Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Horizontal Modern

Brandon presents Berkeley's "An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision" as "the first truly modern apparatus for explaining the phenomenon" of the moon illusion. That strikes me as odd, maybe because I bumped into Ibn al-Haytham's optics as I did. What is a truly modern optics? (Brandon of course could explain what he meant, early modern philosophy being his specialty, but I figured I'd play with the notion before popping over and asking him.)

Some insight into the problem of a modern optics is offered by Ivan Illich's "Guarding the Eye in the Age of Show" (pdf, courtesy of David Tinapple's Ivan Illich archive). In this erudite meditation, Illich briefly reviews the history of optics, and thinks about what one ought to do with (or against) such an inheritance. He lays out a scheme of four historical scopic or imagistic regimes, reasonably enough, but along the way he comes upon a rather uncanny observation:

It is tempting to speak about the day of the first Daguerreotype as the birthday of the Modern Age. I, too, was for a long time convinced by the beautiful pages of Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and John Berger, and conceived of photography as the decisive turning point towards the new scopic age of today. I now argue that the camera was then and remains now the pivot for the survival of the third scopic regime within the fourth, and that one of the most fascinating and least explored aspects of the last two hundred years is the coexistence of two heterogeneous scopic forms.

Some art historians speak of scopic regimes that are replaced one by another, for example, when Rafael is followed by Carravaggio. To the cultural historian of the gaze, however, no scopic regime ever achieves perfect monopoly. Past forms of gazing survive; and the survival might be group-specific. The touching gaze is still with us, marginally, like a horse and buggy in the age of the car. The monopoly of wheeled locomotion does not peremptorily deprive me of the use of my feet. In an age of universal transportation, walking to work or hiking, albeit luxuries, are still possible. If I treasure a walk, and take the time for it, I can at least try to arrange my life in such a way that I walk to work. The freedom to walk is conditioned by my willingness to engage in an askesis of the feet. In a similar way, an imageless gaze at my friend's face can be cultivated only through a continual guard of the eyes; it has become a fought-for ideal that I can pursue only by constant training, behavior that runs counter to the surrounding Bildwelt that solicits me to deliver myself to the show.

(pp.19-20, footnotes omitted)

While it's possible to envisage a modern optics apart from the machine, the invention, or the apparatus, the common language weighs against upholding such an idea. (By "common language" I mean something akin to "International Scientific Vocabulary," though not so narrowly focused, encompassing the effects of disparate technical jargons, including the polluting effects Illich mentions in his first footnote (a reference to Uwe Pörksen's Plastic Words). Something like a Gutenberg hypothesis will be needed to account for the transformation of optics in recent centuries, but the confusion is great, as we still don't have much distance from the Gutenberg revolution, not to mention the flowering of electronic and digital technologies, arguably transformative in their own right. In any event, the new technologies have generated language effects of sufficient magnitude to muck up our understanding of the gaze's history. The camera may be iconic of an older scopic regime, as Illich had come to view it, and yet it remains an ambivalent symbol. If we situate the camera within the rise of the electronic, should we understand it as representing a secondary. artificial, or hyperreal orality (in an Ongish sense)? As prefiguring an entirely new technologization of the word? Weakly or strongly disruptive? How do we begin to envision an era of perpetual disrupture, ever mindful of the wisdom that no condition is permanent?

Apparently the temptation to adopt a futuristic attitude in response to new technologies is nigh impossible to resist, even for cultural historians, which maybe seems like more of a paradox than it actually is. (By "cultural historians" I don't exactly mean Illich, who rather sets out to undermine an ordinary cultural history of future objects--that may be genuinely paradoxical). How much of our response to the new thing is geared towards the possibilities inherent in the thing, and how much towards the lexical matrix of the New? If the transformations that interest us are in fact embedded in or emergent from lexical matrices, that would imply a need, from the standpoint of a cultural history, to recalibrate or minimally revisit our sense of the tempo of cultural change, because, I reckon, languages intrinsically change at a much slower rate than tool cultures, and at any rate the transformational processes involved in either case may be radically divergent. Not that there isn't something truly impactful about the "techologization of the word," or the response to the new thing, which, as Bakhtin tells us (in Rabelais I believe), is a source of the heteroglossic in language. But in that space where we try to differentiate an era inhabited by Berkely from an era inhabited by al Haytham and so on, the relative emphasis we put on linguistic versus technological models of cultural change, and along with that, the attitude we adopt towards this very moment and its possibilities, surely will condition the way things appear to us to have unfolded, and the sorts of things we're able to describe.

