Metaphors of Sight

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

2000 B.C – 1976

Of our five senses, sight stands at a strange and marked remove. Compared to touch, taste, sound and smell, sight has a claim on the force of objectivity that has continuously been reinforced throughout history. Of course, when this supposed objectivity is held under any scrutiny, we find endless examples of its inconsistency and deception. But these tend to be regarded as exceptions to the rule.

In the 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, the psychohistorian Julian Jaynes presents a weird and compelling mixture of strict methodological science and trippy speculation. Jaynes proposes a sort of origin theory of consciousness, which is problematic in itself, as it at times lends an overbearing causality to his speculations, but he nevertheless opens a series of fascinating questions. His main argument revolves around the proposal that consciousness, as we understand it, didn’t exist in early humans until an extended transition into consciousness that began around the second millennium B.C.. According to his theory, humans up until that point obeyed the commands of hallucinated voices, emanating from one side of the brain and received by the other – hence his term bicameralism, literally meaning two chambers. In his theory, the formation of consciousness – and with it the sense of self, the “I” – began its gradual development as a result of written language. With written language, the self becomes spatialized. The conscious human can project herself onto an imagined future and dwell on a remembered past.[1]

Of the many transformations in human perception this gradual shift entailed according to Jaynes, the one I’m interested in is the transition by which the predominance of the auditory sense (sound) was usurped by the visual sense (sight). If we are to follow Jaynes’ line of thought, written language would be at the root of creating and maintaining the rule that equates sight with objective evidence.

Language is not just a tool that allows us to mediate sight; it gives shape to the world we perceive. Things that are not named might be seen in some form but cannot be grasped without a language that separates one thing from another. If we did not have words like apparition we would not even be able to comprehend things perceived that fall outside the linguistic classification of seeable sights. As Jaynes writes, “metaphor is not a mere trick of language as it is often sighted in the old school book of composition; it is the very constitutive ground of language. All of the concrete metaphors increase enormously our powers of perception of the world about us and our understanding of it, and literally create new objects. Indeed, language is an organ of perception, not simply a means of communication.”[2]

1600 – 2016

“A dark background of invisibility now appears reaching far into the representation of visible things.”[3]

 When Galileo looked through his telescope in the early 1600s and translated what he saw into his drawings of stars, he seems to have understood the profound weight his observations would have on the understanding of our position on this planet. But perhaps more significant to the discovery of distant planets is the fact that his sight, enhanced by the telescopic lens, was not just perceiving objects too distant to see with the naked eye; it changed how the meaning of seeing was defined. As the philosopher Joseph Vogl writes, “The telescope creates the senses anew: it defines the meaning of vision and sensory perception, turning any and all visible facts into constructed and calculated data.” The objects observed through the telescope are conveyed through theory, theory that is as much about the things being observed as it is about the sticky entanglement of the observer with the object of observation. Or, as Timothy Morton writes, “what we see is glued to the equipment that sees it.”[4]


The telescope turns all seeing experimental as it decentralizes the human organ of sight: “The telescope does not enlarge any more than the eye makes smaller, and the telescopic view is no less natural than the eye’s vision is artificial.”[5] Sight as act and sight as metaphor are inseparably intertwined in the mesh of experimental optical nodes of which the fleshy human eye is but one small component.

Yet this essentially goes unrecognized by Galileo the discoverer, because, blind to the artifice of his enhanced sight, he immediately inscribes power relations into the discovery. In his letter to the Grand Duchess, he barely finishes describing his discovery before he decides who will be granted the right to see:

“If we want to grasp the deeper concepts which stand written in the map of the heavens, we do not believe that it is enough to take the shine of the sun and stars and to observe their rising and setting. This can be seen even in the eyes of animals and the uneducated mob. But behind this are hidden secrets so deep and thoughts so sublime that the efforts and vigils of hundreds of the keenest minds, in their millennia of work and learning, have not yet fully fathomed them. What is given to us by the mere sense of our sight is as nothing compared to the wonders discovered by the reason of reasonable men.”[6]

Notice as well that he refers to his discoveries as written in the map of the heavens. His sight is an act of reading a language that he alone has the tools to translate. His optical apparatus is the translation tool, made functional only through language.


