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The Forms of the Visible

Lecture by Philippe Descola, Emeritus Professor at the Collège de France

Thursday 8th June 2023 15:00 – 17:00 CLC407 (Calman Learning Centre, Durham University, Stockton Rd, Durham DH1 3LE)

Practices of visualisation are not entirely determined by the imagination of those who visualise. We only visualise what we perceive or imagine, and we only imagine and perceive what habit has taught us to discern. The visual path that we spontaneously trace in the folds of the world depends on our attachment to one of the four regions of the ontological archipelago: animism, naturalism, totemism or analogism. Each of these regions corresponds to a specific way of conceiving the framework of the world, of perceiving its continuities and its discontinuities, in particular the various dividing lines between humans and non-humans.

A Yup'ik mask from Alaska, an Aboriginal bark painting, a miniature landscape from the Song dynasty, a seventeenth-century Dutch painting of a domestic interior: by what it shows or omits to show, and by its formal conventions, any image reveals a particular figurative scheme. Identifying that scheme is key to understanding how images release their power to act. Images allow us to access — perhaps better than words — the major fault lines of the human condition. Through his masterful comparison of a huge range of images, Descola lays the theoretical foundations for an anthropology of figuration and outlines a persuasive grammar of figurative representation.

In his lecture at Durham University, France’s most acclaimed anthropologist, Philippe Descola, will talk about his new work on visual forms that builds on his comparative study of the relationships between humans and non-humans. In recent years, his distinctive approach to comparison has not only shaken up the social sciences and the environmental humanities in a number of ways but has also profoundly reshaped the way we look at some of the pressing ecological issues of our time.



Friday  9th June 2023 14:00 – 17:00 Institute of Advanced Studies


In his latest book, Les Formes du Visible, Philippe Descola proposes an approach to figurative forms as ‘iconic agents, simultaneously figurative and predisposed to action, revealing the invisible layers they actualise, at the same time invested with the causal autonomy of all those, human and non-human, who helped establish them’ (2021:84). Images, or modes of figuration as he defines them, are seen as manifesting different regimes of knowledge and practice. They are ontological indicators, lending themselves to cross-cultural analysis.

Descola’s panoramic study of different socio-cultural forms of visual expression offers an approach to explore the manifold and transforming links between figurative forms and the regimes of truth and experience within which they are generated. Crucially, the method he proposes is not only applicable to non-Western visual cultures or to the history of art, but also to the study of imaging practices in the modern sciences and humanities. This opens a whole new range of options for all those who are grappling with contemporary questions of representation and the visualisation of knowledge.  

In this workshop PGRs and colleagues from different departments in the university will engage with aspects of Descola’s work from the perspective of their own research. Presentations will engage with issues ranging from visual representations of conflicts, photographic ecologies, memory and images, material transformations, aesthetics and mathematics, and medical images. There will be space for questions after each presentation as well as for a general discussion at the end.

If you have any question please email Paolo Fortis ( and Istvan Praet (

Philippe Descola is Emeritus Professor at the Collège de France where he held the Chair of the Anthropology of Nature between 2000 and 2019. See here for his biography and publications.

Relevant interviews and publications in English: