Today, media and its extension, the spectacle, radically alter our perception giving primacy to optical sensation that devalues the corporeal body and puts into question objective truth.   With the exponential increase in information, concentration gives way to a state of constant distraction, a condition valued differently by various groups.  This places us in a situation of perpetual present, eradicating memory, forcing us to choose between self-editing and managing this information or giving in to the destruction of contemplation, passively enjoying the ride.  In an effort to both compete with each other and for your attention in an effort to avoid boredom, marketing and entertainment continually increase there exposure driving us to further distraction.  Media and surveillance, through multiple outlets, ultimately become intertwined with dominant power structures in society.  This forces one to question by whom and how perception, ultimately affecting our experiences, is controlled in service of the spectacle.  And conversely, one must acknowledge the control enjoyed through various devices by the consumer who can now be selective about which experiences he/she wishes to engage.

By now, many theorists and critics have already defamed contemporary culture, media in particular, for assassinating social and visceral experience of the city.   But, this multifarious concept we call media has not destroyed our ability to experience, but has in fact radically transformed the existential possibilities.   It at once makes everyplace urban while simultaneously either replacing or complementing the traditional sense of place in our urban environment.  Media and information also begin to suggest what we really need out of our physical built environment when we already receive so much stimulation from other sources.

Vision as perception

Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” investigates the effect of photography on not only the art world, but on our perception itself.  Representation radically changes with the unprecedented realism that the photograph affords over painting.  This gives representation a new objective fidelity that the other arts could never guarantee, whereby one associated the photograph with truth.  Just as the camera is used in crime scenes to document evidence, in less somber situations, it provides record of what someone, something, or somewhere looks like.  Photographs act as an objective supplement to memory, which would otherwise tend to fade over time.  Does this medium enhance memory, allow a laxation of memory, or only focus it around the specificity of the time and place of the photograph?

The arrival of cinematic technology perpetuated the changes brought about by photography, coupling objective realism with time and motion.  Benjamin illustrates how this technology alters our perception by comparing painting to film.  The static nature of a painting invites quiet contemplation, causing the concentrated viewer to be absorbed by the work of art.  But the speed of a film’s flickering image disallows the viewer from completely grasping a scene in its totality.  He refers to this as “the shock effect of film,” whereby one must abandon one’s own thoughts in order to concentrate on processing the rapidly changing sequence of images.[i]  Also, unlike theatrical productions, cinema detaches the actor from any interaction with an audience, requiring a more self-disciplined attentiveness of the spectators.

The comparison of painting and cinema indicate the differences between concentrated and distracted perception, the latter a product of modernization.  With the increased amount of imagery people had to process, the more they moved through life in a state of distraction.  Not only does this not leave any time for contemplation, but also it continually requires a higher intensity of media to hold our wandering attention, thus perpetuating an endless cycle.  Benjamin notes that the state of distraction induced by film coincides with the assault on one’s senses while walking down the street in the metropolis.[ii]  Computers and the Internet have only compounded the complexity of images and information we must process in our day-to-day lives.

Photography and electronic media in the form of television, film or the Internet prioritizes vision, devaluing the other senses.  The history of vision tends to present photography and cinema as the culmination of technical and ideological development in western society.  Jonathan Crary’s research in visual perception attempts to disrepute any notion of continual development of an objective vision, pointing to a new subjective model that came about in the 19th century.  He claims that an insistence on continuity of objective vision serves both the right, for which Renaissance perspective and photography endeavor to define an objective vision, and the left which sees objective vision involved in a continuous apparatus of power that defines the status of the observer.[iii]

Objective vision, Crary claims, follows the model of the camera obscura where a darkened chamber receives the real image, focused in natural color, of an object through a small opening or lens.  Similar to Brunelleschi and Alberti’s developments of perspective in the Renaissance, the camera obscura produced an image that people accepted as an objective representation of truth.  As perceptual truth, it outlined a set of fixed relations that made the observer the subject.[iv]  Because it was founded on laws of nature, people accepted it as a foolproof model of observational and empirical knowledge of the world.  Sensory perception that depended on the human body was rejected in favor of this rational methodology that validated itself through pre-given truths of the world external to the body.[v]

