Lily Melendez

Weekly Response #3: Techniques of the Observer

  1. According to Jonathan Crary, art critic and author of Techniques of the Observer, “the mind does not reflect the truth but rather extracts it from…the collision and merging of ideas” (Crary 1991, 98). Two optical devices that embody the role of fusing as a “technique of the observer” include the thaumatrope and phenakistoscope. Particularly, the thaumatrope involves two contrary drawings on circular slips of paper that, when spun rapidly, allow our minds to perceive a clear, cohesive scene from a seeming lack thereof. This is due in part to the observer’s “retinal persistence” in recognizing an afterimage: “the presence of sensation in the absence of a stimulus” (98-109). The devices hone in on the human instinct to fill in the blanks and combine the abstract, opposing ideas of the thaumatrope into a coherent narrative we can identify with. Similarly, the phenakistoscope also harnesses the human tendency to fuse images with an emphasis on producing an illusion of motion. The phenakistoscope has several slits in its revolving disc, creating blanks in one’s vision that highlight a “rupture between perception and [the] object” (106). The quickness in the kinesthetic elements of both devices exploit the sluggishness of the eye, enabling us to recognize what we see as an afterimage. 
  2. These optical devices help establish an independent, subjective observer. Watching a film, one may find the interaction with media as a collective experience, sitting in a theater or at home with others; thus, I believe these devices are special because they permit a more personal relationship between the observer and the object. The observer who uses a kaleidoscope becomes his own artist as the tool produces an “empirical demonstration of autonomous vision” that “[is] produced by and within the subject” (98). The viewing context is more intimate, leading me to believe these devices were most likely used in a recreational setting in one’s home. Considering the objects as commodities, I wonder if the observer would be one of affluence, historically of white, middle to upper class families, who could afford to spend time and money for enjoyment. 
  3. The devices all aim to uphold a sense of verisimilitude, manipulating temporality and vision to attend to illusionary truths in observers’ minds. The tools accomplish this by “tricks of mechanics, movement or light” as stated in Media Magica regarding the supreme optical tool collector, Werner Nekes (Robinson 2003, 30). For instance, the kaleidoscope and the stereoscope each utilize symmetrical binary setups to feign depths of perception (Crary 1991, 116). The tools rely on binocular disparity to attend to an “immediate, apparent tangibility” of a unitary scene much like today’s virtual reality devices (124). Most of the tools involve bridging this divide between flat pictures, like those in the phenakistoscope, and multidimensional, moving parts by distorting visibility. If I slowly flick through a flip-book, I can single out the static aspects of the photos; yet, with increased movement, the once invisible, separate actions become a visible narrative due to the persistence of vision. The devices trick our minds into producing our own truths, leaving us with lasting afterimages that make the temporality of art and our own vision inseparable (98). Truly, it is our eyes that are the tools of illusion, and the devices are the ones playing with us.