Ecopsychology research project: The unseen world – myopia, phenomenology, and ecology
‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes’ -Marcel Proust
Abstract 2 Background to the inquiry 2 My Myopia 2 Context and basis for the Inquiry 3 Section 1 – Phenomenology and methodology 4 Part 1 – Eco/Phenomenology 4 Part 2 - Methodology 5 Context methodology: nature vs. human environments 5 Observational methodology 5 General remarks about the method 6 Section 2 – Insights 7 Part 1 – Normal vision and the world 7 Human and human-made environments 7 Nature and natural environments 7 Part 2 – Myopic vision and the world 9 The phenomenology of myopia 9 Blur 9 Gestalt 10 Embodied 10 Reversibility 11 Myopia in natural environments 11 Aesthetics 11 Intersubjectivity 12 Myopia in human environments 13 Functionality 13 Materiality of the symbolic 14 Section 3 – Implications for social change 16 Part 1 - Re-embodiment 16 Slowing down 16 Re-connecting with nature 16 Re-connecting with each other 17 Part 2 - Beauty 17 Seeing beauty in your backyard 17 Seeing past the product 17 Concluding remarks 19 References 20
This paper presents a phenomenological investigation of my myopia to explore key questions in ecopsychology. I examine how the lived experience of seeing through this ‘impaired’ visual condition can actually provide insights into our relationships with human society and the natural world. Through expanding our aesthetic appreciation of the world around us, while deepening our awareness of our own embodiment, myopic vision gestures towards new forms of intersubjectivity that soften the boundaries of self, culture, and nature – carrying with them the potential for meaningful cultural change.
Background to the inquiry
My earliest memories are blurred. Perhaps partly from the passage of time, and partly from early myopia, these images remain soft and just out of grasp. Never having known anything else, I accepted this as my vision of the world – a world whose sharpness and definition evolved as I grew up. After the initial shock of clarity with acquiring glasses as a young child, I would periodically get new prescriptions fitted, each time offering a dazzlingly crisp world that would soften through time until I adopted new, more powerful lenses to address my worsening myopia. My unaided eye was a bane, a crippled instrument that required constant correction; its eternal blur separated me from the world. Glasses - then contact lenses – provided a life-line to normality, enabling me to see the world ‘as is’ – or at least how I felt everyone else saw it. We ‘see’ the world through both our eyes and the invisible frames and assumptions we hold up to it. In contemporary Western society, these frames privilege abstract and disembodied ways of knowing. My own intellectual development in the physics and humanities fields reinforced this pejorative view of my lived visual experience. In studying physics, I was in awe of the mysterious world of truth that mathematics gave me access to. The implicit assumptions were that mathematics alone could give absolute truth – as David Abram describes, ‘…truth is never in the appearances but elsewhere, whether in the mysterious, submicroscopic realm... or in an apparently disembodied domain of numbers and abstract equations.’ Similarly in the humanities I learnt about Marx, Freud, semiotics and philosophy, each offering their own diverse claims of truth, all united in the power and ‘clarity’ of the theoretical text. and the anthropocentric claim on truth, ‘…social construction analyses risk perpetuating… the presumption that humankind is the sole creative (or constructive) agency in the earthly world’ . At the same time, my neglected bodily senses slipped into a routine and everyday life-world, a mere ambiguous and subjective envelope that surrounded these pockets of ‘truth’. I had imbibed the fundamental distinction that underpins the modern, Western world – the privileging of the abstract over the real - an essential theme throughout recorded human history, from Plato’s ideal forms to Cartesian dualism.
Abram 2002:211 Abram 2002:214 5 Sewall 1999:124.
Context and basis for the Inquiry
I wish to frame my present inquiry in the contemporary context of humanity’s relationship with the natural world – a pressing theme, with anthropogenic impacts now threatening the survival of biosphere as we know. In this context, some ecopyschologists have argued that the environmental crisis is ‘…a crisis of perception… our ear tuned to human perception, our eyes tending towards human creation’. By living, thinking and perceiving in an increasingly human-designed and inhabited world, we loosen our fundamental connections with the living world, allowing nature be seen merely as a resource to be used or an aesthetically pleasing backdrop to our human lives. On a deeper level, this reflects the human mind positioning itself in a hierarchical relationship with nature. In my own life, just as my vision was ‘corrected for clarity’, my conceptual vision adopted the Western mindset of disembodied ‘truth’. In this inquiry, I wish to explore how differences in vision can have profound implications for our engagement with the world. In particular, I explore how the lived experience of myopia can actually help us see our world differently; revealing simultaneously aspects of our contemporary disconnection with the natural world and opportunities for reconnection.
There is a key qualification regarding this investigation - it is not an attempt to justify or evaluate the overall experience of myopia compared to normal sight. I happily choose to see with corrected vision most of the time. Instead I explore some of the specific phenomenological qualities fundamental to myopia together with their generalised potential to contribute to a more balanced relationship with the natural world. This paper proceeds in three sections. The first introduces the phenomenological background informing my observations and outlines the research methodology. The second discusses the insights found during the investigation of corrected and myopic vision in human and natural environments. The third explores the broader implications of these insights, and potential for social change.
