PRINT February 1994


IT IS MY PLEASURE TO INTRODUCE Jonathan Crary, a quiet intelligence who comes with many accomplishments, Guggenheim fellow, a member of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, a founding editor of Zone, teacher first of visual art at the University of California at San Diego and now of art history at Columbia, before all that a photographer, though credentials say little about his thoughts, which return repeatedly to parse other things—more generally speaking, the odd physical politics of knowledge itself. Orders of things catch the intelligence and Crary responds, or would it be better to say, he reacts?
Techniques of the Observer, his first book, took modern knowledge to be physical, an effect of sensation. It did not however try to make knowledge itself sensational, no, the quiet intelligence prefers to hammer Goethe into afterimages, truth into flight. He shows what knowledge has felt like, not just what it feels like, shows that feelings change, and shows feelings to have objective attachments.
Crary is the historian-philosopher of our spectacle-lives. He writes in two directions mainly. One of them toward a present: out of the prehistory of the Debordian spectacle, where capital was accumulated to the point where it became images and attention was identified, turned, surreptitiously tunneled. And then he writes another way, toward a future: moving quickly to catch a different spectacle, call it cyberspaced, where images will have to lose their surfaces and acquire dimensions if they are to have any authority or magnetism or life at all. (The same will be true for us.)
In any case, the quiet intelligence writes about the politics outside words as well as names. These are arguments based upon the assumption that those politics exist in durée and that they will continue and that we might be able to feel them too in our eyes and minds and bones.

For all the claims that our contemporary technological culture constitutes a decisive exceeding of modernity, it is striking how much critical writing on virtual reality, cyberspace, and interactive computer networks is riddled with enduring myths of modernization. In particular, there continues to be a powerful and reciprocal relation between discourses on technology and themes of universality and emancipation, and this is especially so in work that seeks to dramatize how epochal cultural shifts are driven by technological “revolutions.” Even analyses of the most local and subjective technological effects so often, inadvertently or not, are universalizing in their assumptions about technological change and at the same time uncritically presume a direct relation, if not a coincidence, between new technological capabilities and possibilities for social progress.

Much of the preoccupation with VR and cyberspace is merely a sign that we are at another of those recurring moments in the 20th century when one of the masks of political failure and paralysis is an eager avowal of the transformative force and cultural centrality of technological innovation. Many evocations of an emerging “on-line” world assume as a matter of course, or else never question, that a more or less uniform and available information and communication culture is now being installed globally. Generalizing language of the following sort is depressingly pervasive: “In the near future we may all be on-line.” Beyond the curt and brutal exclusions of the words “we” and “all,” this class of statement, in its sweeping untruth, resonates with both a complacent faith in the certainty of modernization and a banal anticipation of its posthistorical fulfillment.

That Western patterns of technological consumption could ever be extended to a world of now six, soon ten billion people boggles the most elementary economic, not to mention ecological, common sense. The inescapable yet continually evaded truth is that participation in the emerging information, imaging, and communications technologies will never (in the meaningful future) expand beyond a minority of people on this planet. Before supposing “we” will “all” soon be in cyberspace, consider an isolated statistic: less than 20 percent of the world’s population today have telephones.1 Despite relentless claims that the new computer networks are somehow egalitarian, in the next half century somewhat fewer than that 20 percent are likely ever to have economic access to the capabilities of these systems. An argument for a higher estimate would depend on projected growth rates that are historically unprecedented and are unsupported by even the rosiest long-range economic forecasts.

To avoid misunderstanding, my argument here is not for or against any given technological arrangement. Rather, it is against the fictions, mystifications, bad faith, and worse in critical analyses that ignore the immensity, and the violence, of this disequilibrium. For our new electronic communities and digital subjectivities, whatever their local value and however subversive they might seem, are also part of an intensifying process of global polarization, segregation, and impoverishment.

The cyberspace mirage of a fiber-optically unified humanity interacting electronically became a charged set of images and terms just as events in the ’80s were disclosing an increasingly striated world—a world in which a mosaic of expanding populations and depleted localities has only obsolete or fractured routes, if any at all, into the planetary net of telematics. During the last few years this bifurcation has taken shape more clearly: the stream of technological breakthroughs and of structural and commercial innovations in communications, biotechnology, and image and information-processing within certain markets and territories will coexist relatively easily with escalating social barbarism, famine, plague, and fascism. The sleek cyberdream of a collapsed global surface of instantaneity and dematerialization persists only by erasing the waking actuality of a world that is increasingly unlivable for most of its inhabitants.

Some critics have celebrated the advent of an era of “generalized communication” in the belief that new technologies will open up a multiplicity of “local rationalities,” a multicultural world in which ethnic, sexual, religious, and other minorities would all have voices. But such a multicentered pluralism would depend on the universalizing and impossible idea of a relatively even distribution of technological culture. Instead, we have a global division in which a small sector of the world’s population is acquiring increasingly potent, supple forms of technological expression while the majority continue to inhabit radically dissimilar “off-line” spaces and temporalities (or machinic “creolizations” that will never mesh on equal terms with the most powerful networks).

