When I went to see the optometrist that afternoon, I didn't expect that anything would be wrong. It was just a routine visit. I have been nearsighted, and worn glasses, since childhood, and I go to the eye doctor yearly. Usually my prescription needs to be tweaked a bit. This time around, my left eye had more or less stabilized; no change in the strength of the left lens was necessary. But when the doctor tested my right eye, I couldn't read a thing. Even the largest letters on the chart were all blurry and wavy. I was almost able to catch things out of the corner of my eye, but whatever I looked at straight-on bent, wavered, and became illegible. My close-up vision had collapsed, as if into a black hole.
Recent research suggests that it was the sudden evolution of the eye that triggered the "Cambrian explosion": the amazingly rapid diversification of animal life that took place in a single burst some 538 million years ago. The emergence of vision made active predation possible for the first time; predators spread and developed rapidly, and their prospective prey had to follow suit in order to survive. Even today, our eyes are still marked by this predatory heritage. When a mammal (of any species) stares at me, the scientists say, this can only mean one of four things: it wants to fight me, it wants to eat me, it wants to have sex with me, or it thinks I am its mother.
Midnight Crossing: Images flicker on a wide screen. Then a voice is heard: "like attracts like/ like images attract words/ only then to push them away." High intensity lights flare up in time with the voice, to illuminate and obliterate the screen. The images are whited out in the glare. Then blackout; but in the sudden darkness, ghostly afterimages linger on my retinas. How much of what I see is in the world, in the images themselves? And how much is only in my own eyes? What does it mean to inhabit the gap between the visible world and my actual vision of it? But even as these afterimages fade away, "the vivid color images slowly fade up from the darkness," and the whole cycle begins anew.
I was shocked - and scared. Up until that moment, I hadn't noticed any problems with my right eye at all. For the brain routinely fills in the "picture" that it receives from the eyes. It papers over inconsistencies, and automatically compensates for anything it interprets as an anomaly. This all happens prior to, and outside of, my conscious awareness. And so, whenever both of my eyes were open, my brain used the information from the "good" eye to compensate for the deficiencies of the "bad" one. It presented me with a seamless field of vision. It was only when I closed my left eye in the optometrist's office that the defect in my right eye suddenly became "visible." The doctor told me that I might well have had the condition for six or nine months, without ever having been aware of it.
The eye plays a crucial role in modern culture. Uniform visual apprehension is a sine qua non of scientific method. Vision, more than the other senses, allows us to dominate the world: to observe it at a distance, and thereby to understand it - which is to say: to predict it, control it, and change it. Accordingly, in modern Western thought - ever since the discovery of the laws of perspective, together with the laws of motion, during the Renaissance - we tend to separate the eyes from what they see. We forget the physiology of vision. The eyes are not in the world, so much as they are windows upon the world. More precisely, my two eyes together are taken to represent one single ideal viewpoint: the focal point of my perspective as an observer of the scene before me. In this scheme, the viewer is not part of the picture. The observer (the one who sees, the subject) always stands outside - or, more precisely, on the threshold - of the scene being observed. On the threshold of the visible world.
Crux: Not only is vision visceral and embodied; it is also distributed all over the body. Small screens are arranged in the form of a cross; the artist has been crucified, pinned like a butterfly to the gallery wall. The five screens show, respectively, his face, his left and right hands, and his left and right feet, as he thrashes his way through the underbrush and down to the shore. We see only in close proximity: we only see what's right in front of his eyes, his hands, and his feet. All the while, we hear "labored breathing, the rustle of leaves." Crux explores the connections between prehension ("the act of grasping or seizing"), apprehension ("the ability to ... become conscious of, as through the emotions or senses"), and comprehension ("the act or fact of grasping the meaning, nature, or importance of"). Seeing and thinking, as much as grasping and walking, are actions that involve some sort of physical exertion: a pressure, a displacement, a transfer from one point to another. The eyes look, the hands seize, the feet traverse; each of these motions carries the others along with it. In Crux, the body is divided among five different screens, just as that body is differentiated into separate actions, separate organs, and separate senses. A primordial synesthesia gives way to fragmentation. But Crux is also about the continuing resonance among these fragments, the way they answer to, and relay, one another.
