Visual Worlds

Vision, Images, and Visual Disciplines

James Elkins and Erna Fiorentini

[Frontispiece, for ½ title page]

Table of Contents





How To Use This Book




1                 Image, Vision, Visuality, Visibility                

2               The Gaze: From the 19th Century to Lacan

3        The Gaze: Postwar Developments

4        Varieties of Seeing           

5        Animal Vision

6        Science of Vision

7        The Verbal and the Visual

8        Seeing and the Other Senses





9        Visible Worlds

10        Invisible Worlds

11        Abstract Worlds

12        Pictorialization

13            Visualization





14           Administering Images

15            Failing to Administer Images

16            Worshipping and Destroying Images

17          Using Images to Incite

18            Surveillance





29          Looking at The Inside of Your Own Eyes

29        Looking at The Sunset

20        Looking at an Oil Painting

22        Looking at Photographs

23        Looking at Advertisements

24        Looking at a Postage Stamp





25        How the Military Looks at Images

26        How Doctors Look at Images

27        How Lawyers Look at Images

28        How Scientists Look at Images

29        How Art Historians Look at Images

30        Writing with Images

31        Writing about Images

32        Writing through Images


Conclusion of the Book

Picture Credits


Ours is a visual world. In the fields of cultural studies, anthropology, film and media studies, science and laboratory studies, art history, visual studies, there is a consensus that our experience is increasingly visual in nature. It is said that we live in a particularly visual moment in history, that consciousness can be understood through the study of vision, constructions of gender and identity operate in visual channels, that our sense of technology depends on visual interfaces, and that we think not only with the help of images but actually in images.

It is as if culture is fundamentally visual in nature, and that vision, visuality, and the visual world are the conceptual fields best suited to explain the current situation. Some of these claims, we will argue, are overstated or in need of development. Yet there is little doubt that our understanding of the visual world is a central part of our current experience.

This book is an introduction to these themes, presented for an engaged university or college student. It is the first book of its kind. Most such introductions are “art appreciation” or “visual literacy” texts, which tend to assume the arts provide optimal and sufficient examples for all images. We want to balance this view with a comparative approach that considers the evidence of a number of fields concerned with the visual: It is not only art that matters, but the full complement of visual practices; and it is not only visual products that are important, but also the practices giving rise to them and the individual discourses of their interpretation. Introductory texts in visual studies and art theory tend to rely on general concepts, and to avoid technical issues and specialized vocabularies. We have tried to balance general theory with detail, to let both be heard at once.

        At first the subject of looking and seeing seems intuitive, even simple. But as Wittgenstein knew, problems that are close to hand can be the most difficult of all. We hope now is the moment to study vision and visuality as a whole, a subject that is, we think, philosophically challenging, extremely diverse and variegated, and tremendously rewarding.


        We owe thanks to many people. Several chapters of this book were posted online as they were being written, and comments came in via Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. hosted sessions in which people could comment on selected chapters and on one another’s comments. Much of this book is therefore effectively crowd sourced.

Special thanks, then, to this book’s many contributors: Daniel Weiskopf for information on description and memory; to Ellen Fernandez-Sacco for research on the sounds of fish (chapter 5); Joacim Sprung for biovisuality and animal vision (chapter 5); Hyunjin Shin for a connection to Niklas Luhmann’s work; Jess Park for thoughts on animal interiority (chapter 5); Amarí Peliowski for the book Forensis; Ana Peraica for guidelines of forensic photography (chapter 27); Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius for texts on cameras in courtrooms (chapter 27); Christina Ljungberg for Uexküll’s Suchbild and “magic image (chapter 5)”; Thomas Söderqvist for Klaus Kemp the “diatomist”; Aleksander Najda for onomoclasm (chapter 16); Mosen Azadeh for Mohammad-Reza Shafiei Kadkani (chapter 16); Hesamaddin Rezai for the Arabic word for image (chapter 16); Richard Sherwin for the Rodney King case and courtroom visuality (chapter 27); Fulla Abdul-Jabbar for scientific poster design (chapter 23); Javier Berzal de Dios for the phenomenology of oil painting (chapter 21); Ramona Braun for Joseph Dumit and STS (chapter 26); Yannis Hadjinicolaou on enactivism and painting (chapter 21); David MacWilliam for Garry Neill Kennedy (chapter 21); Mayra Barraza and Sarah Schuster for thoughts on the motion of the artist’s brush (chapter 21); Ksenija Berk for legal scholarship on CCTV surveillance (chapter 18); and Holly Dankert for Abû Ma’shar’s Kitâb al-Mawalid. We have also learned a great deal from conversations with students and colleagues in Chicago, Berlin, Krems, Prague, Amsterdam, and Cluj.

