Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.
annotation by Starr Marcello (Theories of Media, Winter 2004)

Jonathan Crary takes the title of his book, Suspensions of Perception from Freud’s writing about the psychoanalyst’s occupation. In “Recommendations to Physicians Practicing Psycho-analysis,” Freud encourages the analyst to maintain “evenly suspended attention” in order to withstand the mental and physical stress of interpreting the enormous amount of information he hears each day from his patients (367). Crary is interested in how Freud’s conception of attentiveness, in which nothing is excluded but everything is received at a low level—functions as a possible device for enduring the pressures on the modern consciousness. In Suspensions of Perception, Crary links changing notions of perception and attention to the technological and economic impact of modernity the end of the nineteenth century. For Crary, the problem of attention-overload is caused by capitalist consumer culture. In his analysis of how the notion of attention developed in this environment, Crary looks specifically at the field of visual perception. Ultimately, he is seeking to provide a historically grounded, thorough analysis of the origins of contemporary conceptions of attention, filling in the gaps he has found in previous critics’ unsatisfactory attempts to do so.

In the first chapter of his book, Crary considers why attention became a “new kind of problem” in the 1880s and 1890s, and how problems of attention arose in relation to changing notions of visual perception. Crary begins by looking at models of “subjective vision” that began to appear in the 1870s. In using the tem subjective vision, Crary is referring to an idea of perceptual experience based on personal senses rather than external stimuli—a shift that leaves perception vulnerable to psychological manipulation. Crary identifies “capitalist modernity” as the agent of manipulation, responsible for creating a “crisis of attentiveness” for the spectator whose social, urban, psychic, and industrial environment is overloaded with sensory input (13-14). He claims that the “cultural logic” of capitalism requires the subject to have the ability to constantly shift the focus of his attention in response to the wide range of stimuli.

An individual’s failure to direct and maintain attention towards a specific subject was addressed as a psychological problem throughout the last two decades of the nineteenth century. In opposition, somewhat, to Freud’s “suspended attention,” attention in the general field of psychology at this time was conceived of as an activity of selection and isolation. In focusing one’s attention on particular object, an individual was required to render “parts of a perceptual field unperceived” (25). Crary examines how this problem has projected into recent years under the label of “attention deficit disorder” (ADD). He draws upon the similarity of characteristics between the symptoms of children currently diagnosed with ADD and the “problems” of the late nineteenth century patients--both suffer from “impulsiveness, short attention span, low frustration tolerance, distractibility…” (36).

 Crary concludes his first chapter by considering how contemporary technologies compel the type of “suspended attention” Freud advised within his profession. In a world of continual demand for attention, in which one must process “heterogeneous stimuli” in the forms of film, radio, television, and cyberspace, Crary asserts that a permanent low-level of attentiveness may constitute a successful method for navigating through modern life (77).