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The Eclipse of the Witness: Natural Anatomy and the Scopic Regime of Modern Exhibition-Machines

Willem Swanenburgh, Anatomical Theatre of Leiden University, engraving, early 17th century

Willem Swanenburgh, Anatomical Theatre of Leiden University, engraving, early 17th century.

The traction that the concept of Anthropocene recently gained in debates relating to climate change, social sciences, political theory or aesthetics, along with the triple "turns" to ontology currently occurring in anthropology, philosophy, science and technology studies, have fostered a renewed materialist or realist imperative in contemporary thought. This imperative incites us to depart from the semiotic and deconstructive models that characterised postmodern theory, and to rethink in more constructivist terms the historical constitution of the limits, borders, frontiers and great divides which, throughout modernity, have stabilised our relationship to nature. If art theory is to thoroughly embrace this imperative by locating itself within the graph of power and the anthropological matrix constituted by these frontiers, we ought to confront the history of its material and institutional bounds, and to ask what could be a truly materialist history of exhibitions, one aiming at producing an epistemology of the exhibition apparatus as a mediating interface of modernity? In other terms, how to actualise what Tony Bennett (1988) coined as "the exhibitionary complex" while moving beyond mere sociological description, and engaging the epistemological and ontological dimensions of the very gesture of exhibition?

While today the history of exhibitions is undergoing renewed interest (be it as an object of hyper self-reflexivity for curators, or as an institutional narrative based on historical markers, or more positively as a privileged object of contemporary philosophies attempting to redefine the mode of existence of the art object), it is becoming a discipline roughly divided between art-historical analyses tackling the exhibition as a medium to be deconstructed, and historicist projects mobilising it as a reified framework to be staged as such, or escaped from altogether. In that context, it seems important to maintain a dialectical engagement with the exhibition as a genre, i.e. as a generic object of modernity, in order to grasp it in a fully historical way, that is to say as a ongoing tactical field for the future of art. This could take the form of a stereoscopy articulating the two scales of experience that the art exhibition historically materialised and polarised throughout modernism and postmodernism. That is, the "macro" scale of the ontological designation legislating the outermost limits of the space of art (and its institutional complex: the museum, the gallery), and the "micro" scale of the ontology of the individual artwork (and the aesthetic consciousness it produces when exhibited).

The space left open between these two scales is a historically disputed battleground, one that is currently shrinking as the exhibition increasingly becomes the space of inscription of more or less naïve, or more or less cynical, institutional neo-positivisms. This space can however be reclaimed. This text postulates that a materialist history of exhibitions can be undertaken by confronting the exhibition genre with the positivist and objectivist forms of rationality that coded it historically, as well as with the modes of relationality, the conditions of mediality and the semiotic processes these forms of knowledge crystallised. By focusing on a specific example taken from the history of early modern scientific exhibition, we can start to grasp the modern scopic regime1 that the exhibition both embodied and naturalised, and which continues to script the epistemic backdrop of the art exhibition.

Abraham Bosse, Les perspecteurs, 1647

Abraham Bosse, Les perspecteurs, 1647.

Theatrum Anatomicum: the infinite universe and the dramaturgy of dissection

The public museum, the modern space of exhibition of scientific objects or artworks par excellence, is inscribed in a series of anthropological determinations shared by many modern technologies of the gaze and cultural practices that, together, define modernity as a reformation of vision. This reformation finds its canonically modern form in the power of objectification defining the museological framework. The museum is defined by the "dialectical reversal" it imprints on the "life" of objects: working as a global isolator, it de-animates previously animated entities by uprooting them from their "milieu", and re-animates "dead" objects by over-determining their signification and projecting them in a restricted field of attention.

Rather than rooting the modern museum in its pre-modern institutional predecessor – the cabinet of curiosities – as is usually the case in a classical history of exhibitions, we may find the origins of its scopic regime (as well as a more tortured articulation of the dead and the alive) in a famous pioneering work on anatomy, De humani corporis fabrica (1543) by the Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius. There, we can detect the emergence of a scientific, hermeneutic, and social architecture that will determine to a large extent the institutions exhibiting nature throughout modernity.