With the growth of telecommunications and information systems in the West, Japan, and elsewhere (along with the corporate scramble to control and reorganize this arena of exchange), what used to be thought of as “consumption” is increasingly synonymous with “communication.” Within this field, where “interactivity” is a new word for “shopping,” it is becoming harder to distinguish effective resistance from what are merely alternate fashions of consumption. The “grand narratives” and authoritarian perspectives may to some extent have collapsed, but the new proliferation of voices, truths, and subject positions has as much to do with the logic of an electronic marketplace as with the inception of any new public sphere.

A valuable achievement of some recent work on technology has been to demonstrate how thoroughly new machinic arrangements have become dynamic components of the user’s subjectivity. An emerging universe of reference and affect derived from E-mail, Internets, cellular phones, medical imaging, multimedia, hypertext, computer sex, and so on is modifying all levels of social exchange, desire, and memory, and is thus transforming a whole set of assumptions about what it means to be “human.” It is not a question of a decisive rupture but rather of an incremental accumulation of habits, patterns, and relations whose sedimentation must eventually constitute an environment so unfamiliar as to effectively preclude significant interchange with those outside or remote from the spaces and temporalities of these new milieus. Nor is it a question of some new, monolithic model of the human but of a proliferation of many hybrid, often interconnected modes of subjectivity. What is crucial about the experiential nature of technological culture in the West is its layered and patchwork texture. It is an uneasy mix of new and older perceptual modalities—for example, of itineraries and durations within zones of Euclidian space continually interspersed with the shifting dimensions of digital and video simulation. Late-capitalist material life comprises immense numbers of ephemeral “micro-worlds” that are at once seamlessly connected but also piercingly disjointed.

The consequences of unequal exchange and development are manifested not only in political and economic crisis but, perhaps just as important, in the phenomenon of radically dissimilar perceptual and cognitive lifeworlds. The north/south or center/periphery split (wherever those peripheries might be) needs to be examined in terms of the psychic and social hierarchies being created by extreme disparities in the machinic arrangements that constitute everyday life. For example, some current research in the neurosciences suggests that prolonged use of new image technologies will produce physical remappings of neural connections in the brain. When one considers what is on the near horizon in medicine in terms of unequal access to new kinds of prosthetic, transplant, genetic-selection, and longevity medical treatments, the prospect is for medicobiological elites and castes of a sort unimaginable even in the most archaic premodern societies. But when faced with the possibility of a global disequilibrium heightened by such unbridgeable perceptual and cognitive divides, many, including some who champion “difference,” and the idea of the human as a construction, fall hack onto a “family of man” essentialism or the quasi-transcendent notion of a communicative rationality.

Along with the assumption that access to communication and information technologies will coincide with emancipatory social praxis goes the idea that inner and outer peripheries both desire and will benefit from increasing technological penetration. Samir Amin and others have shown starkly how this is Eurocentrism at its worst—that is, it is a question of capitalism proposing and promoting a homogenization of the world that is structurally impossible to achieve. Once the “logic” of this process is accepted, moreover, what follows only perpetuates and intensifies unequal relations. Here is the familiar pattern of purporting to solve “underdevelopment” by emulating Western levels of modernization, even though the possibility of “catching up” is doomed from the start.

These fantasies of development are nourished by an acquiescence to the fictions that specific technological apparatuses are “empowering.” Take the personal computer—how often we hear the legends of its hacker origins, and of its allegedly antiauthoritarian and decentralizing role. Rarely, though, do we hear that most people who use PCs do so within a regime of machinic subjection and surveillance as rigid and deadening as the most extreme Taylorist production setup. And this is hardly likely to change as the PC becomes a component of the “virtual workplace.” Much critical thinking of the last decades has been nourished by various post-1968 notions that power is its own dupe, that it produces its own modes of opposition, that any space of domination always contains its own outside. However valuable these ideas continue to he, they have also deteriorated into formulaic alibis for political resignation and have led to silly overestimations of the spaces of resistance within media culture. For example, in the critique of television, most discussion is structured around themes of communication, narrative, ideology criticism, and semiotic codes. What rarely occurs is a parallel understanding of television as a set of techniques of the body, of strategies of immobilization and separation, of methods for the production and disciplining of attention, for the fixing and narrowing of the range of consciousness. Obviously television is not a system that is exercised on behalf of some consistent authority or center, but it is a powerful constellation of interlocking effects, including addiction and control. But in part because of criticism that refurbishes nostalgic notions of popular culture (posing certain kinds of TV viewing as acts of resistance, and Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue as facilitators of a new, participatory public sphere), some types of statement about television are effectively excluded from much critical discourse.

One of the most difficult tasks facing us today is to imagine strategies of living and acting that may well be within the terrain of the image and information marketplace but that are discerning and mobile enough to identify and elude its ever changing consumerist and productivist imperatives. Part of what is needed is to conceptualize technological culture in terms of the larger, turbulent geographies and flows in which it is embedded, and to realize that the actual and potential violence of global polarization will have more of an impact on the future of our material lifeworld than anything we assume to he internal to a process of technological change. It is more and more crucial to challenge fraudulent neofuturist visions of a “wired” world. If new social ecologies (to use Felix Guattari’s term) or novel convergences of the biological and the mechanic arc ever to flourish independently of the market’s laws of equivalence and exchange, they will emerge only through the creation of ways of listening to and learning from that majority of voices and bodies that are outside the circuits of compulsory communication and “augmented” realities.

Jonathan Crary


1. “Telecommunications,” The Economist, 23 October 1993, p. 5.