Jeffrey Rubin’s Seeing and Not Seeing Project

By Christine D’Auria

Jeffrey W. Rubin’s Seeing and Not Seeing project (SANS) seeks to develop a sensibility: a way of perceiving, describing, and analyzing social and political forces that cuts against an analysis of them as discrete phenomena. Rubin and his SANS colleagues from a range of fields and disciplines have developed this sensibility over the course of the five years of a faculty seminar and public lecture series sponsored by the BU Center for the Humanities.

Jeffrey Rubin (CAS, History) directs the Seeing and Not Seeing seminar

The SANS sensibility, as Rubin describes it, wants “to see the thing that’s in front of our eyes” and how it both “exercises power” and is part of a broad network of interactions (i.e., of what we characterize as institutions, religions, races, armies, economies, regions, or genders). To do this, SANS holds multiple ways of seeing simultaneously, discerning new patterns by delaying the move to argument and conclusion characteristic of much academic analysis. This approach also slows down deliberations and acknowledges uncertainty as we seek to act ethically in situations of harm.

In describing SANS as a “sensibility,” rather than a methodology, Rubin draws inspiration from Jacques Rancière’s notion of  the “distribution of the sensible.” For Rancière, representation is a political and aesthetic act, reflecting and constituting a social realm governed by particular (and, to varying degrees, shared) conventions. The concept of the distribution of the sensible locates representational strategies and their forms at the heart of political life. As Rancière writes, “[p]olitics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time” (Rancière 13). Like Rancière’s invocation of an alternative politics of seeing, the SANS approach, “admits multiple disciplines and holds open the question of whether to describe or to tell stories or to look for causality—and how to go about doing that,” Rubin says. Central for Rubin is the idea of post-disciplinarity, a practice that pervades seminar discussions, which bring together anthropologists, political scientists, geographers, American Studies scholars, ethnomusicologists, art historians, literary critics, historians, and sociologists. “There [are] no methodological or disciplinary boundaries among us,” Rubin says. “No one speaks from a disciplinary position, but instead, we speak out of a shared set of insights about how to think about the world.”

Members of the Seeing and Not Seeing seminar in discussion with a guest in Fall 2019

Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton UP, 2015) is a text to which Rubin refers often. Tsing’s study of matsutake mushrooms looks at their high value as luxury commodities, their environmental durability, and their harvesting by individual foragers. Dually narrating their ecological and economic significance, Tsing extends consideration of the mushrooms to the forms of labor and corporate organization that enable their consumption: “Commercial wild-mushroom picking,” labor that does not guarantee a wage or benefits, “is an exemplification of precarious livelihood” (4). In showing how survival is variously possible and foreclosed by ecological and material conditions, Tsing—who visited the SANS seminar in AY 2018/2019—tells a complex story about the changing nature of global capitalism that weaves together social, political-economic, and environmental processes in a way that illustrates Rubin’s goal for the seminar.

Because of its capacious approach, SANS hosts visitors from a range of fields and has received regular funding from BU centers as diverse as Latin American Studies; Culture, Religion, and World Affairs; and Global Development Policy, in addition to BUCH. The final visitor during AY2020/2021, Saidiya Hartman, noted the importance of “un-learning disciplinary practices” as a way of perceiving the past or a particular object—such as a photograph or a prison record—in a new way, by “seeing and not seeing it.” Through the practice of un-learning, Hartman seeks to “break a disciplinary framework enough to . . . have an encounter with life and experience and stories,” as she told the SANS seminar, in framing their discussion of her 2019 book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. In Wayward Lives, Hartman encounters Black women living amidst the oppressive poverty and sexual and racial policing of early twentieth-century Philadelphia and New York. Speculating on “possible ways of living,” Hartman allows her subjects to live through the “subjunctive”: to be represented in the work “as if [they] might live and be free,” as Hartman said. Hartman discerns the women’s insistence, hypothetical and documented, on sexual and social autonomy and dignity in circumstances that make achieving these near impossible. The discussion with Hartman opened the way to examining personal experience as a component of scholarship, illustrating another recurring theme of SANS seminars: that in their conversations, seminar members interweave scholarly inquiry with analysis of the workplace conditions and emotions embedded in working at universities and undertaking research.

Some SANS guests have engaged the concept of seeing expressly in their presentations. In AY2019/2020, SANS guest Janet Vertesi analyzed what it means for a land rover on Mars to “see,” discussing the findings of her ethnographic research about Mars Rover research teams. Notably, Vertesi’s research shows that multiple ways of seeing—in this case, the layering and combining of multiple images of Mars’s surface—are necessary to understand the planet’s basic composition. Importantly, these images aren’t pictures but signals that must be constructed into an analyzable image. Vertesi revealed that the teams decide, as they go along, how to interpret the signals, where next to send the rovers, and how to navigate them there. Thus the teams themselves make decisions about what they’re seeing and what they will “look at” next, literally constructing a particular version of Mars in the process. Their method implies that knowledge is collective and always in formation.

Such shared attempts to reach a comprehensive, evolving understanding are core to what SANS seeks to do, both in its seminar discussions and in collaborative writing projects, such as the Seeing and Not Seeing Manifesto. As a mode of attending to the complexities of the world and those events and agents that have (or will) shape it, SANS resonates with a range of actors today, such as epidemiologists and Black and Indigenous activists, who are “forging new ways of seeing and acting politically that hold multiplicity in view” (SANS Manifesto). SANS is also an intellectual collective that generates insight through social relationships and exchange. Mirroring its theoretical orientation, SANS comes into being through a practice of bringing others in, holding their ideas and experiences in view, knowing these are indispensable in the process of understanding.

November 2021