Category Archives: Course Readings

Michael de Certeau, The Possession at Loudun

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LibraryThing link

Why did I get this book?

Embarrassment at having not read it while reading a discussion between historians about important scholarship.

Having liked de Certeau’s other writing.

Need to prepare for my spring course next year that’s an oddball approach to building a canon of historical scholarship.

Is it what I thought it was?

Yes. The preface alone is worth the price of admission.

Great, great example of what the “anthropological turn” did for historical scholarship. I wonder in fact if anyone has properly historicized that turn? I can think of a few people who’ve written about it, including David William Cohen, but it seems almost a better or richer way to think about what gets glossed as the “cultural turn”.

What continuing uses might I have for it?

Could make a great book to throw into the mix in an Honors seminar on witchcraft, possession, etc, or to put alongside Africanist books to complicate how students read.

Should include it in Building Canons course.

Preface fits with some of what I’m writing in both Free Agency and Rituals of Sovereignty in terms of a general view of the discipline and methodology.

I would LOVE to teach Ch. 12 in a course on the Archive as idea and practice.


“Normally, strange things circulate discreetly below our streets. But a crisis will suffice for them to rise up, as if swollen by flood waters, pushing aside manhole covers, invading the cellars, then spreading through the towns. It always comes as a surprise when the nocturnal erupts into broad daylight. What it reveals is an underground existence, an inner resistance that has never been broken…Is this the outbreak of something new, or the repetition of a past? The historian never knows which. For mythologies reappear, providing the eruption of strangeness with forms of expression prepared in advance, as it were, for that sudden inundation.” p. 1

Asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints

I think it’s a good book on historical methodology as well–students at all levels might be able to get a sense of how research informs analysis and vice-versa, though that would take some pedagogical attention to how to read it.

Mukoma wa Ngugi, Nairobi Heat

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Why did I get this book?

My colleague Carina Yervasi got me thinking a few years back about my perception that African literature and film tended to have a kind of didactic, formalist and stilted quality, for all that I liked some of the work that I thought of in those terms. She mentioned that there was lots of good mystery and thriller writing across sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, and not just local market/pulp literature. This was one of the books I picked up to try and get a sense of this kind of work.

Is it what I thought it was?

Yes, almost too much so. Meaning that the book reads to me almost like a conscious attempt to write against the didactic, written-for-the-West quality of older African literature (the author is now a professor at Cornell University), so it feels a bit like it is that interesting space that is not quite a genre work but wants to productively use genre conventions. Strong sense of indebtedness to Walter Mosley in that sense.

What continuing uses might I have for it?

Could use it in my Africa Travellers/Travellers to Africa course if I teach it again. Wish I had used it this last year, in fact.

If I ever teach a course in histories of crime, policing, smuggling, shadow economies, etc. in Africa/British Empire/comparative, it might be fun to use it.

Obviously belongs in any listing of recent thriller/detective work set in Africa and/or by Africans. Might make a very interesting book to be read alongside something like Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, etc: white authors trying to use Africa as a backdrop for thrillers/detective stories.


“If I was to give advice to black criminals, I would tell them this: do not commit crimes against white people because the state will not rest until you are caught.”

Asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints

There’s something about the voice of the main character that doesn’t quite ring right to me, maybe because there’s a kind of odd unsituatedness about his actual work as a cop, and also because there is still the odd hint of the didactic in the way that characters announce and reflect on their sociologies and cultural locations in a way that’s too diagrammatic. But also just it’s really too on the nose or generic at points–the character thinks stuff like “This tea is amazing!” in a way that feels lacking in craft or sharply observed. I wonder if the second book is better in this sense?

Peter Geschiere, The Perils of Belonging

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Why did I get this book?

1. Really like Geschiere’s other work.
2. Helps for thinking about sovereignty and the legacies of indirect rule/decentralization in my current writing.
3. Good model for comparative analysis of Africa and Europe.
4. Thought it might be good to teach.
5. Timely on migration–even more since written.
6. Helps potentially with a critique of romantic conceptualizations of indigenous rights.

Is it what I thought it was?

Yes: great for unpacking indigeneity and authocthony, and their relationship to current structures of globalization, citizenship and migration.