In contrast, subjective vision inserts the human body into the discourse, where classical models of vision had excluded it.  A focus on physiology and psychology became the basis of visual perception grounded in the observing subject rather than factors outside of the subject.[vi]  Research concentrated on the afterimage, a visual image that persists after the visual stimulus causing it has ceased to act, in an attempt to deny perception grounded in external objects.  This served three purposes: to focus on something that had once been considered a physiological weakness and look at it in a positive affirmation of vision; to privilege body as a visual producer, collapsing distinction of inner and outer defined by the objective model; and to show the temporal aspect of subjective vision as processes of the body, undoing direct correspondence between perception and the object.[vii]  Now that new understandings of vision no longer distinguished between internal and external sensation, definitions of sensation expanded and transformed turning the perceiver into a neutral conduit of information.  This redefined the modern observer, preparing it for the mobility and multiplicity of images encountered in contemporary culture.[viii]

In a state of distraction

The art historian Frederic Schwartz traces Benjamin’s relationship to the avant garde of the time, identifying their influence on his thought as well as pointing out willful omissions in his research on visual attention.  Specifically, Schwartz points to Moholy-Nagy’s “Dynamic of the Metropolis,” a manifesto for the New Typography, in the way that its asymmetrical, non-hierarchical typography, photography and graphics attempted to reflectand suggest visual communication appropriate for the new conditions of attention, perception and thought.[ix]  He sees Benjamin’s One-Way Street as analogous to this work because it seeks to tie the shocks and discontinuities of urban experience to a new form of knowledge for the distracted viewer.[x]  Lacking any coherent narrative, the reader is presented with a series of intense fragments that constantly shift the focus of one’s attention.

Psychotechnicians and typographers agreed that visual attention was an object of knowledge.  But they diverged in that the avant garde believed the human sensory apparatus could never be saturated, while psychotechnics concerned itself with the point of saturation and the problem of fatigue.  The former limited itself to subjective observation, but through rigorous testing, the latter sought the point at which communication between the eye and the brain broke down.[xi]

Benjamin, like the Constructivists, qualifies “distraction and concentration as polar opposites,”[xii] with concentration leading to absorption of the subject, such as when one admires a painting in traditional contemplation.  He saw distraction, aided by the development of habits, as one’s mode of dealing with the modern assault on the senses, while absorption was seen negatively as a rejection of modernity.  For him, distraction was the ability to process stimuli and to act and think on it.[xiii]  On the other hand, psychologists, such as Siegfried Kracauer, equated distraction with absorption, as when people are absorbed in their own thoughts, thus shutting themselves off to external stimuli.  Wilhelm Wundt varied the terminology distinguishing between perception and apperception.  In perception, stimuli are simply available for the one’s attention, whereby we are aware of it but do not focus on it.  Apperception turns the focus of attention onto the stimulus in the form of willed concentration.  One should see Kracauer’s distraction and Wundt’s perception, as passive terms, opposed to Benjamin’s active interpretation of a competent, critical individual solving problems with the aid of habit.[xiv]  Schwartz sees a lack of clear distinction in Benjamin’s between voluntary (Wundt’s apperception) and involuntary perception, a difference psychotechnicians were well aware of.  They advised advertisers that effective marketing did not simply involve forcing stimuli over a threshold, but required transforming attention from involuntary to voluntary.[xv]

The spectacle and attention

In his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord claimed “the spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.”[xvi]  This not only implicates capitalism, but points to the importance of visual perception for engagement with the spectacle.  Though Debord suggests that the spectacle can reside in either concentrated form, characterized by bureaucratic capitalism (i.e. Stalinist Russia or Maoist China), or diffuse form, associated with modern free market capitalism (i.e. the United States), he focuses on later for its abundance of commodities.[xvii]

Diffuse spectacle negates social needs, instead engaging in a production of desire whereby the “pseudo-needs” of mass consumerism are marketed as necessities in order to keep the production machine in motion.  Industry induced obsolescence quickly outdates products, thus turning society into a cultural landscape of total consumption.  In the spirit of the Situationist movement, Debord decries this as a “falsification of life,” in which acquisition of commodities replaces authentic needs and desires of society.  He states, “This continual process of replacement means that fake gratification cannot help but be exposed as products change.”[xviii]  In a state of continuous flux, the production of desire only feigns permanence, but in reality the only persisting thing is the system of consumption itself.