In the fall of 2016, two CCTV cameras inexplicably installed in a forest in Poland captured two blurry images of a man, completely naked, running through the forest on all fours. The police arrested him and found him high on LSD. When asked what he was doing, he responded by saying he was a Siberian tiger.

These poor images exist at a moment of the complete dissolution of two ecologies generally understood as oppositional. On the one hand we see a forest, a recognized ecology once referred to as Nature: a place of mystery, foliage, opacity. On the other, we are granted an aperture into the forest’s opaque goings on by means of a surveillance system, a technological apparatus implemented to eliminate the blind spots of observation. But when I think of the number of CCTVs installed across the globe today and the countless impressions that pass through their lenses, I am immediately overwhelmed by the infinite impressions that will remain forever unseen by human eyes. Seen as a whole, surveillance systems then become as dense and opaque as the forest this particular camera seeks to monitor.

The images are not truly evidence, as the local police might have used them as. They are apparitions in the fullest sense. They aren’t documents of this event as much as they are a testament to everything that will remain invisible, unknowable, unclassifiable, in the midst of the technological apparatuses we have designed specifically to eliminate the unknowable, much as Galileo’s drawings do not so much illuminate the stars as they do the dark depths that surround them.

There is no inside upon which to gaze from a distance, just as there is no outside, no beyond, into which to escape. The forest is teeming with organic eyes whose impressions we lack the language to decipher; much as the surveillance system generates impressions we lack the capacity to process. Taken as police evidence, this image is nothing but a document of power relations describing who is granted the power to see. But from the perspective of the perceptual abyss onto which it flashes a fleeting of light, this image inspires optimism in me as it points to the possibility of an ecological future, one in which the false divide between technological and organic ecosystems is dissolved, marking the position of the human as one tiny perceptual node in an infinity of other organic and mechanical eyes.

9000 B.C. – 1800

When you close your eyes after looking at the sun or any other light source, you’ll see a yellow blob in the center of your visual field. In an essay titled The Corruption of the Eye: On Photogenesis and Self-Growing Images, Wietzke Maas beautifully describes a continuum between the human eye and organic matter that produces this effect:

“The human eye happens to derive the yellow protective pigments of the macula lutea – lutein and zeaxanthin – from the plant matter that we ingest either directly or indirectly (egg yolk, for instance, is a good source of lutein, which the chicken herself acquires from plants). … these protective molecules set a common ground, or rather an evolutionary legacy, between our organ of vision and the photosynthesis of the vegetable kingdom.”[7]

While the telescope allows us to understand the human eye as a component within a complex apparatus of perception that combines optical tools, language, theory, and power relations, the workings of the macula lutea (discovered only around 1800) allow us to zoom out, so to speak, further than the inventions of humans upon which the eye depends, and understand the eye as deeply enmeshed in the biological processes of organic matter. Whereas the telescope makes it clear that there is no way to draw a boundary between where the eye stops and language begins, the contingent dependency of the eye on plant matter dissolves the proposed boundary between human and nonhuman nodes of perception.

“While we deem vision as a sense that does not touch the world – our gaze is seemingly a sense at a distance, while senses such as taste and smell rely on direct visceral entanglements with whatever we inhale, touch, or chew – here we unveil vision as a process of chemical contamination and digestion stemming from plants. Vision is rooted in the materiality of digestion. The human eye is an organ complicit with plant photosynthesis. In fact, seeing is a process of photosynthesis.”[8]

There is a paradox to this knowledge. The development of optical tools from Galileo’s telescope to the microscope, which allowed us to discover and understand all the workings of the eye, were driven by systems of knowledge that understood the eye to function at a measureable distance from the object of observation. This presumed boundary established in the process of observation, in turn fueled the cultural developments by which the human was understood to stand at a measurable distance from the organic world. And yet those same tools eventually become refined enough to show us that there is ultimately no way to draw a boundary between the human eye that digests and photosynthesizes, and plants, which do the same. This paradox embedded in the oscillation of proximity and distance upon which sight is contingent constitutes the very material foundation of sight and its position within the multitude of agents that contribute to our perception.

