PAGE THROUGH A TEXTBOOK on Atlantic history, or search that phrase online, and you are bound to come across a map of the ocean crisscrossed by arrows of various sizes and colors indicating the movement of peoples, goods, ideas, and pathogens: slaves from Africa to the Americas, tobacco and sugar from the Americas to Europe and Africa, Christianity and smallpox from Europe to the Americas. If there is a defining feature of the notoriously amorphous historical entity known as the “Atlantic world,” it is this movement through space rather than the relatively static existence of the geopolitical entities outlined along the peripheries of the map.
This is a book about the crossing of Atlantic distances. Comprising five case studies that range over four centuries, it considers how the spatial, cultural, and socioeconomic distances of the Atlantic world were managed through the creation and dissemination of visual images: a late-sixteenth-century engraving of a Tupinambá dance, seventeenth-century landscapes of Dutch Brazil, an eighteenth-century portrait of Benjamin Franklin, an early-nineteenth-century landscape of the Catskills, and a late-nineteenth-century kinetoscope film of a Lakota dance. The very diversity of this material, however, speaks to the potential difficulties of the “Atlantic world” as a category of analysis. Lacking clear geographical or temporal parameters, and with no obvious implications in regard to style, iconography, or medium, it provides a loose sort of packaging for the art historian. Indeed, I will confess at the outset that none of the following chapters were originally conceived as being destined for publication together. What could make a seventeenth-century Dutch landscape and an early Edison film hang together with the level of coherence one expects in a monograph?
One answer to that question might simply be the extraordinary confidence in visual representation that developed in tandem with the expanding markets and inequalities of European and American colonialism, a confidence seen in the bustling traffic in images across and around the Atlantic. This Atlantic visual economy provides the inescapable context for all of my chapters, two of which consider the depiction of indigenous groups with long histories of exploitation and subjugation by colonial powers, another two of which focus on landscape painting, a representational form inextricably bound to discourses of empire in the Atlantic, and one of which considers a heroic portrayal of the great disenchanter who, for Max Weber, was the very embodiment of the acquisitive spirit of capitalism. In 1938, Martin Heidegger announced that we belong to a modernity whose fundamental event “is the conquest of the world as picture.” Over the period addressed in this book, visual practices that include linear perspective, natural history, ethnography, exhibitionary methods, landscape painting, cartography, and portraiture helped put the world at empire’s disposal. Across the distances of the Atlantic world, a representational machine emerged whose chief product was alterity: its purpose was to maintain the set of oppositional relations that Bruno Latour has called our “modern Constitution.” Against the human, this machine produced nature; against reason, it produced superstition; against civilization, it produced the primitive. The imperial apogee of this process is the moment addressed in my final chapter, when world exhibitions, Wild West shows, and a nascent film industry made this “world picture” into a spectacle for mass consumption.
Such an account of visual representation offers an important and necessary framework for historicizing the visual arts within the context of the Atlantic world, yet it also faces the limits that all generalizing approaches do. When viewed from above, the Modern Constitution may appear to run as a smoothly operating system, but this is only because we have missed out on what is happening at ground level. And when we do turn our attention to particulars, it becomes clear that the distances of the Atlantic world were hardly managed with ideal efficiency. Consider, for example, the scene in Robert Flaherty’s well-known ethnographic film Nanook of the North (1922) in which a trader entertains the Inuk man Nanook with a gramophone and tries to explain to him, according to the intertitle, “how the white man ‘cans’ his voice.” Nanook stares with fascination at the machine and laughs. The trader then lifts the gramophone disk off the player and hands it to Nanook, who proceeds to bite it in his attempt to get at the mysterious voice inside (Figure I.1). It is a shocking moment in the film and is often cited as a typically exploitive one for its portrayal of primitive ignorance about modern technology. Primitivism, however, is more than a discourse for constructing alterity. As Michael Taussig argues, it is also the discourse through which capitalist modernity articulates its own fascination with mimetic technologies. Nanook’s enchantment with the gramophone, an attraction so powerful he attempts to consume the disk, rehearses the early-twentieth-century spectator’s enchantment with a new cinema that promised a sensuous and even mystical participation in the world through the camera lens. As this filmic example suggests, the pictures that circulated around the colonial Atlantic world did not merely sustain a distanced and objectifying colonial gaze. By inviting mimetic identification with the peoples and places of this world—by enchanting their viewers—they also unsettled that gaze. The imagined tidiness of the Modern Constitution is belied by the messy and impure experience of navigating between its opposing shores. The following chapters attempt to describe this vertiginous condition of being in-between.
This book might be described as a series of soundings, a word to which I am partial for its suggestion of an experimental testing of depths, and for its particular relevance to the crossing of oceanic distances. In her recent interpretation of John Singleton Copley’s A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (1765), Jennifer Roberts argues that the ocean, despite its undeniable significance in the life of a painting that spent a good deal of time in transit between Boston and London, has been almost completely elided in the portrait’s scholarly treatment. Only the origin and destination have mattered, the beginning and ending points of a journey over which the painting and its meanings are imagined to be delivered successfully and without loss. Roberts, in contrast, places the oceanic interval itself, with all of its obstacles and delays, at the center of her analysis. It is in a similarly disruptive spirit that I offer my own soundings of the waters between the colonial production of alterity and the sensuous desire for likeness in the Atlantic world.
But there is another respect in which my chapters may be called “soundings,” because this is a book about the sounds, as well as the silences, that are conjured by pictures. As I realized quite late, the common thread running through the following case studies is the disturbance of the privileged domain of vision by an appeal to the ear. The works of art discussed in each of my chapters are notable for their potential to be heard, a potential that is by no means diminished by the fact that it remains unrealized. Nanook of the North again provides a helpful point of reference, for it is curious that this primitivizing performance of cinema’s mimetic power is staged (the scene was, in fact, entirely scripted) as Nanook’s captivation by an altogether different technology, as he uses his teeth to test a disk from a machine for playing recorded sounds. The difference between film and a gramophone disk is of some importance in this example, since in 1922 the voices of actors and the sounds of the film’s action remained unavailable to cinema’s audience. The gramophone that fascinates Nanook is, in other words, emphatically silent. His attempt to eat the white man’s voice belongs to a long history of similar gestures that are made from within the silence of pictures but directed toward an aural experience beyond the frame of pictorial representation. These gestures launch us into an uncertain Atlantic passage between sight and sound.
As the emergence of the field of “sound studies” in recent decades demonstrates, sound has been granted a new legitimacy as an object of historical inquiry. The story of modernity, as Leigh Eric Schmidt writes, is “almost always one of profound hearing loss in which an objectifying ocularcentrism triumphs over the conversational intimacies of orality.” Against this modern subordination of the ear to the eye, Schmidt and others have focused their attention on Atlantic “soundscapes” that feature the noises of Christians in the American Enlightenment, the cracking of thunder and the ringing of bells in early America, or the tumult of the black African diaspora. The present study makes its own modest contribution toward such efforts. To offer just one example, I hope to make the sounds of the religious revival more present than they have been in the literature on Thomas Cole’s landscapes. But if visual images can in some measure open our ears to the sounds of the past, I am also attuned to the stubborn silences they maintain despite our demands that they speak to us. Sound, Image, Silence, in other words, is about the elusiveness of aural experience as an aspiration both of the visual arts and of scholarly endeavors to retrieve the past audibly for the present. If my case studies are, in part, a response to the call of sound studies to write the ear into Atlantic history, they are informed at a more fundamental level by a poststructuralist wariness of efforts to capture the voice. It is a project that is perhaps best characterized as what Michel de Certeau terms a heterology, a “science of the other” that illuminates the ways in which disciplines and institutions seek to assimilate the voice of the other, even as the opacity of that voice, its foreignness to representation, returns as a breach in discourse. In his ignorance of the white man’s technology, Nanook bites the inedible disk, and thereby inscribes himself within the disciplinary hierarchies of early-twentieth-century ethnographic documentary. But as the camera closes its own teeth on Nanook, something offers resistance here as well: voices that are in some sense registered within the film but nevertheless remain unknown to it.