The spectacle, as agent to capitalist manipulation, most heavily relies on the engagement of vision to perpetuate desire in the masses.  A demand for attention becomes imperative in marketing, raising questions about how this affects our visual perception.  Jonathan Crary indicates that Arthur Schopenhauer was one of the first to look at the relationship between attention and the disintegration of perception identifying the unstable and temporal nature of this connection.[xix]  Schopenhauer realized that one could only focus on a limited number of objects at once and that this focus was fleeting.  Crary quotes him describing this condition as an “extremely heterogeneous mixture of fragments of representations and of ideas of every kind which are constantly crossing one another in our heads.”[xx] 

Attention attempts to prevent our perception from being overrun by an incoherent flood of sensations.  It causes perceptual experience to constantly undergo change by diverting our focus from any single object, instead creating a periodic cycle between attention and distraction. [xxi]  In an under-stimulated environment, attention seeks to find focus on something interesting in order to avoid boredom.  But, once the production of stimulation accelerates, producing more information than we can coherently consume, attention becomes the operative filtering agent that hones in on particular objects leaving the rest to go by the wayside.  But, attention contains the possibility for its own collapse under its own excess; a threshold exists over which it begins to break down.  This leads to a perceptual deterioration of the object or a trance-like state, both negating attention in favor of distraction.[xxii]

Picking up on Benjamin’s observations, Crary highlights a destruction of contemplation that occurs in an environment of excessive stimulation.  The “cosmopolitan” individual living in the modern metropolis must remain infinitely adaptable to ever-changing stimuli.  Being attentive places priority on attending to such stimuli, always having a ready response that mitigates whatever assaults the viewer.  Modernity is not so much about contemplation as beholding the truth, but about a beholding that grounds itself in the dissolution of anything permanent, fixed or eternal.  This subjective attention results in perception fixed in relativity, interchangeability, and devaluation of values.[xxiii]

As information and image rapidly proliferate, we show an amazing resiliency and adaptability to whatever our contemporary situation throws our way.  The term multitasking, originally used to describe the capacity of a microprocessor to keep multiple computer programs running simultaneously, is now often used to describe how we divide our attention across several tasks as a way to cope with the abundance of information.  Without focusing completely on any one task, a person can “produce an unprecedented combination of diffused attention and quasi-automatism,”[xxiv] where self-automation relies heavily on habits learned from previous experience.  No longer do we work in a linear manner, now preferring to engage many problems at once with the intensity of attention shifting between the different tasks.  This may not be the most efficient way of operating, but it illustrates the urgency we perceive all matters to have at once.  More importantly, when multitasking we approach every job with a certain impatient distraction, unable to fully concentrate our attention on one particular activity. 

Mothers have always had to multitask when juggling cooking, household chores, the children, and possibly their own work at once.  This now affects a greater portion of the American population, the difference being in “how closely human conduct is tied to our technological tools, particularly to the PC.”[xxv]  Computers do not actually perform multiple tasks at once, but operate in a serial manner, only at a very quick pace that offers the illusion of simultaneity.    Those who work with computers perceive the value of time hoping to multiply what can be accomplished within a certain amount of time.  Where one cannot expand time, many attempt to “deepen” time by doing more things within the same amount of time.  Unlike computers, humans can perform several tasks at once, but not as well as when concentrating on a single subject; this often works though because all tasks do not have to be done as well as others.[xxvi]  Like in Benjamin’s state of distraction, habit plays an important role in the possibility of multitasking.  Studies have shown that young people become easily bored when they are not engaged in multiple activities at once.  As Benjamin put it in The Arcades Project,

“We are bored when we don’t know what we are waiting for.  That we do know, or think we know, is nearly always the expression of our superficiality or inattention.  Boredom is the threshold to great deeds.---Now, it would be important to know: What is the dialectical antithesis to boredom?”[xxvii]

Memory (or a lack of...)

The spectacle’s demand on attention, the inability to contemplate, and the act of multitasking all result in a degradation of our memory.  With modernization, memory shifts from that received by the oral tradition to a focus on preserving the past through museums and written documentation.  Photography, cinema, and text would guarantee an “authenticity” to history that oral presentation could not supply.  The idea of creating archives of history, with a goal of complete accuracy, intensified and multiplied the amount of historical material to be remembered, thus making it impossible for one to remember it all without reference.[xxviii]

As our memory loses potency we come to live in a perpetual present defined by the ephemeral image of the spectacle.  The increase in the amount of information disseminated coincides with a decrease in duration of this very information.  Crary states that “there is a ceaseless appearance of the important, and almost immediately its annihilation and replacement.”[xxix]  He notes that where history once had been that which novelty was judged against, now those who market novelty have an interest in destroying the means to judge their actions.

Beginning with its debut broadcast in 1981, MTV brought up a new generation on the combination of music and pure spectacle.  At an average length of three minutes, the music video did not look to hold ones attention for long; single shots usually were limited to no more than three seconds.[xxx]  Once visual perceptual expectations had been raised, general television programming had to react to people’s diminished attention space coupled with the empowerment of the remote control.  The remote allowed people to change programs once they reached a level of intolerable boredom, and made people constantly question if more interesting program resided on unseen channels.  Hence the advent of rapid channel-surfing where some studies have shown people switching channels twenty-two times a minute.[xxxi]  Networks have adjusted the strategic location of programming breaks, embedding commercial breaks within the time slots and coupling end-of-the-show credits with promotional entertainment to hold the viewer’s attention for the ten to thirty seconds before the next show begins.[xxxii]  Advertising has also responded by creating commercials as short as three seconds consisting of only one or two images plus a catchphrase.  Here content gives away to only image and sound byte.[xxxiii]

Perception and Power

An analysis of both the subtle and not so subtle power structures that manipulate visual perception will identify some of the different techniques of control in contemporary society.  Though Michel Foucault dismisses the spectacle in Discipline and Punish, Crary points out that it is a set of techniques for managing bodies and attention whereby a reversal occurs and the prisoners themselves become the objects of attention and surveillance.[xxxiv]  In his description of the panoptic mechanism, Foucault states the two driving principles behind the successful enforcement of this type of power require that the system be visible and unverifiable.  This results in a structure that distributes the power beyond any individual, creating a certain anonymity whereby the average person never knows when he/she is being observed.  This diffused assertion of power at once makes one think of the omnipresent Big Brother and his executive extension, the Thought Police, in George Orwell’s 1984

One can easily see examples in the modern panoptic systems of electronic surveillance in commercial and retail establishments in our country.  The United Kingdom has in the recent past extended this principle beyond the private commercial zones by installing CCTV into the public space of its cities. Originally conceived as a response to IRA terrorist bombings, the system now acts as a deterrent to everyday crime.  A certain efficiency operates in these systems where you may not always be watched, but always have the potential of being watched; fear of surveillance acts as the deterrent where it would be costly and impractical to have enough police to patrol everywhere.  The attentive subject is forced to internalize disciplinary constraints so that one becomes responsible for one’s own social obedience.[xxxv]

While the panoptic mechanism exhibits an overt, yet diffused example of societal control, the management of attention through media is necessarily intertwined into issues of power and control, even if in a more subtle manner.  Debord claims that the spectacle

“makes no secret of what it is, namely, hierarchical power evolving on its own, in its separateness, thanks to an increasing productivity based on an ever more refined division of labor, an ever greater comminution of machine-governed gestures, and an ever-widening market.”[xxxvi]

He reminds us that the spectacle, in the form of mass media, comes across as mere apparatus, but that the apparatus is not neutral.  It is an operative agent of the spectacle’s internal dynamics, of the processes of market capitalism.[xxxvii]

Television became the ubiquitous form of managing attention in the second half of the twentieth century, seamlessly integrating with our daily lives.  Once, people structured their leisure time for TV, specifically around the scheduling of their favorite programs.  With the excessive number of channels now offered on cable and satellite TV, leisure time is no longer so much about scheduled programming, but more about the very act of watching television, the management of the various channels enabled by the remote control.  Also, for those who have the means, the Internet competes with television for our leisure time.  This relatively new media engagement offers new flexibility that ignores scheduling, favoring a fluid environment which people can plug into whenever they please.

Either case leads to a fragmented perception of our surroundings where a surface reading appears to reign through competing sound bytes, headlines, and spectacles.  In fact, the user must become an information manager by skimming across this surface to find the needed link providing a deeper reading of a specific topic.  The disjunctive nature of media, where a war briefing interrupts a game show only to be followed by a Clarinex advertisement, is analogous to the various, conflicting encounters in traditional urban space.  But, in a mediated encounter, one has a certain detachment from the event because all perceptual engagement has been negated except for vision.

In a market economic system, both television and cyberspace must depend on advertising to finance their operations, leaving the viewers to deal with the barrage of propaganda thrown at them.  Electronic communication manages attention by creating docility in viewers and then linking the experience with intense productions of desire.[xxxviii]  In many cities, such as New York, London, Tokyo, or Las Vegas, this management operates at the urban scale when billboards and electronic signage replace building facades, defining urban space themed around the spectacle itself.

But, Crary points out that Debord not only focuses on visual imagery of the spectacle, but also how the spectacle became a technology of separation.[xxxix]  Social conformity and urbanism work to maintain separation between classes in order to safeguard class power.  Suburban development and urban renewal housing projects remain as two of the most obvious examples of class segregation in the built environment.  Even at the local level, this technology offers a passive activity that does not require other people to be enjoyed, supporting a self-induced isolation of the subject.

