Thursday, April 18, 2013

Milk and Blood: Re-reading Jeff Wall

At the beginning of his short (that is, four paragraph) essay "Photography and Liquid Intelligence" (1989), Canadian photographer Jeff Wall refers the reader to his photograph Milk (1984). Much is happening in Wall's strongly planar image. Like one of Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park pictures turned on its side, Milk parses into four vertical strips. As read right to left, subtle shades of brick tone interweave like feathers on a bird's wing in the largest panel, which terminates in the crisp zip of black cast by the ruddy, jutting abutment at center left. Cooler tones abound in the sap-green shrub and the cerulean blue of sky reflected in the glass that separates us from the strong descending diagonal of railing that traverses heavens down to earth.

Back on the ground—at "street level," below our point of view—a man crouches, his proper left knee gathered to his body by a flexed arm. Held at or just above his crotch is a carton of milk cloaked in a paper bag. From it issues a veil of white liquid as the titular milk spurts upwards to describe a half arc. But, what has caused this explosion? The grasping hand that holds the carton betrays less the violent squeeze seemingly required to create this spray nor does his static right arm indicate any recent sideways motion.

Directed instead by the punching gesture of the figure's left fore-arm, we might think of Harold Egerton's Bullet through an Apple (1964), in which the visual rupture is caused not by the agent holding the object yielding the white spray. Rather, that visual action has been produced by some force entering the picture plane in the direction of my ekphrasis above—that is, right to left.

None of this concerns Wall in his 1989 essay. Instead, he uses Milk to exemplify an interface of the natural and the mechanical that he takes to have a particular salience in photography. "I think this is because," Wall explains, "the mechanical character of the action of opening and closing the shutter - the substratum of instantaneity which persists in all photography - is a logical relation, a relation of necessity, between the phenomenon of the movement of a liquid, and the means of representation." (Wall, 90)

As the stasis of Milk's tectonic planes are activated visually by liquid eruption, so photography in Wall's mythic telling becomes animated by this opposition of the dry and the wet. If the waters used in the traditional, chemical developing tray bears "a memory-trace of very ancient production processes - of washing, bleaching, dissolving, and so on," they are sharply differentiated from the dry realms of lenses and mechanics. Here is Wall's compelling statement of this point, and its implication: "This part of the photographic system is more usually identified with the specific technological intelligence of image-making, with the projectile or ballistic nature of vision when it is augmented and intensified by glass (lenses) and machinery (calibrators and shutters). This kind of modern vision has been separated to a great extent from the sense of immersion in the incalculable which I associate with 'liquid intelligence.'" (Wall, 90-93)

Wall's choice of Milk, thus, begins to take on an additional valence. Like that fluid prompted by mammalian gestation and rupturing here from its commodified encapsulation, photography itself is generated by the meeting of cold, wet, incalculable intelligence and dry rationality. However nuanced Wall's reading of gender may otherwise be, ancient, humoral elements - cold, wet feminine matter being organized by hot, dry masculine form - are being mobilized here to model photography in Milk's lactative image. If milk is made after sexual reproduction, so Milk—instance of and metonym for photography—follows the conjunction of the dry and the wet, the projectile and the immersive, the rational and the incalculable that structure Wall's broader conception of the medium.

Whether or not this is a heteronormative myth Wall is spinning, a different question quickly surfaces if we trace possible roots for his conception of photography's liquid and dry intelligences. One possible source is the work of British-born psychologist Raymond Cattell (1905-1998). Little known in art history, Cattell was both highly influential and massively productive. "The author of fifty-six books, more than five hundred journal articles and book chapters, and some thirty standardized instruments for assessing personality and intelligence in a professional career that spanned two-thirds of a century," so one recent interpreter has put it, "... Cattell must be considered one of the most influential research psychologists ever." (Tucker, 1)

Among numerous accomplishments, contributions and accolades, Cattell articulated a crucial cleavage within human aptitude, bifurcating the study of general intelligence (or g in the technical parlance) into what he called "fluid" and "crystallized" intelligence (or gf and gc, respectively). Here is Cattell's description of these discrete native versus learned aptitudes from 1964: "Crystallized ability loads more highly those cognitive performances in which skilled judgment habits have become crystallized (hence its name) as the result of earlier learning application of some prior, more fundamental general ability to these fields. ... Fluid general ability, on the other hand, shows more in tests requiring adaptation to new situations, where crystallized skills are of no particular advantage." (Cattell 1964, 2-3) Expressed most clearly in situations requiring improvisation, fluid intelligence was importantly informed by biology if not exclusively reducible to it. He puts it this way:

For any same-age group the nature-nurture variance ratio will be much higher for gf than gc on the hypothesis that gf is directly physiologically determined whereas gc is a product of environmentally varying, experientially determined investments of gc. ... However, although it is our hypothesis that gf is biologically and physiologically determined, as a function of total cortical cell count, this does not mean that one would expect anything like complete hereditary determination. For environment includes gestation period influences and later physical trauma and physiological change, all 
affecting gf. (Cattell 1964, 3-4)

One might indeed expect this attention to multifarious factors informing intelligence as Cattell himself significantly advanced and repeatedly championed multi-variant factor analysis in the study of human personality. No fan of Cattell's work, intellectual biographer William H. Tucker nonetheless acknowledge this as a lasting, influential insight. "The distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence," Tucker writes, "is recognized as a landmark contribution, cited not only in every book on intelligence but also in numerous introductory psychology books. ... The separation of fluid and crystallized intelligence has been one of Cattell's most enduring substantive contributions of psychology." (Tucker, 53-4)

