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Maps of the Unrelated | An Interview with Roberto Tejada on Twentieth-Century Mexican Photography
Interview by Dale Smith
Roberto Tejada is an art historian, curator, and associate professor of art history at the University of Texas, where he recently arrived as a specialist in Chicana-Latino art. Previously, he had been associate professor of art and media history, theory, and criticism in the visual arts department at the University of California, San Diego. A widely published poet and literary translator, he is the author of Mirrors for Gold, as well as the founder and coeditor of Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas. His monograph on the artist Celia Álvarez Muñoz for the series A Ver: Revisioning Art History will be published also with the University of Minnesota Press later this year.
I spoke with Tejada on February 7, 2009, at his home in East Austin. As a visual scholar and poet, he shares concerns for visual rhetoric, cultural studies, literature, and art history, and I wanted to find out more about how he sees these different disciplines intersecting in his thinking about Mexican photography. Parallel to this, I was compelled to ask about his approach to the writing of his most recent book, National Camera: Photography and Mexico’s Image Environment, because the production of written narrative remains a concern in his work, along with the photographic narratives he identifies in twentieth-century archives. Insofar as he investigates “maps of the unrelated,” his work on visual culture should be of interest to those in visual rhetoric precisely for the kinds of productive and interpretive approaches suggested by his scholarship. National Camera provides an interdisciplinary model for future cultural and rhetorical investigations within the realm of visual studies. Our conversation initiates reflection on interpretive practice and productive goals for understanding the intersecting concerns of visual study.
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Dale Smith: Your book, National Camera, will be published this month, and I was wondering if you would mind describing its main contours? The manuscript version I read suggests that there are many parallels between it and the concerns of rhetorical studies, as well as intersections with your own involvements in art history, visual studies, and cultural studies.
Roberto Tejada: The full title is called National Camera: Photography and Mexico’s Image Environment. It’s made up for four rehearsals that span from the 1910s to the 1970s in Mexico. Each one looks to how photography has structured a relationship between the United States and Mexico. And I approach this through the political crisis of the Mexican Revolution and the U. S. involvement in the Mexican Revolution, and through aesthetic relations established during this time period in the ’10s and ’20s—during the years of Camera Work magazine, that was edited by Stieglitz. There was a Mexican writer and image-maker—Marius de Zayas—who published in that journal. Writing from New York, he was commenting on photography and race relations, for example, in Mexico. So I’m interested in Mexico as a geographical place, but also Mexico outside of itself, as viewed by De Zayas living in New York City.
I was interested, too, in how we have artists and writers and intellectuals reading Henri Bergson during the ’10s, and how that affects the philosophy of a very influential Mexican philosopher, Antonio Caso, and how there was already theoretical thinking about photography. So by blending these places—these sites—and connecting them both rhetorically and by way of photographic examples, each rehearsal, like the first chapter, which I’ve just described, activates what I call an image environment. And this image environment—I think at one point in the introduction I call it a time zone of relation—suggests that you look at a certain moment in time and notice the links that are being made between various disciplines, be it the intellectual climate that was fighting against the positivist regime of the Porfirio Diaz administration among Mexican and non-Mexican intellectuals in the ’10s, or linking that to photographic practice and its relation between. Is it a place, for example, where we can make the distinction between resemblance and semblance, to use Walter Benjamin’s terms? And Benjamin I think is very influential in my whole conception of the idea of the image environment. He spoke of the “image sphere” in a sense that’s important also perhaps to the second chapter and the last—the fourth chapter—in so far as he’s interested in how bodies—(it’s in his essay about surrealism as the last snapshot of European intellectual production)—in so far as bodies and images create this catastrophic coming together. And chapter two and chapter four are interested in looking at sexual difference in photographic practice. So in chapter two I’m looking at the very intimate photographic relationship and personal relationship between Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, at Weston being an American, and Modotti being an Italian growing up in San Francisco and moving—one of the first to move to Mexico during this very vibrant time, this post revolutionary moment—and linking that to feminist thinking in the 1970s about the representation of the female body and how that sort of echoed insofar as I look at another archive, which is this archive of semi-anonymous, or quasi-anonymous photographs that were taken in the borderlands of Nuevo Laredo and Laredo in 1974-1975 by roving photographers. And it’s an archive that’s rife with all kinds of contradictions. So the book begins with an archive that is one of historical photos from the 1910s from the Mexican Revolution, an archive known as the Casasola and it ends with this “Boystown” archive that was completed in 1974-1975.
DS: So image environments are archival environments?
RT: I think one of the questions that I try to address is what is the status of the archive in terms of how we use it to produce history. And I think that an image environment is productive of history in so far as it’s always pointing to a kind of archive that’s not only made up of visual images, but also made up of other kinds of cultural texts.
