Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 27, 2008
Anne Friedberg The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006. 448 pp.; 113 b/w ills. Cloth $34.95 (9780262062527)

This book is part of a promising new wave of scholarship. From the 1960s onward, writing on perspective was divided between what might roughly be called humanist interpretations and technical accounts. Humanist writing made use of structuralist, phenomenological, and psychoanalytic interpretations, and it has produced a line of texts from Hubert Damisch to Hanneke Grootenboer. Technical writing, such as Martin Kemp’s, has accumulated an equally impressive range of information. Recently there have been signs that the two strains are merging, for example in Lyle Massey’s Picturing Space, Displacing Bodies: Anamorphosis in Early Modern Theories of Perspective (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007). Anne Friedberg’s new book is a contribution to the first, humanist, kind of writing, but with an important difference: she is concerned not only with the origins of the perspective window but with its continuation and proliferation to the moving image and the computer screen. I will return, at the end, to this theme, and to the other kind of writing.

The Virtual Window is a survey of the window metaphor, from Alberti through Microsoft’s Windows and on to X-Boxes and other developments around 2005, when the manuscript was finished (244). En route Friedberg discusses such things as the camera obscura; the first photographs; panoramas and popular entertainments; windows in modernist architecture; multiple views in Things to Come, Suspense, Sisters, Time Code, and other films; and screen shots from the Apple Lisa, Windows 1.0 (1985), and other operating systems.

She has two principal purposes. First is to demonstrate how the single, framed window in Alberti has become the multiplicity of image-delivery devices we now use, so that cinema “now forms an originary visual system for a complexly diverse set of ‘postcinematic’ visualities” (6). This “new space of mediated vision,” she writes in the introductory chapter, “is post-Cartesian, postperspectival, postcinematic, and posttelevisual” (7).

Her second purpose is to delimit that multiplicity by exploring the frame as a continuous theme and leading metaphor. The multiplicity of imaging technologies, she notes, has prompted media critics like Friedrich Kittler to argue that we are witnessing what Friedberg calls a “convergence of all media forms,” against which she maintains that we continue to be engaged by the master metaphor of the “virtual window” (238, 239). She is after a “new logic” of the deployment and interpretation of windows, which would allow us to speak of the many forms of visual representation without needing to predict that some new technology will fuse all media into one (242). Her theme is that the “delimited bounds of a frame” continue to set the agenda for our encounters with images (7).

The tenor of the book is what an analytic philosopher might want to call anti-realist. Friedberg is not interested in the world that is represented, or even in the means by which it is represented, but in the representation itself, its self-referentiality, its artificiality, and its formal relation to what delimits it, and what exists around it, especially including other frames. Alberti’s method, in her view, was concerned with the frame and what goes on the flat surface, more than with the finestra aperta in the literal sense.

Each chapter stresses the surface of the representation and its framing versus its depth or realism. Alberti’s construction was a matter of the frame (chapter 1); the camera obscura was a virtual image, not one marked by verisimilitude (chapter 2); modern architectural windows serve to frame views (chapter 3); audiences at the first motion pictures were not fooled, but—as Tom Gunning has noted—mesmerized by the hypnotic artificiality of what they saw (chapter 4); when it comes to Windows the images are “mediated” and “highly iconic,” and often enough flat (chapter 5, 231).

A number of fairly enormous issues are raised by the book. Here I can only mention four abstract points.

1. A definable set of philosophic concerns drives the book’s argument. Friedberg’s “grounding metaphysic,” she remarks at one point, is Heidegger’s “Age of the World Picture” and its concepts of Ge-stell, Stellung, and Bild (frame, position, and picture, respectively; 96, 98). I think that is correct, but she does not take up Heidegger in any detail. Her real interlocutors are Derrida, and especially his analysis of the parergon (12–14), and Deleuze, with emphasis on the hors-champ (whatever is decisively outside the frame; 144–45, 241–42). Derrida and Deleuze provide much of the actual “logic” of the book, and its persuasiveness will depend on how a reader understands them to be deployed.

2. The book is closely, but not impeccably, aligned with visual studies. Friedberg notes that “the fractured modernisms of cubist painting, photographic collage [and] architectural transparency . . . remained only exceptions” in the century of film and computers (2). This is the kind of refreshing revaluation that visual studies can bring to bear on art history’s ongoing concern with high modernism and its aftermath. And yet the power of the avant-garde and modernism, as well as their values, are not easy to shake off, and in the very next paragraph she says, “Perspective may have met its end on the computer desktop.” One might wonder about this, because the death of perspective is a trope in modernism and in the deeper history of perspective. In the twentieth century this particular death of perspective has mattered in proportion to how much modernism and postmodernism matter: for example, I don’t imagine Bill Gates loses much sleep over the demise of perspective. One might also doubt Friedberg’s assertion on art-historical grounds, because the kind of death she is imagining here—the death by multiplication of simultaneous, incompatible projections and viewpoints—is the same death that perspective has been said to have suffered at the hands of Robert Rauschenberg and Pop art, in arguments made by Leo Steinberg and Rosalind Krauss. I mean to suggest that the contrast between the two statements I have quoted is a barometer of affiliations: in art history it has to matter that the avant-garde produced such “deaths.” In visual studies, and in the century of cinema, it doesn’t.