However, heredity plays an interestingly forceful role in Cattell's thinking about intelligence. Not only is the fluid more nimble than the crystallized intelligence in his scheme, but that the former is also enduringly constitutive of an individual's ability. Where fluid intelligence abides, crystallized, book learning decays and is itself, as it were, already dead. Cattell had turned to an instructive turn of phrase drawn from watery depths to make that point in an earlier publication: "If the crystallized abilities are, as it were, a dead coral formation revealing by its outlines the limits of growth of the original living tissue, the crystallized abilities will approximately the same intercorrelations as the original fluid abilities." (Cattell 1943, 178-9) Thus, in correlating the tabulated data of gf and gc, Cattell declines the possibility that these two modes of intelligence combine some new form. Instead, he argues, they need to be read through "a single influence, which is fluid ability as it stood during the formative period of crystallized ability, [that] is causative to the present levels of both." (Cattell 1964, 15) Living, physiologically determined, and significantly biologically heritable, fluid intelligence describes a threshold of possibility that can be analyzed in the decaying crystallized artifacts of which it is itself the cause.

We might note here that Raymond Cattell was a committed eugenicist. As historian William H. Tucker argues, Cattell shared with mentors Charles Spearman, Cyril Burt, and William McDougall "the belief in the power of heredity as an article of faith necessary for justification of the eugenic agenda, more than as a scientifically demonstrable result. In 1938, discussing the deleterious social effects that would be caused by the disproportionate reproduction of the less intelligent, Cattell declared it an accepted fact that 'mental capacity is largely inborn.'" (Tucker, 67) So, even if as he would put it in 1964 that "does not mean ... complete hereditary determination," the fluid intelligence that animates -- that makes possible the conditions for the crystallized intelligence derived from it -- is still significantly biological and inheritable through sexual reproduction. It flows through the blood.

Is blood to Cattell's fluid intelligence, then, what milk is to Wall's liquid intelligence? In both schemes, wet intellect is valorized. For Cattell, it underpins, enables and outstrips crystallized abilities in its improvisatory fluency. For Wall, it is the "concrete opposite" of photo's dry rationality that menaces, undermines and extends far beyond optics and mechanics. In both schemes too, animating intelligence is contingent upon the mating of sexualized components. This is literally true for Cattell, since part of the eugenicist aim of his project was control reproductive rates of the less intelligent thus increasing the net threshold of genetically-heritable material (and hence, fluid intelligence) in the population at large. As argued above, though, Wall's move is more metaphorical, positioning photography's particular cleverness at conjunction of wet, immersive liquids and dry, projectile tools. Photography is "perfectly adapted" (Wall, 90)—it is, like Cattell's more evolved humans, more highly sentient—insofar as it is generated from this fertile meeting of different intelligences of which milk, as lactating spray, is effect or, as seminal ejaculation, is complementary cause.

In the concluding paragraphs of the 1989 essay, Wall indicates that he means this in more than a metaphorical sense, I think. He calls our attention to Andrei Tarkovsky's classic cinematic work, Solaris (1972). In the film, Wall puts it, "some scientists are studying an oceanic planet. Their techniques are typically scientific. But the ocean is itself an intelligence which is studying them in turn." (Wall, 93) Indeed, what we see in the still above is one of those scientists, Kris Kelvin, holding on his lap a simulacrum of his dead wife, Hari, who has mysteriously re-appeared on board the space ship. This Hari is not purely a product of his imagination as some Athena burst forth from the forehead of Zeus. But, nor is she exclusively a delusion foisted upon Kelvin by the liquid intelligence of the churning ocean planet far below. Instead, she is a hybrid fusion of Kelvin's intellect and the sentient ocean who begins to gain self-conscious, to take on a life of her own.

It is precisely this feature of autonomous life born from the mating of "concrete opposites" that Wall targets as salient model for photography. Here's how he concludes his essay:

It [the planet Solaris] experiments on the experimenters by returning their own memories to them in the form of hallucinations, perfect in every detail, in which people from their pasts appear in the present and must be related to once again, maybe in a new way. I think this was a very precise metaphor for, among many other things, the interrelation between liquid intelligence and optical intelligence in photography, or in technology as a whole. In photography, the liquids study us, even from a great distance. (Wall, 93)

Is Jeff Wall's thinking somehow infected with the eugenicist baggage of Raymond Cattell? Has Wall even heard of Cattell and his distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence? I would resist insisting on either of these claims. What is more compelling, I think, is attending to ways in which Wall's imagining of photography's vitality—its capacity for higher, autonomous thought—is sprung from a matrix of sexualized union that was itself the site of Cattell's crucial, genetic transfer and abiding concern. As blood is to milk, so Cattell and his compatriots set parameters (unconscious though they may be) from which Wall's liquid intelligence cannot escape.


Cattell, Raymond B. "The Measurement of Adult Intelligence." Psychological Bulletin 40, 3 (March 1943): 153-193.

________________. "Theory of Fluid and Crystallized Intelligence: A Critical Experiment." Journal of Educational Psychology 54, 1 (1964): 1-22.

Tucker, William H. The Cattell Controversy: Race, Science, and Ideology. University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Wall, Jeff. "Photography and Liquid Intelligence."