Batchen, Geoffrey. ‘Ectoplasm’ Each wild idea: writing, photography, history (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT, 2002 [essay originally published in 1994]) 128-144


This [current] sustained outburst of morbidity appears to stem from two related anxieties. The first is an effect of the widespread introduction of computer-driven imaging processes that allow “fake” photos to be passed off as real ones. The prospect is that, unable to spot the “fake” from the “real”, viewers increasingly will discard their faith in the photograph’s ability to deliver objective truth. Photography will thereby lose its power as a privileged conveyor of information.

These possibilities are exacerbated by a second source of concern: the pervasive suspicion that we are entering a time when it will no longer be possible to tell any original from its simulations. Thing and sign, nature and culture, human and machine: all these hitherto dependable entities appear to be collapsing in on each other.

So photography is faced with two apparent  crises: one technological ( the introduction of computerized images) and one epistemological (having to do with broader changes in ethics, knowledge, and culture).


[Batchen discusses relationship with death and Photography]

[cites Nadar’s account of his friend Balzac’s fear of photography]

[Early] photography  insisted that if one wanted to appear lifelike in a photograph, one first had to act as if dead.


Walter Benjamin argued in his famous essay on mechanical reproduction that photography, by inexorably transforming the aura of authenticity into a commodity would hasten the demise of capitalism itself.

Capitalism is therefore projected as its own worst nightmare , for its means of sustenance is also its poison. And, for Benjamin at least, photography enjoys this same dual character. Like the daguerreotype, it is a force that is simultaneously positive and negative.

[Photography’s] appearance is itself a very strange phenomenon, one perhaps best described as a palimpsest, as an event that inscribed itself within the space left blank by the sudden collapse of a natural philosophy and its Enlightenment worldview.


[…] photography’s birth pangs coincided with both the demise of a premodern episteme and the invention of a peculiarly modern conjunction of power-knowledge-subject; the appearance of one was made possible only through the erasure of the other.

A life born of death; a presence inhabited by absence: photography’s genealogy is repeated in each of its individual instances. Henry Talbot’s earliest contact prints, for example, also hovered somewhere between life and death; perversely, the very light needed to see them proved fatal to their continued visibility.

[describing Talbot’s explanation of his invention] Photography is, for Talbot, the desire for an impossible conjunction of transience and fixity, a visual simultaneity of the fleeting and the eternal. It is an emblematic something, a “space of a single minute,” in which space becomes time and time space.


Photography allowed the return of what had come before – and with it a prophecy of future returns. Whatever its nominal subject, photography was a visual inscriptions of the passing of time and therefore also an intimation of every viewer’s own inevitable passing.

[Brief discussion of Barthes’s Camera Lucida]

On further reflection, [Barthes] takes the temporal perversity of this future anterior tense to be the ultimate source of photography’s plausibility. For, according to Barthes, the reality offered by the photograph is not that of truth-to-appearance but rather of truth-to-presence, a matter of being (of something’s irrefutable place in time) rather than resemblance.


As a practice that is known  to be capable of nothing but fabrication, digitization abandons even the rhetoric of truth that has been such an important part of photography’s cultural success. As their name suggests, digital processes actually return the production of photographic images to the whim of the creative human hand (to the “digits”). For that reason, digital images are actually closer in spirit to the creative processes of art than they are to the truth values of documentary.


But this whole dilemma [of digital manipulation] is more rhetorical than ethical; newspapers and magazines have always manipulated their images in one way or another. The much-heralded advent of digital imaging simply means having to admit it to oneself and even, perhaps to one’s customers.


[description of several well-known and controversial photographic manipulations in the media]


I am suggesting that the production of any and every photograph involves practices of intervention and manipulation of some kind. After all, what else is photography but the knowing manipulation of light levels, exposure times, chemical concentrations, tonal ranges, and so on.

In the mere act of transcribing world into picture, three dimensions into two, photographers necessarily manufacture the image they make. Artifice of one kind or another is therefore an inescapable part of photographic life. In that sense, photographs are no more or less “true” to the appearance of things in the world that are digital images.

