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Who says that eyes can only see?

‘Who says seeing only happens with the eyes?’ was the rhetorical question I asked when I described an effect of a canvas by Wapke Feenstra that, when I saw it, presented itself more physically than visually to me(1). Seeing, the question implicated, is a multi-levelled activity. One senses visual presence as much as one optically perceives it, and one has to move around some visible thing, turn one’s back to it, feel the space around it, to be able to SEE it properly. Tactility and kinaesthetics, and even hearing or smelling may be required for an apt vision. There is another side to this question, however, that I would like to develop here. Just as sight involves more senses than the optical alone, likewise the eyes have more sensorial capacities than vision in the narrow sense of the word. But first I would like to do something that might appear illogical, and defend pure visuality – not for its own sake, but in order to argue for artificial environments and protective settings.
In her article ‘What did you see? Experimental psychology’s rich reduction of visual perception’, Ruth Benschop describes a form of seeing that indeed only happens with the eyes(2). In the 1960s, cognitive psychology struggled with the problem that experimental subjects more easily recognised the visual forms of letters when they had encountered those letters in the context of a word they knew, rather than in the context of a nonsensical sequence of letters or without any context at all. In other words: before the subjects had SEEN the letters, they had already interpreted them. This was a problem for those psychologists who maintained that one first sees and only then understands forms. So they devised an ingenious experiment that would allow them to catch visual perception in its pure form, uncontaminated with other, ‘higher’ cognitive processes. With the help of a tachistoscope, a box-like instrument that presents visual stimuli very briefly and exactly at the same point each time, they tried to sever the visual from other forms of perception and recognition.
Benschop describes the instrument almost as a prison for the subject’s gaze. The subject has to put his face against a face-piece against one side of the box with openings to look inside. The only things that count are his eyes on the one side and the stimuli on the other side. The subject should not use his hands, or think, or remember, he should not move and even his eyes are immobilised. He has to get familiar with the procedure, in order to get used to the repetitiveness of the experiment, as he may not be distracted or fall asleep. So before the real experiments are conducted, subjects are trained to behave in the appropriate way. Pure visual perception, therefore, is only to be ‘got at’ in a very sophisticated experimental endeavour in which experimenter, apparatus and subject are closely attuned to each other’s performance.
One would expect that Benschop would harshly criticise this ‘perception in the lab’ that so little resembles ‘perception in the wild’. Interestingly enough, she describes the pure visuality that is so obtained as a fragile and exotic creature, unable to survive outside the boundaries of the laboratory experiment, yet worthwhile nonetheless. A usual criticism of cognitive psychology is that its experiments produce artificial and static data on cognition and perception that reduce the rich and always developing nature of cognitive processes in real life. Benschop however tries to show that perception in the lab is also rich and ‘in the making’, as it involves a long trajectory of training, adjustment and orchestration. Her description of the experimental setting and procedure almost reads as if it were a form of installation art: the creation of a spatial and temporal setting aiming at soliciting a special form of spectatorial behaviour and experience.
We might be tempted to transfer Benschop’s fascination for this artificial biotope creating such exotic perceptual processes to that other artificial environment: the white cube. Because what form of perception is natural? What kind of vision is not cultivated? Even if seeing most of the time does not happen with the eyes alone, a seeing that does is not necessarily to be discounted on the ground of its being technologically, or socially, or culturally induced. And what from one point of view might be criticised as a constraining and manipulative visual environment, might be considered as a protective setting from another perspective. Protective of what? Of ephemeral or fragile perceptual varieties for instance. Or of unexpected insights in what vision may consist of, much needed in a time in which the cultural hegemony of vision is often attacked for inducing reductive and instrumental forms of thought. Vision, however, can be richer and emotionally and ethically more involved than is usually supposed.
Just as a protective setting might be required to ‘catch’ pure visuality uncontaminated with other cognitive processes, it might be necessary to build some fences around a space in which the other-than-visual components of visuality will be able to flourish. Vivian Sobchack has beautifully described how, before she consciously understood the opening shots of the movie “The Piano”, her fingers ‘knew’ that she was looking at a images of a human hand(3). Sobchack argues that seeing is synaesthetical and coenaesthical: even as we only use our eyes, when we look at a film, in some way all our other senses are invoked as well (synaesthetics) and the totality of our bodily condition is involved (coenaesthetics). In a more than figurative way we can taste the pork noodles in “Tampopo”, or smell garlic when we see it sliced in “GoodFellas”, or feel the heaviness of the piano dragged along the shore in “The Piano”. We are hardly aware of this embodied and multi-sensorial nature of seeing, except when it is emphatically brought home to us – mainly because we often ascribe it to a process of mental association based on the conscious recognition of the images we see. But what Sobchack describes is a pre-reflective, although reflexive, bodily intelligence, that just like pure perception might be ‘got at’ only in specific, highly ‘unnatural’ circumstances - like an art exhibition. In daily life we do not take the time to interrogate our responses to what we see or to question the nature of our perceptions – for instance because we usually know what we are seeing. Moving around in an installation or exhibition space, we know that something more is asked: to respond to the perceptual or textual or spatial clues that are offered and to feel the nature of our responses. The insights that such an endeavour may produce, could be very helpful when it comes to understanding our complicated relations to the new screen based images of cyberspace.