What kind of sounding, then, does a silent picture require? One response to this question, as my title suggests, is that it demands we put to work an “aural imagination.” This phrase is a fairly common one in literature on music and poetry, where it refers to the way musical notation or the words of a poem might stimulate an imagined experience of sound. Recently art historians, inspired by growing research on the integration and interdependence of human perceptual faculties, and desirous to counteract overdrawn modern oppositions between the eye and the ear, have begun to explore the potential of this idea in the realm of the visual arts. Sound, Image, Silence builds on these efforts, but at the same time, it insists that the aural imagination is not a mental prosthesis for uncanning the sounds of silent pictures. Nanook, after all, who laughs during the scene with the gramophone, knows the white man’s voice is not really inside the disk. The aural imagination is not about a smooth trajectory from seeing to hearing; it is about the productive friction between them.
Early film, with its grand aspirations to collapse the distance between art and life, may continue to serve as our touchstone on this point. In the 1890s, Thomas Edison dreamed of reproductions that would awaken both the eyes and the ears of audiences, uniting sound and the moving image in an experience “without any material change from the original.” If the so-called “silent” cinema did not quite live up to this dream, it was nevertheless an audible art form that included musical accompaniment and sometimes live, in-house commentators who interpreted the intertitles for the audience. What the silent film could not provide, however, was synchrony between the actions witnessed and the sounds heard, and it is this disjuncture between visual and aural experience that produced, in Michel Chion’s words, a space for “imaginary voices that everyone could dream to their heart’s content.” Nanook’s laugh and the sound of the white man’s voice produced by the spinning disk on the gramophone belong fully to the aural imagination. This is not because Flaherty’s film convincingly puts those voices in our heads; it is because those voices, prior to the introduction of synchronized sound in 1927, were beyond the reproductive capabilities of cinema.
The potential that lies within this gap between image and sound is not a recent discovery. It was discussed by Greek and Roman writers and mined enthusiastically by Renaissance humanists. The dictum that “painting is mute poetry, poetry a speaking picture,” attributed to Simonides of Ceos, and the Horatian simile ut pictura poesis (“as painting, so poetry”) inspired countless commentaries written between the mid-sixteenth and mid-eighteenth centuries on the relationship between the visual and verbal (spoken) arts, which were understood to share the same end of imitating nature but to arrive there by different means. It is not until the publication of G. E. Lessing’s Laocoön (1766), however, that we encounter an effort to establish a firm critical distinction between the so-called “sister arts.” For Lessing, the fact that poetry is an art in which sounds are enunciated in time, whereas painting distributes forms and colors in space, means that the two belong to fundamentally different orders of imitation and should not, therefore, be uncritically compared. Laocoön, as its subtitle states, is “an essay on the limits of painting and poetry.” Even for recent artists and critics who question the pure aesthetic realms of modernism theorized by Lessing, the tension between seeing and hearing has remained an important tool for thought. The installation artist Fred Wilson, for example, put this tension to work at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992 when he unsettled viewers by causing the black servant in a colonial portrait to ask them: “Am I your brother? Am I your friend? Am I your pet?”
