The Eye of the Scanner

Chantal Faust

Catalogue essay: The Negligent Eye, curated by Jo Stockham, Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool, 2014.


Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Three important things happen in the opening verse of Genesis. The first is the establishment of an omnipotent being that creates everything out of nothingness. The second is the affirmation of light as being good, thereby implying that darkness is bad and the necessary separation of the two states of light and its absence. The third significant gesture in the opening of this story is found in the ‘callings’: a process of naming on the basis of appearance that works to affirm the existence of that which has acquired a name. This confirmation of being via language was also recognised by the ancient Greeks whose word for ‘word’ was logos, inferring both knowledge and reality.

There is one word in the English language that is used to describe three very different ways of seeing. A scan is a close examination, a slow and repeated sweep of the eye and also the hasty glance of a quick skim. These actions are markedly different, but they all perform the same function: an eye is searching for something. The slow careful focus that absorbs every detail, the staccato pan across a horizon and the bounce of an eyeball as it skips across words on a page are all forms of reading the surface of the visible. Slow, sideways or barely there, behind each method of observation is the one purpose: detection. For the scanner who reads the perceptible world, meaning accumulates with each shift of the gaze. Thought and vision are here combined.

As with the scanning eye, the image scanner operates by translating visual data into information that is then saved to memory. Beneath the lid of a flatbed scanner a rectangular glass stage defines the parameters of vision. Whatever is in proximity to this pane will be visible to the one-eyed head staring up from the other side of the window. Travelling along a vertical axis, this scanner’s prosthetic eye operates by seeing and recording simultaneously, converting an impression into digital code that figures the formation of an image. The moving eye of the scanning machine, like the human scanner, is a reader of surfaces. Unlike the human eye, the lens of the scanner requires immediate proximity in order to be able to see. The closer the subject is to this recording device, the greater the clarity of the image. In the ideal non-space of this flatland, nothing shall come between that which looks and that which is being seen.

Cameras need light to see. In 1859 Charles Baudelaire wrote of the ‘extraordinary fanaticism’ of early photographers, disdainfully referring to them as ‘sun-worshippers’. A scanning device comes equipped with its own in-built light source: its ‘sun’ is artificial and illuminates upon each scan. As with the sun, it is advisable not to stare into the scanner’s beam. In Phenomenology of Perception,Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes the act of staring into an intense source of light as being ‘a passive vision’:

… with no gaze specifically directed, as in the case of a dazzling light, which does not unfold an objective space before us, and in which the light ceases to be light and becomes something painful which invades our eye itself.③

In his brief essay from 1930 titled Rotten Sun, Georges Bataille drew a correlation between ‘the scrutinized sun’ and ‘mental ejaculation,’ believing that with prolonged concentration on this blinding orb, ‘a certain madness is implied’. ④It is not that it is impossible to gaze at the sun, or at the beam of a scanner, but when we do it is often painful, it distorts our vision and we are warned against sun gazing for fear of causing damage to our vulnerable eye organs. Bataille interpreted this as an erotic impulse entailing the lure of the forbidden. We know that we should not look, which is exactly what spurs the desire to look harder… and again.

Human eyes tolerate neither sun, coitus, cadavers, nor obscurity, but suhagra 100mg with different reactions.⑤

Scanning is a blind process. This is in contrast to the camera-based photography that Walter Benjamin identified in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) as freeing ‘the hands of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens’. The hand that operates the scanning machine supplants the regime of the ocular. It touches in order to see and in doing so, captures a vision invisible to the human eye. In the case of scanned self-portraiture, the eye is doubly defunct: blinded by the scanner and too close to gain any perspective of the scene. Compositional decisions made during the time of scanning are, at best, educated hypotheses as to what the final outcome will look like after the act.

The duration of a blink in scanning is measured in the line travelled by the glowing digital eye as it travels the length of its imaging capacity or is dragged along the surface of an object.  In the realm of the flatbed, the verticality of this head-to-toe rendition is simultaneously horizontal in a gravitational sense, due to the nature of the machine that functions as a surface on top of which things are placed. In Other Criteria (1972) Leo Steinberg refers to the flatbed picture plane – alluding to the flatbed printing press – in relation to the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Jean Dubuffet in the 1950s:

Yet these pictures no longer simulate vertical fields, but opaque flatbed horizontals… The flatbed picture plane makes its symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts, bulletin boards – any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed – whether coherently or in confusion… the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience but of operational processes.

Steinberg recognises this shift as a radical signifier of the distinction between the vertical dimension of nature as equivalent to an experience in which ‘we relate visually as from the top of a columnar body,’ and the horizontal dimension of culture that no longer acknowledges ‘the same gravitational force to which our being in nature is subject’. In a dizzying collision of axes, the eye of the flatbed scanner looks up from below the surface of its glass table as it concurrently reads down the length of this transparent slab. Nature and culture, the eye and the operation, are compounded into a singular plane: the flatbed scanner picture plane.

When the camera opens its shutters, it injects the sun. When the scanner opens its eye, it projects rays of light. By doing away with the human eye and the prosthetic eye of the camera lens, the omnipotent eye of the scanner, when it descends its beam in a vertical line, is akin to the vertically descendent rays of the sun and also to the verticality associated with God>Human relations in religious belief systems. Looking up and looking down, the scanner sweeps us with its luminescent shaft as we bow accordingly before it. If this sounds fanatical, remember that when Henri Cartier-Bresson applied the notion of the decisive moment to photography, he intimated that the photographer’s creativity lay in intuiting a momentary event in the world as being a chosen moment for the camera. Through photography, we could all be The Chosen People. There is no known decisive moment in scanning. If there is one at all, this moment is blind to us and only for the machine to see. The eye of the scanner – like the human anus⑩ – forms a projection only in excretion. Splayed before this vision machine, seen and blind, we bask in its one-eyed glory. And it is good.


- Chantal Faust 2014


① The Book of Genesis. 1:3-5 (According to the Masoretic Text and the JPS 1917 Edition.)
② Charles Baudelaire, Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Artists, trans. P.E. Charvet, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p 295.
③ Charles Baudelaire, Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Artists, trans. P.E. Charvet, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p 295.
④ Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p 57.
⑤ Ibid., p 8.
⑥ Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, (London: Fontana, 1992), p 213.
⑦ Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p 84.
⑧ Ibid.
⑨ Religious texts describe a God that looks downwards. Humans look up to the heavens and across to each other.
⑩ ‘The human anus secluded itself deep within flesh, in the crack of the buttocks, and it now forms a projection only in squatting and excretion.’ Bataille, op. cit., p 77.