Re-Thinking “The Visual”: Time, Process, and 4D
I’m working on a manuscript in which I contrast classically liberal visual epistemes with neoliberal affective and audiological epistemes. If classical liberalism thinks with and through primarily “visual” examples, neoliberalism thinks with and through examples derived from different modes of sensory experience—affect and sound. One of the main points of difference between classical liberal viz-centrism and neoliberal affect-ology or audio-logy is this: the viz-centric episteme adopted in classical liberalism focuses on objects (static, defined substances), while the sensible/sonic episteme of neoliberalism focuses on processes(dynamic, temporal phenomena).
I argue that philosophy generally, but especially feminist philosophy, tends to theorize “from the visual.” That is to say, it begins from a set of metaphysical, ontological, political, and normative (ethical & aesthetic) assumptions that are derived from Enlightenment/Modern epistemologies; these epistemologies frame the “subject” or “self” through and in terms of a 16th/17thcentury understanding of how sight works. So, “the visual” is not necessarily tied to how current science understands the physiology of sight and the physics of light to work. Rather, it is grounded in the account of seeing and being seen that we inherit from Enlightenment science and, more importantly, philosophy. (One could argue that this understanding of sight/light focuses on light’s “particle” properties to the exclusion of its “wave” properties.) “Visibility,” in other words, “takes on a particular organization that corresponds to our habits of seeing” (Al-Saji 377). The regime of visibility we inherit from the classical liberalism/Enlightenment philosophy is consistent with what Foucault calls (in The Order of Things) the “classical episteme.” Or, perhaps more correctly, the “classical episteme” is visual or viz-centric (think about Las Meninas, the painting at the beginning of Foucault’s book…).
I do all that arguing in the book’s introduction. Here, I want to focus on one very specific aspect of this contrast between classically liberal “visuality” and neoliberal “processuality”: the shift from 2D to 4D thinking. I’ve already talked a bit about the role of 4D in Jasbir Puar’s theorization of neoliberal superpanopticism. Here, I want to trace this in Alia Al-Saji’s work on visuality in Merleau-Ponty and Bergson. By showing how various feminist theorists, each drawing on different source material/philosophical traditions, all arrive at something like this shift from 2D classical liberal “visuality” to 4D neoliberal affectivity, I hope to establish this 2D-4D shift as a general phenomenon, one that is not specific to any one philosophical system, but reflective of broad and deep shifts in Western theory and lifeworlds.
In her article, Al-Saji identifies two types or modes of vision: objectifying vision and critical-ethical vision. Objectifying vision treats sight as “merely a matter of re-cognition, the objectivation and categorization of the visible into clear-cut solids, into objects with definite contours and uses” (375). This objectifying vision is both classically liberal and Cartesian: it operates in a two-dimensional metaphysical plane, and according to a binary logic.(Think about it: the Cartesian Cogitio, the foundation of the classically liberal subject, fits quite nicely with, uh, the Cartesian coordinate system…). “Modernity in the West,” Al-Saji explains, includes and is “motivated by imaginary and epistemic investments in representation and the metaphysics of subject-object’ (378; emphasis mine). This binary subject/object logic implies a specific type or mode of representation: two-dimensionality. Binaries like subject/object, inside/outside, public/private, male/female, black/white—these are all manifestations of an episteme that frames everything in terms of either X or Y (i.e., the axes in the Cartesian coordinate system). The idea that social identities—like race or gender—are properties of individuals (rather than systems of social organization) follows from this 2D object-orientation. Al-Saji explains:
social positionality and systems of oppression…are only acknowledged by objectifying vision insofar as they are made into objects or properties of objects…As the formative conditions by which objects and ‘others’ are differentiated and discerned, these dimensions cannot be seen for themselves (378).
