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Material Visions

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Organizer: Zachary Sng

Co-Organizer: Michael Powers

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In his reading of the Kantian sublime, Paul de Man identifies the possibility of a material vision, “devoid of any reflexive or intellectual complication,” at the crux of our attempts to articulate ideology and aesthetics (“Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant,” 83). From a related perspective Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the ability of visual art, especially painting to reveal and return us to a state of embodied seeing at the level of “brute meaning” (“Eye and Mind,” 161). For Jean Luc-Nancy, meanwhile, to consider the“skin of images” means to contemplate the ability of sight to expose “without reserve but also without revelation” (Being Nude, 2).

Our goal in this seminar is to re-visit such accounts of material seeing by opening them up to contemporary discussions about materiality and meaning, agency and the sensorium. What might they contribute to reflections about our current practices of reading and seeing, as well as the critical legacies that shape them?

We are open to different lines of inquiry from the perspectives of literary criticism and theory, but also media studies, visual studies, art history, and philosophy. Potential topics might include:

How might a better understanding of materiality and vision enrich our engagements with word-image relationships, such as those represented in the emblem or the caption? What about the ‘material’ that is at work in the other senses and the arts that they subtend?

Does material vision entail a re-imagining of the body and its apparatus for sensation? What role does the eye play in the hierarchy of the senses, and how should we conceive its connection to mind or spirit.? How does the idea of material vision change as we move from the late Enlightenment and Romanticism to the modern period and beyond?

To what degree do material media (glass, mirrors, screens, fog, smoke) push us to question the structure, dynamics, and materiality in different acts of seeing? How about the relationship between reading and the materiality of writing (e.g. paper, ink)?

For de Man, material vision depends on a gesture of reduction to bare-ness or mere-ness. Could this inform current discussions about the biopolitical concepts around ‘bare life,’ models of reading that emphasize ‘surface,’ or other critical discourses involving privation, negativity, and lack?  

If we could think of material vision as something like Nietzsche’s famous stare into the abyss, it would rebound on its origin to challenge the status of the seeing subject. What stares back at us in its gaze? How might we understand its ‘materiality’ in relation to categories such as the mechanical, the uncanny, the non- or even post-human?

Proposals for short presentations (around 20 minutes) exploring these or any other aspects of the topic are welcome.


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