Vesalius' lectures in the anatomical theatre of Bologna and Padua in the middle of the sixteenth century drew hundreds of spectators – eyewitnesses whose gaze upon the bodily specimens became increasingly coded by the drama of public dissection. His anatomical science turned the architecture of the body inside out through penetrative dissection ("anatomy", from the Greek ana = "through", + temnein = "to cut"), transforming it into a mechanism that could be described without recourse to the idea of a soul, and which logically presented itself as a moving corpse, a danse macabre of sorts. If the dramaturgy of the anatomical theatre appears uncanny (in the Freudian sense of hovering in a multistable space, at the tipping point between dead and alive), this is no accident, for its infrastructure is not solely organic, but is to a large extent thought of as a piece of technology, a quasi-automaton, anticipating Descartes' mid seventeenth century dissection experiments and his explicit formulation of animal and human bodies as machines.

The anatomical theatre is a spatial experiment in which the performativity of the human actors is folded into the theatrical machinery. The theatricality of observation performs a rational universe in which certain perceptual contingencies are transferred onto the object (here, the dissected body). Perception is "purified" so that the perceived can be disputed: the visual economy of the anatomical theatre, like the anatomist's instruments and the openings and profile of the body, is the product of an architectonic operation whereby the situatedness of the gaze of the witnesses, the perspective through which they observe, is transposed to the object as a mode of presentation. Through the scopic geometry that emerges between the dissected body and the eyewitnesses of Vesalius' anatomical theatre, the automaton through which the scenography of natural anatomy is enacted provides scientific representations with a hermeneutic dimension.

This hermeneutic dimension is essentially a space of mediation between, on the one hand, the finite, embodied scopic situation of the eyewitnesses forming the scientific community under formation, and, on the other hand, the ontological revolution inherent in the gradual emergence of what Alexandre Koyré (1957) called the "infinite universe" disclosed by modern sciences. As Camilla Skovbjerg Paldam and Jacob Wamberg (2015) recently pointed out, in 1543 (the same year Vesalius dissected the inner macrocosm of the human body), Copernicus presented the heliocentric universe. Beyond the chronological coincidence, these events ought to be understood as two complementary horizons of scientific modernity. The Copernican revolution emancipated nature from its Ptolemaic traction, and inaugurated its entry into the boundless Cartesian universe observed by modern sciences, whose mathematical laws would soon be systematised by the progenitors of the future physical sciences (Boyle, Galileo, Kepler, Newton...), in which the project of modern natural anatomy would be central. If anatomy is understood as a reading of the body's demarcated volume made possible by a specific theatrical and spatial geometry, and if, as such, it approximates its object (the body) to a mathematical model, the scopic regime of the anatomical theatre can indeed be understood as a technological mediation between the boundless, abstract space laid bare by modern sciences and the individual, corporeal bounds within which this mathematical space is witnessed, and thus inscribed in a normative fashion in the social sphere.

The prime metaphor for the modern world view (the universe as clockwork) itself indicates that the new natural sciences came into intimate dialogue with the expanding practice of making new mechanical instruments: technological devices that channeled, distributed, represented, and intensified the forces of nature for human use. Amongst these, we ought to inscribe optical devices and exhibition machines such as the anatomical theatre. In such automata, scientific modernity found its own mode of production of truth effects and social inscription: their epistemological macrocosm mirrored the new political macrocosm by creating specific hermeneutic conditions as well as new states of relationality within the new, boundless, mathematisable chain of mediation between the subject and the world.

Herbert Bayer, excerpt from The Fundamentals of Exhibition Design, 1937

Herbert Bayer, excerpt from The Fundamentals of Exhibition Design, 1937.

A dead angle in the perspectivalist cone: the clinical gaze

What had begun with Vesalius led to the emergence of anatomical theatres as cultural institutions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As Cynthia Klestinec (2011) or Ludger Schwarte (2005) detected, the anatomical demonstrations served as a performative paradigm for the other experimental sciences to reproduce, for instance, Abbé Nollet's physics spectacles in the eighteenth century. In 1680, Pierre Dionis and Joseph Guichard Du Verney set up special rooms in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris where students could perform dissections, which, one hundred years later, would lead to what Michel Foucault called The Birth of the Clinic (1963).

