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Techniques of the Observer

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Jonathan CraryEdit

Jonathan Crary is a Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University. He received his PhD from Columbia in 1987. His work largely focuses on the origins of modern visual culture and 19th century visual culture. His first book, Techniques of the Observer, was a landmark in visual studies.

Techniques of the Observer [1990]Edit

Crary situates his book against traditional narratives of Modernist visuality, which begin (as Crary summerizes them) as such: "With Manet, impressionism, and/or postimpressionism, a new model of visual representation and perception emerges that constitutes a break with several centuries of another model of vision, loosely definable as Renaissance, perspectival, or normative" (3-4). This narrative about the end of perspectival space coincides and contrasts with the invention and dissemination of photography as a form of "realism", and the development of optical technologies are understood as part of "the continuous unfolding of a Renaissance-based mode of vision in which photography, and eventually cinema, are simply later instances of an ongoing deployment of perspectival space and perception" (4). This creates two un-integratable histories: one in which a small group of artists broke with Renaissance perspective, while optical spectacles and technologies advanced toward Rennaissance ideals of space and perception. Thus, the great rupture of fine art in the late 19th century is actually occurring "on the margins of a vast hegemonic organization of the visual that becomes increasingly powerful in the twentieth century" (4). The notion of modernist rupture must be contrasted with the normative vision from which it breaks--it seeks a detached viewpoint in contrast to the fixed view of photography. Thus, in this narrative, the observer's "historical status is never interrogated", since the observer remains the same--only what is being viewed has changed (5).

Rather, Crary argues that there was a shift in the fields of perception and vision that pre-date the so called "Modernist rupture", and that this can be traced to the early 19th century. Crary desires for art history to pursue more than a history of representation--rather, he votes for a history of perception (material, not philosophical, perception). Crary's book takes up the phenomenon of the observer, for "the observer is the field on which vision in history can be said to materialize, to become itself visible" (5). Vision must always be studied in the context of an observing subject who is both the historical product of and the site of practices, techniques, and institutions of subjectification.

The ObserverEdit

Crary distinguishes between the spectator and the observer, prefering to avoid the connotations of passivity couched within notions of a spectator. Observer means "to conform one's action, to comply with", for as Crary notes: "Though obviously one who sees, an observer is more importantly one who sees within a prescribed set of possibilities, one who is embedded in a system of conventions and limitations" (6). Observers are only effects of an "irreducibly heterogeneous system of discursive, social, technological, and institutional relations" (6). The observing subject is "both a product of and at the sam time constitutive of modernity in the nineteenth century [...] he or she is made adequate to a constellation of new events, forces, and institutions that together are loosely and perhaps tautologically definable as 'modernity'"(9).

Chapter 2: The Camera Obscura and Its SubjectEdit

Although in existance for over 2000 years, it was between the 1500 and 1700s that "the structural and optical principles of the camera obscura coalesced into a dominant paradigm through which was described the status and possibilities of an observer" (27). In this chapter, Crary carves out how the camera obscura constituted the phenomenon of the observer. Initially, as can be seen in the writings of della Porta, the camera obscura was an extension of the Renaissance idea of natural magic, in which contemplating an object is to become one with it and all life was part of a chain of being. However, by the late 1500s, the camera obscura is taken up for its capacity to delimit and define relations between observer and world: "Above all it indiciates the appearance of a new model of subjectivity" (38). It does this by:

1. defining the observer as "isolated, enclosed and autonomous" (39). The isolated observer produced via the camera obscura alludes to metaphysical interiority: "I am an individual and what I see is mine".

2. seperating the act of seeing from the physical body of the observer, "decorporealize vision". This creates the monadic viewpoint, while the observer's embodied experience is replaced by their own relationship to a technical apparatus. One sees without seeing.

