Representational Revolution: the backcloth to an argument

‘Image making is often considered one
of the unique and quintessential competences
of Homo sapiens sapiens, differentiating
the subspecies, for example, from H. sapiens
neanderthalenis and from earlier hominds.’

From Whitney Davis’ paper ‘The Origins of Image Making’
[Davis, 1986, Jun., Vol. 27, No. 3, p. 193.]

The nineteenth-century is characterised by an energy for, and an enthusiasm about, the representational which has outstripped anything before, or indeed since, in its general range and basic inventiveness. During a handful of decades the representational was, to an unprecedented degree, mechanised, democratised, popularised, and humanised. For instance, the mechanisation of the representational is most readily pegged out between markers such as the discovery of photography in the 1830’s; the first recording of sound in 1877; and the invention of wireless and cinematography in the 1890’s.[i]

Between those inventive extremes there occurred dramatic improvements in printing, telegraphy, and so on.[ii] Additionally there were introduced aids to writing from simple ones such as carbon paper, sold commercially by the 1820’s, to more complex ones such as the typewriter – in regular production by the 1870’s. In Britain the representational was increasing democratised through not only the introduction of mass formal education in the 1870s and the progressive extension of the franchise during the nineteenth-century plus the support provided by mechanic’s institutes, band of hope meetings, itinerant lanternists, and, not least, by photography. For photography, by the end of the nineteenth-century, had been simplified to a degree that it was assessable to people in general.[iv] A change epitomised by Kodak’s slogan: “You press the button we do the rest.” Today a state of affairs is fast approaching wherein virtually everyone is his or her own photographer via a mobile phone.

Additionally the representational was humanised through people’s increasing awareness that representations are made by, for, and about people in general. So, for instance, named human authors emerged more commonly to replace the mysterious authorial voice of a supernatural God.

It can also be argued that people during the nineteenth-century became increasing puzzled by, and concerned with, the nature of representational practice as such – an interest indexed, for example, by the marked growth during the century in stage magic and home conjuring. So, for example, London had a small theatre wholly devoted to the presentation of stage magic from May 1873 to 1933 under the dynasty of the Maskelyne family. [Fisher, 1987, pp. 102-17.] [Davenport and Salisse, 2001.] [iii]

The representational was popularised by the more ready availability of books via the introduction cheap editions, fortnightly parts, and the expanding use of circulating libraries plus the growth of public libraries. It is also relevant to note the way in which the leisure time was expanded and change. Increasingly, the working classes had the time available to them to pursue the kinds of representationally based activities, and to have access to representational products, to a degree previously restricted to the well-to-do. The representational also went, so to speak, commercially down market – as indexed by the rise of the comic postcard. Additionally, the very character of childhood changed with the manufacture of an increased number, and range, of toys.

Thus, during the nineteenth-century, there occurred what can be dubbed a “Representational Revolution” – a revolution which, in its character and significance, was as dramatic in its instrumental changes, and as wide ranging in its social consequences, as the now more readily recognised revolutions by which it was preceded, namely: the Industrial Revolution of the 18thC. and the Investigatory, or Scientific, Revolution of the 17thC. But, whilst those revolutions have now received explicit academic recognition, and consequent attendant study, in contrast the Representational Revolution has yet to be accorded analogous study and recognition. Although, of course, for the Investigatory and Industrial Revolutions there was a similar delay between their actual occurrence and their academic recognition – with, for instance, the Industrial Revolution, not consciously identified until well into the nineteenth-century. Technical revolutions do not occur like a squad of soldiers changing step on the march – indeed the Industrial Revolution is now identified as proceeding through four phases. So it can be assumed that the Representational Revolution will not take place all of a piece in one go.

So my starting point is to hypothesise that the human animal has always lived and moved and had its being within a representational universe with at that universe’s nucleus a shared language but not to have been always conscious of the fact. So, for instance, Gordon Allport states that:

‘Nothing could be of more pervasive influence in our lives than the store of concepts available to us in our ancestral tongue and the frames of discourse under which our social contacts proceed. And yet the use of English is ordinary felt to be quite peripheral to the core of our existence.
(Allport, 1955, p. 40.)

In a somewhat similar vein Berger and Berger advise that:

‘Most of the time, both individuals and numbers of individuals living together in societies live in a world that is taken for granted. This means that the fundamental structures in which social experience takes place are not questioned but are lived through as seemingly natural and self-evident conditions of life.’
(Berger and Berger, 1976 (1972), p. 28.)

Whereas I advance a representational hypothesis that might be said to have been formally articulated by Edward Sapir at the turn of the 1920s but did not gain popular attention until the 1950s with the posthumous publication of Benjamin Whorf’s writings on the subject.
An indication of Sapir’s formulation of the hypothesis is as follows:

“Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group.
(Sapir, Edward. 1958. Culture, Language and Personality. Berkeley: University of California Press, page 69.)

