Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.VT.11.3.2 | PDF

Image as Trans­la­tion Philippe Theo­phani­dis

Image as Translation: The Ideological Implication of the Camera Obscura for Media Studies

Philippe Theo­phani­dis
This essay relies on the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure of the cam­era obscu­ra, as the site or place of artic­u­la­tion between the vis­i­ble and the invis­i­ble. With the help of icono­graph­ic doc­u­ments, it shows that it is not mere­ly a process of inver­sion that defines the cam­era obscu­ra. Indeed, a cru­cial spa­tial com­po­nent is at play in the medi­um of the room itself: the cam­era is the very milieu where both an inver­sion and a dis­place­ment take place. From this per­spec­tive, it will appear more clear­ly that vis­i­bil­i­ty does not stand beside or float above the invis­i­ble, but “takes place” right at its heart.
Cet essai s’appuie sur la fig­ure his­torique de la cam­era obscu­ra, en tant que site ou lieu où s’articulent le vis­i­ble et l’invisible. À l’aide de doc­u­ments icono­graphiques, elle mon­tre que le proces­sus définis­sant le fonc­tion­nement de la cam­era obscu­ra ne se réduit pas à une inver­sion. En effet, une com­posante spa­tiale cru­ciale est en jeu dans le medi­um de la cham­bre elle-même : la cam­era est le milieu où pren­nent place tout aus­si bien une inver­sion qu’un déplace­ment. Dans cette per­spec­tive, il appa­raît plus claire­ment que la vis­i­bil­ité ne se tient pas à côté non plus qu’elle flotte au-dessus de l’invisible, mais prend place en plein dans son cœur.

A schol­ar with­out imag­i­na­tion appears only as a pseu­doschol­ar, or at least as an incom­plete schol­ar.” (Baude­laire 127)

This essay1 exam­ines a spe­cif­ic issue at the inter­sec­tion of two aca­d­e­m­ic tra­di­tions: name­ly media stud­ies and visu­al cul­tures. Its focus is the process by which images take place. This process—imagination—is under­stood here as a process of dis­place­ment or dis­lo­ca­tion. If we agree to under­stand trans­la­tion not mere­ly as a lin­guis­tic process (i.e., the trans­la­tion of one lan­guage into anoth­er lan­guage), but as a broad­er process of trans­fer­ence from one place to anoth­er, then it fol­lows that trans­la­tion is also fun­da­men­tal­ly con­cerned with images. Hence, instead of argu­ing that trans­la­tion could catch on with vis­i­bil­i­ty, this essay argues that images “take place” as events for which trans­la­tion is a con­di­tion. By cast­ing imag­i­na­tion as a process of trans­la­tion, the long-stand­ing ide­o­log­i­cal pref­er­ence for the invis­i­bil­i­ty of trans­la­tion in favor of an author­i­ta­tive source is turned on its head.

This essay there­fore casts images not as things or objects, but as rela­tions. These rela­tions involve the nego­ti­a­tion of dif­fer­ences: they need dif­fer­ences and, in turn, gen­er­ate dif­fer­ences. From the per­spec­tive of media stud­ies, this can be prop­er­ly said to be a process of medi­a­tion, but only inso­far as medi­a­tion is under­stood not as a chan­nel­ing or a bridg­ing, but as a spa­tial process or, more pre­cise­ly, as a con­tin­u­ous process of spac­ing (in French: espace­ment, décalage, écartèle­ment). To think of imag­i­na­tion as trans­la­tion allows for images to be not mere­ly con­ceived as the fixed terms in a rela­tion of resem­blance and simil­i­tude with an orig­i­nal, but as the ten­sion of an irre­ducible dif­fer­ence from which resem­blance and similitude—along with the ide­ol­o­gy of the origin—is derived.

