On Perspective…Elkins, Panofsky, Crary

Panofsky, Erwin  Perspective as Symbolic Form


In Perspective as Symbolic Form, Panofsky traces the transformation of perspective in art from antiquity to modernity.  As Panofsky explains, Renaissance perspective systemized space on the canvas.  The mathematization or rationalization of space on the canvas, which utilized a central vanishing point on the canvas originating from a singular eye, is what gives rise to perspective during the Renaissance, according to Panofsky.  Before the Renaissance, artists were not cognizant of perspective; during the Renaissance, however, perspective became a conscientious means to overcome the distortions of medieval art.  As such, perspective became dependent not only on rules and laws but on “point of view.”  More so, perspective as symbolic form became a means of ordering  a visual phenomenon. Panofsky also argues that the differing versions of perspective “are expressive of the cultures that invented them” (Elkins 15).  For instance, where as the ancient Greek perspective was an expression of a subjective world, the Renaissance perspective was a record of an objective world (Elkins 21).  Thus, perspective, according to Panofsky, is culturally relative.


Elkins, James.  The Poetics of Perspective


In The Poetics of Perspective, Elkins distinguishes between two distinct conceptions of perspective:  perspective as method and perspective as metaphor.  Elkins explains that perspective as method, technique, strategy for making pictures, has gone largely unexamined and from the artists point of view, has become virtually invisible. On the other hand, much modern scholarly work, including Panofsky’s, entails metaphorical conceptions of perspective, which conceive of perspective as  “a sign signifying a mental state, a culture, or an expressive language” and representing a worldview (17). The modern conception of perspective is based on two tropes:  point of view and space.  Also, “the idea of perspective [as metaphor] is inseperable from active thought so that to conceive one is to think through the other” (30). 


Elkins traces the varying approaches of deploying metaphorical perspective and  concludes that “these approaches impose a conceptual unity on a subject that has traditionally been resistant to that very possibility” (38).  In reality, Elkins claims that a study of the various and historical accounts of perspective demonstrates a dissonant, unclear, and disjointed conception and deployment of perspective while simultaneously there has existed a desire for clarity and coherence (40).  Elkins is less interested in these metaphorical accounts, however,  than he is the “meaningless” once.  He thus turns to trace the accounts of perspective as method through historical treaties on perspectives as well as art, mainly paintings.  His work illustrates that perspective as a discipline has never been unified; that a historical and conceptual unity of perspective during the Renaissance did not exist nor did an overarching interest in orderly content or uniformity or obeyance of rules; and that, in fact, during the Renaissance, perspective was conceived more as “a kind of experimentation in the ruins of mathematics” (116).  There is, in other words “no coherent history, no connected tradition, beneath the word” perspective (214).  Our desire to unify “Renaissance perspective” is simply an indication of “our insistence on the monolithic unity of perspective: it is more than an interpretative strategy or a historical bias: it is part of how we perceive modernism itself” (180).


This actuality, Elkins claims, illustrates something very important about historiography that is relevant, I think, to our own field:  


            -“many writers have not thought it relevant to research the history of their questions” -215

            -“modern writing on perspective is rehearsing a desire that cannot be accommodated” -215  IS CULTURAL RHETORICS REHEARSING A DESIRE THAT CANNOT BE ACCOMODATED?

            -our unwillingness to explore what really lies beneath concepts we take for granted reflects our need not to know and are guided by the boundaries of reflexivity- 216  WHAT CONCEPTS IN OUR FIELD DO WE TAKE FOR GRANTED?  THAT REFLECT OUR NEED NOT TO KNOW?  THAT NEED TO BE DEC ONSTRUCTED?

            -“we need to begin to address the desire itself instead of remaining within our accustomed genres and keeping to their conventional modes of allusion and reference” – 216.  RHETORIC AS……THIS TEXT SHOULD BE WRITTEN WITH THIS GOAL IN MIND. 


Elkins concludes that questions and answers about perspective have become static and thus offers suggestions for future scholarship that are also relevant to our own field:


            -Being aware of our need to define orgin might modify our desire to keep exploring the same problems (263). 


            -New constellations of disciplines would have unpredictable effects on our narratives and the meanings we assign to pictures (264).  HERE IS WHY A MULTIDISCIPLINARY APPROACH TO RHETORICAL STUDIES IS SO KEY.




            -Address “perspective” in terms of history of disciplines (265)


            -overall, study the various ways of talking about perspective, its disciplinary relations, and its force in our thinking about modernism and history (268).


            -ask ourselves:  What meanings do we create, and which do we exclude, by approaching perspective only to a certain distance and from certain directions?  (269).


