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The Different Scopic Orders of The Modern Era

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 4408 words Published: 17th Sep 2021

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The modern era has allegedly been dominated by the sense of sight, in a way that has seen it set apart from the premodern era and the postmodern era. In his text ‘Scopic Regimes of Modernity’ Martin Jay draws our attention to scopic order in the modern era, which is an area with many conflicting views that are not often in alignment with each other. Jay argues the point that there may not be one unified ‘scopic regime,’ a term used by french film theorist Christian Metz, and that there is room for argument with the idea that there are a number of competing regimes associated with the modern era. Jay looks at the ‘mirror of nature,’ a metaphor in philosophy by Richard Forty, the emphasis of surveillance that was put forward by Michel Foucault, and the society of the spectacle argued by Guy Debord. Jay also goes on to look at the arguably dominant scopic regime known as Cartesian Perspectivalism, ‘what is normally claimed to be the dominant, even totally hegemonic, visual model of the modern era.’ Also discussed are the major competitors to Cartesian Perspectivalism, which includes mapping, which is, ‘a visual culture very different from what we associate with Renaissance perspective, one which Svetlana Alpers has recently called The Art of Describing.’ and the third model of vision, which is best identified with the baroque.

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Wölfflin later called it, ‘the classical style, the baroque was painterly, recessional, soft-focused, multiple, and open’ in his study, Renaissance and Baroque. Jacqueline Roses’ quote used by Jay to back up his opinion that there are many views which come into play when discussing the subject of ‘scopic regimes,’ ‘our previous history is not the petrified block of a single visual space since, looked at obliquely, it can always be seen to contain its moment of unease.’ (Rose, 1986, p.232-233.) Jays argument continues with him writing about the idea that this subject is not one of solidity. Bringing in the notion that the topic of, ‘scopic regimes of modernity,’ is best discussed on what he describes as, ‘contested terrain, rather then harmoniously integrated complex of visual theories and practices.’ Modernity has often been considered resolutely ocular-centric, which is the act of basing all experience on the perception of the eyes, with sight being very direct and centered. The invention of printing reinforced the advantage of visual aids such as the telescope, which with its con-vexed lens helped expand the apparent angular size of distant objects. Along with the microscope, which aids the eye to see objects that are too small visually for the naked eye. These inventions helped put more emphasis on sight and vision. It is difficult to deny that the visual sense has been dominant in modern western culture in a wide variety of different ways, with Martin Jay calling ‘vision…the master sense of the modern era.’

‘Scopic Regime,’ a term first coined by French film theorist Christian Metz in his book ‘The Imaginary Signifier’ a study on cinema and psychoanalysis. It was used to distinguish the differences from the cinema to the theatre. ‘What defines the specifically cinematic scopic regime is not so much the distance kept, the ‘keeping’ itself (first figure of the lack, common to all voyeurism), as the absence of the object seen.’ (Metz, 1982, p.61.)

The cinema is profoundly different from the theatre as also from more intimate voyeuristic activities with a specifically erotic aim.

METZ – It is the last recess that is attacked by the cinema signifier, it is in its precise emplacement that it installs a new figure of the lack, the physical absence of the object seen. In the theatre, actors and spectators are present at the same time and in the same location, hence present one to another, as the two protagonists of an authentic perverse couple. But in the cinema, the actor was present when the spectator was not (shooting), and the spectator is present when the actor is no longer. (Projection). A failure to meet of the voyeur and the exhibitionist whose approaches no longer coincide. (they have ‘missed’ one another) The cinema’s voyeurism must do without any very clear mark of consent on the part of the object. There is no equivalent here of the theater actors final ‘bow.’ And then the latter could see their voyeurs, the game was less unilateral, slightly better distributed. In the darkened hall, the voyeur is really left alone.(P.63)

In this text, Metz develops an analysis between film spectatorship and voyeurism. According to him, enhancing the essential property of the voyeuristic – gaze that of keeping the desired, seen object at a safe distance from the viewing subject – cinema locates its own data in the for- ever inaccessible, in a realm which is incessantly desirable but that can never be possessed, in ‘the scene of absence’. Cinema, in other words, shows us the world, and at the same time it takes it away from us. As Metz writes, «what defines the properly cinematographic scopic regime is not the maintained distance, nor the care exerted in maintaining it, but the sheer absence of the seen object. Cinema is therefore a form of absolute voyeurism: it is founded on an unbridgeable distance, on a total inaccessibility.

Emphasize the prevalence of surveillance with Michael Foucault ‘Our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance…We are neither in the amphitheater, nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism. (Foucault, 1979, p.127.)

