Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 28, 2000
Jonathan Crary Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture London, UK: MIT Press, 1999. 397 pp.; 86 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (0262032651)

Jonathan Crary sets out the central thesis of his book at the outset of the seventy richly annotated pages of its first chapter, “Modernity and the Problem of Attention.” The topic of attention became central to scientific research and intellectual thought in the late nineteenth century, he argues, with attention itself coming to be considered “an essential but fragile imposition of coherence and clarity onto the dispersed contents of consciousness” (18). As evidence, he cites the work of such figures as Henri Bergson, Wilhelm Dilthey, Thomas Edison, Wilhelm Wundt, and numerous others in the overlapping fields of optics, philosophy, physiology, psychology, and sociology.

Crary is less concerned with attention, however, than with the notion of attentiveness, an entity comprising both attention and distraction. Far from opposing each other, he writes, attention and distraction “cannot be thought outside of a continuum in which the two ceaselessly flow into one another, as part of a social field in which the same imperatives and forces incite one and the other” (51). Suspensions of Perception situates this continuum within modern culture, a culture that in the pages of the book appears almost exclusively French, German, and Anglo-American (and Freudian). Between 1880 and 1905, Crary argues, “the disciplinary regime of attentiveness” characterizing the coercive structure of industrialized, urban existence pervaded theoretical discussions and scientific research. “It was through the new imperatives of attentiveness,” he explains with the ominous authority of the passive voice, “that the perceiving body was deployed and made productive and orderly, whether as student, worker, or consumer” (22-23). As an example, he discusses the links between hypnotism (both as a scientific phenomenon and as a form of popular entertainment) and the notion of efficiency. The conceptual understanding of modern subjectivity, he maintains, reflected the management and social control of the industrial subject.

Dubbed by Artforum the “historian-philosopher of our spectacle lives,” Crary achieved academic fame ten years ago with the publication of Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1990) and several related essays. These described a shift in the European understanding of vision in the period between 1820 and 1840, from a stable model exemplified by the camera obscura to a physiological conception, subjective and uncertain. Crossing a prehistory of Debord’s theory of the spectacle with a Foucauldian archaeology of nineteenth-century vision, his work was soon a promiscuous referent in the discourse of art history and the history of ideas. Having already suggested that “the problem of ‘attention’ became a central problem in the scientific psychology in the later nineteenth century” (Techniques, 85, n. 46), Crary now unfolds and illustrates this point over the course of 370 pages. Suspensions of Perception thus in some ways reads as a sequel to the earlier book, applying similar historical concerns to later material, mobilizing a stunning array of evidence, and more than doubling its precursor in size.

While Crary presents treatments of attentiveness both in written texts and in the realm of scientific instruments, by his own account his study is anchored in the analyses of three paintings that exemplify his theme at three historical moments. Whereas paintings appeared only in passing in Techniques, three chapters of the present book are oriented, more or less, around three works of art. “1879: Unbinding Vision” centers on Édouard Manet’s In the Conservatory of that year; “1888: Illuminations of Disenchantment” concerns Georges Seurat’s Parade de Cirque; and “1900: Reinventing Synthesis” pivots rather widely around Paul Cézanne’s Pines and Rocks. (A brief epilogue, “1907: Spellbound in Rome,” reproduces and discusses a letter written that year by Freud.)

Crary argues that in the late nineteenth century there occurred “a larger instrumental relocation of vision from a disembodied and punctual system of images to an interplay of forces and motor reactions in which representations play an irrelevant role” (167). Given this historical claim, his book would seem to demand, How does one discuss visual representations—and, indeed, some of the canonical works of French modernism? The answer is partly provided by his configuration of the theme of attentiveness as a matrix—a structure that, Crary explains (citing Rosalind Krauss and François Lyotard), “designates . . . processes beyond the threshold of visibility in which identities and meanings are converted into their opposites” (214). Cyberspace editors permit only a cursory treatment of his achievements.

