TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT December 1967

An Exploratory Dissection of Seeing

“Under the Amorians and Macedonians (9-11 century) Byzantine aesthetic theory seems to have placed all its emphasis on sight and on the colours—and therefore forms—sight apprehended. This is a contrast to the 4th-century Cappadocian school with their emphasis on the power of the word and the delights of poetry.” (p. 119)

In the 9–11 century, “. . . a picture was never valued so high in any other phase of the unbroken Greek tradition. This was partly the result of the development of the theory of the fantasia, partly of the Iconodule theory of the priority of sight among the five senses, partly of the consequent conception of a picture not only as graphe but as logos, a writing and a word.” (p. 115)

The 6th century Agathias is quoted: “. . . gazing, he prints the image within himself.” (p. 117)
—Gervase Mathew, Byzantine Aesthetics, Viking Press 1964

Words
have their basis and derive their meaning from life, i.e., pictures and pictorial actions/emotions from the past. Just because words are written phonetically and not pictographically does not mean that they do not produce or reproduce rapid pictures in the mind. They are auralgraphs. Since each word of a given sentence is a batch of picture-feelings with fixed but related meaning stamped at various times in the past, language is in large part reflection. As description it is generalization. Words aren’t made so that they can be stretched, added to, mutilated, transformed as it becomes necessary when describing different things. One word stands for a lot of pictures. Words can change their position in a sentence, they can have certain things added to them (suffixes, etc.) but they don’t have the power to grow or constantly transform. The minute changes that occur in words do so over many years. Language is a slight smearing of the past on to otherwise nameless untamed phenomena-presences. It is also a crystallization, a corralling, a filing system, a soothing decannibalizing of phenomena, a protective mechanism, an opiate, a variable self-involved yoking of mind. Meaning arises and materializes through a squeekless hop-skip-and-jump genealogical process which puts memory through a sieve. To know something is to have an extensive file on it. If only it were possible to take the mind for an associationless walk!

Consciousness
is what one is aware about. It is what it sees. Dehydrated or waterlogged images from the past commingle with phenomena from the present. The world is consciousness’s field of images, the mind is the world. Any object the mind sees, it sees as having a fluctuating size. When you see blood corpuscles you see them under various degrees of magnification or not at all. When you later think of them, in what size do you see them? The size of a word does not correspond to the size of the object it stands for, but what about the size of things recollected, imagined? Is there primarily a basic size for all objects or individualities as they become recollected and then secondarily a proportionate or relative size, the notion of “in context”? If you were at a fixed position and the things you were looking at were also fixed then perhaps you would have a sense of changeless size. But once you start moving about, the sizes of things fluctuate. Both a toothpick and a bridge are phenomenologically traversable. A monumental fresco and a miniature painting when seen as complete take up the same amount of eyesight space. Perhaps for a blind person a doorhandle always has the same size. For one who can see, size is not a visual constant. One begins to wonder about three dimensions and space.

Space
can be defined four ways. Mind is the first kind of space. It is, according to Webster, extension of awareness. For me it is subjective intrinsic space. The second kind of space is thought of as extension in every direction regardless of whether there are objects in it or not. It is objective absolute space. In sight perception there are two kinds of space; objective real space, the interval between two points or objects, and subjective illusive space, the surface of objects, also known as color. A “flat” wall whose edges you couldn’t see would nevertheless produce the phenomenon of illusive space. Partly because our mind needs constant information as to where our body is in relation to other things around us, our eyes seldom stay in one place. The scan-envelope objects. It is this, together with our constantly moving head, together with incessant regurgitation of the past, that translates the successive views we get of an object into an empirical three-dimensional understanding of the object. Our three-dimension oriented language makes us accept surfaces as terminal and visually impenetrable. We see by touch, and when we touch we feel what we touch touching us. We become aware of ourselves, that is we become aware of our body that hangs down or extends away from where thinking takes place. But that has to do with touching and not seeing. You cannot touch a color any more than you can smell it. It is strange that we disregard what we see—colors, shapes—and attach footnotes of logic, materiality, use, solidity, weight anything we can from the other senses and from the past so that we wouldn’t have to deal with the frustrating illusive character of our visual perception.

Sight,
the field of vision, reality, is made up of light, color and shape, line, dot. We are aware of light only when it strikes our eyes or things we can see. It is color. The Latin word for color pertains to cover. It is a fluid coating of matter. While it is true that perfect darkness absents the color of things as perfect brilliance does, phenomenologically speaking darkness is color. When one closes one’s eyes in a darkened room one does not see nothing. One is aware of something going on in that illusive darkness. Perhaps it is the tiny organisms on the surface of the eye—there is something phosphorescent going on. The experience of seeing continues. There are psychological cloudings in colors but the emotion comes from early associations. Colors are not warm or cold looking. They do not advance or recede. Whatever dot you focus is the closest. From the point of focus, i.e., the smallest dot visible, there is increasing fuzziness. Sometimes the area around a shape assumes a pale complementary tinge. In order to see an object as a whole you have to focus in front of the object, that is, in relation to the object your eyes are crossed. Line exists at the points where one shape ends and another begins. Being sizeless it envelops shapes with a lasso of ambiguity and thereby undermines their volumes. Or, if the shapes are contained voids, line helps to solidify them. In other words, line helps to render ambiguous figure-ground relationships. Texture complicates surfaces by providing micro-objects, micro-surfaces that prevent the eye from translating the whole as one color. Gloss also complicates surfaces by superimposing the images of other surfaces on top of them. Mirrors negate their own illusive space by depicting parallel and flip reversals of real space and objects in it. Light sources are illusive spaces as are after-images, clouds, shadows and rainbows. Texture is not present when surfaces have minute physical fluctuations that are smaller than the point of focus. The process of seeing involves a zooming of objects. The closer the eye gets to an object the bigger it looms in the field of vision. The distortion of the sun as it gets closer to the horizon in summer is another version of size fluctuation. So much of one’s acceptance of the object as a three dimensionality in the present has to do with information that is assembled in the past. A shift in focus is a shift in time. I wonder if visual continuity doesn’t have blank spots every other instant or so; that is, I wonder if we don’t take visual checks of a scene—stills—and deduce movement. When it comes to a specific description of a given object, constancy, unchangeableness, inflexibility, uniformity are not able to be visually ascertained. The process of seeing creates the subtle sensation of tremor or breathing of objects. Ambiguity presents itself in the struggle between the sense of touch and the sense of sight. When light is depicted in a movie scene we sometimes become aware of the screen, that is, the field on which the scene is depicted. We don’t see the field inside our eyes where external scenes are depicted but the ambiguity that materializes after we have exhausted all the information from a given object or shape or space is close to the ambiguity of seeing with the eyes closed. To see something is to draw it to the center of your consciousness but to do that is to leave no distance between it and you. I get a stifling, suffocating feeling sometimes that I am not living in three-dimensional space with plenty of room but in one which is smack flat two-dimensional with illusive, fake, extension and no behind.

Lucas Samaras