Putting the human visual apparatus in context

As a species, we suffer terribly from a violent obsession with the world of images, transfixed by what we can see, and ablaze with the desire to see what we cannot. We should not stop short of marveling at this quandary.

Putting the human visual apparatus in context
Snow covered fields with a Harrow by Vincent van Gogh

I wrote most of these words at a Russian Orthodox monastery on Vashon Island, WA. I am happily Protestant, and thus do not have any desire to become Russian Orthodox, but to me, the things of the Church, regardless the tradition, are treasures to be plundered. The monks who welcomed me into their home have dedicated their lives to what they consider to be the purest and most ancient form of the Christian faith. I couldn't be more thankful for their hospitality, their conversation, and their continual intercession for Christ's church.

The Abbot was an old man with a long grey beard, and in a former life, he was a clinical psychologist trained at UC Berkeley. The reason he offered for his conversion to Orthodoxy from a Lutheran upbringing and an atheist adulthood was a simple one –  The Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco. “If God cared about being worshipped in beauty in the Old Testament, why would He be any different today?” It was the beauty of the space and the liturgy unfolding there which instantly made him feel that this was it. This was what he had been searching for, what had been missing. He was finally home.

I, too, am a man and the subject of variable passions. However, my disposition is more inclined towards suspicion of beauty, as it’s the most subtle and powerful of the three transcendental siblings – Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Beauty can slip past the guards of our minds, and infiltrate our hearts directly. By capturing our imagination, beauty can surpass all the forces that rationality can muster, and it can do so with just the slightest flick of a hand or a jaunting ray of light. Perhaps, like Plato, I still feel that long-held mistrust of artists which philosophy has grappled with for all these millennia.

Fixated on sight

What then should we make of the human love affair with the visual realm?

As a species, we suffer terribly from a violent obsession with the world of images, transfixed by what we can see, and ablaze with the desire to see what we cannot.

We should not stop short of marveling at this quandary.

With just a little thought, we can immediately perceive that human sight is one of the least useful senses an organism could possess. No form of perception is more limited or prone to error —

  • Does it work at night? – Nope, pretty useless.
  • Does it help to keep you safe while you’re asleep? – Well, no, it isn't operative.
  • Okay, what’s its range? – Limited. Depends on light and external obstructions.
  • I bet it can take in lots of data! – Well, not if there is too much light...
  • Is it at least reliable? – Actually, it’s tricked pretty easily...
  • Does it provide strong signals to make critical judgments? – Well, there are lots of attractive objects that are pretty dangerous, and they say that you can’t judge a book by its cover...

We could go on, but some cursory reflection bears out fairly compelling reasons why most creatures rely more on sound and smell than they do on sight. Yet, we human beings have a deep attachment to our sight, and the idea of giving it up feels extremely disorienting to us. The idea of being plunged into the eternal night of blindness carries a profound sense of dread with it.

Visual perception in its biological context

The just-so stories to explain this state of affairs abound. Evolutionary psychology displays its particular weakness here in its propensity for producing a panoply of plausible and untestable retroactive guesses. Every story rings just true enough to make you pause for a moment, but none seems so true as to exclude all the others.

However, one of the primary lessons evolutionary psychology teaches concerns the way that traits become detached from their original cause(s) once they enter into a system of other traits. If we set aside the Sisyphean endeavor of precisely delineating the evolutionary chain of modifications which produced the biological structure of visual perception in humans, we can begin to ask ourselves about the function which visual perception has come to play within human life. We learn less by asking about the original context in which a trait emerged than we do by investigating the context in which that biological apparatus currently operates.

The question of an apparatus' current context illuminates more than genealogy because the environment in which the organism presently operates is also always a product of the organism’s contribution to that environment. The organism ends up acting upon itself by acting upon its environment, because the ripple effects of its activity translate into larger system effects. An organism can interfere with itself by way of setting off chain reactions which only come home to roost later. An organism thus cannot be defined by its contingent point of origin, but must instead be understood within the context of a feedback loop where it both defines and is defined by its present environment. The two are interdependent and co-evolve.

This is what I take theorists to mean when they use terms like the “anthropocene.” The anthropocene refers to an era of the world’s physical composition in which human beings have achieved a sufficiently sophisticated capacity to re-shape the environment such that they can cause noticeable system-wide effects, all the while acting without understanding of the feedback loops they may be initiating. We no longer live in the world which existed at the moment that humans emerged; we now live in a world of dams, stepped terraces, aqueducts, tunnels, canals, railroads, acidic oceans, and deforestation. The question is no longer what world were humans initially imperfectly adapted for, but rather, how can human beings adapt to this world which they have had a hand in bringing forth?

The question for human visual perception is the same as the one posed above — what role does the perception of images play within the assemblage of interacting systems which composes the human mode of being in our age? Simply by virtue of its emergence into and activity within an ecology of pre-existing systems, the visual realm becomes something other than what it was originally “supposed” to be.

This notion would be easier to grasp if we could drop the language of intention because evolutionary theory does not attribute purpose or meaning to the appearance of any particular apparatus, but rather each biological structure emerges for a variety of contingent reasons. Once it comes into existence as an artifact, it opens itself to the possibility of being re-tooled and pressed into the service of other systems, perhaps even growing obsolete or simply developing unique quirks which have unintended other effects. The role which a biological structure currently serves need not be the one which it originally arose to fulfill, and the interaction of this new apparatus with its context creates a new context, and consequently, re-makes the apparatus.

Thanks for reading this week! We've returned to our series on self-destruction, and this piece does a bit of methodological work to position the question of the visual realm when it comes to human beings. There is so much more work to be done on this question. However, I hope that the previous essays on desire, the ego, and fantasy can provide some context for why this question merits further investigation. Keep an eye out for next week's piece as we continue to look at the relation between the visual realm and the ego.

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