Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity

By James Lastra; John Belton | Go to book overview

stranger does not just respond to the contingencies of modern experience. Undoubtedly, “The Man of the Crowd” registers these things—it is a story about urban modernity—but it can also be read more specifically—and provocatively—as a story about the challenges to sensory experience raised by photography.

From this point of view, it is hardly insignificant that Poe's story hinges on the problems posed by singularity to habitual modes of perception and experience, nor that its entire mise-en-scène serves to figure this transformation as photographic. From the detached but highly sensitive observation of a narrator situated in a darkened room behind a mediating layer of glass that projects, lenslike, from the front of the building, to the perceptual dialectic of familiarity and pure idiosyncrasy, the story offers an allegorical staging of the epistemological drama of technologically mediated sensory experience, where habitual modes of looking and knowing confront their limitations in a disorienting encounter with the contingent real. The man of the crowd, in effect, is a photograph—or the worldas photographed—simultaneously compelling and threatening, signaling the fragility of our familiar ways of knowing, while trumpeting the arrival of new and disconcerting epistemologies.

Joining forces with the enormously popular “anthropological” guides to 1840s Parisian social types—the physiologies–and the classifications deployed by our coffee drinker, photography soon emerged as an important tool for classifying, rationalizing, and finally mastering, the visible world. 2 Within a range of practices defined on the one hand by eugenicist Francis Galton's attempts to define ethnic and social types by way of “composite portraits” made by superimposing twenty or thirty photographic portraits of “the Jew,” “the Pole,” “the Irishman,” or “the criminal” and, on the other, by Alphonse Bertillon's widely adopted photographic system for identifying criminals, our narrator's perceptual and ideological stereotypes seem less than innocent. 3 Nor can it seem merely ironic that Poe's narrator can only “read” the illegible as evidence of crime, for photography was soon to become the primary representational form through which the state identified, classified, and rendered knowable the vast, anonymous populations characteristic of the city.

However, in spite of photography's role in making the visible world more and more legible through a variety of rationalizing pictorial practices, it simultaneously exposed modernity's underside, its randomness, arbitrariness, and irrationality. The photographic encounter with the world, we might say, is always a gamble of sorts through which traditional representational forms like the portrait open themselves structurally to the aleatory, the idiosyncratic, the unintelligible. 4 Photography's inhuman tendency to wrest

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