Vision, the window through which we assess and adjust our reality, is a filter affected by passion, memory, circumstances and other factors. James Elkins argues that the act of seeing is more than a simple matter of mechanical motor functioning. It is, in fact, a metamorphic phenomenon that continually re-creates identity. Elkins’ The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing is an impressively ambitious attempt to analyze a massive yet thought-provoking subject.
Jonathan Swift’s pithy comment on vision is an apt but obtuse observation about the interplay between the eyes and the brain, the transmission of data and consequent interpretation resulting in meaning. In The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing, James Elkins assures us that vision is a dynamically interpretive act that determines the nature of our individual realities. We interpret objects based on a complex filter through which stimuli is simultaneously acted upon by context, understanding, memory and hope. That which is created in the brain is reality, our uniquely and distinctively individual definition of what we see and how we see ourselves in relation to the world at large.
That said, it makes sense to claim that seeing is an eliciting act that involves far more than basic motor functioning. Elkins likens vision to hunting, or dreaming, or falling in love…the acts of which bring about change. Vision, then, is “entangled in the passions – jealousy, violence, possessiveness; and it is soaked in affect – in pleasure and displeasure, and in pain” (Elkins, 1996). Vision and the cognitive chain reaction that follows in its wake are so overarching in terms of human perception that one finds it imperceptible, the incomprehensible universe writ small, as it were. For Elkins, vision is transformation rather than transaction. “Seeing is metamorphosis, not mechanism” (Ibid), he assures us. And so it is not ours to truly command because vision isn’t the product of human reason or logic. It has a will of its own.
The orientation between subject and object is a connection through which the act of identity and existential affirmation unfolds. Elkins tells us this phenomenon yields “self-definition. Objects look back, and their incoming gaze tells me what I am” (Elkins, 1996). It is an ongoing process and a two-way street in which “we tune and clarify ourselves by seeing,” a constant building of one’s selfhood (Ibid). Circumstances dictate how vision acts as a filter for the transmission of data – when faced with tense or emotionally charged situations, our vision weeds out certain stimuli. Elkins calls this “skittish seeing,” which can also be thought of as a kind of unconscious editorial control when certain visual data needs to be excised.
For Elkins, the natural extension of this concept is best understood as a form of blindness, or as selective seeing. As infants and in early childhood, that which we see makes no lasting impression because we lack the capacity to adhere it to our memory. Thus, Elkins makes the point that memory is essential to vision but it would seem that more is at work than vision and memory. Surely, there is some deeper mental processing at work, some level of understanding that the young do not yet possess. Elkins touches on this more complex functioning in Chapter Six, conceding that the point at which vision, memory and experience mesh differs from person to person. As an infant, his sight and memory were unconnected. “As soon as I became aware that I was seeing and began to form ideas about myself and my experiences, I passed out of the blindness of infancy and began to see and remember at the same time” (Elkins, 1996). Evidently, the point at which Elkins truly began to “see” coincided with his ability to process and internalize experience. He doesn’t remember playing with his toys at age two, despite the fact that he clearly enjoyed them, because the formative experience of playing with them had not yet taken hold.
This describes a mysterious process that we may never perfectly understand. The same could be said of the way human beings respond to the human body, particularly the face. Elkins describes human faces as “centers of power,” psychological touch points that have meaning for us when nothing else seems to make sense (Elkins, 1996). He uses a busy city street as an example of activity so chaotic that the individual is lost amid the ungoverned stream of visual information. Through it all, faces re-orient him, giving him something humanly familiar to react to, a counterpoint to the flood of cars, shops and signs (Ibid).
In Chapter Three, one of Elkins’ most thought-provoking disquisitions has to do with whether or not it is possible for us to see too much. The conscious mind seeks to protect us, telling us that there are some things we don’t want to see but at which we are compelled to look. We are confronted by overwhelming objects such as the sun, things we understand that we shouldn’t view but our vision takes on a life of its own. It’s not unusual to find oneself in a shopping center, caught in a bewildering maze of images and crowds of passing shoppers, wanting on one level to shut out the input but unable to look away or shut it all out. There is a morbid aspect to all this, a Grand Guignol fascination that can be irresistible despite its attendant unpleasantness.
Some might call this morbid curiosity. Whatever it is exactly, the human brain copes with it through analogy, Elkins says. In Chapter Four, he explains how severe deformities are
softened by a natural human inclination to assign marked physical abnormalities new and separate identities. “When deformation is so strong that an object becomes incomprehensible, it is necessary to describe it by renaming it: the doctor finds an analogy…and that renders the incomprehensible object visible…” (Elkins, 1996). At times, Elkins is prone to indulging in seemingly trivial, even semantic observations.
In Chapter Four, he cites a physician’s report in which the doctor gives identity to a strange condition of the tongue, in which it takes on the topographical appearance of the brain. The doctor, Elkins notes, names the condition to show how the tongue correlates to the brain, but if the tongue seems to be turning into the brain, he wonders, is the brain transforming into a tongue? All of which seem to detract from Elkins’ larger purpose.
It seems whimsical word-play for such a profound subject. Nevertheless, here again we see the imposition of identity on vision. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that this same compulsion to identify and name that which comes into one’s vision was probably at work in the early explorers, who made sense of new discoveries by giving them identities that the Europeans could understand and feel as though they had control over. This practice extended to the naming of stars and celestial bodies, which renders them symbolically analogous to human beings and parts of the human body.
Investing objects with human characteristics is a less linear example of analogy but is no less an illustration of seeking to extract the familiar from the unfamiliar. Elkins uses houses, among other objects, as a way to highlight this tendency, noting that windows are analogous to human eyes, the door to a mouth, and so on. Indeed, this treatment of objects is a familiar
feature in literature, such as in this fanciful passage from Charles Dickens’ 1841 novel Barnaby Rudge: “With its overhanging stories, drowsy little panes of glass, and front bulging out and projecting over the pathway, the old house looked as if it were nodding in its sleep…the sturdy timbers had decayed like teeth…” (Dickens, 1986).
Elkins’ atomizing treatment of such manifestations of vision and identity is as provocative as it is profound. Although at first shocking (doubtless intentionally so), one realizes that such overt, even controversial examples present the clearest view of an endlessly interesting and thought-provoking subject. Elkins’ aesthetic can be jarring and unpleasant but his thought processes do strike a deep and resonant chord. It’s as if he is shaking and slapping us until we are at last able to focus on an object that is so large it naturally evades notice.
Elkins’ imagery, both photographic and verbal, can’t help but spark a response that is at once visceral and intellectual. The book’s examination of the relationship between vision and memory is particularly interesting in that analyzing Elkins’ main points yields personal impressions that seem familiar but hover just beyond the edge of remembrance. In an age when information passes to and fro at lightning speeds, a grand and exhaustive consideration such as the nature of vision seems timely and highly worthwhile.
Dickens, C. (1986). Barnaby Rudge. New York: Penguin Classics. 44, 86, 147, 169, 202.
Elkins, J. (1996). The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. New York: Simon and