Jonathan Crary, “Techniques of the Observer”


Chapter 1: Modernity & the Problem of the Observer

Crary identifies the medieval/Renaissance split, the mid-19th century, and the present as moments of “a transformation in the nature of visuality” 1. The first improves mimesis, the second perfects it, and the third surpasses it. The focus of the book is on the “reorganization of vision” that created “a new kind of observer” in the first half of the 19th century, vis a vis new relations between the body and institutional/discursive power (re: Foucault) 3. Crary calls “the myth of the modernist rupture” the narrative that aligns Manet and the “end of perspectival space” with what would become modernist art, severing it from visual technologies like photography that are considered as a “continuous unfolding of a Renaissance-based mode of vision” 4. For Crary, however, a fundamental shift in modes of vision took place before these changes in art or technology, so that the two realms are “overlapping components of a single social surface” 5. The observing subject is “both the historical product and the site of certain practices, techniques, institutions, and procedures of subjectification” 5.

It’s useful to consider that Crary deliberately uses “observer,” rather than “spectator,” emphasizing the individual’s role in “complying” with certain codes of seeing, whereas the latter is more commonly used to emphasize the passivity of “looking” on as the passive recipient of the mass spectacle 5. In terms of faceting,

“What determines vision at any given historical moment is not some deep structure, economic base, or world view, but rather the functioning of a collective assemblage of disparate parts on a single social surface. It may even be necessary to consider the observer as a distribution of events located in many different places” 6. (Note: read Paul Feyerabend, Problems of Empiricism, vol 2 p 5).

Crary’s mode seeks to outline the “hegemonic” transformation of how the “observer was figured” in the nineteenth century, largely from the shift from the camera obscura of the 17th and 18th centuries to the stereoscope of the 19th century 7-8. Oddly enough, the “realism” created by the stereoscope and similar instruments is constituted from “a radical abstraction and reconstruction of optical experience, thus demanding a reconsideration of what ‘realism’ means in the nineteenth century” 9. Further, Crary maps a development of the “subjective vision… the productivity of the observer,” which was suppressed by the 17th and 18th centuries, brought to light by visionary Romantics (see M.H. Abrams – “The Mirror & the Lamp), and brought to bear on the potential for individual “seeing” in the 19th century, making that subject both “a product of and at the same time constitutive of modernity” 9.

Crary cites Baudrillard (“measurable in terms of objects and signs”) and Benjamin (“the phantasmagoria of equality”) on the need to measure and quantify the happiness capitalism was meant to guarantee in visual terms (what Adorno calls “Anschaulichkeit,” the reification of the visible 139 AT) 11. For Baudrillard (like Benjamin in “Mechanical Reproduction”), the serial production of objects creates a world in which there is no longer original and counterfeit, analogy, or reflection, but sheer equivalence 12. Crary goes so far as to make photography and money equivalent as well, in that they “are equally totalizing systems for binding and unifying all subjects within a single global network of valuation and desire. As Marx said of money, photography is also a great leveler, a democratizer, a ‘mere symbol,’ a fiction ‘sanctioned by the so-called universal consent of mankind'” 13.

Crary’s book, however, precedes photography itself, contending that the stereoscope and phenakistiscope entail “an uprooting of vision from the stable and fixed relations incarnated in the camera obscura” 14 (shift from geometrical to physiological optics 16). He cites Foucault on how “dispersed mechanisms of power coincide with new modes of subjectivity” in the 19th century to emphasize the importance of “normality” and “codes of behavior” 15-16. The limits of such “norms” were tested with “retinal afterimages, peripheral vision, binocular vision, and thresholds of attention… imposing a normative vision on the observer” 16. (See Foucault: “Our society is not one of spectacle but of surveillance… we are neither in the amphitheatre nor on the stage but in the Panoptic machine” D&P 217, as well as Deleuze’s Foucault 46 and Rajchman’s “Foucault’s Art of Seeing” 1988.) For Crary, “spectacle” and “surveillance” can coincide before the full emergence of the 20th century spectacle, namely in the “discipline or mode of work” that visual consumption itself becomes in the early 19th century 18.

If, for Debord (18), visuality, the most easily deceived sense, severs itself from touch, once the most precious of senses, this autonomizes sight, isolating vision and giving its objects “a mystified and abstract identity” 19. In The Arcades Project, we see Benjamin, a 20th century observer mapping 19th century developments, observe

“a convergence of new urban spaces, technologies, and new economic and symbolic functions of images and products – forms of artificial lighting, new use of mirrors, glass and steel architecture, railroads, museums, gardens, photography, fashion, crowds. Perception for Benjamin was acutely temporal and kinetic; he makes clear how modernity subverts even the possibility of a contemplative beholder. There is never a pure access to a single object; vision is always multiple, adjacent to and overlapping with other objects, desires, and vectors” 20.