Section 1 – Phenomenology and methodology
Part 1 – Eco/Phenomenology
Phenomenology, with its emphasis on epistemology of direct lived experience, forms the philosophical framework for this inquiry. I present a brief background to this framework and its context within the field of eco-psychology. Pioneered by Edmund Husserl and emerging in the context of the post-World War 2 European crisis of faith in science, classical phenomenology locates truth not in objective scientific empiricism, but rather in the domain of subjective experience of phenomena. The basis for its critique of scientific naturalism is the fundamental recognition that to derive true knowledge of the world, scientifically or otherwise, you must be able to first experience it as a living, embodied subject, existing in specific time and space, with specific and perceptive abilities. Thus, it rejects the notion of an objective, neutral and disembodied subject of scientific learning. Classical phenomenology aimed to lay the ground work for an authentic ‘science’ that could study the world as structured and constituted through the consciousness of the lived perceiver. Although Husserl sketched out an ontologically distinct position of the earth in his later work , a sustained focus on the ecological dimensions of phenomenology came later. This emerging field of eco-phenomenology is primarily focused on the study of our embedded and interconnected relationships with the natural world. The foundational works of Kohak and Evernden called for a new phenomenology of nature to redefine our place in the biosphere - in relation with, rather than domination over, the natural world. Subsequent authors such as Sewall and Abram have continued to develop these ideas, the latter drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s development of phenomenology to explore our essential and vitiating relationships with nature. Merleau-Ponty radicalised Husserls’ phenomenology by rejecting the perceiver’s transcendental, idealist consciousness for an ontologically embodied one. Subjectivity in this reformulation is indistinguishable from the body - its movement and orientation in the world, together with its senses. In terms of vision, this view overturns the Cartesian model of ‘disembodied spectatorship’ - instead the subject’s gaze is embodied, seeing from a particular type and orientation of eye, in relation to the comportment of the rest of the perceiving body. This paper draws upon this conceptualisation of phenomenology for its inquiry into myopia. Eco-phenomenology can be viewed as one part of the larger field of ecopsychology, including but not limited to research into ecological identity, deep ecology, sense of place and transpersonal psychology. While eco-phenomenology shares some conceptual ground with these – such as emphasis on an expanded sense of self and non-dualistic thinking - eco-phenomenology distinguishes itself through its focus on embodied perception as the basis for (re)constructing an ecological identity. I apply these ideas of embodied perception in the phenomenological research methodology.
His later notes suggested a privileged grounding of the earth as a common place of perceptual rest relative to all observers. For further reading see Abram 1996:42. 7 Erazim Kohak's The Embers and the Stars (1984) and Neil Evernden's The Natural Alien (1985).
Part 2 - Methodology
Phenomenology relies on the method of ‘getting back to the things themselves’ Through using the process of the epoche, - ‘bracketing’ our experience – we attempt to remove our preconceived notions about the phenomena under consideration (such as from another knowledge authority, eg science), thereby allowing ourselves to experience it directly through our own perception. From this position we describe the phenomena as experienced, the relationship between it and the perceiving self. These qualitative descriptions can then be distilled to capture the ‘essences’ of the perceived phenomena – key meanings that underpin individual experiences.
Context methodology: nature vs. human environments Applying these phenomenological methods to this inquiry, my exploration of myopia was deceptively simple – to perceive without my corrective lenses. The guiding ecopsychological question of our relationship with the natural world implied a focus on seeing specifically in natural environments. However, to focus only on nature ignores the fact that our perception operates in predominately humanmade environments – in which we learn how to see – and whose influence is thus always present in any of our interactions with nature. This raises the question of whether there should be a separate analysis for urban and wilderness environments. This is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, actual ‘wilderness’, aside from political issues around its definition, is not part of most people’s daily experiences, including mine. Secondly, postulating an essential split between human and natural environments at this early stage risks eliminating the hybrid space into which this inquiry grows. Thirdly, relying on a clean split between the human and natural reinforces our separateness from nature before the inquiry has even begun. My lived experience - like the majority of urban dwellers - is in a ‘hybrid’ environment with both human and natural features. Therefore for the sake of consistency with my own experience and for wider applicability, I have situated this analysis is a hybrid environment – my home and garden - focusing separately on its human and natural aspects, but with the understanding that these separate aspects continually overlap and combine in my perceptive and experiential worlds.
Observational methodology I conducted the observational research in the following manner: Timing: Observational practices ran in the morning (during and after breakfast), both inside my house and outside in the garden. Recording: I journaled by hand from my observations of perception, unaided by corrective lenses. Trying to stay true to the spirit of the epoche, I attempted to suspend judgment and write simply about the experience. Secondary thoughts and ideas would frequently interpose themselves, however I would try to suspend the analysis until after the observation.
Although Merleau-Ponty does reconfigure Husserl’s original concept of the epoche, it can still be treated as approximately the same method in this inquiry. A proper discussion is outside the scope of this paper, but Smith (2005) provides an excellent summary. 9 Please note: I use the term ‘human environment’ to refer to environments that are predominantly human constructed such as inside a home; the term ‘natural environment’ in turn refers to environments where the phenomenological surroundings are largely living - such as a garden. The distinction is not ontological nor mutually exclusive.
