Historians of visual culture generally agree that, with the nineteenth century, a new way of seeing and a new kind of observer were born. The conventional history of photography says that this technology is a part of a linear development tracing back to the Renaissance and camera obscura. We tend to believe that photography and – later – film belong to the continuous and increasingly dominant visual practice – realism. Together with the “modernist rupture” of painterly revolutions, they constitute the modernization of vision at the end of the 19th century – but is it really so? Jonathan Crary does not agree with this interpretation. His deeply ambiguously received book Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century foregrounds the discontinuity between the camera obscura and photography and claims that the rupture between modern and classical vision took place at the beginning of the 19th century.
The book is divided into five chapters. In the first one, Crary gives an overview of his methods and introduces the main idea of the book – that the role of photography was secondary and the fundamental change reorganization of vision took place before in 1810-1840. Instead of focusing on the representation, he focuses on the observer and the historical construction of it. It is inseparable from the general reorganization of knowledge, which modified the way the human subject was seen. The observer is a part of wider institutional, social and technological relations. The book mainly is mainly concerned optical devices, as they are “sites of knowledge and power that operate directly on the body of the individual”. Crary does not seek to write a history of vision, but a genealogy in Foucauldian sense, namely, focusing on discontinuities rather than continuities. What happened in the modern period was the “uprooting of vision from the stable and fixed relations incarnated in the camera obscura”.
In the second chapter, Crary argues that the camera obscura stood as a dominant metaphor for human vision in 17th ant 18th centuries. Furthermore, it can be used to describe the relation between the observed object and the observing subject. At the beginning of the 19th century, this model of vision collapsed. He illustrates this by analyzing the thoughts of various thinkers from that time period – like Leibniz, Descartes, Locke and Condillac. The subject and the object were interpreted as separate, independent entities and the presence of the observer was not thought of as affecting the representation. For example, Descartes wrote about camera obscura as a “detached eye”, which could provide an objective and truthful view of the world. Furthermore, in 17th and 18th centuries, the sense of vision was seen as related to the sense of touch and the faculty of vision was not privileged. The space of order was unified.
The third chapter begins with Goethe’s account on the nature of colors. He claimed that colors belong to the body of the observer. Other thinkers from the early modern period, like Arthur Schopenhauer, also focused on the physiological basis of senses. So, in the 19th century, this corporeal subjectivity of the observer became the basis of visual perception, while subjectivity was excluded from the metaphor of camera obscura. Thus the human body becomes an active producer of optical experience. The modern interpretation of vision was inseparable from scientific achievements, like those of Bichat and Muller, and the creation of a comprehensible inventory of the human body – not to forget the studies on the nature of light. The vision and other senses were separated from the others and they themselves became objects of study. Furthermore, Crary follows the Foucauldian argumentation that the scientific study made the observer a subject of control and normalization.
In the fourth chapter, Crary describes the two optical devices, stereoscope and phenakistiscope, which, according to him, are better representatives of the modern period than photography. They both reflect the scientifically based idea that an optical experience is based as much on the body as it is on the machine, and the subjectivity of the body can be equated with the act of seeing itself. The representation becomes more flexible and subjective. Both phenakistiscope and streoscope are based on the interaction of the observer with the optical device. At the beginning of the chapter, he describes the studies of the retinal afterimage – on the functioning of which the phenakistiscope is based, which abolished the idea that sensory perception is always based on the link with an external referent. The stereoscope is significant for its “decentered” and rather flexible point of view.
The last chapter summarizes the changes in vision in the era of modernity. In the early 19th century, the metaphor of camera obscura lost its authority. Vision was no longer seen as completely based on an external object and the primary tool of seeing was now the process of perception. It became possible to calculate and measure vision – so the rationalization of vision occurred. The boundaries between the subject and the object were blurred. A new type of observer was born, and this is what the studies of visual culture should focus on, instead of emphasizing the role of remaining representations. What took place was a “reshaping an entire social field and the position of a of a human sensorium within it”.
Crary’s book will serve as a curious read for those in the academic field who are already educated in the field of visual culture. Being an extremely rich and difficult book, it requires some forehand knowledge of the subject, as Crary clearly assumes that the reader already possesses it. I have to admit that, even after reading this work, I do not have a complete understanding of how a stereoscope works. More clarification would make the book much easier to grasp. Furthermore, Crary does not explain the cultural relationship between the optical devices and their user. It makes it easy to accuse him of technological determinism, but the correct criticism would rather be that of unclarity. Lastly, he focuses only on the ‘high’ society, like scientists and aristocrats, who constitute only a small part of all the society. Therefore, the extent of the changes in the modes of vision is debatable. However, this book can significantly contribute to the understanding of the emerging digital technologies. It does not address the question about where should they be positioned in relation to the book, but rather serves as a historical background on which a further analysis can be built. It is also one of the few works who have seriously questioned and criticised the conventional history of photography, which can be accused of a too linear interpretation and focusing only on representation, but abandoning the observer. The status of the book as a classic work is justified.