In the fol­low­ing para­graphs, I will first quick­ly present Rada Iveković’s idea of trans­la­tion as a process of dis­place­ment or tran­sit. This will pave the way for more exhaus­tive exam­i­na­tion of the rela­tion­ship between images and space. Sec­ond, a brief exam­i­na­tion of the word “image” will allow us to con­sid­er images not mere­ly as things to be looked at, but rather as dif­fer­ences or rela­tions. In the third and main part, this rela­tion­ship will be fleshed out by exam­in­ing the oper­a­tion of the cam­era obscu­ra, an ear­ly opti­cal device used to repro­duce scenes from the world inside a dark room (Fig­ure 3). This exam­ple will be exam­ined from a vari­ety of his­tor­i­cal treat­ment, from a 16th cen­tu­ry treaty writ­ten by Giambat­tista del­la Por­ta to Karl Marx’s use of the cam­era obscu­ra as a metaphor for ide­ol­o­gy. The dis­place­ment involved in the process of image cre­ation will become explic­it, fur­ther assert­ing the rel­e­vance of the cam­era obscu­ra for both visu­al cul­ture and media stud­ies. Final­ly, it will be pos­si­ble to bring togeth­er imag­i­na­tion, trans­la­tion, and ideology.

Translation as Transit

In her essay “On Per­ma­nent Trans­la­tion,” Rada Iveković pro­pos­es to under­stand trans­la­tion as a “pri­mal con­di­tion, or rather a con­di­tion as such—not that of a place, but that of a pri­mal move” (121). In doing so, trans­la­tion expos­es the real in a dif­fer­ent light. Instead of being caught in a tra­di­tion­al dialec­tic of oppo­si­tions (truth/false, real/unreal, original/derivative), the real­i­ty exposed by trans­la­tion appears as an irre­ducible and unsolv­able ten­sion. As Iveković fur­ther sug­gests: “trans­la­tion always takes place, and is always unsat­is­fac­to­ry” (122). Hence, the “tak­ing place” of trans­la­tion is end­less. Like­wise, the process of imagination—the tak­ing place of images—does not involve a sta­t­ic milieu, nor does it occu­py a prop­er site once and for all. As a con­di­tion, it is a sit­u­a­tion; it hap­pens as an event. This event, fur­ther­more, expos­es the space of dif­fer­ence, the in-between­ness from which stem the ideas of ori­gin and copy, real­i­ty and illu­sion, authen­tic­i­ty and sim­u­lacrum. Here, the word “medi­a­tion” claims its spa­tial com­po­nent: the medi­al or the Latin medi­um, the yawn­ing of an inter­me­di­ary space. A brief exam­i­na­tion of the word “image” will expose how it can be under­stood as the space of dif­fer­ence, rather than mere­ly as some dis­creet thing to look at.

Images as Difference

Although the Pro­to-Indo-Euro­pean prove­nance of the Latin word “imāgō”—from which the Eng­lish word “image” is derived—is uncer­tain, most dic­tio­nar­ies attest of the same seman­tic field and mean­ings: imi­ta­tion, copy, like­ness, sim­u­lacrum, emu­la­tion, resem­blance, simil­i­tude, etcetera. Some authors have explored the philo­log­i­cal rela­tion­ship of this seman­tic field with the idea of friend­ship, sug­gest­ing an affin­i­ty between “ima­go” and “ami­go” (Wack­er­nagel 77). Indeed, we some­times use the same word in Eng­lish to oper­ate in both seman­tic fields of resem­blance and friend­ship: for exam­ple, “like” and “akin.” This alone would suf­fice to sug­gest that instead of being one indi­vid­ual, dis­creet thing, the image instead always marks a dis­parate plu­ral­i­ty. The image exists not mere­ly in rela­tion to its mod­el, but as the rela­tion­ship between some­thing and some­thing oth­er. “More than one” is the min­i­mal con­di­tion for an image to exist. More­over, despite or pre­cise­ly because of what the seman­tic field asso­ci­at­ed with “imāgō” evokes (imi­ta­tion and sim­u­lacrum), an image can be named as such because it is also not the same, not iden­ti­cal. In oth­er words, the image exists fore­most as a dif­fer­ence, in state anal­o­gous to that “infin­i­tes­i­mal dis­con­ti­nu­ity” that Michel Fou­cault attrib­ut­es to the speaker’s rela­tion to his own dis­course (311). Here, dif­fer­ence is not opposed to resem­blance, but con­ceived instead as its very con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­i­ty. The “self” of an image is to be found in oth­er­ness or, as Daniel Tiffany puts it, “the image has always been an essen­tial bear­er of oth­er­ness” (218). The cam­era obscu­ra pro­vides an inter­est­ing entry point, then, to this explo­ration of how the dif­fer­en­tial nature of the image can be thought of spa­tial­ly and, as such, relates to what Dieter Mer­sch calls “the medi­al” (153-180).