Earlier versions of chapters 19, 20, and 24 appeared in James Elkins, How to Use Your Eyes (2000); some material in chapter 30 appeared in Elkins, “An Introduction to the Visual as Argument,” in Theorizing Visual Studies: Writing Through the Discipline, edited by Elkins, Kristi McGuire, Maureen Burns, Alicia Chester, Joel Kuennen, 2012, pp. 25–60.


        There can be few subjects as large, as potentially unencompassable, as vision. We naturally link seeing with knowing: we “cast light” on a subject, “illuminate” it, perceive its “outlines,” “see” it “clearly and distinctly.” Western philosophers from Leibniz and Descartes to Hegel have elaborated on the indissoluble bond between seeing and knowing. Seeing is not a specialized subject, one sense or faculty among others, but a part of our experience that gives us much of our sense of meaning itself. In modern science, writers from Francis Crick to Vilayanur Ramachandran have taken vision as the key neurobiological process by which to study brain function, and as the exemplary instance of consciousness.

        A subject this large is not an ordinary subject.  We have been continuously aware while writing this book that it may not be possible to think about vision—that vision may be what is doing the thinking, that we are inside our subject instead of comfortably outside it. A sign of that fundamental condition is the difficulty of disentangling sight as a physiological capacity and seeing as a cognitive act, or the difficulty of relating visuality as a cultural operation and the visual as a capacity of mind. In English and in other languages concepts like these refuse to settle into philosophic or disciplinary categories.

This book differs from existing accounts in that our concepts are continuously in question, and we do not sacrifice the detailed matter of individual visual practices and disciplines in the name of a stable concept of general visuality.

The Book’s Contents

The fundamental idea of the book’s five Parts is to look first at the most general theories, the ones that propose to tell us everything about the visual in one package. We then move to more specific topics. Each of this book’s five Parts has an introduction and conclusion, which address philosophic and historical claims. Here we briefly summarize the contents of the book.

Part One, Considering Vision, is about fundamental concepts: image, vision, visuality, visibility, and the gaze. Chapters 1 through 3 do the bulk of that work. Chapter 4 then explores less common kinds of seeing, including staring, peering, glancing, and glimpsing. Chapter 5 asks how animals see, and what we might learn from their visual capacities. Chapter 6 is a brief but concerted effort to indicate what the science of vision might have to say to scholarship in the humanities. And chapters 7 and 8 take up the relation of sight to language and to other senses.

Part Two, Making Worlds into Images, is concerned with attempts to make the world visible, to picture it, to make it into a picture. We begin with a chapter introducing the ways art and science have represented what is taken to be visible in the world: mimesis (or imitation), naturalism, and objectivity are among our subjects there. After that Part Two is concerned with subjects that seem to resist representation: the reaches of the world beyond the limitations of the eye; the cultural limitations on what we notice or see; the visual properties of abstract ideas. Part Two concludes with a meditation on the current interest in visualizing everything, using software to arrange large datasets, or using infographics to condense complex situations.

Part Three, Handling Images, concerns the politics, institutions, and power structures that determine how we encounter and understand images. We are interested here in how power creates visibility.  From the perspective of French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), disciplines such as art history and visual studies are machines for the administration of images.  They share strategies with natural history, ethnography, journalism, and other fields that have sought to express power by selecting, arranging, and interpreting images. The opening chapters in Part Three are concerned with ways certain disciplines have tried, or failed, to control images. The final chapters address images that fell victim to different iconoclastic movements, that have been used to promote political agendas, or employed to control citizens.

Parts Four and Five offer examples of individual images and how they are interpreted through the lens of different academic fields.  Part IV, Looking at Images, is a gallery of examples of seeing: the inside of the eye, sunsets, oil paintings, photographs, advertisements, and postage stamps. The chapters are detailed and can be read individually as case studies. The idea is to provide extended considerations of the literature on particular sorts of visual objects.