Combined, the camera obscura becomes a philosophical demonstration of "the observation of empiricial phenomena and for reflective introspection and self-observation" (40). The C.O. enables a turn away from the senses, so that their insights may be corrected through rational thought. The observer is not longer one with the observation, and no longer experiences themselves as part of the representation (as one might in linear perspective). As an analogy for the eye, it affirms that the apparatus (the eye, the C.O. is seperate from that which makes meaning of what it sees--one observers one's own sensations and bodily input (42). The light rays through the opening are the light of reason, not light which affects the senses (this is the Cartesian camera obscura). The images are formed via a disembodied single eye: "founded on laws of nature (optics) but extrapolated to a plane outside of nature, the camera obscura provides a vantage point onto the world analogous to the eye of God" (47-8). Binocularism is a disparity of human physiology; the C.O.'s mono-eye does away with needing to mend dissimilarity. Despite the world being composed of multiple views, each one could reflect the truth of the whole universe, each a perspective of a single universe (this there is no incongruance between perspective and birds-eye, in terms of epistemological validity) (Leibniz 50).

At the end, the 18th century observer "confronts a unified space of order, unmodified by his or her own sensory and physiological apparatus, on which the contents of the world can be studied and compare" (55). Notions of tactility were embedded in vision: "the notion of vision as touch is adequate to a field of knowledge whose contents are organized as stable positions within an extensive terrain" (62).

Chapter 3: Subjective Vision and the Separation of the SensesEdit

This chapter documents that shifting understanding of vision that allowed it to take on new form for the arly 19th century observer. Crary opens with an account of Goethe's Theory of Colors, in which he blocks the hole and then experiences colors and shapes that manifest from no where; it is, "a notion of vision that the classical model was incapable of encompassing" (68). In Goethe's formulation, there can be a physiological color; this restores corporeal subjectivity to the observer, who had been excluded from such in the camera obscura. This experience of subjective vision renders inseperable two models traditionally understood as inreconcilable: the physiological observer that is increasingly documented in the human sciences in th 19th century, and the observer in the Romantic tradition, the active, autonomous producer of one's own visual experiences (68-9). For Goethe, and Schopenhauer, "vision is always an irreducible complex of elements beloinging to the observer's body and of data from an exterior world" (71). Interiority cannot be so easily seperated from exteriority--rather we have a "single surface of affect" (71). Vision is "redefined as a capacity for being affected by sensations that have no necessary link to a referent, thus imperiling any coherent system of meaning" (91).

Overall, this emphasis on subjective vision is part of a shift toward modernity, in which man, not representation, is the site of analysis. In science, this happens as vision gets taken up as itself an object of knowledge, rather than a way of knowing. The study of physiology means that the body was "becoming the site of both power and truth" (79). Crary brings Muller's Handbook of the Physiology of Man into conversation; in Muller's massive text, what was significant was his examination of sensory nerves, particularly the optic nerve. He documents that different stimuli will produce the same sensation in a given nerve; in short, the relation between stimulus and sensation was understood to be arbitrary--all stimuli are equivalent, and the nerve cannot tell them apart. This crashes any solid notion of interiority vs. exteriority, as we can have perceptual sensations irrelevant of the exterior stimulus. Rather than a unitary, observing subject, Muller offers us "a composite structure on which a wide range of techniques and forces could produce or simulate manifold experiences that are all equally 'reality'" (92). Our physiology is proven falliable, inconsistant, limited, and "produces experiences for the subject" (92). The limits and sensations of this subject become increasing objects of inquiry, as mind and body sciences produces knowledge about the body as technology (Helmholtz' analogy between telegraphy and the body). The division of labor and seperation of the senses go hand in hand for modernity.

Chapter 4: Techniques of the ObserverEdit

Crary opens chapter 4 expounding upon Goethe's work on the afterimage, the optical phenomenon that, while once considered an illusion of vision, was being understood as optical truth experienced through healthy physiology. The notion that one could experience "autonomous vision" by doing narcotics, staring at the sun, or electrifying one's eye suggested optical experience produced by the subject, and therefore not necessarily linked to the exterior world.

The afterimage provided a way for retinal stimulation to be observed and quantified. There was an increased desire to discipline the senses and master attention in education, just as there was in industrialization (102). There began the documentation of optic phenomenon, producing statistics of eye fatigue, dilation, etc. (104). Optical devices were built with the intention of scientific observation, but were converted into successful forms of popular entertainment, such as the thaumatrope, phenakistiscope, and most importantly, the stereoscope. Interest in creating these optical devices was often instigated by observing train wheels or regularly spaced objects observed from trains; the new speeds of industrialization created new boundaries for the limitations of vision. These optical technologies create spectacles while conditioning the body; Foucault's spectacle and surveillance collapse upon one another. Such "training" of the body "coincided with and was possible only because of an increasing abstraction of optical experience from a stable referant" (113).

