Tricks of the Light: Essays on Art and Spectacle 
by Jonathan Crary.
Zone, 262 pp., £25, October, 978 1 942130 85 7
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Arthistory was shaken in the 1970s and 1980s, and the epicentre was 19th-century art. Emboldened by the resurgent Marxism and feminism of the 1960s, engaged scholars including T.J. Clark, Thomas Crow, Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock asked difficult questions about class, audience, gender and sexuality, questions that were soon rumbling through other fields as well. Yet disruptive though these inquiries were, they mostly continued to insist on the centrality of the French avant-garde. Even as social and psychological readings were extended and deepened, the modern transformation of pictorial representation was credited to a celebrated line of painters from Courbet to Cézanne (with a few less well-known names like Mary Cassatt added to the list). A partial decentring of these artists had to wait for Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century (1990), the first book by Jonathan Crary, now Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia. The recent move to digital modes of image production and distribution had prompted Crary to reflect on revolutions in visuality in the past.

Techniques of the Observer begins by confronting the ‘bifurcated model of vision’ in the 19th century: the familiar story that while photography perfected representation, painters such as Manet broke heroically with the mimetic mode of picturing. As Crary points out, these opposed narratives are in fact complementary: the story of continuity sets up a story of rupture. More problematically, this break was ascribed to avant-garde artists alone, as if they operated autonomously, uninfluenced by the ‘massive reorganisation’ of scientific knowledge, technological invention and social practices that ‘modified in myriad ways the productive, cognitive and desiring capacities of the human subject’. It is this reorganisation of seeing that Techniques of the Observer articulates with great historical detail and theoretical sophistication.

Crary repositions early photography and modernist painting as almost epiphenomenal consequences of a more fundamental shift that preceded them, from the geometrical optics dominant in the 17th and 18th centuries – which, modelled on the camera obscura, proposed a clear, Cartesian separation of subject and object, viewer and scene – to the physiological optics of the 19th century, in which visual experience was loosened from worldly referents and relocated in the physical density of the human body, with its binocularity, peripheral vision, saccadic eye movements, and production of afterimages and other nonveridical effects. According to Crary, vision came to be understood as both abstracted and embodied, a double operation that permitted ‘an unprecedented mobility and exchangeability’ of visual activities. As his language suggests, the prime mover of this new visuality was capitalist modernisation.

In its turn to visual culture at large, Techniques of the Observer pays particular attention to optical devices such as the stereoscope, thaumatrope, phenakistiscope, stroboscope and zootrope, which exploited binocular vision and retinal persistence to create illusions of imagistic verisimilitude and movement. Rather than fold these devices into a prehistory of film, as is common in cinema studies, Crary asks what they can tell us about the construction of the 19th-century subject. He wants the ‘techniques’ in his title to comprehend both technologies imposed on viewers and practices performed by them, and he opts for ‘observer’ because the word carries the sense of ‘to comply with’ as well as ‘to look at’. Techniques of the Observer is not art history as usual, then, but neither is it visual studies, projecting subversive potential onto popular forms. Nor is it media archaeology, which sometimes assumes a consistency of media in a given moment. For Crary, visuality is always a matter of unstable assemblages of techniques and temporary arrangements of observers; his is an anti-ontological account that ascribes no essence or even specificity to objects or subjects. Consider, as one example, how many different materials, techniques, attributes and effects the term ‘photography’ has covered over the last two centuries.

Crary dwells on stereoscopic images because they encapsulate a basic contradiction in 19th-century culture. Although they conflate the real with the optical almost completely, they also ‘disclose a fundamentally disunified and aggregate field of disjunct elements’. The stereoscope thus disrupted ‘the theatrical set-up of the camera obscura’ more radically than advanced painting did at least until Cézanne. Crary then adds another twist to his argument. Not only was the ‘pure perception’ pursued by modernists like Cézanne ‘lodged in the newly discovered territory of a fully embodied viewer’, but so was the emergent ‘spectacle’ of capitalist culture – in the sense used by the Situationist Guy Debord, of a world made over into representation for our consumption. Yet ‘the eventual triumph of both [modernism and spectacle] depended on the denial of the body, its pulsings and phantasms, as the ground of vision.’ The body had to be suppressed, on the one hand for modernist art to assert the ‘autonomy of vision’, and on the other for capitalist spectacle to manage the ‘regulation of the observer’. Key for Crary is the way these paths ‘continually intersect and often overlap on the same social terrain’, sometimes in support of each other but often at odds, ‘amid the countless localities in which the diversity of concrete acts of vision occur’. Importantly, these concrete acts can’t always be controlled: sometimes, then as now, the observer escapes oversight.

Crary’s next book, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture (1999), examined some of the consequences of the shift to physiological optics. Here artists appear to return to the foreground – there are chapters devoted to one painting each by Manet, Seurat and Cézanne – but they are focal points only, for again Crary embeds art in a complex field of popular practices, scientific research and philosophical reflection. He questions the need of art historians to isolate purely aesthetic categories such as contemplation as well as the tendency of gender theorists to privilege ‘exclusively visual concepts such as “the gaze”’. Significantly, he undoes any binary of distraction and attention, departing from Walter Benjamin and many others on this score. For Crary, there is always an uneasy relay between the two states, with new demands for attention prompted by new forms of distraction and vice versa.

Manet, Seurat and Cézanne are useful to Crary because they demonstrate, in different ways, both the effort to bind attention in painting and the difficulty of doing so amid the manifold diversions of modern life. Sometimes the extreme attentiveness of these painters ‘annihilates the seeming “naturalness” of the world’; sometimes it crosses over into an ‘intensive re-creation of a subjective interface with the world’; and sometimes it does both. In all cases, ‘there arises an irresolvable contradiction between the aim of stabilising the world to look at it analytically and the experience of a physiological apparatus incapable of such stability.’ This failing had an upside, however, since it also expanded the wiggle room for viewers in a culture that was more and more controlled.

Taken together, Techniques of the Observer and Suspensions of Perception trace an extraordinary genealogy of visuality in the 19th century, from which the traditional concerns of art history – descriptions of style, analyses of form, interpretations of meaning, accounts of context – are largely absent. Methodologically, its primary guide is Michel Foucault, whom Crary cites early in the first book: ‘One has to dispense with the constituent subject’ – that is, the notion that the individual is an autonomous agent – in order ‘to arrive at an analysis which can account for the constitution of the subject within a historical framework’. Paradoxically, though, this historically specific ‘subject’ sometimes seems like a culturally general representative: we are given a portrait of the observer in 19th-century Europe, who, however complicated in physiology and behaviour, isn’t much differentiated in terms of class and gender (not to mention race). On this point Crary is vulnerable to pushback from the Marxist and feminist art historians whose accounts he otherwise moves beyond.

Crary describes Techniques of the Observer and Suspensions of Perception as ‘prehistories’ – of 20th-century spectacle in the first book and of our own ‘techno-institutional worlds’ in the second. He confronts these regimes directly in two broadsides, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013) and Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World (2022). Crary aligns these works with the tradition of social pamphleteering that stretches back to the Levellers and Diggers, but the diatribes of Debord are the closer precedent in time and spirit.

‘The ends of sleep’ has a double meaning. The first, clear enough, is that sleep is under threat; a hundred years ago most adults slept ten hours a day, while the average now is six and a half. Neoliberalism has colonised our nightly respite as part of its general operation of ‘bioderegulation’. As with many other military initiatives, ‘the creation of the sleepless soldier’ has moved into civilian life with online producers and consumers attached to global workplaces and markets 24/7. Once a kind of torture, sleeplessness is now a boastful lifestyle for a select few (‘sleeping is for losers’) and an economic necessity for countless others. Less asleep than in sleep mode, many of us live in ‘low-power readiness’ where ‘nothing is ever fundamentally “off” and there is never an actual state of rest.’ More and more we are our apps: the individual is ‘made into an application of new control systems’, ‘a jumble of identities that exist only as effects of temporary technological arrangements’ – systems and arrangements which, passively or actively, we help to administer, thus collaborating in our own disciplining, surveillance and data mining. For Crary, ‘24/7 denotes the wreckage of the day as much as it concerns the extinguishing of darkness.’ ‘Activities that do not have an online correlate begin to atrophy’ as shared in-person experience gives way to serial online solitude. Quotidian life becomes a ‘hollowed-out simulation’, and the passage of time a ‘disabled and derelict diachrony’.