DS: This is interesting to me because it seems that it would map onto some of the theory of Kenneth Burke about rhetorical situations—I guess you’re looking at archival environments—but in any kind of situation where images or symbolic discourse takes place—we’re having to interpret those moments and deal with them and engage them in some way. Symbolic action is how Burke describes it.
RT: I had forgotten about Burke while writing this book and then returned to him afterwards, after the book was completed, and realized that there are many lines of connection between Burke and what might be called post-structuralist thinking about images. There’s in fact a whole book about this. So I’m interested in the whole idea that the symbolic is, I think, related to the image environment in so far as the image environment is never entirely going to be a whole. If the symbol is only a part pointing to a whole, then the image environment points to a whole that can never be entirely completed or filled, and in those gaps or in that openness, which is the openness of an archive, unsuspected histories or unsuspected interrelations or connections can be established.
DS: That’s one thing I noticed reading the introduction of your book. That is, it seems grounded in, what looks to me like a very rhetorical approach to these image environments. Which also leads me to what your dealing with in terms of crossing disciplinary boundaries, because I know you’re coming out of art history and cultural studies, so I wonder how you bring these together in your book so well. So I was wondering, too, if you could talk a bit about these disciplinary histories and how you see yourself working through them—does the image environment help you do that in some way?
RT: In fact I arrived at the idea through Benjamin and the “image sphere” of the image environment precisely because of the material itself. If my object of inquiry began as a series of photographs, these photographs led me to the realization that it was impossible to use just one methodological approach. The material was pointing in all kinds of directions which photography does. And the kind of thinking about photography of the last 20 years, which is important to me, from thinkers like John Tagg, Allan Sekula, Geoffrey Batchen, precisely speak about the impossibility of a history of photography. And because I’m talking about Mexican photographs that have often been excluded from the so-called history of photography, I was interested in how that was going to be established discursively. The content of the photographs led also to cultural studies and its interest in that which is excluded from the primary social narrative. So questions of sexuality questions, of race and ethnic identity—these come into question because this was also being played out very much as part of the ethos of post-Revolutionary Mexican.
DS: So how do photographs tell us something about sexuality and race? I mean, this is sort of in the realm of epideictic discourse, where these photographers aren’t making discursive arguments—or are they?
RT: No, the argument is outside of the frame, something’s left out so that I look to ideas that were established by thinkers like Antonio Caso, Marius de Zayas, and Tina Modotti who so wrote about photography and modernity as to point necessarily to notions about the modern Mexican subject. And with thinkers like José Vasconcelos we see that the sort of new ethos of post-Revolutionary Mexican privileged that which was mestizo, or mixed, as opposed to that which was European during the Porfirio Diaz regime. Now, there’s a kind of unconscious—or the optic unconscious that Benjamin would talk about—that certain photographs betray. So I look in the first chapter at a very startling photograph of a kind of sideshow display of two native Mexicans who are in what I call “Indian Drag.” This was probably not uncommon even during the moments in which the native is being put forward as that which constitutes the truly Mexican. So there are these contradictions that I’m interested in unpacking which are not entirely contained by photographs. So I have to look to other environments, or other spaces, which some art historical and philosophical texts provide us.
DS: How do you think rhetorical studies intersects with cultural studies and art history in the way you made these claims about Mexican identity and history?
RT: Can I get to that actually by asking you a question? Remind me exactly what the epideictic is, because I don’t know if I answered your question correctly.
DS: Epideictic is what reinforces belief and desire—the realm of art, typically, though Aristotle describes it as speeches of “praise and blame”—but most people now use it in reference to discourse that reinforces belief and desire.
RT: Well, I think, then, to answer the question, it comes down to what constitutes evidence for the various methodologies. So then, for Cultural studies, or art history, or visual studies—all of those disciplines have assumptions about what constitutes the evidence of actual inquiry. And if, for art history, if in some instantiations of art history the object points to a narrative that is only invested in the logic of the form itself, photography disrupts that in so far as the photograph doesn’t necessarily evolve from within, but rather is so invested in the external that we can’t have an internal history of photography. And I think that cultural studies is interested, for example, in looking at the logic of the popular. Photography is also a place that disrupts the hierarchies of high and low that can actually tell us a lot about the realm of elite art or the sort of large scale versions of a history of art.
DS: So what you’re doing sounds like a hermeneutical project—it’s interpretative. You’re looking at images in archives and seeing what they’re telling us about the present and the history that creates the present. And so cultural studies and art history are interested in this interpretative approach, but I’m curious also about what this means for artists and writers, for people interested in producing something, and not just interpreting it. How might someone make use of this archival knowledge? I’m thinking of composition classes, or other pedagogical situations that involve other disciplines.
