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Visual Culture

Historicity Of The Senses

As early as 1844, Karl Marx in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of that year argued from a historical-materialist perspective that the senses themselves developed in dialectical relationships to society's objects. New modes of perception, sensibility, and appropriation were developed for the objects and processes of industrialization.

It is only when the objective world becomes everywhere for man in society the world of man's essential powers—human reality, and for that reason the reality of his own essential powers—that all objects become for him the objectification of himself.… The manner in which they become his depends upon the nature of the objects and on the nature of the essential power corresponding to it; for it is precisely the determinateness of this relationship which shapes the particular, real mode of affirmation. To the eye an object comes to be other than it is to the ear, and the object of the eye is another object than the object of the ear. The peculiarity of each essential power is precisely its peculiar essence, and therefore also the peculiar mode of its objectification, of it objectively actual living being. Thus man is affirmed in the objective world not only in the act of thinking, but with all his senses.

On the other hand, looking at this in its subjective aspect: just as music alone awakens in man the sense of music, and just as the most beautiful music has no sense for the unmusical ear—is no object for it because my object can only be the confirmation of one of my essential powers and can therefore only be so for me as my essential power is present for itself as a subjective capacity, because the sense of an object for me goes only so far as my senses go (has only sense for a sense corresponding to that object)—for this reason the senses of the social man are other senses than those of the non-social man.… The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present (pp. 74–75).

Marx writes here both of the historical disarticulation (separation) of the senses and of the historico-social elaboration of their capacities. If the forming of the five senses is indeed a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present, then it is also true that "the psychic structures which are then derived from this organization of the senses by the objective conditions of production" are also preeminently historical. The theorist Hal Foster, in his landmark essay "Scopic Regimes of Modernity," sketches some of the varied scopic regimes (the organization of subjects and objects by differing visual systems of representation) in early modern Europe and discusses their historical basis. His work provides concrete examples of varied scopic regimes embedded in different cultural and historical moments.

Although it may not seem like much to show that the organization and development of the senses (and therefore the structures of the psyche) are historical rather than ontologically hard-wired, this insight is of great import for an understanding of the historicity of the idea of visual culture. For the idea of visual culture emerges when and only when social production itself has entered definitively into the visual realm and the site of the visual becomes indeed the privileged realm of social production.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Verbena Family (Verbenaceae) - Tropical Hardwoods In The Verbena Family to WelfarismVisual Culture - The Visual Turn, Visuality, Historical Emergence Of The Field Of Vision As A Site Of Power And Social Control