In a similar vein Whorf states:

“We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.”
(Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1940. Science and Linguistics. Technology Review (1940) pp. 213-14).

In both the above passages it is significant to note the reference to the unstated operation of the influence of languages – so Whorf refers to linguistic agreement as: ‘an implicit and unstated one’; whilst Sapir refers to the ‘real world’ as to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group’.

Whereas the implication of the writings of Sapir and Whorf was to make that agreement explicit and to bring it into the domain of consciousness. It is, therefore, not surprising to find that the work of Sapir and Whorf has been attacked by others – most notably by Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. [Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct. Harmondsworth: Penguin.]

However, for my own defence of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis I propose to side step those attacks by focusing on the way in which the emergent Representational Revolution is an extension of the now established Industrial Revolution. For concerning the Industrial Revolution what tends to be glossed over is the way in which it involved a radical change in the way in which people worked. In that regard it is relevant generally to quote Karl Marx:

‘All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.’
(Marx and Engels, 1974 (1846), The German Ideology, p. 122.)

To comprehend practice, following the Industrial Revolution, requires distinguishing between traditional craft practice and contemporary technical praxis. The term ‘craft practice’ I use to refer to a mode of working that is carried out intuitively, empirically and pragmatically according, in the main, to the traditions, customs, and habits of a particular collective. Whereas, in contrast, I use ‘technical praxis’ to refer to a mode of working that is carried out in a much more conscious manner by reference to explicitly formulated procedures; standardise measuring instruments, and the like. There is also an increasingly complex division of labour.

That change, from practice to praxis, triggered, in its turn, an epistemic change from mythic understanding to model based scientific knowledge. That epistemic change involved a change in function in that a myth’s function is to legitimise a craft based mode of competence. Whereas the function of model based knowledge is to inform and direct technical based competence.
The mythic was, in the past, generally provided by some variant of the god-devil-soul story located within a supernatural universe and institutionally presided over by a priesthood.. But that traditional story started rapidly to lose its plausibility within collectives as they industrialised. What should have then happened was that craft based representational practice started to change to a representational competence that was technically based. But that did not happen instead representational competence remained for the most part craft based. As a consequence people sought an alternative form of myth making to that traditionally provided by the god-devil-soul story. That alternative mode of mythic legitimation has been progressively located within some variant of the body-brain-gene story as developed by psychiatrist and clinical psychologists and other would be scientists. It is that transfer of legitimation that is detailed, for instance, by Steven Rose, Leon Kamin, and E. C. Lewontin in their: Not in Our Genes: biology, ideology and human nature

‘in contemporary Western society, science as an institution has come to be accorded the authority that once went to the Church. When “science” speaks – or rather when its spokesmen (and they generally are men) speak in the name of science – let no dog bark. “Science” is the ultimate legitimator of bourgeois ideology. To oppose “science,” to prefer values to facts, is to transgress not merely against a human law but against a law of nature.’
(Rose, Kamin, and Lewontin, 1984, p. 31.)

This change in the source of authority, from religion to science, is necessarily related to a change in the mythic narrative from the religious “god-devil-soul-story” to the seemingly scientific “body-brain-gene-story”. Given that schema I argue further that representational practice remains, in the main, craft based and requires therefore for its legitimation a plausible myth.

I refer above to psychiatrist and psychologists as would be scientists in that in my experience they typically ignore that human beings from a very early age are engaged in developing a representational competence. What I mean by a representation competence refers to the core characteristic of language, namely: that language can be used to refer both to non-linguistic and to linguistic goings-on. That, to stress the point, language can be used reflexively to refer to itself – whereas language I will argue is commonly used reductively to refer to non-linguistic goings-on

Here I relate the characteristic of ‘reflexivity’ to the practice of commentary. For it seems to me that much of linguistic practice involves commenting upon the use of language itself along with other representational products. Moreover, the facility to use language for commentary, and thus the reflexive use of language, emerges very early in a child’s life as the following anecdote illustrates. I still vividly remember a visit I made, as an educational psychologist, to a reception infant classroom replete with its child inspired activities: dressing up corner, play kitchen, and so on. Before long a child came over to me and, with a beaming smile, proffered a plateful of plasticine tarts. To that offer I responded with a look of obvious anticipatory pleasure and made as if to eat one of them. At that action the child drew back in horror and exclaimed: “No, don’t – they are only pretend cakes.” By that concerned exclamation the child revealed a quite complex understanding of the representational practices within which we were both engaged. That, specifically, she understood that the term ‘pretend’ functioned reflexively in the sense that it is a particular representation that refers to other representations more generally. Although it does not follow that she would have comprehended intellectually the term ‘representational’ or, necessarily, the term ‘pretend’ in its reflexive function. There is a need, in short, for representational goings-on to distinguish between informal understanding and formal knowing.

