Losing sight of the human subject in modernity’s datagrid

As we think through the wounds inflicted by our ancestors, let’s remember that identifying past evils doesn’t yet make you good.

Detail from photo of Renty, an African slave, taken by Louis Agassiz. (Image: Louis Agassiz's Slave Daguerreotypes/Wikipedia)

In 1976, an extraordinary image was found in the attic of Harvard’s Peabody Museum: an old photograph of an enslaved American, known as Papa Renty. The image has recently come back into the news because Tamara Lanier sued Harvard, claiming that to retain this photograph of her ancestor is a perpetuation of the original offense of slavery. Here, I don’t intend to comment on the ethical or legal situation, nor comment on whether Harvard, a university that boasts of being in the vanguard of progressive social values, is inconsistent with its own much-vaunted self-image.

Rather, I’m concerned more with the artistry of the portrait and the intentions of the photographer, and the “grid” in which a human being was once bound.

I’m not sure there are many finer portraits. You see lines around Papa Renty’s experienced, quiet eyes. It’s an image of a would-be Frederick Douglass, never given the tools to overcome his imposed muteness. Like Douglass, the sitter seems to exude a moral strength and composure that elicits wonder and curiosity: what had this man seen? What did he endure? How, though subjected to inhumane conditions, could he cultivate and maintain such a sense of dignity? What were his own hopes and dreams and ambitions? Did he believe in God? Did that help him, somehow someway, endure his conditions? Could I have endured his situation if I had been born in his skin?

But the portraitist, the Swiss-born scientist, Louis Agassiz, was not interested in such documentary concerns. Shortly after immigrating to the US, he established a Museum of Comparative Zoology. At Harvard. Agassiz was interested in phrenology, and thus, the would-be scientist went looking for “pure African” specimens to photograph. With enough scientific data, he hoped, he could map character traits of races onto the landscape of their physiognomy. In other words, this is not a portrait; it’s a network of datapoints. And the subject, looking out from within the grid, is of no interest to the photographer: Renty’s memories, feelings, subjectivity, hopes, fears, desires, longings, experiences, loves, family affection, sense of dignity, evident within the eyes—as Rembrandt or Titian could have seen—are not important. A living being was imprisoned within a quantifiable datagrid.

Looking back on such images, it’s hard for us now to understand how our ancestors got to the point in which they let the stories they told themselves—the external interests brought and imposed from without—blind them to the human subject behind the grid. It would be like failing to see a person behind a chain-link fence because you were only interested in the geometry of the links themselves. But although the case of Louis Agassiz is an egregious one, it is not an isolated one in modernity.

In fact, if we are to believe Edmund Husserl’s passionate plea, made in his 1935 Vienna Speech, the loss of the subject is a general condition of modernity, even if there are especially grave and humiliating outbreaks of it from time to time.

In our own time, the Japanese, British-born novelist, Kazuo Ishiguro, has become something of a spokesman for the disappearing subject, who gets lost in the midst of the grid of empirical and quantifiable measurements. In his 2021 Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro imagines a world in which fully human intelligences are implanted in lifelike, bionic, doll-like bodies, so that, rather than golden doodles, you could breed human intelligences and make them into therapy pets.

The protagonist of the story is named Klara, and in the first part we find her sitting in the store, waiting to be purchased. Ishiguro describes her experience from a kind of point-of-view shot: we feel what it feels likes to be looked at, as a product, but not seen by the customers, not seen, because, something like a horse whose mouth is being measured and teeth examined, the looker can’t see past the grid of external interest. While Klara is sitting in the storefront window, she sees a girl and her mother, two prospective buyers:

Both Josie and the Mother went on looking straight at me while they talked, and I could see Josie was impatient to come to me, but still the Mother wouldn’t release her and went on talking. I knew I should keep looking [away] but I couldn’t help stealing glances at them… At last the Mother straightened, and though she went on staring at me, altering the tilt of her head whenever a passer-by blocked her view, she took her hand away and Josie came forward… yet the Mother’s gaze, which never softened or wavered, and the very way she was standing there, arms crossed over her front, fingers clutching at the material of her coat, made me realize that there many signals I hadn’t yet learned to understand.

Later, when they have a moment alone, Josie apologizes to Klara: “Mom looks weird, I know, watching like that. It’s because I told her you’re the one I wanted. I said it had to be you, so now she’s sizing you up. Sorry.” Similarly, in his Never Let Me Go Ishiguro imagined a futuristic world in which human beings are cloned in order to create copies of themselves to serve as supplies of organs. In a temporary experiment to assuage their consciences, the government-corporate investors create an elite boarding school, so that the future donors, before having all their organs removed from them in their 20s and 30s, could have a “normal” childhood. The well-meaning teachers who serve at the school do everything they can within the limits of the system to demonstrate that these future donors are, actually, human: they create art; they sing; they love; have friendships; cherish; search for their mothers.

But the school is eventually shut down. Ultimately, even the most artistically brilliant cannot emerge into the conscious perception of others as human beings, because the ends for their lives, their purposes, were pre-determined. And just as in a machine, the function dictates the design, and every part and curve is made to submit to the pre-chosen and externally imposed end, so, too, are these human beings designated for the specific purposes of warehousing other people’s organs until they are required of them.

Of course, part of the tragedy is that the world Ishiguro imagines is, now, only barely futuristic. Last year, scientists in China and America, two great allied countries, announced that they had successfully injected pluripotent stem cells into macaque monkey. Why? Here are the words of the authors: “Interspecies chimera formation with human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) represents a necessary alternative to evaluate hPSC pluripotency in vivo and might constitute a promising strategy for various regenerative medicine applications, including the generation of organs and tissues for transplantation.”