Lutein and zeaxanthin, the protective molecules responsible for the yellow pigment our eyes receive through the process of digesting plants, are found in different quantities throughout a range of plants. One of the plants it is found in is wheat. The same pigment that protects our eyes is the pigment that gives wheat its yellow color.

Wheat, which has become the very symbol of western agriculture, is generally understood to be the foundation of what we regard as civilization. Agriculture is, as Timothy Morton writes, the promise to eliminate contradiction,[9] the promise that tomorrow and the day after tomorrow will be the same as today, the promise that is the necessary condition for ideology to mold it subjects. Agriculture as land boundary, as the threshold between human labor and nonhuman resources for extraction, is that which, in Morton’s words “spawns the concept of Nature definitively outside the human.”[10]

The fact that this crop is also, on a molecular level, directly involved in the protection of our organ of sight creates a strange amalgamation of the different inputs contributing to sight (language, mechanical tools, organic matter) that I have outlined thus far. Quoting Jacques Derrida, Morton draws a parallel between writing and agriculture: “Derrida compares writing to plowing and declares that this comparison is not an accident: “the furrow is the line, as the ploughman traces it: the road – via rupta – broken by the ploughshare. The furrow of agriculture, we remind ourselves, open nature to culture (cultivation). And one also knows that writing is born with agriculture, which happens only with sedentarization. Nature, culture, agriculture: the terms are linked historically and philosophically.”[11]

I want to consider wheat from the perspective of a perceptual data machine: an organic-technological hybrid, a millennia old reservoir of data, slowly building itself over the last 11 thousand years, forcefully yet slyly (invisible in its contribution to sight) operating as a perceptual apparatus imbued with an ideology that perpetually traces the boundaries of our capacities to see. Agriculture defines the human and the distance from which the human perceives Nature. Agriculture thus defines who or what has eyes and how to regulate the impressions those eyes take in. From the perspective of agricultural civilization we humans can look at wheat, but wheat can never look back at us. That would be absurd because it compromises the promise to eliminate contradiction. But on a molecular level, our eyes are photosynthesizing much as plants do. As Maas writes, “we look at plants, but plants have already cannibalized our gaze as they become part of us looking back at them.”[12] There is no fixed point of observation, no real boundary that exists between us, them, or it.

When Donna Haraway writes, “nature is not hidden and so, does not need to be unveiled,”[13] she touches on the asymmetry of power relations involved in sight and its definition. The human, convinced that her eyes alone are capable of perceiving, understands sight to begin only when she enters the realm called Nature and lifts the veil of that is mysterious from her position alone. But that mystery is a matter of scale and positioning, the coordinates of which are rigorously maintained by power. The policeman pulls over the driver and shines a light in her face, rendering the law’s gaze the sole agent of sight within that momentary constellation. Surveillance systems, through intricate positioning, determine who and what are granted the power to see. We see that Galileo attributed this power of technologically enhanced sight to reason and the superiority of reasonable men, but under slightly altered circumstances these positions and the power latent in them could just as easily switch places.

1200 – 1956

In the early 13th century, the Mongol armies, under their founder and leader Genghis Khan, galloped down from the Mongolian Steppe and conquered city after city to become the largest congruous land empire in history. A nomadic culture existing primarily on meat and dairy, the Mongols would arrive in sedentary cities built on agriculture, and find the inhabitants sustaining themselves on gruel – the low-nutrient spoils of sedentarization. It is said that this allowed them to see their victims as closer to animals than human; the Mongols fed their animals grain, which they considered unfit for human consumption. This reasoning would have been employed to alleviate their conscience as they proceeded to ruthlessly slaughter large portions of those human populations.[14]

The Mongols were also mostly illiterate. A book called The Secret History of the Mongols, written anonymously shortly after Genghis Khan’s death, is considered the only Mongolian language document remaining from the empire. It is essentially the only Mongolian authored account of Khan, and the fact that it is specifically called the secret history speaks to the value of written language in an oral culture. It seems to acknowledge writing as the tool that forms but also limits and obstructs perception, a structure that programs opacity into experience, hiding at least as much as it sheds light on.

In the absence of agriculture – the perceptual data machine – as a foundation for the Mongol culture, there is a conspicuous absence of many other elements upon which civilizations rest. Alongside the resistance to agriculture and writing, Genghis Khan was averse to visual representation, religious scripture, and enclosed spaces of worship. This changed completely within two generations as the beliefs through which he conquered those swaths of land in his lifetime faded after his death, and his progeny adopted the sedentary practices of the lands they had colonized.

The legacy of the Mongolian Empire, a brief but explosive rupture in historical chronology, is ambiguous (both brittle and regenerative) precisely because of the absence of these representational legacies. It is thought that a third of the global population is genetically linked directly to Genghis Khan. It has also been argued that the Renaissance would not have happened had it not been for the Mongols who expanded and strengthened existing trade routes and organized a common currency.[15] Following this reading, the European pinnacle of cultural refinement and innovation, one in which sight would play a defining role, is deeply contingent on that which initially sought to destroy the foundations upon which civilization had hitherto been constructed.


Having commissioned no official portraits of his own likeness, this image, commissioned after Genghis Khan’s death by his grandson Kubulai, is considered by historians to be the closest representation of him. Every image of Genghis Khan is a murky approximation, a projection that says more about the author than it does about this elusive subject.

In 1956, The Conqueror, a Hollywood film starring John Wayne in the role of Genghis Khan was released. Produced by the legendary Howard Hughes, the film was shot in the Utah desert in the style of an American Western. The film was a complete flop, earning itself a place in the book of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. The story behind the making of the The Conqueror is by all means more interesting than the lackluster film itself. What was unknown at the time of shooting is that the film location in Utah was 137 miles away from a site that had been used for extensive nuclear testing several years before. There were endless difficulties throughout the film shoot, which lasted many weeks. Later on, several scenes were reshot in a Hollywood studio. At Hughes’ demand, 60 tons of (the invisibly) radioactive dirt from the original film location were shipped to the Hollywood studio to make the set look more authentic on camera. When, in the following decade and a half, 90 of the 220 cast and crew died of cancer (including John Wayne and Howard Hughes) it became widely assumed that their deaths were due to the fallout radiation they had been exposed to on site and later on set.

For video click here.

At the height of American Cold War paranoia, McCarthyism, and Hollywood censorship, we watch John Wayne, the racist, misogynist American hero, attempting to represent a figure that defied all forms of representation. At a moment in history, which, perhaps unlike any other, was convinced of the reality of political boundaries that separated one half of the planet from the other, the weapons race used to uphold that boundary would be the cause of death of the heroic symbol of that representation machine. The invisible stranger within, Nature turned on itself to devour its own image, through pores and particles undetected by the perceptual apparatuses that determine who or what is granted the right to see or, even more importantly in this case, what there is to be seen.

1920 – 1970

Around the same time that fallout radiation was invisibly making its way through the pores of John Wayne’s skin, a man named Norman Borlaug was doing the work that would earn him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and the title Father of the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution, also known as the Great Acceleration, refers to a series of agricultural initiatives that increased agricultural production worldwide, especially in the developing world. The increase of crop yield came through a mixture of genetic engineering and the use of chemical fertilizers and agro-chemicals.

For video click here.