In this world, modernity “coincides with the collapse of classical models of vision and their stable space of representations… observation is increasingly a question of equivalent sensations and stimuli that have no reference to a spatial location” 24. (Think about how this would relate to Jameson & postmodernism.) At the same time, situating visuality in the individual body opens it up for training, control, and prevention from distraction – “disciplinary techniques” through which capitalism resorts vision to “time, to flux, to death” 24.

Chapter 2: The Camera Obscura & Its Subject

“It has been known for at least two thousand years that when light passes through a small hole into a dark, enclosed interior, an inverted image will appear on the wall opposite the hole” 27. But from the 1500s to the 1700s, the artifact itself of the camera obscura “coalesced into a dominant paradigm through which was described the status and possibilities of an observer” 27 – “in both rationalist and empiricist thought, of how observation leads to truthful inferences about the world” 29. (Think about how this relates to Kant’s idealism and the essential unknowability of the object, versus the potential universality of the comprehending subject.)

By the 19th century, for Marx, Bergson, and Freud, the camera obscura becomes a tool to conceal or disguise truth 29. What changed? Well, if the camera obscura defined hegemonic vision as individuation and askesis (isolated, witndrawn from the world into darkness), it is also a representation of a “metaphysic of interiority,” a “free sovereign individual” and a “decorporealize[d] vision” 39. How? As Nietzsche holds in The Will to Power, “the senses deceive, reason corrects the errors; consequently, one concluded, reason is the road to the constant; the least sensual ideas must be closest to the ‘true world.’ It is from the senses that most misfortunes com – they are deceivers, deluders, destroyers” 40. (Again, recall Kant’s disinterestedness.) Newton, Locke experience this, as Descartes does: “solely an inspection by the mind” in a dark, introspective space, for one knows the world “uniquely by perception of the mind” – one can see how this will lead to the cogito, also essentially idealist in nature 41.

Crary calls this “a radical disjunction of eye from observer,” not least because Descartes also advocates making a dead human or animal eye into the lens of a camera obscura through dissection and experimentation, what Crary calls “an infallible metaphysical eye more than… a ‘mechanical’ eye” 48. Knowing that the “cone” or “cylinder” of rays that allows vision fixes on a certain point to create harmony from chaos 51, the camera obscura offers a “monocular aperture,” a “perfect incarnation of a single point,” versus the “awkward binocular body of the human subject” 53.

“By insisting that knowledge… is built up out of an orderly accumulation and cross-referencing of perceptions on a plane independent of the viewer, 18th-century thought could know nothing of the ideas of pure visibility to arise in the 19th century. Nothing could be more removed from Berkeley’s theory of how distance is perceived than the science of the stereoscope. This quintessentially 19th-century device, with which tangibility (or relief) is constructed solely through an organization of optical cues (and the amalgamation of the observer into a componnt of the apparatus), eradicates the very field on which 18th-century knowledge arranged itself” 59.

Interestingly, for Crary, this is deeply tied to the idea of the senses not being severed from one another, but part of the same apparatus: “From Descartes to Berkeley to Diderot, vision is conceived in terms of analogies to the senses of touch” 59 – “the certainty of knoowledge did not depend solely on the eye but on a more general relation of a unified human ssensorium to a delimited space of order on which positions could be known and compared” 60. (Think of the ‘synesthesia’ of Faulkner’s Compsons – Benji smells cold, Quentin sees with his hands, etc.) Chardin’s still lifes, then, are “both the product of empirical knowledge about the contingent specificity of forms” and “an ideal structure founded on a deductive rational clarity” – they are “not about a surface design, but rather a permanent space across which are distributed ‘the non-quantitative identities and differences that separated and united things'” (in-qtd. Foucault The Order of Things 218) 62-3. Interestingly, for Crary this also confirms

“the 18th-century preoccupation with ensuring transparency over opacity… to confirm the unity of a single homogenous field in spite of the diversity of media and possibilities of refraction within it. Dioptrics (science of refraction) was of greater interest to the 18th century than catoptrics (science of reflection)… It was crucial that the distorting power of a medium, whether a lens, air, or liquid, be neutralized, and this could be done if the properties of that medium were mastered intellectually and thus rendered effectively transparent through the exercise of reason… vision and touch work cooperatively… the coidentity of idea and matter and their finely set positions within a unified field discloses a thought for which haptic and optic are not autonomous terms but together constitute an indivisible mode of knowledge… vision performs like the sense of touch, passing through a space of which no fraction is empty” 64.