Inversion: Giambattista della Porta

The cam­era obscu­ra has pro­vid­ed and still pro­vides a strong and last­ing mod­el to think the artic­u­la­tion of images and real­i­ty. The cam­era obscu­ra has been called “an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal fig­ure” and an “assem­blage” (Crary 30), a “root metaphor” for the mod­ern con­cept of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty (Bai­ley 63), an “epis­te­mol­o­gy engine” capa­ble of pro­duc­ing knowl­edge (Ihde and Selinger), and, as such, could qual­i­fy as a “hyper­i­con” in W.J.T Mitchell’s vocab­u­lary (5–6). The cam­era obscu­ra has also been referred to as a noto­ri­ous and prob­lem­at­ic “metaphor­i­cal con­straint” when think­ing about ide­ol­o­gy (Kof­man 3). How­ev­er, before eval­u­at­ing these more con­tem­po­rary pre­oc­cu­pa­tions and con­cerns, I turn instead to an ear­li­er and, indeed, par­a­dig­mat­ic descrip­tion of the cam­era obscu­ra in Giambat­tista del­la Porta’s Nat­ur­al Mag­ick, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished as Mag­iæ Nat­u­ralis in 1558 (Fig­ure 1).

Fig­ure 1

Del­la Porta’s descrip­tion of the cam­era obscu­ra appears in the sev­en­teenth book ded­i­cat­ed to “Strange Glass­es” (De cato­pri­cis imag­inibus), under chap­ter VI titled “Oth­er oper­a­tions of a Con­cave-Glass” (Alia spe­culi con­caui oper­a­tiones). The descrip­tion is famil­iar as it empha­sizes one of the main fea­tures of the cam­era obscu­ra: how it pro­duces an invert­ed image of the world (Fig­ure 2).

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.… (del­la Por­ta, Nat­ur­al Mag­ick 363)

Fig­ure 2

What is of inter­est here is the way Del­la Por­ta describes the image cre­at­ed in the cam­era obscu­ra: peo­ple, he says, will appear in it “like to Antipodes, and what is right will be the left, and all things changed.” The process of cre­at­ing an image involves a sig­nif­i­cant dis­place­ment, a change in loca­tion. 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” (del­la Por­ta, Nat­ur­al Mag­ick 363).

Fig­ure 3

Near­ly three cen­turies lat­er in 1845, Marx and his col­lab­o­ra­tor Engels 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. (47)

In this pas­sage, the cam­era obscu­ra metaphor does more than con­vey the process by which real­i­ty is invert­ed. Marx and Engels 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” (47). 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. A com­mon, if 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 mistakenly—be thought of as being sep­a­rat­ed from our own “life process.” One way to illus­trate this mis­take is to con­sid­er what it would mean to reduce the entire cam­era obscu­ra sys­tem to the sin­gle crys­tal glass described by del­la Por­ta. A lens alone, how­ev­er, does not make for a cam­era obscu­ra. It is the whole dark­ened room where one stands—along with the lens, the light, and the world—that is, in fact, pro­duc­ing an 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, eco­nom­ic, social, polit­i­cal, and so on. To a large extent, we too, in our dis­parate plu­ral­i­ty, belong to this same milieu of rela­tions. We are, in fact, this very milieu.

To a cer­tain extent, Louis Althuss­er may have been try­ing to con­vey a sim­i­lar idea when he com­pared ide­ol­o­gy to cement in an unsigned essay pub­lished at the end of 1966, which is attrib­uted to him:

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. (14–15)

With Marx and Althuss­er, two gen­er­al ideas are expressed through spa­tial metaphors involv­ing rooms and build­ing. First, ide­ol­o­gy is an inver­sion of our life-process, akin to the way the cam­era obscu­ra works. From this per­spec­tive, the image pro­duced inside the room imi­tates real­i­ty in a spe­cif­ic way: by pre­sent­ing a copy that has been turned upside-down. Sec­ond, ideology—no more than the image itself if we under­stand it in an extend­ed way—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.

