REVIEW: Vision and Visuality
Hal Foster, Editor
Dia Art Foundation
Discussions in Contemporary Culture, no. 2
Bay Press 1988.


Visual Display: Culture Beyond Appearances
Lynne Cooke and Peter Wollen, Editors
Dia Art Foundation
Discussions in Contemporary Culture, no. 10
Bay Press 1995.

The sensations of light and color are produced whenever parts of the retina are excited 1) by mechanical influences, such as pressure, a blow or concussion 2) by electricity 3) by chemical agents, such as narcotics, digitalis 4) by the stimulation of the blood in a state of congestion 5) the undulations and emanation which by their action on the eye are called light. Johannes Muller, physiologist, 1848 (p. 39,Vision & Visuality) Animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (sic) (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (I) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) etcetera, (m) having just broke the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

Jorge Luis Borges, quoted by M. Foucault in his Introduction to The Order of Things

To scientists in the second half of the nineteenth century, the above listed assertions of Johannes Muller captured the same kind of liberating absurdity that Borges’ “Chinese Encyclopedia” entry holds for critical theorists today. Muller showed that sight was infinitely fallible: the effects producing human vision could result from any number of phenomena internal and external to the seeing body, of which reflected light from the outer world, “what we see,” was but a small part (item #5). The expansive, undistilled definition that Borges offers wreaks havoc with the categorical imperatives underpinning the science of linguistics. Both the collection of stimuli enumerated by the physiologist and the collection of attributes described by the novelist assault weak boundaries of common sense, exposing the flawed, over-simplifying assumptions by which most of us navigate most of the time.

We are witnessing a profound reaction against theorizing in architecture, ushered in by a slowly but steadily improving economy. Finally bringing in new jobs, designers are at pains to convince new clients and themselves that they are supremely practical- able, despite their long hiatus from building. “Pragmatic” is hardly the pejorative dull it was a few years ago. As architects once again take up their trade in more conventional terms, drawings buildings that might be built, they’d do well to remember just how much of the last decade’s design and theory explored the outer limits of convention- and why they bother to.

Only a few years ago, one had to be fluent in the French and German thinkers, ambitious about translating this polemic or that misread quote into architectural terms. The angry, convoluted designs of many an LA and NYC atelier circa 1988 now appear Recession Decadent – bleaker, but no more sustaining than the pastel pomposity of the early 8os. As designers wean themselves off of Deleuze + Guattari, in favor of Ramsey + Sleeper (the profoundly under-appreciated compilers of Architectural Graphic Standards), fewer and fewer titles spring to mind that might hold the attention of real-worldly, intrepid practitioners.

Jonathan Crary describes Muller’s physiological findings in “Modernizing Vision,” one of five essays in Vision and Visuality, published in 1988 as the second of ten “Discussions in Contemporary Culture” by the Dia Foundation for the Arts. Each volume of the Dia series includes a collection of essays presented at the Dia Foundation in New York as well as the roundtable debate following the presentations. Sharply focused and erudite, each volume of the series is edited independently and addresses topics as narrow as the legacy of Andy Warhol, as inclusive as Black Popular Culture or Democracy. The most well-known and directly pertinent volume to architects is probably Discussion #6, If You Lived Here: The City in Art, Theory and Cultural Activism, edited by Martha Rosier. However, the latest volume, Visual Display: Culture beyond Appearances, (VD) edited jointly by Lynne Cooke and Peter Wollen, acts as counter-polemic to Vision and Visuality, (V&V) the only other discussion specifically tied to sight and culture. From contrary perspectives, both books challenge the assumptions of current art and architectural practice.

Published seven years apart, the two collections are telling signs of their respective times. With Vision and Visuality, editor Hal Foster outlined the basic terms and parameters for a debate that would rage on for ten years in the strange and academically much-contested terrain between philosophy and art theory. Foster draws a nature v. nurture distinction between visions, sight understood as a physical operation, and visuality, sight as a social construction. Though his bipolar model never quite caught on, Foster opened a forum in which biological sight and cultural spectacle – the bodily mechanics of seeing and the societal dynamics framing what we look at – could be assessed together. In particular, Foster identified the integral role vision played in any debate of urban identity and difference. As he states in his introduction to V&V, “The violence in the Western metropolis of sexist, hetrosexualist and racist gazes, deepened by a reactive patriarchy and a divisive political economy, cannot help but inflect the discussion and inform its receptors. The same is true of the visual technorama which envelopes us.

With the exception of Crary’s piece on the scientific advances that in the nineteenth century undermined abstract models of sight and consciousness by locating the processes of vision within the body, the other four contributors to V&V remain resolutely “High Art” both in the their source material and argumentation.