Chapter 3: Subjective Vision & the Separation of the Senses

Crary begins by Goethe experimenting with retinal after-images in by staring at a bright circle of light allowed through a camera obscura, then sealing the hole and staring at the darkest part of the room for colored circles in a “post-Kantian” mode of experimentation that is both rationalist (empirical) and Romantic (autonomous) 69. Here, “the human body, in all its contingency and specificity, generates ‘the spectrum of another colour,’ and thus becomes the active producer of optical experience” 69. This is related to Kant in that representations do not conform to the things as they are, but to our perception of them as subjects (though it differs from Kant’s universality, as well as his emphasis on outline over color) 69-70. Thus vision itself becomes an object of knowledge rather than a form of knowing 70, and “the kind of separation between interior representation and exterior reality implicit in the camera obscura becomes in Goethe’s work a single surface of affect on which interior and exterior have few of their formare meanings and positions… color… [is] cut off from any spatial referent… the body itself produces phenomena that have no external correlate” 71.

In Foucault’s terms, this means that the body itself is the site of the structures of knowledge, not separate from it – in Maine de Biran’s work, the “immediate awareness of the presence of the body in perception… the simultaneity of a composite of impressions inhering in different parts of the organism” 72.

“Although formed by Kant’s aesthetics and epistemology in fundamental ways, Schopenhauer undertakes what he calls his ‘correction’ of Kant: to reverse Kant’s privileging of abstract thinking over perceptual knowledge, and to insist on the physiological makeup of the subject as the site on which the formation of representations occurs… what Kant called the synthetic unity of apperception, Schopenhauer unhesitatingly identifies as the cerebrum of the human brain” 77.

Adorno will critique this idea for its assumptions that such perceptions are authentic and its avoidance of the instrumentalization of the body, Nietzsche for retreating from the body’s sexual potential 77-8. Schopenhauer followed the scientist Bichat in atomizing the body and its life and death into separate parts and functions (faceting?) 78. This connects back to Foucault – when sovereignty fades in favor of discipline (biopower of populations to be controlled), life is the new object of power (re: History of Sexuality – also, the proliferation of scientific discourse and enumeration here81. The wave theory of light also challenged theological and scientific images of light as rays in earlier, more classical forms of optics, and stimulation of the eye demonstrated “false” reactions to “light,” making man the purveyor and victim of such knowledge 86. “The issue was not just how does one know what is real, but that new forms of the real were being fabricated, and a new truth about the capacities of a human subject was being articulated in these terms” 92.

This gets related to Marx (labor division akin to sense division), though “the problem for Marx under capitalism was not the separation of the senses but rather their estrangement by property relations; vision, for example, had been reduced to the sheer ‘sense of having'” 94. Marx actually anticipates a kind of modernist aesthetic of sheer separation and disinterested perception, where the eye revels in sight free of objects of exchange value 94. This appreciation is similar to Ruskin’s “innocence of the eye,” and Helmholtz holds that “Everything our eye sees it sees as an aggreate of coloured surfaces in the visual field – that is its form of visual intuition” 95. For Crary, this is not so much innocence as

“a vantage point [for the eye] uncluttered by the weight of historical codes and conventions of seeing, a position from which vision can function without the imperative of composing its contents into a reified ‘real’ world. It was a question of an eye that sought to avoid the repetitiveness of the formulaic and conventional, even as the effort time and again to  see afresha dn anew entailed its own pattern of repetition and conventions And thus the ‘pure perception,’ the sheer optical attentiveness of modernism increasingly had to exclude or submerge that which would obstruct its fucntioning: language, historical memory, and sexuality” 96.

The flip side of “liberating sensation from signification” is control:

“a comparable neutrality of the observer that was a precondition for the external mastery and annexing of the body’s capacities, for the perfection of technologies of attention, in which sequences of stimuli or images can produce the same effect repeatedly as if for the first time…”It was the remaking of the visual field not into a tabula rasa on which orderly representations could be arrayed, but into a surface of inscription on which a promiscuous range of effects could be produced” 96.

