Jonathan Crary and Post-post-humanism

Monday, April 7th, 2014 by brandontruett

Jonathan Crary, in “Techniques of the Observer,” advances a Foucauldian analysis of the ways in which the observer was constructed historically. He focuses on ruptures rather than sanctioning the linear development of visual culture that began with the camera obscura and culminated with photography in the modernist era. Indeed, he follows Foucault by questioning the seeming similarity of historical objects that have been narrativized as continuous. To accentuate this historical rupture, or perhaps a new episteme, Crary emphasizes the site of the human body, whereby observation becomes corporeally theorized and intertwined, or as he puts it, “how the individual as observer became an object of investigation, a locus of knowledge in the first half of the 1800s, and how the nature of vision was thus modified” (15). Crary profits from an archaeological method à la Foucault’s The Order of Things, and elucidates historical ruptures in a similar way that Foucault views the discontinuity between the classical and modern epistemes. Echoing Benjamin, Crary persuasively argues that the nineteenth century inaugurated the “visual culture of modernity” (29). Scaffolding his argument is a material analysis of the stereoscope and how it “conflated the real with the optical, an object with its image” (29). In his view, the stereoscope referred back to the observer’s body inviting it to participate in the mechanical production of an image, thereby obscuring the line between subject/object. The stereoscope radically departs from the perhaps classical technology of the camera obscura.

Reading 24/7 alongside Crary’s early work in “Techniques of the Observer,” I am interested in how each argument informs a kind of humanistic inquiry by relying on the centrality of the human body and how its sensorium was affected and disciplined by emerging technologies. Crary does not replace the human with the objects. As we discussed early on, Crary seems invested in a return to the human, a post-post-humanism, as it were. While one might read this earlier piece as participating in posthumanism, especially in its final declaration on “the denial of the body, its pulsings and phantasms, as the ground of vision,” I think that Crary generates an archaeology of the observer that places subjectivity in an inextricable relationship with the machine (35). He achieves this by concentrating on the stereoscope and its relationship to the human body rather than reproducing a history of photography as a genealogy of modernism.

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