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James Elkins in Conversation with Claire Brandon

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Screenshot of draft provided by James Elkins.

James Elkins, Professor in Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, delivered a lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts on February 10, 2015 as part of the Institute of Fine Art’s Daniel H. Silberberg Lecture Series. The lecture, “The End of the Theory of the Gaze,” explored the shortcomings of existing theories about the gaze and presented several aspects of Visual Worlds, the book that Professor Elkins is currently working on. IFA Ph.D. Candidate Claire Brandon spoke with Professor Elkins after the lecture.

Claire Brandon: Your lecture presented the failure of the theory of the gaze in the context of the new book you are working on, Visual Worlds.  Could you talk a little bit about the digital format for this project?  You mentioned that you and Erna Fiorentini are writing and editing this document using Google Drive, allowing for open-sourced authorship in some instances.  How does this process work?  How did you decide on Google Drive as a tool?

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Screenshot of Google Spreadsheet provided by James Elkins.

James Elkins: Well, we chose Google Drive (link here) just because it’s simple and it includes spreadsheets (which we need to keep track of word counts, illustrations, etc.). I have tried several WordPress sites, Nings (some are quite expensive), and other collaborative tools; they’re useful if you need video conferencing, separate discussion groups, etc.

The co-authoring part of the project works extremely smoothly: we have a document called “What’s new” where we exchange ideas; two spreadsheets to manage the many tasks of accumulating words, images, and arguments; a third spreadsheet for managing word counts; a document that records the Oxford Press “house style” (that’s something authors usually don’t see until the end, but we’re making our own “house style” for citations and usages).

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Screenshot of Google Spreadsheet provided by James Elkins.

CB: To what extent does the age of digital seeing demand a reconsideration of the gaze? You mentioned the ways in which “peering” and the use of digital zoom has permitted another level of looking at digital reproductions of objects.  To what extent must we consider this development in the context of Laura Mulvey’s 1975 text [“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”] and the forms of looking that technology permitted at that time?

JE: I am perhaps not the right person to be contributing to that debate–I’m hoping Erna Fiorentini will help balance my account in this respect–because I often find that digital forms of media have not altered the fundamental conceptualizations of seeing and being seen that were developed starting with Sartre and continuing on to critiques of Mulvey’s paper and of the reception of Lacan by writers like Rodowick.

On the other hand, we address as many examples as we can. There is a section on Lev Manovich’s digitally-enabled analyses of Vertov’s films, manga, and Mondrian; a section on the Google “search by image” algorithm (which remains secret) and how it alters classifications of images; a page on Chatroulette, the often obscene and unpredictable anonymous social network; a brief account of Google Maps, and how it has altered constructions of tourism; and several passages on the new kinds of surveillance–all digital–that move well beyond Foucault’s models.

These digital forms of the gaze are each interesting, in different ways; but none of them have produced, and few seem to call for, fundamental reformulations of the theory. Instead they push the theory into new contexts, some of which, as I suggested in the talk, might reasonably be seen as opportunities for new theorizations.

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Screenshot of draft discussing Johannes Vermeer’s A Maid Asleep, ca. 1656-1657 [The Metropolitan Museum of Art], provided by James Elkins.
CB: You suggested several “modes” of gazing, beyond the charged means of looking that Mulvey’s text describes.  In the example of the Vermeer painting you mentioned (A Maid Asleep, ca. 1656-57), what information do these non-charged, multiple, and less intense gazes give us about the painting and its context?

JE: I think the sum total of gazes, inner gazes, absent gazes (the empty mirror that faces the viewer), allegorized looks (in the painting-in-the-painting), erased gazes (in the X-Ray), and metaphorical looks (for instance the lion-headed chair ornaments), simply are the sum total of what the painting proposes. I do not see a reason to assume that the fundamental gendered structure of the painting, according to which it is an image of a woman to be seen by a male patron, viewer, or artist, is somehow strong enough to make it unnecessary to consider the other gazes. As we know from Vermeer’s underpainting, adjustments of the gazes were crucial to the painting’s formation: it was never a canonical instance of the male gaze ornamented by optional lesser looks.

CB: How do you see the theory of the gaze reconciling at the level of the medium?  Do gazes and modes of gazing differ across painting, film, sculpture, and architecture?

JE: Ah, I wish we had time and space to explore those themes. The final examples in the lecture, Teotihuacán and Chinese bronze vessels with “taotie” figures, are architectural and sculptural, respectively, and they are also both involved in rituals. Architectural “gazes,” lines of sight, and issues of privacy are part of our project in another chapter, and we also treat sculptural (and robotic) gazes. So far, however, we have not modulated the theory of the gaze in the direction of media specificity: so far, at least, the politics and institutional structures of architectural and sculptural gazes have been more important than the media that bear them.

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Screenshot of draft provided by James Elkins.

CB: What was the research process for this book like?  It seems as though it was quite an inter-disciplinary endeavor, including, for example, scientific background for ocular theory and animal gazes.

JE: Researching this book has been utterly fascinating. Sometimes our work begins with a keyword search in PubMed, WorldCat, JSTOR, or other database, and leads on into unexpected literatures. The material I discovered on ways the visual cortex actually does embody “images” of the external world, despite centuries of literature to the contrary, is a case in point: we were searching for pertinent information about the science of vision, and found that material by accident. The research isn’t so much interdisciplinary (or postdisciplinary or transdisciplinary or subdisciplinary) as undisciplined, in the sense that we cannot be aware of the full research contexts for some of the material we are using.

Screenshot provided by Professor Elkins.
Screenshot provided by James Elkins.

CB: Where does the title of the book, Visual Worlds, come from?

JE: Like every author, we continue to struggle over this. It’s a crowded field, and many adequate titles have been taken: Ways of Looking, Visual Practices, Visuality (in various combinations)… Visual Worlds is a working title, which we’re only provisionally happy with. Its principal problem is that is conjures Nelson Goodman and his teacher W.V.O. Quine, who proposed “worlds” as conceptual systems that could be partly compared; it also might remind readers of Arnold Davidson’s critique of linguistic and experiential “worlds” as in Benjamin Whorf. What we mean to talk about is the sum total of contemporary production of pictures (especially still images, but also 3-D and 4-D images), in art, science, engineering, law, and other fields, both within the university and in general cultural and capitalist production. We’d like to leave aside issues of high and low art, and even issues of visual studies and communication, in favor of an emphasis on the visual in general–the very thing that writers continuously assure us is characteristic of our historical moment.

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