The Object Stares Back

This week’s reading for ENGL 527: Visual Rhetorics with Dr. Derek Mueller

Citation: Elkins, James. The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1996. Web.

Summary: We imagine seeing as objective, as removed from it while existing within it – we open our eyes and see it; but we are so involved in the world, so dependent on it (the observer is object), that we have to pretend we are removed to create distance in order to go on at all  (from 33).


  • (seeing) metamorphosis vs. mechanism
  • looking/ seeing /searching
  • vision vs. sight
  • object (human or nonhuman)
  • inaudible urgings of seeing (24)
  • inaccessible/unapproachable (32)
  • multiplying/changing object (39)
  • observer-objects and object-observers (hybridity 44)

Passages to keep:

“The first thing to be said is that this informal notion of just looking will not do, since the eyes never merely accept light. Instead, there is a force to the light: it pushes its way into our eyes; and conversely, there is a force to the eyes: they push their way into the world.” (18)

“The proof of this is the way that absentminded looking becomes contaminated with stray thoughts. If I’m just looking around while thinking of something else, every object that comes into focus will remind me of my life: the calendar reminds me that I haven’t changed it this week; the old file folders remind me of the work not yet done; the black architect’s lamps reminds me I don’t like architect’s lamps; the coffee cup reminds me again that I am thirsty. Even when I am not thinking of the use of objects, they remind me of use. And there is a curious thing here that easily passes unnoticed: I do not focus on anything that is not connected in some way with my own desires and actions. I fail to see the stretches of wall between the lamp and the coffee cup, or the manila paper of the file folders, ore the black plastic calendar holder. My eyes can only understand desire and possession. Anything else is meaningless and therefore invisible.” (22)

“A picture is not only a view onto the world or onto someone’s imagination: it is a peculiar kind of object that sets us thinking about desire. If I see a mermaid, a silk shirt, a snapshot, a gorgeous landscape, a picture of bread and butter, or photograph of a eunuch, those images are not just passively recorded in my mind. Looking immediately activates desire, possession, violence, displeasure, pain, force, ambition, power, obligation, gratitude, longing…there seems to be no end to what seeing is, to how it is tangled with living and acting. But there is no such thing as just looking.” (31)


Accepted claim: “I don’t really exist apart from the objects I see – what a strange thought. I am neither independent observer nor object in someone else’s eyes. Whatever calls itself I must always move, as Martin Heidegger said, in the between, between man and thing. (44)


Claim of some doubt: “I need to think that I am the one doing the looking and sifting one version of an object to the next. But what if I were changing along with the objects? What if the sentence were The observers – the multiple moments of myself – look among the objects?” (39)


3 sources to aid in reading: No bibliography attached, so hypothetical sources are Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, Martin Heidegger, the remainder of The Object Stares Back

3 thoughts on “The Object Stares Back

  1. how do you make your summary so succinct? 🙂 i want to spend a day working on short summaries with students. this is a variation on the format i’m using (probably because i’m using a variation of derek’s format, ha). dreaming of co-teaching. oooh, yes. co-teaching with you. ❤

  2. Pingback: Visual Rhetorics Portfolio | page tectonics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s