No: way harder to teach to undergraduates than I thought. (Used it in Honors seminar, a real struggle). Very erudite, densely referential. Would be a great book for a graduate seminar in multiple respects, and not just in African Studies.

What continuing uses might I have for it?

1. Should use “Decentralization and Belonging” for Free Agency 6.
2. Treatment of the idea of the “stranger” is useful for lectures in West African history. Chapter Four.
3. Epilogue would be useful in some contexts of discussion of migration, citizenship, etc. in comparative or Africanist conversations.
4. Bibliography is good on Africanist theories of the state up to 2008 or so.


“So the soil does not speak for itself. This is why it is important to historicize notions like autochthony with their naturalizing implications. The ‘global conjucture of belonging’ brought a return of highly localized preoccupations, as the flip side of intensifying processes of globalization.” p. 223

Asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints

I’m not sure where this leaves us. E.g., I think anthropologists and historians in 2008 already knew that indigeneity was mostly empirically untrue and often ethically dubious. Geschiere helps a bit with laying out the specific cultural and political histories that have given it power, but if anything since 2008 the authority of invocations of indigeneity and authenticity have accelerated, especially in progressive discourses in social media. God help the incautious intellectual who steps naively into some of those conversations to tell people that their sense of authentic experience of locality and belonging is a construction that has potentially “predatory” effects that are invisibly tied to the destructive impact of globalization. There are ways in which the very worked-out political and analytic terrain of the 1990s and 2000s that this book arises out of have very quickly been shoved aside by the very phenomena that Geschiere is analyzing.

Gyan Prakash, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India

Gyan Prakash, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India

I remember hearing an early presentation version of this at some point, and then reading it somewhat distractedly the year it came out. At least at that time, it struck me as taking the sort of futilitarian position on knowledge that I saw in Timothy Mitchell’s Egypt book and going one step further–that the West and colonialism were so fundamentally impossible to unknow that the best we could do was to know about the violence of their imposition of systems of knowing. I will be curious on this reading to see if my memory is wrong.

On an initial reading, I do find that my memory is wrong–I think this must have been what Prakash himself said about the argument in the book when I heard him give a talk about it. It’s certainly an interpretation you could offer–ultimately he’s using his historical argument to say that you can’t call “Hindu science” a science, and that in some ways you can’t really understand precolonial systems of Hindu knowledge production for what they were in and of themselves because even an interest in that is inflected through colonialism. But the book is a quite careful intellectual and social history first, an epistemological meditation second.

“To the British, India was an ideal locus for science: it provided rich diversity that could be mined for knowledge and, as a colony, offered the possibility for an unhindered pursuit of science.” p. 21

“If one aim of colonial pedagogy was to instruct peasants by exhibiting their own products and knowledge organized and authorized by the science of classification, its other aim was to render manifest the principle of function so that it could be applied to improve production.” p. 23

“As the colonial discourse assembled and staged India as an object of the sciences of naming and function, it also created a place for what it sought to appropriate; indigenous artifacts and ‘tribes and races’ emerged in their native particularity as objects of scientific discourse.” p. 26

“If performance mixed science with magical spectacle, it also enhanced the importance of visuality. Museums confronted observers with an orderly organization of fossils, rocks, minerals, bones, vegetation, coins, sculptures, and manuscripts. Exhibitions, on the other hand, offered a feast to the Indian eye. Depending on the scale, no effort was spared to produce an attractive spectacle: ceremonial arches, palatial structures, military bands, lakes, fountains bathed in colored lights, food stalls, wrestling competitions, pony races and regional theater–all combined to impress the public eye and draw it to agricultural products, manufactured goods, machines, scientific invetions, and new methods of working and living.” p. 33

“As colonial conditions turned the staging of science into a wondrous spectacle, a space opened for the subjectivity and agency of the Western-educated indigenous elite. Trained in Western schools and colleges, and employed in colonial bureaucracy and modern professions, this elite acquired a visible presence in principal Indian cities and towns by the late nineteenth century. In a sense, their emergence was attributable to the colonila project of re-forming Indian subjects.” p. 34