Location: To cover different aspects of natural and human environments, I situated the
observations both inside my house, and outside in the garden. Aside from these areas, two other observations were made externally when examining differences in visual qualities of human and natural environments.
There were numerous constraints and issues that needed to be addressed. They included: Safety/logistical: As my myopia is advanced , uncorrected sight could only occur at specific times that did not interfere with other work or safety. Timing: As the time period for the research was short, only a limited number of observations were made, and extended observations were not possible. Observational recording: I made a journal of observations, but the very act of recording would frequently take me outside of the ‘perceptive moment’ and into a more abstract ‘cognitive space’ which may have detracted from the proper use of the epoche.
General remarks about the method The phenomenological process is iterative and is potentially never-ending. Unlike other social scientific analysis that rely on statistical sample sizes to infer generality , the phenomenological method is centred around distilling meaning and common features from observation. These are the qualitative ‘essences’ of the experience derived from perception and reflection. As embodiment and perception is highly specific varying according to politics, culture and economics - I do not claim that the insights described are universal. Instead they are intended to be ‘sketches of meaning’ that are relevant to contemporary urban Western society. These sketches are italised, and are represented in the paper as first person distillations from my journal notes. The personal and qualitative focus of this method may attract critique from proponents of quantitative research methodologies , however as outlined above, exploring personal lived experience is precisely what is needed in this era of over-reliance on rational ways of knowing. Finally, a note about the visual presentation of this inquiry. Often I have felt that writing about the experience of embodiment can be difficult, contradictory, and limiting. Abstract symbols on a white page are far removed from the lived experiences that form the basis for this exploration. To engage with this tension I experiment with two strategies – photographic and scale-based. For the latter I present the text itself in a small font size, to provide some opacity to the physicality of normal reading (reading distance, head orientation etc) - inviting the reader to experience some of the specific embodiment associated with the myopic scale. For the former, I set about the task of taking photographs that attempt to capture this other world. The photographs are presented throughout as a backdrop to the written text, forming visual fragments representing the myopic world in which I dwell. The embodied process of taking the photographs themselves is highly interesting and relevant from a phenomenological perspective, but is beyond the scope of this paper.
My myopia is currently classified at -9.5/-10 diopters in left/right eyes respectively. To put this in perspective, the three classifications of low, medium and high with respect to myopia severity are rated at 0 to -3, -3 to -6, and -6 or less respectively. 11 Starks 2007 12 Starks 2007
Section 2 – Insights
In this section we explore the phenomenological insights from the inquiry. In order to properly situate myopic experience it is instructive to compare it with ‘normal’ eyesight and how it affects human and natural environments. These observational sketches are not intended to present a coherent framework of analysis, but rather to provide reference points for the subsequent exploration of myopic vision.
Part 1 – Normal vision and the world
Human and human-made environments …I am riding my bicycle through the city. Continually varying colours, signs and text whirl by, dazzling my senses. I get off the bicycle and walk it – the sensual overload slows but does not cease.... As I leave the dense city blocks and approach my suburban neighbourhood, this visual stimuli lessens, and the underlying structural visual planes draw more of my attention - the flat road, flat walls, the cracking pavement. The occasional sign gestures towards me amongst the black asphalt, muted red brick walls, and stuffed cubes of houses… From these observations, I suggest the contemporary urban environment constitutes itself visually through a mix of symbolism and functionalism. Humans have created the symbolic to provide meaning for other humans only – for instance signs telling us where and when to go or stop, locating us in space, or in time. Ubiquitous images and advertising draw upon both text and visual archetypes to arouse desire and create associations between different stylized visual forms.
In contrast, the functionalist visual landscape arises
not from designed text or image, but rather from the built human physical structures that surround us. In cities, roads, walls, buildings and footpaths dominate the majority of our visual field. However, like symbolism, these functionalist visual forms reflect human purposes. Both symbolic and functional imagery combine to form the majority of our visual urban environment. They share two points of commonality – the former encourages disembodied forms of visual perception, and the latter, specific modalities of embodiment. Visual symbolic forms engage us psychologically and cognitively – they literally create visual spaces inside our heads. Visual functional forms prompt our embodied perception to generate specific modalities – for instance riding a bicycle or car along a road, or using a can-opener or fork. Here our visual perception is largely circumscribed by the functional activity. Nature and natural environments …I walk along the Merri creek, stepping off the concrete path to follow the contours of the winding bank. My gaze floats around the swaying trees, their green foliage mesmerising - for a moment I see the ebb and flow motion of ocean waves amongst them, then leaves return… The path becomes more uneven; I must
The symbolic is not limited to text – images through their circulation and stylization form symbols that are read like letters. See Saint-Martin 1990 for further reading. 15 Merleau-Ponty writes, ‘Synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what we are to see, hear and feel’. Cited in Abram 1996:60.
