July 11, 2018
Defamiliarization and the Unprompted (Not Innocent) Eye
By (University of Antwerp)


One of the key concepts of Russian formalism is defamiliarization.1 Here is the most succinct exposition of what this concept means:

If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic….Such habituation explains the principles by which, in ordinary speech, we leave phrases unfinished and words half expressed….The object, perceived in the manner of prose perception, fades and does not leave even a first impression; ultimately even the essence of what it was is forgotten….Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war….And Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived, and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.2

A distinctive feature of Russian formalism, something we do not see in Bell and Fry or in Wölfflin and Riegl (or see it more rarely, see Section IV below), is this emphasis on the analysis of everyday perception and the ways in which art encourages us to perceive differently. But it is difficult not to read the concept of defamiliarization as a naïve early statement of what art historians and aestheticians of the second half of the 20th century criticized as the “Innocent Eye” tradition. As talking about the Innocent Eye is now universally frowned upon, defamiliarization has not been taken as seriously as it should have been. The aim of this paper is to revive the concept of defamiliarization by showing that it has nothing to do with the “Innocent Eye” tradition and to propose a new interpretation of it in terms of distributed attention. I conclude that this reinterpreted concept of defamiliarization can be very useful for contemporary post-formalist accounts of the history of vision (and imagination as well as visual attention).

Shklovsky, De Chirico, Proust, Musil 

What I take to be the central idea of defamiliarization is not primarily a claim about art or aesthetics. It is a claim about perception: everyday perception is different from the way we perceive (or should perceive) works of art. This idea (with its undeniable Kantian overtones) was quite widespread around the time when Shklovsky first wrote about defamiliarization (in 1914,3 although his most widely known description of the phenomenon I quoted above is from 1917). Here is a famous passage by Giorgio de Chirico from 1912, for example:

One clear autumnal afternoon I was sitting on a bench in the middle of the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. It was of course not the first time I had seen this square….The whole world, down to the marble of the buildings and the fountains, seemed to me to be convalescent. In the middle of the square rises a statue of Dante draped in a long cloak, holding his works clasped against his body, his laurel-crowned head bent thoughtfully earthward. The statue is in white marble, but time has given it a gray cast, very agreeable to the eye. The autumn sun, warm and unloving, lit the statue and the church façade. Then I had the strange impression that I was looking at all these things for the first time.4

This experience of seeing something he had seen many times but as if he saw them for the first time is very close to what Shklovsky means by defamiliarization. What I take to be the big move of Russian formalists is that they connected this duality between everyday perception and these special, defamiliarized instances of perception with the idea of formalism. This connection, in the case of Shklovsky is that one way in which we can achieve defamiliarization is to use unusual or exaggerated formal properties. As he says, “the technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception.”5

The general idea of some kind of connection between defamiliarization and forms is not new.6 Here is Proust, in 1913:

But even the ugliness of faces, which of course were mostly familiar to him, seemed something new and uncanny, now that their features,—instead of being to him symbols of practical utility in the identification of this or that man, who until then had represented merely so many pleasures to be sought after, boredoms to be avoided, or courtesies to be acknowledged—were at rest, measurable by aesthetic coordinates alone, in the autonomy of their curves and angles.7

A lot is going on in this quote. We have the (broadly Kantian) insight that this experience is devoid of practical utility. We also have a formalist spin with the emphasis on curves and angles. And also the seeing of something familiar in a new light, with fresh eyes. And we see versions of all these three ideas in the writings of Shklovsky (even in the longish quote above). But the way Proust makes the connection between defamiliarization (the idea of seeing of something familiar in a new light, with fresh eyes) and forms (“the autonomy of…curves and angles”) is different from Shklovsky’s. Proust seems to suggest that defamiliarized seeing is the seeing of formal properties. When we see something as if we saw it for the first time, we see curves and angles. For Shklovsky, in contrast, the experience of seeing something as if we saw it for the first time is achieved by means of formal qualities that are difficult to process. For Shklovsky, form is the means to the end of defamiliarized vision. For Proust, forms and defamiliarized vision are two sides of the same coin.