“To advance universal claims for a people stigmatized as metaphysical and out of touch with modernity was an act of enormous imagination and ambition. Precisely such a far-reaching project came into view in late-nineteenth-century British India as the Hindu intelligentsia began to identify a body of scientific knowledge in particular Indian texts and tradition. Denying that science was alien to India, they argued with remarkable ingenuity and deep cultural learning that the ancient Hindus had originated scientific knowledge, and that this justified the modern existence of Indians as a people.” p. 86

“As important as it is to recognize the far-reaching implications of the idea of Hindu science, we should not read it too quickly as an expression of the organicity and atavism of nationalism. The enduringly powerful identification of Hindu traditions with India’s cultural texture was rooted in the colonial predicment of Hindu intellectuals. While the West was enabled by its global expansion to assert the universality of its reason in spite of its particularity, the colonized were denied this privilege; their historical fate was to assert the autonomy and universality of their culture in the domain of the nation.” p. 89

Prakash is quite clear that this is not in some arbitrary sense an “invented tradition”–that there was some very sophisticated reading of Vedic knowledge by Hindu intellectuals in the early 20th Century to make the claim that there was a Hindu universality–it’s more that Prakash wants to point out that a “universality” is itself fundamentally part of modernity’s imagination, that this involves finding in the Hindu past something that could not in that sense have been there. But that surely goes just as much for the West–which is often what Foucault and others are getting at–the West looks backward into “itself” and invents something that wasn’t really there even as it empties out the possibility of understanding what was “really” there without having to reference the West’s invention of itself.

Ray’s History of Hindu Chemistry: “not a work of nationalist cheerleading, but a work of immense sophistication and erudiction that assessed the achievements of Hindu alchemy from the point of view of modern experiments and observations. Rayt never claimed that Hindu alchemy was an experimental science, but only that its development in India was owed to indigenous sources, not to Greek influence, as European Orientalists were wont to believe.” p. 102

“What are we to make of the unmistakable sense of ruin and desolation that the fabricated remembrance of the past produced? Could the Hindu past serve as the culture of the modern nation without producing a searing sense of loss?” p. 106

“The passionate belief in the existence of an indigenous tradition of science was no mere fantasy. As Indian intellectuals demonstrated with patient and persuasive scholarly studies and argued with passion and conviction, scientific thought was not alien to the subcontinent’s traditions.” p. 228

“With the vital sign of modernity–science–lodged in the ‘inner’ fiber of the nation, India could be modern without being Western.” p. 231

“Colonial rule saw itself as an agent of bringing the timeless ‘native’ into the present, into the time of History. Nationalism shared this agenda. It, too, thought that India had to be awakened from its slumber and live a full lif ein the modern world; and science and technology were alluring because they would help India catch up with the West. Sharing an intimate relationship, colonialism and nationalism constituted India in a time that is at once different from that of the West and from that of India’s traditions. From this arises the specific trajectory of Indian modernity” p. 233

“Neither community nor modernity appear in themselves, nor have they ever done so. If Hindu majoritarianism cannot pass as the resurgence of the authentic tradition, neither can the secular nation be defended as the pure domain of rationality and modernity.” p. 237

Jacob Soll, The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System

Jacob Soll, The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System

In many ways a more detailed history of the rise of state centralization and absolutism, one that goes beyond simply asserting that this was done as a command exercise, or for nakedly functional reasons. Soll instead argues that much of this had to do with Colbert’s own form of encyclopedism, and that the private or secret world of information was conceptually intertwined with the invention of the 17th & 18th Century public sphere. I find this a really smart reading of many things besides Colbert and the French state.

“Colbert sought to become a scholar of state learning: not simply a bureaucrat but an expert.” p. 7

“There are reasons tht intellectual and cultural historians have not studied the intellectual history of the state….Studies of the public sphere focus on journalism, clandestine literature, and printing; as well as sites of sociability, such as academies and the Republic of Letters, public and private communication networks, art markets, salons, learned societies, Masonic lodges, societies, coffeehouses and lending libraries. These social and cultural phenomena are often used as ilustrations of a bourgeois opposition and counterbalance to arbitrary, secretive absolute monarchy”. p. 10

Yes, but it’s also that I think we take the state as not having a “culture”, or if it does, as if its culture does not need investigation–much as we take the actuality of “capital” as sometimes uninteresting unless/until it is simultaneous with bourgeois life.

