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August 28, 2009

Stuck in the Primum Mobile

Before eyeglasses were invented and put into use, how the hell did nearsighted people see anything? And how did how they saw things impact how they thought about vision?

Up until the late 1200's it was generally accepted as a natural fact that vision was possible because eyes emitted light onto objects -- which seems a remarkably subjective/self-focused idea. And also kind of like a superhero power. Once the theory of vision through emission was disproved, less subjective studies of the eye led to our modern understanding of how vision works.

I tend to think humans go into any new endeavor eyeballs first, so trying to imagine a world where a large section of the population can't see beyond their feet stuns me. But this also explains how some of the more interesting theories of the universe were accepted as natural facts, before the telescope made looking up into the beyond possible. Crystalline spheres, perfect circular orbits, us in the center of it all...such very subject-centered ideas. And these were very sustaining ideas, for generations. Until seeing made things change.

Today I saw an item in the news about how researchers have imaged a single molecule. You can actually see in the image the bonds between atoms. A few hundred years ago, people looking up could only "see" crystal spheres, and people looking in could only "see" ethers and energies. And right now there are telescope cameras flying through space, sending back skillions of pixels that can show us something about the transits of earth-sized planets across the galaxy.

But these leaps forward in understanding do not mean much to people who find navel-gazing sustaining, to those who adhere to the subjective as if it is objective. The act of being objective about anything means that a portion of the self is restricted, or held in reserve, or suppressed in some way, so that new information can be taken in and identifications are not made from an entirely self-focused gaze.

Objectivity is not impersonal, of course, because we are still thinking through and filtering whatever it is we see. In contrast, true subjectivity is nothing but personal filtering, as exemplified by many a recent Town Hall meeting-goer...and anything Rep. Michele Bachmann says. And for some of us, that relentless subjectivity is a frightening, mind-numbing prison.

My favorite Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough At Last" spells that problem out exactly. Eyeglasses and all.

August 7, 2009

The Noise that Undermines Certainty

Blue is the first color I remember seeing, or being conscious of seeing; I was in a living room with a blue couch and chairs when I registered my own existence for the first time. I was three. My mother had taken me with her to a League of Women Voters meeting, and there were women in skirts, and a lot of talking, and cookies with what I found out later were apricot centers, and blue, all around me.

And this memory -- of the moment I was first cognizant of anything outside of myself -- is still completely color saturated. Which is a weird but familiar comfort, because I am addicted to thinking about color. Or perhaps by this point I am simply addicted to being conscious, which is the same thing. Seeing two examples of color-infused thinking recently is what made me reflect on this idea, and wonder if everyone is addicted in their own way to their own patterns of thought.

I saw a production of Electra a few weeks ago (a play about a daughter addicted to her own experience of grief/vengeance) that had a very spare set: a white wall, a red tomb, a red front door, and a cluster of barren, blood-red trees. I appreciated the spareness, but the director's use of this intense red was a distracting choice as the frame for a play filled with arguments about love and hate. I kept seeing a painting instead of listening to the modernized version of Sophocles' story being spun. But part of that distraction was to be expected, because regardless of the set, Electra is most compelling to an audience who get off on well-crafted insults, collusion, plotting. You know, like watching Real Housewives of New Jersey.

Watching the film The Hurt Locker was just the opposite, because it centers on a character who is addicted to a nearly wordless, intense, visual pursuit: defusing bombs. I know rationally that the film is also about the addiction our culture has to war making, or that a subset of us have to high-testosterone activities, and the consequences of such. But I found watching the main character work, watching him engaged in a life and death situation that depended for a positive outcome on his visual acuity, totally mesmerizing.

The life and death part of his job seemed secondary to him; the time-stopping focus he was capable of achieving when looking at a bomb and figuring out how to defuse it was what seemed to bring him intense pleasure and release. Time away from the work was presented in the film as just unavoidable downtime spent between one injection of the drug and the next. But the drug was actually self-generated. His character provided his own high by using his eyes and hands and concentration. And war gave him the best hook-up to a situation that would keep him generating that drug.

Which is what made me wonder about the addictive nature of consciousness itself. Like anyone else, I don't seem to have a say in what I can remember -- or in the colors of those experiences. What was said at the time is a noise or a sound I often cannot recall with the same acuteness, and I do wish I had better recall of words.

But I also wish sometimes that I existed in some surreal place where my color-thinking drug was always being generated and continually keeping me as high as I feel when I am deep in a painting. I have to wonder if that kind of wish holds true for any thinking being, and wonder how that impacts our choices about what situations provide the best hook-ups.

And I think, how lucky are those (especially in this day and age!) who have minds that are addicted to words. They can shoot up anytime.