Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Book review: How to See the World, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Pelican, 2015

About two-thirds of the way through How to See the World, I thought the opening of my review was going to go something like:

"If you were to take How to See the World as an embodiment of its own instruction, you'd think that instruction was: incoherently. Mirzoeff never sets out his intentions, the book veers from one topic to the next and it's not until page 220 that you first come across any directions for viewing the world..."

I would have meant to be disparaging, obviously.

But then I started to make sense of it, and when I finished the book I thought I'd better go back and flick through the introduction again just to make sure Mirzoeff had indeed not set out his intentions . And it turns out he had.

So am I wasting your time by telling you this? I hope not.

I think it's informative that I managed to forget or not process what I'd read in the introduction, and I stand by the gist of my one-word summary. Only "incoherent" might be a bit strong: disjointed might be better. And I'm not sure that the book's disjointedness isn't intentional...

You see, part of the basis for Mirzoeff's instruction is that the world is too big and too complex to be seen clearly, and part of the instruction itself is that in order to see the world, we therefore need to piece together lots of fragments of information.

And he says as much in the introduction, using the clever metaphor of a 2012 recreation of the famous 1972 "Blue Marble" photograph of the Earth from space - the recreation being a metaphor because, rather than being a single photograph like Blue Marble, it was actually stitched together from several satellite images.

But having mentioned Blue Marble in the very first sentence of the book, he brings up the reproduction only after having talked in the interim about an explosion of youth across the planet, the vast increase in internet connectivity in recent years, climate change and selfies. 

I'm being a little unfair making a big deal of the disconnectedness of this part, but I think it's a legitimate microcosm of the book as a whole: you spend most of chapter 1 reading about portraiture, forgetting that it's supposed to be a quick history of visual culture as a field of study; most of chapter 3 reading about warfare, forgetting it's supposed to be about visualisation; most of chapter 4 reading about cinema, forgetting it's supposed to be about the (let's be honest, readily apparent) fact that most visualising is now done on screens, etc etc.

Looking back through these chapters, there are hints of the overall narrative running through them - it's just that you have to be paying close attention to find them: 

"Now we are trained to pay attention to distractions..." (Chapter 2)
"All action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a twilight..." (Chapter 3)
"... the sit-ins created a link between what was sayable and what was visible..." (Chapter 5)

Mirzoeff might well protest, and I might well just not be very perceptive.

But I prefer to think that, rather than How to See the World being a somewhat incoherent embodiment of what I mistakenly thought would turn out to be an incoherent instruction, instead it's a disjointed text that's deliberately disjointed in order to give you a chance to practice the very skills the book informs you you are now going to need.

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