Lingering scopic regimes

Christian Metz is usually credited with the first using the concept “scopic regime”. Of course the term “scopic” has a different genealogy, taking in Lacan’s “scopic field” and the split between the eye and the gaze in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1986: 67-78}, through feminist film theory (Mulvey 2009) and on to Slavoj Žižek’s exploration of the gaze of the object and his realisation that “I can never see the picture from the point that it is gazing at me” (1991: 89) (an idea picked up by W. J. Mitchell in What do Pictures Want (2007)). It was Metz however who, while not rejecting the psychoanalytic basis of the concept, arguably broadened its reach, from the “scopic field” to the “scopic regime”.

In The Imaginary Signifier (1981) Metz distinguishes the cinema from the theatre: “what defines the specifically cinematic scopic regime is not so much the distance kept … as the absence of the object seen” (p61)but more widely argues against an idea that vision is universal. Alongside his psychoanalytic colleagues he of course argues for a cultural location of vision and visuality but crucially adds an historical dimension: vision, visuality and as we will see visual technologies, are located (or enfolded) in particular historical moments.

It is this insight that Martin Jay picks up in his essay Scopic Regimes of Modernity where he asks: “is there one unified ‘scopic regime’ of the modern or are there several, perhaps competing ones?” (1988: 3). He goes on to answer his own question of course by arguing for a “plurality of scopic regimes now available to us” (p20), clearly seeing the Renaissance perspectivalist, the Dutch descriptive and the baroque “ocular experiences” as not only a matter of historical detail but also co-present now. He hopes: “we may learn to wean ourselves from the fiction of a ‘true’ vision and revel instead in the possibilities opened up by the scopic regimes we have already invented and the ones, now so hard to envision, that are doubtless to come” (p20).

What is important to note is not only how these regimes enfolded artistic practices and approaches with broader philosophical epistemologies and metaphysics and how that works through in experience, but also how those ways of imag(in)ing linger, ready to enfold with those to come. Foucault of course was keen to stress that regimes of truth/power could exist coterminously. In Discipline and Punish he say: “in the late eighteenth century, one is confronted by three ways of organizing the power to punish” (1979: 130). The same is true of ways of organising imaging and imagining. Regimes are not marks on a timeline or epistemes that give way to each other, they are enfolded discursive practices.

My aim in drawing on Jay’s work is not simply to add another interesting art-philosophy double helix to Jay’s account. It would be interesting to weave an account of the distributed visuality apparent on Flickr, Twitpic and Facebook with accounts of “synthetic reason” (DeLanda 2010), the “emancipated spectator” (Rancière 2009) or even “speculative realism” (Bryant et al 2010).  But Jay’s account of Renaissance perspective and Cartesian subjective rationality; Dutch emphasis on description over narration and Baconian empircisim; the  Baroque’s “dazzling, disorienting, ecstatic surplus of images” (Jay 1988: 16) and Lieibniz’s pluralism of nomadic viewpoints is more useful as a way into a media archaeology of scopic apparatuses. Here the regime is not the point but the field of possibilities for the development of apparatuses of imag(in)ing including protocol.

  • Bryant, L., Srnicek, N. & Harman, G., 2010, The Speculative Turn Continental Materialism And Realism,, Prahran, Vic..
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  • Metz, C., 1981, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis And The Cinema, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
  • Mitchell, W.J.T., 2007, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives And Loves Of Images, University of Chicago Press, Chicago; London.
  • Mulvey, L., 2009, Visual And Other Pleasures, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire [England] ; New York.
  • Rancière, J., 2009, The Emancipated Spectator, Verso, London.
  • Žižek, S., 1991, Looking Awry: An Introduction To Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass..