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  • The Mirror of Attention:Affording Literarity
  • Alan Singer (bio)


If, as the Horation motto pontificates, art mirrors life, it is incumbent on we who engage the art work to know what we are looking at in tandem with the act of looking. Recently, theorists of perception like Alva Noë and S. L. Hurley, have explored the way that our sense of being in the world is the result of our doing something in the world.1 From this vantage point, the Lacanian recognitive gaze, by itself, does not do justice to the disposition of the body, engaged in the activity of attending to the visualized world. Thus, the visual image in painting, photography, cinema—even in the verbal eye of descriptive language—may be said to feature itself not as an object of attention but as an act of attention.

The thrust of my argument will be that one's attention fundamentally tells one where one is going, from here so to say. A visualized world proffers the occasion for physical mobility, the kind of motion that leads us around existential corners: blind spots of viewing. It is the kind of motion that is implicit in the mysterious flicker of cinematic montage. For some art theorists like Jean Luc Marion (2012) and Paul Crowther (2016), this attentiveness to the blind spot is an intimation of divinity, or sublimity. Their respect for the divinely ordained or sublime blind spot—paradigmatically in painting—is a deference to ultimately unrealizable powers. I would say that they thereby miss the possibility of treating attentiveness as its own realm of power with respect to what is not immediately visible. Certainly, material forms are not sufficient to the meaningfulness they foster. But for Marion and Crowther cognizance of this fact is tantamount to what divinity and sublimity have in common: a beckoning beyond the human facts of existence. The distinction I want to make here between the indulgence of divine sublimity and the [End Page 257] intently attending consciousness, holds out the possibility of thinking as an activity that is not predestined for indeterminacy. Attention, in my view, prevails upon the mind to see beyond only in the manner of expecting a determinate something else. This does not mean however that attention is reducible to picturing, in the sense that the picture shows you what you already know you have seen. Quite the opposite. Because it entails responsiveness to the cognitive opacities of what is pictured, attention is nothing less than an awareness of prospective error. Perhaps it would more pointed to say that attention is a mode of perceptual-cognitive prospecting. This account of attentiveness is, of course, epitomized most commonly in instances of trompe l'oeil and anamorphic projection. In a sense then, I want to take visual illusionism as normative for seeing generally and, more importantly, as analogous to narrative expectation and ultimately, human self-explanation.

The chief aim of my remarks here is to show how the image, calling us to attention, is substantially always more than the object to which we attend. The visual image denotes a capacity for attention that is not commensurable with its objects, but with the world of experience which those objects denote as possibilities for a viewer to take action in. The image hails an agential identity that is not reducible to an idea of the self. It rather denotes selfhood as a prospective spatio-temporal contingency. In order to explore the power of the image, as a calling to attentiveness, I will shortly focus my analysis upon Caravaggio's masterpiece, The Calling of St. Matthew.

Perhaps it is best to begin my commentary on how the image calls us to attention by acknowledging the egotistical privileges of visual perspective that have been honored since the Quattrocento. Typically, we treat perspective as the anchor of what Lyotard has mockingly dubbed the "princely" viewing self. This is the always irresistible proffer for mastery of the object world. Perspective, in this context, is explicitly proprietary with respect to the objects it reveals. What we often forget, nonetheless, is that perspective is always already perception. I would draw a distinction between the two on the basis that perceiving...


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pp. 257-276
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