For philosophers of reason such as Hume, Descartes and Locke, sleep was a potentially dangerous time of unconsciousness, if not derangement: ‘The sleep of reason produces monsters.’ For Crary, that Enlightenment argument loses its validity in a 24/7 regime; he is also critical of Freud not only for rationalising the dream but also for privatising it. In a world that never sleeps the old revolutionary call ‘to awaken’ is misbegotten as well: ‘Worker-consumers of the world, zone out! You have only your screens to lose!’ is more like it. This is the second sense of ‘the ends of sleep’: its purposes today. Sleep, he argues, has a newfound role as a site of resistance; it is a ‘natural condition’ that can serve as a final barrier against ‘the theft of time from us by capitalism’. Although he puts the phrase in scare quotes, this critical recourse to a ‘natural condition’ is a new note in Crary. Also new is his ethical appeal to the care of others: ‘As the most private, most vulnerable state common to all, sleep is crucially dependent on society in order to be sustained.’ Since we require others to protect us while we sleep, sleep figures the necessary ‘durability of the social’.

This anarchistic language of mutual aid – 24/7 was written in the wake of Occupy – is more pronounced in Scorched Earth, which extends the critique of capitalism ‘in its terminal, scorched earth phase’. Crary intends his title in the military sense, as in ‘the destruction of life-essential resources to deny them to a defeated population’, and he sees ‘the internet complex’ as a ‘techno-colonisation’ dedicated to this ‘dissolution of society’. The utopian dream of web interconnectivity has turned dystopian. In Scorched Earth, even more than in 24/7, it is our near total identification with ‘our data, our search history, our passwords’ that divides us, eroding whatever ‘democratic or communitarian values’ might remain. Crary points to a further undermining of our ‘intersubjective lifeworld’ as well: the voice, the face and the gaze, all crucial to our ‘being with others’, are ‘disrupted and distorted’ by chatbots, artificial intelligence, eye tracking, iris scanning, facial coding and all the rest. ‘Pathways to a different world will not be found by internet search engines,’ Crary states matter-of-factly. If there is to be a future, it will be offline.

The outlook of Scorched Earth is explicitly ‘anarcho-socialist’ (not to mention anti-identitarian). In his appeals for collective support Crary refers to workers’ councils from the Paris Commune onwards, even though most of those experiments ended in disaster. He also calls, in vague terms, for ‘an active prefiguration of new communities and formations capable of egalitarian self-governance’. ‘The threshold of a post-capitalist world is not far off, a few decades at most,’ Crary concludes, but this note of hope is quickly dashed: without prefiguration ‘post-capitalism will be a new field of barbarism.’ Based on the present situation, his prognosis is thus as stark as his diagnosis, which some readers might consider ‘scorched earth’ too, in its own way. As so often with left-wing critics since the Frankfurt School, Crary sees modernity as a catastrophe, and a strong streak of romantic anti-capitalism runs through his recent thought. 24/7 warned, in a Heideggerian tone, of ‘worldlessness’, which Scorched Earth now counters with a vision of ‘a lifeworld whose social rhythms were originally shaped by the alternations of the seasons, the phases of the moon, migration of birds, the oscillation of days and night, of sleep and waking’. Maybe the extreme predations of neoliberalism do call for an extreme faith in nature in this manner, but such prefiguration is not yet a politics. It is also at odds with the Foucauldian assumption, which informs both Techniques of the Observer and Suspensions of Perception, that almost everything is constructed.