RT: I guess to go back to art history and one of its modalities, say Panofsky’s method of iconography and iconology, which has also actually been tied to semiotics—that is, iconography only being understood in the realm of the descriptive and iconology now being in the realm of activating these interpretations. So that if, I would hope, these chapters, which I think of as rehearsals, could activate or provide, hopefully, maps for prompting—cues for prompts—or maps—of how to connect what may seem unrelated. Maps of the unrelated.
DS: I think that’s really important, especially in terms of the interdisciplinary context you’re working in. And people like Steven Mailloux also try to create a context in which to talk about the ways the different disciplines connect: he talks about rhetorical-hermeneutics, which is both interpretive and productive of discourse.
RT: Right. And which is why the borderland or the border becomes important—it does work for me. So the book begins at the border between Mexico and the United States with this meeting between President Taft and President Porfirio Diaz, but in a series of photographs I want them to do work for me insofar as it’s also about the methodological borders that cultural studies, visual studies, and art histories have had to cross.
DS: Do you see in art history an interest in rhetorical studies? What’s going on at the borders of that discipline?
RT: I think in what’s referred to as the so-called New Art History that begins in the ’80s—and thanks also to, say, journals like October, and to historians like Norman Bryson, or Mieke Bal, for example, art history begins to look at critical writings that are invested in the rhetorical. So to name one example, post-structuralist thinking in terms of psychoanalysis, and its discursive creation of a subject, were influential. The textual limits of what might be called a deconstructive methodology in which the margin constitutes the text more than what that text contains—this then becomes a model for the art object and its enabling context. (This is actually not far from Panofksy’s having identified the ways in which iconography refers to a literary source.)
DS: Going back briefly to talk about how you frame National Camera, could you talk about why call your chapters “rehearsals.”
RT: I like that word because I’m interested in language itself being a performance, so that a rehearsal somehow implies a staging of different images or art objects, places, times, and texts, all converging in a meaningful way.
DS: Also, this seems to allow you a more fluid approach to the writing: it’s not laid out in a chronological fashion.
RT: When I began to write the book, which was not written in sequential order, I realized that was so precisely because the historical material was leading me back and forth, and that any history writing, any graphic rendering of temporal and spatial events, can never be an A to B trajectory; there can’t be a seamless chronology. By its very nature, an historical present is erupting out of historical pasts, and at the same time points to a future that I can make palpable in a rehearsal.
DS: Chronos is striated with these events that arrive and ask us to look at them.
RT: Right. And we only know those events sort of a posteriori, that is, perhaps in the way that we produce knowledge in a series of textures that are in writing.
DS: That’s one thing I really like about this book— you present it in this sort of textured format. You’re opening problems and investigating your material as a kind of narrative.
RT: Well, one of photography’s great powers is that it has some sort of purchase on truth effect in a way that no other medium prior to it has had. And to follow that very closely means to really kind of disrobe a lot of the assumptions about the photograph.
DS: So the technology is going to capture something beyond the intent of the artist.
RT: Exactly, and yet it’s never free of its anxious connection with the other plastic arts.
DS: You’re an accomplished poet also, with a new book coming out soon from Wesleyan University Press, so I’m wondering how poesis, or literature, has informed your approach to this project. In other words, what’s at stake for you as a poet as well as a visual scholar?
RT: Well, as you know, the kind of poetry we’re both interested in is based in research, that is, it’s investigative, primarily. The kind of lineage we would be most identified with is a poetry that seeks to answer problems about the medium itself, problems about history, problems about representation, problems about subjectivity—and so I approach scholarship with a similar inflection…I suppose I approach it as a poet, not so much at the level of the line, but at the level of its structure. That is, I only have an idea about the shape prior to approaching it, and I let the material itself determine what that shape will look like.
DS: I was thinking about that in terms of Mirrors for Gold, your most recent book of poems that deals with the conquest of the Americas, and I notice those parallel interests in research in both poetry and your work as a scholar: in our academic lives….
RT: We have to make them separate.
DS: Yes, and it seems that what you’re doing is, even in your academic work, you are trying to find ways to cross those boundaries as well.
RT: Well, I’m glad you see that, because in Mirrors for Gold I was interested in how the relationship between self and other, in a psychoanalytic sense, can point back to the violent encounter between the conquistador and native American—who’s conquering whom and how are those power differentials established in a palpable historical sense, and what kinds of fear and fantasy prompt subjectivity?
DS: Yes, in the imagination of the places we inhabit and how we identify ourselves as a particular kind of people.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
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