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Downcast Eyes

Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought

Martin Jay
Copyright Date: 1993
Pages: 648
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  • Book Info
    Downcast Eyes
    Book Description:

    Long considered "the noblest of the senses," vision has increasingly come under critical scrutiny by a wide range of thinkers who question its dominance in Western culture. These critics of vision, especially prominent in twentieth-century France, have challenged its allegedly superior capacity to provide access to the world. They have also criticized its supposed complicity with political and social oppression through the promulgation of spectacle and surveillance. Martin Jay turns to this discourse surrounding vision and explores its often contradictory implications in the work of such influential figures as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Guy Debord, Luce Irigaray, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida. Jay begins with a discussion of the theory of vision from Plato to Descartes, then considers its role in the French Enlightenment before turning to its status in the culture of modernity. From consideration of French Impressionism to analysis of Georges Bataille and the Surrealists, Roland Barthes's writings on photography, and the film theory of Christian Metz, Jay provides lucid and fair-minded accounts of thinkers and ideas widely known for their difficulty. His book examines the myriad links between the interrogation of vision and the pervasive antihumanist, antimodernist, and counter-enlightenment tenor of much recent French thought. Refusing, however, to defend the dominant visual order, he calls instead for a plurality of "scopic regimes." Certain to generate controversy and discussion throughout the humanities and social sciences,Downcast Eyeswill consolidate Jay's reputation as one of today's premier cultural and intellectual historians.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91538-1
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    Even a rapid glance at the language we commonly use will demonstrate the ubiquity of visual metaphors. If we actively focus our attention on them, vigilantly keeping an eye out for those deeply embedded as well as those on the surface, we can gain an illuminating insight into the complex mirroring of perception and language. Depending, of course, on one’s outlook or point of view, the prevalence of such metaphors will be accounted an obstacle or an aid to our knowledge of reality. It is, however, no idle speculation or figment of imagination to claim that if blinded to their...

  5. CHAPTER ONE The Noblest of the Senses: Vision from Plato to Descartes
    (pp. 21-82)

    “Clearly outlined, brightly and uniformly illuminated, men and things stand out in a realm where everything is visible; and not less clear—wholly expressed, orderly even in their ardor—are the feelings and thoughts of the persons involved.”⁴ So Erich Auerbach described the world of Homeric Greece in the celebrated opening chapter, “Odysseus’ Scar,” of his classic study of literary realism,Mimesis. In the dominant reading of Greek culture that has so influenced the West, this assumption of the Hellenic affinity for the visible has enjoyed widespread popularity. Hans Blumenberg, for example, expresses a typical judgment when he writes, “The...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Dialectic of EnLIGHTenment
    (pp. 83-148)

    “What is an idea?” Voltaire asked in hisPhilosophical Dictionary. “It is an image,” he immediately replied, “that paints itself in my brain. . . . The most abstract ideas are the consequences of all the objects I’ve perceived. . . . I’ve ideas only because I’ve images in my head.”⁴ In these simple propositions, delivered with Voltaire’s characteristic self-assurance, both the Enlightenment’s debt to Descartes’s ocularcentric theory of knowledge and its distance from it are readily apparent.

    Like Descartes, Voltaire used “idea” to refer to an internal representation in human consciousness, an image in the eye of the mind....

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Crisis of the Ancien Scopic Régime: From the Impressionists to Bergson
    (pp. 149-210)

    “The second half of the nineteenth century lives in a sort of frenzy of the visible,” wrote the French filmmaker and theoretician Jean-Louis Comolli. “It is, of course, the effect of the social multiplication of images.”² But ironically, as we have already noted, the impact of that frenzy was to undercut the self-confidence of the human viewer:

    At the very same time that it is thus fascinated and gratified by the multiplicity of scopic instruments which lay a thousand views beneath its gaze, the human eye loses its immemorial privilege; the mechanical eye of the photographic machine now seesin...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR The Disenchantment of the Eye: Bataille and the Surrealists
    (pp. 211-262)

    If, as it is often claimed, the First World War challenged and in certain cases toppled the traditional hierarchies of European life, the “noblest of the senses” was by no means impervious to its impact.³ The interrogation of sight hesitantly emerging in certain prewar works of philosophy and art was given an intense, often violent inflection by the war, which also helped disseminate an appreciation of its implications. The ancien scopic régime, which we’ve called Cartesian perspectivalism, lost what was left of its hegemony, and the very premises of ocularcentrism themselves were soon being called into question in many different...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and the Search for a New Ontology of Sight
    (pp. 263-328)

