on 8 April 2001
In 'Suspensions of Perception', Crary pursues themes which will be familiar to readers of his earlier text, 'Techniques of the Observer': how perception was analysed and instumentalised by thinkers, artists and scientists in the later nineteenth century. The collapse of classical optics and the rise of more subjective, physiological conceptions of seeing, the major themes of 'Techniques', is here Crary's starting point. He uses the complexities and quandaries of this irreducibly corporeal conception of vision to explore what became a major preoccupation of psychologists and physiologists: the problem of attention. Attention, argues Crary, was an innately bifurcated concept. On the one hand, modern production techniques required a subject capable of focusing mind and eyes on work for as long as was efficiently possible. On the other, modern consumer society required a subject able to constantly absorb and respond to new stimuli in the kaleidoscopic city. To address this fundamentally paradoxical problematisation, Crary provides three long and extraordinarily intricate analyses, using paintings by Manet, Seurat and Cezanne as his springboard. Vision, he argues, was essentially 'unbound' by the discoveries of the earlier nineteenth century; it was no longer a discrete and fixed entity, but rather something more fluid and indeterminate. How then was it to be 're-synthesised' within the new physiological paradigm? How was attention to be secured without inducing pathological states of trance and hypnosis? How could vision and selfhood be kept from atomising in the vortex of modern technologised society? These form just a few of the questions addressed in this absorbing, elegant and subtle work. Crary's latest book has taken a long time to emerge, but it will be an invaluable aid to all researchers of modern viusal culture, technology, psychology and society.