In other words, the scientists, who allegedly destroyed the hybrid embryos, are interested in market potential of creating human-monkey chimeras, as storage tanks for future organ donations.

What if in future experiments it just so happened that we managed to embed a human soul in a monkey’s body? And what if the chimera made tried to express to us that it was human, in every possible way, but, because we had already determined its purposes, we didn’t have eyes to see its humanity? In such a situation, we would be living out an Ishiguro novel. And we would also be repeating Louis Agassiz’s objectification of Papa Renty.

And so it would seem that Husserl was right when he summed up the whole experience of modernity as when “idealized thinking conquers the infinity of the experiential world.” Beautifully said. Here’s how I translate that sentence: the loss of the subject behind the datagrid is a general condition of modernity.

Eliot said that human beings cannot endure very much reality. As we think through the wounds inflicted by our ancestors, let’s remember that identifying past evils doesn’t yet make you good. We need to make sure we continue to see beyond the datagrid.

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About Jason M. Baxter 3 Articles
Jason M. Baxter is a college professor, speaker, and author of five books, including The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis and A Beginner's Guide to Dante's "Comedy". He currently teaches Great Books at Notre Dame and is a curricular consultant for St. Thomas More Academy in South Bend, Indiana.


  1. This photograph is immodest and ought to be changed. Given the subject of the article, the only other photograph would likely be that of the photographer.

    There are other much more immodest photographs by the photographer. (Don’t look at them.) I was unable to find any evidence that the photographer was religious – even heretical – in the slightest.

    He wasn’t even a Protestant.

    “When Harvard was considering setting up his independent school of science, they asked Agassiz if he was a Christian. He replied, ‘I am a deist.'”


  2. My sense is that the reasons for Ms. Lanier’s objection to Harvard’s possession of this photograph of Mr. Renty, her own familial ancestor, is largely aligned with Professor Baxter’s observations about the dignity of Mr. Renty.

    I agree with Professor Baxter that the photograph in a mysterious way is translated into a portrait, and that this is done by the subject himself, Mr. Renty, ironically exceeding the intent of the apparently racist photographer from Harvard, who intended nothing more than “cataloguing” the physical geometry of Mr. Renty’s facial features, literally nothing other than what a naturalist does when capturing and displaying a butterfly on a pin board.

    My sende is that Ms. Lanier is asserting a fundamental truth:

    – The true “owners” of Mr. Renty and his legacy are his family members, including his descendants (assuming Ms. Lanier is indeed Mr. Renty’s far-descended granddaughter.

    – Harvard’s photograph was taken snd then possessed by people at Harvard utterly dismissive of the dignity of Mr. Renty, indeed as ro their intentions an utterly contemptuous violation of his dignity as a man, and is thus a theft and a token of the ideology of white racist supremacy ideology so eagerly cultivated by the progressive elites of the late 19th and early 20th century.

    Ms. Lanier has dtanding as a flesh-and-blood heir of her great-great-great grandfather.

    Harvard’s standing is nil, except for its assertion of “ownership” over Mr. Renty’s “portrait,” which ownership was perfectly akin to the slave owners who thought exactly like the Harvard elites, and treated Mr. Renty and his image as a commodity.

    I hope Ms. Lanier’s family is vindicated, and they “re-possess” the man who was so monstrously abused by his slave owners and the white supremacy racists at Harvard, and remains in ironic captivity because of the obtuse elites that still manage Harvard and all of its new and currently fashionable pathological ideologies.

  3. Husserl was dauntless in his cry; we’ve lost our sense of the person. It’s likely what drew Edith Stein to assist his research in reestablishing objective reality, to resolve the impersonal, unreachable. Emmanuel Kant’s so called phenomenon, the mere image of the reality, the noumenon.
    Datagrid is a perfect analogy of mankind’s problem, what may be called impersonalism. A vogue ever since we lost epistemic touch with reality. Author Baxter is on point in addressing loss of the personal as loss of the value of the person, and the tendency to invent new ‘persons’. And to dramatically reinvent ourselves as men who are women and visa versa. Everything is reduced to data, the reality lost. If data, there are imaginative variations.
    To arrive at this mental place we don’t need hallucinogenic drugs. We may simply dismiss the most intensely human person [an after effect of the epistemic dilemma distancing the intellect from reality], his most intimate declaration of love for us as persons rather than data.

  4. I am exceptionally weary of the culture of victimization. It is an attempt to gain power or attention, none of which the present crop of victim mongers have earned. This is again an attempt to change history or expunge it. This is again an attempt to judge the past by today’s standards, and it is ignorant and beyond tiresome. “Phrenology” is a now debunked “science” which a hundred or more years ago was taken quite seriously, as were any number of snake oil cures, and spurious medical treatments that no current scientist would deem serious science today. Further, from what I have seen online, phrenology was NOT limited to studying Africans, but rather all humans of every race and nationality. Nobody owns history, nobody owns the past. As for the purported descendant of the person depicted in the photo, nobody would know of her connection if she did not decide to advertise it. Is the author suggesting that ALL photos of the slave era be destroyed? To do so would obscure and destroy any accurate retelling of the history of this period.Shall we also destroy photos of prisoners of war, concentration cvamp victims, and others from our historic past just because a present day descendant objects to them? Once all vestiges of the past have been eradicated and discussion of it outlawed, what kind of half barely informed society are we left with? Its a question which deserves an answer. We are already going down this road as too many ignorant Americans are smashing and removing statues, including those of people who did overwhelming good with their lives. Abraham Lincoln, Junipero Serra and Paul Revere have been such victims. There are too many attempts by people who wish to “cancel” things with which they do not personally agree. ” Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.”

  5. I confess to being confused by these comments. I’ll go with the sentence that sticks with me. “[L]ets remember that identifying past evils doesn’t yet make you good”.

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