carefully look where I’m going to avoid sprained ankles. As I’m scanning the ground, I see an odd looking thing, perhaps a nest of some sort, lying there. It seems out of place, yet I’m not sure where it came from. Suddenly, a bird calls up above and I frantically strain my eyes through the leaves, searching for its outline, without success... Focusing on the differences in these accounts, there are several key observations. Firstly, my (modern) human gaze in this natural landscape is not sensitised to all the complexities of this environment, having been attuned to largely human-constructed environments, which are specifically designed for my gaze and hence are readily comprehended by me. Instead here I enter and perceive the natural environment as simply one perceiver amongst other species. However, my senses are not so attenuated as to preclude perception of the synthesia that tends to emerge from visual perception in natural environments. Merleau-Ponty describes synthesia – commonly known as the overlap or blending of the senses - as part of our inherent embodied perceptive experience – rather than the rare or pathological cases explored by contemporary neuroscience. processes in urban environments . The natural environment seems also to invite a kind of embodied seeing. With my eyes riveted on the uneven ground, my seeing was effectively coupled to my body, which was in turn coupled to the landscape. Seeing the textures of tree bark, I felt a resonance with my body, as if feeling the roughness on my skin. In the absence of human symbolic forms, my mind was quieted and my body had the opportunity to resonate with these experiences. In summary: despite similarities between visual perception in natural and human-made environments, there exist key divergent tendencies/principles relevant to our inquiry. As human environments are designed by humans for humans, their visual elements and the corresponding gaze relationships are specifically attuned to us. Thus a large part of these environments are intelligible to humans only. In contrast, with perceptive encounters in natural environments, we exist as only one perceiving being amongst countless others; indeed, we exist in a visual environment co-evolved in part by the ongoing presence of these others in conjunction with various natural processes. This visual environment tends to have a direct influence on our body, with perhaps a lesser influence on the rational mind. These inferred differences are not mutually exclusive; as discussed earlier, it can be problematic to insist upon such fixed distinctions. However, for the purposes of establishing a reference point against which to compare myopic vision, they can be useful. Further, by being sensitised to the differences arising from these two experiences of perception, we can gain better insights into what things we have tendency to see, or not see, dependant on our environment.
Abram suggests that
synthesia lies dormant behind the modern perception, which is geared to cognitive and disembodied
Abram 1996:61 There are other factors beside focus such as retinal development that effect a baby’s eyesight – however combined they are thought to produce an approximation of myopia. See Hamer 1990 for further reading.
Part 2 – Myopic vision and the world
Turning to investigate myopic vision, I explore three interrelated areas – firstly the experience of myopia in general, followed by an examination of myopic experiences in natural and then human-constructed environments.
The phenomenology of myopia
Blur …I wake. Vivid, soft threads of my satin sheet and cotton pillow roll and curve away into blurry nothingness all directions. Looking up, the soft outlines of my room emerge, blobs of dark and light of which I recognise from memory. The image is flat, and purely soft. The softness of the room resonates with the softness of my still sleepy mind… The fundamental experience of myopia is seeing blur and softness – in everything except for those objects immediately close to you. With my extreme myopia, this means anything more than about 5cm from my eyes. Every morning this is how I emerge into consciousness, an emergence that mirrors birth (the human baby is unable to focus initially).
After awaking, putting in my contact lenses brings clarity and ‘normality’
to my vision. But without these correctives, how does myopic vision manifest itself? We are used to experiencing blurred vision when looking through glass, water or other media. For a myope, blurred vision is not due to an obstruction of vision, rather an inability of eye muscles to sufficiently deform the lens to allow incoming light to form a correct image at the retina. Instead, the image forms in the space in front of the retina, and diverges to a blur by the time it reaches the latter.
’Uncorrected’ myopia Paradoxically, I can actually experience blurred unaided vision as a form of directness, an alternative form of ‘clarity’. For instance, corrective lenses produce a surface that aids the focusing of the image on the retina – externally with glasses, or on the eye’s surface with contact lenses. In both cases, this surface is an additional layer external to direct perception, which actually changes the optical properties of the image formed – for instance introducing alterations in depth of field and curvature distortion.
In addition, foreign bodies and scratches frequently mean smears, discolourations and other
surface effects intervene with the experience of corrected vision. Without this, my blurred myopic vision has a directness and openness to the world, felt almost as a visual nakedness.
I always remember one example of curvature distortion – when learning to play the piano as a be-speckled teenager, the keyboard would appear disconcertingly curved at the edges.
Metaphorically, we can liken this to the difference between scientific and phenomenological gaze. In science, our journey to know the world occurs through successively more powerful ‘corrective lenses’ – from microscopes to radio-telescopes. While with each additional lens we can peer further into the empirical universe, they successively lead us away from our own embodied vision - coupled to our body and co-evolved with our environments.
Gestalt …walking through the house, I navigate easily, knowing the rooms and seeing what is in the broad general outlines – particular details elude me, but the whole is always present... Myopic vision presents a paradox on another level. When looking at anything past my narrow focal plane, all is blurred – a direct barrier to my knowledge and participation in the life-world – the common place of our lived experience. The counterpoint is that I am lead to take in the whole scene, as my eye cannot really focus on any specific points in the scene - which appears more as a visual gestalt, rather than a composite entity to analyze further. This way of seeing has a strange freedom about it; the eye can meander around the shapes, but tends not to get fixated upon the details. I can navigate surprisingly well, taking in the whole of the visual scene. This can be related metaphorically to ‘integrative’ epistemologies such as ecology – that seek to look at the functioning of the whole rather than the analysis of individual parts as in reductionist sciences. It also brings sight closer to other senses such as smell, which operates on a similarly distributed presence.
