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the Complete Review
the complete review - art

Suspensions of Perception

Jonathan Crary

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To purchase Suspensions of Perception

Title: Suspensions of Perception
Author: Jonathan Crary
Genre: Art
Written: 1999
Length: 370 pages
Availability: Suspensions of Perception - US
Suspensions of Perception - UK
Suspensions of Perception - Canada
  • Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture

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Our Assessment:

B- : a heady, heavy tome, fact and theory laden

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Historical Rev. . 12/2000 Jerrold Seigel
Art in America . 10/2000 Ken Johnson
Artforum . 1/2000 Raymond Bellour
Bryn Mawr Rev. of Contemp. Lit. . Fall/2001 Steven Z. Levine

  From the Reviews:
  • "Crary's book is partly a wide-ranging historical inquiry, conducted under the ideological auspices of Michel Foucault and Guy Debord, into the 19th-century background of a world dominated by attention-demanding and controlling systems. (...) A reservation: while Crary studies in detail how viewers experienced certain new technologies of visual consumption (like various pre-cinematic inventions), he does not deeply explore the psychological experience of paying attention to paintings per se." - Ken Johnson, Art in America

  • "We can discern in his quasi-religious language that Crary's critique of capitalism and his hope for social transformation is sustained by the messianic modernist Marxisms of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and their principal American explicator Fredric Jameson." - Steven Z. Levine, Bryn Mawr Review of Contemporary Literature

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jonathan Crary's study, Spectacles of Perception, focusses on a shift in ways of seeing at the beginning of the modern age. Focussing specifically on three paintings by Manet, Seurat, and Cézanne and more generally on the art of the time (ca. 1879 to 1900), Crary also examines the larger picture, of a world in which notions (and, in fact, the realities) of perception and attention were radically changed.
       In his introduction he explains his choice of the three representative paintings (Manet's In the Conservatory, Seurat's Parade de Cirque, and Cézanne's Pines and Rocks), saying of the artists that:

Each of them engaged in a singular confrontation with the disruptions, vacancies, and rifts within a perceptual field; each of them made unprecedented discoveries about the indeterminacy of an attentive perception but also how its instabilities could be the basis for a reinvention of perceptual experience and of representational practices.
       Crary's ambitious thesis posits new ways of seeing in a changed world, taking social and specifically technological change into account and showing the mutual relationship between art, society , and technology. The focus on attention is a particularly useful one, examining the sense of perception and the new ways of considering it that arose at that time of history -- both from a physiological and psychological standpoint, as well as from a technological one.
       A lengthy introductory section on Modernity and the Problem of Attention opens the book, setting out the basic issues and Crary's approach. Three sections on the individual artists (and specifically the three representative paintings) then follow, each emphasizing successive different aspects of the "problem of attention". A brief final chapter, 1907: Spellbound in Rome offers a short conclusion (in which Crary uses a letter from Freud (written in Rome, describing a stay there) to his family, disclosing "the transformed status of an observer" to reiterate his point).
       Crary's ideas are interesting though not always easy to follow. The writing and presentation are dense, and there is an enormous amount of varied material on a wide range of subjects. Crary tries to juggle many balls at the same time, and occasionally one loses track of one (or several) of them.
       His discussions of the art are interesting, though some of the explanations are heavily jargon laden. The many references (811 footnotes) are often useful and show the range of his ambition, but some of it bogs the text down, especially for the layman-reader. Crary's almost encyclopedic effort at analysis is rewarding but exhausting -- the book is practically never light or fluid reading.
       The wealth of explanations -- Crary leaves no stone unturned in his quest, and provides bases for his argument in everything from psychological books of the time to theories of vision to the latest technological advances -- can also be overwhelming. Some of the gadgetry of the time -- from shadow projections to tachistoscopes -- provides another useful means of illustrating his various points. Overall, however, he overwhelms the reader with his evidence.
       Suspensions of Perception is an impressive book, a detailed and careful analysis. Worthy of careful study -- there is a wealth of material here, and a fundamentally interesting point -- it is also not a welcoming read. Much of the writing can be daunting, especially with its many references. Crary tries to explain as much as possible, but there is, in fact, so much that is presented here that the reader likely still feels at sea.
       The volume is richly illustrated (with diagrams, photographs, and reproductions of paintings and drawings). Disappointingly, there are no colour reproductions -- everything is in black and white, which somewhat lessens the value of the illustrations. (Links to colour reproductions of the three central painting can be found below.)

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Suspensions of Perception: Reviews: Pictures of the art works: Jonathan Crary:

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About the Author:

       Jonathan Crary teaches Art History at Columbia University. He is a founding editor of Zone Books.

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© 2000-2010 the complete review

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