Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture 

Jonathan Crary,
Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture
London and Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.
ISBN 0 262 03265 1
US$39.95 (cloth)

(Review copy supplied by MIT Press)
Uploaded 1 November 2000

In a class not so long ago, during one of those sessions where I’d decided we were going to do some “close reading,” I noticed that one of the students had highlighted every line in the essay we were looking at. Staring at those tracks of pink fluorescent ink as they made their way relentlessly through line after line and page after page, I thought about the way that I, increasingly, prepared for such “close reading” discussions. Reading over familiar essays looking out for concepts, terms and debates that would be new for the class and for critical moves to be discussed had become a bit like highway driving under fatigue. Attempting to ignore the demands and distractions, like on-coming headlights, of working in the office, I’d try to retrace the logic of an argument by holding my attention to it as if it were the white line on the side of the road. The “highlighter” student, bright and no doubt less jaded than I felt at the time, had a different explanation for the tracks she’d laid-she’d simply found the essay more and more riveting the more she read (I can no longer remember what the essay was). Reading Jonathan Crary’s new book Suspensions of Perception reminded me of those pink tracks and the idea of a riveting read, of practices of attention, their limit points and dissolution. Crary’s book, however, seems to call for a far greater range of the office supply store’s arsenal than simply the highlighter pen. Coloured card systems, post-it notes, and large roles of paper all seem required here both to trace the book’s elaborate “diagrams” (Crary’s term for the “constellation of objects” that he examines in the chapters based around readings of particular paintings) and to map the various detours it offers to its readers. This book, meticulously researched and astounding in its breadth, offers its readers many such detours, whether they be those generated by, for example, Crary’s fascinating discussion and repositioning of Emile Reynaud’s optical devices and their place in and relevance for histories of cinema, or his arguments about the nature of spectacle, in which he argues that “[s]pectacle is not primarily concerned with a looking at  images but rather with the construction of conditions that individuate, immobilize, and separate subjects, even within a world in which mobility and circulation are ubiquitous” (74). Drawing out some of the unexpected connections between the work of Guy Debord and Michel Foucault, Crary’s arguments about spectacular culture as entailing practices of isolation and separation connect at points to Samuel Weber’s work on television, [1] and are particularly suggestive for readers interested in issues around the contemporary media, experience, and the public sphere. To call these “detours,” however, somewhat misrepresents Crary’s project and his method. For these are less detours than paths that Crary charts in the complex maps or diagrams that he produces, and one of the pleasures of the book is that one can hover at some of these points and intersections and begin to chart new paths and connections. 

Suspensions of Perception examines why and how attention became such a privileged and contested area of inquiry in late nineteenth century European thought, and argues that attention-or particular practices of attentiveness-is crucial to the modernization of subjectivity. The problem of attention, as Crary writes, was “directly related to the emergence of a social, urban, psychic, and industrial field increasingly saturated with sensory impact” (17). A key object of scientific psychology as well as of philosophical and aesthetic debate and experimentation, attention, Crary posits, was inseparable from and central to shifting understandings of perception and the perceiving subject. Building on his work in Techniques of the Observer, [2]  Crary argues that the centrality of attention during this period is intricately tied to an understanding of the observer as embodied, of perception “as fundamentally durational,” and of attention as “an active processing of an aggregate of information” (154-4). Positioning his project in relation to philosophical debates about vision and perception and theories of social and historical structurings of subjectivity, one of Crary’s central claims is that attention “becomes a specifically modern problem only because of the historical obliteration of the possibility of thinking the idea of pure presence, attention will be both a simulation of presence and a makeshift pragmatic substitute in the face of its impossibility” (4). If some of these arguments would seem to bring his project into the terrain of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno’s work on the structuring of experience in modernity (and Crary certainly draws on the work of both these theorists), he also distinguishes his project and its stakes from that of these theorists. Crary takes issue with any too easy opposition between attention and distraction. Indeed one of Crary’s central arguments is that attention and distraction must be understood as poles of a continuum, each intricately connected to the other (though this point may be more applicable to some of the ways Adorno’s and Benjamin’s arguments about distraction have been used in recent debates than to this work itself, and at points here one longs for a more detailed engagement with their work). Hence Crary can write that distraction is both an effect and a key element of many practices aimed at producing attentiveness (“My contention…is that modern distraction was not a disruption of stable or ‘natural’ kinds of sustained, value-laden perception that had existed for centuries but was an effect, and in many ways a constituent element, of the many attempts to produce attentiveness in human subjects” (p.49).