In “Scopic Regimes of Modernity,” Martin Jay introduces the major Western paradigms of vision that inform recent critical projects, such as Foucault’s theory of “Panopticism,” Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle” and Rorty’s “Mirror of Nature” (all, as Jay points out, ocularcentric renderings of society). Jay explains the historically dominant model of modern vision, which he terms “Cartesian perspectivalism” and two counter-regimes within European art practice. Few conventions of representation are as emblematically “Western” as the constructed perspective views of the High Renaissance, based on the Italian discoveries of Alberti and Brunelleschi. However, Jay locates two more modes of portrayal that have had comparable, if less celebrated, impact: a northern, “Baconian” tradition based on mapping and evidentiary representation, and the “Baroque,” understood broadly to include the many splayed, pinched, convex and concave distortions of classical perspective pioneered in the 17th century and turned to vertiginous effect ever since.

Rosalind Krauss presents “The Impulse to See,” a meditation on the patterns of redundancy and pulsation that drove Ernst, Picasso and others, as well as a distillation of many of the themes she expands on in the Visual Unconscious. In “The Gaze in the Expanded Field” (the title is an homage to Krauss’ book, Sculpture in the Expanded Field), Norman Bryson poses an Eastern alternative to the subject based limitations of the gaze or regard in Western thought, a ch’an Japanese concept of sunyata, or blankness. Finally, Jacqueline Rose closes by questioning the psychoanalytical connections between- -vision and culture, charging D + G, Lyotard and Jameson, among others, to reconsider the ‘unsightly’ and gender-loaded consequences of their reliance on the metaphor of schizophrenia to diagnose the postmodern condition.

Rereading the collection, one sees lines being drawn in the sand, lines now contested with the firepower and brass, though hardly the fixed odds, of an academic “Desert Storm.” However, at the time of the Vision & Visuality discussion, not all in attendance were so impressed. In all five essays and especially in the debates that followed their presentation, the participants set out repeatedly to “problematize” fixed assumptions, often attacking tangential points in others’ work, sometimes splitting hairs unseen. A debate over Bryson’s use of Japanese source material prompted one audience member, Catherine Liu, to comment, “Here we are in our strange igloo looking out through little windows … there’s a whole theater of magic that we get into when we deal with the other, and this other is not that much other of an other.” It would be tempting, but unfair, to treat the new tome, Visual Display: Culture Beyond Appearances, as “Sight Lite.” Fast, full and conversational, VD is a collection of interdisciplinary essays covering strategies of exhibition employed in medicine, politics and economics as well as museology and stage-craft. Like intricate crib-notes for Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, VD assess continues almost every tactic for collapsing objects and knowledge into graphic representation. However, the masking of meaning is as much at issue in these essays as is the exposure of information.

As Peter Wollen explains in his introduction, a glass wall separates the subjects of his collection from those of Foster’s earlier issue. “Visual display is the other side of the spectacle: the side of production rather than consumption or reception, the designer rather than the viewer, the agent rather than the patient (VD P.9).”  Though Wollen’s producers, designers and agents can be found throughout the cultural and professional spheres, roughly half the thirteen essays included in VD examine museums, actual and notional. The hunger to collect, classify and exhibit takes many forms, from the necropolitan logic of natural history and wax museums outlined by Ann Reynolds and Marina Warner, respectively, to the sinister comedies of the Old West and Sheriffs museums discussed by Ralph Rugoff, as well as the more personal and perhaps life-affirming passions captured in the Museum of Jurassic Technology and Daniel Spoerri’s musee sentimental.

Strangest of these collections is Charles Willson Peale’s museum in Philadelphia, a collection of collections ranging from Peale’s firsthand portraits of American Revolutionary heroes, taxidermic examples of as many mammals as Peale could secure, and scenes of his family – complete with adult likenesses of the sons and daughter he lost to childhood illness. According to Susan Stewart, Peale gave all equal, if highly ordered, status: both a bust of Washington and a “gentle intelligent Oran Outang” are presented as evolutionary stepping-stones. Stewart charts Peale’s progress from the tragedy of losing his first four children through his founding of the first American museum, revealing how he transformed his mourning and memory-loss into a comprehensive, optimistic space of remembrance.

The non-museological contributors to VD are predictably looser and wider-ranging, more inclined to the theoretical riff. In much the same way Crary’s piece in V&V seeks to reign in the longstanding universality of the camera obscura as a philosophical model. Stephen Bann seeks in the opening essay to deromanticize the wunderkammer, or Cabinet of Curiosities, a hot trope in alternative museum histories. In Bann’s estimation, religious shrines had a far broader and lasting impact, while revealing many of the same multivalent object associations as the kammer.

In the political arena, display and spectacle merge regularly, with both subversive and totalitarian consequences. Edward Ball offers an example of “collected” as opposed to collective identity at work in the annual rituals of the Mardi Gras “Indians,” African-Americans in New Orleans that assume the role of native American warriors for each year’s festival. Peter Wollen and Eric Santner look, respectively, at the cultural preludes to and aftermath of Nazi Germany. Ludmilla Jordanova surveys the many tactics of display deployed in popular medical illustration and publishing over the last 150years, while Lisa Cartwright updates these genres of bio-ducumentation, revealing how invasive, gender-specified technologies are now used to market terror, selling safe cars and conservative social policy, while draining our over-burdened health care system.

