the force of seeing

Metaphors of sight are overused, but when it comes to visualizing information, sight seems to aptly fit. I’m trying to account for a different sight or seeing that I’ve been thinking about as we read and discuss DH methods, conversations, and concerns that is more mindful of these and the scopes at which they are done. In reading for this week, I realize that this is a bit of an abstraction (and maybe a result of being prompted to talk about my research), but I’m thinking about the methods we have been discussing as means of remembering (and maybe, re-membering in terms of putting broken bodies back together, or even bringing individuals [ideas and people and things] back into sight). It’s odd to me that I haven’t explicitly thought of DH methods as doing memory work; I think I can dismiss it by saying that these methods are to uncover new patterns that weren’t noticed before, so they wouldn’t be how something was experienced. But in doing this work, at least on texts that are still contemporary (and even texts that have been “established” or experienced in a particular way as to have epistemological implications), conceptions of what is/n’t change. There are counterhistories in the field of rhetoric and composition to alter how the field constructs itself—what it occludes and includes (here I have a very flimsy connection between conception and memory that is in want of development). I don’t think that making texts visible is neutral work, void of intent, but making visible seems more passive than reconstructing what was visible. Making visible is positing a new perspective, perhaps different from what existed before, to materials that we have/not encountered (and differently).

I’m still working through these ideas, and to me they seem disjointed, but I’m noting a difference or perhaps a different degree (or nuance) in what is being done to and from seeing materials. I am reminded of James Elkins’ “The Object Stares Back” from his book On the Nature of Seeing; he says “ultimately, seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer. Seeing is metamorphosis, not mechanism”. He is working to move beyond a concept of sight as “just looking” to one of intent, to one that is not singular, on that multiplies and changes because there is no fixity—looking has force. I’m left with questions on the nature of seeing, constructing, and remembering and the matters of concern they raise in using these methods. What is their force in seeing? Are they too scattered to notice and focus? What is/are the scopes of this work—not in how closely or distantly materials are looked at, but where their gaze is cast? Is there a connection between sight and memory in this work? What comes with and from new ways of seeing?





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