These two ideas find a strik­ing syn­the­sis in Guy Debord’s well-known 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.” Although Debord does not use the expres­sion cam­era obscu­ra, many key aspects of his essay seem to be informed by it. In the­sis 2, Debord is quite explic­it about the inver­sion: “The spec­ta­cle is a con­crete inver­sion of life, an autonomous move­ment of the non­liv­ing” (7). This point is fur­ther devel­oped in chap­ter 3, “Uni­ty and Divi­sion With­in Appear­ances,” the­sis 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” (27). Fur­ther­more, Debord makes it clear ear­ly in the book that what he calls “the spec­ta­cle” is not some Broad­way show or Hol­ly­wood block­buster: it is not an autonomous image stand­ing out there all by itself, dif­fer­ent in essence from our life, like an objec­ti­fied prod­uct. On the con­trary, it is us. In the­sis 4, he states: “The spec­ta­cle is not a col­lec­tion of images, but a social rela­tion among peo­ple, medi­at­ed by images” (7). Images, in this view, do not cir­cu­late among us. They are the space or the gap through which we relate while always remain­ing plural.

One way to bet­ter under­stand how the spec­ta­cle is not a sin­gle, indi­vid­ual thing or phe­nom­e­na is to go back once more 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 is a chap­ter titled “How Spec­ta­cles are made” (Chap. XXI). In the Latin orig­i­nal, it reads “Specil­la quo­mo­do fiant” (Mag­iæ 571). 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. Sim­i­lar­ly, the cam­era in cam­era obscu­ra can­not be reduced to a giv­en room, as a mere archi­tec­tur­al enti­ty. The room—related to the Ger­man Raum—is the name of a spa­tial event: it is the process by which images take place as a set of rela­tions, and through which a giv­en milieu emerges.

Fig­ure 4

The cov­er of the 1983 Eng­lish edi­tion of Soci­ety of the Spec­ta­cle pub­lished by Black & Red shows an audi­ence watch­ing an ear­ly —although not the first—3D film with spe­cial glass­es. Debord, how­ev­er, nev­er wrote a Soci­ety of Spec­ta­cles, in the plur­al, for he was not con­cerned with a mere thing (Fig­ure 4). The prob­lem named by the Soci­ety of the Spec­ta­cle 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 and as we relate to oth­er things in the world. In the­sis 8, he fur­ther explains:

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. (8–9)

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). (55)

This is pre­cise­ly the point where an under­stand­ing of imag­i­na­tion as trans­la­tion pro­vides some use­ful insights. Although Sarah Kof­man makes no men­tion of Debord in her book Cam­era Obscu­ra: Of Ide­ol­o­gy, she lays out the dou­ble inversion—an inver­sion of an inversion—that char­ac­ter­ized this mod­el (1–7). Indeed, before being the mod­el for ideology—everything that is false—the cam­era obscu­ra was first cel­e­brat­ed as a tool of great pre­ci­sion, capa­ble of faith­ful­ly pro­duc­ing an almost exact image of the world. As a par­a­digm of truth and knowl­edge, it thus began its life as a pos­i­tive mod­el, before being turned on its head. It then start­ed a sec­ond life as an exem­plary mod­el of the unre­al and the unau­then­tic (see also Mitchell 160–208). In both cas­es, how­ev­er, it remained faith­ful to the tra­di­tion iden­ti­fied by Nan­cy, which artic­u­lates the same and the oth­er, the truth and the false, the real and the illu­sion in a rela­tion­ship of opposition.

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: a reli­able ori­gin. As Nan­cy has repeat­ed­ly argued, we need to explore oth­er ways of deal­ing with the prob­lem of our coex­is­tence. For the issue at hand though, we will sim­ply move for­ward to sug­gest a par­al­lel between this issue and the way trans­la­tion remains tra­di­tion­al­ly sub­or­di­nat­ed to what is being translated.

