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Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture [Paperback]

Jonathan Crary

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Book Description

Aug. 24 2001 October Books

Suspensions of Perception is a major historical study of human attention and its volatile role in modern Western culture. It argues that the ways in which we intently look at or listen to anything result from crucial changes in the nature of perception that can be traced back to the second half of the nineteenth century.

Focusing on the period from about 1880 to 1905, Jonathan Crary examines the connections between the modernization of subjectivity and the dramatic expansion and industrialization of visual/auditory culture. At the core of his project is the paradoxical nature of modern attention, which was both a fundamental condition of individual freedom, creativity, and experience and a central element in the efficient functioning of economic and disciplinary institutions as well as the emerging spaces of mass consumption and spectacle.

Crary approaches these issues through multiple analyses of single works by three key modernist painters -- Manet, Seurat, and Cezanne -- who each engaged in a singular confrontation with the disruptions, vacancies, and rifts within a perceptual field. Each in his own way discovered that sustained attentiveness, rather than fixing or securing the world, led to perceptual disintegration and loss of presence, and each used this discovery as the basis for a reinvention of representational practices.

Suspensions of Perception decisively relocates the problem of aesthetic contemplation within a broader collective encounter with the unstable nature of perception -- in psychology, philosophy, neurology, early cinema, and photography. In doing so, it provides a historical framework for understanding the current social crisis of attention amid the accelerating metamorphoses of our contemporary technological culture.


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Review

Crary is the historian-philosopher of our spectacle lives.

(Artforum)

About the Author

Jonathan Crary is Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University. A founding editor of Zone Books, he is the author of Techniques of the Observer (MIT Press, 1990) and coeditor of Incorporations (Zone Books, 1992). He has been the recipient of Guggenheim, Getty, Mellon, and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perceptive suspense Nov. 10 2006
By James McArdle - Published on Amazon.com
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This book provides persuasively and exhaustively argued discussions on perception and artworks and instruments from the dawn of the modernist era that aid and, as Crary shows, change perception. The book can be very productively be read alongside "Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography" and other texts by Geoffrey Batchen, and "The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography" by Patrick Maynard. The camera, they reveal in various ways, is not merely a device, but a construct made with the expectation that it will result in images that are analogous with human vision. The anticipation still exists that the camera obscura, and by implication its modern manifestation in the photographic camera, will replicate and verify what we see. The camera obscura entails a projection of light from real surfaces in ratios of proportion and intensity, on to a flat plane. In the pre-modern reading, the projection, ratio and reduction are evidently mathematical, and commensurable with the reality they conduct. However this point of view is at odds with the modernist view that the apparent geometry of the camera image is coincidental. That is, it does more to bring us closer to the human subjective (where are we?), rather than the abstract objective (where is everything?), in relationships with, and experiences of, space. Jonathon Crary and Geoffrey Batchen debate in various writings the transition between these points of view. Batchen (Batchen, G. (1991) `Enslaved sovereign, observed spectator: on Jonathon Crary, techniques of the observer', Continuum:The Australian Journal of Media and Culture, Vol. 6, No. 2.) critically responds to Crary (Crary, J. (1989) October, 97-107., Crary, J. (1990) Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, MIT Press, Cambridge., Crary, J. (1994) October, 21-44.) but both agree that around 1800 came a `vast systematic rupture' in the history of theories of vision in which certainties about the nature of vision with the camera obscura as its paradigm, are displaced by what becomes the problem of vision, represented by the steresoscope and, as Crary details, in the work of Paul Cezanne. Jonathon Crary takes the position that the stereoscope replaces the camera obscura as the instrument that encapsulates the spirit of its period, in contrast with (Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers) Descartes' and Diderot's use of the camera obscura as a model for the eye (in Crary, 1998). The stereoscope accepted that vision is a function as much of the mind as outside stimuli. Patrick Maynard refers to these devices as `engines of visualisation', industrialising vision and commodifying it. This is useful sociologically and philosophically, and prompts a re-evaluation of these instruments for their characteristics in aesthetic uses. However Batchen's emphasis is on the evidence of a desire for photography, from which follows the invention of photographic instruments, and their cultural acceptance, producing actual historical discontinuities in perception.

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