The stereoscope is of particular significance for Crary, and he is interested in the period during which its theoretical and technical principles were developed in the 1820s and 1830s, rather than its dissemination in the 1850s. The stereoscope reflections one of the major concerns of the early-mid 1800s: "given that an observer perceives with each eye a different image, how are they expereinced as single or unitary?" (119). What researchers conceived was that the ability for the brain to synthesize the two images into one was also based on proximity, which meant that the "realism" of what we see to be based in "apprehension of differences" (120). Our relationship to what we observe is one of divergence and disjunction. The stereoscope worked best when objects were clustered in the middle-range; the scene cannot be taken in "all at once" but must rather be viewed in separate areas (125). As Crary writes: "it is an assemblage of local zones of tree-dimensionality, zones imbued with a hallucinatory clarity, but which when taken together never coalesce into a homogenous field. Crary finds resonance (but not causality!) between the stereoscopic experience and that works for Manet and Seurat, which are also composed out of "local and disjunct areas of spatial coherence, of both modeled depth and cutout flatness" (126). Rather than believing they have causal relations, Crary argues that both "the 'realism' of the stereoscope and 'experiments' of certain painters were equally bound up in a much broader transformation of the observer that allowed the emergence of this new optically constructed space" (126). The stereoscope enables the observer to produce depth from flatness, suggesting that realness is a mechanical production. (132). Photography only supplants the stereoscope because it restored the illusion of the free subject of the camera obscura.

Chapter 5: Visionary AbstractionEdit

"The collapse of the camera obscura as a model for the condition of an observer was part of a process of modernization, even as the cameria itself had been an elemnt of an earlier modernity, helping define a 'free,' private, and individualized subject in the seventeenth century. By the early 1800s, however, the rigidity of the camera obscura, its linea optical system, its fixed positions, its identification of perception and object, were all too inflexible and immobile for a rapidly changing set of cultural and political requirements [...]only in the nineteenth century [...] vision is no longer subordinated to an exterior image of the true or the right. The is no longer what predicates a 'real world'" (137-8).

In his closing chapter, Crary writes of the figure of the sun, once to invert human eye of the camera obscura, now let free by works like Turner. Scientists were going blind staring at it, discovering a literally blinding corporeality to vision.


In this sense, Crary's method is genealogical in the Foucaultian sense (see ft. 2). Perception, according to Crary, has no history; rather, there are changes to the "plural forces and rules composing the field in which perception occurs" (6). Rejecting structuralist, Marxist, and merely ideological frames, Crary suggests that what determines "perception" at a given moment in time is the "functioning of a collective assemblage of disparate parts on a single social surface" (6). Crary's referencing of assemblages comes from Deleuze and Guittari's work, A Thousand Plateaus.

Crary may possibly argue that it is not the medium that is the message, but the mode of apprehension (23).

However, this "single social surface" is never defined, and Crary gives himself room to duck the question by conceding that his book is not addressing marginal and local means by which "dominant practices of vision were resisted, deflected, or imperfectly constituted" (7). Crary, rather, will map the hegemonic set of discourses and practices against which oppositionality may take form. Feminism, critical race theory, queer studies and class analysis may all come and pick and the bones of Crary's masterful re-writing of perception once he's done writing it (he also deftly avoids that concern by arguing for our own subjective position in history, at the bottom of page 7). Oppositional readings appear to only matter against hegemonic norms, creating a disciplinary pecking order.

Crary is careful not to establish causality between anything, but rather to write of forms, assemblages, relationships, etc. But yet he continually asserts shifts in the formation of the observer, while talking about relatively few people who ever observed, and certainly no casual observers. All of Crary's citations come from an exclusive group of philosophical, literary and science sources. To what extent do these writing suggest alterations in the visual experience of observers? Who is Crary's observer, and why are they themselves theorized as a "single social surface"?

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