“Philip II was the first hands-on bureaucrat king of a massive empire and certainly the forerunner of his Bourbon heirs in France. His information system was so vast, so intricate, and in some cases so efficient that even the Venetian ambadssador sent his relazioni back to Venice via Spanish royal messenger posts. Yet this Planet King, on whose empire the sun never set, was never a traveler, but rather inhabited his own virtual world, enclosed in the halls of his monastery palace, the Escorial, which he filled wit mountains of dispatches and reports.” p.20

Interesting use of the concept of virtual world–as sequestered/enclosed/unreal.

“Old Italian mercantile, administrative culture had fostered humanism, and it was steeped in an ethic of technical expertise…[but]as humanist traditions evolved, they had less and less mercantile content. What had been a merchant and bureaucratic-inspired tradition of learning became increasingly literary and scientific and humanist philologists translated ancient texts and copied their content. Humanist political theory became grounded in ancient history and legal scholarship. Yet at the very moment that Tacitist humanists claimed that statecraft cold be learned through classical ethics and history, it became increasingly clear that these forms of political learning were not sufficient for managing a large, industrial, colonial and militarized state.” p. 52

Very interesting material on double-entry bookkeeping and on the technological establishment of archives. Ch. 4

Ch. 5–creation of “informers”, e.g, bureaucratic workers who were trained both to provision information back to Colbert and to carry his will or ideas out to provincial actors. “He transformed their function from provincial tax collectors, into professional observers, statistic-takers and, as Anette Smedley-Weill calls them, ‘informers’. The intendants were trained observers whom Colbert told to take notes only on what they had seen with their own eyes, and not rely on the accounts of others.” p. 70

Great use of Colbert’s system for training his son as a way to reveal both the empirical content of his system and Colbert’s authorial imagination of the system, Ch. 6.

“For Colbert, governing was about writing clearly and organizing writing into easy-to-use notebooks. The evolving humanist culture of the commonplace notebook and the Jesuit schools, along with mercantile book keeping, now became the basis of governmental pedagogy.” p. 89

“The former English chancellor and inventor of the experimental method, Francis Bacon had suggested that the sort of information collected by scholars, scientists, bureaucrats and industrialists could be formalized within the state itself. Bacon envisioned the state as a center of research and collection, which constantly acquired new information by discovery and experiment. Like Thomas Hobbes, Bacon believed that the monarch should rule over knowledge. What Bacon envisioned was not simply formal, university learning of a library, but rather a state-controlled depot of information of all sorts, constantly renewed, and potentially secret, which gave the state the monopoly on the information of politics, trade and science.” p. 97

“Colbert had no time for the formalities of the Republic of Letters, such as openness and the ethics of information exchange. His collecting techniques both disregarded the integrity of individual collections and were devoid of ethics in acquisition. Indeed, he offered to buy the Wolfenbuttel Library outright…He bought other entire collections for the Royal Library, 10,000 books at a time.” p. 102

“While Colbert’s library and research facilities produced knowledge and appeared to be practical, they also created constraints on Colbert’s government. One of the most revealing elements of Colbert’s policy archive are the files concerning colonial enterprises….while he certainly kept his large colonial administrative correspondence, he did not integrate it into his archival system for daily government. This undermined his ability to effectively manage his Canadian policy” p. 113

“The fact that Colbert mixed the worlds of state administration and scholarship so closely makes it hard to define exactly what he created. Were his intendants and agents bureaucrats in a modern sense? Or were they subservient versions of the humanist secretaries that had filled the ranks of papal and Italian administrations since the late Middle Ages? What becomes clear is that Colbert was creating a new sort of agent loyal only to the state. He actively trained information managers who could find, copy, catalog, and bring him documentation as he needed it for his day-to-day affairs. In other agents, he sought scholars to teach him how better to handle the historical material he used for government.” p. 120

“More than anything, however, was remained of Colbert’s legacy was not a permanent state information system or even tradition. Rather, Colbertism should be defined as the idea that a large-scale state would need to centralize and harness encyclopedic knowledge to govern effectively, and that all knowledge, formal and practical, could be used together in one archival system to understand and master the material world.” p. 163

Artonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double

Full of wonderful quotes. This larger idea that theater–or art–must be cruel is something that really seems important to me. It’s an important counter to the very tedious assertion (by some of our students among others) that the first and last thing to know about artistic work is its ethics, about whether it is doing “good work” and avoids at all costs cruelty.

