THE STORY OF LOOKING by Mark Cousins (Canongate Books, 2017)

mark1As with his previous book – The Story Of Film (the tie-in with the brilliant Channel 4 series) , Mark Cousins acts as an articulate and able guide in the same way that E.H. Gombrich did for ‘The Story of Art’ in 1950.

Like Gombrich, the language is kept simple and jargon free in order to appeal to readers of all ages.

It’s easy to imagine Cousins carefully preparing each chapter in the same way as teachers put together lesson plans. He’ll have pack of slides to show and discuss in the classroom but he’ll be ready to shuffle these up to keep students on their toes and to relieve boredom.

There is clearly an educational purpose behind such an ambitious study but there also a desire to keep things as light, accessible and entertaining as possible.

‘The Story of Looking’ is neither a scientific nor a historical study of visual perception and it occupies a different space to the more overtly political ‘Ways Of Seeing’ written by John Berger in 1972 which critically challenged traditional representations of gender and class.

cousinsIn a promotional interview at the Virtual Futures Salon, Cousins joked that this book is“not a dinner party but a road movie”; in other words it should not be regarded as coffee table book but as a traveling companion.

In this spirit, the book’s blurb says that Cousins “takes us on a lightning-bright tour – in words and images – through how our looking selves develop over the course of a lifetime, and the ways that looking has changed through the centuries”. It begins with how children first see the world and ends with how we look at, and represent, death.

The journey through the visible world he describes is broadly in chronological sequence but the timeline is far from rigid as he takes frequent detours. He sees no problem in making eclectic leaps from painters in the 1600s to the famous movie sequence of Robert De Niro looking at himself in a mirror in The Taxi Driver.

Along the way he looks at advertising, sculptures, paintings, phtohraphy, cinema, television and architecture relating these to a wide range of themes and topics including voyeurism, surrealism, impressionism, propaganda, and surveillance.

He quotes from Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Street Haunting – A London Adventure’ to the effect that “The brain sleeps perhaps when it looks” but Cousins’ concern here to show how active and wide awake looking is essential in helping us become more orientated and enlightened citizens.

At the same time, he recognizes (how could he not?) that the rapid-fire bombardment of visual images of the 21st century can have a disorienting effect. The sophisticated special effects of ‘want see’ blockbuster movies and the increasing dependence on the “landscape of screens” offered by mobile technology have served to change our concept of reality but Cousins is a born optimist so presents these developments in a largely positive light.

As this thoroughly absorbing and beautifully presented book shows, the idea of sensory overload is nothing new. From cave art to Pokemon Go, it’s all part and parcel of how looking comes to define the human race.