Embodied …breakfast time, pouring the muesli into the bowl – I crane my neck to bring the rolled oats into my narrow focal range, bringing my head up to the bowl. Emu-like, I continue to do this while checking the use-by date on the milk – my head leading my body, drawing objects into the narrow focal range, a sliver of sharpness that exists a hand-width away from my face… This way of seeing is fundamentally embodied – to focus on anything requires the eye, head, and rest of the body to be physically close to the object. The sense relationship shifts from being distancing, where you could see and observe remotely (and impassively on a bodily level), to proximal, where the body is brought into relationship with the object being observed, within range of the other senses, such as touch and smell. This difference has implications for how we engage with the object.
Laura Sewall contrasts the concept of ‘ordinary attention’, which tends to skip from thing to thing , with ‘true attention’, where ‘self-consciousness fades from view’ . The distancing view tends to invite ordinary attention, especially in human environments where there is a lot of visual stimulation. In contrast, the intensely embodied experience arising from myopia’s proximal realm seems to open up opportunities for true attention. This way of seeing can have the effect of suspending conscious, restless, ego allowing for an opening up of experience and a deeper connection with the object of perception.
Reversibility …raising the water glass to my lips, my hand suddenly appears in view, vast and in intricate detail, against a background of soft green blur. I move my fingers as the hand passes across my eyes. Observing them carefully, I see the pulse of my wrist flickering under my patterned skin… This is another, more profound extension of the embodied way of seeing; that is, its ability to effect the perceiver’s relationship to their own body. It is useful here to turn to Merleau-Ponty for his concept of reversibility, his attempt to get beyond the subject-object distinction. He writes, ‘…he who sees cannot possess the visible unless he is possessed by it, unless he is of it… he is one of the visible, capable, by a singular reversal, of seeing them - he who is one of them' . Reversibility acknowledges the fundamental reality that the perceiving body itself is visible – we are always both subject and object co-joined, and thus we are present in the world as indistinguishable from it. lost in blur.
Myopic vision tends to bring this awareness into
the open - as the body itself is the only thing that is always in focus, and is often still there when all else is
Myopia in natural environments
…sitting on the grass in my backyard, I feel the gentle breeze on my face and the uneven ground below me. I bend down, crouching on the grass and bring my face close to a tiny green shoot that has emerged from the garden bed. The tiny dew drops that have collected on the plant’s leaves twinkle in the morning light. They light up the soft green surface, glinting away… The most overwhelming feature of the observations amongst natural environments was the ubiquitous nature of beauty – it was literally everywhere to be found, where-ever I focused my eye. Beauty tends to transcend the rational mind – like embodiment, it offers another mode of connection with the natural world outside of instrumentalism. The history of visual conceptions of natural beauty stretches back through the
This can be seen as a visual correlate to its mental counterpart, the ‘monkey-mind’. See Sewall 1999:96-98 for extended discussion. 22 Sewall 1999:100. 23 Merleau-Ponty, cited in Wylie 2006:525. 24 In an analogous sense, the transition from the distant seeing subject to the proximal-seeing myopic subject echoes Merleau-Ponty’s transition from the Husserlian transcendent ego-subject to the corporeal body-subject, a lived body that takes up space in the world, that is object and subject.
ages , and in the present our human environments are continually surrounded by images of natural beauty. So how is beauty on a micro-scale different? In general, it is natural landscapes, or at least large, majestic animals that have been held up by humans as the epitome of nature’s beauty. But the minute world of micro-environments - populated by fungi, flowers, and insects - present hidden places of beauty which are mostly ignored by us, not only due to inattention or inaccessibility on the physical level, but also on an intersubjective level. Namely, it is more difficult to anthropomorphise a fungi’s fruiting spore-case than to engage with tigers, dogs, or cats - animals who we have already overlaid with human archetypes and symbolism. Another difference stems from the fact that these images of natural beauty around us encourage passive visual appreciation, while remaining distant from us. For instance Pat Thomas calls the purely aesthetic and romanticised images of nature in many wildlife documentaries ‘nature-porn’, a ‘…numbing and ultimately a false reassurance that, when it comes to the natural world, voyeurism is our only role. And of course, it also ignored the many genuine environmental perils...’ . Of course, this critique is tempered by the possible transformative effect of seeing such beauty, which may well move the viewing subject beyond the voyeuristic response. However even in this case the beauty involved is still ‘larger than life’ and ‘out there’ rather than being on the same embodied level as the observer. This micro-world engagement with natural beauty comes from being physically right up close to the object of aesthetic experience, a very different type of engagement that the technologically-mediated visual closeness of nature photography and documentaries. This closeness implies a certain openness and comfort with what you find beautiful, rather than the feelings of awe or fear commonly associated with technologically mediated images of nature.
