PRINT January 1994


Downcast Eyes

WHAT ARE WE TO MAKE OF the recent outpouring of books on the subjects of visuality and visual culture? No longer confined to studies of visual art, or to specific visual media such as film, photography, video, or TV, the new studies survey literary and philosophical texts, psychosocial constructions of visual experience, and what might be called “vernacular practices” of the visual in public and private life. Books with such titles as The Dialectics of Seeing, Visual Theory, The Optical Unconscious, Vision and Visuality, Techniques of the Observer, The Reader’s Eye, and Signatures of the Visible line the shelves in bookstores, and refuse to remain in traditional locations like“art history,” “literary criticism,” or “media.”1

It is tempting to characterize this development as a shift from an emphasis on “image culture” to “visual culture,” a transfer of attention from the object of vision to the subject, the experience of the beholder or spectator. This account, which is reminiscent of the movement in literary studies some years ago from an emphasis on authors and texts to a focus on reader response, is not so much wrong as it is partial. The more fundamental development, in my view, is a growing realization that the frontiers in the study of culture have shifted from the terrain of language to the sphere of vision and visuality. I’ve discussed this transformation in these pages before and won’t repeat myself, except to suggest that what I’ve called a “pictorial turn” is taking place in the human sciences, a movement that promises to supplant the “linguistic turn” that Richard Rorty has identified as the fundamental issue in modern philosophy.2 The picture, understood as a synecdoche for the entire circuit of production and consumption in visually dominated multimedia, is now emerging as the central topic of discussion in the study of culture, and in something like the way language did: that is, both as a kind of model or figure for other things (economics, politics, social theory) and as an unresolved problem. Visuality today occupies a position similar to that of language earlier in this century, presenting itself (to use Thomas Kuhn’s terms in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) both as a paradigm for research and as an anomaly to be solved.

Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes is surely destined to be one of the basic books in the new history of visuality. Offering a “synoptic survey” of what he calls “ocular-centric discourse” from the Greeks to the present day, and focusing with special care on the intricate elaboration of visual problematics in modern French philosophy, Downcast Eyes is the most comprehensive treatment of Western visuality now available. Like any ambitious and encyclopedic treatment of a complex phenomenon, it has its limitations and blind spots, but it will certainly he an indispensable tool for students of the history or theory of visual culture. Among its achievements, the book makes it clear that visuality is not to be understood merely in terms of physical vision or visual representation literally understood, but as a “hidden discursive continent” (my emphasis), a phenomenon that surfaces in language and in all the specific “languages” of theology, philosophy, psychology, rhetoric, and poetics. As the metaphor of the “hidden continent” suggests, Jay treats the phenomena of visuality in terms reminiscent of the Freudian unconscious, as a terrain of ambivalence, an ensemble of forces to be contained or censored, an alien species to be “denigrated.”’3

Jay’s emphasis on the negation of the visual, on phenomena like “iconophobia” and “ocularphobia,” is at once the most original and problematic aspect of his book. Although Downcast Eyes recapitulates the long tradition of “ocularcentrism” in Western thought—the “nobility of sight” as the principal model for practices of observation, speculation, and revelation—the main theme of the book is the resistance to visuality, the suspicion of scopic pleasure and power. This emphasis on the negative, on the relation between theories of visuality and fear of visuality, is an important corrective to any notion that the history or theory of visual culture could be described as a series of positive advances in the technologies of visual representation, or in its conceptual understanding. In some ways Jay’s book reads like a recapitulation of this progressive narrative, tracing what appears to be a long history of visual dominance, from the Greek “celebration of sight,” to the medieval “intoxication” with images, to the splendor of Baroque spectacle, the “clear ideas” of the Enlightenment, the photographic realism of the 19th century, to the emergence of the “society of the spectacle” (and “surveillance”) in the 20th century. Jay’s best moments, however, occur when he is teasing out the pockets of resistance or disintegration in this master narrative: the platonic suspicion of the image, the medieval anxiety about idolatry, the “madness” of Baroque visuality, the “opacity” of the counter-Enlightenment, the suspicion of photographic realism, the critique of Cartesian visuality in modern French thought.

