Periphery vision

//Ian Bogost has released a short visual essay that discusses the photographic techniques of Garry Winogrand and Dear Photograph from the perspective of object-oriented ontology. Having been knee deep in some visually oriented (and quasi-philosophical) exegesis of my own over the past few months, Bogost’s piece comes at a timely moment. Before beginning with some comments on the video, should state up front that I am relatively new to the tenets of object-oriented ontology, and what follows is thus a novice’s reading of it through the prism of Bogost’s essay and my own studies in visual theory.

(Ian Bogost - Seeing Things)

In a seven minute video entitled Seeing Things, Ian Bogost sets about the task of orienting his viewers towards an object-oriented way of seeing the world. To do so he adapts the style of a visual essay, having a slideshow of selected still photographs run in tandem with his monologue on seeing the world through the lens of object-oriented ontology (OOO).

The first half of this slideshow consists of the black and white photograps of Garry Winogrand (momentarily contrasted with a colour family snapshot and one of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moments”), followed up by several examples from the Dear Photograph photo blog and closing with two more Winogrand photos. There is a particularly strong attention grabbing quality to images that makes them well suited to the point that Bogost seeks to make in the piece, and both Winogrand and Dear Photograph work well as touchstones from which to play OOO off of, with each bringing to the fore the relationship between “seeing” and “seeing as,” as well as emphasizing the perceived reifying power of the photographic object itself.

Images have a quality of demanding to be looked at. They call attention to themselves and we often find it hard to resist their pull. Such an interpellative hold on the viewer is what can also inject images with a further quality by which they can be suggestively said to “look back” at the viewer, in the way that one senses, in one way or another, a certain animating force in the image that endows it with a kind of gaze of its own. But this hold that images can be seen as having is not simply in their quality as image. There are image cultures, and certain viewers will be drawn to certain types of images, and certain elements within those images, more than others. A prime mover in the image cultures of recent generations is the ubiquitous “snapshot.” Bogost quotes from Winogrand’s well-known remark on this prevalent snapshot aesthetic:

The people who use the term don’t even know the meaning. They use it to refer to photographs they believe are loosely organized, or casually made, whatever you want to call it. Whatever terms you like. The fact is, when they’re talking about snapshots they’re talking about the family album picture, which is one of the most precisely made photographs. Everybody’s fifteen feet away and smiling. The sun is over the viewer’s shoulder. That’s when the picture is taken, always. It’s one of the most carefully made photographs that ever happened.
– Garry Winogrand

Bogost contrasts such a narrow focusing on the animate world of people with Winogrand’s approach to photography, in which “People, events, and social conditions… are there just because they were there. Because light bent through an aperture onto emulsion. Because Winogrand is a person and people sometimes find themselves at press conferences and zoos and rodeos. Just because.” Bogost floats the question of whether it might be possible to see beyond the people, “to see the flourescents and the dirt and the chain-link? To grasp the photographs’ ontology as flat like its surface?” Viewers might reconsider the way in which so many of the things that appear in pictures are simply overlooked. It is an object-oriented ontologist’s attempt to reorient our viewing habits so that we might bring back into focus the many glossed over things that are in fact everywhere in the world around us. And in doing so, to begin to recast the nature of our own being from such a perspective.

Doing this “requires work.” For in attempting such an orientation towards seeing a world full of non-human elements we come face to face with the subject-oriented pull that dominates our own visual habits. Bogost reminds us of just how narrowly focused our seeing tends to be, how we are indeed inclined towards a snapshot take on our surroundings, in which we almost inevitably filter out the world of inanimate objects in order to focus on a more limited spectrum of the animate.

This narrowness to our vision is unquestionably an anthropocentric expression on the part of the seeing human subject, but it is worth briefly pointing out that it also aligns with the technical specifications of our viewing mechanisms. As studies in ophthalmology and eye-tracking have shown (Duchowski, Eye Tracking Methodology: Theory and Practice), our visual attention is dictated by a limited viewing angle, in which “Central foveal vision subtends 1-5° (visual angle) allowing fine scrutiny only of a small portion of the entire visual field.” Or to quote from William James (The Principles of Psychology) speaking of “the span of consciousness” a century earlier, “When the things are apprehended by the senses, the number of them that can be attended to at once is small, Pluribus intentus, minor est ad singula sensus.”

Such a double-sided nature to our visual filtering, both culturally and physiognomically-oriented, is continuously at work. We are regularly relegating things to the periphery in every act of seeing. But to the degree that we tend to focus so entirely on the animating subject matter that we most readily relate with, one can compare such a way of seeing the world to a condition of tunnel vision, in that peripheral vision is all but blotted out by this tunneling drive of the subjective. Seen from such a perspective, we might then say that what Bogost is attempting in this example is a kind of periphery vision – a bringing to the fore, or surfacing, of those things relegated to the peripheral regions of our perceptual focus. A philosophical taughtening of the subjective aperture in order that we might experience a greater depth of field to the world as it is, with or without us. As is so often the case, it is via the help of a visual technology, in this case the photograph (not to mention the techno-visual metaphor), that one can capture and make such points regarding perception. And the visual peripheral – for the photographic print has indeed taken on characteristics of a peripheral in today’s screen-oriented landscape – makes for a particularly useful aid to the task of periphery vision.