Displacement: John Pecham

In Per­spec­ti­va Com­mu­nis, a treaty on the sci­ence of optics writ­ten in the sec­ond half of the 13th century—three cen­turies before del­la Porta’s own treatise—John Pecham (alter­na­tive spelling Peck­ham) answered the ques­tion, “What is an image?” with the fol­low­ing words: “it is mere­ly the appear­ance of an object out­side its place [rei extra locum suum]” (171). The def­i­n­i­tion is offered in a sec­tion dis­cussing the appear­ance of objects in mir­rors as they are linked to errors of judg­ment. Paul Fey­er­abend briefly alludes to this def­i­n­i­tion in a chap­ter of his book Against Method con­cerned with knowl­edge, sci­en­tif­ic obser­va­tions and illu­sions (89–90n17). Here, how­ev­er, we are main­ly con­cerned with two spe­cif­ic and com­ple­men­tary aspects of Pecham’s definition.

First, Pecham’s def­i­n­i­tion of what is an image involves a “place” or a loca­tion (locum). Sec­ond, as such it involves this place as a dis-place­ment or this locum a dis-loca­tion. In oth­er words, it involves a trans­la­tion at the very least in the sense of a spa­tial dif­fer­ence: a spac­ing, a shift, an off­set­ting. The image is not the object, but the trans­la­tion of the object “out­side its place”. While Pecham evokes the “true place” of the object in rela­tion to which a “false place” could be assert­ed as a mere illu­sion, the image does not have its own place. The place of the image is not for the image to own prop­er­ly. The image takes place as a tran­si­tive event, but nev­er holds to a giv­en place once and for all. It is not lost but found in trans­la­tion, as trans­la­tion. Its own site is always deferred some­where else: it resides in per­ma­nent tran­sit. Not unlike trans­la­tion, its own self is always other.

Thinking as Imagination

Let us go back to the cam­era obscu­ra and to Debord’s spec­ta­cle one last time. Because an image is not a dis­creet object, it is insuf­fi­cient to think about it as a thing exist­ing on its own, for us to look at and exam­ine. The image does not appear in the cam­era obscu­ra. Instead, the cam­era obscu­ra makes vis­i­ble the com­plex and intri­cate medi­a­tions that take place at a giv­en moment and in a giv­en con­text. The image as trans­la­tion remains invis­i­ble, but it is the “pri­mor­dial con­di­tion” that allows for con­tin­gent sets of rela­tions to be per­ceived in the first place. For the cam­era obscu­ra, that set of rela­tions first was expe­ri­enced as a mod­el of truth, then as a mod­el of an illu­sion. If instead of think­ing about any giv­en image, we allow our­selves to think with images, with­in the gaps of the rela­tions from which stems the vis­i­ble, it is not a finite object that becomes the cen­ter of our experience—identical to itself, one and the same—but the com­plex inter­play of dif­fer­ences to which we relate, our­selves as oth­ers. In the process the invis­i­bil­i­ty of trans­la­tion is what becomes vis­i­ble. This could be a way to begin under­stand­ing what Nan­cy had in mind when, in an essay titled “The Image—The Dis­tinct,” he assert­ed: “The image is the obvi­ous­ness of the invis­i­ble” (12).

George Didi-Huber­man once sug­gest­ed that imag­i­na­tion is not opposed to the real but man­i­fests a “capac­i­ty for real­iza­tion” (179). Inso­far that imag­i­na­tion involves a process of trans­la­tion, as the present essay argues, trans­la­tion is sub­or­di­nat­ed nei­ther to a com­mon con­cep­tion of lan­guage nor to an ori­gin that would pre­cede it. Instead, it real­izes, it brings forth a real­i­ty which is not sub­or­di­nat­ed to a super­sed­ing ide­al: oth­er­ness becomes real—and visible—to the extent that we can expe­ri­ence it, relate to it, and claim it as what we all share with­out own­ing it properly.

Works Cited

Althuss­er, Louis [unsigned]. “On the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion.” Trans­lat­ed by Jason E. Smith, Décalages, vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-19.

Bai­ley, Lee W. “Skull’s Dark­room: The Cam­era Obscu­ra and Sub­jec­tiv­i­ty.” Phi­los­o­phy of Tech­nol­o­gy: Prac­ti­cal, His­tor­i­cal and Oth­er Dimen­sions, edit­ed by Paul T. Durbin, Springer, 1989, pp. 63–79.

Baude­laire, Charles. Baude­laire as a Lit­er­ary Crit­ic: Select­ed Essays. Trans­lat­ed by Lois Boe Hys­lop and Fran­cis E Hys­lop. Penn­syl­va­nia State UP, 1964.

