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  • Picturing Space, Displacing Bodies: Anamorphosis in Early Modern Theories of Perspective
  • Claire Farago
Lyle Massey . Picturing Space, Displacing Bodies: Anamorphosis in Early Modern Theories of Perspective. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2007. xii + 192 pp. index. illus. bibl. $55. ISBN: 978-0-271-02980-1.

Lyle Massey rejects the conventional assumption that Renaissance perspective produced a centralized, disembodied viewpoint and a subject position analogous to the Cartesian mind's eye. Building upon Jurgis Baltrusaitis's 1955 study of anamorphic perspective and Hubert Damisch's 1987 study of the origins of perspective, Massey argues that the history of perspective from its earliest employment until Lacan's anamorphic explication of the Gaze as radically split, demonstrates a fundamental, paradoxical contradiction between embodied viewpoint and representational field.

On the basis of close readings of key texts by Alberti, Descartes, Panofsky, Damisch, Foucault, De Certeau, Nicolas of Cusa, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and others less well known, Massey's argument is that the disjunction between how we occupy space and how we represent it —and how we are persistently haunted by the resulting gap (108, with reference to Cezanne's lifelong project of trying to "fully inhabit his perception of nature" ) —was always already part of our intellectual heritage. She treats two seventeenth-century perspective writers, important in this context, Jean-Francois Niceron and the Roman Minim friar Emmanuel Maignnan, whose anti-Cartesian philosophy of sensationalism reground perspective in lived experience. Citing Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer (1990) as a precedent, Massey investigates the kinds of viewing positions produced in and by visual technologies before the nineteenth century, when, she ably maintains, the idea of a technology of viewing was being forged (7).

How, this book demands, should we understand the history of questioning how representation itself works? Foucault's provocative analysis of Velasquez's Las Meninas made the ambiguity of the spectator's viewpoint out to be the real subject of the painting itself, a painting intended as an allegory of the philosophical difficulty of representing representation. What Damisch described as an interference between two language games (one technical and geometric and the other phenomenological), in Massey's intellectual narrative becomes the overarching problem of accounting for the incommensurable split that exists between view and viewpoint in every representational (or "signifying" ) system. Anamorphosis is the exemplary test case because, unlike linear perspective schemes that treat the eye as disembodied (a "mind's eye" ), it invokes a series of "ludic juxtapositions" (25) between the Cartesian subject and the ideal viewpoint of linear perspective. In her careful dissection of Descartes's writings on the relation of perception, deception, and vision, in chapter 2 Massey finds that what Descartes's writings on perspective actually reveal is how irrelevant resemblance is to understanding. Yet in Descartes's thought, the mind's schematic representation of the world is made independent of perception while simultaneously relying on a model of perception to represent what is basically unrepresentable. [End Page 1331]

This study's diachronic scope prevents period distinctions (such as Renaissance-early modern) from serving as the unexamined premises of historical projects rather than as categories deserving of investigation. To cite a key example: one of Massey's most original contributions is her discussion of debates regarding the real nature of the Eucharist. The Scholastic distinction between accidents and substance in relation to matter had been crucial to Church doctrine of the Eucharist and became the focus of one of Descartes's most pointed critiques. The seventeenth-century ecclesiastic Maignon's position (1648) was even more radical in taking a purely sensationalist approach to the problem of accidents and substance. Like Merleau-Ponty, Maignan defended a conception of multiple viewpoints that reveal the phenomenal reality of a world independent of human perception. For Merleau-Ponty, writing three centuries later, these multiple perspectives act as a guarantee of the phenomenological existence of a self who is not a transcendental subject but, rather, another object in and of the view itself.

One chief beauty of this book is that it treats perspective treatises as part of a larger discursive matrix. The final chapter and conclusion on Merleau-Ponty, where she explains his exposition of embodied perception...


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pp. 1331-1332
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Archived 2009
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