Another author who connects the discussion of defamiliarization and forms is Robert Musil.8 His concept of “other condition” is a version of the concept of defamiliarization: the “other condition” is a way of perceiving the world that is very different from the way we normally perceive it.9 In “Toward a new aesthetic,”10 first he complains how obscure writers and philosophers tend to be when describing this “other condition” and then proceeds to give a pretty obscure description himself:

There is neither measure nor precision, neither purpose nor cause: good and evil simply fall away, without any pretense of superiority, and in place of all these relations enters a secret rising and ebbing of our being with that of things and other people. It is in this condition that the image of each object becomes not a practical goal, but a wordless experience.11

In order to understand Musil’s account of the “other condition,” we need to also have a closer look at two related topics that very much informed his way of thinking about the Other Condition. The first one is his formalism. Musil was a formalist—somewhat surprisingly for someone who is credited as the par excellence philosophical (that is, content-based) novelist. Being a formalist in Austria/Germany in his time was also much more unusual than, say, in England or Russia. Nonetheless, he endorsed a fairly sophisticated version of formalism that was more similar to Roger Fry’s than to Clive Bell’s.12

But his formalism is even closer to that of Russian formalists and the Shklovsky himself—a theme that I can’t fully explore here. While Shklovsky put the emphasis on the “unfamiliar,” Musil is interested in what makes our perception of the “unfamiliar” different from everyday perception. And his answer has to do with a concept that have since had a long career in analytic aesthetics—that of uniqueness.

While the uniqueness in the domain of aesthetics, at least within the analytic tradition, has either been conceived as a metaphysical claim or as a claim about aesthetic evaluation (and neither way of cashing out the importance of uniqueness has been particularly successful), Musil focuses on the uniqueness of our experience. Here is what he says: “Every work of art offers not merely an immediate experience but an experience that can never be completely repeated, that cannot be fixed but is individual, even anarchic. [That is where] it takes its uniqueness and momentary quality from.”13

Musil’s view here is an application of a distinction he has been making throughout his life, between the “ratioid” and the “nonratioid” domain. Here is the best (and earliest) characterization of this distinction from his 1918 essay “Sketch of what the writer knows”: “Roughly delineated, this ratioid territory embraces everything that science can systematize, everything that can be summarized in laws and rules; primarily, in other words, physical nature….The ratioid area is characterized by a certain monotony of facts, by the predominance of repetition…; but above all the chief characteristic of this area is that in it facts can be unambiguously described and communicated.”14 “If the ratioid area of the domination is the “rule with exceptions,” the nonratioid area is that of the dominance of the exceptions over the rule….In this region facts do not submit, laws are sieves, events do not repeat themselves but are infinitely variable and individual.”15 Morality and aesthetics are supposed to be part of the nonratioid domain.

After introducing the concept of the “other condition,” Musil warns against understanding the contrast between ordinary perception and the “other condition” as a difference between intellect and the senses. This, he argues, would amount to embracing some kind of anti-intellectualist pan-romanticism, and this is certainly not something he would want to do. Instead, the contrast is between the repeatable (ratioid) and the nonrepeatable (nonratioid) domain. While our ordinary perception groups things together in categories the instantiations of which are repeatable and interchangeable, the other condition takes everything as a unique individual—not as something repeatable and interchangeable. So here is where Musil’s ratioid/nonratioid distinction meets his brand of formalism: when we are looking at the world in a practical manner, say, when we are hungry, we see things as belonging to these two categories only: edible or non-edible (or, maybe, edible in case of emergency…). This is clearly a phenomenon in the ratioid domain. But when we are in this “other condition,” we see things for what they are and for what they uniquely are: not as an edible thing that could be interchangeable with some other edible things, but as a unique, not interchangeable entity.16

This concept of course bears various traces of Kant’s thinking—a connection Musil would probably not like. At one point in The Man without Qualities, he even describes the “other condition” as “a state entirely free from purpose.”17   But it is a very specific and very unusual way of cashing out the general idea of “disinterested pleasure”: what makes it disinterested is that we appreciate the object’s uniqueness, without trying to find a template of what to do with it or how to think about it. Note that Musil is also against taking the contrast between ordinary perception and the “other condition” to be a conceptual/non-conceptual distinction, as, for him, this distinction stands at every level of perceptual processing—just like the ratioid/nonratioid distinction.

But what is more interesting from the point of view of the present paper is the similarity with Russian formalism. But rather than describing the Other Condition on the analogy of our experience of unfamiliar objects, Musil takes a slightly different approach. We can, after all, experience unfamiliar objects in a variety of ways: if we have some strong practical inclination, we will experience this object as one that can or cannot be used for these practical purposes. But this has little to do with “what makes the stone stony.”