Crary, Jonathan. Tech­niques of the Observ­er: On Vision and Moder­ni­ty in the Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry. MIT Press, 2012.

Debord, Guy. The Soci­ety of the Spec­ta­cle. Trans­lat­ed by Ken Knabb. Rebel Press, 2004.

Del­la Por­ta, Giambat­tista. Magia Nat­u­ralis. Aubrii & Schle­ichius, 1619.

Del­la Por­ta, Giambat­tista. Nat­ur­al Mag­ick. Ear­ly Eng­lish Books Online Text Cre­ation Part­ner­ship, https://​quod​.lib​.umich​.edu/​e​/​e​e​b​o​/​A​5​5​4​8​4​.​0​0​0​1​.​0​01/. Accessed 16 Jan­u­ary 2018.

Didi-Huber­man, Georges. “When Images Touch the Real.” Ice­berg, La Real­i­dad Invis­i­ble, Cal Cego, 2014, pp. 179-193.

Fey­er­abend, Paul Karl. Against Method: Out­line of an Anar­chis­tic The­o­ry of Knowl­edge. Ver­so, 1993.

Fou­cault, Michel. The Essen­tial Works of Michel Fou­cault, 1954–1984. Vol. 2, trans­lat­ed by Robert Hur­ley, edit­ed by James D. Faubion, Pen­guin, 2000.

Ihde, Don, and Evan Selinger. “Mer­leau-Pon­ty and Epis­te­mol­o­gy Engines.” Human Stud­ies, vol. 27, no. 4, 2004, pp. 361–76.

Iveković, Rada. “On Per­ma­nent Trans­la­tion.” Trans­lat­ed by John Doher­ty, Transeu­ropéennes, no. 22, 2002, pp. 121–45.

Kof­man, Sarah. Cam­era Obscu­ra: Of Ide­ol­o­gy. Cor­nell UP, 1999.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Ger­man Ide­ol­o­gy,Trans­lat­ed by anony­mous, edit­ed by C. J. Arthur, Inter­na­tion­al Pub­lish­ers, 1970.

Mer­sch, Dieter. “Meta/Dia: Two Approach­es to the Medi­al.” Media Transat­lantic: Devel­op­ments in Media and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Stud­ies between North Amer­i­can and Ger­man-Speak­ing Europe, edit­ed by Norm Friesen, Springer, 2016, pp. 153–80.

Mitchell, W. J. Thomas. Iconol­o­gy: Image, Text, Ide­ol­o­gy. The U of Chica­go P, 1986.

Nan­cy, Jean-Luc. Being Sin­gu­lar Plur­al. Trans­lat­ed by Robert D Richard­son and Anne Eliz­a­beth O’Byrne. Stan­ford UP, 2000.

Pecham, Joannes. Per­spec­ti­va Com­mu­nis. John Pecham and the Sci­ence of Optics. Edit­ed by David C Lind­berg. U of Wis­con­sin P, 1970.

Tiffany, Daniel. “Cryptes­the­sia: Visions of the Oth­er.” The Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Semi­otics, vol. 6, no. 2-3, 2008, pp. 209-219.

Wack­er­nagel, Wolf­gang. “Estab­lish­ing the Being of Images: Mas­ter Eck­hart and the Con­cept of Dis­imag­i­na­tion.” Dio­genes, vol. 41, no. 162, 1993, pp. 77–98.

Image Notes

Fig­ure 1. Fron­tispiece of Giambat­tista del­la Porta’s Nat­ur­al Mag­ick, Lon­don, Print­ed for T. Young and S. Speed, 1658. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Fig­ure 2. 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.

Fig­ure 3. One of the first draw­ings of a cam­era obscu­ra in De Radio Astro­nom­i­ca et Geo­met­ri­ca by Rain­er Gem­ma Fri­siu, first pub­lished in 1545, p. 39.

Fig­ure 4. Cov­er design for the Eng­lish edi­tion of Guy Debord’s Soci­ety of the Spec­ta­cle, as of 1983 (Detroit: Black & Red, 1983).


  1. The author wish­es to thank the review­ers for their thought­ful com­ments and efforts towards improv­ing this con­tri­bu­tion. Parts of this essay appeared on the author’s web­site, aphe​lis​.net.