Chapter 4: Techniques of the Observer

While subjective retinal afterimages were classically reduced to “spectra” or “mere appearance,” Goethe and his generation make them appear less as deceptions than as constitutive of  human vision 97. The “presence of a sensation in the absence of a stimulus” cut sight from its external referent in vital ways, focusing on a process unfolding over itme 98. Schelling argued that “our knowledge is piecework, that is, it must be produced piece by piece in a fragmentary way… a series of processes following one another, in which the later always involves the earlier, brings each thing to maturity” 99. (This sounds a lot like Genette’s theory of narrative.)  Both Goethe and Hegel see perception dialectically, as the interaction of forces and relations, rather than contiguous and stable sensations a la Locke 100. For scientists like Hebart, “the mind does not reflect truth but rather extracts it from an ongoing process involving the collision and merging of ideas,” a concept deeply tied to his somewhat creepy interest in instilling moral ideology pedagogically 101-2. (Jan Purkinje’s drawings of afterimages are strikingly crystallographic 103.)

The afterimage becomes key for the thaumatrope (“wonder turner” c.1825), a disk with an image on each side that is held on two strings and can be twirled to create a coherent picture 105 – a device that “made unequivocally clear both the fabricated and hallucinatory nature of its image and the rupture between perception and its object” 106. Roget demonstrated how this could lead to manipulations of temporal experience itself (train wheels seen moving through a fence) 106. This leads to the phenakistiscope (“deceptive view,” c. 1830),comprised of either one disk (facing a mirror) or two, and acting like a flip book, where the eye comprehends “continuous movement” through a series of slits in the turning viewing disc in the 8 or 16 pictures in the segments of the second disk 109. Horner’s zootrope (“wheel of life,” c. 1834) reproduces this effect in a cylinder, thus enabling multiple viewers (a precursor to spectacle?) 110. Crary would like to consider these not as “nascent forms of cinema” only, striving for “higher standards of verisimilitude,” but as devices with singular features 110. They at least created a feedback loop between entertainment and scientific knowledge-gathering: “This is where Foucault’s opposition between spectacle and surveillance becomes untenable; his two distinct models here collapse onto one another” 112.

Other examples include the kaleidoscope (1815), which for Baudelaire dissolved unitary subjectivity, as well as Daguerre’s diorama, which forced the reader to walk or at least turn her head to comprehend its whole 113. By the 1840s, “the multiplicity [of the kaleidoscope] that so seduced Baudelaire was for [Marx and Engels] a sham, a trick literally done with mirrors. Rather than producing something new the kaleidoscope simply repeated a single image… ‘composed entirely of reflections of itself’… symmetrical repetition” 114. Inventor Brewster saw the kaleidoscope as a means of producing natural symmetry for new art – “it will create in an hour, what a thousand artists could not invent in the course of a year… with a corresponding beauty and precision,” but for Marx and Engels it proves “the appearance of decomposition and proliferation,” and the appearance alone 116. The real focus of the chapter is in fact the stereoscope:

“a major mode of experiencing photographically produced images… its conceptual structure and the historical circumstances of its invention are throughly independent of photography. Although distinct from the optical devices that represented the illusion of movement, the stereoscope is nonetheless part of the same reorganization of the observer, the same relations of knowledge and power, that those devices implied” 118.

Again, Brewster helped invent it (also Wheatstone, c. 1830), though it was not popularized until the 1850s and after 118. It focuses on the synthesis in the optical chiasma, “the point behind the eyes where the nerve fibers leading from the retina to the brain cross each other, carrying half of the nerves from each retina to each side of the brain” 119. Thus he focused on an “object placed so near the eyes that to view it the optic axes must converge… a different perspective projection of it is seen by each eye, and these perspectives are more dissimilar as the convergence of the optic axes becomes greater” 120. Thus for Crary “its ‘realism’ presupposes perceptual experience to be essentially an apprehension of differences… the observer to the object… [as] disjunct or divergent images” 120. Again, the fusion takes place as process, over time 120.

More than a simple superimposition, the stereoscope relies on rapid alternation of the optic axes successively, so that there “never really is a stereoscopic image… it is a conjuration, an effect of the observer’s experience of the differential between two other images” 122 (dialectical?). This raised the image, for Brewster, to the level of tangibility – the eye produces depth out of 2 flat images (vs the 2 similar retinal images produced to view 1 flat image or the 2 dissimilar retinal images for 1 solid object) 124. For the full effect of 3D in the stereoscope, there must not be simply a view with natural perspectival recession, but

“objects or obtrusive forms in the near or middle ground; that is, there must be enough points in the image that require significant changes in the angle of convergence of the optical axes. Thus the most intense experience of the stereoscopic image coincides with an object-filled space, with a material plenitude that bespeaks a nineteenth-century horror of the void; and there are endless quantities of stereo cards showing interiors crammed with bric-a-brac, densely filled museum sculpture galleries, and congested city views” 125.

