Anton Lee, “Photography, Multiplicity, Promiscuity: Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin,” Published in 2022 in a backdated volume (2020) of Materiali Foucaultiani, volume IX, numero 17-18 (gennaio-dicembre 2020)
This paper investigates the multiplicity of the photographic image theorized by Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin in their respective writings on photography. To do so entails a set of comparisons and contrasts between the two thinkers with regard to their approaches to the historical, epistemological, and cultural specificities of photography. By putting Foucault and Benjamin side by side for the first time in regard to photography, the paper sheds light on the often-overlooked writings on the medium by Foucault, on the one hand, and puts forward a Foucauldian counterpart to Benjamin’s well-known treatise on the photographic reproducibility, on the other. In order to discuss their theories of photography on an equal footing, I first introduce and elucidate Foucault’s two essays on photography: “Photogenic Painting” (1975) and “Thought and Emotion” (1982). The synthesis of the two writings delineates a provocative understanding of photography, which argues for the transmedial, transformative, and transgressive potentials of the photographic image. Subsequently, I bring this Foucauldian theory of photography in conversation with the widely read essays on the medium by Benjamin, whose thoughts exhibit unmistakable differences from Foucault’s, even as they both agree on the significance of the photographic multiplicity. The paper locates three fronts of conflict between their approaches to photography: the specificity of the photographic medium, the relationship between photography and language, and lastly, the centrality of vision to the photographic experience.
Keywords: Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Photography, Multiplicity, Reproducibility