This new form of power, dramatised by the scopic regime of the anatomical theatre, is chiefly rooted in Cartesian perspectivalism. This new concept of space, geometrically isotropic, rectilinear, abstract and uniform, that Rosalind Krauss (1994) retrospectively called "Alberti's veil", forms so to speak the spatial backdrop of the modern psyche. The fundamental element of this scopic regime is the notion of virtual pyramids anchoring the viewer as a fictional apex of the visible. Significantly enough, and as Jonathan Crary (1992) demonstrated, this ideal modern viewer was not modeled after the natural binocular vision, but as looking at a stage through a peephole. As Martin Jay (1994) showed, this scopic regime is typical of the modern dualism of subject and object, visually founded in the placement of a detached observer, a subject, at the apex of a perspectival cone whose sides lead to an infinity of objects against which the subject measures itself.

The architectonic operation of the anatomical theatre, and more broadly of institutions of exhibition throughout modernity, are pieces of technology largely dedicated to the social translation of this perspectivalism into truth effects. Effectively, the power of this scopic regime cannot be fully grasped without understanding its ontological ramifications. The modern institutions of exhibition such as the anatomical theatre can indeed be understood as sites of conversion of epistemic borders (relating to how we come to demarcate and know things, relatively to an order of knowledge rooted primarily in technological and socio-political spaces) into ontological grounds (relating to what things are). The archetype of this translation can be found in what Michel Foucault called the clinic (1961 and 1963) in his history of madness and archeology of medical perception. He elevated the clinical gesture to the rank of anthropological truth by demonstrating that the anatomico-clinical method of auscultation of symptoms on bodies (the activity of identification, delimitation, objectivisation, explication, and separation between the sane and the insane for instance) came to constitute the implicit lattice of the modern experience of knowledge at large. The epistemic model of the clinical gesture is essentially double in nature: the limits, or "cuts", it imprints in social space are eclipsed by the positivity of the institution in which it is enacted. Here we find the sleight of hand of the clinical gesture as well as of the way in which scientific modernity bore a new form of power. The clinic constantly produces limits which naturalise themselves by multiplying at all scales of knowledge, universalising their language, hence appearing as facts obscuring their existence as mere instruments of epistemic appraisal: the clinic denaturalises the objects it examines while naturalising the borders it imprints between them into a new ontological ground.

As the example of the anatomical theatre shows, the vanishing point of these truth effects (the stage of the universalisation of epistemic boundaries into ontological frontiers) is the spectator, the witness's eye, sensorium, and cognitive scaffolding. That spectator's position at the apex of the perspectivalist cone is thus fundamentally twofold and equivocal: it is both the perspectival terminus of the anatomical experiment, and the site where its conditions of possibility are eclipsed, made transparent, elusive, and impalpable, for they transform the dialogism of the exhibitionary dramaturgy into positive binaries: objectified bodies and subjectified witnesses. Here, the delineation of objects is simultaneously the making of subjects. This co-production of subjects and objects outlines the central aspirations of the project of reason of Western modernity: the symmetrisation of "subject" and "world"; the orientation of thought towards the dismantlement, stratum by stratum, of the world of appearances; the systematic transformation of implicit background conditions in explicit themes of reflection; the extraction of the modern subject from nature; the attribution to subjectivity of its transcendent aspect via the rationalisation of its space of projection, the autonomous theatre of thought.

The theatricality of the exhibition genre is entirely shaped by these dialectics of objectivisation and subject-formation. Because of its function in the naturalisation of epistemology into ontology, the exhibition is a privileged site for understanding the ramifications in subjectivity of the making of modern ontological designations. This is the site where the operation of the exhibition genre must be excavated: in the way it has crafted regimes of factuality by naturalising epistemic boundaries into ontological frontiers.

The explicit theatron

What is at stake here is the ontological engineering inherent of the scopic regime coding the exhibition spaces of modernity: the invention of a new scientific representation of nature was symmetrically the invention of a new individual – the modern spectator – by way of institutions and technological devices of presentation naturalising the conditions of its foundation as a subject of history. This scopic regime is a hermeneutical architecture whose positivist power lies in the eclipse (or naturalisation) of its mediations: it is a meaning-machine frozen into the hardware and logics of technology, picturing nature as a pure object of vision while in fact consisting of a technological production of nature through social praxis. In a context where the great divides inherited from modern universalism (nature versus culture, subject versus object etc.) have turned into multistable lines of conflict, we ought to question the ways in which the modern apparatuses of exhibition have contributed to the stabilisation of the ontological designations of modernity, in order to re-conceptualise and demystify the conceptual traction the art institution can claim to produce on our social imaginaries and political horizons of expectation.

