The circular relationship between seer and seen
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The “circular” relationship between seer and seen. “Techniques of the Observer” February 3 rd and February 8 th 2011. “Circles”.

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The circular relationship between seer and seen

The “circular” relationship between seer and seen

“Techniques of the Observer”

February 3rd and February 8th 2011


The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere, and its circumference nowhere. We are all our lifetime reading the copious sense of this first of forms. One moral we have already deduced, in considering the circular or compensatory character of every human action. Another analogy we shall now trace; that every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn at mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens (Emerson 403).

In what sense do “circles” figure prominently in Turner’s work?

Turner s eye
Turner’s eye

  • On “Turner’s preference for poetic atmospherics over narrative clarity, his infatuation with the operation of light rather than with the objects it illuminated”:

    “His love affair with gauzy obscurity, his resistance to customary definitions of contour and line, his shameless rejoicing in the mucky density of oils or in the wayward leaks and bleeds of watercolors—these were condemned as reprehensible self-indulgence” (Schama).

A process of defamiliarization
A process of defamiliarization

Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775–1851)Snow Storm—Steam Boat off a Harbour's Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author Was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel Left Harwich, exhibited 1842. (Image courtesy of

Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying typhon sic coming on 1840
“Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon [sic] Coming On” (1840)

Image courtesy of

Emerson s transparent eyeball
Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” [sic] Coming On” (1840)

…Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, -- master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature. (“Nature” 10).

On turner s mode of depiction
On Turner’s mode of depiction [sic] Coming On” (1840)

“He seems to have understood picturing as a collaborative process between the artist’s hand and the beholder’s eye, in which the former laid down suggestive elements and the imaginative observer assembled them in his mind to make a coherent subject. Sometimes he would help the process along, sometimes not. But he was much taken by the indeterminacy of the exercise, by forms that escaped resolution. The sobriety of the hard edge became, one has to think, a sign of conceptual banality, a weakness in the mind’s eye. For him the purest form, and one that he repeatedly returned to, was also the most naturally unstable: the rainbow” (Schama, my emphasis).

The least change in our point of view gives the whole world a pictorial air
“The least change in our point of view gives the whole world a pictorial air.”

Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis  exhibited 1843. (Image courtesy of

Why does goethe s name appear in turner s title
Why does Goethe’s name appear in Turner’s title? world a pictorial air.”

  • Turn to Emerson: “In optics,…[Goethe] rejected the artificial theory of seven colors, and considered that every color was the mixture of light and darkness in new proportions” (“Goethe—or the Writer 753).

  • Consider Emerson’s final lines, “The secret of genius is…to honor every truth by use” (761). Might Emerson and Turner be interpreting Goethe in similar ways? What kind of “truth” is Turner honoring “by use” in his painting on Goethe’s theory?

The camera obscura
The Camera Obscura world a pictorial air.”

  • Camera obscura (||Cam"e*ra ob*scu"ra) [LL. camera chamber + L. obscurus, obscura, dark.] (Opt.)

  • 1. An apparatus in which the images of external objects, formed by a convex lens or a concave mirror, are thrown on a paper or other white surface placed in the focus of the lens or mirror within a darkened chamber, or box, so that the outlines may be traced. 2. (Photog.) An apparatus in which the image of an external object or objects is, by means of lenses, thrown upon a sensitized plate or surface placed at the back of an extensible darkened box or chamber variously modified; - commonly called simply the camera. (Websters Dictionary, 1913)

What do we talk about when we talk about modernity
What do we talk about when we talk about “modernity”? world a pictorial air.”

  • modernity: “a set of political, economic, social and cultural attributes that include such things a nationalism, democracy, imperialism, consumerism and capitalism—each of which appear associated with the nineteenth century by virtue of their radical expansion during that period” (Schwartz and Przyblyski 9).

The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction
“The Work of Art in the Age world a pictorial air.”of Mechanical Reproduction”

  • Walter Benjamin writes this

    critique in 1936. The modern age of

    mechanical reproduction has introduced the “culture of the copy.” “The world, in short, appears ever nearer and more ‘real’ by virtue of these copies, even as the world ‘in reality’ paradoxically recedes in the face of an onslaught of virtual representations” (in this sense, the “aura” of the “real” is just another convincing illusion) (Schwartz and Przyblyski 11).

The image standard
“The Image Standard” world a pictorial air.”

  • New mechanical techniques of visual representation allows the visibility of the impact of a human hand in the manufacturing of imaging to be minimalized

  • This allows modes of visual representation like the photograph to appear “objective” and stable, and freed from “the trace of a producer” (Cohen and Higonnet 16).

  • Today, think of scanner, Photoshop, and –of course—PowerPoint!

Modernizing vision
“Modernizing Vision” world a pictorial air.”

  • According to Crary…

    if the camera obscurais the model for the camera, then one could say that visual culture is based on a “monocular” way of thinking about vision (one-eyed, focused on captured a single object in perspective—a single, consistent, unified point of view).

  • BUT technologies like stereoscopes and cinema challenge this unified mode of seeing, creating a new type of “observer-consumer”

What do we talk about when we talk about images
What do we talk about when we talk about images? world a pictorial air.”

  • For historians, traditionally, the image has been a “supplement” to or decoration for a text (i.e. “logocentrism”) (Wilson 29-30)

  • Are images always “direct representations” of a thing? When is an illustration just an illustration and when is it something more?

What is the methodology of visual cultural analysis
What is the “methodology” of visual cultural analysis? world a pictorial air.”

  • “How do we weight the explanatory power of different bodies of evidence? How are we to apprehend and analyze the multiple relations between words and images, language and the pictorial?” What role do cultural phenomena, like images, play within discussions of society, economics, and politics? (Wilson 31)

  • The question we, as critics, are always anticipating: are we in a new visual cultural era or is this an extension of the era of mechanical reproduction?