The optometrist sent me to the opthamologist, who diagnosed me as having a macular hole: a tiny hole in the very middle of the retina. Some definitions: "the retina is a light sensitive tissue that lines the inner back portion of the eyeball. The macula is the center portion of the retina and allows one sharp vision for reading and driving as well as color vision. The vitreous is a gelatinous substance that naturally fills the center of the eye. There are many diseases that can affect the retina, macula, and vitreous." In particular, as you get older, the vitreous shrinks, and "eventually falls away or separates from the retina." This generally happens between the ages of forty and seventy. But sometimes a proper separation does not take place. The vitreous remains stuck to the wall of the retina. It pulls on the retina as it shrivels away from it. Eventually, the pulling causes a tear in the macula, a hole at the very center of vision. The condition is most common in post-menopausal women, and in middle aged women and men who are (as I am) extremely nearsighted.
"The subject does not belong to the world: rather, it is a limit of the world. Where in the world is a metaphysical subject to be found? You will say that this is exactly like the case of the eye and the visual field. But really you do not see the eye. And nothing in the visual field allows you to infer that it is seen by an eye" (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 5.632-5.633). Wittgenstein here, like Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix Reloaded, is paraphrasing Kant. For Kant, I am both an empirical object within the world, and a "transcendental subject," a perspective upon the world, a condition for experiencing the world, a limit of the world. On the one hand, I am just a thing, a mechanism, whose actions are determined by the laws of cause and effect. But on the other hand, I am also a free being, whose actions are the result of rational deliberation and choice. The modern self, as Michel Foucault puts it, is "a strange empirico-transcendental doublet." And the eye, as a synechdoche for this "I," this self, is also always already split, riven within and against itself. "The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye" (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature).
Beacon (Two Versions of the Imaginary): Maurice Blanchot writes of the fascination of images: "But what happens when what you see, although at a distance, seems to touch you with a gripping contact, when the manner of seeing is a kind of touch, when seeing is contact at a distance? What happens when what is seen imposes itself upon the gaze, as if the gaze were seized, put in touch with the appearance?" Two voices recite these lines, one male and one female, while images slowly rotate around the walls of the darkened room. Sometimes there are human faces; other times, bits of text; still other times, a natural landscape. As the images slip along the walls, they move in and out of focus. And since they come in pairs, on opposite sides of the room, 180ˇ apart, "it is never possible to view two images at once." But even unseen, as if they were barely there, these images hover at the edges of my awareness. They have a spectral presence. I cannot possess them or lay hold of them; but for this very reason, I also cannot ignore them or let them go. More precisely: they will not let me go. They are no longer just images, or objects, that I see. For they have insinuated themselves within my eyesight itself. It is the gentlest of seductions, the most discreet of fascinations - and therefore also the most insidious.
I felt that I was lucky to have been born with two eyes. If one of them failed, in some sort of catastrophe, the other would still be there as a backup. But now, this unthinkable catastrophe had actually arrived. Thanks to my remaining "good" eye, I could still see normally. But my backup system was exhausted. Every day I thought to myself, I am only one eye away from blindness. About six percent of the people with a macular hole in one eye subsequently develop one in the other eye as well; these are fairly long odds, but they were not long enough for comfort. I became painfully aware of the fragility and vulnerability - the sheer contingency - of vision. It's not that my right eye was blind, exactly. It could still discern shapes, colors, and movements. Peripheral vision was unaffected. And the right eye still worked in tandem with the left to provide me with depth perception. I could see if a car was coming, and find my way to the bathroom. The problem was only with detailed, close-up vision, the specialty of the macula. I couldn't read with my right eye, or thread a needle, or watch TV, or recognize other people's faces. When I looked at a straight line, it had a zigzag in it: this was the point where the macula should have been able to focus. When I looked at a letter, or a line of text, the signs swirled, became turbulent, and twisted out of sight. Sometimes, for less than a second, I would see a letter with perfect clarity; but the image would quickly dissipate, returning to its primordial blur.
According to Kant and Wittgenstein, we get into trouble when we confuse the two dimensions of the "I" or the eye, mixing the empirical with the transcendental. We take the attributes of the transcendental subject, the merely formal preconditions of subjectivity (unity, permanence, self-identity, etc.), and treat them as if they were actual, concrete attributes of the self as an empirical entity in the world. This sort of confusion is what gives rise to idealist philosophy: belief in the immortality of the soul and in the primacy of mind over matter. Descartes argued that soul and body, or mind and matter, were two separate substances; his mistake, Kant says, was precisely to substantialize thought, to think that the "metaphysical subject" was an actual substance, an actual part of the world, rather than a mere "condition of possibility," a perspective upon the world, a way of interpreting and transforming it. Such idealist doctrines are illusions, but they are not arbitrary ones. Rather, they are illusions that we cannot help being misled by, again and again. For such illusions are intrinsic to thought and language themselves. Kant calls them "transcendental illusions"; Wittgenstein says they result from "the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." For Kant and Wittgenstein alike, philosophy is a never-ending struggle against these intrinsic, never-ending illusions.