Objectifying vision treats identity as an object: liberal vision can only see identities, it can’t see the “system” or the “frame’ or the “frame-making process.” In fact, objectifying vision can see neither processes nor relations: it can account only for “inert and self-same being, subject neither to contextual variation, nor dependency” (379; emphasis mine). (I’ll pick back up on this connection between systematic accounts of oppression and process below.) This classicaly liberal, 2D, identity-centric account of race and gender privileges a theory of representation like the one Guyatri Spivak discusses, via Marx, in her iconic Can the Subaltern Speak? The subject/object and inside/outside dichotomies encourage the view that political representation (Vertreten), as in the ability to speak for or as a member of a group, is grounded in 2D artistic re-presentation (Darstellung). Only those who outwardly, realistically, and authentically possess the objective properties that index group membership (skin color, eye shape, organs, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, etc.) are taken as credible political representatives of that group. More simply, what we commonly understand as “identity politics” assumes this 2D regime of visuality. (I know this is more of the summary of my argument than the actual argument—but you’ll have to wait for the book for the full argument.)
According to Al-Saji, critical-ethical vision is a “concrete, dynamic and affective seeing that…is forgotten when vision falls into habits of objectification” (376). If objectifying vision is attuned to, well, objects, critical-ethical vision is attuned to (dynamic) processes. These dynamic processes include “the temporality of [lived bodies’] habits, their dependency on social position, and the contingency of their material form” (379; emphasis mine). Critical-ethical vision is 4D in the art historical sense because it, like 4D media, is time-based.Following Bergson, Al-Saji calls this temporal aspect of critical-ethical vision hesitation. “Hesitation questions the seamless mirroring of seeing in the seen; it reveals the difference and non-coincidence within vision itself” (380). Hesitation is a temporal rupture in the “ahistorical” (379) subject (seeing)/object (seen) 2D logic.Time itself is what interrupts the “flat” or “static” two-dimensionality of objectifying vision. Time, in the form of “the felt weight of historicity,” draws our attention to the social conditions of vision (what Al-Saji calls the “diacritical” conditions of vision). For example, objectifying vision, by overlooking the social conditions of visuality, falsely presents a normatively masculine/male subject position as both gender-neutral and universal. In classically liberal theories of subjectivity and agency, “the normative ‘I can’—posited as human but in fact correlated to male bodies—itself relies on a certain ‘I cannot’ that excludes other ways of seeing and acting. This exclusion constructs the teleology of objectifying vision and action as ‘efficient’ and ‘seamless’” (382). This seamlessness is possible because the “rough edges”—i.e., history, social context—are absent in a 2D “flat” account of subjectivity. Treating identity and oppression only as objects, 2D accounts obscure the systematic nature of oppression.
This systematic (historical/diacritical) character of oppression is, for objectifying vision, “the blindspot that it cannot make visible directly, but can only marginally see in its moments of hesitation” (385). Al-Saji implies that hesitation, the introduction of history and social context into two-dimensional subject/object ontologies, requires us to think in more than two dimensions. “To glimpse these dimensions,” she argues, “is to witness the virtual multiplication of other ways of seeing and acting, of alternative routes to those being actualized through objectifying vision” (382; emphasis mine). Time itself is not homogeneous; the fourth dimension is multifaceted. The heterogeneity of time/temporality is a common theme in postcolonial theory: think, for example, of Homi Bhabha’s discussion of time in The Location of Culture, or Paul Gilroy’s discussion of black Atlantic counter-Modernity. Thus, Al-Saji argues that hesitation does more than introduce “time” as an analytical category; if it accounts for “the weight of multiple pasts, of historicity and habituation” (385), hesitation can in fact reveal the “temporality and contingency” of time itself—or rather, it reveals that time, like any other epistemic/experiential dimension, is structured by “instituting horizons and norms of meaning” (385). (This perhaps parallels Puar’s discussion of the need to think time non-metrically, or to relativize “meter” as a contextually-specific regime of temporality/timekeeping.) Though Al-Saji uses “hesitation” to describe an epistemic-phenomenological practice (critical-ethical vision), she models this practice directly on the literal meaning of the term. “Hesitation” can refer to a visual experience tha tis either (or both) “delayed” or (and) “already ahead of itself” (387). “Hesitation” thus describes the perception of something being too late or too soon—something whose temporality doesn’t follow normative tempi, meter, rhythm, etc.
Painting, 4D, and Sound
It is interesting that Al-Saji (via Merleau-Ponty and Bergson) glean their concepts of 4D critical-ethical visuality from painting, because painting is a 2D medium. Al-Saji uses 4D terms and concepts to describe critical-ethical vision, so time-based media would offer more appropriate examples from and with which to theorize critical-ethical vision. She even suggests as much:
More than mere looking, this is seeing that listens, checks and questions, that is critically watchful as well as ethically responsive (391).