Among French intellectuals in the 1960’s and 1970’s it was Michel Foucault who most explicitly interrogated the gaze of surveillance and Guy Debord and his situationist international collaborators who explored the vision of the spectacle. Together they provided an array of different arguments looking from different perspectives against the hegemony of the eye. With their work, the ocular-centrism of those who praised the ‘nobility of sight’ was not so much rejected, as reversed in value. Vision was still the privileged sense, but what that privilege produced in the modern world was damned as almost entirely corrupting. Foucault called it ‘the unimpeded empire of the gaze.’ (Foucault, 1973, p.39.) and Guy Debord called it ‘society of the spectacle.’ (Debord, 1981, p.25.)

Gilles Deleuze characterized Foucault’s work as a duel investigation of articulable statements and fields of ‘visibilities.’ Deleuze stated that Foucault ‘continued to be fascinated by what he saw as much as by what he heard or read, and the archaeology he conceived of is an audiovisual archive… Foucault never stopped being a voyant at the same time as he marked philosophy with a new style of statement.’ (Deleuze, 1988, p.50.)

Allan Megill, a philosophical writer, has claimed that in his earlier more structuralist moments, Foucault was himself intent on portraying a ‘lucent Apollonian world’ (Megill, 1983, p.218) within which ocular-centrism was neutrally accepted.

The vision that should be incorporated into psychoanalysis Foucault insisted, had to be understood phenomenologically, taking into account the livid spatial experience that emerged from the body’s intertwining with the world. ‘Authentic’ versions of that experience were undermined, he claimed if vision was reduced to it’s traditional Cartesian spectral role based on the dualism of subject and object. Foucault was drawn to Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte, Magritte’s work frequently displays a juxtaposition of ordinary objects in an unusual context, giving new meanings to familiar things. The representational use of objects as other than what they seem is typified in his painting, ‘The Treachery of Images,’ which depicts a pipe that looks as though it is a model for a tobacco store advert. Magritte painted below the pipe ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’ translated it means ‘This is not a pipe,’ Which would appear to be a contradiction, but in reality it is a true statement. The painting is not a pipe, just an image of a pipe. When Magritte was once asked about his painting, he replied that of course it was not a pipe, just try and fill it with tobacco. Magritte used the same approach in a painting of an apple, he painted the fruit realistically and then used an internal caption to deny that the item was an apple. In these works Magritte points out that no matter how closely through art we come to depicting an item accurately we never actually catch the item itself.

Foucault explored a more visibly explicit version of interaction within Magritte’s work, he described Magritte’s canvases as the opposite of ‘trompe l’oeil’ – which is an art technique involving extremely realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects appear in three dimensions – because of their understanding of the mimetic conventions of realistic painting. Foucault also referred to them as ‘unraveled calligrams’ as they refused to close the gap between the image and the world.

‘Resemblance serves representation which rules over it; similitude serves repetition, which ranges across it. Resemblance predicates itself upon a model it must return to and reveal; similitude circulates the simulacrum as an indefinite and reversible relation of the similar to the similar.’ (Levy, 1990, p.44)

The Panopticon (“all-seeing”) functioned as a round-the-clock surveillance machine. Its design ensured that no prisoner could ever see the ‘inspector’ who conducted surveillance from the privileged central location within the radial configuration. The prisoner could never know when he was being surveilled — mental uncertainty that in itself would prove to be a crucial instrument of discipline.

French philosopher Michel Foucault described the implications of ‘Panopticism’ in his 1975 work Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison —

“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.”

Foucault also compares modern society with Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon” design for prisons (which was unrealized in its original form, but nonetheless influential): in the Panopticon, a single guard can watch over many prisoners while the guard remains unseen. Ancient prisons have been replaced by clear and visible ones, but Foucault cautions that “visibility is a trap.” It is through this visibility, Foucault writes, that modern society exercises its controlling systems of power and knowledge (terms Foucault believed to be so fundamentally connected that he often combined them in a single hyphenated concept, “power-knowledge”). Increasing visibility leads to power located on an increasingly individualized level, shown by the possibility for institutions to track individuals throughout their lives. Foucault suggests that a “carceral continuum” runs through modern society, from the maximum security prison, through secure accommodation, probation, social workers, police, and teachers, to our everyday working and domestic lives. All are connected by the (witting or unwitting) supervision (surveillance, application of norms of acceptable behaviour) of some humans by others.

Or look into the society of the spectacle with Guy Debord

‘The entire life of societies in which modern conditions of production reign announces itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.’ (Debord, 1977, par.1.)

With the term spectacle, Debord defines the system that is a confluence of advanced capitalism, the mass media, and the types of governments who favor those phenomena. The spectacle is the inverted image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people in which ‘passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity.’ ‘The spectacle is not a collection of images,’ writes Debord ‘rather, it is a social relationship between people that is meditated by images.’ In his analysis of the spectacular society, Debord notes that quality of life is impoverished, with such lack of authenticity human perceptions are affected, and there’s also a degradation of knowledge with the hindering of critical thought.

