Image Credit: Charles Henry May
A person sits in front of a screen in a small office. On the screen, an image of a figure, standing outside of a convenience store.
The person clicks the mouse and the figure, now in action, makes a gesture, or at least a movement, on screen. The figure moves a limb in such a way that it slips into shadow and emerges again, vanishing momentarily.
Perhaps the figure is somewhat identifiable according to certain markers of sex, race, etc. Perhaps not.
The cursor hovers over the accompanying instruction, in which the person is asked to make a single determination:
Does the behavior of the figure appear to be: Threatening or Non-threatening?
The person at the screen pauses the image. They rewind it 5 seconds to see the gesture again. They make their selection from the two available options.
The cursor slides across the screen and selects Advance. The image of the figure is replaced by another.
They begin again.
The question of how to navigate the world without the impoverishment of expectations has become paramount with the impending birth of our baby—endlessly growing, constantly feeding.
A human being, sure, but more like a human becoming. Emphasis on the undisclosed, the unfinished and unfixed.
I read an essay called “Seeing Naming Knowing,” in which the writer, Nora Khan, examines the violence of predictive modeling extrapolated from technologies of vigilance.
She details the aggregation of data derived from millions of sources of surveillance, a hive brain of detailed images and videos that have been processed for identification by thousands of clerical laborers.
The person at a screen making stark, binary determinations about the movements of a vague and partial figure, is my uninformed staging of that scene.
I imagine another layer of observation, in which another monitor is fixed on the person at the screen. And another, and another, and so on.
“Machines,” Khan writes, “can see us both very clearly and very incorrectly, such that the incorrect or incomplete tagging is frozen into an objective, lasting state of knowing who we are, the kind of people we are likely to be.”
Worse, she says, is the presumption of neutrality that lingers around technologies of machine learning, the faith in the absence of ideology.
The fantasy of machine learning through technologies of vigilance is the ideal of objective observation.
Terry Eagleton, the Marxist literary theorist, wrote, “The absence of ideology is just another ideology.”
I think he basically means that we can’t escape relation. Even before we’re born, we’re apprehended according to someone’s way of seeing the world.
Khan is primarily concerned about the way that being badly seen leads to being badly named and thus badly known.
Advocates of the vigilance aggregate, a strange alliance of mostly techno-topians and law enforcement, maintain that something like an experiential baseline can be extrapolated from the process of obsessively naming what we see.
That with complete data, clarity is ensured. Apprehension, as in understanding, or arrest.
The artist Kiki Smith created a work called The Vitreous Body.
A printmaker, Smith is often quoted as saying that printing mimics bodies, in the sense that each is fundamentally the same, with variations that impel their individual consideration.
The prints in The Vitreous Body are Smith’s drawings of eyes. In one picture, the eye’s vessels and surrounding folds criss-cross each other in the appearance of a nest.
Anatomical and abstract, meticulously delicate and beautifully deranged: the eye as a nest, a site of gathered material—under construction, perpetually in flux.
Interwoven with the images of eyes are fragments of text from a work by the Greek philosopher Parmenides, called “The Way of Truth and the Way of Seeming or Opinion.” It’s Parmenides’ only extant work, a grand theory of all of Nature, divided into what is—sometimes called Being—and what seems to be—also called Non-Being.
Parmenides’ theory has been summed up in the slogan, “Whatever is is, and what is not cannot be.”
Often, the term “philosophy” seems like a bad euphemism for the way a lovely and amorphous abstraction becomes articulated as a thing, and then that thingness prevails.
“The Way of Seeming” begins with a poetic meditation on light and darkness but winds up inscribing a gender binary as foundational to Being.
Parmenides’ idea of Non-Being, in my sloppy reading (or badly knowing) seems to be shorthand for what our fallible senses tell us about the world by its appearances.
Or, as Parmenides writes, “that on which mortals with no understanding stray two-headed, for perplexity in their own breasts directs their mind astray.”
In other words, your senses aren’t trustworthy, but Parmenides is.
Kiki Smith’s book is named for the pocket of viscous substance that maintains the eye’s orb structure.
Reading about it, along with its neighboring parts, I was confronted by the obsessive way that medical scientists have for so long treated the body like a wilderness in need of colonizing.
Every part and parcel and outpost is named, separating it from its neighbors and forever marking its conquest.
This, of course, is in accordance with something the scientific community calls The Principle of Dibs.
