In the epilogue to Marxism and Totality, Martin Jay remarked that ‘if one had to find a common denominator among the major figures normally included in the post-structuralist category—Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers and their comrades avant la lettre, Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and Pierre Klossowski—it would have to be their unremitting hostility towards totality’.footnote1 Derrida offered a reality of ‘holes’ rather than ‘wholes’; Foucault substituted the analysis of rarity for the search for totalities; Lacan denigrated the supposed wholeness of the mirror stage; Barthes attacked the ideology of the unified text; Bataille wrote of fleeing from ‘the horror of reducing being to totality’.

Martin Jay’s most recent book, Downcast Eyes,footnote features the same cast of characters as the epilogue to his earlier one (plus the Surrealists, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre and Althusser from the main body of the text) but uses a different script. The common denominator is now hostility to vision: Bataille is not in flight from totality but abandoning ‘the world of the civilized and its light’; Barthes longs for abstinence from images; Lacan dismisses the specularity of the mirror stage; Foucault subverts the empire of the gaze; Derrida finds insights in blindness. In this version of postwar French intellectual history, a succession of thinkers grapples not with Lukács’s concept of totality but with Cartesian perspectivalism. What is intriguing is that it is the same writers and often the same texts that are used to exemplify both theses.

To note the overlap between Marxism and Totality and Downcast Eyes is not to suggest that Jay has just repackaged his old research. Far from it. Downcast Eyes provides a comprehensive account of its own subject, beginning with a review of the development of the discourse of the visual from Plato to the Enlightenment, and a chapter on the late nineteenth-century crisis of this ‘ancien scopic régime’. The major part of the book is devoted to what Jay believes is the uniformly hostile account of vision given by twentieth-century French philosophers, but even here there is plenty of new material. Sight was a major preoccupation of several of the writers active in the middle of the century—notably Bataille, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre—and at least a secondary concern of the theorists who emerged in the 1960s, and Jay is able to demonstrate that the rhetoric of the latter group is sometimes rooted in the rather more explicitly anti-visual theory of the former. But although Downcast Eyes rivals Jay’s earlier volume in breadth of learning, lucidity of analysis, and sustained fluency of presentation, it inevitably raises many unanswered questions, not only about the interpretation of French philosophy, but also about the writing of intellectual history and the complex relationship between vision and totality implied by Jay’s two studies.

The thesis Jay presents in Downcast Eyes was developed in several earlier papers—notably ‘In the Empire of the Gaze’ (1986), ‘Ideology and Ocularcentrism’ (1987), ‘The Rise of Hermeneutics and the Crisis of Ocularcentrism’ (1988) and ‘Scopic Regimes of Modernity’ (1988).footnote2 In these essays, Jay interprets contemporary cultural change in terms of a shift in the cultural significance and forms of vision. The basic premiss is the assumption that vision was the dominant sense of the modern era, and Cartesian perspectivalism the dominant model of vision. But, according to Jay in the ‘Empire of the Gaze’, the ‘anti-visual discourse’ of twentiethcentury thought, and in particular the work of Michel Foucault, has now pointed the way to an ‘anti-ocular counter-enlightenment’.footnote3 In the later essays, Jay modifies this position slightly, suggesting that Cartesian perspectivalism is being superseded, not so much by anti-visual discourse, as by an alternative, previously marginalized scopic regime, which (following Christine Buci-Glucksmann) he terms ‘Baroque vision’.footnote4 However, unlike the ‘absolute ocularcentrism’ of Cartesian perspectivalism, the Baroque scopic regime recognizes ‘the inextricability of rhetoric and vision. . .and accepts the irreducible linguistic moment in vision and the equally insistent visual moment in language’.footnote5 Thus, even though the relationship of the visual and the verbal may not have been reversed, Jay is in no doubt that, relative to what went before, ‘Our increasing interest in the truths of interpretation rather than the methods of observation bespeaks a renewed respect for the ear over the eye as the organ of greatest value.’footnote6 And he concludes that ‘We may well be entering a new period of distrusting vision, an era reminiscent of the other great iconoclastic moments in Western culture.’footnote7

In these essays, several, possibly incompatible interpretations seem to be jostling for position. It is unclear whether, according to Jay, contemporary cultural developments involve a shift from vision to the other senses, the rejection of the senses, or merely a transfer from one type of vision to another. And as the denigration of vision is variously described as a ‘counter-enlightenment’, a ‘Baroque scopic regime’, and an ‘iconoclastic moment’—designations that, between them, recall much of post-Reformation European intellectual life—it is difficult to determine which periods of cultural history anti-ocularcentrism is superseding and which it is recapitulating. One might have expected Downcast Eyes to resolve some of these difficulties, but all of the competing interpretations are repeated. The book is thus not so much the final statement of an argument as an encyclopaedia, a resource for future researchers that is all the more useful because it stands unguarded by a clearly defined thesis of its own. Of course, the organizing principle remains the belief that, from Bergson to Lyotard, French thinkers have distrusted vision. But it is a thesis that needs to be defended as well as documented, for it could be argued that the attitudes described as derogatory are actually more ambiguous, perhaps even celebratory, and that the distrust expressed by some thinkers has as its object something other than vision.

The first of these problems is felt most acutely when (as is frequently the case) Jay is dealing with writing that is self-consciously transgressive. In a transgressive text the systematic elision of customary distinctions makes it unusually difficult to judge the value that is placed upon the result. The clearest example is probably Bataille’s Story of the Eye . According to Jay, in this work ‘the eye is toppled from its privileged place in the sensual hierarchy to be linked instead with objects and functions more normally associated with “baser” human behaviour’.footnote8 But Jay’s conclusion that this is ‘the most ignoble eye imaginable’ fits ill with his description of the Story of the Eye as an example of Bataille’s ‘valorization of base and transgressive human behaviour’,footnote9 for if simultaneously the eye is debased and the base valorized, the debasement of the eye is not a straightforward devaluation.

Fetishism is usually considered to entail a catachrestic valuation rather than a devaluation of the fetishized object, and in a text in which the fetish of the eye replaces the fetish of the gaze, we are offered not an end to fetishism but the fetishization of a fetish. As Barthes perceptively remarked, in Bataille’s work ‘it is the very equivalence of the ocular and the genital that is original’, with the result that the Story of the Eye is ‘a perfectly spherical metaphor: each of its terms is always the significant of another term (no term being a simple thing signified) without it being possible ever to break the chain’.footnote10 Given that many of the theoretical texts Jay discusses also constitute themselves as ‘a kind of open literature out of reach of all interpretation’, it is incautious to read them, as Jay is forced to do, in terms of a boohooray theory of authorship. However, the difficulty Jay experiences in identifying attitudes and distinguishing them from their objects is not just a product of the uninterpretable texts with which he is working. It is also, to some degree, the result of his methodology.