The careful reader will see a pertinent response to the question, "What is a truly modern optics?" in Illich's footnote on contingency. "The beginning of modernity coincides with the attempted breakout from a world- and self-view defined overwhelmingly by contingency" (p. 16 n.55). What is meant by contingency is the idea that everything worldly is contingent upon God's will, being but extensions of His creation, and what is meant by the modern disavowal of contingency is the idea that, since Descartes, "[e]ach being now finds in its nature a reason and claim not only to existence but also to being what it is" (ibid). Perhaps that's a bit oblique. If we're using Illich to get a purchase on what might be specifically modern in Berkeley's optics, the straightforward thing to do would be look at Illich's description of the modern scopic regime:

Only with the onset of a fourth regime, around 1800, do those certainties come into existence that enable us today to speak about visual communication, global view, or interface. It is the epoch dominated by isometry rather than perspective, the epoch of untrammelled horizons, of viewpoints unaffected by standpoint. We may call it the age of diagrammatics, the age of the hermeneutical rather then the exegetical vision. I prefer to call it the age of show, during which the eye becomes dependent on interface rather than imagination.

How well does Berkeley's New Theory of Vision comport with Illich's fourth regime? Does it speak to the coexistence of heterogeneous scopic forms? Take a look at the following passage from the The New Theory of Vision, in which Berkeley sums up his thinking on the "horizontal moon."

In these and the like instances the truth of the matter stands thus: having of a long time experienced certain ideas, perceivable by touch, as distance, tangible figure, and solidity, to have been connected with certain ideas of sight, I do upon perceiving these ideas of sight forthwith conclude what tangible ideas are, by the wonted ordinary course of Nature like to follow. Looking at an object I perceive a certain visible figure and colour, with some degree of faintness and other circumstances, which from what I have formerly observed, determine me to think that if I advance forward so many paces or miles, I shall be affected with such and such ideas of touch: so that in truth and strictness of speech I neither see distance itself, nor anything that I take to be at a distance. I say, neither distance nor things placed at a distance are themselves, or their ideas, truly perceived by sight. This I am persuaded of, as to what concerns myself: and I believe whoever will look narrowly into his own thoughts and examine what he means by saying he sees this or that thing at a distance, will agree with me that what he sees only suggests to his understanding that after having passed a certain distance, to be measured by the motion of his body, which is perceivable by touch, he shall come to perceive such and such tangible ideas which have been usually connected with such and such visible ideas. But that one might be deceived by these suggestions of sense, and that there is no necessary connexion between visible and tangible ideas suggested by them, we need go no farther than the next looking-glass or pictures to be convinced. Note that when I speak of tangible ideas, I take the word idea for any the immediate object of sense or understanding, in which large signification it is commonly used by the moderns.

Is this the modern way to talk about "ideas," as if they were objects of either sense or understanding? Would it have seemed unusual to the readers Berkeley imagined addressing? Revolutionary? Novel? Is there any distance between Berkeley's optics and the thinking of the moderns? Is this way of thinking indicative of a move from perspective to isometry, from an exegesis to a hermeneutics of vision? Look at one more passage from The New Theory of Vision, concerning the notion of a "language of nature":

There is indeed this difference between the signification of tangible figures by visible figures, and of ideas by words: that whereas the latter is variable and uncertain depending altogether on the arbitrary appointment of men, the former is fixed and immutably the same in all times and places. A visible square, for instance, suggests to the mind the same tangible figure in Europe that it doth in America. Hence it is that the voice of the Author of Nature which speaks to our eyes, is not liable to that misinterpretation and ambiguity that languages of human contrivance are unavoidably subject to.

