Thoughts on Vision

Blame grad school, perhaps, but it's been a while since I last wrote here. What follows is, to be honest, actually something I had to prepare for class, but it touches on some recent ideas and broader ways of thinking, so I figured I'd throw it up. Besides, it's always interesting to see how academic and non-academic writing play with each other. Quick introduction: Our reading for this week included two pieces by Donna Haraway. My colleague Nick had a couple of helpful notes earlier this week; these are mine.

How do we think about vision? Some recent conversations in geography have turned on the place of the visual in geography, on the ways in which geography should or should not be invested in visual practices, methodologies, objects. My own commitments lie with the visual, and it’s those commitments that made Haraway’s work so stimulating.

One of the things she sets out to do in “Situated Knowledges” is renew the possibilities of vision and visual methodologies (linking them to the paramount question of scientific objectivity). It’s worth pointing out why Haraway returns to questions of vision: Ultimately, it’s a question of framing, as focusing on the production of science in terms of language alone forces Haraway to admit that the opposition of “radical constructivism” (all knowledge is socially constructed, consists of power moves and not moves towards truth) to “feminist critical empiricism” (Harding’s ‘successor science’, an attempt to insist on the possibility of objectivity, “radical historical contingency and modes of construction” is not enough) doesn’t leave her with a workable theory of objectivity. Left with a binary of radical constructivism/feminist critical empiricism, Haraway calls attention to the ways in which vision “can be good for avoiding binary oppositions” (188).

It’s worth pointing out that Haraway’s article speaks forward to Fausto-Sterling’s work – or that Fausto-Sterling’s work, its epistemological position, can be traced back to Haraway. At the very least, there’s a resonance (to use Haraway’s phrase, a “partial connection” (193)) in the way that Fausto-Sterling’s work is about the ways in which the body is visualized through scientific practices. Technological changes produce new ways of seeing the body – and rather than claim that sex/gender needs to be thought about by going back to a time before technology (and this is resonant with Haraway’s thinking about cyborgs), Fausto-Sterling argues that technological changes (in medicine, biology, genetics, etcetera) open up the possibility of new ways of seeing the body, seeing sex, seeing gender.

And it’s worth emphasizing that Haraway’s articulation of a new way of seeing does not collapse or efface difference (The cultural geography truism that landscape is a way of seeing, except in that case, sight was a way of collapsing difference, of reducing and disciplining the visual field; productive, perhaps, to think about the idea of landscape responding to Haraway’s claim for situated knowledges). Further, vision does not imply an infinite vision: Vision is partial, particular, and embodied. From this, Haraway’s version of objectivity is “usable, but not an innocent” one (189). From that, “we might become answerable for what we learn how to see” (190). What’s crucial is to notice that Haraway doesn’t simply write “Answerable for what we see” nor “Answerable for what we learn to see”; she insists on “what we learn how to see”, suggesting linked ideas of power and responsibility (what we are answerable for), ontology (what we see), epistemology (what we learn), and methodology (how we see). Furthermore, in insisting on positionality and situating knowledge, Haraway opens up the possibility that one can learn to see through the eyes of another (though again, keep in mind Haraway’s privileging of partial connection over identification; in her manifesto, it was a privileging of affinity over identity (155)). More, this is not an endorsement of relativism, the free play of signifiers (responding to Derrida and deconstruction, I think) – Haraway’s piece insists on location (194), much to the delight of geographers. As a last note on difference and thinking in binaries: Haraway’s vision of objectivity opens up a way of looking for productive resonances; translations (in a visual sense, its pure geometry) that are “always interpretive, critical, and partial” (195). As I’m trying to work between Turkish and English, it’s a helpful ethic: At once possible and partial.


jenny said…
reading this, i have deja vu. in a good, reassuring kind of way.

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