The book is structured into four central-and lengthy-chapters, the first tracing various models through which attention was understood in the late nineteenth century, the remaining three each structured around readings of particular paintings that address ideas of perception and perceptual synthesis in a variety of ways (Edouard Manet’s In the Conservatory, Georges Seurat’s Parade de cirque, and Paul Cézanne’s Pines and Rocks ). Suspensions of Perception however is hardly art theory, nor is that its concern. Rather, these paintings become privileged sites through which Crary traces “how normative conceptions of attention intersected with problems of cognitive and perceptual synthesis” (79) in the late nineteenth century. Each of these chapters has its central players-for the Manet chapter they include C.S. Peirce, Max Klinger, Sigmund Freud, and Eadweard Muybridge; for the Seurat chapter Richard Wagner, Emile Durkheim, Etienne-Jules Marey and Emile Reynaud, and for the Cézanne chapter, Edmund Husserl, Paul Valéry, and Henri Bergson. Sometimes these couplings and configurations of characters are to be expected, at other times they are surprising, and either way they are always generative (and one could equally well trace each chapter by the clusters of devices for producing and/or monitoring the parameters of sensation and perception that it brings into exchange).

Because Crary’s focus is with the role of various practices of attentiveness and its dissolution in the modernization of subjectivity, the management of attention that was so crucial to nineteenth century modes of production and to determining and increasing the productivity of the “human motor” [3]  (as indeed it continues to be in the late twentieth century and now twenty-first) is only part of his concern. He is equally concerned with the ways that attention, as an unstable field, became crucial to a range of aesthetic investigations of perception in visual modernism, as well, of course, as its place in the new technological forms of visual spectacle where it was integrally connected to the automation of perception. Tracing the intersections and exchanges between these divergent fields, Crary produces fascinating readings of shifting understandings of sensation and the embodied observer, as well as remarkable readings of the paintings he structures these analyses around..

While Crary’s focus is the late nineteenth century and its various attempts to produce attentive subjects whether as consumers, observers, or workers, his arguments and analyses are applicable to and suggestive for understandings of a range of more recent debates around (and practices of) attention. Addressing the ways in which attention has been-and continues to be-“both a strategy of control and a locus of resistance and drift, or more often an amalgam of both” (p.73) attention, as Crary reminds us, is always “haunted by the possibility of its own excess” and carries within it “the conditions for its own disintegration” (p.47). Attention always threatens to veer towards hypnosis and trance (and Crary addresses the popularity of hypnosis in the late nineteenth century in some detail) on the one hand, and on the other, can lead to the deterioration of the perceptual unity and identity of its object (p.47). For those readers whose internalized disciplinary practices of attentiveness often lead to the dissolution of the attended-to object or give way to something that feels very much like a hypnotic trance, these sections of Crary’s book are fascinating. While they thankfully or unfortunately, depending on one’s needs, don’t offer any remedy for failures of attentiveness, these discussions are nevertheless riveting. It is at this point too that Crary’s book is particularly suggestive for film debates.

While Suspensions of Perception, like Crary’s earlier works, is invaluable for readers interested in early cinema, precinematic devices, film history, and spectatorship, his discussion of the tenuous borders between attentiveness and drift suggest a number of enabling connections with the work of filmmakers such as James Benning and Chantal Akerman’s early films in their exploration of and experimentation with ideas of filmic time and a corporealized spectator. Though such connections are outside the scope and historical time frame of Crary’s book, one of the pleasures of Suspensions of Perception is the way that it generates the possibility of new constellations of objects to address shifting understandings and forms of perception and sensation in contemporary culture.


[1] Samuel Weber, “Television: Set and Screen” in Alan Cholodenko, [ed], Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media, Sydney: Power Publications, 1996, pp.108-128.
[2] Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, London and Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990.
[3] See Anson Rabinbach’s The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Jodi Brooks

About the Author

Jodi Brooks

About the Authors

Jodi Brooks

Dr Jodi Brooks is Senior Lecturer in the School of English, Media and Performing Arts at University of New South Wales. Her essays have appeared in Screen, Continuum and Senses of Cinema.View all posts by Jodi Brooks →