The place to look

A key concern for Jay, in Scopic Regimes of Modernity (1988) and notably in Downcast Eyes (1993) is “ocularcentrism”, a tendency towards visual metaphors, models, concepts and priorities within cultural, scientific, political and religious discourse. In his interview with Marquard Smith, Jay says it was while working on a history of Western Marxism (1984) that he became aware, “that questions of philosophy and social theory, as well as those pertaining to the position of the critical intellectual, were closely related to the privileging of vision in Western thought” (Smith 2008a: 183). Jay does not argue that this tendency has been all-powerful in fact for Jay the ocular has been a site of struggle where the effects have never been straightforward or predictable. In particular he warns against homogenizing the manifestations of ocularcentrism (1993: 36). Taking a more object-oriented approach, one might argue that the actant-objects in play have continually reconfigured the network as alliances and translations have shifted .

Jay’s shift from using the concept “scopic regime” to “ocular regime” is more than a response to an emerging discourse of “Visual Culture Studies” (Smith 2008b). In his introduction to a collection of essays exploring visual experience, the gaze and “the contexts of visuality”, Jay asks: “Is there a common denominator running through such seemingly disparate investigations of theories about vision, general visual cultures, specific visual artifacts like movies, and the role of visual metaphors in written texts?” (Jay 1996: 9). He concludes that there isn’t but what is interesting is what is missing from the list of themes he identifies – the technological. Here the focus is on the movie artifact rather than the film, projector, colorspace or protocols.

It is not that Jay disregards the technological. He observes: “insofar as we live in a culture whose technological advances abet the production and dissemination of such images at a hitherto unimagined level, it is necessary to focus on how they work and what they do, rather than move past them too quickly to the ideas they represent or the reality they purport to depict” (Smith 2008a: 183-184). Rather the technological is positioned as the background. The focus is on the “work”, the practices, the gaze. Jay’s is a story of how technologies “enhance[…] the ability to see” (Jay 1993: 587), of how “vision, aided by new technologies, became the dominant sense in the modern world, even as it came to serve new masters” (p45), the “extraordinary changes in our capacity to see wrought by technology” (p113) [My emphases].

For Jay, the technological is not the place to look. Similar in some ways to Castells’ broad sweep, Jay’s project is to map the a regime of Truth/Power. It is not that he (or Castells) deny the importance of technology in that regime. Rather he locates the “camera” (an object perhaps best seen as an assemblage of technologies rather than a unified object) in terms of “photography” –  a discourse, a practice, an experience.  It is not that apparatus determines the discourse or vice versus. For Jay technology and regime are enfolded. His mapping of ocular and anti-ocularcentrism together with his identification of a “pictorial turn” similar to the “linguistic turn” in theory, locate discussion of power and vision in terms of the experience of vision, hence his later interest in William James (2006). He refers to his interest in: “all manifestations of optical experience, all variants of visual practice” (Alpers et al 1996: 42). That experience happens through scopic/ocular apparatuses as well as thorough discourse. His concern is with the latter: “how mediated our visual experiences are by the discursive contexts in which they appear” (Smith 2008a: 187).

  • Alpers, S., Apter, E., Armstrong, C., Buck-Morss, S., Conley, T., Crary, J., Crow, T., Gunning, T., Holly, M.A., Jay, M., Kaufmann, T.D., Kolbowski, S., Lavin, S., Melville, S., Molesworth, H., Moxey, K., Rodowick, D.N., Waite, G. & Wood, C., 1996, Visual Culture Questionnaire, October, 77(Summer), pp. 25-70.
  • Jay, M., 1984, Marxism And Totality : The Adventures Of A Concept From Lucács To Habermas, Polity, Cambridge.
  • Jay, M., 1988, Scopic Regimes of Modernity, in Foster (ed), Vision and Visuality, Bay Press, Seattle, pp. 3-28.
  • Jay, M., 1993, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration Of Vision In Twentieth-Century French Thought, University of California Press, Berkeley.
  • Jay, M., 1996, Vision in Context: Reflections and Refractions, in T Brennan & M Jay (eds), Vision in Context, Routledge, New York and London, pp. 3-12.
  • Jay, M., 2006, Songs Of Experience: Modern American And European Variations On A Universal Theme, University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif.; London.
  • Smith, M., 2008a, That Visual Turn: The Advent of Visual Culture. Interview with Martin Jay, in Visual Culture Studies: Interviews with Key Thinkers, SAGE Publications, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, pp. 182-8.
  • Smith, M. 2008b, Introduction: Visual Culture Studies: History, Theory, Practice, in M Smith (ed), Visual Culture Studies: Interviews with Key Thinkers, SAGE Publications, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, pp. 1-16.