For Crary, the “planar” arrangement of these shapes like “flat cutouts” among one another creates “a vertiginous uncertainty about the distance separating forms… some superficial similarities between the stereoscope and classical stage design, which synthesizes flats and real extensive space into an illusory scene… but… the movement of actors… rationalizes the relation between points” 125.

“In the stereoscopic image there is a derangement of the conventional functioning of optical cues. Certain planes or surfaces, even though composed of indications of light or shade that normally designate volume, are perceived as flat; other planes that normally would be read as two-dimensional, such as a fence in a foreground, seem to occupy space aggressively. Thus stereoscopic relief or depth has no unifying logic or order…. a fundamentally disunified and aggregate field of disjunct elements… a localized experience of separate areas. When we look head-on at a photograph or painting our eyes remain at a single angle of convergence, thus endowing the image surface with an optical unity …[vs] an accumulation of differences in the degree of optical convergence… a patchwork of different intensities of relief within a single image…” 125-6

“…part of the fascination of these images is due to this immanent disorder, to the fissures that disrupt its coherence. The stereoscope could be said to constitute what Gilles Deleuze calls a ‘Riemann space,’ after the German mathematician… ‘Each vicinity in a Riemann space is like a shred of Euclidian space but the linkage between one vicinity and the next is not defined…. Riemann space at its most general thus presents itself as an amorphous collection of pieces that are juxtaposed but not attached to each other'” 126.

Overall, this demonstrates a reorganization of space therefore not unique to painting, though that medium also mixed flat and molded shapes (think Cezanne) 127. Crary calls this literally obscene – scene-shattering of the theatrical setup of the camera obscura, and indicative of Benjamin’s idea that the need to possess the object in the image and its reproduction was increasing all the time 127. “It is no coincidence that the stereoscope became increasingly synonymous with erotic and pornographic imagery… the very effects of tangibility that Wheatstone had sought from the beginning were quickly turned into a mass form of ocular possession… in part responsible for its social demise as a mode of visual consumption… it became linked with ‘indecent’ subject matter” 127. Crary aligns this, like 3D movies, with an uneasy limit of “acceptable verisimilitude,” since the stereoscope presents to each eye the projection on a plane surface of the object as it appears to that eye, rather than the object itself, or its holistic representation 127-8. It is “the technical reconstitution of an already reproduced world fragmented into two nonidentical models, models that preced any experience of their subsequent perception as unified or tangible” 128.

The Wheatstone model, with its mirrors and angles, laid bare the device of fragmentation, while later models enabled viewers to feel they were looking directly in 129. As Marx discusses with the tool, for Crary the new 19th century visual devices make man into a metonym of the machine. “The content of the images is far less important than the inexhaustible routine of moving from one card to the next and producing the same effect, repeatedly, mechanically… transubstantiated into a compulsory and seductive vision of the ‘real'” 132. The ‘real’ becomes nothing more than mechanical reproduction, then.

After 1850, “phantasmagoria” (Adorno, Benjamin) take over – the “magic lantern” shows that emphasize the sui generis mode of the image and efface the machine (suture?) 133. Spectacle and pure perception both entail “a fully embodied viewer,” but ultimately they triumph through the denial of the body “as the ground of vision,” Crary concludes 136.

Chapter 5: Visionary Abstraction

Turner’s paintings problematize the “loss of a fixed source of light, the dissolution of a cone of light rays, and the collapse of the distance separating an observer fromt he site of optical experience” 138. The scientist Fechner sought to quantify sensation and succeeded in measuring it via the external stimulus for the first time 145. Sensation proceeds at regular intervals, and stimulus at first exceeds its capacity. Psychophysics and other sciences “beginning with the prefix psycho are part of this strategic appropriation of subjectivity” 148. As money moved things from qualitative to quantitative, so the real is “less useful” than that produced by a “more adaptable, autonomous, and productive observer… to conform to new functions of the body and to a vast proliferation of indifferent and convertible signs and images” 149. The “immense legacy” of the 1830s and 40s is “all the industries of the image and the spectacle in the 20th century” 150. “What is important is how these paths continually intersect and often overlap on the same social terrain, amid the countless localities in which the diversity of concrete acts of vision occur” 150.


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