The Nobel Peace Prize was given to Borlaug based on the premise that his innovations saved over a billion people from starvation. But the legacy of these interventions is much more fraught. To begin with, this was a colonial project, backed by the American Ford and Rockefeller foundations. It established the indebtedness of developing countries to organizations such as the World Bank and paved the road for corporations such as Monsanto. On a more ambiguous level, the saving of over a billion people from starvation raises very difficult questions about both human and nonhuman life and what it means to engineer their (co)existence. Did the increase in agricultural production save lives that would have starved, or did it create the conditions by which the global population could rapidly expand to the levels we now identify as unsustainable?

At the core of this sticky knot are fossil fuels, without which these innovations would have been impossible. In their long essay, Energy and Experience: An Essay in Nafthology, Antti Salminen and Tere Vaden discuss fossil fuels from a social, epistemological, and political perspective:

“The green revolution is, in fact, a black one, since it meant the use of fertilizers and pesticides derived from fossil fuels and the use of fossil fuel powered agricultural machinery and transportation. Since the Second World War, agriculture has used, year by year, increasing amounts of fossil energy. The green revolution has massively increased the amount of units of fossil energy used for producing a unit of food energy. It is characteristic and rather ironic that the raw materials needed for the green revolution (nitrogen, phosphor, kalium) were initially a surplus created by the military industry. The surplus was taken into use by chemical companies that very effectively found markets for them. This war was not waged over land, but against land itself, and a side effect was an explosive growth of human populations.”[16]

 What appears as the Green Revolution is actually as black as oil, but oil remains invisible in landscapes posing as Nature. The processes that appear to save and sustain life are based on chemicals derived from the military repurposed to eliminate any factors that stand in the way of unlimited economic growth. The age of fossil fuels emphasizes and pushes to the extreme what has always been true: that there is a gap between the appearance of things and what they are. Fossil fuels mediate disparate locations to bring them closer while placing material cause and aesthetic effect at an irreconcilable distance. In the age of fossil fuels almost everything we see is in drag and without the support of various linguistic and technological tools, our sight alone is in a position of extreme disadvantage.

1890 – 2015

For video click here.

In the fall of 2015 I started thinking about and looking at wheat through the lens of the digesting human eye. Almost immediately I came across videos on YouTube, filmed by drones, of vast automated wheat fields. As I clicked through hundreds of these videos containing hours of this type of footage, I became completely seduced by the equally calming and unsettling beauty of these images devoid of humans. These images pose a problem for how we generally think of representation. While the camera creates representations of a physical landscape, the landscapes are already remodeled as living representations; it is almost as if they were simulating themselves. They could just as well be 3D renderings and yet, almost ironically, these fields produce real food.

Over the last few years, drones have become indispensable tools in industrial agriculture. The fields are far too vast for the farmers to monitor and so they use drones to make complex scans of the fields through which they are able to detect, in the most minute detail, which parts of the field need more or less water, pesticides, fertilizers, etc. Today’s farmers essentially manage data. This allows the farms to be almost fully automated and thereby keep labor costs at an absolute minimum. From the worldview that is determined to preserve the myth of Nature, these mechanized landscapes might seem utterly dystopian. But from the dispersed points of view of the 11-thousand-year-old perceptual data machine, consumer technology has only now caught up with a technological project that precedes human consciousness.

Since the drones are already on the farms, the farmers make videos ranging from amateurish to very professional footage shot in 4K, which they then upload to YouTube. Like anyone else using social media, I get the impression the farms are competing for views, and some of the most popular have been viewed tens of thousands of times. The drones fly over fields in America, France, Belgium or Russia, but there is nothing in the image to indicate any difference in location. Signs of where the footage was shot come either from the video descriptions or from the soundtracks added to the videos that range from American Country to Mozart to Balkan Beats.