Of prime interest here is how Bogost mobilizes this OOO rhetoric visually. On the one hand, there is a sense of the “evidentiary/memorialist/participatory” life being sucked out of the photographs, in the way that Bogost enacts an ostensibly disinterested gaze via a series of coolly recited passages and occasional pedagogic emphasis in the stamping of portions of the read text onto the images. The style of verbal delivery, with its mellow yet firmly monotone dictation (Bogost says he was “very seriously jetlagged” when recording the piece), helps to create a flattening effect on the images. Everything – man, woman, rhinocerous – is turned into still life. The Martin Luther King bus photo is punctured with a barbed Winogrand quote, and the “touching and heart-wrenching” exuberance of the Dear Photograph movement is nicely deflated via the poetically diffusive light that Bogost steadily casts over each photo that we are presented with. There is a sense in which one’s vision flattens and levels in accord with the flat-lined inanimate objects that Bogost is bringing to the surface. “The door jamb. The empty summer lawn where the fall leaves collect in autumn. The paint on a shed. The thumbs that hold photographs. The indifferent asphalt. The park bench that cradles without care. The bricks unsusceptible to sorrow.” Achieving such an effect using the Dear Photograph examples represents a minor coup de grâce in and of itself, a thoughtful yet remorseless dunking into cold philosophical waters akin to Bruegel the Elder’s Fall of Icarus painting.

At the same time though there is an undercurrent of an animating force at work in these proceedings. Bogost employs the documentary technique of panning and scanning over the still images, which helps to create a slowly breathing montage of images. Or to be more precise, a slowly exhaling montage of images. For in the majority of photos Bogost opts for a gradual zooming out of the image, contrasted only in a few instances with a zooming in and, slightly more regularly, the odd “snapshot” in which there is no movement at all. But for most of the piece we are presented with this repeated, visually-oriented cue that suggests an initial highlighting of the peripheral object and then a gradual stepping back to consider the whole of the scene in relation to this reoriented part. The general pacing of the visuals and narration also helps to lend an overall rhythmic flow to the piece.

Such contrasting effects that animate and “inanimate” the images imbues the slideshow, and the “things” with which it is concerned, with a two-directional quality of its own. In one sense, the images flatten out, but at the same time there is also a sense of reestablished depth in the way that the glossed over things with which this philosophy is concerned now pop out of their own accord. It is an unusual, alien sort of vitality that things take on in this reorientation, in that what is animated is the very “empty,” “indifferent,” “unsusceptible” gaze that these objects bring to proceedings.

The image of outer space (5:23) seems vaguely out of place at first sighting (although one could go so far as to see the three Os of OOO echoed in its concentric clusters of galaxies…). But in the context of the piece, there is a sense in which Bogost is presenting us with an interesting flipside or variant on the standard method of sublime imagery. We are still made to feel the sense of ekstasis, of standing outside of oneself, typical of sublime imagery, but via a foreshortening effect that acts as almost inverse to the telescoping qualities of standard sublime images in which nature is writ large. As a periphery vision of sorts sets in, there is a way in which the things one typically doesn’t think of as sublime start to, at least to begin with, lean out with a kind of heightened prescience amidst the renewed scale that this way of seeing the world establishes. The forensic quality of this gaze may flatten, but it can also backlight such effects with this added sense of microscopic-like granularity (and even grandeur) that it imbues upon its everyday objects.

Object-oriented ontology is thus not only the name for an ontology oriented toward objects, but a practice of learning how to orient toward objects ourselves. And, mise-en-abyme-like, how to orient toward object-orientation.
– Ian Bogost, Seeing Things

And yet, mise-en-abyme like, such a reorientation can be disorienting. There is a possible wrong footing or double take to be experienced in this stepping into the gaze of the inanimate. Or to rephrase such a mixed metaphor, like the picture of the small girl trying on the oversized shoes (5:47), stepping into the pair of ontological shoes that OOO presents us with can easily make one feel rather small – an effect also common to images of the sublime. In more directly visual terms, we might speak of this as a sense of vertigo, in that there is a potential two-directional tug of war to be experienced in this particular act of vision: a pulling out of oneself in the emphasizing of a non-subjective way of seeing the world, at the same time that one might find oneself becoming self-aware as a result of the very effort required to see things in such a way. (As an aside, it could be worth considering the schizophrenic/liberating dimensions that might arise in such tussles/loosenings of subject-object dichotomies. See, for instance, Roger Caillois’ concept of subjective detumescence.)

But this is what makes OOO interesting in its visual incarnation here. It brings to the fore peripheral aspects of our vision, and in doing so highlights certain dynamics involved therein. William Blake (Europe a Prophecy) wrote of how the “fluxile eyes” of man became “two stationary orbs” after the Fall, presenting only a narrow, “petrify’d” vision of the world. The philosophical prism of OOO offers a perceptual tool that can help to destabilize what might be deemed a rather singular vision of the world, thus making possible a reexamination of the nature of vision and seeing in the world. As Bogost continues to zoom us out of one image after the next, we slowly feel ourselves orienting towards a different kind of vanishing point, one that sets into motion its own fluxile push and pull.

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