The matter at hand is to understand how the states of mediality, the modes of relationality and the semiotic processes that the exhibition genre invented have informed the historical transformations of the art exhibition throughout modernism and postmodernism, which this short text can only very briefly sketch out. Needless to say, the history of modernist art is founded on a critique of this positivist regime of rationality and the objectivist forms of knowledge it fostered, to the extent that it provided it with its negative image. Historically, this negativity has been a powerful resource for critique, questioning and dramatising the fabric of modern subjects by operating at the borders of the technological and social engineering of the modern psyche, instilling forms of perceptual synthesis in the chains of mediation that modernity produced between the subject and the world. However, as proposed in the editorial introduction to the first issue of the journal Glass Bead,2 this conception of aesthetics as a bastion of immediacy standing up to the modern capitalist rationalisation of experience has led art, in its most symptomatic contemporary state as "global signifier", to picture itself as a space of production of affects intractable to rational thought, to the extent that it has receded into the ineffable, blind and deaf to the ways in which this immediacy, as well as the spontaneity of experience it claims to produce, are coded by the modern regimes of production of truth and value, and as such entirely mediated by capital.

In place of this immediacy, a critical discourse embracing the states of mediality afforded by the exhibition genre can be initiated by maintaining a realism of relations in place of the eclipse of mediations that characterised the modern spaces of exhibition, and that still codes the implicit, neo-positivist representational triumphalism of contemporary art. Hence the great attention a materialist history of exhibitions (one aiming at contrasting the spaces of art exhibition with the regime of rationality in which they emerged) should pay to the ontological, epistemic, semiotic, hermeneutic and social dimensions of the exhibition as the theatre of production of the modern psyche.

The theatrical model and its enclosure as a theatron ("beholding place") within which time, space, and the properties of bodies can be manipulated, largely scripts the exhibition space, and, as demonstrated by Bertolt Brecht, the political dimension of the theatre can consist of a sustained consciousness of its separation from society, allowing for the comprehension of this separation as a fait social, itself part of society. This is where a materialist history of exhibitions could gain a possible conceptual and political traction: in the refusal to further blur this separation in producing states of immediacy, and the commitment to make its inner mediations explicit.


This text has been written from notes taken through the course of the research laboratory Theater, Garden, Bestiary: A Materialist History of Exhibitions (, a HES-SO/University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Western Switzerland & ECAL/University of Art and Design Lausanne research project. The author wishes to thank his colleagues and the speakers who participated in the activity of the laboratory.


Bennett, T. 1988, "The Exhibitionary Complex", New Formations, no. 4, Spring.

Crary, J. 1992, Techniques of the Observer, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Foucault, M. 1961/1965, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. R. Howard, Random House, New York.

Foucault, M. 1963/1991, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. Sheridan, Routledge, New York.

Jay, M. 1994, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Jay, M. 1999, "Scopic regimes of modernity", in H. Foster (ed.), Vision and Visuality, Bay Press, Seattle.

Klestinec, C. 2011, Theaters of Anatomy: Students, Teachers, and Traditions of Dissection in Renaissance Venice, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Koyré, A. 1957, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Krauss, R. 1994, The Optical Unconscious, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Schwarte, L. 2005, "Anatomical Theatre as Experimental Space", in H. Schramm, L. Schwarte, J. Lazardzig (eds.), Collection, Laboratory, Theater: Scenes of Knowledge in the 17th Century, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin.

Skovbjerg Paldam, C., Wamberg, J. 2015, "A Short History of Art, Technology and Nature", in C. Skovbjerg Paldam and J. Wamberg (eds.) Art, Technology and Nature, Ashgate, Farnham.

This term is used by Martin Jay (1999) who borrowed it from the French film theorist Christian Metz (Le Signifiant imaginaire: psychanalyse et cinéma, Christian Bourgois, Paris, 1977)."Castalia, the Game of Ends and Means", Glass Bead, no. 1, 2016.This term is used by Martin Jay (1999) who borrowed it from the French film theorist Christian Metz (Le Signifiant imaginaire: psychanalyse et cinéma, Christian Bourgois, Paris, 1977)."Castalia, the Game of Ends and Means", Glass Bead, no. 1, 2016.This term is used by Martin Jay (1999) who borrowed it from the French film theorist Christian Metz (Le Signifiant imaginaire: psychanalyse et cinéma, Christian Bourgois, Paris, 1977)."Castalia, the Game of Ends and Means", Glass Bead, no. 1, 2016.

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