A Cartesian View From Nowhere

Barbara Maria Stafford, Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.

Adopting a transgressive approach towards disciplinary boundaries, Body Criticism as a project intends to describe and illustrate how visual metaphor advanced artistic and medical understanding of the human body during the eighteenth century. The book has the feel of an upscale Zone edition. Heavy, glossy paper, 250 superb reproductions from medical libraries and museums in America and Europe, 587 pages of text, of which 100 are devoted to 1,005 endnotes and bibliography, all work to induce a sense of awe when fingers first turn its pages. This does not last. Stafford explains her project:

Much can be gained for the present, then, by the historical investigation of the tendency to collapse all sensory experience into the visual and the human body, specifically, into an assemblage of its projected optical effects. What had been one of the chief forces for enlightenment≠making visually accessible inaccessible domains≠has turned into the creation of, and demand for, ghostly simulations. The history of this far -- ranging aesthetic trend toward automated spectralization and the automatic consumption of illusions has yet to be recognized or analyzed in a systemic way. (p. 28)

Tantalizing words for a digital age, suggesting a politics largely absent from this provocative volume so brilliant yet so naive about vision and the politics it engenders. One of Stafford's aims is to heighten awareness of the denigration of visuals at the hands of logocentrism and textuality. Though she argues that contemporary culture views images and visuals in cartoon-like fashion, she does not link this argument to any consideration of vision as a bodily sense. Other than brief mention of J.J. Gibson and his cognitive theories of vision, nothing suggests she has reviewed the vast array of extant studies of vision. When she decries the extreme dichotomization of Modernity, when she argues that the Romantic movement failed because its goals of aesthetic perfection were unattainable because too distanced from the imperfect embodied flesh of Romantic practitioners, a criticism of vision≠that the eye sets up a spatial distance because the object of its focused attention/desire most always lies beyond the body's grasp, hence a gap emerges between meaning and desire, that therefore vision has a central role in setting up the subject-object dichotomy -- remains unavailable to her.

Stafford wishes to escape the conformity of a 'language paradigm' now pervading academic texts. "[N]ondiscursive articulations suffer from the fact that they do not say or read." (p. 6) She seeks to break with 'text-obsessed' pomo analysis in a way that also parts company with the anti-PC movement. Given my own doubts about 'world-as-text' I find this all to the good. If one can make use of the multiple discrete insights Stafford's associations afford the reader, the text has much to offer. Her elucidation of the eighteenth century's shift from a holistic experience of the body as eternal, towards one represented through reductive techniques ironically employing an electronic infinity of numbers is carried out very well indeed. The text has many clever asides. Kant, her intellectual enemy because of his insistence on the metatheory of criticism, is singled out, exposed as declaring that wallpapers had no intrinsic meaning because they were "untrammelled visual beauties unbounded by narrative." (p. 207) But it must be noted that Stafford is as 'text-obsessessed' as any of the unnamed post-modern academics she critiques. This is a Text, her protestations notwithstanding.

Though her stated methodology is a 'metaphorology' that allows her to link apparently unrelated phenomena into a "comity of interdependent constructs" (p. 7), she never acknowledges the spatial underpinning of so many metaphors that advance familiarization with the novel, the distant and/or the unknown. If metaphors transit unfamiliar 'territory', then so powerful a vehicle to the construction of human consciousness requires greater contextualization as regards Stafford's 'method' than is offered here, given the visually distancing and controlling bias of many metaphors.

The eighteenth-century initiated a shift from a text-bound culture towards a visually-dependent one, a shift, readers are told, they still experience, yet one which takes place alongside a denigration of the image in favour of the text. A number of metaphorical comparisons are made between text and image, superior and inferior, male and female, subject and object while at the same time Stafford asserts uncritically that a "major and inescapable universalization of vision" has occurred. She argues that images must exit from Plato's cave but does not consider either the cause of the original injunction against them or what kinds of cultural responses might be necessitated once images would be 'set free'. In this Stafford reveals a radical disjuncture between her stated privileging of the body and her call for an autonomy of the image.

Visibilizing the invisible responds best to metaphor (p. 4). A move towards 'in'visibility begins during the eighteenth-century in reaction to the visualization of things previously 'covered' from view. Stafford points to that century's increasing concern with the deception of surface appearances, though neglects consideration of the limitations of the visual apparatus she exalts to not see 'beneath' the surface of things, a constraint that may have contributed to the early Modern paranoid perception that 'things were not what they appeared'.

Turning to consider attitudes towards the body, Stafford notes a pivotal eighteenth-century change, from a culture that bestowed upon the body the status of keeper of meaning and essential secrets -- the "organising structure of structures, the organic paradigm for all complex unions" (p. 12) -- to one where bodies, because they are intractable and not formulaic (p. 5), have been trivialized through both conceptual and actual dismemberments that have placed them at the service of the creation of visual metaphors, from pen-and-ink medical illustration to virtual surgery. The act of illustrating the eye to suggest its dissection or excision from the body, an act by which the eye's 'parts' are numbered and labelled, terminates respect for bodily integrity.

The body cannot be 'read', Stafford argues, its exterior is perceived visually, sensually. Such perception alters when the information gleaned via body dissection is made available to readers. The increasing emphasis on rendering visible the invisible, on translating a formerly hidden part of the eye into a 'readable' text, gives rise to a greater eighteenth-century premium being placed on invisibility (p. 470). Stafford extends this scientific reduction forward to contemporary technologies such as N.M.I., arguing they are the outcome of the Enlightened urge to represent the invisible interior, that their inventions have proceeded from the moment of the invisible's original metaphorical dismemberment. She is, as usual, ambivalent here, writing in one place about dissection and in another that such dissection's descendants≠M.N.R. and N.M.I.≠are 'non-invasive'. Foucault would differ though Bentham might concur. But her ambiguity extends to contemporary optics, allowing her to accuse modernist aesthetics of an "anaesthetized optical nihilism." (p. 132) She seems not to 'see' that reading and texts are, along with the 'images' she sets apart, also visual activities and technologies.

