Measuring Matter

In his descriptions of photography, Vilém Flusser adopted terms from particle physics, so that making images begins to resemble the measuring of physical phenomena — matter — at a molecular level.  The camera presents a means of grasping or gathering (“raffen”) “whirling particles,” whether molecules or pixels, well below the level of direct human perception, recording their positions and sharing the records with others.  

Could photography be usefully rethought as a means of measurement, rather than primarily as a means of communication?  Like Flusser’s account of photography, particle physicist Karen Barad’s theory of “agential realism” explicitly rejects “representationalism,” that is, the idea that there is some fixed reality independent of human beings’ efforts to observe and report it.  Any such effort inevitably involves not only the mechanisms for observing, recording and reporting, but also the concepts of time, space and agency that support them and the human beings that design and control them. In this broader framework, measurement is active, performative, involved in whatever it is measuring — not solely reflective, but productive of the realities it sets out to measure.

In Flusser’s account, too, human beings, the photographic apparatus and the objects of the photograph are inextricably entangled, a “mesh”.  Barad, in particular, maintains that the identities of human being, apparatus and object cannot be held separate. Rather the measurement, an intra-action among the factors, produces specific values for time, space and identity.  Speaking specifically of photographs, Flusser, too, denies that the process could reflect or reproduce any reality existing prior to, or outside the measurement system. Rather the images must be understood as projections or designs for possible future scenes.  In short, where a theorist such as Barthes would sum up a photograph’s message as “This has been,” Flusser would say, “This is possible.” 

Understood as engaged, productive measurement, “photography” might retain a coherence, even as its identity is challenged by computationally synthesised images, images made with energy other than light, or the apparent absence of human engagement. From the first experiments with fixing images in the 1830s to the vast and expanding project of global surveillance — much of it photographic — photography might be grasped as an effort to project or produce reality itself.  Flusser found the prospect at once thrilling and perfectly terrifying.