Crary’s constellation of objects

Jonathan Crary is interested in the history of visuality and scopic apparatuses but in some ways he is equally interested in the ways in which that story has been told, in its periodisation. For Crary, as for Martin Jay, the tendency to homogenise or render linear regimes or technologies not only needs to be challenged but can, in itself, illuminate the regime under investigation. For Crary as for Jay, discourses of progress, optical fidelity or accuracy, verisimilitude and modernity, as they have helped to periodise histories of vision, visuality and visual technologies, need to be unpicked not just in terms of accuracy but also in terms of their disciplinary power – the power to construct a “modern scopic regime” or a “camera” as well as an “observer” or a “photographed”. Where Jay offers a way of exploring overlapping regimes, discontinuities and enfolded ways of seeing and imag(in)ing, so Crary adds an extra dimension by exploring the particular technologies of vision through which those regimes are instantiated. In the terms with which I am working, the ways in which scopic-technological objects  become the sort of transparent, everyday ‘black boxes’ which are powerfully enfolded in the sort of political, cultural, artistic and commercial alliances Jay and Crary map. Crary adds the technological-object element to Jay’s map of the scopic regime.

In Techniques of the Observer, (1990), Crary’s aim is to account for how the “camera obscura model of vision… collapsed in the early nineteenth century when it was replaced by radically different notions of what an observer was and of what constituted vision” (Crary 1988: 30). It is this power full enfolding of the subject position of observer, discourses of vision and scopic technologies which is Crary’s target. Crary characterises his work as around the “problem of the observer [which] is the field on which vision in history can be said to materialize, to become itself visible” (1990: 5). He maps this field in terms of the apparatuses that the subject uses and is, to some extent, constructed by. Crary is keen to avoid “mystifying [the visual] by recourse to technological explanations” (1990: 2) but without an exploration of the instantiation of material apparatuses in specific historical conjunctures, he argues, that problem of the observer cannot be traced. Crary discusses the Camera Obscura, the Zootrope, the Phenakistiscope, the Magic Lantern and the Kaleidoscope not for their own sake but because of how they were enfolded in and constitutive of the sort of governmental scopic relations that John Tagg also explored in terms of photography (1992, 1993, 2009). The technological and discursive discontinuities that characterise the assemblage or media ecology under investigation must include, but not be reduced to, the specifics of the apparatuses through which they work.

For Crary the scopic and the scopic apparatus are only one dimension of the workings of power. Alongside Tagg, Crary is indebted to the Foucault of Discipline and Punish. For both, vision is lodged in the body, “a condition of possibility both for the artistic experimentation of modernism and for new form of domination, for what Foucault calls the ‘technology of individuals’ (Foucault 1979: 225)” (Crary 1988: 43). But the “scopic” just as “technology” must not be allowed to be the only actant on the stage. “I do not believe that exclusively visual concepts such as ‘the gaze’ or ‘beholding; are in themselves valuable objects of historical explanation,” Crary argues (2001: 3). In his later book he uses the terms “perception” as a way of exploring how a subject has come to be defined “in more than the single-sense modality of sight, in terms also of hearing and touch and, most importantly, of irreducibly mixed modalities which, inevitably, get little or no analysis within ‘visual studies’” (p 3). Here again though he develops this account through a “constellation of objects” (p 5), material technologies and apparatuses that articulate those operations of power. What could perhaps be argued is that within that “constellation of objects” account must be made of the (im)material apparatus.

  • Crary, J. 1988, Modernizing Vision, in H Foster (ed), Vision and Visuality, Bay Press, Seattle, pp. 29-50.
  • Crary, J., 1990, Techniques Of The Observer: On Vision And Modernity In The Nineteenth Century, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Foucault, M., 1979, Discipline And Punish: The Birth Of The Prison, Translated by Sheridan. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.
  • Tagg, J., 1992, Grounds Of Dispute: Art History, Cultural Politics, And The Discursive Field, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  • Tagg, J., 1993, The Burden Of Representation, Macmillan Education, Basingstoke.
  • Tagg, J., 2009, The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths And The Capture Of Meaning, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.