Part Five, How Disciplines Look at Images, considers how seeing and interpretation differ in fields such as law, medicine, the military, and art history. Just as some kinds of objects (oil paintings, advertisements, postage stamps) produce characteristic sorts of interpretive writing, so different disciplines can develop distinct methodologies and interpretive concerns. The idea in Parts Four and Five is to make the case that the variants and varieties of seeing are not infinite, and that visual worlds can be effectively introduced in the span of a year or a semester. We conclude Part Five, and this book, with three chapters on writing, because writing is the medium of this entire enterprise, and of all the histories and theories that give us the subject of visual worlds.


The Principal Themes of this Book

We have structured this book around seven themes. They are developed throughout the text, so readers can consult this listing or the index in order to follow a given theme. The seven themes are also revisited in the book’s conclusion.

(1) The impossible textbook

Much current work on images, vision, and visuality in the humanities is concerned with the conceptual difficulty of the visual. There are studies of the ways visuality is both how we understand the world and how our world constructs our identities as political and social subjects. The visual is described as inextricably linked to language and to the other senses. Theorists of the image are interested in how images become acts or actions, how visual practices work as social forces, how visuality is affective and emotive rather than cognitive.

These interests can be traced to several influential texts of poststructuralism.  Key texts that introduced these ideas include French philosophers Gilles Deleuze’s (1925-1985) Difference and Repetition (1968), Jacques Derrida’s (1930-2004) concepts of Writing and Difference (1967), and Jean-François Lyotard’s (1924-1988) Discours, figure (1971). Traditional textbooks need to present their subjects in reasonably systematic manner, proceeding from simpler assertions to more specialized cases, providing the comfort of outlines and sequences of ideas. Yet from the poststructuralist perspective a book on visual worlds that did not immediately commence to question itself would risk becoming a systematic failure.

In this book, we do not take our central concepts from any specific school of criticism, but neither do we begin from any one discipline such as vision science, visual studies, or art history. We imagine this book as an ongoing, open-ended conversation on the impossibility of constructing the sort of textbook that might have been possible just a generation before ours. The impossible textbook is the name for this theme. The textbook is impossible, and yet this, hopefully, is a textbook.

This theme appears most prominently in chapters 14 and 15, on the difficulty of administering images. We also return to it, from a very different angle, in the Introduction to Part Three, where we consider why this book could not work as a textbook in some parts of the world because it might offend or incite readers. We return to this theme twice at the end of this book, once in the Conclusion to Part Five, and again in the book’s final conclusion.

(2) Variants of seeing

Another reason why there are no textbooks introducing the production and interpretation of images in all fields is that it is tacitly assumed that there is a potentially endless number of visual practices. If that were true, it would be misleading to assemble a textbook by gathering samples of visual practices, because no subset of an endless series could represent the whole.

The philosophic proposal of Parts Four and Five is that the ways people have engaged with particular kinds of images do not comprise an endless catalogue of unrelated examples. Practices of visual production and interpretation fall into groups, and those groups combine into loosely affiliated clusters. It may not be possible to list all the kinds of image production and interpretation in, say, contemporary biology, but it is possible to name the principal kinds.

We employ variants of seeing to name these sorts of visuality. In opting for variants, we are avoiding several common expressions, including modes of seeing and ways of seeing, as well as less common expressions such as qualities, systems, languages, styles, regimes, and complexes of seeing. Our title, Visual Worlds, involves yet another metaphor, but it is meant more to conjure our subject than to characterize it. We use the term visual worlds as an informal way of naming large communities of visual practices, discourses of visuality, or variants and variations of seeing; and also the objects of attention, the sum total of what can be encompassed by vision. In chapter 5, we apply visual worlds to communities of deep-sea fish, to suggest that there are complex visualities outside the human.  Part Two explores worlds in this double sense; we expand our discussion of this idea in the Introduction to Part Two.

Part Four samples visual practices, and Part Five samples disciplines.  Both could be taken as evidence that variants of visual practices are effectively infinite, and cannot be well represented by examples. But Parts Four and Five also show how visual practices and disciplines are related to one another, suggesting that the subjects of this book are not unencompassable, and that visuality does form a coherent object of study. Variants of seeing can be at once genuinely disparate and not infinite or disordered, which is, we think, the crucial condition of image practices. In addition to Parts Four and Five, this problematic is explored in the Introduction to Part Three and in chapter 14. Chapter 18 explores the parallel idea of variants of surveillance.