The six chapters titles take the form of gerunds. 'Dissecting', 'Abstracting', 'Conceiving', 'Marking', 'Magnifying', and 'Sensing' each centre around a "constitutive metaphor." (p. 38) 'Dissecting' traces the foundation of an Enlightened science. 'Abstracting' details the emptiness of reduction and refinement, but also those practices (such as the false marbling of wallpapers and art books) that opposed the gridded masculinist effort to reduce, simplify and exclude.

'Marking' notes the Enlightenment obsession with skin disease. Stafford makes this interest a metaphor for the manifestation of the invisibility and hence a loss of control within a 'battle-ground' pitting the garb of rot versus an eighteenth-century aesthetics of immaculateness. (p. 283) With the application of float glass techniques to mirror production, the body was shown incapable of the purity of reflection of these devices, inferior to the idea made manifest. (p. 288)

'Magnifying' probes Enlightened optical advances, while 'Sensing' revels in the discovery of the nervous system, documenting how this invisible web was comprehended in diagrams as a separate world of emotion churning just beneath the epidermal layer.

The author pines for "an egalitarian theory of the image" (p. 473), one supported by "the common somatic existence of the human race." (ibid.) I can think of no necessary reason why common somatics should promote anything approaching egalitarianism, if, indeed, equality, whether between peoples or text and image, is really what Stafford seeks. The somatic experiences of being queerbashed after being dragged down a darkened alley, of being raped by a U.N. peacekeeper while 'stealing' food, or of being served coffee by one's Philipina maid while at home in Westchester County are neither 'common' nor 'egalitarian'.

When she forwards her attention to the 'electronic highway', Stafford is shockingly unaware of contemporary socio-political realities. Better she would have stayed in the eighteenth-century and let 'metaphorology' work its links between readers' impressions of her research and our own century. Her apparent ignorance of the power dynamics of contemporary visuality leads one to think she benefits from the inequities she fails to observe around her. "Noninvasive and freely travelling electronic imagery is the appropriate and pacific medium for the decentralization and nonhierarchical universe of the twenty-first century...For the first time, the opportunity exists...to free the image from patriarchal rule." (p. 467) Shades of the Tofflers and 'hive-mind' promoters aside, such predictions are faulty before made, given the imperializing, hierarchical projects which the current world of cyberspace already serves. But a certain consistency is at work here. Stafford cannot really critique current technologies if she is at pains to rekindle respect for their eighteenth-century ancestors. Enlightened illustration and computerized axial tomography are viewing tools≠medicinal peepboxes that strive to grasp the (dis-eased) whole. In so doing they reorganize how humans conceive their world. Is it excessive to suggest, in light of the links between the technologies of these two centuries, that Stafford herself may be possessed of an eighteenth-century form of high Enlightenment, philosophe subjectivity, if she can identify contemporary mechanisms as non-invasive? Given the millions of different views available to distract and sever subjectivity into ever smaller digitized units, and the hard and soft wiring necessary to effect and access these views, Stafford's 'body' is detached from this aspect of her own subjectivity≠in purely ironical fashion, a Cartesian view from nowhere.

Faced with the projectile of virtual technology, can one even ethically suggest the possibility of freeing the image from patriarchy, given that the image may itself be a component of patriarchy, not merely a hand-maiden pressed into service?

One suspects an incoherency of argument resides in her rejection of theory. But might this rejection, as she insists, be of value? Should the sometimes violent juxtapositions of clashing argumentations, texts and images that Stafford achieves precisely because of her apparently conscious efforts to eschew methodological organization save for the metaphorical be applauded? A definite answer is unwarranted, but situating her study of the body in the eighteenth-century is regrettably propitious given her concern to privilege its embodiment, for by her own admission such a natural body today is found only in museums. Surely her 'conclusions' would be different if she had glanced at the contemporary, bulimic, dematerializing, addictive body she identifies, one remarkably similar to the infected and 'inevitable' cyborg taking place within the 'freely travelling' imagery she desires.

Something else is at work here in her assertion that 'the image' must be freed from text hegemony/patriarchy. Such claims coexist with a promotion of contemporary electronic imagery and the software that controls these images. That the software might be a return of text/patriarchy in new form, and hence of the control she rails against, is never addressed.

Consider the contemporary video image as applied to song. No longer do consumers speak of the music they hear as something akin to an imaginative narrative they have personally (linguistically?) constructed to accompany the song they have first heard. To accept such visual technology means accepting what is proposed in the image before it can even be 'contested'. Each may share in their own telematized isolation the same centrally disseminated image. What political efficacy is at work here, when it is possible for Stafford to acknowledge that the visual is an organizing metaphor for Western life, yet fail to grasp that while visual metaphors help organize a politics, politics then returns to incorporate the aesthetics she privileges but with a leash around its neck?

Stafford is fully aware of the importance of images today, but is perplexed that their value remains so low (p. 39). Stafford's misplaced call for increased valuation of images, itself precisely a textual value, arises because it is severed from consideration of how image value might relate to image use. The resulting isolation of ethics/aesthetics from social theory leave Stafford unprepared for what follows.

Ken Hillis is a doctoral student in Geography at University of Wisconsin. He is researching links between virtual technologies and their impact on dwelling on the earth with an emerging cultural belief/desire that concrete existence might be relocated entirely within a language practice.