One may recall one’s family album, and the endless quarrels with the love of one’s life over which photographs would best fill its pages.  The very substantiality of that omnibus of photism, with its impositions of ormolu, its house-proud monograms, its smug little pasteboard corners to hold the pictures in place, and all its forbidding, leather-clad immanence, was, one recalls, a socially acceptable ruse, a prescription opiate that commonly passes as an aide-mémoire among people without feelings.

Memory, which thrills at misconstruction and will not rest until it has committed every kind of white-collar crime worth dreaming up in what amounts to a lifetime of counterfeiting, is bad enough; but were one to imagine that technological advance has provided that criminal mastermind with accomplices, doubtless first among them would be Daguerre; truly an âme damnée, who has copied Mnemosyne’s way of doing things by manipulating light, thus managing to introduce golden moments into the colloidal alkahest where, in God’s reality, a naturally infinite variety of grays, flecked, like robin’s eggs, with blood, spittle, and semen, vie for dominance over the experience of existence.

“The camera,” wrote R.H. Wilenski in The Modern Movement in Art, “was an element in the industrial revolution.  It was a labour-saving device which, like all labour-saving devices, rendered certain standards of judgement out of date.”  Thus Ruskin, who saw daguerreotypes for the first time in 1845 in Venice, proclaimed photography “a noble invention” and insisted that

anyone who has worked and blundered and stammered as I have done for four days and then sees the thing he has been trying to do so long in vain done perfectly and faultlessly in half a minute won’t abuse it afterwards.

In his old age, the great English aesthete was to realize that he had been taken in—gulled, like an Old Bolshevik by Stalin’s self-effacement, like an American housewife by a new brand of detergent—but not before “his misconception of the camera’s vision,” notes Wilenski, “had had immense results on his own attitude to painting and, owing to his great influence, on English art.”

Oh, but for strands of argument such as these to brighten the sackcloth drabness of marital conflict!  If only an exposé of Corot’s middle period, or a determined assault on Pre-Raphaelite technique, all strictly in connection, of course, with the degenerative impact made by the camera obscura upon perception since the middle of the 19th century, could stand in for all the lusterless days of irritable silence, for the peevish and sullen nights expended on family-album maintenance, for the morose, half-tone innuendos, for the transparent hints and gelatine counter-threats.  If only one’s wedded wife could put aside her newly fledged authority of motherhood, her freshly assertive, flagrantly nesting competence, and exorcise the materialism of knowledge and memory surging uncontrollably within her, surely she would see at once that the album was as evil a proposition as Monet’s haystacks, a mockery of love and of God’s light, a dollhouse designed by a mechanistic sensibility for an unfeeling age!

“The photograph is the privileged instrument of the Oedipal family,” writes Henri Van Lier in a fine passage on the subject, provided one makes the usual allowances for the presence of the Freudian idiom.  It is moreover an instrument by means of which “dissolution of the mommy-daddy-me triangle” is accomplished, as the reliquary mixture “of diverse relatives and showbiz stars creates an alternative family.”  This impulse to social dissolution is transmitted in both directions, from the bottom up as from the top down, through such channels as advertising imaging, fashion’s ideal-mongering, and the pornography industry, each tilting the mirror, mirror on the wall its own way to produce the revolutionary, that is to say lucrative or seductive, effect desired.  The camera, as used today, not only lies; it defrauds, it counterfeits and subverts.

At times, the venues of subversion intertwine, just as revolutionaries, criminals, and policemen often mingle in real life as in Dostoevsky and Conrad, inhabiting as they do the same lower depths.  In the fashion world, for instance, one notes that the relevant “journals,” where cutting-edge experiment in photography is believed to have taken place during the latter part of the 20th century, are being reclassified by the postal service as “catalogues,” for the very good reason that the advertising content in their pages now exceeds the most liberally adjudicated limit.  Editorial photography, in other words, is but a figure of speech: a flimsy cover, and an inept cover story, for commercial exploitation of the autochthonic mass of mankind.

Selecting a book from an imaginary library of the future, Anatole France claimed in a Preface to Flugel’s The Psychology of Clothes, one need only

take a fashion magazine to see how women dressed a century after my passing.  And these flounces would teach me more about the future of humanity than all the philosophers, novelists, preachers and professors ever could.

Well, that century is upon us, and what one glimpses in the interstices of France’s flounces is but the pandemic cannibalism of a teeming species, a multinational carnival of consumption where imagos of the dead and of the rich mask the appetite of the bottom-feeding poor.

Pornography is another eye-catching example.  “There was hardly any pornography in the contemporary sense prior to the nineteenth century,” argues Van Lier, noting that neither the eroticism of a Rétif de la Bretonne nor the perversity of a Marquis de Sade was motivated by a social order from their readership.  Modern pornography is, to the contrary, quintessentially interactive, more so, if anything, than even the notoriously venal relationship between a Union of Soviet Writers hack and his Politburo clientele in totalitarian Russia.  “Photography played a decisive role in this development,” writes Van Lier.  Indeed, just imagine how greatly rewarded would be the inventor of a device by means of which the political fictions of the sort of society imagined by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four became documentary reality at the touch of a button!  At the very least, Daguerre should have been posthumously awarded both the Stalin and the Carnegie Prizes—one, for deception with intent to enslave, and the other, for sharpening capitalism’s appetite for devouring itself.  “Everything that was once directly lived,” wrote Debord, “has receded into a representation.”

It is not, in point of fact, to the Stieglitzy proclamations of an Ansel Adams or a Mapplethorpe, but to the work of such sociologists as Georg Simmel, with his books on The Philosophy of Money (1900) and The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903), or, in our own epoch, Guy Debord (1931-1994) with The Society of the Spectacle, that one must turn to gain an understanding of photography’s origins, role, and function as an artistic amateur’s pastime that has become a full-fledged mass cult.  Not for nothing does Debord take these words of Feuerbach’s as the epigraph to his collection of searing apophthegms:

Truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred.  Sacredness is enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.

It all comes down, then, to modes of consumption and surrogation, and here the argument redounds back to where it began, to the mute and threadbare Muselessness of this beggar of a subgenre.  Art was never a matter of demand, invariably of supply.  Even the humblest of skills, such as that of a Roman barista manipulating an espresso machine to produce a perfect cup of coffee, is the product of talent, craft, and inspiration, all of which are supply-led, with the result that all the demand and all the money in the world cannot duplicate that 50-milliliter tazza di café in the smartest dining establishments of London, New York, or Paris.  Photography, no longer uniquely among the genres and subgenres on which the dominant aesthetic of the 21st century subsists, is, by contrast, almost wholly demand-led: wife’s demand, or sociopath’s, or corporate, or political, or onanist’s.  It is thus that it has never acquired a Muse, for no mode of consumption, however artistic-looking, can look to a deity.  It is thus that it has remained mute, for to him who has nothing to say, no tongue is given.