We further distinguish variants of seeing, which are associated with kinds of images (as in the chapter titles in Parts 4 and 5), from varieties of seeing, which we use to refer to the gerunds that name acts of vision: seeing, staring, looking, peering, and so forth. Varieties of seeing are the special subject of chapter 4. In informal usage, both variants and varieties of seeing are conflated with expressions such as “ways,” “modes,” and “styles” of seeing, which name historical periods in which seeing was differently conceptualized or enacted. Such historical conceptualizations are discussed in chapter 29. We present closing thoughts about this problematic in the conclusion to Part Five.

(3) The problem of particularity

Despite the fact that we begin the book with general terms like “vision” and “visuality,” and then develop the theory of the gaze, there is an argument to be made against broad theories and in favor of particularizing, local, and even technical discourses. Particularity is a crucial property of the visual—a painting, for example, is a unique object.  We try to remain faithful to the specialized discourses that have grown up, in many different settings, to account for the different objects that people have made and tried to understand. The tension between the need for developing framing concepts and the ungeneralizable details of seeing will be examined throughout this book.

We articulate this argument with the help of a “motto” admired, on several occasions, by the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951): “Everything is what it is, and not another thing.” Of course, if this statement were literally true, then no comparisons could be made, and it would become impossible to write a history or theory of images or visuality. Writing about visual worlds would become a matter of poetry. On the other hand, if the “motto” were entirely untrue, images would lose their specificity and become interchangeable instances of types, in the way that any example of the letter “a” is interchangeable with any other in a word.

Wittgenstein’s anti-reductionist position was more flexible than his “motto” would suggest.  He was as aware as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) had been, over a century before, of the necessary implication of identity and non-self-identity: a painting may be just what it is, but it is always also an example of general ideas. The relation between broad theories and specific images infuses art history, which cares about unique objects, but understands them in networks of historical meanings. An analogous tension structures the philosophy of art, for which visual objects are unique presences, but also instances of theory. We try, in this book, to pose the two kinds of understanding in relation to one another.

The problem of particularity is taken up in the Introductions to Part One and Part Four, and readers are invited to read those Introductions to see how the argument might work. The Conclusion to Part Five further develops this theme by inquiring into the role of writing in art history, theory, and criticism. Text Box 2 in chapter 31 presents a limited case, in which texts become as particular as images.

(4) Thickets of representation

In fine art, the individual artwork is the center of critical interest.  It is often presented as sufficient in the sense that it isn’t usually necessary to read what the artist may have written, or compare the artist’s other works to it, to appreciate the work at hand. Scientific and technical images can be quite different. A scientific paper might have a number of illustrations representing the object of interest in different ways—a graph, a table, a photograph, a computer simulation, and so forth. The idea is that the object—a virus, an atomic particle, a machine—cannot be adequately represented by a single image.

To model this condition, we choose the expression thickets of representation, modeled on the concept of “causal thickets” coined by the philosopher of biology William Wimsatt (b. 1941) in 1976.  He argued that “causal thickets… dominate our world, our theories, and the language we use to talk about both.” He defined them as “higher-level … features . . . related to the things that people usually talk about under the topic of ontology (things like objects, properties, events, capacities, and propensities) as paragraphs are to words…”

Wimsatt distinguishes thickets from perspectives, which are a simpler kind of disorder that can still produce a cumulative picture of a field. “Perspectives may … seem to have an organizing power,” he writes, “just as viewing a thicket or shrub from different sides will reveal a shape to its bushy confusion,” but in some cases there are just “too many boundary disputes” and the situation becomes a matter of “causal thickets.” Wimsatt’s subject was genes, which are studied using different technologies, resulting in different kinds of knowledge. The various technologies produce different images, which cannot be combined into a single image that has all the gene’s known properties. (An example is shown in Chapter 13, Fig. 6.) It is common in science and technology, but less so in the arts, to require a number of partly incompatible kinds of representation to describe the object of interest. In this book we consider such thickets in chapter 4, Text Box 1; and chapters 9, 10, 13, 14, and 25. A counterexample to thickets is given in chapter 13, in the work of Ramón y Cajal.

The expression thickets of representation can also be applied to writing, when it seems necessary to approach a subject by more than one method, and when the methods appear partly mutually incompatible.  Here we offer several examples: the scholarship on painting (chapter 21), photography (chapter 22), and advertising (chapter 23) have all become too intricate to be understood as single discourses. Instead they are thickets of mutually incompatible approaches, which even specialists may not master.