Interpretations of particular works of art and analyses of the field of attentiveness frequently inform and enforce each other within the book, particularly in the chapter on Seurat, where Crary grounds his argument in a highly attentive formal analysis while engaging the histories of optics, philosophy, psychology, and art. Parade de Cirque, he writes, presents the prevailing late nineteenth-century response to modernity: a profound ambivalence in the face of seemingly unstoppable processes of rationalization and secularization, processes reducing everything and everyone to exchange values and destroying the possibility of “authentic” experience. In his words, the painting “is a model of response that held at least the promise or dream of a fully unalienated, instinctual aesthetic gratification, yet could only be imagined through the impoverished systematizing of drive or of affect into a quantifiable and manageable economy of excitation, within an ‘organized’ and controllable body.” (172) While the painting’s atomized palette reproduces the division of labor as described by Marx, its shadowy abstracted forms, silhouetted figures, and spatial foreshortening represent the shallowness of modernity itself. At the painting’s center, a sign announces the stratified circus admission fees.

Crary’s attention to myriad texts, both famous and overlooked, maps a field of extraordinary value both for scholars of this art historical chronotope and in other fields. A methodology of plethora, however, prompts questions about the criteria for inclusion. Additional references do not necessarily further his thesis, and the presence of some figures and disciplines evokes the absence of others. While Crary places philosophy, optics, and art within the history of vision, for example, he ignores parallel developments in the field of visual theory. Focusing on the reinvention of perceptual synthesis circa 1900, he mentions Edmund Husserl’s discussion of relief sculpture but not that of Alois Riegl or Adolf von Hildebrand, both of whom in 1893 presented the form as the ultimate artistic achievement and described a perceptual synthesis strikingly similar to that which, according to Crary, Cézanne depicts. (Chronological precision cannot be the cause; besides Husserl’s Logical Investigations [1899-1901], no material dating from 1900 appears within the chapter entitled “1900: Reinventing Synthesis.”)

If Techniques of the Observer entwined the ideas of Debord and Foucault in an early nineteenth-century context, Crary argues here that “Max Weber . . . stands behind both of these thinkers” (74), addressing such themes laid with the late nineteenth-century foundations of German sociology as Weber’s notion of disenchantment and Georg Simmel’s treatment of the metropolis and mental life. But as before, the burden of historical proof rests on the authority of contemporary French thought, with Gilles Deleuze’s discussion of the “societies of control” now complicating Foucault’s disciplinary paradigm. Contemporary French thought, in turn, appears to function as proof of the truth value of earlier ideas. We read, for example, that Gustave “Le Bon the political thinker intuits the essence of modern spectacular culture, which Guy Debord was to articulate seven decades later” (245). Le Bon’s status in 1895 as an intellectual describing the crowd from a great height and safe distance is thus elided with Debord’s position inside the inescapable spectacle culture in 1967.

Despite Crary’s insistence on the historical nature of vision and attention, representative figures and central concepts remain static against the background of the synchronic matrix. They appear like snapshots, detached from any discussion of the evolving relations between individual spectators and the group audience, shifting analyses of crowd psychology, and the development of the notion of distraction itself. If Richard Wagner’s discussion of attentiveness prefigures “some early twentieth-century debates about the effects of mass culture which articulated distraction as a term opposed to a self-conscious contemplative perception” (248), for example, then surely it is relevant that Wagner (like Sigfried Kracauer eight decades later) grappled with expanding middle-class audiences and the kinds of objects and spectacles to which they attended. A matrix, it turns out, can read like hypertext without hyperlinks, enacting “the purely additive and accumulate functions of industrialized procedures” that Crary bemoans (226). His book’s operation along its own continuum of attention and distraction is inspiring, but at the editorial level the approach is inexcusable. Given the occasional absence of publication information in footnote citations, the inconsistent spelling of proper names (poor Hugo von Hofmannsthal!), and an unreliable index, even the useful reproduction of Parade de Cirque on pages 7, 151, and 187 threatens to appear unintentional.

But every distraction, as Crary might argue, is an attention paid somewhere else. “The dynamic disorder inherent in attentiveness,” he writes, “embodies another path of invention, dissolution, and creative syntheses that exceeds the possibility of rationalization and control” (148). The same holds true for Suspensions of Perception.

Juliet Koss
Getty Research Institute/MIT