Nonetheless, it could be argued that the Russian formalists and Musil were really after describing and understanding the same experience. When Shklovsky says that “Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war….And Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony,”18 it is easy to see how habitualization is a part of the ratioid domain and defamiliarization, therefore, must be a nonratioid phenomenon. This is where Musil’s and Shklovsky’s way of thinking about the relation between defamiliarization and formalism seem to converge.

Defamiliarization and distributed attention

The reason why I spent so much time on the similarities between Russian formalism and Musil’s views is because I believe that Musil can help us interpret the concept of defamiliarization in a way that points beyond mere historical interest in this slippery notion.

Russian formalists are interested in the experience of the unfamiliar. But as encountering something that is unfamiliar seems to exclude the possibility of using well-practiced attentional resources for approaching them, it seems that encountering an unfamiliar object is likely to prompt one to attend to it in a distributed manner.

If we encounter an object that is not familiar, we don’t really know how to attend to it: what properties of it we should attend to and which ones we should ignore. We have no precedent of how to do this as we have not encountered this object before. So we have no blueprint to follow: we try out attending to all kinds of properties of the object—our attention is distributed. In other words, if we encounter an unfamiliar object, we tend to approach it with distributed attention.

Thus, the metaphor of defamiliarization could be interpreted easily in this framework. If an object is unfamiliar, we do not know how to approach it, therefore, we tend to attend to a number of its properties to figure out what to do with it or what can be done with it. If an object is familiar, we just attend to those of its properties that we need to attend to. When the Russian formalists describe the experience of the unfamiliar, they really describe a way of attending to this object that is less focussed than it normally would be. They describe distributed attention.

Let’s go back to the De Chirico quote in the previous section. The experience he describes is an experience that is very much akin to encountering something for the very first time. As encountering something for the very first time seems to imply some version of distributed attention (as we have no precedent to go by for approaching the object visually), these views seem to be consistent with the reading of defamiliarization as distributed attention.

And this is the point where we can return to the comparison with Musil. Here is what I take to be Robert Musil’s clearest characterization of the Other Condition, which appears to make the same connection with distributed attention:

Everything was shifted out of the focus of attention and has lost its sharp outlines. Seen in this way, it was all a little scattered and blurred, and yet manifestly there were still other centres filling it again with delicate certainty and clarity. For all life’s problems and events took on an incomparable mildness, softness and serenity, and at the same time an utterly transformed meaning.19

And Musil is not the only one who makes the connection between defamiliarization and distributed attention. Take Roger Fry’s famous description of his experience of watching a film (which also clearly indicates how close Fry was to Russian formalism before Bell’s influence):

If, in a cinematograph, we see a runaway horse and cart, we do not have to think either of getting out of the way or heroically interposing ourselves. The result is that in the first place we see the event much more clearly; see a number of quite interesting but irrelevant things, which in real life could not struggle into our consciousness, bent, as it would be, entirely upon the problem of our appropriate reaction. I remember seeing in a cinematograph the arrival of a train at a foreign station and the people descending from the carriages; there was no platform, and to my intense surprise I saw several people turn right round after reaching the ground, as though to orientate themselves; an almost ridiculous performance, which I had never noticed in all the many hundred occasions on which such a scene had passed before my eyes in real life. The fact being that at a station one is never really a spectator of events, but an actor engaged in the drama of luggage or prospective seats, and one actually sees only so much as may help to the appropriate action.20

Fry talks about irrelevant aspects of the perceived scene that, if the scene were observed in an everyday, habitualized manner, would have gone unnoticed. In other words, we are attending to aspects of the perceived scene we would not be attending to otherwise. Our attention is distributed attention. D. H. Lawrence gives a surprisingly similar characterization of the way attention is exercised when we engage with art: “The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and “discovers a new world within the known world.”21

The concept of defamiliarization is easy to confuse with an appeal to the “innocent eye,” which has a very bad reputation among the art historians of the last half-century (and rightly so). The difference between accounts of defamiliarized experience that emphasize the “as if encountered for the very first time” aspect of this experience and appeals to the “innocent eye” is the topic I now turn to.