If power structures are in evidence in surveillance mechanisms and the management of attention through media, they can certainly both occur simultaneously collapsing into one extremely potent disciplinary apparatus.  Technology has been in development in recent years by the Nielson Media Research Group that would place image recognition systems inside television set to monitor the behavior, attentiveness, and eye movement of a spectator.[xl]  One could see this to the next logical step of development in which television would become responsive to changes in behavior as perceived by the machine.  This already occurs on a primitive level on computers with Internet cookies that leave traces of past web pages visited.  This allows web sources to monitor when a user has previously visited a site and track their usage.


For Benjamin, “Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction.”[xli]  If this has indeed always been the case, then this condition has intensified in modern times as the multitude of media and information captivate our attention.  Architectural language loses potency when outpaced and marginalized by the fluidity of media.  In extreme cases, intense marketing and new technology replace architectural ornament with billboards and LED screens.  In addition our craving for new imagery, happily supported by the magazines, has created a fashioning of architecture whereby novelty has replaced consensus.

In his seminal essay of 1903, titled “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” Georg Simmel distinguished the essentially intellectual character of modern life in the metropolis to that of the small town, which bases its relationships more on feelings and emotions.[xlii]  He believed that the relentless shock of the metropolis creates an over-stimulated environment that can wreak havoc on the sensory experience of its occupants.  Eventually, people began to migrate out to newly built suburbs, escaping from the chaos of the city in search of the perception of control, predictability and safety.  Most people do not want to confront the chaotic nature of an urban environment and the barrage of media and information projected at them today.  While it remains nearly impossible to escape the latter, people with the means can choose a more sedate lifestyle.  In an Information Age, people cannot avoid media completely, nor may they want to, but are put in a position to manage this stimuli.  The remote control and the keyboard put one in control of what one absorbs. 

But what happens when 300 channels of television no longer hold our attention?  Sitcoms and dramas eventually become predictable so we turn to the spontaneity of reality TV, which itself comes to have a certain predictability.  What happens when we become bored of suburbia?  Are those returning to cities seeking unpredictability or bringing predictability along with them?  With technological improvements, will we really turn to the fluid, yet safe, environment of virtual reality, rendering real buildings as mere infrastructure?

Marcus Carter

[i] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, (New York: Schocken Books, 1968) 238.

[ii] Benjamin, 250.

[iii] Jonathan Crary, “Modernizing Vision,” Vision and Visuality, Hal Foster, editor (New York: The New Press, 1988) 29-30.

[iv] Crary, “Modernizing Vision,” 31.

[v] Crary, “Modernizing Vision,” 32-3.

[vi] Crary, “Modernizing Vision,” 34.

[vii] Crary, “Modernizing Vision,” 35.

[viii] Crary, “Modernizing Vision,” 42-3.

[ix] Frederic J. Schwartz, “The Eye of the Expert: Walter Benjamin and the Avant Garde,” Art History 24:03 (2001) 405.

[x] Schwartz, 409.

[xi] Schwartz, 416-17.

[xii] Benjamin, 239.

[xiii] Schwartz, 421.

[xiv] Schwartz, 420-21.

[xv] Schwartz, 423.

[xvi] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1994) 24.

[xvii] Debord, 41-2.

[xviii] Debord, 45-6.

[xix] Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000) 55.

[xx] Crary, Suspensions of Perception, 56.

[xxi] Crary, Suspensions of Perception, 64.

[xxii] Crary, Suspensions of Perception, 47.

[xxiii] Crary, Suspensions of Perception, 53-4.

[xxiv] Crary, Suspensions of Perception, 78.

[xxv] Amy Harmon, “Talk, Type, Read E-mail: The Trials of Multitasking,” Living in the Information Age, (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2002) 180.

[xxvi] Harmon, 180-1.

[xxvii] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge: The Harvard University Press, 2002) 105.

[xxviii] Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity, (London: Sage Publications, 1998) 120-123.

[xxix] Crary, “Spectacle, Attention, Counter-Memory,” October: The Second Decade, 1986-1996, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997) 424.

[xxx] James Gleick, “Prest-o! Change-o!” Living in the Information Age, (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2002) 175.

[xxxi] Gleick, 173.

[xxxii] Gleick, 174.

[xxxiii] Gleick, 175.

[xxxiv] Crary, “Spectacle, Attention, Counter-Memory,” 423; Crary, Suspensions of Perception, 73.

[xxxv] Crary, Suspensions of Perception, 73.

[xxxvi] Debord, 21.

[xxxvii] Debord, 19.

[xxxviii] Crary, Suspensions of Perception, 37.

[xxxix] Crary, Suspensions of Perception, 73-4.

[xl] Crary, “Spectacle, Attention, Counter-Memory,” 423.

[xli] Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 239.

[xlii] Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1997) 70.