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Kataskopos workshop: Anya Burgon reflects on a study day of discussion and papers in Cambridge

Our workshop on the ‘view from above’ took place on Friday 22nd March at the History of Art Department in Cambridge.

Our workshop on the ‘view from above’ took place on Friday 22nd March at the History of Art Department in Cambridge. It was jointly funded by the History of Art Department (where I completed my PhD) and the Centre for Medieval Literature. 


The day was organised by myself and Rob Hawkins (currently a PhD student at Cambridge). We first conceived of the workshop, some eighteen months ago, as a way of scoping out ongoing research into (or around) the ‘view from above’ – from any angle and in any context. This was a theme that interested me in relationship to twelfth-century allegory; and Rob in relation to perspectival distortions in the medieval visual arts. But we wanted the workshop to go way beyond our own areas of expertise, and beyond the Middle Ages. We had little idea of what would result. Would we find that the notion of a view from above, a ‘god’s-eye view’ on the world and human affairs, or kataskopos as it has also been called, was a stable, transhistorical western ideal, whose history (and the history of western existentialism) we could piece together over the course of seven or eight papers, from antiquity to modernity? Probably not. And while vectors of succession and influence did inevitably emerge, the study day also showed us the ‘view from above’ in ways and in guises we could not have anticipated. We were shown this ‘topos’ as more than a topos. It became – in just a sample of the contributions – a pictorial strategy in early modern weaponry, a form of nonsense-representation, and a thought-experiment for demonstrating justice in post-war philosophy.


The day was made up of eight papers in total, with generous time for questions and discussion. The group – speakers and non-speakers – was kept deliberately small to promote participation and avoid falling into conference-style Q&As. The first session consisted of three medieval papers, beginning with my own – which sought to introduce the ancient (Cynic) ‘exercise’ of kataskopos as discussed by Pierre Hadot, historian of ancient philosophy, and test its usefulness for reading medieval literary ‘views from above’. Taking the examples of Gregory the Great, a Victorine treatise, and a Chaucerian dream vision, I tried to demonstrate the persistence of the dialogic form in the presentation of the ‘view from above’, and argued for the medieval assimilation of this ideal not just as literary ‘image’ or ‘commonplace’ but as an imaginative and hermeneutic labour, in keeping with its origins in ancient philosophy (as a ‘Way of Life’). The second paper in this session was from CML’s own Divna Manolova and took us on three lunar voyages: comparing the earliest in that tradition, Lucian’s second-century Icaromenippus and A True Story, to Tom Hanks’ 2014 short story Alan Bean Plus Four. Divna drew our attention specifically to cognitive responses to the ‘view from above’ in these fictions, positing a possible link between the ‘hyperreal’ character of the viewing experience (its mediation, within the fiction, e.g. through optical devices such as an eagle’s eyes, or a smartphone camera) and the intensity of the cognitive emotion (curiosity, wonder) that view is then said to evoke for the narrator/voyager. 


Divna’s paper was followed by Rob’s, a discussion of ‘kataskopic concerns in fifteenth-century sculpture’. Taking his lead from twisted (in a sense, hyperreal) representations of space in the sculpted bosses of Norwich cathedral cloister, the focus of his PhD, Rob offered his own art-historical thought-experiment in hypothesising a connection between this kind of perspective, that strains to ‘show more’, and medieval fascination with the (humanly impossible) omniscient perspective of the kataskopos, with special reference to the discussions of medieval perspectivist theologians Peter of Limoges, Nicholas of Autrecourt, and Nicholas of Cusa.


The nearly hour-long discussion that ensued from this session (which helped us to join dots between Cynic/Stoic origins, transcendent representation, and its affective ‘types’), set the precedent for the animated dialogues of following sessions. For the second of these we were lucky to welcome two early modernists, David Zagoury (Biblioteca Hertziana, Max Planck Institute for Art History) and Morgan Ng (Getty Research Institute). David’s paper took on a new dimension to the art history of the kataskopos, in ‘Weapons quaMicrocosms’, itself a microcosm of his larger interest in the self-sufficient art object, and ideas of artistic perfection and synthesis. In part an insight into early modern inventiveness with the ekphrastic (and ‘kataskopic’) shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, David explored how early modern shield makers such as Eliseus Libaerts (fl. 1561–69) abandoned conventions of ‘pictorialising’ the weapon’s surface in favour of a more unusual ‘loop’ format. David showed how this formal innovation both forced the viewer to apprehend the object performatively, in the round, and empowered him or her with imagined possession (through actual handling and ‘spinning’) of its panoptic vision, simulating a military dream of invincibility through omnivoyance. Morgan’s paper, ‘Surveying Eden in Paradise Lost’, revealed Milton’s engagement with the tradition of kataskopos, again as an experience of visual conquest, for the characters of Adam, Christ, and Satan. Morgan demonstrated how for Milton the ancient ideal of a ‘view from above’ necessarily implicated contemporary seventeenth-century developments in cartography and surveillance – developments which inspire the schematic visions of his protagonists within the poem, as well as the spatio-temporal structure of the poem itself, its maplike ‘eternal present’. 


