The eye – unlike the ear – does indeed absorb things field by field, not all at once. Sight becomes king. Humans no longer know objects by hearing, tasting and feeling them.
WHEN I was a teenager and—like many Indonesian teenagers of the time—was reading Karl May, I came across this scene in one of the volumes: the hero, ‘Old Shatterhand’—a 19th century German who wandered around the Indian lands in America—sat facing the Sioux chief.
The mood was tense. Old Shatterhand was the ally of Winnetou, the chief of the Apache who were enemies of the Sioux. The meeting dragged on. Fighting could erupt, and Old Shatterhand, alone, would not win.
But he was clever. While the Sioux elders were busy talking, he sketched their faces in a notebook...
There had been no previous mention that he was an artist. Karl May did not say whether Old Shatterhand always carried his watercolors and brushes into the ‘Wild, Wild West’. But May—who had never been to America, could not speak English, and thought the use of the title ‘Old’ before a young person’s name was perfectly normal—had a talent for creating stories that did not make sense. He made Old-Shatterhand super-special: a sharp shooter, and a man whose fist could knock someone out with one blow—and this is why he was called ‘shatterhand’—and, it turns out…he was a top artist!
In this story, once the sketch is finished, Old Shatterhand shows it to the Indians in front of him. They are astonished: Uf! Uf! Their faces are there on that paper!
Old Shatterhand rolls the picture up and puts it into the barrel of his rifle. The Indians who know nothing of this kind of art are frightened: they think that their spirits have been transferred to the paper, and will be destroyed if the paper, along with the bullet, is fired...
Here Karl May shows that the German is the better thinker—and inadvertently he gives an illustration of the history of civilization. ‘Progress’ occurs once mankind becomes capable of summarizing the world on a flat surface: when faces become pictures, words become letters, the earth becomes maps, notes become notation, time becomes lines on a watch, and revelation becomes text…
In this way mankind subjugates what is outside of itself. With a single two dimensional field, all complexity, confusion, unpredictable things, and infinite variation, are condensed so they are easy to use.
At the same time, facing that flat field, life becomes increasingly ‘occulocentric’: the sense of sight is at the center of all. The eye—unlike the ear—does indeed absorb things field by field, not all at once. Sight becomes king. Humans no longer know objects by hearing, tasting and feeling them. ‘Knowing’ ends up synonymous with ‘seeing’, as the Javanese word for knowledge, kawruh conveys, a word from the root wruh, ‘to see’.
The modern era emphasized this, beginning with Descartes in 16th century France. Descartes considered sight to be the greatest of the senses: with the eye we can read encyclopedia, measure the weight of fluids, carve stories on temples, and gaze through telescopes at the stars.
Occulocentric civilization made sight seem to be the single most corporeal function. We view, therefore we take distance. This was particularly true in 15th century Italy when the architect Brunellechi, who built the huge dome in Florence, formulated the laws of ‘perspective’.
With perspective, we obtain neat spacial visualization in a geometric way. With the principles of perspective, one obtains the effect of viewing the world as though wearing blinkers: if you want what the eye captures to be sharp, then the gaze cannot wander this way and that. “Perspective,” writes John Berger in The Way of Seeing, “makes the eye the centre of the visible world…”
Meanwhile, the senses that are physically closer to the world—smell and touch—are relatively ignored.
Humans are becoming more and more like drones: seeing from a height, with the assumption that they can see the utmost. Humans have the Icarus syndrome.
We recall that in the Greek myth Icarus wanted to fly to the sun. In Indonesian, the word for ‘sun’ is matahari, literally ‘eye of the day’, which links brightness, sight and power. And Icarus flies towards the sun. He rises, making distance with the green but noisy and chaotic earth. Michel de Certeau, in The Practice of Everyday Life writes fluently of Icarus’s situation: “His elevation transfigures him into a voyeur. It puts him at a distance. It transforms the bewitching world by which one was ‘possessed’ into a text that lies before one’s eyes. It allows one to read it, to be a solar Eye, looking down like a god.”
But we know that Icarus falls. He enters the space where eyes and light are irrelevant, where shadows can be alternatives—to shelter, to let ambition go, to embrace without domination, to play. Like the children in Chairil Anwar’s poem Night in the Mountains: they do not busy themselves analyzing the moonlight when shadows tempt them out to play:
Aku berpikir: Bulan inikah yang membikin dingin, Jadi pucat rumah dan kaku pohonan? Sekali ini aku terlalu sangat dapat jawab kepingin: Eh, ada bocah cilik main kejaran dengan bayangan!
I think: is it the moon making it so cold
The houses pale and stiffening the trees?
For once I really get the answer to desire:
Oh, there’s a kid playing chase the shadows!
Maybe we need to be like that child: not thinking all the time. Clarity is not the be-all-and-end-all, also in the world that likes to see and be seen and is fearful of what is not visible. Maybe we need to listen to Michel Henry, the French philosopher who wrote Voir l'invisible (Seeing the Invisible): “This truth is therefore that the true reality is in itself invisible, that we are in our radical subjectivity this reality…”
At least, the dark can still offer its obscurity. We can still rest our eyes, listen to song, stroke our sweetheart’s body, and play. We are not drones.