Seeing Things

Daniel Miller, UCL
Review of: Seeing Things: Deepening relations with visual artefacts. S. Pattison 2007, Canterbury: SCM Press. (292 pages). ISBN-10: 033404149X
I received this book by Stephen Pattison pretty much out of the blue. I was intrigued to see that the author was a theologian, a Professor of religion at the University of Birmingham. It is published by SCM press and since I have not seen any reviews of it, and otherwise would probably not have come across it, it seemed likely to remain fairly obscure outside of the teaching of theology. I think this would be a pity, and what I intend to do here is provide a brief summary of its contents, rather than a conventional review, just to make sure that this blog can do its own work to help bring research and ideas to people with common interests and concerns.
Actually the more one reads this book the more one sees that the author has deliberately been fairly reticent in taking any kind of theological perspective, which is largely left to the final chapter. Instead what we have is a rather clear introduction to the study of visual and material culture that certainly deserves to be considered as a good and useful introductory textbook on these subjects. It starts by reflecting on the devaluation of the material and visual in theology, and our more general tendency to treat the visual and material as merely the dead in opposition to the human. The agenda set out in the first chapter is an appeal to a much more respectful acknowledgment that our relationship to things and images are indeed relationships and the visual in particular should be rescued from cold isolation to be seen as linked to the sensual appreciation of the world more generally. He is also concerned to move from conventional theological reductions of the visual mainly to an interest in art and iconography to the much wider field of visual and material culture.
The main text starts by addressing various approaches to sight and vision and then promoting the ideal of a more haptic notion of vision embracing this wider sensory experience and particularly reconnecting seeing and touching. In chapter three he turns to various approaches to the image including writers such as Pinney and Taussig as well as more conventional religious imagery. While chapter four acknowledges the suspicion and sometimes denigration of the image in both Western philosophy and Western religion. By contrast chapter five looks at the factors which allow us to grant power to images, firstly contextual factors for example sacralisation, and then in chapter six factors thought to be inherent in the object including texture and colour but also semiotic features such as indexical qualities that create a relational bond.
Up to now the text has been dominated by visual culture and relatively conventional images, but chapter seven moves towards more general issues of material culture and the constraints on seeing relations to objects as somehow personal relations. This he sees as to some degree overcome by modern material culture theory which he reviews. Chapter eight then takes up recent approaches, such as from Latour, that question the conventional dualism between subjects and object. He considers the various ways objects could be considered to speak to us, focusing upon the case study of the photograph. Chapter nine then critiques the more obvious ways we might see objects as reanimated, including religious, magical and romantic ideals of animation. Instead he follows pretty much through to the centre of contemporary material culture theory by arguing for the need to respect the role of objects in simply making us human, and thereby recognising further the way artefacts in some measure participate in the moral community of society.
Although he doesn’t quote Simmel there is a similar sense in this work that the author hopes that the cultivation of a depth of relationship with specific objects will help lead us away from what might otherwise be the more superficial relationships we cultivate with a plethora of things. Chapter ten return us to his haptic vision of how people might enact these close and deeper relationships with visual and material culture creating what he calls joyous attachment. Finally in chapter eleven he considers the specific stance of Protestant Christianity to these issues, starting form its fear of idolatry, asceticism and disembodied spirituality. To overcome these he envisages a new positive theology of artefacts including a kind of Biblical holism that recognises our materiality and that of the world. He sees this as in the tradition of figures such as William Blake or the Shakers in their respect for the mundane things around them. He includes an intriguing metaphor of the world as God’s body and ends with an appeal to re-sight Christianity.
What struck me in reading this volume is not anything especially novel in its contribution, but rather how well it works as an introductory text book, because I can’t think of another book that covers the same ground in the same way. The stance seems entirely in accordance with contemporary approaches to visual and material culture as represented by many entries to this blog. The writing is generally clear and scholarly. I hope this brief summary is sufficient to show why I think it would be a pity to ignore a book which has very likely done us all some favours in introducing our perspective to peoples and debates few of us are likely to reach. Although in that sense it is also a complement to the journal Material Religion which is rapidly developing a very high reputation for the quality of its papers. In fact I confess that in the end my slight disappointment was actually with the author’s reticence with respect to theology itself. That for those of us already perhaps rather too comfortably settled within material and visual culture a more full throttled engagement from theology might actually have been of still greater interest – but perhaps that may come in time.