Reflex Chamber: The room is shut off, a place apart, separated from the world whose images it contains: like "the internal chamber of a camera," or like a Leibnizian monad, without windows or doors. There are only images here; and as a result, "rather than a picture (window) to stand before and see in perspective, the image takes on a more physical presence." I hear the artist's voice, stuttering in the dark: "I have no mouth, no scream, no voice within· I didn't think this. This is not me. I'm not accountable." The images flicker inconstantly on a table top in the middle of the room, continually changing shape and orientation. And then they are bleached out entirely, again and again, by brilliant flashes from the strobe lights on the ceiling. I can only see in brief, tantalizing glimpses. My sight is tenuous and precarious, poised on the verge of extinction. Now my eyes are bedazzled, dark with excessive bright; now my vision implodes, turned back upon itself, as if driven mad by the lack of anything to see. "There are gaps in the thought and the seeing, but the gaps never become a rhythm." There is no place for a detached observer in this scenario. In an inversion of the cogito, the "I" collapses back into the eye; I am not, because I cannot think to see.
A macular hole used to be an irreparable condition. But in the last fifteen years or so, they have developed a surgical treatment for it. This isn't laser surgery, but an actual, physical, hands-on intervention within the eye. My surgeon carefully detached the vitreous from the retina. Then he inserted a gas bubble in the empty space; this was to protect the retinal area. I was conscious during the entire operation, which took about forty-five minutes. They strapped me to a table, and gave me some shots, to administer the local anesthetic. I felt nothing. The anesthetic doesn't actually knock you out; but it does produce short-term memory loss. As a result, there's a gap of fifteen minutes or so in my remembrances. During this time I was suspended, apparently, in a strange eternal present. I observed everything that was going on around me, but I had no sense of time passing, of one instant giving way to the next. I forgot every sensation, the moment I registered it. What does it mean to be conscious, without recollection or duration, all this awareness immediately consigned to oblivion? In any case, the next thing I remember, after the shots, is the surgeon and the nurses looming over me. The operation was already well under way. Actually, I remember their voices more than their images. Mostly I saw flashes and cascades of light in my eye, the result of the pressures being applied to it, and of the touch of the tiny instruments being inserted within it. That is to say, my optic nerve was not receiving visual impressions, or representations, of the outside world; rather, it was being directly stimulated. Vision, at its most intense point, cannot be distinguished from hallucination.
The artist's task is different from that of the philosopher, even if they are grappling with the same problems. Idealist philosophy is dogmatic. A thinker like Descartes conflates the transcendental with the empirical, essentializing both. Critical philosophy, on the other hand, is regulative. A thinker like Kant or Wittgenstein delineates conditions and limits, recalling the transcendental to its merely formal role, while acknowledging the sheer contingency of the empirical. The critical thinker thereby dissipates the idealist's confusions, separating the empirical from the transcendental and de-essentializing both. Art, however, is transgressive and experimental. The artist tests the limits of "I" and eye alike, trying out new combinations and new potentialities (experiment), and probing for places where philosophy's regulative norms break down (transgression). The artist, unlike the critical philosopher, actively affirms contingency, paradox, and multiplicity. Rather than delineating concepts, she or he seeks out, in Kant's terms, "inner intuitions to which no concept can be completely adequate." In the transgressive movement of aesthetic experimentation, "sight, crossing the globular limit of the eye, constitutes the eye in its instantaneous being; sight carries it away in this luminous stream..., hurls the eye outside of itself, conducts it to the limit where it bursts out in the immediately extinguished flame of its being" (Michel Foucault, "A Preface to Transgression").
