Seeing and Knowing


Are we living in a "panopticon," as Michel Foucault argues, where we are continually being surveilled and are surveilling each other? Watching You Watching Me, Flickr photo by Todd Huffman, licensed CC BY 2.0

Are we living in a “panopticon,” as Michel Foucault argues, where we are continually being surveilled and are surveilling each other?

Visual images surround us every day: from selfies and Instagram to YouTube and animated gifs, we often communicate through pictures and video. This course focuses in part on visual literacy—learning to “read” images as well as text, and understand how both communicate meaning and shape our understanding of ourselves and others. We will explore the visual image not simply as a way to illustrate text and thereby bring it to life, but as a source of knowledge in its own right. We will consider how and why visual representations convey meaning, and how they intersect with written or spoken words.

Thinking critically about the visual also leads us to thinking about how knowledge is produced and understood; we will consider such social constructions as the many visual metaphors we use to talk about understanding (e.g., “seeing” something is true, gaining “insights” or understanding through “the mind’s eye”). Taking up these and other topics in our analyses of works including photographs, films, and graphic novels alongside texts in prose, we will study how the visual, like textual language, can reflect and shape social dynamics.

Some questions we will discuss include:

  • How do words and images convey meaning differently, and what effects does each have on our interpretation of the world around us?
  • How might the field of the visual perpetuate or undermine power hierarchies? E.g., what is the nature of the power relationship between those who are “seen” and those who do the “seeing?”
  • With the internet and social media we are making ourselves more visible and knowable, but at what cost?
  • Can a film or graphic novel shape what we know about the world differently than a text-based work? Are there some things that images are better at expressing than words, or vice versa?
  • How much of our self-conception comes from how others see us? Is Jean-Jacques Rousseau right to say we live “outside ourselves,” in the opinions of others?
  • Does talking about knowledge in terms of visual metaphors blind us to other possible ways of knowing?

    Blake's poem "London," plus its engraving, from his collection called Songs of Innocence and of Experience

    William Blake, London from Songs of Innocence & of Experience, public domain on Wikimedia Commons

We will investigate these and other questions through studying, among other works, Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic, Blake’s melding of words and pictures in his poetry, Foucault’s argument that we are living in a “panopticon” of continual surveillance in Discipline and Punish, Hitchcock’s depiction of the voyeur detective in Vertigo, and what the visual elements in Karasik and Mazzuchelli’s graphic novel adaptation of Auster’s novel City of Glass can add to the original text.

Credit for image of camera in camera: Watching You Watching Me, Flickr photo by Todd Huffman, licensed CC BY 2.0


Please click the link below for a list of books with ISBN numbers. If you choose to order the books on your own rather than getting them from the bookstore, be sure to get the same editions as on this list. 

Seeing & Knowing Booklist 2016-2017 (PDF)

Sophocles, Oedipus the King

Plato, Republic

Mencius, selections

Hildegard von Bingen, Selected Writings, and Margarethe von Trotta, Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen (film)

William Shakespeare, The Tempest 

Galileo Galilei, selections

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience (poetry & engravings)

Charles Darwin, selections from Voyage of the Beagle and other texts

Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny and selections from Interpretation of Dreams

E.T.A. Hoffmann, “The Sandman”

German short stories, probably including Heinrich von Kleist, “The Earthquake in Chile” and Arthur Schnitzler, Lieutenant Gustl

Selected films from the Weimar period (possibly Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; Lang, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler; Grune, The Street)

Vertov, Man With a Movie Camera (film)

Bertolt Brecht, Galileo (play)

Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber, with a few fairy tales

David Dabydeen, Slave Song, plus other poems

Michel Foucault, selections on the “Panopticon” from Discipline and Punish

Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”

Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo (film)

Toni Morrison, Jazz

Blake Hausman, Riding the Trail of Tears

A few machinima (movies filmed in digital space), from

W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (graphic novel), plus selections from Scott McCloud Understanding Comics and Nick Sousanis, Unflattening (Nick Sousanis will give a guest lecture for us!)

Paul Auster, City of Glass

Paul Karasik & David Mazzuchelli, City of Glass (graphic novel adaptation of Auster’s novel)

Updated July 12, 2016

Image credits:

Comic Book, by Carlo Cariño, from The Noun Project

Movie Camera, by SimpleIcon, from

Draw-a-picture, by Freepik, from