…the intricate structures of the plant in front of me repeat themselves over and over, drawing my eye into complex arrangements of pattern and colours. The dewdrops reflect the land and sky, on and on… This self-similar, or fractal quality, of natural forms is not specific to the micro-level. Indeed it is quite the opposite – as with aesthetics, it connects across both the physical scale and the intersubjective scale. As I stare at the plant, the fractal nature imbues this moment of aesthetic connection with something more than a purely voyeuristic relationship. The plant’s detailed structure - its symmetry and intricacy - draw me into connection with other natural fractal forms, curvilinear forms in plants and in animals. The tiny dewdrops remind me of bubbles of air in water, in rocks, even in the actual air that dissolves in my lungs to sustain my very ability to comprehend the little plant in the first place. This ‘curious familiarity’ is connecting and encompassing, rather than disconnecting and distancing. Ruth Richard sees this aesthetic engagement as connecting us to the greater whole. It can ‘…bring us into the moment, modify our minds and memories, and helps us participate in a larger evolution of information; our appreciation of beauty can thereby potentially be adaptive for individuals and for cultures.’
Not only do humans find fractal forms beautiful, but they actually reveal the interdependent
See Budd 1996 for a discussion of various positions on the aesthetics of nature. Thomas 2010. 27 Richards 2001:89.
relationships with nature that in which humans are embedded. Micro-aesthetics here bridges a gap between passive voyeurism and engaged interconnection. We can explore this connection through Kidner’s concept of ‘resonance’, which refers to the essential quality of the lived engagement of subjective self with the other as producing a shared experience that is greater than both, and not reducible to either.
In the context of perception, he writes
‘…when I experience a beautiful landscape: there is a subjective resonance which includes myself and the landscape, and does not occur in the absence of either. ’ Myopic vision, through creating conditions for an intense, embodied connection between observer and object, gestures towards this idea of resonance; through focusing so completely on the plant just inches in front of me, my whole perceptive world is drawn in, my subjectivity being altered by its presence – becoming myself-plant as held in the moment of comprehension. Like Sewall’s ‘true attention’, this represents a momentary loss of the ego self, and gain of another larger, coupled subjectivity. As Hejmadi writes, ‘At some point you are seeing so intensely that you become what you see, you merge into the drop of water until the ‘you’ disappears. … yet when you emerge, you are somehow replenished.’
This shift in intersubjectivity can be viewed in a different way – through scale. On the level of physical scale, the miniature worlds that I entered through myopic vision seemed endless, their fractal nature revealing more and more detail under close observation. As I explored this other world, I entered into the visual landscapes of other beings – insects, gastropods, plants – whom I would never encounter with ‘normal vision’, except through the ‘god’s eye’ view from above, or via photographic or film reproduction. In these visual landscapes I was one perceiver amongst many, one perceived amongst many. In effect I was entering these intersubjective landscapes at different scales, ones whose physical structures had been shaped by the perceivers other than human – for instance the flowers in my garden bed whose structures match the bee’s eyes and bodies so well as they gathered their pollen alongside my breakfast. In this way myopia is a gateway to view a non-human world that exists simultaneously alongside the human-constructed landscape; although I still come as an outsider, my perceptive visual range actually matches the dimensions of this miniature world.
Myopia in human environments
…in the kitchen, smelling burnt toast, I fumble to operate the toaster, its small blue pop-up button completely merging with its blue plastic exterior. After that the jam jar lid disappears into the blurred kitchen bench, the contrast of its white plastic too close to the mottled laminex surface. I ask my housemate to recover the lid… The first, and most obvious difference between ‘normal’ and myopic vision in the human world is the extent to which it limits functionality. Buttons, handles, and all kinds of other functional designs are specifically
Kidner writes that resonance ‘..recognizes and respects the structure of the other, so that the wholeness which evolves out of the joint resonance of self and other incorporates the individual structures of both or all such components’. Kidner 2001:294. 29 Kidner 2001:295. 30 Hejmadi, cited in Sewall 1999:99.
created for people with normal eyesight and these become difficult, and sometimes impossible to use with myopic vision. From a Heideggarian perspective, all these practical apparati that were ready-athand suddenly become present-at-hand; instead of being the invisible tools of my will, they suddenly become opaque and strange objects in their own right, demanding a new, and perhaps less functional, relationship.
By extension, the specific modes of bodily comportment that went with our ‘normal’
relationship with the object – as discussed earlier – are forced to change as well. Aside from the bodily changes that this imposes, the rupture is useful to examine on an intersubjective level. With normal eyesight, technology operates as ready-at-hand, with my immediate human environment becoming largely an extension of my ego’s will. This is convenient on a practical scale, but it also operates to further enclose myself within my ego’s boundary, as ‘I’ become more like the ‘captain of my body’s ship’, with the appropriate technological extensions. As Kidner writes, ‘…when I am in the city, the situations I meet do not draw me out of myself or extend myself beyond egoic boundaries… so that I usually remain ‘stuck’ within my individualistic definition.’
As myopia interrupts this seamless
connection, I am forced to re-examine my relationship with my immediate environment, and the subsequent limits to my own agency that this rapidly brings. It ruptures the implicit understanding that technology can let me do it ‘all by myself’ – and by doing so, forces me to look beyond myself to draw upon other relationships in order to get things done.