We know that the fleshy human eye is dependent on the digestion of plants. We know that this problematizes, if not completely dispels, the notion that sight is somehow neutrally separated from our other senses, placed at a measurable distance from the objects it observes. And yet the drone, soaring over the crops upon which our eyes indirectly feed, would appear to be as detached from the process of digestion as could be. The drone-mounted camera masquerades as the final answer in the human project to sever sight from the environments it beholds, detached from the messy digestive process that is prone to the inconsistencies of indigestion. The drone-mounted camera is the eye of God made affordable to the middle-class citizen. It is the promise of a neutral eye capable of producing documents of evidence.

But what does this drone see as it glides over landscapes deceptively named green? It sees landscapes remodeled by fossil fuels. Just as these landscapes digest fossil fuels as the precondition for their operation, so does the drone, as do we human consumers indirectly. As with Galileo over 400 years prior, the mesh of eyes are entangled in a viscous codependence where each perspective point is a small fragile node in a chaotic infrastructure that is nevertheless able to produce these deceptive images of tranquil stability and order.


The representation of wheat throughout history is as rich as it is illuminating. From antiquity to the present, the different modes by which wheat has been represented provide a script through which to understand an evolution of the conditions of sight, the socio-economic frameworks through which they were made, and the shifting philosophical relationship between the observer and the observed. In ancient Greece and Egypt we find stone reliefs and hieroglyphics. At a time when travel and trade were limited, grains would have been consumed in the same location they were grown and harvested. The eyes digesting those grains would correspondingly represent their cultivation in a fixed, unmovable location. In the Middle Ages, with slowly increasing mobility, images began to be made on mobile surfaces. As representations began to travel from the locations of observation, surplus goods traveled as well. The grain seen in representation is no longer the same grain digested. As I watch drones glide over indistinguishable landscapes from my MacBook pro, I am equally unaware of where the wheat that made my sandwich comes from.

In that rich history of wheat representation, there is one image in particular that captivates me because of the historical threshold it sits on. Vincent van Gogh painted Crows in the Wheatfield in July 1890, just before his death at the age of 37. The reason I came back to this image, as is probably clear by now, is that it depicts wheat, a crop Van Gogh painted over and over, to the point of obsession. His depictions of wheat present an incredibly rich document of a crucial turning point in the perceptual data machine called agriculture.  

Van Gogh’s practice is often understood to stand in reaction to the invention of photography, an optical apparatus that dramatically transformed the understanding of sight as it did the role of painting. But aside from the principles he projected onto his canvases, Van Gogh’s tortured life and relationship to the world around him, as documented through his letters, in many ways stood in reaction to the complete restructuring of society through the industrial revolution. Van Gogh sought an imagined spiritual authenticity, one in which content and form, cause and effect, corresponded to one another, where the human being was in harmony with a constructed yet seductively convincing Nature.

His images appear as a painfully desperate attempt to preserve the blurry fleshiness of the eye, tied to the plants upon which it feeds. He was born at the moment most people regard as the beginning of the Anthropocene, the moment in which the extraction of fossil fuels began the end of the concept of Nature, and with it, the fiction of the contained stability of the modern subject.

For video click here.

In this painting, one of the last he would paint before his suicide, we find the fields he painted over and over, under the clouds of an ominous threat. As I switch between a jpeg of this painting and the videos of today’s wheat fields on YouTube, it feels that today, over a century later, I am looking down on the fields from the perspective of those threatening crows. Jules Michelet, one of van Gogh's favorite authors, wrote of crows: "They interest themselves in everything, and observe everything. The ancients, who lived far more completely than ourselves in and with nature, found it no small profit to follow, in a hundred obscure things where human experience as yet affords no light, the directions of so prudent and sage a bird.”[17]

If I extract from this quote the humanism that distinguishes human sight and anthropomorphizes the crows’, we are left with a humility regarding the capacities of the human eye, and the acknowledgement of a multitude of perceptual nodes, all generating perceptual data. The vast majority of this data will remain forever untranslatable, floating somewhere in the perceptual abyss, within a massive, decentralized, sticky mesh of eyes.