Elkins final points:  “Perspective directs our eyes and orders our thoughts…perspective seems to control no ony what I see—it sets the conditions of visibility—but how I see and how I describe the way I see….writing about perspective is like struggling in a spider web…”(272).  We need to begin to realize how deeply we are caught…





Key Quotes:


The supposedly objective , unified world posited by science, according to Nietszche, is only a skin of collective agreement, something made by an aggregate of like-minded points of view….perspective is a manifestation of the will to power and that it is ‘nothing more than a complex form of specificity.’ It is complex because the single, ‘specific’ agents band together in their desire to remake the world in their own images…” (21). 


Once the concept of perspectival metaphor underwent the subtle and mysterious change that allowed it to be experienced as a metaphor, it spread unchecked into much of our language and thought, and in some ways perspectival metaphors are so unimaginably unmanageable that they can no longer form a topic of philosophic inquiry at all -29. 


Opting for clarity in a subject evidently constituted by chaos is a way of engaging a certain violence of interpretation that is not connected to the sometimes ragged boundaries between perspective’s disciplines- 38.


A kind of perspective in seeing, Nietzsche thought, was mistakenly made “the cause of seeing,” resulting in “ the invention of the ‘subject,’ the ‘I’” – 39.


Perspective is the site of the legislation of seeing, but it has nevr operated under a single verdict or binding rule – 80.


Our generation reads more meaning into positions and “states” of the viewer, gazes, mirrors, reflected and refracted seeing, and their permutations than past generations seem to have – 119


Our repetitious writing could be reinterpreted as the classic symptom of unslaked desire, and our unwillingness to write differently could be reimagind as the necessary repression of whatever might run contrary to the desire – 267


Crary, Jonathan  Techniques of the Observer:  On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century


As Crary plainly states in the first line of Techniques of the Observer, “this is a book about vision and its historical construction” (1).  More specifically, however, this book is an investigation into the reorganization of vision that occurred in the first half of the 19th century.  By tracing some of the disciplinary, economic, and social events that produced “crucial ways in which vision was discussed, controlled, and incarnated in cultural and scientific practices” (7) during this time, Crary identifies the forces at work that produced a new kind of observer (2-3).  As Crary explains, the reorganization of vision resulted from “a new set of relations between the body on the one hand and forms of institutional and discursive power on the other” hand–relations he describes elsewhere as discursive, social, technological, and institutional (3).  These relations were in and of themselves constructed by “a massive reorganization of knowledge and social practices that modified in myriad ways the productive, cognitive, and desiring capacities of the human subject (3).  As Crary explains, “the same knowledge that allowed the increasing rationalization and control of the human subject in terms of new institutional and economic requirements was also a condition for new experiments in visual representation” (9).  Because “new modes of circulation, communication, production, consumption, and rationalization all demanded and shaped a new kind of observer,” (14) the observing subject was both a product and constitutive of “modernity” itself (9).  


Crary sets his site (no pun intended) on the observer because “the observer is the field on which vision in history can be said to materialize” (5).  For as Crary explains, vision can’t be separated from “an observing subject who is both the historical product and the site of certain practices, techniques, institutions, and procedures of subjectification” (5). 

To demonstrate a shift in the observing subject that occurred during the early 19th century, Crary sets his site on optical devices such as the camera obscura and the stereoscope, which he identifies as “points of intersection where philosophical, scientific, and aesthetic discourses overlap with mechanical techniques, institutional requirements, and socioeconomic forces” (8).  Whereas the camera obscura was both a metaphor and a mediator for objective vision, detached from the body, able to unify and give order to true reality and thus act as a form of knowing, the stereoscope, which reconnected the optical with bodily senses, became a metaphor and mediator for subjective vision, dependent on the body and  able to construct knowledge, even if there was no longer a unifying logic and order to reality anymore since all knowledge was thought to be subjective.  The type of vision modeled and conditioned by the camera obscura—linear optical system, fixed positions, identification of perspection and object—became outdated and too inflexible with arising conditions of modernity (137).    As Crary explains, “ a more adaptable, autonomous, and productive observer was needed in both discourse and practice—to conform to new functions of the body and to a vast proliferation of indifferent and convertible signs and images” (149). 


Crary concludes by explaining that as a result of vision becoming relocated in subjectivity of the observer, two overlapping and intersecting paths opened up: 

a.)   multiple affirmations of the sovereignty and autonomy of vision

b.)   standardization and regulation of the observer  that issued from knowledge of visionary body toward forms of power that depended on abstraction and formalization of vision (150). 





Filed under visual rhetorics exam

2 responses to “On Perspective…Elkins, Panofsky, Crary

  1. Lee

    I stumbled upon this in the midst of writing a research essay on perspective in the Renaissance and found it extremely useful.The Elkins text made me reconsider all of my initial questions!

  2. Pingback: The Renaissance – A New Perspective | History at Normandale

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