In a footnote, she qualifies her reference to audition: “By invoking listening here, I mean to point to the synaesthetic openness of this vision” (398n74). But I would argue that listening is actually highly appropriate to theorizing hesitation, as music and sound art are fundamentally 4D media, and have been 4D long before visual arts caught up to them in the 20th century with film, video, and digital media. Sound, music, and audition are such productive means for theorizing “hesitation” that Al-Saji calls on musical concepts to describe painting:
Paintings, and cultural productions more generally, teach us to see differently…In this context, Merleau-Ponty notes that ‘painting deposits in [us] a feeling of profound discordance, a feeling of mutation.’ (EM 179/63) Painting, it seems, has its own affective atmosphere, its own way of addressing us that disrupts our habitual rhythms and perceptions (388).
Painting is a 2D—perhaps the 2D—medium. However, Al-Saji and Merleau-Ponty both use musical concepts to describe the way painting, a 2D medium, sparks critical-ethical “vision”: it uses rhythmand consonance (discordance). Or rather, it critiquesobjectifying (2D, ‘regular old’) vision, and these critiques “appear” or rise to perception as 4D phenomena. The critique seems or feels like delay, syncopation, dissonance—the interruption in objectifying vision manifests as a temporal phenomenon. The effects of “destabilizing the objectifying habits of seeing” (344) present themselves—or rather, are perceived as—time-lag, hesitation.
Hesitation, 4D, and Neoliberalism: Or, “seeing differently” is not always critical or ethical
Hesitation is not necessarilycritical. In my reading of Puar, I argue that neoliberalism is a 4D “medium”. So, hesitation could function uncritically as the very means and medium of neoliberal hegemony. So it’s important that Al-Saji focus on the critical-ethical dimension of hesitation. However, I worry that her account is too narrowly targeted to classically liberal “objectifying” vision, and that it doesn’t indicate how a critical “hesitation” or “delay” in 4D vision itselfwould work. Because if it’s the attention to process and temporality that disrupts the 2D logic of objectification, then while this “hesitation” may be sufficient to critique classically liberal “vision,” it is not adequately disruptive of neoliberal “vision.” (E.g., Al-Saji frames affect as an alternative to objectification/sight,but Puar shows how neoliberalism transmits hegemony via affect.)
Objectification is not the problem, Power is the problem
One thing I particularly appreciate about Al-Saji’s account is that it shows us that “objectification” is situated in a specific framework or regime of vision. “Objectification” is one strategy, manifestation, or ode of a broader systemof social organization—this is what attention to the diacritical and historical conditions of vision demonstrates. Just as not all “vision” is objectifying, not all kinds of power or hegemony are “objectifying.” Objectification is not the only way that oppression works—it’s not even the only—or perhaps even primary—way that the media oppresses women and perpetuates misogyny. We can’t just stop at objectification. We miss a lot.
If we follow Al-Saji, what we miss by stopping at objectification is the systematic nature of oppression. When we treat objectificationas the problem (e.g., this images objectifies women), we obscure the broader context in which this occurs—patriarchy. Objectification is not the problem; patriarchy is the problem. Patriarchy is what makes the objectification of women harmful. (E.g., men get objectified in images, too—as athletes, as sexual objects—but the kind and quality of harm is different.)
Al-Saji clarifies that objectification or instrumentalization is actually a necessary condition of any type of “vision”: “These others form the invisibles that have already been laterally implicated in my field of vision” (389). In her terms, “lateral” implication means historicaland social implication: other people make, maintain, and disseminate the specific systems of vision that I follow. For example, in order for a language to live, people have to speak it; I learn it from others, I practice it by talking with others or reading what other people have written, and it stays current when people invent new words to describe new things. People make language and keep it alive, so my ability to talk or read is contingent upon other people’s linguistic practice. The same is true with “vision”: I can “see” because other people practice this style of seeing with me. There is a “lateral dependence of my vision upon others whose affective influence” (390) is a prerequisite for my own ability to “see.” I can’t see—in any way, objectifying, non-objectifying, critical-ethical, whatever—without relying on others. I take them as objects, as instruments. (Knowing her work on Beauvoir, I suspect Beauvoir’s notion of “ambiguity” is influencing Al-Saji here.)So the problem here is not that I’m treating others as means and not as ends-in-themselves. In fact, what quasi-Kantian feminist critiques of objectification forget is
my debt to others who have accompanied the development of my vision, specifically parental, communal and proximate others from whom I have learned how to see; this invisible ‘weight of my past’ institutes a particular way of seeing as normative for me (Al-Saji 389).
