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14. Modernism and Visual Culture

Laura Marcus

Subject Literature

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780470658734.2013.00015.x


“The frenzy of the visible” (Jean-Louis Comolli); “the society of the spectacle” (Guy Debord); “the tyranny of the eye” (Roland Barthes): these are just a few of the terms and phrases coined or deployed by theorists in recent decades to define modernity in relation to visibility, visuality, and perception. One of the most striking aspects of many theorizations of visuality and visual culture is, as these terms indicate, the ambivalence toward the primacy, or hegemony, of the visual. This negative critique is often identified with the theoretical perspectives of the second half of the twentieth century, influenced substantially by the work of Michel Foucault, whose writings on surveillance and the “panoptical” regime of the nineteenth century identified acts of looking with the exertions of power. Critiques of “ocularcentrism” (or the domination by vision) are the central topics of Martin Jay's compendious study Downcast Eyes : The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought ( 1993 ), which begins with a discussion of “the ubiquity of visual metaphors,” showing “how ineluctable the modality of the visual actually is, at least in our linguistic practice” (1). The question of vision goes far beyond literal acts of perception, of seeing and being seen, reaching into our inherited models of knowledge, thought, and ideation. The trajectory of Jay's study, however, is ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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