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Voyeur or Observer?: Enlightenment Thoughts on the Dilemmas of Display

From: Configurations
Volume 1, Number 1, Winter 1993
pp. 95-128 | 10.1353/con.1993.0007

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Configurations 1.1 (1993) 95-128.

University of Chicago


Introduction: Exhibitionism

The recent polemic over the reauthorization of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)--erupting over purported cases of pornography and the desecration of national symbols -- focused attention on a venerable, if intractable, quandary. The grave dilemma faced, I believe, by today's artists and museum curators, and by art historians as well, is that of dealing with the unstated charge of having committed an even greater obscenity. That indecency is the uncritical preoccupation with the "merely" visual. Both the contemporary site for huge-attendance expositions and the maker or scholar of nondiscursive imagery are found, by "thoughtful critics," to be socially and intellectually offensive. Blockbuster spectacles and benighted purveyors of deceitful or sham illusions are judged by their linguistic colleagues to be equally dedicated to the mindless activity of looking without thinking. Art and exhibitionism seem to have become inseparably linked. For a substantial portion of the academic and nonacademic public, imagists irresponsibly and thoughtlessly unfurl stylish, but passive, pictures held captive on the walls of a gallery or classroom.

I need not underscore the irony of maintaining this antiquated bias, enshrining language skills, in the era of full "virtual reality," or of an information revolution that is swiftly overturning printed words for 3-D simulations. Nonetheless, we producers and consumers of visual culture have an undeniable "image problem." At least part of this bad publicity, I believe, owes to our lingering reluctance as creators, presenters, and students of images to exit firmly and finally from Plato's debasing Cave. Who can doubt the cynical complicity that continues to uphold an outmoded, if fashionable, language paradigm, or places the responsibility for our aesthetic actions in other, superiorly "critical," hands? Most fundamentally, then, this paper is written in the larger hope of prompting us to shoulder the burden of painful decisions and, like clinical physicians, to develop our own perceptual wisdom and practical ethics. Such a professional ethics would be firmly grounded in our specific, perceptual expertise. This workmanly art or skill, which is both a personal qualification and a public obligation, enables us to make informed, and hence responsible, aesthetic judgments.

The mention of Plato, that archcritic of the visible or the exhibitory, and the apologist for the invisible or the theoretical, brings me to the heart of my topic. For the division between a sensuous, pleasurable, or merely "curious" watching and a rational, tasking, language-driven observation arose during the eighteenth century. I intend to examine this rift in the context of that most optical of eighteenth-century sciences, microscopy. The problems accompanying such enhanced and instrumentalized looking will lead us to a consideration of the spectacles proffered by museums of natural history. By examining the issues surrounding kinds of display in another field, we can perhaps learn to see our own anew.

Before proceeding, I want to itemize my major points. First, microscopes -- like many present-day photonic gadgets -- fulfilled the long-standing human yearning for visually entering entirely different realms. Experimentation on vanishing entities, in particular, popularized disengaged and disembodied witnessing (Figure 1). Strange scenes occurred at the bottom of an optical instrument and were surveyed distantly from the top of a tube. Moreover, eighteenth-century improvements, such as the solar microscope, made possible the projection of the subvisible. Beguiling dimensions, unknown to earlier generations, were thrown on a distant screen for the diversion of an audience; they no longer existed just for the distraction or edification of a solitary viewer. Significantly, as we shall see, the subject matter of these manipulated slides was frequently either the cruelty of voraciously feeding mites or the almost sadistic violence and indiscriminate prolixity of reproduction (Figure 2 and Figure 3). Vision thus became an even more problematic, or "immoral," activity than it had historically been. Many Enlightenment educational pleas for the packaging of natural history information both as a type of home entertainment and as a form of useful instruction were made-- at least on one level, I think -- to escape the charge of detached and empty voyeurism.

Second, the connection between the magnified diminutive natural image in the round (Figure 4) and the compressed or abbreviated...

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