The ways in which a particular historical milieu understands the relationship between causes and effects helps us to discern its conception of photography, a representational mode so often entangled in such categories. An examination of the last third of the nineteenth century and its so-called “revolt against positivism” provides an example. This period saw the slow and nearly comprehensive collapse of positivist history, and no grievance was more regularly directed at the declining school than the reductive scientism of its account of causality. Recognizing this crisis compels us to look at photographs of the period in a particular light—as the products of a tension between two fundamentally different epistemologies, or, more specifically, what we might call two different “cultures of causality.” This study commences that project by examining a group of photographs produced in Naples, where the causal legibility of Vesuvius's plumes—as innocent emissions or ominous tocsins—took on an existential import.

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