My own route into the possibilities of the aural imagination is more aligned with Wilson’s disruptions of the silent museum-going experience than with the modernist pieties of Lessing. With Wilson, I am inclined to ask, “how do we respond to pictures that really do want to speak to us?” There is, after all, a long history of such pictures. Encounters with speaking paintings and sculptures were not uncommon in the Christian Middle Ages, as when Saint Francis of Assisi knelt before the San Damiano Crucifix, saw the lips on the painted image of Christ move, and heard them speak. In seventeenth-century Rome—even as Gian Lorenzo Bernini sculpted lifelike portrait busts that art historians, steeped in the literature on the sister arts, have praised with the metaphor of the “speaking likeness”—visitors to the museum at the Collegio Romano encountered Athanasius Kircher’s “Delphic Oracle” and actually heard a portrait bust speak. Speaking pictures such as these have always existed outside the mainstream of art history. The San Damiano Crucifix survives for art historians as a Romanesque artifact, but its speech could only occur before the era of the image gave way to the era of art. The speaking statues in Kircher’s museum belong to a different scholarly world than do the canonical works of his contemporary Bernini. The speaking picture, to put it bluntly, is indecorous. It appears outside the proper limits of the visual arts: in the natural magic of an eccentric polymath; in the intense piety of the premodern imagination; or, in Wilson’s case, at a moment of deep uncertainty about the purpose and priorities of the modern museum.
The following chapters are not chiefly concerned with oracles, crucifixes, and other objects endowed with literal powers of speech. The prints, paintings, and films that provide my focus can be described only as mainstream works within the canons of art and early cinematic history, which is to say that they remain more or less comfortably within Lessing’s realm of silent pictures. But they are pictures that were asked to do a great deal. Their task was to deliver, often across vast distances, encounters with the native inhabitants of the Americas, with New World landscapes, and with Atlantic celebrities. By putting them into conversation with sound, by considering how these pictures put the limits of supposedly silent visual media to the test, I hope to bring into focus their engagement with an aural imagination. When these pictures do speak, moreover, it is not with the decorous voice of the poet, but through those exemplary sounds of the Atlantic world that intrude upon the hushed domain of visual contemplation as disruptions of propriety and reason, sounds that are normally kept at bay for the sake of peace and civility. They speak to us through the noise of the pagan dance, the discord of battle, the din of revivalist religion, and the sublime sounds of nature in the Americas: lightning, thunder, and the waterfall. In what ways did the visual arts conjure, but also attempt to manage, such sounds?
I begin with an engraving from Theodor de Bry’s America that depicts a dance witnessed by the Huguenot missionary Jean de Léry during the time he spent among the Tupinambá Indians of Brazil in the late 1550s (see Plate 1). The image corresponds to a powerful moment in Léry’s narrative account, written twenty years after his return to Europe, when he recalls the sounds of the dancers’ chants still ringing in his ears across time and distance. Since the fifteenth century, artists had looked to dance as a guide for the depiction of compelling motion, and certainly de Bry’s dancing figures do much to bring Léry’s written account to life. Yet, if this is an invitation to experience the dance in its sensory plenitude, it is a decidedly ambivalent one. For reformed Christians of the sixteenth century, the kind of circular dance depicted by de Bry was closely associated with idolatry, and especially with the Israelites dancing in pagan abandon around their graven image in Moses’s absence. This engraving from a late sixteenth-century compilation of Protestant travel accounts places us somewhere in between the view that would hold the pagan dance at a safe distance and a more proximate experience that would leave the Tupinambá chants ringing in our own ears. Sounding out this intermediate space can leave us with the same sense of vertigo described in a passage from the Psalms invoked by Léry. Tossed to and fro, we are left to stagger about like drunken men, all our cunning gone.
Not all the works I consider leave us so dizzy. The landscapes painted in Brazil by the Dutch artist Frans Post between 1637 and 1644, the subject of my second chapter, do everything in their power to keep us at a quiet and stable remove from the disorienting sounds of war in the New World, as the forces of the Dutch West India Company engaged with the Portuguese up and down the Brazilian coast (see Plates 5–8). While Post accompanied these expeditions and depicted sites associated with Dutch victories, his paintings, which are often noted for their muted qualities, raise the question of landscape’s relationship to the noise of historical event. The development of landscape as a genre may justly be seen as a dampening of that noise, a process of gradually pushing the painting’s argument—or what Leon Battista Alberti called the istoria—off-stage and allowing the silence of the background to come into the foreground. But, if landscape tends to be a quiet genre, what of the voice of the historian whose purpose is to restore the landscape to its proper context? When Post’s Brazilian views were etched for the history of Dutch Brazil written by the humanist Caspar Barlaeus, their powers of speech returned, at least in part, as they became sounding boards for an early and influential Atlantic history by one of Holland’s greatest orators.