Hmmm. I definitely see how one could describe Berkeley's optics as hermeneutic, but I'm not sure how it couldn't be seen as exegetical as well, which leads me to wonder to what extent Berkeley inhabited an era of coexisting heterogeneous optic forms. In the case of al Haytham, no matter how advanced his ideas appear to us, we cannot properly regard him as modern. But if being modern is to mean anything more than having some contemporaries who call themselves modern, I'm not yet sure what exactly that would be. Say Illich is roughly correct in his identification of historical scopic regimes. The problem is that nobody perfectly embodies the age they inhabit. As time goes on, we find thinkers more and more deeply engaged with traditions like "empiricism," "mathematics," or "philosophy," and these engagements, along with the usual idiosyncracies that mark a thinker as an historical figure, set a thinker apart from the common discourses of the day--let me say that another way: it is the activity of thinking which is more and more set apart, professionalized, technologized, rarified. The isolation of the thinker is nowhere near absolute, but there appears to be a flexibility to the contigencies that would connect a way of thinking to an epoch or, shall we say, a cultural horizon. If we identify the ambiguity of this space with the ambiguity of language, are we not left with the possibility that what marks a style of thinking as modern doesn't add up to much more than the acknowledgement of the term "modern"? We would still have questions like "What does that mean?" or "What does that entail?," but we would have dispensed with, I think, the notion that we could describe the essence of what it is to be modern. No, I don't quite buy that. If one wants to look at it empirically, though, it does seem that the way a style of systematic thinking relates to a cultural horizon is not simply by taking place in a particular era, mirroring or iconifying or responding to its concerns (all of which may take place), but rather by carrying forward processes of cultural transformation that are going on across a broad array of various fields. In short, the coexistence of heterogeneous cultural forms may be intrinsic to the way culture works.

That's about it for now. On a final note, what comes to mind when you say the phrase "horizontal moon"? To me, there's something not quite Copernican about it, like a patient aetherized upon a table.... Anyway.

posted by Fido the Yak at 4:40 AM.


Blogger Brandon said...

I don't know enough about al-Haytham's optics to say whether he might not have scooped Berkeley on the subject; but Berkeley shifts the theory of vision as it was found in his time from being geometry-oriented to being cue-oriented: the emphasis being on things like faintness, overlap, sharpness of outline, and the like. One can find precursors for this (Malebranche being the most notable), but Berkeley is the first in the early modern period to focus systematically on what cues suggest to the mind rather than geometry. So it makes a plausible candidate for being, more or less, the locus of a major shift in what people focused on when trying to explain optical illusions.

Berkeley's use of the term ideas in the way he does certainly would not have been novel; he was just following Locke. His novelty was placing such actual emphasis on suggestion or signification. I hadn't really considered before whether it should be considered exegetical or hermeneutic.

On a side note, you might be interested in a discussion that has occasionally sprung up since the 70s on Berkeley and Buber and encounter with persons; I wrote a post about it in 2004.

January 18, 2006 1:26 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I did indeed find the comparison of Buber and Berkeley interesting. I'll be sure to look into Forth's paper and see where that leads.

I'm glad you've elaborated on your view of Berkeley. From what little I know of al Haytham, it seems that he was strongly empiricist, and that his solution to the moon illusion was to treat it as a phenomenon of perception rather than geometric or astronomical space per se. When you say, pace Forth, that signification rather than perception is the foundation of Berkeley's system, it strikes me that you and Illich are roughly on the same page as regards the modern. Tentatively, that would be a reason to define al Haytham's optics as other than modern.

Just picked up a copy of Merleau-Ponty's World of Perception which includes a discussion of the moon illusion. I'm sure to blog this topic again soon.

January 20, 2006 2:08 AM  

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