Innocent eye versus unprompted eye

Statements of defamiliarization are often difficult to detach from other seemingly similar claims in the vicinity. Here is a famous quote by Stan Brakhage, avant-garde filmmaker par excellence, which I take to be a clear statement of the defamiliarization view:

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of “Green”? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye?22

Brakhage talks about the untutored eye and this sounds dangerously similar to the concept of “innocent eye.” In general, Brakhage’s emphasis on seeing something without employing concepts (like the concept of “green”)—an emphasis he shares with Aldous Huxley and many others23 —makes this general approach to defamiliarized experience be jeopardized by being subsumed under the heading of “innocent eye” tradition. I argue that the kind of picture Shklovsky, de Chirico, Proust, Musil and Brakhage are after is very different from the concept of “innocent eye” (in spite of some unfortunate statements that muddy the waters—including Shkovsky’s own, see his talk of “the sensation of things as they are perceived, and not as they are known”). But in order to do so, I need to say something brief about the concept of innocent eye.

A significant proportion of the art history and aesthetics of the second half of the 20th Century can be described as a long fight against the concept of the “innocent eye.”24 The general idea of the innocent eye originates from John Ruskin, who famously said that:

The whole technical power of painting depends on our recovery of what may be called the innocence of the eye; that is to say, of a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of colour, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify, as a blind man would see them if suddenly gifted with sight.25

A lot is going on in this famous quote. It is easy to spot the classic formalist assumptions: what we should pay attention to is the formal properties of paintings (for example, the “flat stains of colour”), not what they signify. But there is also an allusion to seeing things for the first time—an idea I want to salvage. To make things even more complicated, Ruskin’s subsequent discussion of how our non-innocent eye sees green grass as green even though it would look yellow if we were to focus merely on its look brings in various issues about color constancy. Nonetheless, what I take to be the core of Ruskin’s view is that what he labels the “innocent eye” is vision that is untouched by our knowledge of the world: of what we know about the color of grass in general, for example.

This is the view Gombrich and Goodman (among others) reacted against. Here is Ernst Gombrich: “The innocent eye is a myth. […] seeing is never just registering.”26 And “we must doubt all the more whether such an achievement of innocent passivity is at all possible to the human mind.”27 And again: “Reading an image, like the reception of any other message, is dependent on prior knowledge of possibilities; we can only recognize what we know.”28 Nelson Goodman is equally dismissive when he says that “the innocent eye is blind.”29 This stance is not exactly new, arguably it goes back at least to the early 18th Century, to Jonathan Richardson’s Theory of Painting, where he says: “For ‘tis a certain maxim: no man sees what things are that knows not what they ought to be.”30 As Picasso summarizes, “our knowledge influences our vision.”31

From a psychological perspective, it should be clear that this “innocent eye” debate is about the cognitive penetrability of vision—about whether vision is an encapsulated process, sealed off from what goes on in the rest of the mind. And it should also be clear that the contemporary consensus is that things are not looking good for the proponents of “innocent eye” from that point of view. The view according to which perception is cognitively impenetrable—that is, according to which our eye is innocent seems to be plainly false.32 There are top-down processes that influence perceptual processing as early as the primary visual cortex33 or the thalamus.34 And these top-down just become more numerous and more diverse as the perceptual processing continues.

Here is a famous (and old) experiment):35 if we have to match the color of a picture of an orange heart to color samples, we match it differently (closer to the red end of the spectrum) from the way we match the color of a picture of some other, orange shapes. This shows that our recognition of the object in question (the heart) influences the color we experience it as having. A more recent experiment:36 Two pictures of identical (mixed race) faces were shown to subjects—the only difference between them was that under one the subjects read the word “white” and under the other they read “black.” When they had to match the color of the face, subjects chose a significantly darker color for the face with the label “black.” In general, one’s experience is not determined in a bottom-up manner by the perceptual stimulus: it depends on language, attention, the contrast classes and one’s expectations.37

It is important to highlight that in order to deny the innocence of the eye, it is enough to endorse a very weak sense of cognitive penetrability—so much so that it wouldn’t even count as cognitive penetrability under many formulation of cognitive penetrability because all it implies is that our perceptual experience is subject to top-down attentional influences —something even those who deny the cognitive penetrability of perception would accept.38 Even those who maintain that perception is not cognitive penetrable allow for top-down influences before and after “early vision.” But from the point of view of the “innocent eye” debate, it is irrelevant whether there is one brief part of perceptual processing that is sheltered from top-down influences. Proponents and opponents of “cognitive penetration” agree that our eye is not innocent.