3. A distinction might be made between the window as operative metaphor and the window as business metaphor. From the beginning of the book (1), the window on the computer screen is compared and contrasted with Alberti’s window. It makes good sense to tell a history that starts from Alberti’s window and ends in Microsoft’s Windows. The first use of the word “windows” for a graphical user interface (GUI) might have been motivated by the analogy to a real window, but it was a canny business decision on Microsoft’s part to retain the word, because it fit so well with the consumer’s desire to imagine the computer screen as a window onto another world. The genealogy of windows that leads from Alberti to Microsoft is therefore appropriate for an economic analysis, and as Friedberg shows it also works well as the engine of a psychoanalytic account. (She has very useful summaries of the concept of the screen in Lacan and in film studies.) But the genealogy from Alberti to Windows makes less sense when it is used for formal analysis. As Friedberg and many others have noted, computer windows are only infrequently views onto fictive, perspectival space. They are more likely to be representations of sheets of paper. For the enormous majority of the working day in offices around the world, the computer “desktop” represents a flat surface with flat sheets of paper on it. To pursue an analysis of the detail that actually appears on a screen, it would ultimately be necessary to give up the window analogy. From that point of view, this is not one history but two histories fortuitously joined by a common word.

Here is an example of how the two senses of “window” exist in dialectic friction. Friedberg describes “the perspectival ‘shifts’ when images move or follow one another in sequential display,” as in film or on computer screens (2). Why, I wonder, is “shifts” in quotation marks here? Is it only because the rapid, unpredictable changes, sequences, and imbrications of perspectival images are not adequately captured by the word “shift”? Perspective usually changes when one scene follows another, or one picture on a computer is overlapped by another. In geometric terms nothing is unusual in that: perspective, as Friedberg notes, has always had this capacity to be multiple. What is new in computer screens, aside from their speed and their digital origins, is phenomenological (this passage I quoted follows a quotation from Damisch’s Origin of Perspective [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995]), and the word “shift” serves to mark that new meaning. The two approaches I mentioned at the outset, humanist and technical, have no easy meeting place.

4. I want to close with an observation that applies not only to this book but to a number of others in current scholarship on digital culture. Many of the arguments about the importance of the surface, of artifice, and of the frame could be expanded if the analysis were to include the technical discourse of perspective, optics, and software programming for computers. The “merely” technical is the modern counterpart of the “untheorized” geometric that has so often been excluded from analyses in the humanities.

For example, I agree with much of Friedberg’s argument about Alberti, and with Joseph Masheck’s observation that it is a “misprision” to say Alberti conceived his window in a literal sense, and that Alberti was more interested in the frame and the procedures of framing (33). But the evidence for that only appears in all its splendid detail when his construction, and the many that followed it in the next century, are actually learned and drawn by the historian. Only the experience of constructing an eight-sided well in one-point perspective, or a foreshortened loggia with a vaulted ceiling, can demonstrate exactly how the window is linked to its frame.

We in the humanities really need to attend to the technical side of our subject. Just as the actual geometry is often omitted from discussions of Renaissance perspective, so code is omitted from texts on contemporary digital imaging. Windows, on a computer screen, are produced by discrete routines, which are indispensable for a full understanding of the production, interpretation, and use of the computer desktop. “We” need to speak “their” languages: Friedberg’s account would only be strengthened—made richer, more absorbing, more historically grounded—if she were to explore, for example, the methods of GUI programming using the Abstract Window Toolkit in Java or the equivalent tools in c++ or Python. Her account of the proliferation of window-like elements would be broadened by the inclusion of graphical interfaces, such as those in GraphViz, Gantt charts, or business dashboards. These technical things are not irrelevant; they are the languages—literally and metaphorically—of the objects in question.

Even aside from these “purely” technical considerations (but what is “purely” technical?), there is the question of metaphors. Friedberg’s book is centrally concerned with the history of the window metaphor, and yet programmers use just as wide a range of metaphors as scholars. A visit to the “Interface Hall of Shame” on the internet discloses—in the “Misplaced Metaphors” section—such concepts as “the VCR metaphor,” “stoplight metaphor,” “wizard metaphor,” “hot cursor metaphor,” and “box of chocolates metaphor.” As scholarship on images and representation catches up with the times, it is important not to fall into the dichotomy that once characterized the literature on perspective: we need to know both languages—the metaphorical and the technical—to follow the field.

Friedberg’s book is interesting and well argued, and full of open doors to further work. These four points are not flaws in her exposition, but markers of the shape of the conceptual field as it exists at the moment. No one knows quite how to solve the dissonances between Heideggerian methods and other approaches (the first point), between visual studies and art history (the second point), between the literal and the metaphorical (the third), or between the humanist or post-humanist and the “merely” technical (the last). They are the form in which we encounter our subject.

James Elkins
E. C. Chadbourne Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago