Crary, Jonathan - Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (October Books)

Notes - Garnet Hertz
Updated 02 June 2006

General Thoughts

"Suspensions of Perception" has no notes written on it yet.


[1] {intro, history, foundation, perception, historical, attention, vision, nature, audio, consciousness} This book is based on the assumption that the ways in which we intently listen to, look at, or concentrate on anything have a deeply historical character. Whether it is how we behave in front of the luminous screen of a computer or how we experience a performance in an opera house, how we accomplish certain productive, creative, or pedagogical tasks or how we more passively perform routine activitites like driving a car or watching television, we are in a dimension of contemporary experience that requires that we effectively cancel out or exclude from consciousness much of our immediate environment. I am interested in how Western modernity since the nineteenth century has demanded that individuals define and shape themselves in terms of a capacity for "paying attention," that is, for a disengagement from a broader field of attraction, whether visual or auditory, for the sake of isolating or focusing on a reduced number of stimuli. That our lives are so thoroughly a patchwork of such disconnected states is not a "natural" condition but rather the product of a dense and powerful remaking of human subjectivity in the West over the last 150 years. [INTRO - Portions of this would fit with my own introduction or foundational assumptions, perhaps as a quote.]

[2] {attention, separation, autonomy, modern, modernization} ...the very possiblity in the late nineteenth century of concepts of a purified aesthetic perception is inseparable from the process of modernization that made the problem of attention a central issue in new institutional constructions of a productive and manageable subjectivity. What I hope to suggest are the ways in which modern experiences of social separation and of subjective autonomy are both intertwined within the resplendent possiblities, ambivalent limits, and failures of an attentive individual.

[2] {genealogy, attention, modern, modernization, technology, representation, perception, vision, audio, 1880, 1890, century} This book is an attempt to sketch out some outlines of a genealogy of attention since the nineteenth century and to detail its role in the modernization of subjectivity. More concretely, I will examine how ideas about perception and attention were transformed in the late nineteenth century alongside the emergence of new technological forms of spectacle, display, projection, attraction, and recording. I attempt to describe ways in which new knowledge about the behavior and makeup of a human subject coincided with social and economic shifts, with new representational practices, and with a sweeping reorganization of visual/auditory culture. In this book I construct a relatively unfamiliar vantage point from which to study a generalized crisis in perception in the 1880s and 1890s and in doing so to indicate how the contested notion of attention was central to a range of social, philosophical, and aesthetic issues during those years and, indirectly, to subsequent developments in the twentieth century.

[2] {attention, modern, modernization, opaque, opacity, transparent, transparency} ...the modern problem of attention encompasses a set of terms and positions that cannot be construed simply as questions of opacity.

[3] {spectacle, subject, individual, isolation, separation, time, power} ...spectacular culture is not founded on the necessity of making a subject see, but rather on strategies in which individuals are isolated, separated, and inhabit time as disempowered.

[3] {techniques of the observer, crary, vision, subject, optic, modern, modernity, rationalism} One of the aims of my book Techniques of the Observer was to show how historical transformations in ideas about vision were inseparable from a larger reshaping of subjectivity that concerned not optical experiences but processes of modernization and rationalization.

[3] {vision, visual, modern, modernity, body, gaze, history} ...within modernity vision is only one layer of a body that could be captured, shaped, or controlled by a range of external techniques; at the same time, vision is only one part of a body capable of evading institutional capture and of inventing new forms, affects, and intensities. I do not believe that exclusively visual concepts such as "the gaze" or "beholding" are in themselves valuable objects of historical explanation.

[3] {visual studies} [critique of "visual studies"]

[3] {techniques of the observer, crary, vision, subject, optic, modern, modernity, rationalism, century, perception, attention} In Techniques of the Observer I showed how the rise of physiological optics in the early nineteenth century displaced models of vision that had been predicated on the self-presence of the world to an observer and on the instantaneity and atemporal nature of perception. In this book [Suspensions of Perception] I examine some of the consequences of that shift: in particular the emergence of attention as a model of how a subject maintains a coherent and practical sense of the world, a model that is not primarily optical or even veridical.

[3-4] {attention, vision, observer, perception} Attention... was an inevitable ingredient of a subjective conception of vision: attention is the means by which an individual observer can transcend those subjective limitations and make perception its own, and attention is at the same time a means by which a perceiver becomes open to control and annexation by external agencies.