The need to distinguish between ‘informal understanding’ and ‘formal knowing’ is not restricted to the use of the word ‘pretend’ but also refers to a whole host of other words that discharge a commenting and thus a reflexive function. My present concern is with those words that form what I propose to dub the ‘psychic problematic’ as it comprises, but not exhaustively so, the following: ‘mind’, ‘mental’, ‘psychic’, ‘instinct’, ‘intelligence’, ‘intellect’, ‘heredity’ ’emotions’, ‘feelings’, and ‘will’. The words forming the psychic problematic span, moreover, the vernacular and the academic use of language. So, to be specific, the word ‘mind’ is used within both a vernacular understanding and academic knowing.

But here there enters a further perplexing anomaly in that people from an early age develop a reflexive understanding for words such as mind – as exampled by phrases such as:

“I am in two minds what to do – go to the cinema or to stay home and watch the television.”

Such phrases within vernacular exchange can be used without any difficulty and without any query as to what is meant. Consequently it can be assumed most people develop a reflexive understanding for the use of language as commentary and an understanding that is shared within the particular speech community to which they belong.

But wherein enters my perplexity in that such reflexive understanding for words such as ‘mind’ does not extend to their use within the formal knowledge for langue as academically established. Indeed such difficulties have become so pronounced that at times some psychologists have sought to reject their use altogether from orthodox academic discourse. So, for instance, William McDougall writing in the twenties observed that:

‘We have seen that many psychologists at the present day have given up altogether the use of the terms “mind,” “soul,” and “subject.”
(McDougall, 1968(1923), p. 34.)

Essentially the same conclusion was drawn more recently by Alan Gauld, writing in the 1960s, when he observed that:

‘Among present-day psychologists words like ‘consciousness’, ‘mind’, and so forth have become not merely unfashionable, but even faintly heterodox. Many psychologists have not wittingly used them in their professional moments these twenty years.’
(Gauld, 1968, p. 278.)/small>

Further puzzlement is provided by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle – who, in a radio talk of the late forties, asserted that:

‘In ordinary life (save when we want to sound knowing) we seldom use the noun ‘Mind’ or the adjective ‘mental’ at all.’
(Ryle, 1949, p. 1111.)

Ryle’s assertion here is manifestly so untrue as to merit questioning why he made it at all – particularly when talking to a popular audience. For as already noted the assertion runs wholly counter to the use of terms such as ‘mind’ in everyday conversation exchanges. Within such exchanges people make quite frequent use of terms such as ‘mind’ and ‘mental’ without feeling that they are getting embroiled in metaphysical uncertainties and without any intention to sound linguistically ostentatious. Again such difficulties are absent because, in a vernacular context, such words are used and can be used reflexively. Whereas the same problematic of words when used within an academic context are assumed to function non-reflexively. But a function which such words cannot be proved to function non-reflexively – except by making it seem that the words ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ are interchangeable in use but – which clearly they cannot be shown to be from an understanding standpoint.

This seemingly perplexing state of linguistic affairs exists because representation practice remains for the most part linguistically at a craft mode of development. Thus psychologists , in the main, are engage in searching for a non-reflexive myth and not a reflexive model. Or at least that is my experience in trying to work as a psychologist. This dependence of academics on the vernacular use of language is explicitly recognised, for instance, by Alan White:

‘For many of the concepts of such a science (psychology) have either been taken over bodily from daily use or else have been shaped and sharpened into tools of science from their original place in our ordinary language.’
(White, 1967, p. 12.)

But White, it seems to me ignores the social implication of this linguistic take-over by academics.


