The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft

Anne Friedberg,
The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft.
Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.
ISBN: 978 0 262 06252 7
US$34.95 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by MIT Press)


What counts for the orientation of the spectacle is not my body as it in fact is, as a thing in objective space, but as a system of possible actions, a virtual body with its phenomenal ‘place’ defined by its task and situation. My body is wherever there is something to be done.

(Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception)[1]

For the philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, we never simply live embodiment as an abstract object within the world – the body is, rather, the fleshy grounds by which we can be said to have and interact with a world, through both real and virtual registers. As Vivian Sobchack writes, the body that informs the work of Merleau-Ponty is the phenomenological concept of the lived-body, indicating how embodiment must always be lived “at once… [as] an objective subject and a subjective object: a sentient, sensual, and sensible ensemble of materialized capacities and agency that literally and figuratively makes sense of, and to, both ourselves and others” (italics mine).[2]

In detailing how we experience space, for instance, Merleau-Ponty evocatively suggests how subjective experiences of the body-in-space entail a kind of physical negotiation between the realms of the actual and the virtual. According to Merleau-Ponty, a ‘virtual body’ exists alongside the lived-body, waiting to be actualized in space. “Consciousness is in the first place not a matter of ‘I think that’ but of ‘I can’”, he writes, for it is reliant upon a system of possible virtual actions (that of ‘I can walk, run, reach, grasp, speak, gesture, along with a thousand other intricate acts’) that can then be literalized by its corporeal base; indeed, it is through the dynamics of the lived-body and “by virtue of motility, [that] each [virtual] ‘there’ can become, hence potentially is, a [concrete] ‘here’… [and] space appears as the horizon for a multiplicity of possible movements, expressions, projects”.[3]  If, for Merleau-Ponty, the lived-body is the phenomenological constant by which we negotiate between actual and virtual possibilities of space, then, for Anne Friedberg, it is the representational space of the ‘virtual window’ that has provided the formal constant of many centuries of diverse visual entertainments.

In her stunningly researched study, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, Friedberg examines the ‘virtual window’ as a densely laden metaphor and a historic visual practice. As Friedberg so ably reminds us, we tend to “know the world by what we see: through a window, in a frame, on a screen… how the world is framed may be as important as what is contained within that frame”, as she reasons (1). To that end, Friedberg insightfully argues for the tradition of the virtual window in light of its continued opening up of a virtual elsewhere as well as a virtual elsewhen for those standing or sitting before it; such windowed apertures serve to “ventilate the static materialities and temporalities of their viewers” (4).

Taking her guiding premise from Leon Battista Alberti who, in his 1435 treatise, De pictura, once instructed the artist to treat painting as an ‘open window’, Friedberg systematically dismantles the misuse of the ‘window’ metaphor in film theory, art history, the visual arts and philosophy, where the association between single-point perspective and moving image media has so often been swamped by debates surrounding its inherent relation to the ideological/technological apparatus of the cinema, the Cartesian subject or the disincarnate body (26). One of the major contributions of Friedberg’s book, to both film studies and inter-related disciplines, is her examination of visual technologies of perspective through an intricate historiography that corrects entrenched fallacies. To that end, she duly informs us of how, for Alberti, windows were actually translucent, not transparent; that Alberti’s emphasis on historia (“the subject to be painted”) lends itself to imaginative narrative mappings rather than to the production of a “window on the world”, as it has frequently been invoked (32, 35). Alberti’s metaphor of the window emphasized the frame of viewing, not a natural or mimetic view from out of an architectural window (35). According to Friedberg, the “frame was what mattered, not the view out the window” and it is that abiding function of the frame that she argues might continue to inform the “mobility and virtuality of… images seen through ‘virtual’ windows” such as those of film, television and new media (30, 32).