“Our long habit of seeking diversion has made us forget the idea of a serious theater, which, overturning all our preconceptions, inspires us with the fiery magnetism of its images and acts upon us like a spiritual therapeutics whose touch can never be forgotten.” pp. 84-85

“Everything that acts is a cruelty. It is upon this idea of extreme action, pushed beyond all limits, that theater must be rebuilt.” p. 85

Jody Enders, The Medieval Theater of Cruelty

Jody Enders, The Medieval Theater of Cruelty, Chapter 3

“Early theorists of rhetoric, dramatists and practitioners of theater display the same behaviors of uncovering and repression…they construct rhetoric as a nonviolent and spectacular way to mediate the violence that accounts for its own genesis. They then go on to denounce selected types of community violence that rhetoric’s inherent violence is morally obliged to extinguish.” pp. 161-162

Rhetoric as a form of producing the surrogate victim of Girard.

“When medieval dramatic productions regaled spectators with an extensive repertoire of special effects that were designed to render pain and suffering as realistically as possible, they consistently pushed the limits of witnessing, impersonation and violence.” Enders args that this also explains incorporation of “real violence” into medieval/Renaissance drama.

[here’s a question: why does rhetoric work to produce power? The answer, via Foucault: because institutions/prior historicities/epistemes/power. But no wonder then genealogy and its hostility to origins: this is the kind of banishment of causality that drives conventional social scientists batty–it’s a “because” that answers almost nothing–or that makes mute whatever it is that rhetoric is working its violence upon]

“ludic violence against Christ”: the playfulness of Christ’s torturers is tied to the horror and gruesome character of games of chance generally

catharsis’ intellectual and cultural roots as a concept: to “purge emotion” and therefore permit the distanced, balanced, etc. subject to step forward to act

“the most beautiful [execution] ever seen” p. 188: what is going on here in Enders’ reading? are there others?

“Among the most haunting features of the history of torture is the transmutation of the role of witness/spectator to that of participant/victim. That is, victims of torture are forced to view the staging of their own dismemberment.” p. 188

Is the audience participating in the catharsis of violence and torture “acquiring or abandoning agency”? p. 191

Enders argues strongly that medieval audiences did not think of the violence of drama as “not really happening”, quite the contrary–that the drama was a mimetic re-enactment

Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance, Ch. 2 “Photojournalism and Human Rights”

Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance Ch. 2

“Documents of suffering are documents of protest”. p. 33

Fits w/Agamben in that she says: the photograph shows a form of the exception–they document or display what a human without rights is or looks like. p. 37

What of images of suffering, tortured bodies where the torture is not meant as a documentation (and cannot be read of a documentation) of a human deprived of rights but instead re: Agamben is of a sacred life? Mayan codices showing sacrificed prisoners, for example.

Photography of torture, violence, suffering is defended against the charge of pornography: it shows “something that ought not to exist”. Are there photographs of tortured or suffering bodies which are about normalcy? What about Stelarc? Surgery? Boxers after the fight? Saints?

“Too-beautiful” is defended just on the notion that “portraying suffereing” is imperfect and impure. I think she’s not really coming to grips with the beautiful, interesting, enthralling, etc. of violence–but then the critics who charge “pornography” are equally not coming to grips with that. Re: Laura Kipnis, Bound and Gagged: this is collapsing many genres, texts, and desires into the need to read out one category or sensation and either permit or forbid it ethically.

I agree w/Linfield that “desensitization” is a nonsense argument that has all sorts of flaws in the way that it connects media observers/consumers with crimes of commission–it is a subset of all the bad arguments about media and violence. It also has within it the equally flawed assertion that somehow “good representation” creates sensitivity–this is the whole awful infrastructure of art-as-intentional-politics rising up into this space.

