Crary’s Techniques of the Observer

Sunday, April 6th, 2014 by willm2


One of the most interesting points Crary brings up in “Techniques of the Observer” is his claim that the optical devices of the 1830’s and 40’s render the user both “the magician and the deceived” (35). At the same time, devices like the stereoscope created illusions and revealed the mechanism of their creation, thereby deceiving and enlightening the viewer in the same moment. If the viewer understood that they were looking at nothing more than a trick, what was the allure? Following from Crary, it seems the answer is the overlap between mechanical illusion and the increasing mechanical nature of urban life during the age of stereoscope.


The tricks employed by optical devices matched the disorienting effects of high powered machinery that moved more quickly and in a vaster scope than anything experienced in the pre-industrial age. As opposed to the stereoscope or phenakistiscope, the techniques of operation were not laid bare in mechanisms of military or industrial purposes. The stereoscope, then, gave the viewer an illusion of control over the illusion presented to their vision. What the viewer’s optical nerves could not process at the factory, was rendered as something knowable and harmless by the unconcealed trickery at the heart of devices such as the kaleidoscope. As the magician and the deceived, the viewer could enjoy the visual-stimulation of an optical-illusion without being confounded by its operation. The viewer’s agency over their own sight-sense was preserved.


With the advent of photography, this imaginary agency was replaced by something less transparent but no less effective. As Crary explains, the photographic camera was misinterpreted as a “transparent and incorporeal intermediary between observer and world” (35). The user believed in their own uniqueness and importance as observer-agent not because they knew the trick of the camera, but because they fancied that the camera was nothing more than an extension of their own eye.



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