Cartesian Perspectivalism, is normally considered the dominant hegemonic scopic regime of the modern era. It is a way of seeing both then and now, a method of perception that represents space and the subjects and objects in that space according to the rules of Euclidean geometry. Renaissance painters, such as Brunelleschi, and Alberti, who was known as a draftsman rather than a painter, developed a geometric space complimentary to the mathematical space of Descartes’s philosophy. Perspective in painting projects a plane onto its object of study and creates a one-to-one correspondence between points on the plane and points on the canvas. Brunelleschi, who is traditionally accorded to the honor of being the practical inventor of perspective, he begun by using architectural figures such as buildings, ceilings, and tiled floors which easily match the grid structure of the projective plane.  Later, other objects were fitted and shaped within the geometrical patterning of linear perspective. Alberti is acknowledged, almost universally, as being the first theoretical interpreter of perspective. He regarded mathematics as the common ground for art and sciences. ‘I will take first from the mathematicians those things which my subject is concerned.’ (Alberti DELLA PITTURA)

The scopic regime that was interpreted Descartes philosophy is usually identified with Renaissance notions of perspective in the visual arts and the Cartesian ideas of subjective rationality in philosophy. Art historian William Ivins, Jr., in his Art and Geometry of 1946 said that ‘the history of art during the five hundred years that have elapsed since Alberti wrote has been little more than the story of slow diffusion of his ideas through the artists and peoples of Europe.’ Richard Rorty discussed Descartes’ idea’s in his writing Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, published in 1979. He claimed, ‘in the cartesian model the intellect inspects entities modeled on retinal images… In Descartes’ conception – the one that become the basis for ‘modern’ epistemology – it is representations which are in the ‘mind.’ These two prominent social commentators, have illustrated their view which is considered to be be equivalent to our view of the modern scopic regime. The aforementioned quotes assume that Cartesian perspectivalism is the main visual model of modernity, these authors believe it best expresses’ a ‘natural’ experience of sight validated by the scientific world view. (maybe say it in a simplified form too.)

In his famous essay ‘Perspective as Symbolic Form,’ Panofsky, a German art historian, highlights the break made through linear perspective by contrasting Renaissance painting with that of Greek and Medieval works.   Prior to the Renaissance, painting concerned itself with individual objects, but the space which they inhabited failed to embrace or dissolve the opposition between bodies.  Space acted as a simple superposition, a still unsystematic overlapping.   With linear perspective comes an abstract spatial system capable of ordering objects:

As various as antique theories of space were, none of them succeeded in defining space as a system of simple relationships between height, width and depth.  In that case, in the guise of a ‘coordinate system,’ the difference between ‘front’ and ‘back,’ ‘here’ and ‘there,’ ‘body’ and ‘nonbody’ would have resolved into the higher and more abstract concept of three-dimensional extensions, or even, as Arnold Geulincx puts it, the concept of a ‘corpus generaliter sumptum’ (‘body taken in a general sense’). (Panofsky, 1991, p.43-44.)

Jay says ‘This new concept of space was geometrically isotropic, rectilinear, abstract, and uniform.’

The three-dimensional, rationalized space of perspectival vision could be rendered on a two-dimensional surface by following all of the transformational rules spelled out in Alberti’s De Pittura, and later agreement’s by Viator and Dürer. A basic painting device occurred from these findings with the use of symmetrical visual pyramids, or cones, with one of their apexes receding towards the vanishing point in the painting, the other into the eye of the painter. Significantly the eye was singular, and not the normal two eyes of binocular vision. The device was made in the manner that just one eye would be looking through a ‘peep-hole’ (Kemp Science in art pg 13) at a scene in front of it. Brunelleschi used a peep-hole and mirror system for viewing this perspective demonstration of the Florentine Baptistery. Brunelleschi had drilled a small hole in a panel of wood at a point equivalent to that at which his line of sight had struck the Baptistery along a perpendicular axis. The spectator was required to look through this drilled hole from the back of the panel at a mirror held in such a way, so that it would reflect the image. The eye of the viewer would be fixated and unblinking rather than dynamic. In Norman Bryson’s terms it followed the logic of the Gaze rather than the Glance, which produced one single ‘point of view.’ Bryson, who is an art theorist, calls this the ‘Founding Perception’ of the Cartesian perspectivalist tradition.’

‘the gaze of the painter arrests the flux of phenomena, contemplates the visual field from a vantage-point outside the mobility of duration, in an eternal moment of disclosed presence; while in the moment of viewing, the viewing subject unites his gaze with the Founding Perception, in a moment of perfect recreation of that first epiphany.’

With this visual order arose many implications, with the abstract coldness of the perspectival gaze, which meant the painter’s emotional connection with the objects they depicted in geometricalized space was lost. The gap between spectacle and spectator widened.