After another lively panel that dwelt more on the omniscient perspective as an artistic conceit; the military associations of kataskopos (brought out in both David and Morgan’s papers); and the kataskopos in its relation to history and time, we introduced our final three speakers of the day who would bring us up to the modern period: Nakul Krishna, from the Department of Philosophy in Cambridge, Nolwenn Mégard from the University of Geneva, and Tony Patrickson from the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. Nolwenn’s paper kicked off this final session with ‘the downward view as estrangement’, an account of ‘looking down’ as a visual trope in art for the bourgeois in France from the mid nineteenth century. Nolwenn elucidated how, in the aftermath of early aerial (balloon) photography, Albert Guillaume, Gustave Caillebotte, Henri Avelot and other caricaturists, painters, and poster artists depicted people and objects from a bird’s-eye view deliberately to obscure and to confuse vision. The downward perspective became a means of graphic riddling, which (rather than conquering), abstracted and ‘made strange’ the world for the beholder’s amusement, puzzlement, and active un-puzzling. These comical images appear to reverse the clarificatory logic of the kataskopos; but their aesthetic ‘trivialisation’ of human affairs might also be seen as deeply kataskopic in the original, Stoic and Cynic sense. 


With Nakul Krishna’s paper we were introduced to the continued usefulness (or uselessness) of the view from above as an imaginative exercise, or ‘thought experiment’, in the secular philosophy of John Rawls and Bernard Williams. Nakul showed us how both these philosophers (b. 1920s) made use of the idea of a perfect point of view to interrogate how (or rather ‘from where’) we form our principles of justice (in the case of Rawls) and our moral concepts (Williams). For Rawls this viewpoint is not the ‘view from above’ but it is still an impartial or ignorant ‘view from nowhere in particular’. For Williams (who emerged as a kind of anti-hero for the traditional kataskopos) the ideal moral viewpoint is a wholly embodied, wholly attached ‘view from somewhere’.


Finally, Tony Patrickson allowed us to come full circle, to the kataskopos as we know it best, through the lens of the photographer, cinematographer, and the digitiser post-Apollo 8’s Earthrise. Tony drew our attention to the fundamental sympathy between the ‘view from above’ as an historical ideal, and the skopic regime and assumptions of cinema as a medium – while also exposing how cinematic and digital constructions of the world as a discrete visual whole (e.g. in films Powers of Ten 1977, Space Walk 2017; or Google Earth) remainconstructed rather than experiential views, pieced together on the surface of the planet (‘from somewhere’), and implicated in local political and teleological agendas. 


The papers in this final session then corroborated the persistence of kataskopic thinking into intellectual and artistic practices of the modern era. In very different ways, their case studies also gestured to new scepticism about the ‘view from above’ – not only about its viability (in a post-theistic age), but also its desirability, its cognitive worth. There was an emphasis on omniscience versus experience, the one always undercut by the other. By the time we summed up, taking our lead from Rob’s closing remarks, we realised we had moved well beyond the confines of Hadot’s discussion of kataskopos, chronologically and conceptually. At one level the day’s papers confirmed the continuity and ‘development’ of the image and ideal – and the potential for a study that augments and deepens our understanding of the literary themefrom the Cynics through Milton up to Hanks’ Alan Bean. At another, the proceedings pointed to the need for something more expansive than that (if more unusual): a study of the kataskopos as an exercise, a technique, and a modality, something that was ‘good to think with’ and ‘good to create with’ for craftsmen, writers, philosophers, poets and digital artists reflecting on the epistemic ‘reach’ – and shortfall – of their projects and mediums, and by extension of human thought and vision as a whole. To bring such definitions into focus, however, we have to begin from the bottom up, and amidst our loftier speculations, closing discussions featured immediate plans for a pooled bibliography and glossary. As these ferment, we extend an enormous thanks again to the speakers and participants who gave their time and work to this workshop, and to the Department in Cambridge for hosting and funding in collaboration with CML. 


Editing was completed: 23.04.2019