  1. Initially, there was a lack of recognition of photography’s wide ranging potential by people general. Concerning that early view Geoffrey Tucker states that: ‘Initially, few perceived photography to be a new art, let alone cultural revolution unparalleled since printing.’ [Tucker in Belchem and Price (eds.), 1996 (1994), p. 471.]
  2. It is not the invention of printing that carries a modern significance but the invention of moveable type in the fifteenth-century. Of that invention Steinberg dubs it a ‘turning point in the history of civilization.’ [Steinberg, 1955, pp. 22-29.]
  3. “In 1898 (April) Mind felt it appropriate to review two books on theatrical magic, namely: A A Hopkins Magic: stage illusions and scientific diversions (1898) and H J Burlinghame’s Herrmann the Magician, his Life, his Secrets. (1897). The anonymous reviewer felt that these two texts provide a ‘detailed appendix’ to another book under reviewe: G H Diall’s The Psychology of the Aggregate Mind of an Audience. In which regard the reviewer judged that: ‘the conjurer’s audience is, perhaps, the very best material upon which to base a study of the collective mind.’ [Anonymous, Mind, 1898 (April), p. 270.] The review concludes with the observation that: ‘Mr. Hopkins’ and Mr. Burlinghame’s compilations have a value for the experimental psychologist, over and above their interest for collective psychology, in their suggestion of methods for laboratory work. The Magic, in particular, takes rank in this regard alongside the works of Robert Houdin and Maskelyne.’ [As above, p. 270.] In the above quotation the passing reference to the writings of Houdin and Maskelyne suggests that psychologists of the time could be expected to be reasonably knowledgeable of the then existing literature for ‘theatrical magic’. An interest that informed contributions to the psychological journals of the time. So, for instance, The American Journal of Psychology published in 1900 a lengthy paper by Normal Triplett and titled: ‘The Psychology of Conjuring Deceptions’. [Triplett, 1900, pp. 439-510.] Alfred Binet contributed a paper to the Revue Philosophique titled: La Psychologie de la Prestidigitation [1894 pp. 346-348.] Joseph Jastrow was another psychologists interested in theatrical magic and exemplified by his paper: ‘Psychological notes on sleight of hand experts’, [Science, vol. 3 p. 685.]
    The lack of interest by present day psychologists in the practice of deception has its exceptions. For instance, Ray Hyman refers to the practice of theatrical magic in his text: The Nature of Psychological Inquiry. [Hyman, 1964, p. 33-37.]
  4. The popularisation of photographic practice is discussed by John Tagg in his The Burden of Representation: essays on photographies and histories. [Tagg, 1988, pp. 16-19.]

‘In his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, describes how this fourth revolution is fundamentally different from the previous three, which were characterized mainly by advances in technology. These technologies have great potential to continue to connect billions of more people to the web, drastically improve the efficiency of business and organizations and help regenerate the natural environment through better asset management.



    There are dignified stupidities, and there are heroic stupidities, and there is such a thing as stupid stupidities, and that would be a stupid stupidity not to have a camera on board.

    Werner Herzog

  • We never really know what’s around the corner when we’re filming – what turn a story will take, what a character will do or say to surprise us, how the events in the world will impact our story.

    Barbara Kopple


    Sometimes one picture is equal to 30 pages of discourse, just as there are things images are completely incapable of communicating.

    William S. Burroughs

  • Watching a documentary with people hacking their way through some polar wasteland is merely a visual. Actually trying to deal with cold that can literally kill you is quite a different thing.

    Henry Rollins


    The task for sociology is to come to the help of the individual. We have to be in service of freedom. It is something we have lost sight of.

    Zygmunt Bauman

  • Give us adequate images. We lack adequate images. Our civilization does not have adequate images. And I think a civilization is doomed or is going to die out like dinosaurs if it doesn’t develop an adequate language for adequate images.

    Werner Herzog

  • Before I became a film major, I was very heavily into social science, I had done a lot of sociology, anthropology, and I was playing in what I call social psychology, which is sort of an offshoot of anthropology/sociology – looking at a culture as a living organism, why it does what it does.

    George Lucas


    Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must change.

    Bertolt Brecht

  • Photographers learn to interpret photographs in that technical way because they want to understand and use that ‘language’ themselves (just as musicians learn a more technical musical language than the layman needs). Social scientists who want to work with visual materials will have to learn to approach them in this more studious and time-consuming way

    Howard Becker


    If it’s far away, it’s news, but if it’s close at home, it’s sociology.

    James Reston


    For any picture, ask yourself what question or questions it might be answering. Since the picture could answer many, questions, we can decide what question we are interested in.

    Howard Becker

  • I believe that we face incredible obstacles in our attempts to see the world. Everything in our nature tries to deny the world around us; to refabricate it in our own image; to reinvent it for our own benefit. And so, it becomes something of a challenge, a task, to recover (or at least attempt to recover) the real world despite all the impediments to that end.

    Errol Morris

  • If you want to tell the untold stories, if you want to give voice to the voiceless, you’ve got to find a language. Which goes for film as well as prose, for documentary as well as autobiography. Use the wrong language, and you’re dumb and blind.

    Salman Rushdie


    Visual culture is now the study of how to understand change in a world too enormous to see but vital to imagine.

    Nicholas Mirzoeff


    One advantage of photography is that it’s visual and can transcend language.

    Lisa Kristine

  • You try your hardest to give people their space, but at moments you know you’re capturing their image in ways they may or may not be okay with. It’s that rocking back and forth between respect and betrayal that I feel like is at the heart of the film.

    Kirsten Johnson


    Every photograph promises more than it delivers and delivers more than it intended.

    Steve Harp


    The function of sociology, as of every science, is to reveal that which is hidden.

    Pierre Bourdieu


Worcester Uni Sociology

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing review – a visionary whose camera never lied. Fascinating review by @LauraCummingArt #VisualSociology…

Contact us