It is important to point out that the distinction between “cognitive penetration” and the innocent eye claim is not the same as the somewhat technical distinction in analytic philosophy between conceptual and non-conceptual content. According to some philosophers of perception, perceptual content is conceptual: it has concepts as some of its ingredients. According to others, perceptual content has nothing to do with concepts: it is pre-conceptual or non-conceptual. Importantly, both of these views are consistent with cognitive penetration. Perception—whether or not it is conceptual—is influenced by our cognitive processes.

Again, there is no such thing as “innocent eye.” But the “innocent eye” claim is very different from the one I would like to salvage: the view that some experiences in the aesthetic context are akin to seeing things for the very first time. To make things simple, I will call this conception the “unprompted eye” and contrast it with the concept of “innocent eye.” Even if we assume, as we should, that the eye is never innocent—that our vision is always deeply influenced by our beliefs, previous experiences and expectations—it is still possible to see something as if we saw it for the first time.

But this distinction between the innocent eye and the unprompted eye will be mysterious unless we specify what makes the unprompted eye unprompted. And I argued that it is the exercise of distributed attention: if our eyes are “prompted,” we come with fixed preconceived ideas about how we should look at something. Suppose that you are hungry and you open your fridge. You will be likely to see the objects there as belonging to two different categories: edible and not edible. The way you’re attending to these objects is very much determined: you are zeroing in on very specific properties of the objects (roughly, their edibility or nutritional value) and you will actively ignore all their other properties. In other words, your perception is prompted: you will experience the objects in a way that is determined by pre-existing factors (like your quest for food).

Contrast this with experiences of a certain kind, where there is no such prompting of the eye: you have no fixed and preconceived way of visually approaching the object you’re looking at. In this case, your visual curiosity is not zeroing in on any fixed and predetermined set of properties: there is no pre-established prompt. You are trying to make sense of the object by trying out attending to a wide variety of its properties—just as you would do with an object you have never encountered before.

To be absolutely clear, we have very strong (empirical and philosophical) reasons to hold that both of these two kinds of experiences are non-innocent in the Gombrichian sense: both the experience of scavenging the contents of my fridge and the experience of artworks are influenced by various top-down factors such as my previous encounter with food and art, my beliefs about nutritional values and the exhibition I’m attending and my expectation of culinary or artistic value. But just because both experiences are cognitively penetrated doesn’t mean that both are prompted. The prompted versus unprompted distinction is made within the category of non-innocent eye (because that is the only kind of eye there is).

Post-formalist conclusion: The history of (defamiliarized) vision

What we got so far is an account of defamiliarized perception that avoids the pitfalls of the innocent eye tradition. Defamiliarized perception is seeing with unprompted eyes (not with innocent eyes, as no eyes are innocent). And seeing with unprompted eyes means attending in a distributed manner.

We have seen how these ideas of defamiliarization are related to formalism in Shklovsky’s writings: one way of achieving defamiliarization is by confronting the observer with challenging formal properties. But the idea of defamiliarization interpreted as unprompted vision and distributed attention makes it possible to make connections to another streak of formalist thinking—and one that seems more relevant these days, especially in the context of post-formalism:39 the historicity of vision.

According to an influential view within art history, the way the ancient Greeks saw the world was importantly different from the way we now see the world and part of what art history should study is exactly how human vision has changed in the course of history. If the ancients did see the world differently from the way we do now, then in order to understand and evaluate their art, we need to understand how they perceived it (and how this is related to the way they perceived the world). Thus, so the argument goes, the history of vision is a necessary precursor to art history. This general line of argument goes back at least as far as Tacitus,40 but it has become one of the most important premises of art history and aesthetics since the early 20th Century.

The general idea behind the history of vision claim is that visual experience changes in various ways in the course of history. We should, therefore, not assume that people in ancient or medieval times perceived in the same way as we do now. Further, one important aspect of understanding the art of earlier times is to understand the way people perceived artworks then.

