- The Optical Unconscious
In the first decades of this century, when psychoanalysis seemed the newest science, and photography, for decades the most enterprising recorder of modernity’s accelerating impact on the world, was turning into the cinema, some sought for connections between the two phenomena. In his 1931 “A Small History of Photography,” Walter Benjamin leapt to this connection: “It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.” 1 He obviously had in mind Muybridge and Marey’s chronometries, celebrated on all sides as revelations of the stilled secrets of animal and human locomotion. Although his comment vividly evokes the sense of astonishment at the curtain suddenly going up on two wonderlands, one material, the other fabulous—there all the time, yet opaque beneath the thick veil of our physical and psychic limitations—it is an odd, even superficial, analogy. Perhaps because it is about photography and psychoanalysis as spectacles that present their wares to the people and court publicity.
In 1936, in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin uses this analogy again; in some endnotes clearly related to his famous concluding remarks on art, fascism, and communism, he observes that “mass movements are usually discerned more clearly by a camera than by the naked eye.” 2 The mobile photographer, or the camera crew, see more of the rally than any one participant, or any one imaginable observer.
Again, this seems an acute way of evoking just how deeply mechanical, how profoundly mass-produced, the fascist spectacle was. And of raising the question of the potential for fascism in modernizing mechanical reproduction itself. Yet the mass rally, photograph, or film was usually officially sponsored, and censored: thus, while it saw more, and showed much, it actually revealed less. Unless, of course, it was analyzed by a nonparticipating, critical observer, who sees, Benjamin implies, the mass psychology of fascism—its collectivized unconscious.
As a play of analogy, however, this exchange between subjectivity and the newsreel is only a little less strange (or, rather, strained) than the first. Rosalind Krauss asks, How can the optical field, the world that we see, have an unconscious? And moreover, if the crowds surging through the organized spectacles of the mass rally can be said to have an unconscious, it must surely be a human, not an optical, one.
Krauss raises these questions in The Optical Unconscious in the course of crediting Benjamin with the first use of the term. She does not explore Benjamin’s political purposes in his essays, but goes on immediately to say that her usage is “at an angle” to his because it focuses on what “a group of disparate artists”—Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Picasso at times, perhaps [End Page 193] Jackson Pollock and Robert Morris, definitely Eva Hesse—have constructed “as a projection of the way that human vision can be thought to be less than a master of all it surveys, in conflict as it is with what is internal to the organism that houses it” (178, 179).
In this book Krauss makes explicit and personal the project that structures her earlier collections such as Passages in Modern Sculpture (1977) and The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (1985), that is, to expand, fissure, and undermine the mainstream modernism to which she was committed in the 1960s. The basic syllogism is extremely simple: (1) modernism is absolutely tied to the privileging of pure opticality; (2) this creates a hierarchy of taste and practice that excludes too much, especially the art that comes, as it were, from the unconscious; (3) therefore this latter art should be granted a valued place in the history of modern art, indeed, in the history of modernism, as it is modernism’s repressed other.
Yet there is also a careful confinement at work: not all psychically-driven art is being celebrated, not by a long shot. No Symbolism, no German or any other early expressionism, no Munch, no Ensor. Some surrealism, but by...