Similarly, Friedberg quite rightly decimates the equation between Albertian, linear or single-point perspective with the “Cartesian subject: centered and stable, anonymous and thinking, standing outside the world” as little more than gross historical elision; an inherently “shaky conflation” that collapses the practice of Alberti into the philosophy of Descartes (46-47). Turning her attention to conflations between Renaissance perspective, Descartes, the camera obscura and the photographic camera in film theory (and glossing ‘apparatus’ theorists like Jean-Louis Baudry, Christian Metz and Stephen Heath, as well as more recent critics such as David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, in their approach to the frame and ‘classical’ Hollywood), Friedberg proposes how historic delight in the camera obscura depended not only on the verisimilitude of its images but also upon its “illusion of verisimilitude, the virtuality of the experience produced” (63). Furthermore, during the seventeenth-century, in particular, when knowledge of the camera obscura was at its most widespread, it functioned as both a perspective machine and a projective or entertainment device; significantly, the pre-cinematic tradition of the magic lantern also developed at this time, which was “similar in construction to the camera obscura but with a human performance in view”.[4]  Friedberg’s finer point lies in not only exposing the inaccuracy of an assumed genealogy between perspective, the camera obscura and the cinema but to argue that cinematic (and, in turn, televisual and computer-based virtualities) do not adhere to a fixed, perspectival positioning. Instead, as she maintains, the noticeable “movement of objects within the frame, to its edges, and off-frame, suggests [the] radical contradiction” of single-point perspective within film; the moving image within a single frame might well retain some of perspective’s fixity but it also produces a “complex and fractured representation of space and time” that transforms perspective into a series of shifting positions” (83, 93). The “movement of elements within the frame, the movement of the camera, movement between frames, and between shots challenge[s] the fixed position of the single frame ‘window’ view”, she asserts (83, 93).

According to Friedberg, the longevity of the ‘virtual window’ has spawned an architectonics of spectatorship that has evolved across the collision and exchange between different media forms and eras: while the idea of an architectural or painted ‘window’ has functioned as a metaphor for the screen, the architectural window has, in turn, given way to virtual analogs (cinematic, televisual, digital). There are, however, certain experiential constants across historic shifts. For Friedberg, these constants lie in the presence of an enframed and virtual (as well as often moving) view, encountered by an immobile viewer (11-12, 150). Furthermore, she claims that regardless of “variations in theatre architecture and films projected, what remains – constant and haunting – is the screen” in which shifts in moving-image perspective are sequential (following each other frame-by-frame, shot-by-shot) and viewed on a single frame, seen on a single screen (166). She continues: “In the century-long history of film and the half-century long history of television, there are only limited examples of either multiple-screen display or multiple-screen composition within the single frame… That is, until recently”, she hastens to add (192). Spawned by the rise of digital imaging technologies and new modes of display that create multiple perspectives within a single-frame, Friedberg ends by suggesting that a somewhat new aesthetic or perspectival sensibility is now being fostered by the digital, so that even that longstanding bastion of cinema studies, the “very term ‘spectatorship’ has lost its theoretical pinions – as screens have changed, so have our relations to them”.[5]

In the midst of currently proliferating personal and public screens and the general ubiquity of hand-held devices (iPods, iPhones, Blackberrys, portable laptops), such a thoughtful and dedicated historiography of ‘virtual’ visuality (as it informs Renaissance painting, framed perspective, glassed architecture, seventeenth-century boxed, lensed and light-projective technologies, cinematic or televisual screens, digital interfaces) is not only timely but of considerable import in helping us make sense of our own contemporary terrain. As the phenomenon of digital ‘convergence’ collapses the once separate screens of film, television and the computer into the palm of your hand or the burgeoning of trans-media franchises disperse their imaginary narratives across multiple entertainment outlets, the ways in which we produce and consume the moving image seems to be undergoing a series of profound shifts. The Virtual Window is an astute reminder of the importance of returning to the past in order to be able to gauge the shifts of the present, especially insofar as Friedberg argues that the ‘virtual window’ has “remained a defining concept for theories of painting, architecture and moving-image media” alike (1). As she asserts, our “screens are now everywhere – on our wrists, in our hands, on our dashboards and in our backseats, on the bicycles and treadmills at the gym, on the seats of airplanes and buses, on buildings and billboards”, yet whereas a “key component of the viewer’s position in the cinematic century was to be immobile in front of the frame of the screen”, we have come to inhabit a pervasive screen-scape in which our “position is no longer fixed in relation to the virtual elsewheres and elsewhens seen on a screen… the virtual window is mobile and pervasive” (87).

