The French film theorist Christian Metz coined the term “scopic regime” in The imaginary signifier (1982, 1st pub.1975) to distinguish the cinema from the theatre: “what defines the specifically cinematic scopic regime is not so much the distance kept . . . as the absence of the object seen” (1982, 61). Because of the cinematic apparatus’s construction of an imaginary object, its scopic regime is unhinged from its “real” referent. Representation is independent of what is represented, at least as a present stimulus, both spatially and temporally.
Others employ the term more broadly to define visual experiences mediated, even constituted, by other technologies, such as photography, television, and digital computers, as well as to postulate significant gender differences (more often a regime fostered by the “male gaze”). Certain activities like shopping and spectator sports have been granted their own local scopic regimes. More ambitious theoreticians have posited general systems of visuality constructed by a cultural/technological/political apparatus mediating the apparently given world of objects in a neutral perceptual field. In this more totalizing usage, “scopic regime” indicates a non-natural visual order operating on a pre-reflective level to determine the dominant protocols of seeing and being on view in a specific culture at a specific time. The term “regime” implies something vaguely coercive, involving a disciplined gaze or organized visual field that permeates a culture. Bolder commentators seek parallels between visual protocols and other cultural phenomena involving spatial organization, such as landscaping, architecture, and urban planning. Some even discern rough homologies with corresponding philosophical trends.
The modern European era, for example, has been analyzed in terms of three distinct, if overlapping scopic regimes: “Cartesian perspectivalism,” “the art of describing,” and “baroque reason.” The first and most pervasive emerged with the “invention” or “discovery” of perspective in painting in the fifteenth century. It posited an abstract, quantitatively ordered, homogeneous space, and generated transformational rules to render three-dimensional space into two-dimensional representations. The rectilinear spatial order in which it situated objects was external to a rational, disembodied, and monocular subject. Descartes’s philosophy, often seen as the foundation of modern thought, was congruent with this aesthetic visual practice, while also abetting a scientific worldview. The Cartesian subject’s mental representations mirrored a world of mute objects no longer laden with the meaning inherent in a world understood as a legible text. If desire coursed through the body of this subject, it was voyeuristic in nature, eschewing the immediacy of the more proximate senses. The urban landscape corresponding to it was that of Pope Sixtus V’s rationally planned Rome or Louis XIV’s geometric town of Richelieu and palace at Versailles.
A second early modern scopic regime has been identified with what the art historian Svetlana Alpers calls the Dutch art of describing, as opposed to the more perspectivalist, narrative art of the Italian Renaissance. This Dutch art drew attention to many small things rather than a few large ones; its light was reflected off objects rather than modeling them through chiaroscuro; and it focused more on the surface colors and textures of objects than their relational placement in a geometric space. Its images were unbounded by a frame as in Cartesian perspectivalist art, and its beholder was a binocular, embodied subject. Rather than the three-dimensional window on the world postulated by the perspectivalists, it preferred the flatness of the canvas’s material surface, showing its affinity with the mapping impulse of the Age of Discovery. Inviting viewers into the scenes depicted rather than keeping them at a distance, it abetted a less ocular-centric and more haptic scopic regime than its counterpart to the south. If it had any philosophical equivalent it was the inductive empiricism of a Francis Bacon or Constantin Huygens rather than the deductive rationalism of a Descartes. Cities like Amsterdam, spared the monumentalizing imposition of rationalized grids in favor of curvilinear pathways, textured material surfaces, and atmospheric effects, were its urban equivalent.
A third modern scopic regime has been identified with baroque reason, according to the French philosopher Christine Buci-Glucksmann. Playing with dazzling, disorienting, ecstatic visual experience freed from its dependence on geometric regularity or the calm solidity of material surfaces, it unleashed what she calls “the madness of vision” (1986). Anamorphic effects and trompe l’oeil surprises produced a visual field that resisted any meaningful order, a field unsurveyable by either a distant monocular gaze or a binocular proximate one. The desiring body, its eyes nervously glancing rather than calmly gazing, dethroned the cold, reifying stare of the disincarnated Cartesian perspectivalist subject. The paradoxical philosophy of a Pascal and the obscurities of Counter-Reformation mystics were its philosophical correlates, and its urban setting was that of the intersecting planes, uneven facades, hidden enclaves, and fragmented space of the baroque city.
Ideal types, these scopic regimes intersect in complicated ways in the real world. Although Cartesian perspectivalism may have dominated the modern era, those who defend the idea of a postmodern successor often see its visual culture as the revival of baroque reason. We now inhabit a world of simulacral, dazzling effects that undermine any idea of a geometric visual field open to the penetrating gaze of a monocular, disembedded subject or the mapped surface of empirical description. Instead, the eye has been placed back in the body, a body in motion, coursed by desire, and hard to distinguish from the prosthetic technologies that connect it to the world “outside.” Perhaps in this sense, Metz’s claim that cinema produces a scopic regime defined by the absence of a real object anticipates the larger argument made about the postmodern revival of the baroque. We no longer live inside the white modernist cube, but rather in the black box of the cinematic apparatus, if not the stage sets of the Las Vegas strip.
- Alpers, S. (1983). The art of describing: Dutch art in the seventeenth century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Buci-Glucksmann, C. (1986). La Folie du voir: De l’esthethique Baroque. Paris: Galilée.
- Buci-Glucksmann, C. (1994). Baroque reason: The aesthetics of modernity (trans. P. Camiller). London: Sage.
- Foster, H. (ed.) (1988). Vision and visuality: Discussions in contemporary culture, vol. 2. Seattle: Bay Press.
- Jay, M. (1992). Scopic regimes of modernity. In Force fields: Between intellectual history and cultural critique. New York: Routledge, pp. 114–133.
- Metz, C. (1982). The imaginary signifier: Psychoanalysis and the cinema ( C. Britton, A. Williams, B. Brewster, & A. Guzzetti). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.