Over​ the last five decades, then, Crary has sustained a double project: a history of the ceaseless remaking of the modern observer and a critique of contemporary technologies of image and information. These two strands of his argument are present in nuce in Tricks of the Light, which gathers his ‘essays on art and spectacle’, the earliest of which date from the mid-1970s.

Crary arrived at Columbia in the wake of the student occupation of 1968. After graduating, he studied photography and film at the San Francisco Art Institute, then returned to Columbia in the late 1970s to do a PhD in art history (Techniques of the Observer began life as his dissertation). This was during the heyday of critical theory at Columbia. On one side was Edward Said, who taught Gramsci, the Frankfurt School and poststructuralism (this was the moment of Orientalism) and on the other side was Sylvère Lotringer, founder of the journal Semiotext(e), who advocated Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio. In effect, Crary opted for the second group over the first: he was interested less in the deconstruction of language and representation à la Derrida than in the registering of revolutionary affects and the tracing of power networks à la Deleuze and Guattari, and he was attracted to artists and filmmakers with similar concerns. Thus Crary paid attention to practitioners not readily caught in the poststructuralist net cast by most postmodernist critics (myself included): Dennis Oppenheim rather than Richard Serra, say, Gretchen Bender rather than Cindy Sherman. Although written by a critic in formation, these early texts anticipate many of his later concerns, especially when it comes to artists focused on perception and technology, from Blake and Turner to Bridget Riley and Cerith Wyn Evans. (‘The discipline of art history, born on the European continent,’ Crary remarks of the first two, ‘has never quite known what to do with these immense, idiosyncratic figures from the British Isles.’)

During his time in California, Crary taught at UC San Diego, where he met the performance artists Allan Kaprow and Eleanor Antin, whose work he discussed in terms derived from Henri Lefebvre, the first theorist of ‘everyday life’, and Deleuze and Guattari, who celebrated ‘nomadic’ ways of being. Crary describes Kaprow as troubling ‘the differences between labour and recreation’, and Antin as an ‘autobiographer of a subject-in-process’. He also befriended the French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, who had collaborated with Godard on Dziga Vertov Group productions such as Wind from the East (1970). Godard remains a touchstone for Crary (Tricks of the Light includes the best essay I know on Histoire(s) du cinéma), and film is a throughline of his criticism. His canon is an unusual one, though, at least from the perspective of cinema studies, including figures not strictly experimental or popular but both, like Fritz Lang, Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg. Also distinctive is his selection of novelists; his semi-paranoid view of our ‘techno-institutional worlds’ leads Crary to turn to Thomas Pynchon, Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard.

In 1982, Crary published a brilliant essay on horror movies, which he reads through Deleuze and Guattari (Anti-Oedipus appeared in English in 1977) and against Freud (psychoanalysis pervaded film theory in the 1970s and 1980s). ‘How often we still hear the same restricted vocabulary to pinpoint the source of horror: the unconscious, the dark side, the return of the repressed,’ Crary points out, when films such as Psycho, The Shining and Videodrome are far more concerned with ‘the networks of images and institutions that “normalise’ individuals’. Both our terror and our pleasure, he insists, are a matter of ‘sociopathic zones, of detours off main flows, of deviant patterns of circulation’. A piece on Ballard from 1986 is also explicitly Deleuzian and anti-Freudian. A novel such as Crash, Crary maintains, takes ‘deterritorialisation’ to the point where ‘anything can conjoin with anything,’ but this ‘promiscuity of forms’ has little to do with perversion. The city diagrammed by Ballard is ‘not so much a text to be read and interpreted as a delirium of conjugations to be named and enumerated’.

