Techniques of the Observer

PDF-file by Jonathan Crary

Techniques of the Observer PDF ebook download Techniques of the Observer is a brilliantly creative book with several fatal flaws. Surely, its status as a classic in the history of the senses is well deserved. Jonathan Crary’s important innovation rests with the idea that to understand the historical construction of vision, we need to look to the observer as opposed to technology or art objects. By attending to the experiences of the observer, we can move beyond “an account of shifts in representational practices” towards the observer as “the site of certain practices, techniques, institutions, and procedures of subjectification (5).” Crary’s argument isn’t just about art or knowledge though; it’s about the origins of modernism. For him, modernism actually arose in the early 19th century, and did not require mass visual culture or photographic realism; rather, it entailed the making of “human vision into something measurable and thus exchangeable (17).” Following Foucault, Crary thinks that these changes point to how knowledge and power “operate directly on the body of the individual,” by instilling social and institutional norms.

However, several problems haunt Crary’s account. Firstly, Crary’s focus on theories of vision forces him to locate the reasons for these shifts with the intellectual elites. On several accounts, Crary wants to argue that philosophical toys were first produced by scientists for experimentation, then became consumed for entertainment (104, 118). He needs this to be true because he needs his theory of vision to determine the meaning of the toy. The disciplinary practice of standardizing the senses were pursued to stabilize objectivity, but philosophical toys like the stereoscope served as entertainment devices that could tantalize, surprise, and amaze. Whether or not Wheatstone wanted them to instruct people about the senses, regardless of his intent, the stereoscope was undoubtedly appropriated as entertainment and its meaning changed depending on its context. That is to say, the meaning of the stereoscope does not inhere in the object. Crary seems to want to avoid the question of mass production and mass entertainment because he wants the arrival of modernism to hinge on the visual experience of the observer; however, in doing so he sidesteps the vibrant culture of public science and the rapid changes in material culture in Britain during this time. The penny magazine that emerged right around the early 19th century made mass production of print more accessible than ever. This begs the question of whether Crary seriously underestimates the importance of mass culture to the definition of modernism. This is ironic given his own critique of the model of the avant-garde that operates “outside the most dominant and pervasive modes of seeing (4).” Crary wants to argue for sweeping changes in the makeup of vision, but his lack of engagement with what’s happening on the ground at any given time cripples this project.

Though I would say that Crary did not meet his goal of relating the history of vision to power and social experience (that would require an attention to social conditions that Crary ignores), his insistence that scholars move away from the presumption that “observers will always leave visible tracks” that are “identifiable in relation to images” suggests how historians might study sensation from the perspective of what Crary calls “social terrain (50).” That is, Crary rightly points to a need to relate new technologies of sensation to emerging social practices and beliefs.

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