Thickets of representation have gone largely unremarked in the humanities, because it is commoner in the sciences and other fields to have a number of different kinds of images be made of a single object of interest. Thickets of interpretation tend to go unstudied in all fields, because of scholars’ and scientists’ preference for simple, powerful theories that can bridge different approaches. We try, in this book, to remain alert to both sources of complexity.

(5) Vision science and art theory

Science is marginalized, redacted and simplified in art history, art theory, and visual studies, as it is generally in the humanities. We suspect some readers leafing through this book will be put off by the number of images that appear to be scientific or technical. The science of vision is characteristically absent from visual studies texts, except where science appears as a social construction or a configuration of cultural power. Vision science is nearly absent from accounts of visuality.

In this text, we describe a number of potential interactions and connections between the science of vision and the humanistic and artistic study of visuality. This theme is discussed first in the Introduction to Part One, using the concept of consilience, coined by English scientist and philosopher William Whewell (1794-1866) and popularized by American biologist E.O. Wilson (b. 1929).  In our account, consilience stands for a convergence between apparently unrelated fields that produces an unpredictable result.

Chapter 1 introduces the difference between vision and visuality; chapter 6 revisits the question in a Text Box.  We invite readers in the humanities not to skip over the science-oriented chapters (especially 5, 6, 10, 20, and 28), and to form their own judgment of the nature and scale of the gap between vision science and the study of visuality in the arts and humanities. Chapter 10 includes an experiment in directly juxtaposing scientific and artistic examples.

Although our principal interest here is vision science and not technology, the question of technology also looms here. Lack of technological expertise limits humanities-based accounts of several politically and socially important developments, including cognitive psychology (chapter 6), surveillance (chapter 18, Text Box 1), military visualization (chapter 25), and medical imaging (chapter 26).

 (6) Non-European terms

As far as we know, all European and North American textbooks of art history, art theory, aesthetics, and art criticism make use exclusively of concepts derived from Greek or Latin. The book Critical Terms for Art History (1996, second edition 2003) for example, has been criticized by the Japanese scholar Shigemi Inaga for not including a single non-European term even in its second, expanded edition. In this book we will be using several concepts that come from outside Greek and Latin, for example citta चित्त, a Pali word that has been used to mean both “picture” and “consciousness,” and xiang 象, a Chinese word that refers to all kinds of imagery and has been used, to quote the scholar Si Han, for phenomenon, appearance, likeness, imitation, resemblance, figure, symbol, metaphor, imaginary, and imagination.

Xiang, citta, and other “unfamiliar” words appear throughout this book. We would like to say something about what they are not expected to do. We are not trying to represent Chinese, Indian, or other senses of visuality, or hoping to contribute to a balanced account of the many cultures that have theorized vision and images. We are not using these terms to conjure the complexity of their traditions of history and criticism. And above all we don’t imagine that these few concepts are enough to effect any change in theories of the image or visuality. Instead, we use these terms in the way that we would use any technical term imported from a different discipline: as an intervention that will behave in unpredictable ways, disturbing business as usual both in this text and in the original languages. Our purpose is to avoid producing yet another textbook that does not engage non-European concepts of visual. We realize that using only a few non-European concepts means they will be tokens of absent discourses, marginalized or otherwise inadequately represented, but we do not want that inevitable inequality to prevent our bringing the words into circulation. Without making a start there is no real hope that non-European concepts can join the conversation about visuality.

Xiang 象 and citta चित्त are introduced in chapter 1, along with Latin- and Greek-derived words in English and German. Citta is also cited in chapters 11, 15, and chapter 21 Text Box 2. A number of non-European concepts including darṣan  दर्शन and ma 間 are discussed in chapter 8. Chapter 3 describes Sumerian and Akkadian words for gazing and glaring. The Byzantine term onomoclasm and the Arabic word for image khay’yal خَیّال are introduced in chapter 16.

(7) The omnipresent photography

         For the sake of this book, we understand photography less as a medium than as a culture differently entangled in a number of the visual worlds we address. It is a fundamental ingredient of the discussion of many of the visual practices and varieties of the visual we address. Concepts, practices, and forms of photography and of its cognate cultures including cinema and video are scattered throughout this book where they help support the argument. In this sense, photography is an omnipresent element in the discourse of visuality: It impregnates variants of seeing to such a degree that it ceases to function as a medium, either in the modernist sense or in the expanded field of the digital.

