Crary: the metaphor and the material

For many commentators, Carry’s work is primarily about the subject. Insofar as Crary’s target is the “observer”, “one who sees within a prescribed set of possibilities, one who is embedded in a system of conventions and limitations” (Crary 2001: 6), they are of course correct. For Crary, technology is not a separate realm but an element in the matrix of subjectification, biopower and governmentality.

For critics such as Barry Katz however, “the significance of this thesis […] is to suggest that the history of technology – in this case technologies of visual representation – may be recast as the study of ‘a new arrangement of knowledge about the body and the constitutive relation of that knowledge to social power’ (Crary 2001: 17)“ (Katz 1992: 207). Such a reading arguably makes the scopic technologies and apparatuses Crary explores into at best background and at worst functionalist components of biopower. Crary however says: “what determines vision at any given historical moment is not some deep structure, economic base, or worldview, 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 different places” (Crary 2001: 6). It is this assemblage, the complex enfolding of subjectivity and technology, that he is looking to unpack. His history is not one of “the observer” as opposed to “technology” but rather observer-technologies.

Thomas Prasch blankly states that: “Crary does not understand history” (1992: 234) accusing him of generalisations and even cliches. My concern is not to defend Crary’s historical accuracy but to point out a tendency in reading Crary that separates his account of  technology from his argument about subjectivity and power. Although Prasch is right to demand that an account of scopic apparatuses includes: “the use of the new techniques of vision by industrialists […] popular responses to the new visual toys, and […]the diffusion of new ideas about vision beyond laboratories” (p 234), for this critic too the “apparatus” is a distinct part of Crary’s analysis rather than an enfolded component. Prasch says: “Crary then turns to the range of mechanical devices (from thaumatropes to stereoscopes) developed for the scientific study of vision. A common theme unified these experiments…” (p 233). Here an account of the devices is a “turn” in the analysis and the raw material for the “real” argument that Prasch critiques.

Part of this problem with Crary’s work may be his tendency, notably in Suspensions of Perception (2001) to include works of art in his assemblage. Whether it is Turner’s late work in relation to the physiological investigations of Gustav Flechner or Seurat and “the new retinal opticality in the emergent structures of commodification” (Summers 2001: 158), Crary’s constellation of objects (Crary 2001: 5) can be read as a willingness to complexify the assemblage of objects and widening the concept of the scopic and the apparatus, or generalising and drawing links in the service of a metanarrative of governmental power.

Crary seeks to keep the specifics of the scopic technologies enfolded in his broader critique but perhaps his tendency to address them as metaphors  undermines this, leaving his critics free to separate the two and position devices/technologies/apparatuses as a form of supplement. The Camera Obscura was clearly used as a metaphor “by Locke, Descartes, Leibniz and others” (Crary 2001: 292) (as well as by Jay and Crary) but it also existed as a material technology, a present thing in the world, an object. The governmental relations that Crary addresses (the alliances we might term them) worked through the material as well as the metaphoric.

  • Crary, J., 1990, Techniques Of The Observer: On Vision And Modernity In The Nineteenth Century, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Crary, J., 2001, Suspensions Of Perception : Attention, Spectacle, And Modern Culture, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass..
  • Katz, B., 1992, Review: Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century by Jonathan Crary, Technology and Culture, 33(1), pp. 206-7.
  • Prasch, T., 1992, Review: Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, by Jonathan Crary, Victorian Studies, 35(2), pp. 233-4.
  • Summers, D., 2001, Review: Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture by Jonathan Crary, The Art Bulletin, 83(1), pp. 157-61.