What does it mean, in terms of her interpretation, that all these torturers and murderers filmed themselves? What does it take for it to be a sabotage, or for these photographs to be on the side of the victims, to be accusations? Isn’t most of our reaction, re: Agamben, that they had no right? E.g., that these are only murderers? (or in the context of Abu Ghraib, “bad apples”). When a photograph is taken of an exception that is broadly granted to the sovereign–the battlefield dead, Dillinger dead, does it accuse anyone? What about Mussolini hung? Qaddafi dead?

Ernst Junger, “On Danger”

Ernst Junger, “On Danger”, New German Critique, 59: Spring/Summer 1993.
Stable JSTOR link.

This is my first experience reading Junger–have been catching up a lot on the context. Shows how spotty my European cultural history really is–British and French contexts so dominate my understanding due to the connection to modern empire.

Can’t help but think of the Patton speech, but also of Lawrence and the Spanish Civil War–seems a kind of carry-over of one lineage of Counter-Enlightenment romanticism, that war or violence are one kind of spectacular rupture that disrupts bourgeois rationalism. In certain ways also reminds of Fanon’s thinking on violence.

“the securing of life against fate, that great mother of danger, appears as the truly bourgeois problem”. p. 28 The way that some cultural historians have approached the role of gambling (and metaphors of gambling) in American history comes to mind here as another version of this–the deep attachment to the possibility of great luck is what keeps some people from demanding the security of equity.

Almost proto-Foucauldian reading of danger as the necessary partner of the production of order–that claims about order must produce danger in equal measure and then reproduce danger as ubiquitous spectacle, an environment out of which order must be constantly saved and produced. And the orderly have to be reminded of danger, risk, violence?

As in the photography essay, Junger is taken by the ubiquity of recording, documentation, visuality, that soon everything will be seen, photographed, archived.

“Our time is prompted by human need–which explains,among other things,the success of war literature. We already possess a new style of language, one which gradually becomes visible from underneath the language of the bourgeois epoch. The same, however, is true of our style altogether; it is reminiscent of the fact that the automobile was for a long time constructed in the form of a horse-drawn coach, or that a wholly different society has already long since established itself beneath the surface of bourgeois society. As during the inflation,we continue for a time to spend the usual coins, without sensing that the rate of exchange is no longer the same. In this sense, it may be said that we have already plunged deeply into new, more dangerous realms, without our being conscious of them.” p. 32

Really interesting. Worth talking about the “new, more dangerous realms”.

I really feel a need to read comprehensively the Counter-Enlightenment.

Ernst Junger and Anthony Nassar, “War and Photography”

Ernst Junger and Anthony Nassar, “War and Photography”, New German Critique, 59: Spring-Summer 1993.
Stable Jstor link.

“A war that is distinguished by the high level of technical precision required to wage it, is bound to leave behind documents more numerous and varied than battles waged in earlier times, less present to consciousness”. p. 24

I think this shows a bit at the extent to which “contemporary history” is sometimes too eager to pronounce the divergence or distinctiveness of the present, to see time’s arrow moving in a particular direction. Because it doesn’t seem so now: so many of the wars fought between 1993-2013 have been unphotographed, undocumented, undescribed. Even the war in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001 less so in its battlefields and more so in its occupations, and most famously so against the will of those who planned the war–who were undone in part by the ubiquity of personal photography. E.g., Abu Ghraib was photographed not because of an official desire for documentation but because almost anyone can create photographic and violent spectacle now. Humanists aren’t any better at being futurists than anyone else, I think–the projection into a future seems to be the way to deliver an authority about one’s readings of the present. But I should appreciate more the context I guess in which Junger was perceived to be reading this shift or change.

“For the attentive observer, a collection of such optical documents opens the way for a valuation of war not only as a succession of battles, but in its essence, as labor as well. In particular, the viewer is offered a singular view of horror and of the desolation of a landscape that will in all probability never be repeated.” p. 25

“Weapons are becoming continually more abstract, developing in stride with the technological world in general; increased mechanization makes them more mobile and effective at greater distances. One could guess that the army of engines which will carry these weapons across the land and through the air will no longer tolerate an extended stalemate on the front…”p. 25

Seems to me a huge difference between those photographs/videos created as spectacle, those deposited as document, and those captured by presence and accident…