The point-line-plane-sold of Cartesian spatiality is easy to undermine, but the point is that for most of 'ordinary life,' a kind of common-sense model prevails that compares three-dimensional 'solid' space with reality and holds back time as a kind of non-spatial dimension that handles such things as process, history, weathering, and familiarity. This popular culture Cartesianism should be taken seriously, but the critiques of Luckmann and others (Construction of Everyday Reality) can be formalized as the 'intrusion' of a 'dimension' akin to the famous 'fourth dimension' between our two-dimensional retinal experience of the visual world and our conception of a three-dimensional 'solid' world. This is the dimension of learning, custom, and cultural convention.
FROM THE ART 3 IDEA: A THIRD WAY TO STUDY ART
HOW DO WE SEE? The question seems simple enough, although the less you know about it the simpler it is; and any investigation reveals huge gaps in our knowledge. We know, because of great differences among the ways different cultures, different social classes, and different ages have seen things, that perception and cognition (sensing and knowing) involve many variables and few constants. What effects our ways of grasping the world? Almost everything our age, the region we live in, our sex, our income, our occupation, our race, our language, our histories. The list goes on. It is a miracle of major proportions that we come to terms on anything. Our singular visions must be coerced into fitting together into common group perspectives.
The main question is, how did our current way of seeing things, which we call "modern" even though we keep adding apologies and addenda (e.g. "postmodern"), come about? This question has been the basis of quite a few books. One chapter can't do very much. But, it might be possible to grasp a few essentials. Before we're finished, we should have a feeling for a few "signatures" of modern perception: its fondness for tubes and tunnels, its kinship with the idea of "interrogation," its use in maintaining structures of power, and its favorite means of building prisons and establishing fields of knowledge, "Panopticism." But, before any of this happens, it might be useful to gulp down a metaphor or two in preparation. The first of these is about dimensionality: the way in which space and time can be thought as being structured by lines of measure.
The best known souvenir from the Enlightenment, and the one that seems most harmless, is the system of "Cartesian axes." This is the idea that space is composed of "height," "width," and "depth." The letter 'y' usually gets to be the height, 'x' the width, and 'z' the depth. So, the "modern" answer to the question of how many dimensions there are to space is '3'. No problem. This system, which really came from Euclid and not Descartes, gave rise to the development of a scientific system of perspective drawing (that's the kind where the lines showing depth all converge on a "vanishing point" somewhere on the page). Unscientific systems existed before, and artists didn't much care where the vanishing point went. After the Enlightenment, they had to calculate it and show their work. Things got serious.
The Cartesian dimensions made other things possible. If, for example, your particular job in life was to fire a cannon at a city wall, and thereafter scale the breach, you would quickly discover that the Cartesian dimensions were about the handiest thing since round wheels. They enable you to develop something called "dynamics," where the trajectory of hurled objects could be calculated with a fair degree of accuracy. 'T' (time) could be turned into 'D' (distance) and the cannon fired to hit the mark. Also, surveyors found that the Cartesian dimensions enabled the idea of property to take on new meaning. No more "Forty paces to the old stump and, thence, to the lone pine." Nosiree. 41° 26' and 17 seconds from that bronze marker set into concrete. Measures were now metal bars kept in glass cases in Paris and London.
The Cartesian dimensions were fairly strict about not allowing any other dimensions onto the playing field. The fourth dimension showed up late and had to be time. Still, things went well. Ships could be sailed, projectiles hurled. Anything that moved could be plotted. Even things that didn't move, like land whole nations even could be plotted. With the resulting plots on file in the vault, things could be owned in an abstract way, and whoever controlled the abstractions was, in principle and in fact, the Ruler of the World, given that he or she had enough abstractions and standard measures in the vault.
So the race was on to transform the world into something that could and would be plotted. No more guesswork. No more random measurements. Everything could be organized along Mr. X, Mr. Y, and Mr. Z. Only "misters" got to play the principal dimensional roles. The Enlightenment deeply suspected all women, to whom it gave all the tricky curves, including the Wheel of Fortune.
With Cartesian dimensions doing their job as height, width, and breadth, space was a homogeneous, unending void extending infinitely on all sides. You sent something off in the 'y' direction, and it just didn't come back. No one thought it would, at least, until the late 19c. Then, some mathematicians and physicists and more than a few artists began to have their doubts. Here was the problem. The Cartesian idea of space was self-contradictory. Seems impossible? Here's how. Leibnitz, the philosopher, and Sir Isaac Newton, the famous British scientist, got into an argument.
Sir Isaac: "If space is a physical thing, as the Cartesian dimensions suggest, then it must have an end. For one thing, if it were infinite, it would weigh too much."
Leibnitz: "The idea of a limited space is ridiculous, because if you came to the end of it, there would be a boundary, and there would be something on the other side!"
It seemed an insoluble problem. Space could not be both finite and unbounded, but it had to be both! Kant came up with an "explanation," or at least a way around. Space, he suggested, is simply a condition of our being in the world as observers. For us to have any experience at all, we must invent some idea of space and time to hold that experience. In the process of inventing it, we subtract a little something that allows the space and time to be seen as external, as object-like things. If we could add that bit back (but we can't because it's mentally impossible our little processors would blow up), we would see just how the world could be finite and unbounded at the same time.