The pivotal essays in Tricks of the Light are the two devoted to the development of spectacle. Published in the charged years of 1984 and 1989, they are the critical counterpoint to the two books on 19th-century visuality. In Comments on the Society of Spectacle (1988), Debord wrote, elliptically, that spectacle was scarcely forty years old when his famous treatise on the subject appeared in 1967. He offered no further dates or clues, even though, as Crary notes in ‘Spectacle, Attention, Counter-Memory’ (1989), spectacle assumes ‘quite different meanings depending on how it is situated historically’. Another prompt to periodise spectacle came from T.J. Clark, whose Painting of Modern Life (1985) proposed the Paris of the Second Empire and Third Republic as its birthplace, given the transformation of the city by Baron Haussmann into so many scenes to be painted, photographed and consumed as images. Cued by Debord, Crary looks instead to the late 1920s as the ‘historical threshold’ of this new phase of capitalism: it was then that ‘the vast interlocking control of corporate, military, and state control of radio and television was effectively in place.’ These years also witnessed the arrival of synchronised sound in cinema, which not only captivated audiences all the more effectively, but also ‘accelerated the complete vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition within the film industry and its amalgamation with the corporate conglomerates that owned the sound patents and provided the capital for the costly move to the new technology’. So, too, fascist and Stalinist spectacle were well underway by the late 1920s, with the Nazis soon to perfect the staging of mesmeric mass events. Of course, these regimes made dictatorial use of radio and film, too.

In Society of the Spectacle, Debord pointed to the Cold War contest between two types of spectacle, ‘diffused’ and ‘concentrated’, the first associated with a United States awash in commodity images, the second with a Soviet Union still directed by top-down propaganda. But in his Comments of 1988, a year before the fall of the Wall, he pointed to an ‘integrated’ version. It is this compound spectacle that Crary had already explored in ‘Eclipse of the Spectacle’ (1984), which focuses on the place of television in postwar life. Characteristically, he frames TV in terms not of representation but of distribution and regulation, and not as a medium in its own right, but as ‘an aggregate of bodies, institutions and transmissions’.

In the 1950s and 1960s, televisions and cars vastly expanded the terrain of the market and filled the post-natural landscape with a cornucopia of commodity images. But by the 1970s, Crary argues, this televisual-vehicular space had begun to crack, with television being ‘grafted onto other networks’. Soon enough the computer, an even more ‘coercive apparatus’ than the TV or the car, became the core product of the post-recession economy. ‘Telecommunications is the new arterial network,’ Crary understood as early as 1984, ‘analogous in part to what railroads were [to] capitalist accumulation in the 19th century.’ He also believed that this new ‘social machinery’ might ‘supplant’ our old ‘“contemplative” relation to objects’ with ‘different kinds of investment’. Unlike Baudrillard, however, who declared the total ‘implosion’ of spectacle as a result, Crary forecast only its partial ‘eclipse’. Here he sided with Virilio, for whom new telecommunication speeds and old highway spaces were bound to ‘coexist side by side in all their radical incompatibility’, ‘a planetary data-communications network physically implanted into the decaying, digressive terrain of the automobile-based city’. What Baudrillard excluded, Crary argued in an early critique, was ‘any sense of breakdown, of faulty circuits, of systemic malfunction; or of a body that cannot be completely colonised or pacified, of disease, and of the colossal dilapidation of everything that claims infallibility or sleekness’. Once again Crary looked to Dick, Ballard and Cronenberg as the best guides to this strange world.

Crary has​ long drawn on both Debord and Foucault, even though the two theorists conflict on many points. ‘Our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance,’ Foucault stated, with Debord in mind, in Discipline and Punish (1975). ‘Under the surface of images one invests bodies in depth.’ However, as Crary has shown, these two regimes can readily combine, not least because ‘spectacle is also a set of techniques for the management of bodies.’ Still, Debord and Foucault are difficult to reconcile philosophically: Debord came out of the Hegelian line of Marxism that Foucault questioned sharply (as did Louis Althusser, his teacher, who produced his own anti-Hegelian reading of Marx). If the Marxist conceptions of ideology and class are sidelined, as Foucault sometimes urged, there is little left of Marx. Yet Foucault wasn’t as distant from Marx as he often claimed to be. Both believed, as does Crary, that ‘the terrain and tools of invention, freedom and creation are always intertwined with those of domination and control.’ And all three view the human subject as a ‘social product’, as the late Marx wrote, a product destined to be remade again and again. Especially important for Crary is a line from the Grundrisse, the notes that Marx assembled for Capital in 1857-58, in which he muses on the perpetual ‘discovery, creation and satisfaction of new needs’ under capitalism.