The most explicit statement of this claim comes from Heinrich Wölfflin, in one of the best-known passages in the history of art history: “Vision itself has its history, and the revelation of these visual strata must be regarded as the primary task of art history.”41 While Wölfflin’s provocative statement has become an important slogan for generations of art historians, the general idea that vision has a history had another major and in some ways even more influential proponent in the context of the turn of the Century German/Austrian art historical tradition, namely, Alois Riegl. Riegl’s main guiding principle in The Late Roman Art Industry was that the way people perceived the world in ancient times is radically different from the way we perceive now. More precisely, he argues that ancient people saw only “individual self-contained shapes”—and this explains some crucial features of their representational visual art.42 But even within the ancient era, he hypothesizes that the Egyptians perceived the world differently from the way the Greeks did and the Greeks differently from the way the Romans, especially the late Romans, did.

Perhaps the real influence of the history of vision claim was provided by the application of this general and abstract idea to the question of modernity—an idea that is present in the work of a very diverse group of thinkers: Charles Baudelaire, Georg Simmel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Siegfried Kracauer, Lev Malevich, to mention just a few.43 But it was Walter Benjamin who made this application of the history of vision claim most explicitly and most influentially. Inspired by Riegl’s general claims about the history of vision,44 he says:

During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.45

Alois Riegl’s influence is clear in these passages and especially in the ways in which Benjamin applies these general ideas to specific periods in art history: “The period of migration in which the late Roman art industry and the Vienna Genesis came into being, had not only a different art, but also a different perception from classical times.”46

Benjamin’s main interest, however, is not the late Roman art industry, but the change in art and perception that happened at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century. And Benjamin’s claim is that modernity is a change in “sensorium” and this idea has become one of the guiding principles of theorizing about modernity. For Benjamin, this change in “sensorium” was brought about by technological changes. Not just the changes in the streetscape around us: the speeding cars and the skyscrapers that Malevich and Baudelaire like to emphasize, but also the technological changes in art itself. As Régis Debray summarizes, “Photography has changed our perception of space, and the cinema our perception of time (via montage).”47

Still, the application of the idea of the history of vision does not stop, and does not begin,  with modernity. As Jonathan Crary argues at length, the general mode of perception may have undergone some important form of change already in the first half of the 19th century.48 And theorists of postmodernism rely on the principle of the history of vision as much as theorists of modernity do. Frederic Jameson, for example, argues that postmodernism offers “a whole new Utopian realm of the senses.”49 The premise all these arguments share is that history, and art history, can be understood, at least partially, as the history of perception. This assumption is so deeply ingrained in much of the discourse on 19th and 20th century art and culture and in (at least some branches of) art history and aesthetics that it has been taken for granted without further discussion. As Whitney Davis summarized, “according to visual-culture studies, it is true prima facie that vision has a cultural history.”50 And one of the guiding ideas of post-formalism has become the claim that vision (and imagination) has an (art) history.51

How does the concept of defamiliarization (understood as distributed attention) fit into this framework? The concept of visual attention has not played a significant role in the history of vision debate, not even in its post-formalist version that puts the emphasis not on vision, but other Sehformen, especially imagination. One exception is André Malraux, who famously wrote that: “The creation of every great art is inseparable from [the] metamorphosis in the manner of seeing, which does not properly belong in the realm of vision, but of attention.”52 But if vision has a history, we can reasonably assume that visual attention (understood as part of perception) also has a history. In fact, given the rich empirical literature on cross-cultural variations in visual attention,53 the default assumption would need to be that attention is not a cultural universal—so we should expect not just cross-cultural, but also historical variations.

It should be clear from the discussion of defamiliarization that the kind of distributed attention I have talked about played an important role in the early 1900s and probably also some time before that. But it is not clear that, say, 15th century observers exercised distributed attention in the same way as early 20th century observers did. And even if they did, it is not clear that looking at pictures or artworks in general was considered to be the appropriate and even recommended context for such defamiliarized vision and distributed attention.

The present paper is not the place to outline such historical project, but it is worth noting that none of the “visual skills” Michael Baxandall talks about in his thorough study of how 15th century Italian humanist observers looked at pictures implies (or is even consistent with) the kind of distributed attention that is entailed by defamiliarized vision.54 If this is so (and I won’t pretend that I’ve established this historical claim), then distributed attention does have a history.55 The history of (distributed) attention would be an important step towards understanding the history of vision and, as a result, should be of special interest to post-formalist art history.56


1.  See Lawrence Crawford, “Viktor Shklovskij: Differance in defamiliarization,” Comparative Literature 36:3 (Summer 1984): 209-19 and Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor. Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 10-11.

