Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought

Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought

Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought

Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought


Long considered "the noblest of the senses," vision has increasingly come under critical scrutiny by a wide range of thinkers who question its dominance in Western culture. These critics of vision, especially prominent in twentieth-century France, have challenged its allegedly superior capacity to provide access to the world. They have also criticized its supposed complicity with political and social oppression through the promulgation of spectacle and surveillance.

Martin Jay turns to this discourse surrounding vision and explores its often contradictory implications in the work of such influential figures as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Guy Debord, Luce Irigaray, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida. Jay begins with a discussion of the theory of vision from Plato to Descartes, then considers its role in the French Enlightenment before turning to its status in the culture of modernity. From consideration of French Impressionism to analysis of Georges Bataille and the Surrealists, Roland Barthes's writings on photography, and the film theory of Christian Metz, Jay provides lucid and fair-minded accounts of thinkers and ideas widely known for their difficulty.

His book examines the myriad links between the interrogation of vision and the pervasive antihumanist, antimodernist, and counter-enlightenment tenor of much recent French thought. Refusing, however, to defend the dominant visual order, he calls instead for a plurality of "scopic regimes." Certain to generate controversy and discussion throughout the humanities and social sciences, Downcast Eyes will consolidate Jay's reputation as one of today's premier cultural and intellectual historians.


Even a rapid glance at the language we commonly use will demonstrate the ubiquity of visual metaphors. If we actively focus our attention on them, vigilantly keeping an eye out for those deeply embedded as well as those on the surface, we can gain an illuminating insight into the complex mirroring of perception and language. Depending, of course, on one’s outlook or point of view, the prevalence of such metaphors will be accounted an obstacle or an aid to our knowledge of reality. It is, however, no idle speculation or figment of imagination to claim that if blinded to their importance, we will damage our ability to inspect the world outside and introspect the world within. and our prospects for escaping their thrall, if indeed that is even a foreseeable goal, will be greatly dimmed. in lieu of an exhaustive survey of such metaphors, whose scope is far too broad to allow an easy synopsis, this opening paragraph should suggest how ineluctable the modality of the visual actually is, at least in our linguistic practice. I hope by now that you, optique lecteur, can see what I mean.

1. There are some twenty-one visual metaphors in this paragraph, many of them embedded in words that no longer seem directly dependent on them. Thus, for example, vigilant is derived from the Latin vigilare, to watch, which in its French form veiller is the root of surveillance. Demonstrate comes from the Latin monstrare, to show. Inspect, prospect, introspect (and other words like aspect or circumspect) all derive from the Latin specere, to look at or observe. Speculate has the same root. Scope comes from the Latin scopium, a translation of a Greek word for to look at or examine. Synopsis is from the Greek word for general view. These are latent or dead metaphors,

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.