If everyone and everything are fungible, though, what persists for Crary? Maybe the physiological basis of vision, but certainly not any social construction of visuality – these arrangements come and go. Just as important, what can resist our continuous refashioning under capitalism? Although Crary allows for the unconscious, he seems to view it as mostly colonised, so not much recalcitrance is likely to be found there. These questions became vexed by the time of 24/7 and Scorched Earth, where Crary ditches the anti-humanist constructionism of the late Marx (and all of Foucault) for the humanist naturalism of the early Marx, who, in his 1844 manuscripts, posited a human nature to be reclaimed against the capitalist ‘estrangement of the senses’.

Crary emerged at a time when dialectical thinking had fallen into bad repute. It was one of the ‘grand narratives’ of modernity that Lyotard dustbinned in The Postmodern Condition (1979), and Foucault and Deleuze were almost contemptuous of it. Yet this rejection produced a dilemma for them, and it might for Crary as well. Foucault remained largely ‘archaeological’ in his approach, examining subjects in synchronic slices of time. This method produced stunning insights, but it also made it difficult for him to explain historical change except as sudden disruption. With the categories of subject and class bracketed off, discourses and institutions appeared to break down of their own accord or be overthrown almost without the need for human action.

Crary is also attentive to ruptures (though, again, he locates them differently from other art historians), and agency is somewhat mysterious in his work, too. In Deleuze the problem is nearly the opposite: everything is a matter of ceaseless change, of endless flow, and if there is any dialectic left, it is internal to capitalism, the ‘schizophrenic’ intensities of which its opponents are asked somehow to exceed. This perspective, once called ‘capitalogical’ and lately ‘accelerationist’, is rejected by Crary, but like Deleuze he thinks in terms of flux, and he too sees capitalism as riven by its own crises. Today, however, capitalism appears to thrive on these crises or, rather, to recoup the disasters that it wreaks on the rest of us to its own benefit, privatising the gains while socialising the losses, somehow retooling as it careens along. We can’t simply wait for it to fall apart; falling apart is often how its moves ahead.

Previously Crary looked for internal rifts in capitalism to find political openings outside it, which sometimes suggested a default dialectic of its own, however directionless it might be. Thus, for example, discussing TV in ‘Eclipse of the Spectacle’, he saw its ‘circuit of power’ as ‘uniform and seamless as a macro-phenomenon’, yet ‘broken, diversified and never fully controllable in its local usage’. And at the end of Suspensions of Perception, he described spectacle as ‘a patchwork of fluctuating effects in which individuals and groups continually reconstitute themselves – either creatively or reactively’.

Crary’s rich and restless prose captures this dynamic mimetically; his writing is a wonderful ‘patchwork of fluctuating effects’ in its own right. But sometimes the very attempt to match our ‘techno-institutional worlds’ rhetorically lends a paranoid tenor to his critical points. (I mean this remark as praise, as in the definition offered by Dick: ‘A paranoiac, my friend, is a person who has gone crazy in the most intelligent, well-informed way, the world being what it is.’) On the one hand, Crary warns against totalising this system, imploring us to retire the pseudo-radical cliché that ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’ On the other hand, 24/7 and Scorched Earth evoke its derelictions so powerfully that resistance, let alone prefiguration, seems all but impossible. Crary scoffs at anyone who believes that ‘the internet could simply “change hands”.’ He is right, of course, but maybe a shot of dialectical thinking, even a desperate leap into the utopian unknown (Lenin proposing a communist seizure of the postal system, Fredric Jameson imagining a communist takeover of Walmart), might help. At any rate, it couldn’t hurt.

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