Photography functions more as a critical agent, facilitating certain kinds of arguments about images, visuality, politics, medium, and other subjects. Photographs, videos, and other descendants of classical analog photography continue to provide examples of arguments and practices, and photographic images continue to be the medium by which theoretical and historical arguments are made. We distinguish these functions in chapter 30. At the same time, photography’s trans- or post-medial condition has not made it into an abstraction. In chapter 22, we consider several current themes in the photography theory and criticism of digital images and fine art photograph.

Yet for most of this book, photographs are examples of arguments: They serve as crucial evidence, or as instances of themes and concepts elaborated in the accompanying text. In a few chapters, photographs function as a medium of argument: They embody, contain, or manifest the argument. Those two functions are in fascinating dialectic with the possibility--not always acknowledged--that the photographs in question are also examples of the medium of photography, however that might be defined in any given case.

This omnipresent photography has usurped some of the critical role that oil painting once had, which is to say that it has become so central to our understanding of visual cultures that it is hardly possible to treat it as a medium among others, and yet seldom possible to proceed without such an assumption. We address this problematic especially in chapter 22, Text Box 2.

 The co-authors’ perspectives

This is a dual-authored book. As co-authors, we bring a complementary set of interests and knowledges to our very large subject. We have not signed individual chapters. However we thought it might be helpful if we speak for a moment in our individual voices.

James Elkins: I bring to this project a dissatisfaction with the limitations of specific disciplines, especially art history. Having worked on visual studies for a number of years, I’m disappointed that it continues to privilege a certain mixture of popular media and fine art, a certain group of theorists, a certain quotient of camp and kitsch, and a certain politics. These themes are explored in Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction (2003) and Farewell to Visual Studies (2015). By confining its interests in these ways, visual studies has sequestered itself in a corner of the humanities, rather than becoming the place where the visual as a whole is studied. The current generation of visual studies scholars shows signs of retaining these limitations; this is an implicit theme of Theorizing Visual Studies (2012), which was written entirely by graduate students.

Art history’s brief has always been fine art, and it continues to expand its purview of practices and theorists. But art history is also declining to address its place as the central discipline for the historical study of images. Visual practices as apparently distant as MRIs and the software algorithms of Adobe Photoshop depend on concepts, styles, period terms, social contexts, and other sources of meaning that are most fully articulated in art history—but as a discipline, art history is rarely engaged with such subjects.

I also bring to this project three earlier attempts to speak about visuality in general. The first was The Domain of Images (1999) my largest book before this one in terms of references and examples: it is an attempt to look at as many kinds of images as possible, and ask how they appeared to twentieth-century viewers intent on reading or deciphering them. The book failed as history in order to attempt to cover the field of contemporary reception. The second was the coffee-table book How to Use Your Eyes (2000). Several chapters of that book are expanded here, in Part Four (chapters 19, 20, and 24). That book’s serious purpose was to demonstrate how seeing is dependent on reading: the more words we know for things in the visual field, the more of that field becomes visible. That argument, which links linguistic richness to perceptual field, is made in this book in chapter 7. The third precedent for this book is a small book called Visual Practices Across the University (2007). It was the result of an exhibition, held in Ireland, in which thirty different departments of a university showed examples of how they produce and interpret images. That book is still the most comprehensive survey of how images are talked about outside the arts, and it is the closest model for this book. In the introduction to that book I attempted to synthesize the thirty contributions, with the aim of seeing whether the work of the entire university could be introduced in a single course on visuality. This book takes that idea much further: it is my best attempt at thinking about the visual world as a whole.

        Erna Fiorentini: My work on the visual is affected by a déformation professionelle. It goes back to my past as a geochemist, when I mostly needed statistical evidence, and my work aimed at taking as many aspects of a given problem into account as possible. In the humanities, as an art historian with an interest in the history of science, my method has retained something of this scientific character, which tends to interfere with the application of conventional working habits.

This methodological liaison has coloured many of my studies about the features the visual assumes when it is connected to image production, because I have tended to form a sense of historical validity by searching for vectors in very different cultural surroundings. These reflections comprise part of the argument of chapter 9. I find the method of considering whether, how, and why difference and commonality of traits are statistically distributed among divergent phenomena, which was familiar to me from the sciences, is also applicable to the study of practices of visuality and representation in ostensibly heterogeneous areas like the sciences and the arts. An example of this is the relation between aesthetic and epistemic components in processes of making visible, and the study of alternative concepts for the omnipresent idea of visualization, which we discuss in chapter 13.

In this light, what I bring to this book is an interest in an interdisciplinary conversation, because that seems to be an effective strategy for approaching a multifarious field like the visual as a coherent mixture of phenomena and ideas. All the more, because the ways of studying the visual and visuality are affected by a deep-rooted disciplinary fragmentation, in spite of the many attempts to make disciplinary boundaries more permeable.

The unusual structure that we developed for this book should enable readers to consider the visual under a more flexible methodical horizon. It is not the histories, traits, or theories of the visual that build the framework for a unified treatment, but the relationship between the subjects and objects of seeing in different settings. Because that is the case, the multiplicity of visual worlds and their images can be poured into one project, one book, regardless of the nature of their disciplinary affiliations—and at the same time, all of them retain their specificities, thus revealing their differences, convergences, and interferences. The examples in this book are indicators, suggesting that disciplines that appear to be widely divergent might reflect further on the nature of the visual and on the best way to approach it. From my perspective, our book is an open encouragement to commit to a methodical eclecticism that frees interpretation from its obligations to particular schools of thought, and perhaps even calls new cooperative approaches into existence.

In sum, my impetus was to make this book a new working instrument that will encourage an open outlook in the study of the visual. The book offers a field of unexpected associations in order to trigger historical, theoretical, and methodical curiosity; the hope is that this may help students to keep their eyes and minds open, to freely explore their methods and interests, and to design for themselves a polyvalent profile not beholden to any one discipline.

How To Use This Book

Visual Worlds can be read straight through in a semester or a year-long course. It is designed as an exploration of the claim that images, vision, and visuality can be studied as a coherent subject, and the argument builds cumulatively from the beginning to the end. However Visual Worlds is also designed to be sampled in various ways.

        Chapters in this book are usually self-sufficient, both as arguments and as surveys of particular topics. Each chapter pursues a specific claim in relation to its material, in the hopes of provoking discussion rather than just study. Thus Chapter 18 is a reading of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish; Chapter 7 is a response to some universalist semiotics; and Chapter 31 is a critical review of theories of ekphrasis. In each chapter we begin by framing a problematic, and the material that is under review is read with an eye to that argument.

Here are some ideas for using the book in different classroom and seminar contexts.

For classes with limited time

Introductory classes or classes with limited time can begin with the case studies in Part Four. “How to Look at a Postage Stamp,” for example, can serve as an introduction to the idea of style, the politics of images, attention, and perception. Individual chapters in Part Four can be used to anchor conversations about many of the book’s themes.

For classes in law, medicine, science, technology, cognitive psychology, writing, politics

Visual Worlds can also be read as a collection of shorter books treating individual fields and disciplines. A law school seminar, for example, might read only Chapter 27, “Evidence: How Lawyers Look at Images,” and there are further ideas at the end of that chapter. A seminar on medical imaging might read just Chapter 26, “Symptoms: How Doctors Look at Images.” Classes on science can read a cross-section of this book, beginning with Chapter 6, “Science of Vision,” and possibly including Chapters 8, 10, 19, and 28. Classes on technology and digital imagery can read Chapters 11, 12, 15, 18, and 25. Seminars on cognitive psychology and the neurology and neurobiology of vision will find material of interest in Chapters 4 through 8. Writing and language are special topics treated in Chapters 8, 14, 15, and 30, and the case studies in Part Four. The politics of images are treated from different perspectives in Part Three and Chapter 25.

For classes in studio art and art history

Classes on fine art, studio art, and design may be most engaged by Chapters 1, 9, 16, 21, 22, and 30. Art history is specifically addressed in Chapter 29, but there are also case studies and pertinent material in Chapters 14-16, 21, 22, and elsewhere.

For philosophy seminars

Classes on the philosophy of art, aesthetics, and art theory might read Parts One and Two as a complete text. Special topics in the philosophy of art, especially around concepts of representation, are developed in Part Two. Classes on the philosophy of vision can find a connected argument in Part One, which is supported by case studies in Parts Four and Five. The book’s seven principal problematics, set out in the Introduction, can also be followed through the book using the index, or by reading the chapters named at the end of each problematic.

For art and science seminars

Classes on science-art connections may find Part One especially pertinent; most chapters in Part One move back and forth from science to arts and humanities, suggesting bridges. Other chapters that deal with art and science together include Chapters 9 and 10, considered as a pair, and the succeeding chapters in Part Two.