Wall Piece: On video, the artist hurls himself against a wall, again and again. The wall never gives way before his impact. He recites a text, shouting a single word each time he hits the wall: "I am in a way blind... I have no place... Where am I? I can't remember at will." The video is itself projected upon a wall, the far side of the room in which I'm standing. There is no continuous picture, but only a series of stroboscopic bursts: a flash of light whenever the artist's body strikes the wall. I see a sequence of anguished, contorted postures, each of them caught in mid-motion. The soundtrack is similarly discontinuous; the artist's exclamations are abruptly chopped up, often mid-syllable, as the tape clicks off and on and off again. Meanwhile, a strobe light is flashing in the exhibition room itself; but its bursts are not synchronized with those of the video. As a result, my eyes are bombarded by shifting interference patterns: "sometimes the light presages the image, echoes the image, or when in unison, obliterates the image." Wall Piece assaults my eyes and ears; it's all tension, with no release. What matters is not what I see and hear, but how I see it and hear it. Vision is stripped of its object, turned back upon itself, and reduced to the passion and fascination of the act of seeing. The eye is not part of the visual field; but now the visual field collapses into the eye itself. I am no more able to reach beyond the act of seeing, in order thereby to grasp the object seen, than the artist is able to beat his way through the wall, in order to reach whatever might lie beyond.
After the operation, my eye started discharging mucus and tears. I felt as if the power of sight was leaching slowly out of the wounded eye; I feared that the slowly oozing flow would never be stanched. But the surgeon assured me that this was a normal part of the healing process, and that it would stop after a couple of weeks - which it did. The hardest thing about my recuperation was the bodily discipline it required: I had to stay with my head in a downward-facing position, 24/7. This was so that the air bubble in my eye would remain in its proper place, just over the macula. At night, I would lie on my stomach, and place my head in a sort of clamp, to prevent myself from turning over in my sleep. When I was awake, I stood or sat with my head lowered, in the posture of somebody who was deeply depressed. I could only see what was directly in front of me with the help of a bizarre apparatus that included a pair of mirrors. Mostly I just looked at my feet, at the carpet on the living room floor, or - on the rare occasions that I went outside - at the cracks in the sidewalk. Finally, after a week and a half of this, the surgeon permitted me to hold my head up again. The air bubble had done its work. The macula was healing: its cells were growing together, more or less as they had been before the vitreous tore them apart. But the air bubble took several months to dissipate. It remained inside my eye. I could always see it, viscous and semi-transparent. It was strange, unlike any other object in the world. It would rise and fall, as I moved my head up and down. But it remained stubbornly visible, no matter where I looked. It was a constitutive part of my field of vision, rather than just an object in that field. In any case, it gradually grew smaller; until one day, when I woke up, it was gone.
"In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God" (Emerson, Nature). Emerson's extraordinary qualification - "leaving me my eyes" - is his acknowledgment of the corporeal contingency upon which his exaltation rests. Without his bodily eyes, he could not "become a transparent eye-ball." Even "Universal Being" cannot circulate without some sort of physical implementation. Behind every transparency, there is an opaque, material surface, serving as its backdrop or support: the retina, the movie screen, or the tain of the mirror.
Tall Ships: As I walk down the long, dark corridor, ghostly presences arise and seem to greet me. Of course these faces and bodies are really just video projections, whose appearance is triggered by sensors that respond to my movement through the space. But even as I know that these people aren't "real," I cannot help feeling their proximity, and responding to their mutely imploring gazes. It is uncanny to see such specters approach from the distance, only to fade away again once I have passed them by. "The existence of these figures is ephemeral, fleeting and silent, yet a determined presence illuminates the space." For these "slightly wavering" faces and bodies are more than images. They are the wall people, the mirror people: they live close by, so close that we can almost touch one another; but on the other side of a threshold, or a barrier, that they are incapable of crossing. I am separated from them as the living are separated from the dead: that is to say, by the thinnest and yet most impermeable of membranes. I will join them one day, but then I will no longer be myself. In the meantime, I am bound to them by the gazes that we share, the impalpable visions incised on my retinas.
The surgeon pronounced my operation a success. The cells had grown back together; the macular hole was closed. A certain imperfection remains, however. The macular cells are not perfectly aligned. There's still a certain waviness in the visual field of my right eye. Every vertical line has a tiny kink in it: a point where it bends and twists, before returning to its straight course. I have to squint and concentrate a bit, in order to read a line of text with just my right eye. It's much better than it was when the macular hole was open, but it isn't quite the same as it was before this all happened. Once again, though, when both eyes are open, I do not notice that anything is wrong.