself, is at once united and divided. The unity of each is based on violent divisions. But when this contradiction emerges in the spectacle, it is itself contradicted by a reversal of its meaning: the division it presents is unitary, while the unity it presents is divided.

Furthermore, Debord makes it quite clear early in the book that what he calls “The spectacle” is not some Broadway show or Hollywood blockbuster: it is not an autonomous representation standing out there all by itself, different in essence from our life. On the contrary, it is us4:

§4. The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.

One way to better understand how the spectacle is not a single, individual thing or phenomena is to go back to the 1658 English translation of Giambattista della Porta’s Natural magick. In the same book where the description of the camera obscura can be found, there’s a chapter titled “How Spectacles are made”. In the Latin original, it reads “Specilla quomodo fiant” (Google Books). However, it has nothing to do with the display of some kind of entertaining performance. Instead, it is all about the fabrication of lenses. “Spectacle”, especially in its plural form, used to designate an optical instrument, such as reading glasses. This meaning is now obsolete, and certainly does not apply, in the strict sense, to Debord’s theory.

Cover design for the English edition of Guy Debord’s Society of the spectacle, as of 1983 (Detroit: Black & Red, [1970]1983). Large format retrieved from Housmans.
Cover design for the English edition of Guy Debord’s Society of the spectacle, as of 1983 (Detroit: Black & Red, [1970]1983). Large format retrieved from Housmans.

The cover of the 1983 English edition of Society of the Spectacle shows an audience watching one of the first 3D films with special glasses (for more details, see Cover of the 1983 edition of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle). Debord, however, never wrote a Society of Spectacles, for he was not concerned with the mere thing. The problem is not reducible to the apparatus an audience would be using. His concerns instead were related to the current conditions of our coexistence, both as we relate to each other (politics) and as we relate to other things in the world (technology):

§8. One cannot abstractly contrast the spectacle to actual social activity: such a division is itself divided. The spectacle which inverts the real is in fact produced. Lived reality is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle while simultaneously absorbing the spectacular order, giving it positive cohesiveness. Objective reality is present on both sides. Every notion fixed this way has no other basis than its passage into the opposite: reality rises up within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real. This reciprocal alienation is the essence and the support of the existing society.

It would be tempting to believe ―as Debord may have very well himself believed ― that the problem therefore has to do with the false reality we are living in and, consequently, that the solution lies with the unveiling of a true reality, beyond ideology and spectacle. Jean-Luc Nancy was perfectly aware of the dangers associated with such beliefs when he discusses the “conditions of critique” in regard to Situationism in his book Being Singular Plural:

But this very intuition is interpreted only as the reign of appearance, as the substitution of the spectacle for authentic presence; appearance is understood, here, in the most classical way, namely, as “mere appearance” (surface, secondary exteriority, inessential shadow), and even as “false appearance” (semblance, deceptive imitation). In this respect, critique remains obedient to the most trenchant and “metaphysical” tradition of philosophy, “metaphysical” in the Nietzschean sense: the refusal to consider an order of “appearances,” preferring, instead, authentic reality (deep, living, originary—and always on the order of the Other). (tr. by Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne, Stanford: STanford University Press, [1996] 2000, p. 55)

Here is not the place to fully develop on the ethical dangers associated with such a belief. It will suffice to suggest that the most tragic catastrophes of the past century have been the result of a longing for a more real existence, a more authentic life. As Jean-Luc Nancy has repeatedly argued, we need to explore other ways of dealing with the problem of our coexistence.

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1. Camera Obscura: Of Ideology by Sarah Kaufman, tr. by Will Straw, Cornell University Press, 1999. First published as Camera Obscura (Paris: Galilée, 1973). Google Books.↩︎︎

2. See “Do Artifacts Have Politics” in The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology by Langdon Winner, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, pp. 19-39; PDF, Google Books (incomplete preview).↩︎︎

3. See Open Geography: “Technology is political because politics includes the technological” by Jeremy Crampton, Dec. 17, 2013. And a follow-up by Stuart Elden at Progressive Geographies: “Jeremy Crampton on my ‘the political is always technical’ comment” Dec. 19, 2013. ↩︎︎

4. Many years later, Brian Massumi would write in his book Parables for the virtual: Movement, affect, sensation: “Capitalism is the global usurpation of belonging.” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002, p. 88). I have commented this quote before, see Some thoughts on the 2012 Quebec student protests. ↩︎︎

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See also previously:

Frontispiece of Giambattista della Porta´s  Natural magick, London, Printed for T. Young and S. Speed, 1658. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
Frontispiece of Giambattista della Porta´s Natural magick, London, Printed for T. Young and S. Speed, 1658. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
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