Elegant Vision of Eye-Mind Concepts

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 17, 1996 | Go to article overview

Elegant Vision of Eye-Mind Concepts


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


"Just Looking" is the title of James Elkins' first chapter following an introduction, but with characteristically modernist irony, that is far from what he means to say. More like:

"[Seeing] is irrational, inconsistent, and undependable. It is immensely troubled, cousin to blindness and sexuality, and caught up in the threads of the unconscious. Our eyes are not ours to command; they roam where they will and then tell us they have only been where we have sent them. No matter how hard we look, we see very little of what we look at. . . . [Seeing] is like hunting and like dreaming, and even like falling in love. . . . Ultimately, seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer. Seeing is metamorphosis, not mechanism."

A book such as "The Object Stares Back," which takes off from the proposition that seeing, which one had supposed simple, is actually profoundly problematic, may initially be off-putting to readers tired of Jacques Lacan and his idea of the gaze as trap, Paul de Man maintaining a necessary blindness in any self-reflexive thought, and other critics deconstructing earlier settled judgments only to leave moral desert in their wake.

But Mr. Elkins, an art historian at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (an earlier book, "The Poetics of Perspective," was published last year by Cornell), is a sensible enough fellow. He sees where a Lacan takes a reasonable idea - such as that of seeing as messaging a person or object and getting an echo back telling us something about ourselves - too far. He also knows that, like Einstein's theory, the things he describes are there and need to be dealt with.

Inventors of the microscope were, in their day, staggered by the busy life they saw on their slides, all so far beyond the reach of the unaided eye. Psychoneurologists today unarguably are onto something with the idea of subjective contour completion, by which they mean how we fill in the gaps in only partially seen images (a building, half-obscured by trees) or how we look for patterns in things (the constellation Cygnus, the swan, coursing the night sky).

Diseases causing partial blindness - myopia, glaucoma, cataracts and the rarer achromatopsia, complete color blindness, where the victim loses not only the ability to see colors but all understanding of color - throw up in the air previously accepted concepts of color, shape, name and motion. Even people with healthy eyesight do not look out upon a landscape with the full-frame crispness of a photograph, human peripheral vision being as spotty as it is.

Francis Crick, the Nobel laureate who with James Watson discovered the double helix, chose visual consciousness as a means to investigate consciousness generally. Mr. Elkins, taking off from his own training, makes an ambitious foray into psychoanalysis, philosophy, psychology and critical theory, neuroanatomy of vision, biological studies of vision in animals and technical research on machine vision.

He writes, "I would not have written this book, if it were only a matter of re-representing ideas that were already known in their respective fields. Instead, what I have tried to do is write an interdisciplinary account of vision, keeping to the common ground of ordinary language in order to be able to speak differently." And so he does, coming up with an exciting, haunting book.

The haunting derives in large part from the afterimage, if you will, left by the pictures Mr. Elkins uses. Some will be familiar, such as the "Mona Lisa" and Albrecht Durer's nude "Self-Portrait." Others, such as previously published photo sequences of Chinese executions early in the century, will be known to imbibers of such exotica. Still others will be new and variously pleasing, surprising or disconcerting.

Mr. Elkin's pointedly graphic narrative can be disconcerting, too, as when he describes an illustration of a Lyapunov space graph derived from the Mandelbrot set as resembling a body, but that of "a squashed louse, gooey and spiny at the same time. …

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