chapter  4
7 Pages

The camera obscura and its subject: Jonathan Crary


Beginning in the late 1500s the figure of the camera obscura begins to assume a preeminent importance in delimiting and defining the relations between observer and world. Within several decades the camera obscura is no longer one of many instruments or visual options but instead the compulsory site from which vision can be conceived or represented. Above all it indicates the appearance of a new model of subjectivity, the hegemony of a new subject-effect. First of all the camera obscura performs an operation of individuation; that is, it necessarily defines an observer as isolated, enclosed, and autonomous within its dark confines. It impels a kind of askesis, or withdrawal from the world, in order to regulate and purify one’s relation to the manifold contents of the now “exterior” world. Thus the camera obscura is inseparable from a certain metaphysic of interiority: it is a figure for both the observer who is nominally a free sovereign individual and a privatized subject confined in a quasi-domestic space, cut off from a public exterior world. (Jacques Lacan has noted that Bishop Berkeley and others wrote about visual representations as if they were private property.)1 At the same time, another related and equally decisive function of the camera was to sunder the act of seeing from the physical body of the observer, to decorporealize vision. The monadic viewpoint of the individual is authenticated and legitimized by the camera obscura, but the observer’s physical and sensory experience is supplanted by the relations between a mechanical apparatus and a pre-given world of objective truth. Nietzsche summarizes this kind of thought: “The senses deceive, reason corrects the errors; consequently, one concluded, reason is the road to the constant; the least sensual ideas must

be closest to the ‘true world.’ – It is from the senses that most misfortunes come – they are deceivers, deluders, destroyers.”2