ISSN 1466-4615



Kathleen Johnson

'To See or Not To See', That Is the Question






James Elkins

_On Pictures and The Words That Fail Them_

Cambridge University Press, 1998

ISBN: 0521571081

326 pages


James Elkins is Associate Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the author of two other works both dealing with the nature of seeing. In this book he attempts to argue that there are places that our new found philosophical language of logical objects cannot go, or indeed even name, in semiotic structures.


The very title of the book states precisely the basic thesis: that words at some point fail the visual. The book is split into three parts: Elements, Voyages, and lastly, 'Destructions'. The chapters flow from one to another as Elkins logically progresses his argument, starting with the definition of terms and a learned array of quotations from the leading philosophers currently writing in the area of visual interpretation. E. H. Grombrich and his theory of Naturalism are critiqued in a long and lengthy first chapter, called 'Marks and Traces', that looks at the historical and philosophical nature of signs or markings. Indeed, he proceeds to look at the writings in this area, by Goran Sonesson, Jean-Marie Floch, Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, Charles Peirce, Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, Nelson Goodman, to mention but a few. Elkins takes us through the last 20 years of visual research with an ease that shows us his ability to handle these matters and to show us his concern for the matter at hand, naming objects and the fine line that must be drawn when words no longer can define the object, or form.


He looks at the graphic marks and the words of Jacques Derrida in his _Memoirs of the Blind_, and at the transcendental conditions of drawing; and looks at his _Of Grammatology_, setting both works up to see the 'rhetoric' of the trait . . . and than leads in the wonderful story as told by Pliny about the two Greek artists, Apelles and Protogenes, and the story of the visits to Protogenes studio where Apelles draws a perfect line, and so the simple story becomes an icon for perfection. Elkins leads us from here into the 'ontology of marks' and so on.


The second Chapter of the book not surprisingly takes up 'The Common Origins of Pictures, Writing, and Notation', and again he enlightens us with past thoughts and looks at current philosophical theory on the subjects.


The last Chapter of the book covers the conclusions of Elkins, in his 'Nine Steps Down the Ladder of Disorder' he takes a point by point look at what the book essentially says. His first point, Destroy Symmetry, the second Destroy Orientation, and so forth, but it is in the Envoi that he concludes what he wants us to take from the book itself: 'My central objective has been to show that pictures are much harder to write about than they appear to be when interpretations focus on namable symbols and stories. It is harder still to remain alert to the temptation to separate meaning from apparent meaninglessness.'


Elkins gives as many interpretive strategies as are out there at this time in the realm of the visual. He insists that there are verbal definitions of the visual object, but there is also a place where there is a silence . . . a place were the verbal cannot go.


In summation, Elkins has given us a very well researched volume that is basically a single argument, and, being a visualist myself, I find this very interesting. However, the book is almost self defeating, in that we have a visualist talking about how the verbal cannot be accurate in defining the object, while doing all of this in long and very learned chapters of verbal presentation, defending the right of the visual to be beyond the verbal. I think what we have here is the dilemma of much of modern philosophy and aesthetics. Wittgenstein opened many worlds up to logic and in the end found places where the verbal could not go, simply by his own definition. I am not a philosopher, so much of what he says is beyond my ability to critique. However, as a visualist, an artist, I know that language, and certainly this book, is basically about using words to define what visual marks on a surface may or may not be fitted with meaning in language.


What all of theses writers, from Elkins to Wittgenstein, to Derrida, and Lyotard, have missed is that the first language of man 'is' the visual language. I quote John Berger from _Ways of Seeing_: 'Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.' Language of writing, the process of formal naming, is the secondary act to seeing itself.


I find Elkins's book valuable in that his argument recognizes the fact that there are some places language cannot define, particularly in the realm of the visual. He presents a learned argument for his case. My great criticism of the book is that it is meant for an effete audience. The book will be important to graduate schools and scholars alike, but it is hardly in the realm of the ordinary reader and visual artist or cinematographer. It will remain a wonderfully written scholarly treatise that will wither as time goes on and other aesthetic arguments are furthered. I feel this book, although well done, is one in which Elkins furthers his ideas to his peers, not to a general audience. There is a redeeming note, in that the book does start to show a scholarly approach to deny, or at very least to comment on postmodern philosophy and the lack of depth in its very shadowy tenets. Lacan, Lyotard, Derrida have had a great impact on the intelligentsia of the Western world and have had little if any antagonists or arguments to contest their shallow and nihilistic bent. This book is a small offering but an offering nonetheless, to access the truth: of language and its limits in the presentation of the visual.


Lake Linden, Missouri, USA




Kathleen Johnson, ''To See or Not To See', That Is the Question',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 1, January 1999 <>.


Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999



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