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Response to Review of Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-Century India

Carla Manfredi’s account of my project in Afterimage of Empire is not only accurate but also sensitively attuned to my larger theoretical concerns that emerged out of the archive of Indian colonial photography. One of the central obsessions that animated Afterimage was this: what questions might we ask of representation if we take poststructuralist critiques of representation as a point of departure rather than a point of arrival? That is, how might we think past poststructuralist insights so that we do not merely reproduce them? These were questions inspired by Michael Taussig’s Mimesis and Alterity, and Afterimage owes a debt to Taussig’s work. A shift away from colonial discourse analysis, for example, makes it worthwhile, perhaps even necessary, to revisit archives that might have seemed familiar.

In Afterimage the strand of phenomenology that runs through Maurice Merleau-Ponty (rather than Martin Heidegger) became the testing ground for making sense of the political formation of aesthetic experiences. I turned to Merleau-Ponty because perception, sensation, and embodiment (rather than ontology, being, and unconcealment) were the primary issues that arose from my research in an archive that contained a preponderance of images of the racialized body, strange hybrid genres that seemed specific to the political force field of colonialism, and textual accounts of the body inundated with sensory stimuli upon visiting the colony such that making sense of the world without the naturalizing benefits of habit became the underlying concern for these narratives. Afterimage necessarily sticks to the Indian case, but it was my hope that its analyses might prove themselves to be starting points for further questions to be asked in other historical and geographical contexts, and ideally for those questions that Afterimage itself does not pose. To that extent, writing Afterimage felt like a thought experiment whose elisions and speculations were also invitations. I am pleased to see that Manfredi reads Afterimage as precisely such an invitation.