2.  Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, ed. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 11-12.
3.  Victor Shklovsky, “The Resurrection of the Word,” in Russian Formalism: A Collection of Articles and Texts in Translation, ed. and trans. Stephen Bann and John E. Bowlt (Edinurgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1973), 46; see also Richard Sherwood, “Viktor Shklovsky and the Development of Early Formalist Theory of Prose Literature,” Twentieth Century Studies 7-8 (1972): 26-40.
4.  Giorgio de Chirico, “Meditations of a Painter,” in Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, ed. Herschel B. Chipp (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1968), 397-398.
5.  Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” 12.
6.  See Bence Nanay, “Aesthetic attention,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 22:5-6 (2015): 96-118. See also Nanay, Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
7.  Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff (New York: Modern Library, 1928), 469-70.
8.  I focus on de Chirico, Proust and Musil here, but statements that are surprisingly similar to Shklovsky’s are not difficult to find in other authors—from William Blake and Wolfgang Iser all the way to Gilles Deleuze (see especially Deleuze, Cinema 1: L’Image-temps [Paris: Minuit, 1985]).
9.  Robert Musil, “Toward a New Aesthetic,” in Precision and Soul, ed. and trans. Burton Pike and David S. Luft (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 199.
10.  Ibid.
11.  Ibid.
12.  The clearest exposition of Musil’s ideas about formalism is his essay “Literati and literature,” Precision and Soul, ed. Pike and Luft, 70-89.
13.  Musil, “Toward a new aesthetic,” Precision and Soul, ed. Pike and Luft, 205.
14.  Musil, “Sketch of What the Writer Knows,” Precision and Soul, ed. Pike and Luft, 62.
15.  Ibid, 63; see also Musil, “The German as Symptom,” Precision and Soul, ed. Pike and Luft, 150-192.
16.  For analysis, see also Nanay, “The Dethroning of Ideocracy: Robert Musil as a Philosopher,” The Monist 87:1 (January 2014): 3-11.
17.  Musil, The Man without Qualities (1930-1932), trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser (London: Picador, 1979), 238.
18.  Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” 11.
19.  Musil, The Man without Qualities, 144-45.
20.  Roger Fry, “An Essay in Aesthetics” (1909), in Vision and Design (London: Chatto and Windus, 1920), 18-19.
21.  D. H. Lawrence, introduction to Harry Crosby’s Chariot of the Sun (1928) in The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D. H. Lawrence, ed. James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 107.
22.  Stan Brakhage, “Metaphors on vision,” Film Culture 30 (Fall 1963): 25; see also P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
23.  Here is a representative Huxley quote: “We must preserve and, if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through that half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction.” See Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (London: Chatto and Windus, 1954), 74.
24.  For a summary, see David Carrier, Principles of Art History Writing (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1991).
25.  John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1857), 22.
26.  Ernst Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 298.
27.  Ibid, 297.
28.  Gombrich, The Image and the Eye (London: Phaidon, 1982), 255.
29.  Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs Merrill, 1976), 8.
30.  Jonathan Richardson, An Essay on the Theory of Painting (London: n.p., 1725), 147.
31.  Brassai: Conversations with Picasso, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 273.
32.  R. L. Goldstone, “Effects of Categorization on Color-Perception,” Psychological Science 6:5 (September 1995): 298-304. T. Hansen, M. Olkkonen, S. Walter, and K. R. Gegenfurter, “Memory Modulates Color Appearance,” Nature Neuroscience 9:11. (2006): 1367-68; G. Lupyan and M. J.Spivey, “Perceptual Processing Is Facilitated by Ascribing Meaning to Novel Stimuli, Current Biology, 18:10 (2008), R410–R412; G. Lupyan, S. L. Thompson-Schill, and D. Swingley, “Conceptual Penetration of Visual Processing, Psychological Science 21 (2010): 682-91; G. Lupyan, and E. J. Ward, “Language Can Boost Otherwise Unseen Objects into Visual Awareness,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110:35 (2013), 14196–14201; Nanay, Between Perception and Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); C. Teufel, and B. Nanay, “How to (and How Not to) Think about Top-down Influences on Perception,” Consciousness and Cognition 47 (2017): 17-25; but for a critical analysis see also C. Firestone and B. J.  Scholl, “Top-down” Effects Where None Should Be Found: The El Greco Fallacy in Perception Research,” Psychological Science, 25:1 (January 2014): 38-46.