Consider, for instance, Bergermeister’s papilla, Cloquet’s canal, or Mittendorf’s dot, all names pinned to various tiny troughs or peninsulas in the eye’s intimate terrain.
Some latecomers who missed all the good stuff had to content themselves with claiming the spaces between other named things.
For instance, Berger’s space—the gap between the lens of the eye and the concave patella fossa in which it rests.
Whatever part or in-between thing you might encounter in the eye has been catalogued by some intrepid discoverer—the name a little flag to mark the knowing.
Khan writes that vigilance technology yearns toward the knowable, a predictive, simulated world built on named observations.
If you show me an image on a screen I will tend to think there is a good reason for that image to be on a screen.
And if you ask me to name the image along the lines of a specific binary logic?
I began by wanting to think about eyes, specifically mine, and their deterioration. To connect the way my eyes are so fallible to the possible virtue of fallibility. The virtue of imperfection and flux. Non-Being for life.
Once, my eye doctor told me that my eyes are more vulnerable to sunlight because of their light blue color. How my eyes fail is initially a matter of anatomy.
The optic nerve is intact and healthy. Most parts of the eye are healthy, including the uvea, cornea, retina, and conjunctiva. No ophthalmologist has ever commented on my Bergermeister’s papilla.
The vitreous body is dutifully preventing my eye from collapsing into a sack of fibers and goo.
But the vitreous body degrades and shrinks, causing bits to dislodge and float around the interior of the eye. Perhaps you’ve seen them, too: minute filaments that drift across the visual field. It’s most common amongst those afflicted with myopia.
The threads of vitreous matter move like reactionary hangers-on: look to the left or right and a few blurred wisps also dance to the left or right, trailing the movement abruptly but gracefully, drifting in the extreme nearby.
They’re there if you go looking, but they resist the looking, in that they elude the eye’s attempt to fix them in focus. They migrate to the periphery, just outside the zone of clarity.
The Zone of Clarity could be the actual name of a part of the eye, circa 1790, or maybe Parmenides’ favorite hangout.
The wisps are elusive, even slightly fugitive–a visual echo activated by the movement of the eye but not entirely obedient to its direction.
An afterthought, thrown into relief by its tiny shadow. Minute serifs loosed from a primary text. Basically the same, but with variations that impel their unique consideration.
If I had actually read Althusser, I might be tempted to mount a valorization of the wisps’ stubbornly peripheral behavior. They won’t stop fast and articulate their position; they won’t be subject to my hail.
They resist this apprehension, and so cause me to apprehend badly. Like I’m probably doing to Althusser.
On the website for the National Eye Institute, or NEI, they note this behavior of the bits of vitreous body, saying, “they seem to dart away when you try to look at them directly.”
Also: “they are usually not noticed until they become more numerous or prominent.”
And: “they can become apparent when looking at something bright, such as white paper or a blue sky.”
The NEI calls them floaters. Amazingly, they don’t seem to have an official name, perhaps because they aren’t properly functional. Shadows that remind us of the eye’s transitive condition.
By the Principle of Dibs, I dub them Collins wisps, or the less formal wandering wisps.
I’ve seen them, I’ve named them, and now we know them. But I have questions:
Do they break down and disappear, to be replaced by others?
Do they change shape, or do they ever bond together when they find themselves gathered in the periphery?
What do they do when I’m not looking?
Did you ever imagine that your stuffed animals came alive at night and performed indecipherable rituals of play and posture?
For me, I think it began with the way the nightlight created shadows in the corner of my vision, lending the appearance of movement to what I had presumed to be inanimate, except under my direct attention.
As my eyes arc and pivot, do the wandering wisps’ trails provide an echo of every movement of my eye? If somehow retained, constellated, aggregated, could this be a record of my lifetime of looking?
More than once, in the vigilant heat of summer, I’ve mistaken a wisp for a mosquito and slapped at air, chuckling at my bloodless misapprehension.
We’re in the radiology department of UPenn’s enormous medical complex. We avoid this place as much as possible, but our midwife center isn’t allowed to perform some kinds of procedures, unless we want our insurance company to force us to pay out of pocket.
Of course, we’re lucky to have access to certain monitoring that will allow us to make decisions in an informed way.
The experience of preparing for this birth has been a lesson in negotiating between the amount of monitoring that allows us to know the health of the baby, and not so much that all autonomy, all anonymity, is given over to the appetites of the privatized security craft.