This argument returns us to the dilemma of photography’s ontology, to the analogical operations that supposedly give photography its distinctive identity as a medium. Remember that Barthes has already discounted resemblance to reality as a way of defining photography.

Photography’s plausibility has always rested on the uniqueness of its indexical relation to the world it images, a relation that is regarded as fundamental to its operation as a system of representation.

For this reason, a photograph of something has long been held to be a proof of that thing’s being, even if not of its truth.


Where photography is inscribed by the things it represents, it is possible for digital images to have no origin other than their own computer program.


These images may still be indexes of a sort, but their referents are now differential circuits and abstracted data banks of information (information that includes, in most cases, the look of the photographic). In other words, digital images are not so much signs of reality as they are signs of signs. They are representations of what is already perceived to be a series of representations.

This is why digital images remain untroubled by the future anterior, the complex play of “this has been” and “this will be” that so animates the photograph. Digital images are in time but not of time. In this sense, the reality the computer presents to us could be said to be a virtual one, a mere simulation of the analogically and temporally guaranteed reality promised by the photograph. And, of course, when people seek to protect photography from the incursion of the digital, it is this reality that they are ultimately defending.

But how is it, or photography for that matter, threatened? It should be clear to those familiar with the history of photography that a change in imaging technology will not, in and of itself, cause the disappearance of the photograph and the culture it sustains.

[…] even if we continue to identify photography with certain archaic technologies, such as camera and film, those technologies are themselves the embodiment of the idea of photography or, more accurately, of a persistent economy of photographic desires and concepts.

Even if a computer does replace the traditional camera, that computer will continue to depend on the thinking and worldview of the humans who program, control, and direct it, just as photography does now.


Digitization, prosthetic and cosmetic surgery, cloning, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, virtual reality – each of these expanding fields of activity calls into question the presumed distinction between nature and culture, human and nonhuman, real and representation, truth and falsehood – all those concepts on which the epistemology of the photographic has hitherto deepened.

Like any other technology, the body has always involved a process of continual metamorphosis. What is different today is the degree to which its permeability is a visible part of everyday life, a situation that surely insists on a radical questioning not only of the body but also of the very nature of humanness itself. We have entered an age in which the human and all that appends to it can no longer remain a stable site of knowledge because the human cannot be clearly identified. And if “the human” is under erasure, can photography and photographic culture simply remain as before?


[discussion and critique of Peirce’s signs, using Derrida] […] Peirce’s work never allows us to presume  that there is a “real world,” an ultimate foundation, that somehow precede or exists outside representation (“signification”). Real and representation must, according to Peirce’s own argument, always already inhabit each other.

So those who look to Peirce for pragmatic evidence of an extraphotographic real (the “thing-itself”), will, if they look closely enough, find in its place “nothing but signs.” Accordingly, if we follow Peirce to the letter and rewrite photography as a “signing of signs” (and therefore, it should be noted, recognizing that photography too is a digital process), we must logically include the real as but one more form of the photographic.

Any extended notion of photography’s identity must therefore concern itself with the how of this “becoming”, with the “tracing” of one sign within the grain of the other. In other words, photography must be regarded as the representation of a reality that is itself already nothing but the play of representations. More than that, if reality is such a representational system, then it is one produced within, among other things, the spacings of the photographic.


This shift in photography’s conception obviously has ramifications for the entire epistemological edifice on which our culture is built. As Derrida puts it, “This concept of the photograph photographs all conceptual oppositions, it traces a relationship of haunting which perhaps is constitutive of all logics.

Given the new imaging processes, photography may indeed be on the verge of losing its privileged place within modern culture. This does not mean that photographic images will no longer be made, but it does signal the possibility of a dramatic transformation of their meaning and value, and therefore of the medium’s ongoing significance.

However, it should be clear that any such shift in significance will have as much to do with general epistemological changes as with the advent of digital imaging.

Photography will cease to be a dominant element of modern life only when the desire to photograph, and the peculiar arrangement of knowledges and investments that that desire represents, is refigured as another social and cultural formation.

Photography’s passing must necessarily entail the inscription of another way of seeing – and of being.

One Response to “Ectoplasm”

  1. Thanks for the reference! I’m going to use it in my dissertation I think!

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