Sunday, October 2, 2011

Crary and Solnit

The Crary writing was interesting in how it separated the problems of visual representation from the problems of how an observer sees. 

Crary writes, "problems of vision then, as now, were fundamentally questions about the body and the operation of social power."  I found this to be a very interesting idea, that you can't separate ways of seeing from our own relationships to our bodies, to time and space, and to the world around us and the mechanisms through which we perceive it.

Illustrating this idea, Crary writes, "vision and its effects are always inseparable from the possibilities of an observing subject who is both the historical product and the site of certain practices, techniques, institutions, and procedures of subjectification."

I also like the distinction he makes between a spectator and an observer, tracing each word to its Latin root. 

Unlike ‘spectare,’ the Latin root for ‘spectator,’ the root for ‘observe’ does not literally mean ‘to look at.’  Spectator also carries specific connotations, especially in the context of nineteenth-century culture, that I prefer to avoid- namely, of one who is a passive onlooker at a spectacle, as at an art gallery or theater.  In a sense more pertinent to my study, ‘observare’ means ‘to conform one’s actions, to comply with,’ as in observing rules, odes, regulations, and practices.  Though obviously one who sees, an observer is more importantly one who sees within a prescribed set of possibilities, one who is embedded in a system of conventions and limitations.

This last sentence is especially critical to understanding Crary’s ideas about vision and perception.  I also found it interesting that he argued that how we categorize history and our own technological advances shapes how we see our modern world, whether “the shape of the present seems ‘natural’ or whether its historically fabricated and densely sedimented makeup is made evident.”

I enjoyed reading Crary’s thoughts on the stereoscope, and it put it into a context I had not overly considered before.  Perhaps this is because, as he makes evident, it does not feel like a new or revolutionary way of seeing for me, with my 21st century eyes that are arguably inundated with all kinds of “real” or 3D imagery.  

Crary writes, “in devising the stereoscope, Wheatstone aimed to simulate the actual presence of a physical object or scene, not to discover another way to exhibit a print or drawing.”  This is an important point regarding the motives behind developing the stereoscope.

Illustrating the importance of social circumstances to ways of seeing, Crary writes, “No other form of representation in the nineteenth century had so conflated the real with the optical.  We will never really know what the stereoscope looked like to a nineteenth century viewer or recover a stance from which is could seem an equivalent for a ‘natural vision.’”

I was also intrigued by his point about how stereoscopes are the most effective when they show scenes crammed full of things, such as rooms full of objects, as opposed to a landscape, for example, and how this use translated both into pornographic images and was also being explored simultaneously (though not, he argues, as a result of the stereoscope) through painting.  

In regards to their function, he writes, “the content of the images is far less important than the inexhaustible routine of moving from one card to the next and producing the same effect, repeatedly, mechanically.”  He goes on to explain why the stereoscope ultimately fell out of popularity, which he argues was not simple because of its association with pornography or erotic imagery.

“Even though they provided access to ‘the real,’ they make no claim that the real is anything other than a mechanical production.”  This could be contrasted to realistic landscape painting, which was often blindly accepted as “the real” and did not draw attention to its own falseness or two dimensionality.  

Crary goes on to write, “the ‘concealment of production’ did not fully occur.  Clearly the stereoscope was dependent on a physical engagement with the apparatus that became increasingly unacceptable, and the composite, synthetic nature of the stereoscope image could never be fully effaced.”

The Solnit article was fascinating to me, and like Crary’s writing, references a time that a modern observer could no longer imagine, when places were effectively far away and impossible to reach, and one experienced most of their life without ever going further than a day’s walk from home, whether physically or through imagery.  She explains how the invention of the railroad shortened the time it took to travel between places and effectively shrunk the world, making it more accessible.  She then went on to explain how photography effectively did the same thing through the use of capturing images, making it possible for people to own an object of an image of a loved one (“the youthful face of a beloved… could be possessed like an object”), for example, or to see a landscape that they would never be able to see otherwise.  

Solnit writes, “places connected by railroads were, for all practical purposes, several times closer to each other than they had ever been… the world began to shrink, and local differences to dissipate.”

Writing about the effect that technology has on our world, she wrote, “what distinguishes a technological world is that the terms of nature are obscured; one need not live quite in the present or local.”  Judging on how drastically the invention of faster travel and photography affected the people in the nineteenth century, I can only imagine the social and psychological implications of our current society, where the entire world (or at least my perception of the entire world) is truly connected, almost all of the time, to a point that there is no longer such a thing as solitude or true, adventurous travel for most people in the modern world.  

One sentence that I found especially poignant was Solnit’s comparison of photography to the railroad, saying, “[photography] transport[ed] experience as the railroad transported matter.”  She did point out, however, that in contrast to the industrial nature of the railroad, photography was largely an artisan’s technology, but the effect it would have on the general public was no less intense.

I also enjoyed her point about photography being a paradoxical invention, simultaneously moving forward while always looking back: “photography may have been its most paradoxical invention; a technological breakthrough for holding onto the past, a technology always rushing forward, always looking back.”

Her point about one of the first images to be made, where all that remained in focus was the street and a bootblack and a pair of boots, was fascinating, and alluded to how photography has never really been a true document or truth, but rather is limited by technological constraints and always a subjective interpretation of any scene, not to be taken as a fact.  Writing of the bootblack and the boots, she writes, “it is eerie to look at them apparently alone, but really surrounded by scores who vanished into speed.”  Continuing in this vein, she brings it back to Muybridge: “the bustling nineteenth century had to come to a halt for the camera, until Muybridge and his motion studies.”  

One of the most fascinating points of the article is how, through the annihilation of time and space, new technologies took a person out of their present, out of their experience, out of nature, or out of their own body.  Solnit writes, “the railroad, the photograph, the telegraph, were technologies for being elsewhere in time and space, for pushing away the here and now.”  I wonder what she has to say about the internet, where we each believe we are having social experiences while actually isolated in our own homes?

Continuing, she says, “those carried along on technology’s currents were less connected to local places, to the earth itself, to the limitations of the body and biology, to the malleability of memory and imagination… It was as though they sacrificed the near to gain the far.”

She also pointed out how people missed these connections, and they attempted to find them again, “as though what had been lost as direct experience could be, just as Holmes dreamed, recovered as imagery.”

Lastly, tying these ideas into Muybridge’s motion studies, she writes:

In the spring of 1872 a man photographed a horse.  With the motion studies that resulted it was as though he were returning bodies themselves to those who craved them- not bodies as they might daily be experiences, bodies as sensations of gravity, fatigue, strength, pleasure, but bodies become weightless images, bodies dissected and reconstructed by light and machine and fantasy.

Again writing of Muybridge’s photographs of people, Solnit makes a very interesting and poignant point: “those gestures- a gymnast turning a somersault in mid air, a nude pouring water- were unfamiliar and eerie stopped because they showed what had always been present but never seen.”  

She returns to the idea of losing something natural through technology, writing, “what they had lost was solid; what they gained was made out of air… Muybridge was a doorway, a pivot between the old world and ours, and to follow him is to follow the choices that got us here.”

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