Two contributions at either extreme of the “spectacular” and mundane make the most compelling reading in VD. Scott Bukatman’s “The Artificial Infinite” investigates the cinematic sublime through the work of Douglas Trumbull, the creator of environmental effects for 2001: ASpace Odyssey, Close Encounters. Star Trek and Blade Runner. In Bukatman’s view, the dynamic, often terrifying panoramas of sci-fi films liberate and relocate the body of the viewer, opening a realm of “sensationalized knowledge.” By contrast, Susan Buck-Morss’ “Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display” shows how the “discovery” of global economics was more its outright invention – an ongoing, fictional construction in low-brow graphic design that can be retooled to illustrate the supremacy of any given political order.

Operating from opposite sides of the vitrine, Vision & Visuality and Visual Display nonetheless share a preoccupation with the “seeing body” and with the violence seen (and unseen) to threaten that body. In this sense, the abstract, even falsified visions of capital “flow” that Buck-Morss maps, as they run lava-like over unsuspecting populations, are no less foreseeable catastrophic than the sun’s rays that eventually blinded Joseph Plateau. A physiologist and student of the so-called “persistence of vision,” Plateau would stare directly at the sun for hours, lost in circular contemplation, focused on the hallucinogenic afterimage of his burning eyes.

Vision remains an unavoidable metaphor, if not precondition, for Western thought, and these two collections both chart current efforts to orchestrate and democratize the intercourse between sight and cognition. Though visual studies brings the “effete” tactics of art theory, film studies and literary criticism to bear on popular media and venues – mall movies, public museums, educational graphics – the results often highlight the savvy and effectiveness of “unschooled” practioners in the field.

Architects, however, have probably reaped the benefits of a discourse repressed. As Crary points out in “Modernizing Vision,” the predominant model of consciousness, the Cartesian “room of thought” based on the monocular camera obscura, depends on architecture, with its “authoritative bringing to order of vision” and “metaphysics of interiority.” To be in camera, according to Locke, meant literally to be within the offices of a titled person – white and well-to-do at the least. The implications are manifold: not only has Western thought been the domain of male privilege, but our understanding of the internal sites of human understanding have themselves mirrored his private chambers. While much cultural criticism seeks to see history and current practices through other, less hegemonic eyes, visual studies confronts the reality that even our models of receiving and interpreting our surroundings owe an unsavory debt to class, race and gender inequity.

But the camera obscura is no longer the state of the art. A punctured box cannot rival the still cameras of the nineteenth and the motion cameras of the twentieth centuries. Color, movement, binocular optics, and, most of all, infinite reproducibility – all conspire against the gridded, gilded cage of Descartes. Photography and cinema, as well as a wealth of other media and modes of representation, have liberated the image from its fixity – in space, time, and consciousness. Compounding these technological advances, the biological sciences have undermined all arguments for clean, well lit rooms of reception and thought within the human organism.

Visual studies, body criticism and multicultural debate share little, save their preoccupation with the diversity of human experience, read through the specificities of human “matter,” and their rejection of edifying, architecturally -defined theories of subjectivity. Could architects’ current retreat into practice and practicality be no more than a recognition that they can no longer house nor embody the thought of other discourses? Could the spasms of architectural theorizing through the eighties – and our fixation on “historicism” and “deconstruction” during those years – be just the discipline’s last grasping for philosophical relevance?

Neither question can be answered with a simple affirmative. While the heroic foundations and enclosures that architectural discourse once promised philosophy and other fields proved untenable, traces and fragments of those monumental constructs remain to complicate, frame and occasionally buttress the claims of poststructural thought. Current debate within architectural theory often boils down to name-calling between those armed with the traces of former idealism and those hurling fragments of the actually realized. [In an odd role-reversal] New York architects make the best case for vast reimagining in Site & Stations: Provisional Utopias, a collection edited by Stan Allen and Kyong Park just released by Lusitania Press, while Angelenos stage combat from the streets with work included in Urban Revisions (LA Forum/MOCA. 1994).

Content within their limitations, neither the neo-utopians nor the advocates of the every-day seriously contest the strains of current critical theory that have consigned them both to the apres-garde. One need not choose between Main St. and La Strada Sant’Elia, the pavement or the firmament. The languages of architecture and contemporary criticism are still commingled, if not coterminous. Focusing on the complex bridges between the seen and the seeing, visual studies invites the designers of many of those spans back to the interdisciplinary table, back to “cases” of display, back to the discussion of power, space and expression. From those charged with shaping our surroundings, the interrogation of sight opened by Vision & Visuality and broadened in Visual Display demands both broad speculation on, and finite engagements in the fabrication of culture.

Back to Summer 1997 Newsletter: Summer Reading