And yet, in productively decoupling notions of the virtual from their assumed conflation with the digital, Friedberg not only argues that the screens of cinema, television and computers still function as virtual windows (as we can inhabit “a subjective elsewhere, in a virtual space, a virtual time”) but that ‘virtuality’ itself possesses a dense historical lineage that has surfaced in a number of guises, as architectural, windowed and screen-based or projective entertainments (178). To quote Freidberg:

… before the digital age, there was virtuality – painterly, photographic, cinematic, televisual – and its aesthetics and visual systems cannot be reduced simply to information. There is a long prehistory to the ‘virtual’ image: mirrors, paintings, images produced by the camera obscura, photographs, and moving-image film all produce mediated representations in a virtual register. Once the term ‘virtual’ is freed from its enforced association with the ‘digital’, it can more accurately operate as the marker of an ontological, not a media-specific property… For the purposes of this study, then, the term ‘virtual’ serves to distinguish between any representation or appearance (whether optically, technologically or artisanally produced) that appears ‘functionally or effectively but not formally’ of the same materiality as what it represents. (11)

While Friedberg intimates how “the term ‘embodiment’… cuts across theories of virtuality”, there is a tendency throughout this book to privilege virtual mobility at the expense of the experiential and implied physical immobility of the viewer that she discusses (48). To be sure, we might not literally move in many encounters with the moving-image (although, arguably, the kineasthetics of gaming or hand held devices suggest otherwise) but Friedberg’s disjunction between virtual or figurally-mediated movement versus literal, physical immobility does not pay heed to more phenomenologically-orientated discussions of spectatorship which articulate our innate “capacity to feel the world we see and hear onscreen and of the cinema’s [shared] capacity to ‘touch’ and ‘move’ us offscreen”.[6]  Indeed, to recall Merleau-Ponty’s beautiful remark, “my body is wherever there is something to be done” – regardless of whether that task is posed to us in virtual or actual terms.[7]

Nevertheless, in her inter-disciplinary scope, fine-tuned analyses and historic acumen that she brings to the examination of past and present traditions of visual entertainment, Friedberg’s The Virtual Window is nothing short of brilliant. Reading this treasure is not dissimilar to playing around with a kaleidoscope (yet another visual artifact from a bygone age). Friedberg throws the diversity of ‘virtual window’ practice (linear perspective, the camera obscura, the magic lantern, glassed architecture, chronophotography, world fairs, cinema, television, experimental film and the ‘convergence’ of contemporary digital culture) into critical relief, sharpening the lens of her dynamic insights across a range of what have been, all too often, fractured methodological and disciplinary perspectives.

Saige Walton,
Melbourne University, Australia.


[1] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. Routledge Press, London, 2004, 291.

[2] Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2004, 2.

[3] Merleau-Ponty, 2004, p. 159; Leder, Drew. The Absent Body, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990, p. 20; Dillon, M.C. Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Ill, 1988, 136.

[4] Alpers, Svetlana, cited in Friedberg, 2006, 65.

[5] Friedberg, 2006, 178. Here, I would add that Friedberg fails to consider historic connections between digital technologies and the wunderkammer or kunstkammer traditions of collecting that marked the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries; a tradition that is arguably as important as the camera obscura, perspective or the magic lantern to the seventeenth-century, especially. While Friedberg perceives a fracturing of perspective within experimental film and art of the sixties (Andy Warhol, Harry Smith) as well as the contemporary, she does not consider the legacy of the cabinets in relation to digital form. Admittedly, the cabinets of curiosity did not function as a literal ‘window’ although it did open up tiny portals to its user by housing the flotsam and jetsam of a natural/artifical world through enframed display, thereby permitting virtual forms of travel and an interactive manual/haptic ordering. See Stafford, Barbara Maria and Terpak, Frances for further discussion of the cabinets of curiosity in Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images On a Screen, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 2002 and for a discussion of the aesthetic and phenomenological experience of baroque haptics, the cabinets and the digital, see Walton, Saige, Cinema’s Baroque Flesh, PhD dissertation, The University of Melbourne, forthcoming 2007/2008.

[6] Sobchack, 2004, 66.

[7] Merleau-Ponty, 2002, 291.

About the Author

Saige Walton

About the Author

Saige Walton

Saige Walton is a Senior Lecturer in Screen Studies at the University of South Australia, Australia. She is the author of Cinema’s Baroque Flesh: Film, Phenomenology and the Art of Entanglement (Amsterdam University Press, 2016). Her articles on film-philosophy, film-phenomenology and the embodiment of film/media aesthetics appear in journals such as Culture, Theory and Critique, Cinéma & Cie, NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies, Senses of Cinema, the New Review of Film and Television Studies and Screening the Past. Her current book deals with the embodiment and ethics of a contemporary cinema of poetry and is forthcoming from Wallflower/Columbia University Press.View all posts by Saige Walton →