The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing by James Elkins, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing

The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing

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by James Elkins
     
 

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In this “remarkable tour de force” (Publishers Weekly)-a “ceaselessly thought-provoking book” (Kirkus Reviews)-art historian James Elkins marshals psychology, philosophy, science, and art history to show how seeing alters the thing seen and transforms the seer. Black-and-white photographs.

Overview


In this “remarkable tour de force” (Publishers Weekly)-a “ceaselessly thought-provoking book” (Kirkus Reviews)-art historian James Elkins marshals psychology, philosophy, science, and art history to show how seeing alters the thing seen and transforms the seer. Black-and-white photographs.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Because our viewing of people, places and objects is molded by thoughts of using, possessing, keeping or cherishing what is seen, we actually perceive very little of what we look at, claims Elkins. In a remarkable tour de force, this art historian uses scores of intriguing photos and illustrations (of a mermaid, ice halos in Alaska, the surface of atoms, a eunuch, a medieval Russian icon painting, etc.) to buttress his thesis that seeing depends on context, desire and expectation. Elkins, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, analyzes how we read the human face and discusses pathologies of vision such as blindness and glaucoma. He pays special attention to phenomena that we view with ambivalence or dread-naked bodies, executions, death (a few of the images reproduced here are grisly). He sometimes overstates his case, as when he lamely argues that we exist in "a world full of gazes" because "each object has a certain force, a certain way of resisting or accepting my look and returning that look to me." Nevertheless, his inquiry is a rewarding adventure that draws freely on psychology, literature, art history, neuroanatomy and philosophy to illuminate modes of seeing and of being. (Mar.)
Library Journal
"Seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer," writes Elkins, an art historian with Chicago's School of the Art Institute. Elkins further argues that "seeing is irrational, inconsistent and undependable." He uses examples from art and photography to illustrate the nature of vision and its failures. In particular, Elkins describes how we see very little of the world and how "each act of vision mingles seeing with not seeing." He also explores the paradoxical "complicity between blindness and sight." Arguing that there is no such thing as "just looking," Elkins maintains that seeing is a way of "possessing" what is seen. His discussion of our response to the human face is particularly compelling, as is his contention that "vision helps us to know what we are like," forcing us to adjust our version of the self as we see ourselves reflected in others. This unusual, thought-provoking, and well-written book offers an original perspective on the psychology and philosophy of vision.-Laurie Bartolini, Legislative Research Unit, Springfield, Ill.
David Carrier
Elkin's best writing teaches you how to look more closely and see more. Few Authors aspire to do that-and even fewer succeed.
Art Journal
Kirkus Reviews
Unfocused but frequently illuminating meditations on how we see and how we don't.

What the deconstructionists did for language, exposing its grave limitations and fallibilities, Elkins attempts to do for vision. As he convincingly demonstrates, "vision is forever incomplete and uncontrollable because it is used to shape our sense of what we are." In Elkins's view, even the simplest, most reductive statement that can be made about seeing, "the beholder looks at the object," is charged with such uncertainty and so many possible valences that it is incapable of any fixed or stable meaning. Seeing is also something that we have remarkably little control over, depending as it does on mood, thoughts, character, circumstance, etc., etc. Someone who is running late, for instance, suddenly becomes aware of a crowded world of clocks. As an art historian at Chicago's School of the Arts Institute, Elkins has a well-honed appreciation of the visual world, but he does have several substantial blind spots. He tends to cling too closely to his familiar tableaux morts, the unmoving, fixed images of paintings and photographs. Film and its shaping of vision are mentioned only in passing. Physics is similarly slighted, notably quantum mechanics and its discovery that the very act of perception can influence the results of an experiment. These omissions would not be so glaring if Elkins did not constantly try to find the telling in the trivial. Sometimes he is successful, such as in his discussions of animals' protective camouflage. But are six photographs of Chinese executions and a long discussion of the moment of death or extended disquisitions on nude models really relevant? In fairness, this is an enormous subject, and any account will be necessarily incomplete.

Elkins is to be commended for shedding as much light as he does (and for elegantly abstaining from the temptations of academic jargon) in a ceaselessly thought-provoking book.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780156004978
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
07/28/1997
Series:
Harvest Book Series
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
1,141,124
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.67(d)

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