So those all-too-standard feminist objections to “objectification” actually play into the very system of power that they’re objecting to. By claiming that “objectification” is a problem, one ignores the ways that we are dependent on others, and de-values all the care work that is primarily done by women. Who teaches children? Who does this “parental, communal” labor that Al-Saji mentions? Mostly women, either formally as teachers or informally as parents. This “oversight” of dependency is an “appropriation of the flesh of others to whom my attachment is rendered invisible” (389). By claiming as my own accomplishment what was actually the work of others, I appropriate their labor. So, the ethical framework (which is basically Kantian: Treat others only as end-in-themselves, never as means to an end) according to which “objectification” is a problem actually denies the moral personhood of women. If we are dependent on others, then we can avoid objectifying people only if the entities on which we depend—those “parental, communal, and proximate others from whom I have learned how to see”—are not moral persons, i.e., do not “count” as beings deserving to be treated as ends-in-themselves. So, it’s actually a problem to think objectification is inherently and necessarily problematic.
My reading of Al-Saji also clarifies another limitation of the “objectification” objection: If objectifying vision is more or less the regime of classical liberalism, then “objectification” is a technique that classically liberal modes of patriarchy, white supremacy, etc., use to perpetuate themselves. If neoliberalism is more process-oriented than object-oriented, neoliberalism’s misogyny will not necessarily, or not primarily, take the form of objectification. If we focus too narrowly on objectification, if we think “objectification” is the main way cultural products, media, images, etc., harm women, then we overlook a whole slew of ways that misogyny occurs in neoliberalism, in 4D forms of power, in 4D media, etc.
So, Al-Saji’s article helps establish and clarify the connection between the epistemic system of “objectifying vision” and the political system of classical liberalism. It also shows how classical liberalism operates in a 2D metaphysical plane. Al-Saji’s work through Merleau-Ponty and Bergson clarifies how art-historical notions of 4D “vision” intervene in and critique 2D logics. Time is a key element of experience, one that is not captured in 2D systems. Al-Saji’s critique of “objectifying vision” also opens up a feminist critique of all-too-standard feminist objections to “objectification”: objectification is a feature of a specific kind of “vision” or system of hegemony.
 Foucault’s concept of the “classical episteme” is also relevant here, especially as it relates to categorization and “clear and distinct” boundaries.
 Critical-ethical vision is also 4D in that it introduces additional “planes” or “axes” of sight into the visual field. “Hesitation makes visible, in indirect and lateral ways, the processes of habituation, identification and exclusion involved in the institution of the level according to which I see. Hesitation thus installs an interval through which both forms of therness, elided in objectifying vision, can be glimpsed” (390; emphasis mine). The “lines”—e.g., the sine waves or equations graphing the processes rather than the objects of sight—manifest laterally or obliquely to the 2D X/Y Cartesian grid.
 Hesitation is a temporal phenomenon that deconstructs subject-object binaries, and, in so doing, the classically liberal framework that ties political representation to 2D artistic representation. “At the hinge of passivitity-activity, but also of inside-outside” (386), hesitation “goes beyond what can be cognized in the logic of objects, an openness to that which may register as feeling rather than representation” (386; emphasis mine).
 “Hesitation is, then, a response to, and an effort of openness towards, an affective field that is unrecognizable to the objectifying gaze. In this sense, hesitation would be a remedy for the blinders and the arrogance—to use Marilyn Frye’s term—of objectifying vision” (382)
AL-Saji argues, “affect is an interruption of habitual action, a delay that is generative of recollection and that can open within habit other ways of seeing andn acting” (386)