33.  S. P. Gandhi, et al., “Spatial Attention Affects Brain Activity in Human Primary Visual Cortex,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 96 (1999): 3314-19.
34.  D. H. O’Connor, M. M. Fukui, M. A. Pinsk, and S. Kastner, “Attention Modulates Responses in the Human Lateral Geniculate Nucleus, Nature Neuroscience 5:11 (2002): 1203-9.
35.  J. L. Delk, and S. Fillenbaum, “Differences in Perceived Color as a Function of Characteristic Color, The American Journal of Psychology 78 (1965): 290-93.
36.  D. T. Levin and M. R. Banaji, “Distortions in the Perceived Lightness of Faces: The Role of Race Categories,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 135 (2006): 501-12.
37.  See Hansen et al., “ Memory Moderates Color Appearance,” 1367-68; See also Lupyan, et al., “Language Can Boost Otherwise Unseen Objects into Visual Awareness,” 14196–14201.
38.  Zenon Pylyshyn, “Is Vision Continuous with Cognition? The Case for Cognitive Impenetrability of Visual Perception,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22 (1999): 341-423.
39.  David Summers, Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism (London: Phaidon, 2003); Whitney Davis, A General Theory of Visual Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011); Davis, “Post-Formalism,” nonsite 7 (2012); Davis, “Succession and Recursion in Heinrich Wölfflin’s Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 73:2 (Spring 2015): 157-164.
40.  See Tacitus, Dialogus de oratoribus Book I (10). (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)
41.  Heinrich Wölfflin, Principles of Art History (New York: Dover, 1932), 11.
42.  Alois Riegl, The Late Roman Art Industry, trans. Rolf Winkes (Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider Editore, 1985), 232.
43.  For a good summary see David Frisby, Fragments of Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer, and Benjamin (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986).
44.  Karen Lang, Chaos and Cosmos: On the Image in Aesthetics and Art History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), esp. 136-78; Thomas Y. Levin, “Walter Benjamin and the Theory of Art History,” October 47 (1988): 77-83.
45.  Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1969), 89.
46.  Ibid.
47.  Régis Debray, Vie et mort de l’image (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), 178.
48.  Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992).
49.  Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 7.
50.  Davis, A General Theory of Visual Culture, 7.
51.  Ibid.; Davis, “ Post-Formalism”; Davis, “ Succession and Recursion in Heinrich Wölfflin’s Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe.”
52.  André Malraux, Museum Without Walls (New York: Doubleday, 1967), 206.
53.  Richard E. Nisbett, K. Peng, I. Choi, and A. Norenzayan, “Culture and Systems of Thought: Holistic vs. Analytic Cognition,” Psychological Review 108 (2001): 291-310; Takahiko Masuda and Richard E. Nisbett, “Attending Holistically versus Analytically: Comparing the Context Sensitivity of Japanese and Americans,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81 (2001): 922-34; Masuda and Nisbett. “Culture and Change Blindness,” Cognitive Science 30 (2006): 381-99; Y. Miyamoto, R. E. Nisbett, and T. Masuda, “Differential Affordances of Eastern and Western Environments,” Psychological Science 17:2 (2006):113-19; J. O. Goh, M. W. Chee, J. C. Tan, V. Venkatraman, A. Hebrank, E. Leshikar, et al.,  “Age and Culture Modulate Object Processing and Object-scene Binding in the Ventral Visual Area, Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience 7 (2007): 44-52; H. F. Chua, J. E. Boland, and R. E. Nisbett, “Cultural Variation in Eye Movements during Scene Perception,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102 (2005): 12629-33; L. J. Ji, K. Peng, and R. E. Nisbett, “Culture, Control and Perception of Relationships in the Environment,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78 (2000): 943-55.
54.  Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).
55.  Nanay, “The History of Vision,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 73:3 (Summer 2015): 259-71.
56.  This work was supported by the ERC Consolidator grant [726251], the FWO Odysseus grant [G.0020.12N] and the FWO research grant [G0C7416N]. I am grateful to two anonymous referees and Sam Rose for comments.
About the Author

Professor of Philosophy and BOF Research Professor at the University of Antwerp. He is co-director of the Centre for Philosophical Psychology at the University. His research focuses on philosophy of mind, philosophy of biology and aesthetics.

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