This survey of Jay’s historical survey will indicate, I hope, what is both powerful and problematic in his approach. The power lies, obviously, in the sense of comprehending an entire tradition from what Jay calls an “Icarian perspective.” The problem is that this very perspective leads to a mimicry of exactly those Cartesian visual tropes and master narratives that are criticized by the antiocularcentric discourse Jay wants to explore. He writes about the critical resistance to vision, in short, from a perspective that continually abandons resistance and critique and accepts the possibility of historical transparency and “clear ideas”: “I remain unrepentantly beholden to the ideal of illumination that suggests an Enlightenment faith in clarifying indistinct ideas. To make matters worse, I will employ a method that unapologetically embraces one of the antiocularcentric discourse’s other major targets, a synoptic survey of an intellectual field at some remove from it.” This unapologetic apology is disarming, but it also serves as fair warning about the very real limitations of this book. While the aim of “clarifying indistinct ideas” is irreproachable in the abstract, it is not so easy to brush aside two centuries of critical debate that has questioned this whole model of conceptual transparency. In making this gesture, Downcast Eyes abdicates any possibility of making a strong contribution to the critical theorizing of visual culture currently underway in the human sciences. It is content to be a history of some of the intellectual traditions that lead up to that critique, a history that self-consciously stages itself as “precritical.” As such, it unrepentantly repeats the pratfall of Icarus, flying high over its historical terrain only to rediscover the obvious or, worse, the uncritical truism. This is especially so in the early chapters, where the rapid surveys of complex arguments tend to resolve in easy formulas (“Hellenic thought did on the whole privilege the visual over any other sense”; “medieval Christendom was often intoxicated by what it saw”; “the Renaissance . . . was by no means predominantly suspicious of the visual”).4

The problem is not merely in Jay’s recapitulation of the panoptic master narrative, but in his tendency to treat even the central figures in that narrative as generic placeholders in a highly generalized “antivisual” discourse. Thus Jay promises to explore “manifestations of hostility to visual primacy in the work of artists and critics like Georges Bataille . . . , philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre . . . , social theorists like Michael [sic] Foucault . . . , psychoanalysts like Jacques Lacan . . . , cultural critics like Roland Barthes . . . , and poststructuralist theorists like Jacques Derrida” (my italics). What is interesting about these figures from the standpoint of a critique of visual culture, however, is neither their representativeness (their critical significance lies in the way they are “unlike” any of their predecessors or followers) nor their “manifestations of hostility” to the visual, but their actual arguments about visuality. The useful parts of Downcast Eyes (and there are many) provide clear, reliable accounts of those arguments, not as expressions of hostility to the visual but as complex critical engagements with it. When Jay is at his best, he clarifies the moments of ambivalence in visual theory, what Susan Buck-Morss has called “the dialectics of seeing.” When he is nodding, he settles for a “history” in which all agency and motive force is attributed to “ocularcentrism” and “antiocularcentrism” (of which various positions become “expressions” or “manifestations”).

One of the most telling moments in Downcast Eyes occurs in the middle of Jay’s careful exposition of Sartre’s critique of visuality. The author pauses to ask himself “how can we say that Sartre was simply antivisual? Wasn’t he merely contrasting a good vision, which sees through things, with a bad one which reaches no further than their opaque surfaces?” Jay is caught here between “simply” and “merely,” two of the most dangerous words in the vocabulary of the intellectual historian. Either Sartre is “simply antivisual” or he is “merely” making a moralistic distinction. The more closely Jay works with Sartre’s arguments, the less adequate these terms seem. Yet the closer he conies to the panoptic ambitions of his own method, the more inevitable and necessary they become. Whatever shape the critique of visual culture finally takes, it will have to reckon with these Icarian ambitions, and find a way to bring them down to earth—or, better yet, to follow the lead of Bataille and William Blake and plunge open-eyed into the sun.



1. The authors or editors of these books are, in order, Susan Buck-Morss; Norman Bryson, Michael Ann Holly, and Keith Moxey; Rosalind E. Krauss; Hal Foster; Jonathan Crary; Ellen Esrock; and Fredric Jameson.

2. See W. J. T. Mitchell, “The Pictorial Turn,” Artforum 30 no. 7, March 1992, pp. 89–94.

3. One could wish that Jay had pondered the implications of his own use of the word “denigration” more fully. A conspicuous gap in his treatment of the French critique of visuality is the adaptation of Sartre’s work on the gaze by Frantz Fanon in his analysis of the visual dimension of racism.

4. If these historicist “world-pictures” had been situated by Jay as ocularcentric constructions of period concepts in the work of the modern intellectual historians he cites (Jacques Ellul, Eric Auerbach, and Lucien Febvre, for instance), he would have been freed from the necessity of repeating them as constitutive chronotopes to be endorsed or rejected in his own narrative.