‘Cartesian perspectivalism has, in fact, been the target of a widespread philosophical critique, which has denounced its privileging of an ahistorical, disinterested, disembodied subject entirely outside of the world it claims to know only from afar.’ (Jay

‘Cartesian perspectivalism itself that it suggest it was not quite as uniformly coercive as is sometimes assumed.’

‘Although artificial perspective was the dominant model, its competitor was never entirely forgotten.’

John White, an artist, distinguishes between what he terms ‘artificial perspective,’ in which the mirror held up to nature is flat, and ‘synthetic perspective,’ in which that mirror is presumed to be concave, thus producing a curved rather than planar space on the canvas.

The Cartesian perspectivalist tradition contained a potential for internal contestation in the possible uncoupling of the painter’s view of the scene from that of the presumed beholder. Norman Bryson identifies this development with Johannes Vermeer , who represents for him a second state perspectivalism even more discarnated that that of Alberti. ‘The bond with the viewer’s physique is broken and the viewing subject…is now proposed and assumed as a notional point, a non-empirical Gaze.’ This observation opens up more consideration, that there is an alternative scopic regime, that may be understood as more than a sub-variant of Cartesian perspectivalism.

Mapping, or as Svetlana Alpers called, The Art of Descriping. A visual culture very different from what is associated with the Renaissance perspective.

According to Alpers the hegemonic role of Italian painting in art history has occluded an appreciation of a second influential tradition which flourished during the seventeenth-century Dutch art.

‘contrast realist and naturalist fiction…that the Italian Renaissance art, for all its fascination with the techniques of perspective, still held fast to the storytelling function for which they were used.’ GEORGE LUKAC’S

Summarizing the contrasts between the art of describing and Cartesian perspectivalism, Alpers points out the following oppositions:

‘attention to many small things versus a few large ones; light reflected off objects modeled by light and shadow; the surface of objects, their colours and textures, dealt with rather than their placement in a legible space; an unframed image versus one than is clearly framed; one with no clearly situated viewer compared to one with such a viewer. The distinction follows a hierarchical model of distinguishing between phenomena commonly referred to as primary and secondary: objects and space versus the surfaces, forms versus the textures of the world.’ (ALPERS)

The non-mathematical impulse of this tradition accords well with the indifference to hierarchy, proportion, and analogical resemblances characteristic of Cartesian perspectivalism. Instead it casts its eye on the fragmentary, detailed, and richly articulated surface of a world it is content to describe rather than explain.

Baroque Painting

The third model of vision, best identified with the baroque. As early as 1888, and Heinrich Wöfflin’s study, Renaissance and Baroque, art historians have been tempted to find connections between the two styles in both painting and architecture.

In opposition to the lucid linear, solid, fixed, planimetric, closed form of the Renaissance, or as Wölfflin called it, the classical style, the Baroque was painterly, recessional, soft-focused, multiple and open.

The Baroque style began as somewhat of a continuation of the Renaissance. Later, however, scholars of the time began to see the drastic differences between the two styles as the Renaissance style gave way to Baroque art. Baroque architecture, sculpture, and painting of a dramatic nature were powerful tools in the hands of religious and secular absolutism, and flourished in the service of the Catholic Church and of Catholic monarchies. The Baroque artists were particularly focused on natural forms, spaces, colors, lights, and the relationship between the observer and the literary or portrait subject in order to produce a strong, if muted, emotional experience.

The Council of Trent (1545-63), in which the Roman Catholic Church answered many questions of internal reform raised by both Protestants and by those who had remained inside the Catholic Church, addressed the representational arts by demanding that paintings and sculptures in church contexts should speak to the illiterate rather than to the well-informed.

Due to this Baroque art tends to focus on Saints, the Virgin Mary, and other well known Bible stories. Religious painting, history painting, allegories, and portraits were still considered the most noble subjects, but landscapes, still life, and genre scenes rapidly gained notoriety.


Nativity by Josefa de Óbidos, 1669, National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon

Rorty, Richard, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979)

Rose, Jacqueline, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 1986) p.232-233.

Metz, Christian, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), p.61.

Foucault, Michael, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans, Alan Sheridan (New York, 1979), p.217.

Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A.M. Sheridan (London, 1973), p.39.

Debord, Society of the Spectacle. trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley, 1981), p.25.

Deleuze, Gilles, Foucault, trans. and ed. Sean Hand (Minneapolis, 1988), p.50.

Megill, Allan, Prophets of Extremity: Nietzche, Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida (Berkeley, 1985), p.218.

Levy, Silvano, Foucault on Magritte and Resemblance, The Modern Language Review, 85,1 (January 1990), p.44.

Debord, Guy, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit 1977), par.1.

Panofsky, Erwin.  Perspective as Symbolic Form. New York: Zone Books, 1991. 41-43.


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