Materiality of the symbolic
…sitting in the kitchen, I write hurriedly, my observations on a small spiral notepad. Hunched over the pad, I focus my eyes on the pen’s passage across the paper. Its point leaves a thick squiggly trail of blue ink that spreads quickly amongst the paper fibres, leaving tiny, beautiful flecks in all directions along the ink’s path. Turning the page of the note pad, I glance down at the table’s surface that it is resting on. This surface, which presents an image of a marbled finish to the normal gaze, I discover here under close examination to actually be a print – the image decomposing into a halftone screen, then into dappled patterns of crossed lines… We now extend myopia’s interruption of technology’s isolating effects that were discussed above, turning to how the experience of myopia affects perception of the symbolic. Outlined in Part 1, the symbolic in the human world has an effect of disembodying our modes of experience. Furthermore, our over-reliance on the symbolic for meaning-making makes it more difficult for us to derive meaning from the natural world. As Abram writes, ‘…only when a culture shifts its participation to these printed letters that the stones fall silent. Only as our senses transfer their animating magic to the written word do the trees become mute, the other animals fall dumb.’
Through revealing the actual materiality of symbolic forms, myopia interrupts the power of the symbolic text. This of course has little effect on recovering lost knowledge of the natural world. However it does make you stop and slow down your reading eye, trained to rapidly glance over the surface of a page or screen to derive meaning. In this slowing down, a space for new possibilities for engagement is created. Namely, we are invited to have an embodied experience with these texts. Being sensitive to the
For a contemporary re-reading of Heidegger with respect to environmental theory, see DeLuca 2005. Kidner 2001:299. 33 Abram 1996:131.
physical, somatic dimension of both the symbolic and functional world can draw out the beauty that may be otherwise hidden. This new perceptive orientation can be directly back at oneself-; the texture of the paper I wrote on actually reminded me of the texture of my own skin, having repeatedly glanced to my fingers during scribbling down the notes. With the collapse of the symbolic value of the text, emerges the shared connection between the subjectivity of myself as author - the written ‘I’ of the text, the disembodied voice of the page - and myself as a writing body – the hands that trace the pen across the page, the particular vision that comprehends the letters and textures and the very hand itself. Following Merleau-Ponty, I reverse myself to the world. …even as I write this line, I lean in to stare at the line on the screen, through my one uncorrected eye. The pixels darken with the words, flowing from my finger strokes, carrying my thoughts…
In this section we have explored how myopic vision influences visual perception in natural and human constructed environments. Two common effects – or ‘enablers’ - emerge specific to the myopic experience – opening aesthetic engagement, and increased awareness of embodiment. While having differential effects on experiences in human and natural environments, both enablers lead to deepened experiences of intersubjectivity. Myopia exposes the self to a whole different world of micro-aesthetic experiences, the fractal nature of which opens up awareness of connections between the self and other forms in nature. Simultaneously the myopic subject experiences a heightened form of embodied perception – proximal sight awakens other bodily senses, while interrupting the symbolic and function worlds to re-create bodily engagements, and the relationships that they create. These enablers together create new modes of intersubjectivity that have the opportunity to rework our current instrumental relations with the natural world.
Section 3 – Implications for social change
We have seen how careful observations in the framework of eco-phenomenology can give us meaningful insights into our relations with ourselves and with nature. However it is not sufficient to engage with the self-nature connection alone – culture is the essential matrix in which we locate our perceptions of self, home and world. Without broader cultural change, the individual changes brought on by isolated individuals reflecting on their own perceptions amount to precious little. How can the insights discovered so far help with creating this cultural change? The greatest opportunity lies in the re-imagining of humannature relations, and the breaking down of the binary, hierarchical split between the two that contemporary culture perpetuates. But how can you change the world by just throwing away your glasses? To be realistic about social change, I expand the meaning of ‘myopia’, using it as a positive metaphor. Below I sketch out briefly the potential that both myopic enablers present for this task, on both theoretical and practical levels.
Part 1 - Re-embodiment
By getting back in touch with our own bodies and becoming aware of the connections they have with the world, we can begin to soften the edges of the mind/body, culture/nature split. Re-engaging with physicality give us the opportunities to turn off, or at least dim, the ‘lighthouse beam’ of consciousness that we have learnt to project out onto others and nature. Several ways forward present themselves: Slowing down Modern pace of life increases with each year – and with faster lives, people have less time to genuinely listen or engage with the natural world, which operates on different – and often longer – timescale. Instead, we are caught up working in an globalised economy that operates across time-zones, the tempo of which increases with the growing speed of information technology, all the while our leisure time is increasingly taken up with absorbing a frenetic diet of intermingled news and entertainment. Myopic experience can interrupt this binary cycle. The experience need not be fumbling around sans-glasses in a local park, but it may be. Myopia taken metaphorically can mean resistances such as: turning off televisions or refusing to work unsustainable hours. Or it can also mean recovering lost practices and arts – such as the slow-food movement, or building cooperatives that trade on skilled time rather than money. It is creating spaces for people to pause and reflect on their lives – for instance reinvigorating public spaces, libraries and places of worship. It is learning to ‘see’ past the frenetic, worldeating modern chronology that equates time with money, to instead (re)develop concepts of time that are gentler on the planet and each other. Re-connecting with nature We play in parks and by the ocean as children – but all too frequently a ‘well-socialised’ adult has learnt to avoid such behaviour, and treat nature in its rightful place – usually as a backdrop to their own aims, such as surfing, bush-walking, or as a relaxing ‘retreat’. If my own myopic gaze can turn my arm into a strange forest, and by extension open my awareness of to the fact that an actual forest is related intrinsically to me, then what could broader forms of myopia do?