[6] {techniques of the observer, crary, painting, 1870, 1890, observer, vision} In Techniques of the Observer I challenged conventional accounts that saw modernist painting of the 1870s and 1880s, in various ways, as constituting an epochal turning point in the historical makeup of the observer and practices of vision.

[10] {archaeology}

[25] {gunning, attraction} Discussing early cinema, Gunning demonstrates that what was at stake was not primarily representation, imitation, narration, or the updating of theatrical forms. Rather it was a strategy of engaging an attentive spectator... [Footnote 34. Includes Gunning source, in Elsaesser's "Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative".]

[27] {lenoir, instruments, technology, stanford, science, society, physiology, electricity} [Includes citation to Lenoir's "Models and Instruments in the Development of Electrophysiology, 1845-1912" (1986).]

[30] {metadata, visuality, mobility, novelty, distraction} [These terms might be useful in constructing metadata.]

[31] {edison, cinema} For Edison, cinema, for example, had no significance in itself -- it was simply one of a potentially endless stream of ways in which a space of consumption and circulation could be dynamized, activated. Edision saw the marketplace in terms of how images, sounds, energy, or information could be reshaped into measurable and distributable commodities and how a social field of individual subjects could be arranged into increasingly separate and specialized units of consumption. [Also mentions that Wener von Siemens and Lord Kelvin as contemporaries of Edison that are also relevant. Includes bibliographic info on Edison.]

[32-33] {edison, telegraph, stock ticker, hybrid telegraph-stock ticker, 1870, early 1870s} Edison's first technological product, a hybrid telegraph-stock ticker in the early 1870s, is paradigmatic for what it foreshadows in subsequent technological arrangements, including those of the late twentieth century: the indistinction between information and visual images, and the making of quantifiable and abstract flow into the object of attentive consumption. Edison's grasp of some of the systematic features of capitalism as it evolved in the 1880s and 1890s underscores the abstract nature of the products he "invented"; his work was inseparable from the continual manufacture of new needs and the consequent restructuring of the network of relations in which such products would be consumed. [footnote includes reference to Crary's writing on Edison.]

[33] {mobility, novelty, novel, discipline} Throughout changing modes of production, attention has continued to be a disciplinary immobilization as well as an accommodation of the subject to change and novelty -- as long as the consumption of novelty is subsumed within repetitive forms.

[33] {telegraph, postman, morse} [Footnote #57] Neil Postman singles out the earlier invention of the telegraph in the 1840s as a precedent for these developments in its creation of "a world of anonymous, decontextualized information. The telegraph also moved history into the background and amplified the instant and simultaneous present." That the emergence of this perpetual "present" enatiled a reorganization of the perceiving subject along the lines of my argument is symbolically signaled by what some authorities insist was Samuel F. B. Morse's actual first transmission: "Attention Universe." See Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (New York: Delacorte Press, 1982), pp. 68-72.

[49] {dewey, shock, new, attention, novel, novelty, surprise} [Footnote #111] John Dewey is one of many who, by the 1880s, had established the inseparability of a normative model of attention from experiences of shock, dissociation, and novelty: "A shock of surprise is one of the most effective methods of arousing attention. The unexpected in the midst of the routine is the accentuated. The very contrast between the two rivets attention, and more effectively dissociates each from the other. Thus variety and mobility of phychic life are secured." Dewey, Psychology, p. 127.

[51] {riegl, the dutch group portrait, dutch group portrait} [Overview of Riegl's The Dutch Group Portrait]

[55] {schopenhauer, magic lantern, paradigm}

[74-75] {spectacle, vision, visuality, images, individuals, mobile, subject, power, technology, tv, computer} Spectacle is not primarily concerned with looking at images but rather with the construction of conditions that individuate, immobilize, and separate subjects, even within a world in which mobility and circulation are ubiquitous. In this way attention becomes key to the operation of noncoercive forms of power. This is why it is not innapropriate to conflate seemingly different optical or technological objects: they are similarly about arrangements of bodies in space, techniques of isolation, cellularization, and above all separation. Spectacle is not an optics of power but of architecture. Television and the personal computer, even as they are now converging toward a single machinic functioning, are antinomadic procedures that fix and striate. They are methods for the management of attention that use partitioning and sedentarization, rendering bodies controllable and useful simultaneously, even as they simulate the illusion of choices and "interactivity".

[75] {} This is certainly not to minimize the need for historically analyzing specific and local interfaces of humans and machines...


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