Seeing is Believing: The Politics of the Visual
by Rod Stoneman. London: black dog publishing, 2013. 192 pp., illus. Paperback: $29.95
Reviewed by Jonathan Murray
Whatever possible criticisms another reader might make of Seeing is Believing, you can’t reasonably accuse Rod Stoneman, the book’s author, of not putting his money where his mouth is. I mean that quite literally: how pleasurable to peruse a book about visual culture in which high-resolution images (200) outnumber the pages (192) on which they are printed. A work of meticulous image curation and choreography (kudos are due not only to Stoneman, but also designer Mónica Oliveira), Seeing is Believing’s physical format takes conspicuous pains to exemplify one of the work’s central contentions. This is the idea that to live in the early twenty-first century is to find oneself “submerged in an extraordinary flow of visual saturation, a surfeit of images.” Staying afloat on that restless swell requires a process of personal navigation that is often painful and painstaking in equal measure.
In addition to its distinctive visual structure, Seeing is Believing also attempts to illustrate and interrogate contemporary culture’s deluge of image creation, circulation, and consumption by means of an equally unusual choice of literary and rhetorical form. In place of the dutifully lengthy four to ten chapters that populate most professional scholarly monographs, Stoneman presents his reader with no fewer than fifty-six short essays on a consistently unpredictable (and thereby diverting) array of visual and material cultural artifacts and traditions, from liquor-store wine labels to postmodern architecture’s greatest hits. Missing, too, are the defensive barricades of disciplinary specialism as routinely professed and practiced within the academy. The book’s five sections are organized by universal theme (e.g., History/Politics, Product/Possessions, The Quotidian/The Strange), rather than traditional university departmental nomenclature (Art History, Film Studies, Fine Art, and so on).
This elegant, imaginative, and courageous way with words and pictures allows Seeing is Believing to dance nimbly between the canonical (Bernini, Duchamp, Lange, Rodchenko, etc.), the personal (several generations of Stoneman family snaps), and much else in between. In so doing, the book represents a self-consciously personal attempt to explore how people keep their heads above water when forced to swim unendingly through an ocean of images that are, Stoneman argues, mostly designed to anaesthetize and intimidate their unfortunate consumers. If the eyes really are the windows to the soul, Seeing is Believing asks us to countenance the possibility that our own are in the process of being bricked up in response to the demands of the historical moment in which we find ourselves living.
Right from its title onward, Seeing is Believing is ardent in its desire to show its reader just how much might be at stake in the difference between sinking and swimming in the aftermath of a forced baptism into the amniotic realm of contemporary visual and popular cultures. The titular pun’s double meaning pointedly distinguishes, for example, between distinct ways of perceiving and acting within the world. On one hand, there is the widespread credulity that large stretches of the book bemoan. The more we see, the blinder we become: the “inertial resilience” of late capitalism stems, Stoneman avers, from the fact that “social stability and the persistence of a secure political order are underpinned by the processes of representation that we inhabit.” The obfuscating variety of fleeting affects that we each experience daily—intoxicated then intimidated, tantalized then told off—only serves to distract our attention from the fact that indoctrination is the cornerstone of most contemporary visual regimes.
What Stoneman tries to set against such myopia is another way of looking altogether, one that the author found himself inducted into at the outset of his creative and academic careers some four decades ago. The mode of perception in question relates, in Stoneman’s words, to “the structural project of analysis and engagement” associated with the initial moment of Screen theory (an intellectual movement named after the influential and pioneering British Film Studies journal published under that title from 1969 onward). ‘Seeing’ constitutes a form of believing here in the sense of a Damascene conversion, a faith found in the past but unrelinquished in the present. Instead of wondering whether to categorize Stoneman’s work as personal testament or political tract, it might be better to finger it as a book that self-consciously tries to recall, revisit, revision, and restate a range of different ways in which to testify might also be to politick at one and the same time.
Indeed, Stoneman himself helps his reader toward that conclusion, through the generosity and erudition of his ongoing acknowledgement throughout that a great many twenty- and early-twenty-first-century makers and thinkers have traveled this road before him, driven by a shared perception and pursuit of “the social aspect of the artistic endeavour.” His profession of faith in this regard is supported by the instructive and inspirational examples set by a panoply of radical patron saints that includes Brecht, Barthes, Debord, Adorno, Benjamin, and many others. Such figures direct and animate Stoneman’s belief that many of modernism’s key tenets still offer the possibility of “a specific politics of representation in the field of history in which we find ourselves” in the early years of a new century.
Of course, declaiming one’s undimmed attraction-cum-aspiration toward “a renewed, reinvigorated version of modernism” is in itself no great shakes. In ivory towers as in fashion boutiques, this season’s last season is always awaiting the chance to become next season all over again. What really makes Seeing is Believing an important and accomplished intervention is the book’s ingenuity and honesty in seeking out ways in which to practice what it preaches. Stoneman’s authorial methodology combines elaborate literary/visual hybridization with a delighted (yet also deliberate) identification of the intellectual and sociopolitical possibilities of essayistic, fissiparous modes of discourse and debate. In that sense, Seeing is Believing isn’t merely a celebration of modernist creative thought and practice; rather, it is a proudly modernist intellectual and creative artifact in and of itself. Thus, when Stoneman praises what he takes to be avant-garde art’s characteristic “free assertion of difference and dissidence” and its “processes of imaginative and lateral thinking” that “propos[e] another way of perceiving, interrupting and disturbing settled expectations and complacencies,” he simultaneously provides us with a useful gloss on his own work here.
The degree of symbiosis and sympathy between Stoneman and the modernist forebears who preoccupy a large proportion of Seeing is Believing make this a book that (just for once) really ought to be judged by its cover. Granted, it’s a brave scribbler who slaps Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés (1946–66) on the dust jacket of their latest tome: the words inside have to be pretty good not to seem something of a disappointment after the picture that precedes them. Here, however, Stoneman’s act of association feels entirely appropriate. After all, in asking its reader to think again/anew about what we look at, how and why we do so, and the degree to which we might change our worlds and The World by means of our eyes, Seeing is Believing exemplifies two key Duchampian tenets, both of which Stoneman quotes approvingly at different junctures. If, as the great French artist once speculated, “the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work into contact with the external world,” then it also follows, as Duchamp puts it on Stoneman’s final page, that “art means action, activity of any kind, everyone.” By virtue of its personal honesty and humor, its intellectual variety and ingenuity, Seeing is Believing offers a fundamentally convincing and energizing attempt to live Duchamp’s egalitarian and utopian convictions out in practice.
Jonathan Murray teaches film and visual culture at the Edinburgh College of Art.
Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3