Ways Of Seeing Book Summary, by John Berger

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1-Page Summary of Ways Of Seeing


John Berger opens his seminal text Ways of Seeing with an observation that seems counterintuitive, considering its status as a written text: that, as we inhabit the world, we constantly perceive it, only later naming the things we see. One way to recreate our way of perceiving the world is through images. This term is used to describe paintings, photographs, films or any other representation that humans can construct and it’s assumed that every image externalizes its creator’s way of seeing. Another way of phrasing this: all images are encoded with ideology regardless if their creators consciously want them to be. From this premise Berger explains how images have layers deeper meaning beyond what they show on the surface; they can offer a valuable document of how their creator saw the world but their underlying politics can also be obscured or mystified in order to uphold powers that be. Throughout the first essay in the book Berger draws heavily on work by Walter Benjamin to explain how reproduction changes what images mean by circulating them in new ways and alongside new ideas breaking down rarified narratives handed down from elite which often seek stabilize our understanding meanings

In the second essay, all of the images are related. Text appears only occasionally to attribute paintings and photographs, and not every image is attributed. The theme of women appears in a variety of settings throughout history: there are photos from contemporary workplaces, oil paintings showing nude women, and advertisements for products sold by women. Berger does not explicitly connect these images; rather he leaves their relationship open-ended.

Chapter 3 explains the relationship between images of women and how they’re represented. Berger begins by observing that men are represented as active, whereas women are mostly concerned with self-presentation. He simplifies this by writing that “men act while women appear.” This is especially noticeable in European oil paintings, which often depict nude female figures. The nudity isn’t for a reason; rather it’s just to please the (presumably) male spectators who own these paintings. Women were typically depicted nude because it was thought to be vain or because beauty tools like mirrors were associated with them, but they weren’t usually behind the scenes making those decisions. Rather, their nudity was meant to please men who owned these paintings. Although there are more images now than ever before, some aspects of this representation still remain today: depicting women as passive objects for male pleasure while men enjoy diverse representations across media formats such as television and movies. It’s hypocritical that we presume males have subjectivity when denying females any individual agency at all in society.

Chapter 4 is another image-only essay. Unlike Chapter 3, where all the images were related by their common subject matter, the images in Chapter 4 don’t seem to be related in content. Rather than making a point about oil painting or photography, they appear to be saying something about wealth and excess.

Chapter 5 expands on Chapter 4 by explaining how oil paintings function in a market economy. The essay focuses on the European tradition of oil painting, which lasted from 1500 to 1900. Within this period, most paintings were commissioned for wealthy people who wanted to glorify their wealth and power through art. A few masters like Rembrandt could break away from this system by creating deeper meaning in their work than just showing off material possessions.

Chapter 6 is an excerpt taken from “The Art of Rhetoric” (1954) by Aristotle, one of the first texts to address rhetoric as a formal study that can be taught and learned. In it, he defines three kinds of persuasion—ethos (appeal to credibility), pathos (appeal to emotion), and logos (appeal to logic)—and argues that they are all necessary for successful communication; no single argument or appeal can persuade someone without incorporating at least some elements of each kind into its structure. He also explains why ethos is usually considered more important than either pathos or logos: because we have much less control over our emotions than over our reasoning skills, it’s easier for us to manipulate others’ emotions if we’re able rather than convince them with logical arguments if they’re not already inclined toward believing us anyway. This chapter concludes with several examples drawn from ancient Greek literature illustrating these principles in action.

Ways Of Seeing Book Summary, by John Berger