The eye

Would it be accurate to see bloggers as private investigators working in the public eye?

Perhaps not. A private eye, as the early 20th century Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki often pointed out, is someone who rummages through other people’s garbage. That is, the private eye brings to public view what is and should remain private.

Soseki embodied the tension between modernity and tradition. Surely one of the pillars of modernity is this notion that nothing is off limits to the inquisitive mind – everything should be held up to the light. To citizens of modern, Western states, the veil and the harem are the essence of backwardness. The idea that there might be power in the retreat from view is anathema. Our gaze is resolutely public. People who will not look us straight in the eye are assumed to be untrustworthy. To be honest, we think, necessarily entails baring the soul.

In non-Western and vernacular traditions, however, things aren’t so clear-cut. Correspondence between word and deed, rather than a confessional impulse, might be seen as the most accurate measure of honesty. Meeting another’s gaze may be interpreted as an act of aggression – the same way a dog or wolf would interpret it.

In many cultures, the ear may be considered a more reliable witness than the eye. Hearing is much more closely akin to thought; vision is a thing of the body, and adheres to surfaces in a way that can only be considered promiscuous. Our most private parts may be endowed with at least figurative vision: the one-eyed trouser mouse, a notoriously amoral creature. The vagina during childbirth – an exothalmic eye with protective powers.

Vision dissects, says psycholinguist Walter Ong. Is it only given to artists and poets to enjoy a walk in the fog?

What we think we know about seeing is not only culturally biased, but bears the inevitable impress of our species, for which an unusually well developed visual cortex must be balanced against a corresponding diminution in the other senses. One need only look at blind people to see how rich and even beautiful a world without vision still might be.

The painter is Esref Armagan. And he is here in Boston to see if a peek inside his brain can explain how a man who has never seen can paint pictures that the sighted easily recognise – and even admire. He paints houses and mountains and lakes and faces and butterflies, but he’s never seen any of these things. He depicts colour, shadow and perspective, but it is not clear how he could have witnessed these things either. How does he do it?

. . . We normally think of seeing as the taking in of objective reality through our eyes. But is it? How much of what we think of as seeing really comes from without, and how much from within? The visual cortex may have a much more important role than we realise in creating expectations for what we are about to see, says Pascual-Leone. “Seeing is only possible when you know what you’re going to see,” he says. Perhaps in Armagan the expectation part is operational, but there is simply no data coming in visually.

Conventional wisdom suggests that a person can’t have a “mind’s eye” without ever having had vision. But Pascual-Leone thinks Armagan must have one. The researcher has long argued that you could arrive at the same mental picture via different senses. In fact he thinks we all do this all the time, integrating all the sensations of an object into our mental picture of it. “When we see a cup,” he says, “we’re also feeling with our mind’s hand. Seeing is as much touching as it is seeing.”

(via Marja-Leena Rathje)

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I perceive a thing because I have a field of existence and because each phenomenon, on its appearance, attracts toward that field the whole of my body as a system of perceptual powers. . . . Cézanne declared that a picture contains within itself even the smell of the landscape. He means that the arrangement of the colour on the thing (and in the work of art, if it catches the thing in its entirety) signifies by itself all the responses which would be elicited through an examination by the remaining senses; that a thing would not have this colour had it not also this shape, these tactile properties, this resonance, this odour, and that the thing is the absolute fullness which my undivided existence projects before itself.

M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (Colin Smith, tr., Routledge, 1962)

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The question is not only: what am I looking at? The question is also: what is looking at me?

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Apart from his height and ancient black leather trench coat the most striking thing about him was the fact that he had a pair of eyes tattooed on the back of his shaven head. Bright blue, opposite the pair I assumed were on the front of his head, staring straight out at anyone following. Like me. I have still not overcome my inability to photograph recognisable people without asking them first, and I didn’t want to speak to him. So [the accompanying illustration] is a tattoo found randomly on the net. Mr Covent Garden’s second pair of eyes was not quite so feminised, but still somehow slightly coquettish. I didn’t see the operational pair for comparison.

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The fake eyes of P. troilus were well known to butterfly enthusiasts, but what had apparently escaped notice is the directionality of their stare. Or perhaps I should say the nondirectionality, for the eyes appeared to look in all directions at once. Their stare was uncanny. If you loked at the caterpillar from directly in front, it stared back. If you looked at it from the sides, or from behind, or from above, it likewise appeared to return the look. There was no direction from which a predator could approach the caterpillar without finding itself visually “confronted” . . .

There can be little question that the eyes of P. troilus draw the attention of an approaching predator. They certainly draw our own, and are in fact what gives the caterpillar away when you search for it on its food plant. There is ample experimental evidence that the circular disk, highlighted by a dark pupillary center – the eye image – attracts human attention. If you trace the eye motions by which a human being scans a facial image, the glances are seen to be cast back and forth from one eye of the image to the other, and to be directed only occasionally to other facial features such as the mouth and nose. . . .

In art there is also a way to impart to eyes the ability to gaze in different directions. There are paintings that “follow” you as you walk past them, portraits with a seeming ability to maintain a visual hold on you as you pass them by. . . . One trick . . . is to impart upon the two eyes a slightly divergent direction of view, so that one eye appears to stare at you while you are at the left of the portrait and the other while you are to the right. You are thus never out of eye contact with the painting no matter from where you view it.

Thomas Eisner, For the Love of Insects (Belknap Press, 2003)

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Every image maker has a persona, wrote the text maker, clambering into the barrel of my camera’s lens, crawling through the half-cocked diaphragm (set to f3.5 for the narrowest depth of field), then leaping, ever nimble, from mirror to mirror and diving out through the viewfinder, right through astigmatism-correcting plastic, twice-scratched cornea, aqueous humor, lens, vitreous humor until, finally, he lies panting, tangled in the remarkably weed-like wefts of my retina.

I must find the text-maker’s weed persona, I thought, sitting down, opening another light-box, poring over image after image.

*

A master escape artist whose soft body can contort itself through the smallest of openings, the octopus is the brainiest of animals without backbones, and it has keen eyesight. Those attributes attracted Albert Titus, a University of Buffalo professor, to study how an octopus sees, and to mimic that structure and function in a silicon chip called the o-retina.

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But Titus isn’t content to merely replicate the functioning of a specific retina. His ultimate goal is to build a complete artificial vision system, including a brain that mimics the visual systems of various animals, so humans can look at the world differently.

Titus also hopes this system will eventually allow him to connect different “eyes” to different “brains” – allowing, for example, a lion’s brain to process images as seen by an eagle’s retina.

“The visual system is more than eyes,” Titus said. “An animal uses eyes to see, but the brain to perceive. Yet, the retina is an extension of the brain, so where does the distinction between seeing and perceiving begin and end?”

*

There’s hardly a part of the body
that can’t learn vision, clock stopped
at the center of a hurricane,
all-seeing shape that plays for keeps.
It shines.
It weeps.

*

Between February 12 and February 27, the art will happen, in time and in space. The brevity of the experience will heighten the urgency of what happens.

And what happens in those sixteen days will depend precisely on each observer, on each person who experiences it, their physical vantage point, their state of mind, their receptivity to the pleasures and challenges of altered vision.

In this sense, the viewer is the fourth essential element in the Gates as a work of art.

– “the Eye”

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The almond tree is in blossom. Pica brought in a branch to draw but Charlie sniffed it and started munching on the blossoms! He didn’t let go either, and ran off with the branch, muttering possessive growls along the way.

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After last night’s hijacking of my sprig of blossoms, I went out and got another. Here’s a drawing done on one of my new sheets of Canson Mi-Teints. I realize using colored pencils on this paper can’t quite work the same way, so I think next time I’ll do the entire drawing in white tempera before I start adding color.

These blossoms smell intensely like honey. It’s a wonderful thing to have them out your back door.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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