Ways of seeing

Cordelia Dvorak’s (2016) sensitive and deceptively informal film on the ‘art of looking’ featured a study of the ageing art-critic John Berger; it served to raise serious questions about our individual and shared ‘ways of seeing’.

I had, for some time, been writing accounts of my experiences in relation to various people and places in England – as well as my responses to certain of its cultural manifestations – and, as a direct result of watching Dvorak’s film, I decided to confront and make explicit, probably for the first time, my own ways of seeing. As Berger originally pointed out, there is a great difference between simply ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ – and that our acts of seeing are informed by values, belief systems, tradition and ideology. (He famously exemplified this by drawing attention to the materialist and aspirational form and content that is characteristic of traditional oil painting – as well as the often oppressive nature of the ‘male gaze’.) It necessarily follows from Berger’s account that unless we conduct a kind of personal archaeology – unless we ‘go’ underground and make our unconscious conscious – we will never really grasp or appreciate how we construct reality and how we end up seeing as we do.

My inquiry was particularly provoked and then focused because of the experiences that emerged for me as I was walking in a distinct landscape (a heathland) close to the town in which I live. The place is known locally as ‘The Bourne Woods’; I found that I was ‘seeing’ my surroundings in terms of a nostalgic recollection of the early years of my life; I realised that phantasy and play are ways in which I habitual engage with the phenomena of the world. On top of this, I was alerted to the role of my personal history in the way I ‘see’ things: for example, the light grey sandy path along which I was walking was now where Christopher Robin and his teddy bear, Winnie-the-Pooh set off for their special ‘enchanted’ place; And the hill to my left was a perfect place to act out the heroic romantic myth in which the noble sheriff, Pat Garrett, is on the trail of the outlaw Billy-the-Kid. I can never escape those enduring and treasured imaginative moments of my childhood.

On my visits to the heathland, I became aware of two other features of my ‘ways of seeing’: first, I also have a detached and semi-objective way of ‘seeing’: I can easily find myself in an ‘observational’ mode which is essentially scientific; in part, this was due to my early schooling: I had, in my final two years of secondary school, the good fortune, to be left almost completely alone by my teachers; I studied Zoology, Botany and Chemistry – along with Human Biology. Whilst I became more interested in the study of Philosophy at University I was, nonetheless, able to consolidate and extend my early grounding in the sciences: in consequence, I can ‘see’ the ecology of the landscape (any landscape) with which I am familiar – as well as aspects of its history; second, I certainly engage with the world about me in terms of a ‘film’ or ‘veil’ of concepts and ideas; so, for me, reality easily shifts into a dream world – a dreamscape – and lends itself to forms of writing – especially short, and often ironic or sardonic, stories. Literature continues to inform and enhance this way of seeing: like everyone, I live in and through language – through the many forms of literature and story-telling – including those that my parents originally commended; and amongst these were certain classics of world literature …

But there is another and often unwelcome side to my habitual ways of seeing: it is, at least from time to time, decidedly ‘critical’; one indicator of a successful education – of being educated – is surely the ability and disposition to ‘think critically’ – to analyse facts, opinions, evidence and argument – to search for their validity – with a view to forming a reasoned judgement or conclusion. In a way, it means a readiness to adopt a kind of distance from whatever is being presented as ‘the case.’ The problem with this way of seeing is that it often annoys people; it is disruptive and unsettling. In many, if not most, contexts of social being, it is unwelcome: for example, not so long ago I spent some time in an institution devoted to the Creative Arts. This was not a place in which critical thinking was the norm; it meant that I was essentially ‘out of place.’ However, it’s no bad thing to discover that one is out of place: it implies a degree of freedom and consolidates one’s identity. Happily, through this experience, I was reminded of a couple of lines from the song, ‘I dreamed I saw St Augustine’, which note that:

… the moral of this story, the moral of this song
is simply that one should never be where one does not belong

This brief outline of my overlapping ways of seeing is not exhaustive; it omits two or three other modes: these include everything related to specific aspects of my unconscious such as my ‘ego-defence mechanisms’ and, separately, to the delights of a culturally-formed perception that is unerringly aesthetic; beauty makes a great difference to me – and, as a person in a film once said, ‘it’s just nice looking at someone who is pretty.’ They also do not elaborate on certain of the contrasts between the ‘seeing’ of different categories of object – such as the ‘object’ which is human and those that are not. Finally, this reflection is based on the assumption that I can provide an accurate and rationale account of the modes in which I apprehend the world about me – an assumption that is increasingly being tested by advances in neuroscience and neurophysiology.

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