- Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought
The book jacket flyleaf for Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes proclaims in exuberant and laudatory terms that this study has a double agenda: one is to show that vision is by no means the dominant sense in ordering Western culture and the other is to posit instead a “plurality of ‘scopic regimes, particularly in the climate of postmodernism. Indeed, antiocularcentrism provides the unifying thread of Jay’s work, which reviews the theory of vision from Plato to Bergson in the first three chapters and concentrates on “the culture of modernity” in chapters four through eight; the ninth chapter interestingly and curiously places Derrida and feminist criticism side by side under the aegis of “phallogocularcentrism” and presents Derrida and Irigaray if not as the high points of modernism, then at least as the center of the poststructuralist discourse, which argues for the elevation of the word over the eye and so offers downcast eyes as the new logo for what is now identified as postmodernism. Jay’s last chapter addresses postmodernism as a foreclosure on visual practice or the ocularcentric. The short seven-page conclusion attempts to place a positive note on the author’s admitted denigration of the notion of visuality in modern French intellectual thought and culture by calling for a plural or multiple—“polyscopic”—visual experience. Hence, Jay concludes that his notion of downcast eyes or disillusionment is “no solution” (p. 592) to the problem. Certainly, Broodthaer’s “L’Oeil” on the jacket cover does not present [End Page 162] downcast eyes but rather the very feminine alluring eye of a seductress. In this sense, the real message of Jay’s work is reader, beware! His provocative title and even more provocative subtitle initiate from the outset a critique of one of the long-held and cherished myths about the dominance and prominence of the visual sense in Western culture, especially in modern French thought. It is the unsettling of the comfortableness of this notion which Jay’s work successfully undertakes.
The study is well-organized and lucidly written. It forcefully argues the author’s case. Unfortunately, there is no bibliography. The omission of a bibliography undercuts the project and casts scholarly suspicion on the entire venture. In all truth, the inclusion of a bibliography would dramatically call attention to serious lacunae in the scholarship. The French thinkers presented and analyzed, such as Bataille, Barthes, Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Irigaray, and Lyotard, have been studied in depth—at times brilliantly—but Jay ignores this rich corpus of critical material. In particular, his treatment of important French poets such as Rimbaud, the surrealists, Ponge, and others is so skewed in order to reinforce his denigration of the dominant role of vision in twentieth-century French writing that the reader in the field of French studies questions the quality of the basic research undertaken for the project and the author’s skill at reading with understanding and sensitivity hermetic material in the original French. Once these questions are raised, the very nature of Jay’s study itself becomes suspect.
As the reader progresses through the volume, it seems that most of Jay’s analyses of the primary texts are based on English translations and are in fact limited to those works available in translation. While this may not be the actual case, the lack of a bibliography reinforces such a suspicion and contributes to the steady erosion of the credibility of the study. Even worse, it poses a troubling if not invidious question: who is the audience for Downcast Eyes? Surely, the audience is not humanists who specialize in twentieth-century French studies. If the intended audience is one of scholars and their students in cultural history and the social sciences with little grounding in contemporary French intellectual thought as manifested in its literature and literary criticism, this audience needs to begin its reading with Jay’s conclusion which is a masterfully subtle denigration of his own work on...