For art historian and theorist Hans Belting, our understanding of images has, throughout the history of art and media theory, greatly undervalued our perception of images as distinctive from the media they live within, thus underestimating the power and influence they hold in shaping human history and the human body. Belting states that, “we are not the masters of our images, but rather in a sense at their mercy; they colonize our bodies” (Belting, 2011, p.9-10) In this essay, I will focus Belting’s understanding of the relationship between media, images, and the body towards the stereoscope, before using the work of critic and essayist Jonathan Crary in order to further extend Belting’s core focus on media and the living body towards instead questioning the material technological medium of the stereoscope as an apparatus of power, discipline, and visual standardization.
In setting out his distinction between media and image, Belting proposes, “to speak of image and medium as two sides of the same coin, though they split in our gaze and mean different things.” (Belting, 2011, p.10) Image and media as one, Belting labels ‘the picture’, which is composed of both form and matter, the physical and mental blending of the materiality of matter and the mental perception of form. Using the stereoscope as an example, it would be appropriate to note the material state of the slides before and after inserting them into the device itself. Looking at the slides of the stereoscope without the presence of the device not only strips the images of their 3D texture, but also makes the user aware of their material form. However, the same cannot be said once viewing the slides within the darkened space of the 3D viewfinder. Belting states, “The image always has a mental quality, the medium always a material one, even if they both form a single entity in our perception.” (Belting, 2011, p.20) The stereoscope, in this case, applies this model to produce an illusion of solidity and depth by blending the perception of two individual eyes into one coherent view of perception, while simultaneously hiding the materiality of said slides from its user, thus allowing our perception to automatically translate its materiality into mental form. In order to give the image this form, Belting argues that a mental deception is involved, “for the image is not present the same way its medium is present. It needs the act of animation by which our imagination draws it from its medium.” (Belting, 2011, p.20) The mental process of human imagination works in conjunction with the stereoscope to invoke the natural act of animation, making the act, like the distinction between media and images, based on both mental perception and the physical material of the device at the same time, resulting in an automatic act of human physicality.
Belting labels the act of image perception “a symbolic act that is guided by cultural patterns and pictorial technologies.” Meaning that, “The distinction between image and medium is rooted in the self-experience of our body. The images of memory and imagination are generated in one’s own body; the body is the living medium through which they are experienced.” (Belting, 2011, p.11) Here, Belting labels the body a transmitter and host of images via memory and imagination, likening the physical materiality of the body to that of image bearing mediums in the form of painting, cinema, sculpture, or indeed, the stereoscope. This means that, in the case of the stereoscope, its illusory property does not exclusively provide empty images for mental consumption, but communicates and circulates images to be mentally stored within or physically embodied by the human body. Yet, Belting moves farther than to merely label the body a living medium for images, declaring instead the living body, “as media through which we both give birth to inner images and receive images from the outside world.” (Belting, 2011 p.19) Our memories, imaginations, and bodily gestures embody images as media does, but also gives birth to new ones.
Belting’s arguments go some way in highlighting the stereoscope’s ability to produce mental images for the benefit of the living body in circulating existing images and creating new ones. Yet, his focus on the living body almost entirely overlooks the material qualities of the medium itself as a site of power. For example, Belting’s arguments would explain the physical and mental differences of the stereoscope slides as images of embodiment before and after placing them into the device, yet not their ability to shape our perception, to control and hold authority over what the spectator will and won’t see, what they will and won’t embody. Jonathan Crary labels devices such as the stereoscope, “sites of both knowledge and power that operate directly on the body of the individual.” (Crary, 1992, p.7) Opposed to Belting, who centres his view on the body as a living medium for carrying and creating images, Crary instead focuses on the way media shapes modes and models of bodily image consumption, identifying optical devices as standardizing the visual perception of their observers. The stereoscope, for example, was first produced in order to further understand the complexities of human binocular vision; its very origin is solidified with early investigations into materializing and reproducing human perception via technology. Crary states that nineteenth century devices such as the stereoscope “are inextricably dependent on a new arrangement of knowledge about the body and the constitutive relation of that knowledge to social power” (Crary, 1992, p.17) For Crary, these technologies were responsible for the commodification of perception, and thus, the commodification of images because of their complex understanding of the social body. Crary states, “These apparatuses are the outcome of a complex remaking of the individual as observer into something calculable and regularizable and of human vision into something measurable and thus exchangeable.” (Crary, 1992, p.17) The stereoscope standardizes its observer’s perception by taking advantage of the physiological process of animation, as outlined by Belting. The apparatus is designed in such a way as to replicate natural binocular vision, yet its material can be sold and exchanged, meaning Belting’s animation process is not only manipulated by the device of power, but also the corporate and scientific engineers responsible for its existence. Drawing from Michel Foucault, Crary’s observations class visual media forms like the stereoscope a dispositif; that is, an arrangement that positions and shapes its user. Within the darkened space of the stereoscope, the observer does not choose what to embody or animate, but rather, is supplied with codified images for purchase, and is disciplined by the device for successful use of its visual processes. The individual human subject becomes the standardized observer, and is positioned by the device into controlled ways of consuming and experiencing its content.
Explored further within the work of Crary is the matter of mental and social differences between the material 2D images on the slides of the stereoscope, and the 3D images within the machine; are they in fact the same image? Crary seems to argue that this is not the case; he explains that, within the stereoscope “what appears is the technical reconstitution of an already reproduced world fragmented into two nonidentical models, models that precede any experience of their subsequent perception as unified or tangible. It is a radical repositioning of the observer’s relation to visual representation.” (Crary, 1992, p.128) The binocular process initiated by the device transforms the observer into a subject of vision, thus forming a new and separate mental 3D image from the physical material of two separate 2D images. This subjected position means that, for Crary, the observer is viewing a completely different image from the one on the stereoscope slides outside the device. Within the device itself, new images are created and formed, rather than merely circulated and resurfaced as claims Belting. This then takes the argument back to Belting’s statement that we are, in a sense, at the ‘mercy’ of ‘nomad’ images “migrat(ing) across the boundaries that separate one culture from another, taking up residence in the media of one historical place and time and then moving on to the next.” (Belting, 2011, p.21) For Belting and Crary, images possess the power and control to shape our bodies and social experiences; yet the two theorists seem to differ on exactly where this power and control originates. For Belting, the anthropological imagination is the generator of images, yet the public image controls collective imagination. For Crary, this control is found much more within the media device itself, within the way it homogenizes and shapes its observer. Whatever may be the definitive case, the power relationship between media, images, and the body is a formidable dynamic that has help shape the course of collective cultural and social human history. The individual accounts of both Crary and Belting allow us to understand this, yet together, they provide a detailed and coherent case for thinking about the history of images seriously, while also taking into account the powerful influence they hold in provoking our imaginations, disciplining our perceptions, and shaping our living bodies.
Belting, H. (2011) An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Crary, J. (1992) Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, London: MIT Press.