Text Boxes

        Each chapter also has one or more special topics set apart from the body text. In textbooks, such sidebars usually contain rudimentary or background material. Our Text Boxes set out problems and topics that may be just as difficult or important as those in the body text, but cannot easily be integrated given the limitations of space. Think of these as small windows onto potentially large subjects—subjects that, if they were expanded, might well be larger than the chapters themselves. We set ourselves strict limits on the length of these Text Boxes, to see what might be said in 200 words on topics usually treated in monographs or in specialized seminars.

Further Reading

        At the end of each chapter is a list of readings. These take the place of footnotes. When texts are quoted in this book, the page references are to be found in the Further Reading section at the end of the chapter. We want to allow reading to be as uninterrupted as possible. We have also adopted a minimal citation practice: we omit the publishers and places of publication, and some details of journal articles, because that kind of information is easily searchable on the internet. Every citation in Further Reading has been tested to ensure the text can be found with an internet search.

Italics and marginal references

        Italics are used in this book to distinguish terms that have specialized uses, such as variable minimal citation practice or streak camera. The book’s seven principal problematics, set out in the Introduction, are also given in italics. Cross-references are given in the margins.  

The website

        The book’s website is a forum and a repository of new material added by readers, including students.  [Note to readers: OUP has stipulated a website to accompany the book, but it is not yet under development. We imagine it as a discussion board and a resource, where students and teachers could upload texts and images of interest to each chapter. Ideas would be appreciated! ]

Further Reading

Berger: Ways of Seeing (book and television series), 1972; About Looking, 1980.

Luhmann: Art as Social System, translated by Eva Knodt, 2000, pp. 5, 29, and 319 n. 3.

Styles of seeing: for example James Ackerman, “A Theory of Style,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 20, 1962, pp. 227-237; Allan Wallach, “Meyer Schapiro’s Essay on Style: Falling into the Void,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 55, 1997, p. 11-15; Elkins, “Style,” Grove Dictionary of Art, online.

Languages of seeing: a case for this is made in Elkins, Visual Practices Across the University, pp. 42–54.

Jay, “Scopic Regimes of Modernity”, in Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman (eds), Modernity and Identity, 1992, pp. 178-95.

Jay, “Scopic Regimes of Modernity Revisited,” in The handbook of visual culture, edited by Ian Heywood and Barry Sandywell, 2012, pp. 102-114.

Mirzoeff: “The Right to Look,” Critical Inquiry 37, 2011, pp. 473-96, and in The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality, 2011.

Hegel: The Difference Between Fichte’s and Schelling’s Systems of Philosophy, 1801, translated by H. S. Harris and Walter Cerf, 1970; original German in Werke, edited by Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Michel, 1970, vol. 2, p. 96; see also Charles Taylor, Hegel, 1975, p. 261.

Wimsatt and causal thickets: “The Ontology of Complex Systems: Levels of Organization, Perspectives, and Causal Thickets, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, supplementary vol. 20, edited by Mohan Matthen and Robert Ware, 1994, pp. 207-274; “Reductionism, Levels of Organization and the Mind-Body Problem,” in Consciousness and the Brain, edited by Gordon Globus and others, 1976, pp. 199-267.

Use of “non-Western” terms: Art and Globalization, 2010; “Die Universalität der Kunstgeschichte?,”, November 20, 2010, reporting on Monika Juneja’s critique of Elkins, Is Art History Global?, vol. 3 of The Art Seminar, 2006.

Citta: The Citrasutra of the Visnudharmottara Purana, edited and translated by Parul Mukherji, 2001, especially the section “The Question of Naturalism: Nationalist Reworkings of the Citrasutra,” pp. xxxiv–xli.

Xiang: Si Han, A Chinese Word on Image: Zheng Qiao (1104-1162) and His Thought on Images, Göteborg, 2008, pp. 204-16; Jennifer Dorothy Lee, “The Aesthetics of Anxiety: Post-Mao Experimentalisms, 1976-1982,” PhD thesis, New York University, 2014; see also Craig Clunas, Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China, 1997, pp. 102-104.

Literature that ponders non-Western terms without using them: for example Marie-Julie Frainais-Maitre, “The Coloniality of Western Philosophy: Chinese Philosophy as Viewed in France,” Studies in Social and Political Thought 19, 2014.

Hans Belting: Bild und Kult, 1990, English translation 1994.

Mitchell, “Ekphrasis and the Other,” in Picture Theory, 1994, pp. 154–56.

Derrida: La Vérité en peinture, 1978; English translation The Truth in Painting, 1987.