Friedberg: metaphor and materiality

For Anne Friedberg, the frame is more than a metaphor. Although she starts The Virtual Window: From Alberti To Microsoft with “Alberti’s window metaphor” (2006: 12), and then goes on to discuss Windows and “the window”, she is looking to do more than simply show how Microsoft’s engineers and marketing teams used the metaphor to position their Graphical User Interface (GUI). For Friedberg: “window, perspective, frame, screen architecture – operate in both metaphoric and literal registers, and their meanings frequently slip between the dual functions of philosophical paradigm and representational device” (p13).

Friedberg goes on to use Derrida (1987) to explore the position of metaphor in language but what is more important from our point of view is how Friedberg’s media archaeology of the frame/window/screen is premised on its materiality, its instantiation in architecture – whether physical or computer:

“Facing a screen, the spectator/viewer/user is caught in a phenomenological tangle – twin paradoxes – of mobility and immobility (the mobility of images; the immobility of the spectator) and of materiality and immateriality (the material spaces of the theater, domicile or office and the immateriality of the cinematic, televisual, or computer image). The screen functions as an architectonic element, opening the materiality of built space to virtual apertures in an ‘architecture of spectatorship’” (Friedberg 2006: 150).

It could be argued from a materialist software studies perspective that to characterise digital images as immaterial is to miss their object-positions as actants that are simultaneously immaterial and deeply material in terms of their location in code, on physical drives and servers and also their alliances within material structures and relations. Leaving that aside for a moment, however what is important about Friedberg’s contribution to the analysis of the scopic is her willingness to engage with and draw the archaeology of the apparatus.

Friedberg joins W. J. T. Mitchell (19920 in disagreeing with Crary’s account of the differences between the optical system of the camera obscura and that of the stereoscope and phenakistoscope in Techniques of the Observer (1990). But Friedberg does work from the same central insight that Crary emphasises – that the technologies of vision need to be addressed alongside and entwined with that of the “gaze” and subjectivity. She may argue over focus, emphasis and periodicity but her book is as full of illustrations and explorations of specific apparatuses as sites of the gaze as Crary’s. She may critique Crary for his failure to account for a “socially constituted or gendered body” (p285), but the ground of argument is the material apparatuses  across which those bodies are gendered. This is a different world of critique from the psychoanalytical account of film criticism (Mulvey 2009) or photography (Burgin 1996) or a focus on the image as in the work of Mitchell (2007). Friedberg’s account of power is rooted in how that is mobilised and instantiated across technologies of vision whether the material optical toy or the (im)material software interface.

Friedberg critiques Friedrich Kitler’s account of how “from the camera obscura have come the photographic camera and the computer screen” (Kittler 2001: 53) as a “forceful polemic” but one making an enormous leap that “elides details of technology and history” (p19). But again her critique is over the details of the reading of technological apparatuses and assemblages rather than the need for addressing the materiality not just the metaphor.

  • Burgin, V., 1996, In/Different Spaces: Place and memonry in Visual Culture, University of California Press, Berkeley.
  • Crary, J., 1990, Techniques Of The Observer: On Vision And Modernity In The Nineteenth Century, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Derrida, J., 1987, The Truth In Painting, Translated by G. Bennington & I. McLeod. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  • Friedberg, A., 2006, The Virtual Window: From Alberti To Microsoft, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass..
  • Kittler, F.A., 2001, Perspective and the Book, Grey Room(5), pp. 38-53.
  • Mitchell, W.J.T., 1992, The Pictorial Turn, Artforum, 30(7), pp. 89-94.
  • 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.