PRINT January 2000


Jonathan Crary

JONATHAN CRARY STARTS HIS Suspensions of Perception with a strong insight that implies a firm conviction. The conviction is that our bodies and our thoughts are thoroughly historical; the insight, that “attention”—the term that will be considered and reconsidered throughout his study—has been one of the variable phenomena that took on a new consistency during and especially at the end of the nineteenth century, until it became an anchor for defining the avatars of the subject of perception in the last quarter of this century. Suspensions of Perception is thus a follow-up to Crary’s 1990 Techniques of the Observer, in which the author’s object was the construction of vision in the first half of the nineteenth century, specifically between the years 1820 and 1840.

The point in the earlier work was to get some distance on the overly famous rupture effected by the pictorial avant-garde of the 1870s–80s, the “modernist” rupture that has become the D day of American art historians in the postwar era. Crary thus posited, as a precondition to this rupture, the notion of a new type of observer, one shaped in particular by the invention of machines like the stereoscope and attuned to incipient conceptions of light and perception. This observer is therefore close to the image of “man” that Michel Foucault sketched in his great books of archaeology, which he contrasted in every way to the subject of the classical world and of “representation.”

These are the data from which Crary starts in order to plunge, this time, into the rupture itself, and to make the history of it in his own way. To this end he immerses himself in three works by Manet, Seurat, and Cézanne—respectively, In the Conservatory, 1879; Parade de cirque, 1887–88; and Pines and Rocks, ca. 1900—that he groups in ten-year stages, since to him these paintings testify to the elaboration of a modern subject of attention, a new observer, one might say, whose emerging portrait is being traced here by recourse to various disciplines: philosophy, psychology, medicine, neurology, art theory, and, in the advancing century, “pre-cinema” and cinema.

Thus, in principle, Crary never privileges the analysis of these three paintings, though they do delimit the stages of the evolving construction of attention. His long preliminary chapter suffices to show the manner in which this term became a condition, at once specific and general, of modernity. Indeed, the “volatile concept” of attention is found to shoulder a share of the post-Kantian epistemological destiny: that is, the human subject’s obligatory new capacity for synthesis, in response to the fragmentation and atomization of the field of knowledge. Crary demonstrates how, as an inevitable process of selection, attention presupposes that perception become an activity of exclusion. He thus delimits three primary positions or uses over the course of the century where attention is concerned: those who make attention a matter of the conscious will of an organized subject; those who, like Freud, see it above all as a function attached to biologically determined instincts and to unconscious drives; and finally, those who think that a new subject is in fact a phenomenon that can be produced and controlled through external procedures of stimulation and multiple technologies of “attraction,” the cinema, as Tom Gunning has shown, being a prime example.

Attention thus becomes a fluctuating, floating dimension attached to the new subjectivity that it also helps define. Among the many formulations Crary uses to construct his elliptical object is this: “Attention has been both a strategy of control and a locus of resistance and drift, or more often an amalgam of both.” By using the word “control,” which he borrows from Deleuze, Crary seeks a way out of the conflict between the two great terms of 1960s French thought through which the idea of a subjective constraint was formulated: Foucault’s disciplinary society and Guy Debord’s society of the spectacle. Attention is thus part of a normative constraint of perception. On the other hand, the more attention exerts itself and tends to autonomize perception, the more perception dissolves in its object, itself subjected to an extreme decomposition, inducing a sort of sensory utopia in which the subject escapes itself through unrecognizable objects, equipped with a new consciousness, or rather, unconsciousness. It is the heavily nuanced conflict between these two tensions in the text that Crary invites us to examine in Darwin as well as in Freud, in William James as in Wundt, in Ribot as in Fechner or Binet, in Bergson as well as in Peirce and Nietzsche, and through all those for whom hypnosis, for example, constituted one of the major phenomena of the new undecidability attached to the phenomenon of the human subject. Indeed, perception, as soon as it is “suspended,” turns into something of its own abyss.

But this book is nonetheless punctuated by Crary’s three great analyses of Manet’s In the Conservatory, Seurat’s Parade de Cirque, and Cézanne’s Pines and Rocks. This is the force and originality of Suspensions of Perception, and what makes it livelier than Techniques of the Observer, where the analyses of Vermeer, Chardin, and Turner, though brilliant, were more ephemeral and in a way hostage to the overall approach. Here, his readings shine in their splendor, their fullness, their profound sense of detail, and above all their dynamism, since it is through the vision of these three works (and others that they call up) that a tight argument is deployed, whose progression is best summed up in the three chapter titles: “1879: Unbinding Vision,” “1888: Illuminations of Disenchantment,” “1900: Reinventing Synthesis.” But it is also here that the true difficulty begins.

Each analysis is discontinuous. In fact the three make sense only when gradually erected on the basis of the links Crary makes with this or that theoretical discipline or mechanical invention, a set of links that contributes to a sort of grand epistemological tableau. In other words, a segment of history is rendered intelligible, along a particular axis, through the wealth of a fascinating image. But this is where Crary asks too much of his reader, and perhaps of his own method. There are 286 notes for the central chapter on Seurat (the most developed) and a similarly bulging number for each of the two others. Every hypothesis and reverse hypothesis is studded with long and scholarly notes covering everything from century-old speculation to the most recent research. Crary’s insights are always interesting, and there is an abundance of sense and intelligence issuing from the analysis of the works and their fragmentation in the service of the whole. Still, it is often simply too overwhelming.

To give just one example: Looking with renewed fervor at Pines and Rocks, after several arduous journeys approaching and retreating from the canvas, Crary deciphers its formal duality: a material division between the organization of the rocks arranged in a descending cascade from left to right, and the slender trunks of the pines on a ground of forest and sky. This division rightly sets forth the idea of two incompatible treatments of space, from which the work draws much of its force. Crary thus recognizes in this incongruous arrangement two divergent modes of attention, which he thinks legitimate to compare with two levels of perception and attention famously distinguished and articulated (with difficulty) by Freud in his 1895 “Project for a Scientific Psychology.” This intuition is productive within the narrow historical framework that Crary gives himself as a rule. But it is soon swamped; and no sooner is he turning to an analysis of Freud’s complex and contradictory text for proof than he is discussing what Derrida has to say about it, without failing along the way to compare Freud and Bergson. Inevitably, this becomes too little for the proof being administered throughout the book yet too much for the suggestion.

Don’t get me wrong: There should never be too much erudition, too much knowledge. But before this teeming book that one cannot even name, which is indeed part of its force (a history of ideas? of representations? of mentalities? to use terms no longer in fashion but for which nothing has come to substitute), it is too often like finding oneself before certain history books and no longer knowing what the given really is, since so many of the connections and proofs have subsequently piled up and/or gone off in different directions.

So the reproach one might offer is then literary in nature, since it is a question not of exact science, but of a science that is human, all too human. I am thinking of Foucault’s semi-ironic statement, recalled by Deleuze at the end of the book devoted to him: “I have never written anything but fictions.” Deleuze added: “But never has fiction produced so much truth and reality.” The first word no doubt concerns philosophy, even while it no longer believes in truth. The second concerns life and, in it, literature as art. Foucault has been criticized for the relative absence of notes in his books, starting with The Order of Things. But have we really considered what this book would be with all its notes, or thought of the text that would have depended on these notes? A book no doubt more delirious than the Chinese encyclopedia cited by Borges, which Foucault said to be his inspiration. I do not know what this remarkable book by Jonathan Crary would have been if he had invented a strategy different from the one that consists of wanting to say everything. But, as it is, this precious book suffers from a lack of fiction.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.


Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.