Review of Visuality and Virtuality: Images and Pictures from Prehistory to Perspective

Visuality and Virtuality: Images and Pictures from Prehistory to Perspective
Whitney Davis

Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2017
368 pp., illus. b/w. Trade, $49.95
ISBN: 9780691171944.

Reviewed by
Ian Verstegen
June 2019

Whitney Davis is unique in art history, his expertise spanning effortlessly several ancient visual cultures, social theory, and aesthetics. The present book succeeds his lauded General Theory of Visual Culture, focusing on pictoriality. Central to the topic is the relation between visual space (“visibilities”), visual culture (“visualities”), and the history of imaging (“virtualities”). Artifacts are “made to be visible in visual space” and in picturing, disclose virtual worlds. One “succeeds” (in his felicitous phrase) to pictoriality, yet there is no precedence of visual over virtual space because pictoriality can recursively alter our experience of visual space.

This occurs through bivisibility, “the visibility of the picture to beholders outside the visuality in which it was made to be used visually” (p. 24). Historically, what is visible today may reveal a visuality not in accord with its original appearance; hence, bivisibility is visibility “outside-and-inside its visuality” (p. 103). Bivirtuality results instead when there are recursions between apparently continuous and discontinuous virtual spaces created pictorially. Finally, bivirtuality leads to birotationality, “a different way of seeing the objects depicted in the picture” (p. 24). The effects of recursions within bivisibility are already seen in Egyptian art where complex negotiations take place between a mobile viewer and apparently “frontal” reliefs.

Using Ludwig Wittgenstein, Davis adds to the debates on pictorial representation in regarding it as radical pictorialization, an example of seeing-as-as. If seeing-as is simple seeing, and seeing-in is connecting marks as something else, seeing-as-as is revisibilizing aspects of visual configurations, recognizing its “recursive involution” (62). Davis is immediately concerned to deal with those cases in which pictoriality is apparently absent and presence takes over, a concern of recent “anthropological” approaches to imagery. He responds to those who would see pure presence in cave art by insisting that we see the “presence of pictoriality” (69). However, because of recursions, even a depicted bison could successively appear to have different aspects at different times.

Davis applies his approach to four case studies: the cave art of the Chauvet Master, the ancient Egyptian patron Hesire, the Greek master Phidias, and the Renaissance pioneer Brunelleschi. Needless to say, he flies right into the mouth of the beast of the Western teleology of naturalism but as an Egyptian specialist is able to nuance slight differences in visualization and virtualization in these different cultures, which gives ample appreciation to their achievement while still satisfying our common sense understanding of their limitations. Resisting totalizing accounts of visuality and virtuality, these pictorialities are of each individual alone, revealing their special and sometimes a-typical status as viewers. Greek relief sculpture “deplanarized” (260) figures to reorganize Egyptian-style planarity. The “zippering” of viewer to relief was exchanged for a kind of cross-stitching by Phidias. Brunelleschi instead introduced a new way of looking that pictorialized “the natural visual perspective…the visual space of the ‘view’ itself” (268).

Along the way, Davis engages numerous thinkers, particularly David Summers and his important Real Spaces. Specialists can quibble with individual interpretations given by Davis, but they cannot question the power of his interlocking system. Principally, it incorporates perception into history by anticipating later, unintended perceptual outcomes. Moving from Wittgenstein to Gestalt theory, we might say that we are able to understand the ways in which stimuli are re-organized according to simplicity criteria. However, this book is if anything a painstaking exercise in analytic distinction and terminology. Davis has a gift for creating diagrams and logical strings to illustrate his points that are quite effective. His terminology, though rigorous, becomes compressed and he provides a handy glossary of abbreviations. In the end, the dense presentation is rewarding. This book is ultimately important for relating conditions of natural seeing and historical virtualities via the phenomenal acts of non-totalized individuals. In effect, this is Davis’ resolution of the problem of modern scholarship and historicity. It is a major achievement.