James Elkins The Object Stares Back

In The Object Stares Back, the American historian and art critic James Elkins carefully examines the complexities, intricacies and problems of seeing as opposed to its conventional mechanical definition. Seeing is not merely taking in light and shapes and it is not simply away of navigating through the worldbut a rather wonderfully complicated phenomenon. Throughout the entirety of the book, Elkins further presents various insights on how we access the world through this in-depth and critical inquiry into the nature of seeing, and at every point he tells us one thing  that blindness happens alongside seeing and that it happens while we are seeing. According to Elkins, there is so much one does not or cannot see around him, and from this one can learn a lot about how he relates to the world.

The Most Important Lessons of Seeing
According to Elkins, although we may not be able to change the fact that our ability to see is severely limited and that blindness is inherent in it, we can still gain insights through it as to how we interpret the visual information that goes into our eyes. All the lessons we can learn from seeing reflect the notion that our vision is not at all pure, objective and unadulterated as what we would normally suppose.

We See What Is Inside Of Us. Elkins believes that as a visual stimulus pushes its way into the eyes, there is also a force to the eyes that pushes its way into the world (p.18). This simply means that when we see or look at something or someone, we try to projects our thoughts and images to it and that the resulting vision is a rather subjective mix of our unconscious desires (p. 19). Furthermore, everything we put our focus on is something that reminds us of our lives and that all the rest which we find to be meaningless are therefore invisible (p. 20).

Elkins somehow wants to tell us that if a child, amidst a wide variety of toys around him, directs his visual focus upon a stuffed Sponge Bob, it is because the child has special memories of Sponge Bob. It goes the same with a young man who fixes his stare upon a shapely, attractive young woman whom he wants to have for himself as his lover. Elkins maintains that one cannot look at anything withoutthe thought of possessing that thing (p. 22).

We See What We Have Created. Stendhal once said that a lover often forms an image of the person he loves and distills this image into a crystal which he would worship no matter what the actual nature of his lover is like (p. 30). This concept simply tells us that whatever we see is nothing but our own creation, which is a result of the force to the eyes that pushes its way into the world (p. 18).

Let us take for example the image of a mermaid (p. 30). The mermaid is certainly an imaginary character but its body parts were created from fish and human structures, which are based on what the mind has previously seen and conceived. Elkins theorizes that nothing that is seen is ever original or entirely separate from the observer. Another image in the book, the image of a face which resembles that of Jesus Christ (p. 37), may actually someone elses face when taken upon a closer look. When placed in a church, you will see it as Jesus Christ but when placed in a mosque, it may represent a Muslim prophet. Furthermore, the stern look on the image may dissolve as one is viewing it from a bath tub but may tend to look stricter when viewed by someone who is in pain. The image therefore has neither identity nor intrinsic quality of its own. The image as it is may actually be objective but when viewed by subjective human eyes, will forever remain a creation of the observers mind.

We are Stared at by What We See. According to Elkins, the greatest pretense in seeing something is that there are only two players involved in the phenomenon  the one who sees and the one that is being seen. However seeing and being seen is certainly more complicated than this (p. 38). Elkins illustrates his point by presenting to us a scenario where one is staring at a painting at a museum. In this situation, there are actually more seeing entities the person looking at the painting, the figures in the painting looking at the person, the figures in the painting looking at each other, and so on (p. 38). This brings to us the idea that the universe is sentient and full of eyes as the figure on page 50.
Elkins further argues that vision should not be limited to beings with eyes (p. 48) as he does not see the logic in it. He argues that a nipple may behave like an eye when it attracts his attention (p. 49). Elkins therefore points out to us in his book that the things around us, whether we see them or not, see us in ways that may even alter our own perceptions.

We Do Not See Everything. This rather broad concept presented by Elkins is the basis of his so-called visual blindness and there are several reasons why human vision is limited.

We Do Not See That Which We Do Not Notice. Certain objects naturally escape our attention even though they are already in front of us because they especially require our concentrated focus. Elkins says that such is the nature of sun dogs, crepuscular rays, and arcs and bands around the sky and sun (p. 54). Subtle unconscious movements in a person who is in love, bored or fearful may also remain unseen to untrained eyes.

We Do Not See The Submicroscopic. The advent of science and the invention of the electron microscope paved the way for humankind to realize that there is absolutely more to what is seen by the naked eye. Subatomic particles, sections of the body imaged by MRI, and the earth from space are only three of the many objects that the naked eye cannot see but science can (p. 59). Sulfur atoms can even be manipulated to spell nanospace which is visible only through powerful magnification (p. 62). The same goes true for the DNA and the structures of all nutrients.

We May Not Clearly See That Which Is Dangerous or Pornographic. Certain things that are considered to be taboo like pictures of the dead or the naked are impossible to be seen in a relaxed and measured way (p. 86-87). When seeing these things, unrecognized anxiety and desire may cause ones vision to skip some parts (p. 92). However, in a few cases, some people may focus upon these very things (p. 106-107), thus giving an explanation to cases of perversion or fanaticism. This concept is the main subject of the second chapter, Looking Away, and Seeing Too Much.

We Do Not See That Which Is Deconstructed. Elkins argues that our eyes are designed to search for smooth continuous contours like those in a young human body and in complete bodies (p. 129) and that whenever we see an unfamiliar object, we always seek a body in it and that we always try to see ourselves in others, or at least a part of us (p. 129). In such a case one tends not to see at all or see clearly even familiar objects but which are deconstructed or deformed, such as the deformed tongue shown on page 150. This point is the subject of the chapter on Seeing Bodies.

We Do Not See That Which Is Not in Our Memories. Elkin argues that seeing can be dependent on memory (p. 203). One of the reasons therefore that you can spot your lover in the midst of a crowd and that suddenly everything else is invisible is because you have a specially kept memory of him or her  something you do not have with the rest of the crowd.

Personal Evaluation
The insights presented by Elkins in his book The Object Stares Back are indeed all enlightening and logical. However, I would personally consider the claim which states that we do not see that which we do not notice. This is I believe the most practical of all the claims presented by Elkins on the nature of seeing. In my opinion, the ability to make careful observations is the basis of making decisions and is the very quality that separates humans from brutes. Therefore, I believe that the more you tend to notice the things that most people simply pass off as trivia, the higher you are on the evolutionary scale.

The ability to notice small things and develop wonderful ideas out of them is the basis of success of many famous people like Einstein and Bill Gates. And even for the average person, skills in observation can help prevent break-ups, accidents, and unnecessary reprimands.

Elkins devised a simple method of practice on how to be able to notice more things, and thus be able to see more. He said one should fix his eye on one object that he would be likely to ever notice p. 95-96). This way, one can increase awareness of his immediate environment, and awareness is the first step towards acquiring wisdom.

Elkins book The Object Stares Back is a book that brings us insights into the nature of seeing. It explains in detailed logic as well as through empirical evidence that we see what is inside of us and merely what we have created that what we see can see us too and that we remain blind to the unnoticed, the submicroscopic, the dangerous, the sexual, the deformed, the forgotten and the useless. It is true that the book may contain principles that are controversial and even impractical but The Object Stares Back teaches us one thing  that since our world is what we see and that what we see is what we are, then it simply follows that in order for us to see something new, something beautiful or just to see more, then we should stop manipulating our externals for it is ourselves that we have to change.


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