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Visual Culture

Historical Emergence Of The Field Of Vision As A Site Of Power And Social Control

In Nicholas Mirzoeff's "The Subject of Visual Culture," an essay that serves as an introduction to his important edited volume The Visual Culture Reader, he writes that "By the visual subject I mean a person who is both constituted as an agent of sight and as the effect of a series of categories of visual subjectivity" (p. 10). Sketching the emergence of some of these categories, Mirzoeff traces an arc from René Descartes (1596–1650) to roughly Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and Jacques Lacan (1901–1981). This arc spans the early modern Cartesian notion of "I think, therefore I am" to what Mirzoeff calls "a new mantra of visual subjectivity: 'I am seen and I see that I am seen'" (p. 10). Notably, the modern subject who first emerges through the negation of the visual field (Descartes begins his meditations by doubting the veracity of vision itself, specifically whether it is his hand he sees before his face), and after being subject to a variety of disciplinary regimes of surveillance (in the work of Michel Foucault [1926–1984]), is later constituted in and through the visual (Lacan's "I see myself seeing myself"). The Lacanian analysis of the visual field derives a great proportion of the algebra of subjectivity from scopic relations. Marking a shift in the development and organization of a subject who was effectively located at the (0,0) Cartesian coordinate point in a visible universe of axonometric space developed by Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) and point perspective and formalized by Descartes, Mirzoeff astutely sites the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham's (1748–1832) prison design known as the Panopticon (1786) as emblematic of the utilization of visual surveillance for disciplinary purposes. Brilliantly analyzed by Foucault in "The Eye of Power," Bentham's prison design created a circular array of fully transparent prison cells forming a perimeter around a central hub—a guard tower of smoked glass. The genius of the panopticon was in its economy: the prisoners knew that they could always be seen by the guard in the tower wherever they were in their cells; because they could not tell whether the guard tower was occupied (guards were changed via an underground tunnel), the prisoners effectively watched themselves, that is, policed themselves. Foucault called this form of self-surveillance the "internalization of the gaze of power." While Foucault notes the efficient advance in disciplinary technology marked by the panopticon (it is much cheaper to have people police themselves than to have to continuously beat them into submission), what is at least as important here is that the visual is explicitly grasped as a medium of organization and social control, and that the visual field can be structured via architecture and therefore via design and technology.

The fact that vision and the gaze become the media for the orchestration of social control is in no way confined to technologies of surveillance. As suggested above, the organization of the visual is for many thinkers constitutive of subjectivity, of modern psychology, and therefore of conceptualization of self and other. The fact that Freudian psychoanalysis and the origins of cinema (developed by the Lumiere brothers) share 1895 as an inaugural date might therefore be viewed as more than mere coincidence. Although the majority of psychoanalytic work during the twentieth century believed itself to be embarking on a description and analysis of the deep and therefore ontological structures of human desire and the psyche, it has been argued that the psychic structures available for analysis by the new discipline of psychoanalysis are in fact instantiated and developed by visual technologies themselves (Beller, 2002). Film theory includes extensive work on cinema's modulation of the gaze and its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure, but it is at least as likely as not that the structures of apperception capable of deriving the pleasures that cinema offers emerge in dialectical relation to cinematic technologies themselves, rather than having always already been there, lying in wait.

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