My third chapter shifts from the sounds and silences of the south Atlantic to the rumbling of thunder in the north, and from an Atlantic history composed by a humanist to one that was being written by natural philosophers. The subject of this northern history was the electrical fire, and at stake was the question of whether the lightning was the voice of God speaking through the thunder or a natural force at the command of the experimentalist. This is the question raised by a portrait of the Atlantic’s greatest “electrician,” Benjamin Franklin, whom the London artist Mason Chamberlin situates between the calm and quiet of the scholar’s study and a violent electrical storm that rages outside the window (see Plate 9). Franklin has often been portrayed as a Promethean disenchanter of the heavens who stands out in relief against the religious enthusiasm of the Great Awakening, a movement whose exponents were all too prepared to hear the judgments of God in the thunder. But the sitter for Chamberlin’s portrait was in fact profoundly attuned to the excessive and irrational forces of the natural world. In Franklin’s electrical entertainment called “the magical picture,” he does not imitate lightning simply to tame it; he invites his audience to feel its force directly in their bodies by taking hold of an electrified mezzotint. Franklin’s magical pictures can help us to recognize that portraits like Chamberlin’s held a capacity to shock, a potential to speak with a voice from beyond the frame, as they circulated in printed form around the Atlantic world.
If religious enthusiasm is not fully silenced in Chamberlin’s portrait, its presence is felt even more strongly in my fourth chapter, where the sounds of the Second Great Awakening intrude into the landscape paintings of Thomas Cole. It is a fact of some interest that the first two items on Cole’s list of over one hundred ideas for future paintings, composed in 1827 just as he was becoming a sought-after painter of American wilderness scenes, are “Preaching in the woods as is seen in the Western country” and “Camp Meeting at Night.” These two paintings were probably never made, but their presence at the top of Cole’s list points to an important, if unexamined, context of his early landscape art: the camp-meeting revivalism of the early nineteenth century that sought out the same settings of natural sublimity that inspired Cole’s own art. For the nature-worshiping audience that financed the development of the first American school of landscape painting, the kind of worship that happened at the camp meeting was a vulgar affair associated with the noisy theatrics of the ungoverned mob. At the beginning of his career, however, Cole appears to have been imaginatively invested in the camp meeting. Revivalist religion provides the background noise to my reading of Cole’s innovative early landscape, Kaaterskill Falls (1826), a painting in which the shouts and hollers of camp-meeting religion are transposed into the muted tones of the cult of nature, even as the artist leaves traces of those popular sounds in the waterfall itself, a natural feature that Cole called “the voice of the landscape” (see Plate 10).
My final chapter returns to Native American dance, which, like the religious revival, was a subject of both fascination and contempt for nineteenth-century Americans who defined their own standards of taste and civility against the unruly bodies and discordant sounds of their social and racial others. My focus in this case is the Lakota Ghost Dance, a nonviolent ritual that nevertheless, in 1890, became permanently associated with the “outbreak” at Pine Ridge and the massacre of Lakota men, women, and children by government troops at Wounded Knee Creek. In 1894, when Lakota performers in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show were filmed for Thomas Edison’s latest invention, the kinetoscope, white audiences across the United States and Europe were given the opportunity to witness the dance for themselves (see Figure 5.3). Distinctly war-like in its presentation, Sioux Ghost Dance anticipates a twentieth-century history of silencing indigenous voices through the stereotype of the “Hollywood Indian.” Yet 1894 was a radically uncertain moment in the history of American film. Edison was acutely aware of the kinetoscope’s lack of synchronized sound and the consequent disconnect between optical and auditory experience as viewers saw the bodies of dancers in motion but did not hear them. This sensory “shortcoming” invites us to imagine how a dance that was of profound religious and political significance for Lakota people in the 1890s eluded the representational powers of the new medium of film.