Kirkus Reviews QR Code


On the Nature of Seeing

by James Elkins

Pub Date: March 21st, 1996
ISBN: 0-684-80095-0
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

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. (36 illustrations)