One possibility is to expand traditional ‘character-building’ outdoor education camps and programs to include some of the thousands of simple experiential processes that reveal the fundamental connections between our bodies and nature. On a more ambitious level, another option may involve reworking the dominant medical model of ‘body as machine’ which reinforces the essential nature/mind dualism - transforming it through lens of ecology and systems theory to view the body as a dynamical complex system, in constant connection and reliance with its environment. Re-connecting with each other First the telephone, then the internet – we have derived successively less embodied forms of engagement with each other. They offer us a trade off – of quality for convenience. I can let 500 ‘friends’ on Facebook know what I ate for breakfast – but I might be too busy or can’t be bothered to actually have breakfast with a single friend. From one perspective, the fact that I can search for a recipe on the Internet is empowering – while simultaneously being isolating - I need not ask the neighbour for it. By selectively activating myopia’s effect of disengaging with certain technologies, one can emerge blinking into the daylight outside of the individual ego, in a state ripe for more authentic connections with others. That said, ironically enough we may need to start from where we are and embrace websites such as thesharehood.org which use the Internet to facilitate basic neighborly connections.
Part 2 - Beauty
People seldom change their behaviour because they ‘ought’ to. They sometimes change because they feel guilty. Often they change because of money. These techniques are frequently used by all kinds of organisations to try to alter people’s damaging practices towards the environment. None of them rely on the recognition of the natural world’s intrinsic worth to generate the change. This is where expanding people’s sense of beauty – or bringing it to them - can have influence. Enabling people to see the beauty of nature that is right in front of them, almost all the time, can have a profound effect on their actions. Several ways present themselves: Seeing beauty in your backyard The Wilderness Society calendar. The moonlit desert screensaver. The 9 generation David Attenborough film. The growling grass-frog ringtone. We like to surround ourselves by stylised representations of nature, allowing us to get our ‘nature–fix’ without changing our actual lives, which are usually profoundly disconnected with the natural world. For myself, living a relatively disconnected life, the most nature-connecting activity I do is to remove my glasses and look around the garden. But not everyone needs to do this – it is more about cultivating the awareness and appreciation of the life that dwells all around – in your kitchen, backyard, or office. The more that people’s positive connection with nature can happen continually, subtly, and in their homes and workplaces, the harder it will be to maintain the watertight boundary of nature and culture. In turn, the more ‘natural’ it becomes to treat all life with respect - not only the dolphins, seals or other iconic and anthropocentrised species. Seeing past the product Late capitalism is an expert in expanding people’s desires for consumer goods – the very best psychologists, marketers, artists and designers work tirelessly to keep us wanting more. In this context,
our trained perceptions adapt ever more quickly to the current array of products that flash before us, needing newer products to satiate ourselves. Myopia can provide an alternative ‘newness’ – taking the attitude of paying ‘true attention’ to the things in front of us, we can begin to quench our trained thirst for novelty by seeing new perspectives on old things. We replace the anti-capitalist motto of ‘don’t consume’ with ‘open your eyes’.
Most of these ideas for social change are difficult to implement – simply because they operate outside of our essential paradigm of humans as separate to nature. I have no illusions that any of them constitute a ‘silver bullet’. They would need to be coupled with systemic structural change – for instance altering our economic system to properly cost environmental damage. However, they are an essential complement to structural change as they address our life-world, our basic assumptions and desires in our daily lives. Collectively these add up to our society and economy, and without these phenomenological considerations, our structural actions simply propagate the belief of that the best human minds coupled with the best technology, and political or economic ‘levers’ will solve the environmental crisis.
Our current environmental crisis is a crisis of perception - we remain largely blind to the natural world and our own embodied place within it. This is an acquired myopia – as children we show an openness to nature and the grounding perception of our bodies, while our ongoing participation in contemporary Western culture tends to disembody this perception and shift nature to the periphery of our worlds. As I corrected my own eyesight, I gained the conventional vision that I craved, together with its tangible functional and aesthetic benefits. However, I lost a crucial part of my lived engagement with the world the embodied myopic vision that this paper has made tentative steps to explore. These small steps towards sketching out new ways of seeing are vital at this crucial time in the planet’s history, and they form just one part alongside countless other such attempts and experiments aimed at re-visioning the world. It is ironic that short-sightedness could help us see. Yet just as Krishnamurti famously said, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society’ - it is not necessarily healthy to see clearly in a culture that is itself blind. However ultimately this is not a question of either/or – rejecting one paradigm of seeing and embracing an other - an act that perpetuates the same dualistic thinking that has lead us into our current ecological and perceptual troubles. Rather it is the dynamic integration of these two forms of seeing the world that presents the potential to get beyond this dualism. The lived self is a continual balance between the individual ego-self and the greater whole in which it is fundamentally embedded. Honouring together our proximal, embodied sight alongside our distant, thinking sight presents a step towards re-aligning this crucial balance between part and whole. I hope that these modest experiments can inspire others to explore different ways of seeing our world and ourselves, and through doing so bring us that little bit closer along the creative journey to an ecologically balanced society.
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