Possessing and Perceiving: William Blake and the Art of Perception
Introduction: In the Beginning was the Image
“Seeing comes before words.” We are rooted in imagination.
Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.
But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.
The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.
Recognising ourselves in Nature
Vogel’s work is one of the best accounts, and critical interrogations, of the concept of ‘Nature’ ever written. Its thoughtful and careful analysis of this complex and ambiguous concept makes you realise how crude and incoherent many of our contemporary discussions of Nature are. This is really environmental and philosophical thinking on a new level of precision and engagement, and is equally important for its revelatory implications for our understanding of ‘natural science’, both as a practice and as an epistemological attitude towards the world, suggesting how what we call science is less an unproblematic description of an objective world and more a social product or construction shaped by ideology and concealed assumptions about the status of the ‘observer’. Indeed, he notes that one of the main points or byproducts of the concept of ‘Nature’ is precisely to naturalise these ideological and socially informed ways of thinking and relating to the world.
Rational Psychopathy: The Urizenic Brain and its Fall into Division
Blake’s term for the psychopathic power of the Urizenic ‘rational’ mind when it is dissociated and divided from man’s imaginative and empathic consciousness was the “Red Dragon”. The term derives from the Biblical Book of Revelation, where the reality of things is supposed to be finally uncovered (‘apocalypsis‘, meaning “uncover, disclose, reveal”), but as usual with Blake, it’s given a surprisingly modern twist – one that is both psychological and politically radical in nature.
Blake’s presentation of the “dragon” form of Urizen as his final dissociated apotheosis (his “logical conclusion”, if you like), is a stinging critique of the very power and cognitive process that drove and underwrote much of the ‘Enlightenment’ project – the period in which he was living. The enormously powerful, as well as devastatingly disruptive, destructive and dehumanising, energy unleashed on Britain (and later Europe) on a vast – indeed global – scale was, Blake believed, the unregulated and domineering character of the instrumental left brain itself: what many Enlightenment thinkers rather naively simply called ‘Reason’. Blake analyses this celebrated function of the human brain and reveals that it was actually a peculiar and peculiarly distorted form of reason that was being developed and harnessed – “ratio-nality” (rather than reasonableness) – a self-enclosed, rapacious, and manipulative power that was being released into the world via the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism.
Where any view of Money exists, Art cannot be carried on, but War only
Blake’s extraordinary piece of graffiti art, 200 years before Jean-Michel Basquiat or Banksy. The words themselves seem part of the serpentine struggle, as if logos itself was implicated in the fall into division
Prophecy and Class Consciousness
Behind Blake’s particular conception of prophecy there is another which arises from Milton’s but goes beyond it. Henry Parker had enunciated it in the Puritan revolution when he proclaimed that “vox populi was ever reverenced as Vox Dei”. This tradition was related also to a belief that “God hath chosen the weak things of this world to confound the things that are mighty” (1. Cor). When Milton interprets this text, as in his Treatise of Civil Power, it becomes a metaphor, a contrast between a laity’s conscience and the political authority of a state church.