    Despite the challenge of Bergson before the First World War and the Surrealists’ embrace of Hegel after it, mainstream French philosophy remained in the thrall of neo-Kantian and positivist tendencies until well into the 1930s. In fact, in the broadest sense, it had never been able to throw off many of the fundamental assumptions bequeathed to it by Cartesianism.³ Among the most stubbornly persistent was its spectatorial and intellectualist epistemology based on a subjective self reflecting on an objective world exterior to it. Here the most zealous guardian of the flame was Léon Brunschvicg, whose dominance at the Sorbonne stretched...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Lacan, Althusser, and the Specular Subject of Ideology
    (pp. 329-380)

    “During the night before my father’s funeral,” Freud wrote inThe Interpretation of Dreams, “I had a dream of a printed notice, placard or poster—rather like the notices forbidding one to smoke in railway waiting rooms—on which appeared either “You are requested to close the eyes,” or, “‘You are requested to close an eye.’”⁴

    In his exegesis, Freud dwelt on the ambiguity manifested in the dual formulation of the request, which he used to illustrate the willingness of the dream-work to tolerate undecidability or even outright contradiction.

    With a certain amount of license, this ambiguity can be interpreted...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN From the Empire of the Gaze to the Society of the Spectacle: Foucault and Debord
    (pp. 381-434)

    In February, 1973, the psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller, Lacan’s sonin-law and the editor ofOrnicar?, wrote an essay entitled “Jeremy Bentham’s Panoptic Device” which was published two years later.³ Analyzing Bentham’s 1791 treatise on a model prison, Miller noted that its intention was to provide a general guide for a “polyvalent apparatus of surveillance, the universal optical machine of human groupings.”⁴ Bentham had envisioned a circular arrangement of cells visible to a jailor in a tower in its center, who was himself hidden by a system of shutters from their returning gaze. The result, Miller implied, was the sinister embodiment in...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT The Camera as Memento Mori: Barthes, Metz, and the Cahiers du Cinéma
    (pp. 435-492)

    The interrogation of vision, as we have had ample opportunity to note, was frequently widened to include the eye’s technological extensions. Inventions such as the telescope, the microscope, and the camera obscura were instrumental—in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense—in fostering the Cartesian perspectivalist scopic regime so dominant during most of the modern era. Others, such as the photograph and the stereoscope, made no less of a contribution to its growing crisis in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the critique of ocularcentrism as a whole was powerfully abetted by the questions about visual experience posed by the...

  13. CHAPTER NINE “Phallogocularcentrism”: Derrida and Irigaray
    (pp. 493-542)

    Deconstruction, it is often suggested, provided a vital stimulus to feminist thought, sometimes negative, but most often positive.⁴ That stimulus, this chapter hopes to demonstrate, was intimately connected to its exploration of the role of vision in Western patriarchal culture. To appreciate the full import of French feminist critiques of the mutual implication of ocularcentrism and phallocentrism, most notably that of Luce Irigaray, is to go beyond their complicated debt to Lacanian psychoanalysis and acknowledge the “seminal” role of Derrida’s critique of logocentrism. Or to play a bit with a Derridean term, the “dissemination” of deconstructive ways of thinking must...

  14. CHAPTER TEN The Ethics of Blindness and the Postmodern Sublime: Levinas and Lyotard
    (pp. 543-586)

    Vision, it bears repeating, is normally understood as the master sense of the modern era, variously described as the heyday of Cartesian perspectivalism, the age of the world picture, and the society of the spectacle or surveillance. It will come therefore as no surprise that the critique of modernity would find congenial many of the same arguments against the hegemony of the eye that we have been tracing in this study. In France, and not there alone, that critique has spawned a wide-ranging discussion of the alleged advent of a postmodern era, whose characteristics and implications are still being vigorously...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 587-594)

    It is now time to land our high-flying balloon and consider what has been gained by its bumpy voyage over the landscape of recent French thought on vision and visuality. The trip began by acknowledging how thoroughly infused our language is by visual metaphors, how ineluctable, to borrow Joyce’s celebrated phrase, is the modality of the visible, not merely as perceptual experience, but also as cultural trope. It thus seemed fruitful to follow the unfolding of a loose discourse about visuality, rather than try to document actual transformations in sensual practices.

    Inevitably, the interaction of such practices—whether based on...

  16. Index
    (pp. 595-633)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 634-635)