I borrowed the phrase “security craft” from a short film by Eileen Myles. Their use of it has nothing to do with surveillance, precisely. The film is about puppets, who have been in a basket for 30 years, going on a road trip near Marfa, Texas.
One of the puppets uses the phrase in a monologue about their existence in the basket, when their sense of the world was shaped by what could be gleaned from the sounds and shifting light coming through the basket’s woven fibers, their nest.
Parmenides would disapprove. Although he also wrote that we should “do no violence to ourselves through habit,” so maybe he had his own doubts about doctrine.
The word for being forced to undergo some procedures at the lab at UPenn, rather than under the direction of our trained midwife, is “capitation”—a word I can’t help but put into a morbid constellation with decapitation, incapacitation.
We are capitated to Penn for the most invasive and revealing procedures: ultrasounds, blood work, things of that nature. Procedures that allow crucial determinations to be made about one’s body, and the body growing inside it.
I shouldn’t say “one’s body” when I mean “Maude’s body.” None of this is visited on me—the nested eye, beaked and feeding.
In “Seeing Naming Knowing,” Khan writes about Detroit’s Project Green Light, in which private businesses mount cameras on themselves, positioned to surveil their own property and beyond. The live feed is relayed directly to a law enforcement data collection center.
The cameras blink with a green light, alerting drivers and passersby to their presence. You are meant to be either comforted or controlled by the knowledge that your presence is encountering the camera’s.
Security craft obscure the knowledge that comfort and control are artfully cousined impulses and, a la Terry Eagleton, always relational.
We’re several months away from the baby’s due date. Maude suggests we start using the name we picked out. This all night growing, all day feeding being is far more tangible to her than me, for obvious reasons.
But I’m reluctant—caught between the desire to deepen my connection to the baby, and the desire to leave them cocooned a little longer in anonymity.
The radiology technician moves the instrument around Maude’s abdomen and this small being moves in and out of focus, in and out of shadow.
The writhing limbs emerging, warping, and falling back into obscurity show a partial, conditional being.
The Russian sculptor, Katarzyna Kobro made pieces she called Spatial Compositions. She was part of the Constructivist school that emerged in Poland during what is called the Inter-War period.
The sculptures were designed so that no angle allowed the viewer to extrapolate the pieces’ entire shape, or interaction with their environment.
In the radiology lab, a light on the machine blinks and an image freezes on the screen. The technician is compiling and cataloging angles of images according to a script from the radiologist.
Khan writes, “What defense would one have against social forces that can choose to interpret five seconds of you on a recorded feed from five minutes of your life through any number of illogical or violent or poor readings?”
On the screen, an image appears of a small leg, but it ends in an empty space where the foot should be. The technician assures us, it’s actually because the angle is so direct that the foot isn’t reflecting enough light to show up.
“Don’t worry,” he says with a knowing smile, “the little lady is cooperating.”
The Zone of Clarity is a zone of expectation.
What is is, and what is not cannot be.
If you shrink from the bright light of surveillance, the logic goes, you reveal yourself as someone not wishing to be revealed.
What is peripheral becomes furtive, what is furtive becomes illicit. Apprehension as understanding. Apprehension as arrest.
I want to say more—about the fallibility of the eye, about comfort and control, the eye in the camera, the selfie as a technology of vigilance.
But I’d be digressing, a blue-eyed wisp floating in a not-so-peripheral zone.
I remember the assignment of dissembling a mouse skeleton in my eighth grade science class. It was nested inside an owl’s dry poop, crouched in a supplicant pose.
I was dismayed at the mouse, at the apparent effortlessness of predation; it appeared so easy for the bird to swoop, swallow, and then crap out this tiny being in a neat package of undisturbed parts.
When I finished plucking all the fibers of undigested hair and dirt from the skeleton, I saw that the back-left foot was missing. I imagined it lodged somewhere inside the efficient mechanism of the owl’s digestion.
Out the window, a small bird darts from one tree to another, more visible against a blue sky.
A slight arc in the field of light.
Sean Collins is from Western Massachusetts and currently lives in Philadelphia, where he organizes the reading series Charmed Instruments with Christy Davids. His chapbook, Planchette, was published by Accidental Player in 2019. With Maude Haak-Frendscho, he co-curates the publishing and performance project Neighboring Systems, and co-parents one small person.