This answer didn't satisfy anyone of course, least of not Leibnitz or Newton. Each saw their favorite "requirement" separately. But, Kant's view of the "subjectivity" of space and time was realized later by a group of philosophers known as "phenomenologists," who saw that perception was a means of making sense of the world, and that apart from that constructed "sense," we didn't have much to say about anything. By "constructed," various people have meant various things. On one hand, "construction" stands for habits of mind, of speech, of behavior. We become accustomed to seeing things in particular ways, and that structures all subsequent views. On the other hand, "construction" goes on constantly, and at all levels. Our culture(s) construct (and de-construct) attitudes, institutions, languages, sign systems, and rules for behavior constantly. The condition is more like class-A whitewater rapids than a lake.
time = muscles = the fourth dimension
Here's what this means in terms of the dimensions of perception. This is a short-hand trick, a device, to understand what happens to get us to see the things the way that we do, and to allow other people to see them differently, including us in the next five minutes.
Our direct retinal experience is two-dimensional, using "dimensions" in the usual sense. Light comes in through the lens and iris and stimulates the surface made up of rods and cones. So, where does space come in? The next dimension is the artifact of light rays, bent by our lens, focused on a surface. Our eyes are constantly scanning the visible field. When the lens squeezes itself to focus on objects that are closer or more distant, the brain is notified. With just one eye, we would be able to sense the difference between near and far. But, with two eyes working, there is the added data that comes from aiming the eyes to focus on the same point. This is "parallax." Close-up objects make us go slightly cross-eyed. Distant objects pull our lines-of-sight into nearly parallel. Our brain is notified about what goes on, and it factors in the information to sense what is close and what is far away. In both cases, it is muscles, not visual cells, that inform.
After the first two dimensions hit us in the form of retinal images, what comes next is not quite the same as another dimension. It is a gap, an event, a blank we have to fill in. It is something we have to act on, symbolically or actually. In a given visual setting we usually move around. Our physical feeling of how the space is laid out can be extensive (walking or driving around) or micro (just by changing our position slightly). In either case, we can, by moving, detect the difference between a three-dimensional space and a two-dimensional stage set of the same thing. Again, the depth cues are discovered by muscles.
If we go back to the Cartesian system of three dimensions, we find that this gap makes all the difference. The first two dimensions get along fine. Surfaces are easily constructed. In fact, our skin is a surface, and our body is composed mostly of surfaces. Surfaces can be defined completely in terms of two dimensions.
This "next thing," the gap dimension, introduces a new player: the muscular contraction and its result, motion actual or implied. Two dimensions, vision. The "next thing," muscle. Two dimensions, surfaces. The next thing, motion, action, time! You can see the difference from a long way off. There is a logical gap between the first two dimensions, 'x' and 'y', and the third, 'z'. To get depth, 'z', you have to go through a little skip in logic. You have to add something that's "muscular."
The significance of this gap is that it can be filled in a number (a great number) of ways. It is like the variable in an equation of constants. You can plug in a value and see what comes out the other end. In this case, "culture" plugs in a value, in terms of conventions, rules, and ideas about space. What comes out the other end is, 'z', "space," which we see as coming towards us from a "nature" that lies outside. It looks natural, but we constructed much of it. The flat part we got given to us. The thick part we did ourselves. Well, in order to move around in the world effectively, we had to do something. But, the key is that we do things in slightly different ways. Our cultures make up standards and expectations. We do them that way or join another culture. The beauty of this gap between dimensions 'y' and 'z' is that it is so quietly and subtly filled that we take no notice. How do we even know it exists, apart from logical deduction?
Studies made by anthropologists of the perceptual behavior of other peoples have found that the Western way of looking at things, dominated by European learning and institutions, is the minority view. This has not been much of a problem given our usual level of care for anyone else. But, in considering the ways and means of perceptual structuring, it is good to find out that what seems to be "normal" is, in fact, artificial. For example, most of our depth cues, such as seeing nearby objects as being larger and distant objects as smaller, are choices we can vary at will. Many cultures don't care much about size differences, except where size indicates just who is eating whom, and when. The visual depth cues that we picked up by looking at paintings and photographs are lost on peoples who didn't have these devices. And, not surprisingly, their tastes developed in different directions.
When we see things in space, what we see has to do with what we are going to do with them. Our attitudes are mirrored in our perceptions. We see a world in which our actions are "natural," because that world has already been constructed out of our desires and fears. This may be a bit too idealistic for you but, think of it this way: it had to be something. Either we saw the world the same and couldn't adopt to change, couldn't compete, couldn't survive; or, we saw the world differently, in a variable way, and are able to discover new means of living when old ones give out. That's the choice, more or less.
So, here is a revised "system" of dimensions. We start with surfaces, including point and plane phenomena. Second, add muscles in any form: movement, effort, implied action. Surfaces plus muscles equal "space." And, with the options you get with muscles (different strokes for different folks), that means that you can get a lot of spaces into "a" space. What looks like a sacred hunting ground to one person could be a future suburban subdivision to another. Muscles.
Just one more formal note to be made. If there is a "fourth dimension" in space, what used to be used to describe all kinds of mystical goings-on (e.g. the movie, Dead of Night), the fourth is actually in between dimensions #2 (y) and #3 (z). The corrected Cartesian sequence reads: 1, 2, 4, 3. Before we perceive space (three dimensions), we have some kind of muscular/cultural experience that can be described as a "fourth dimension." We use the fourth dimension to drive towards culture, and see space "the way it ought to be seen," or away from culture, to see space that is a little weird. The fourth dimension is thus a kind of refuge (into culture's ways of doing things) or escape. Normal human beings that we are, we need both: a refuge in times of storm and the support of our cultural upbringing and confidence that a world "exists" that "we" all live in; and an escape from the rigidities of convention, a chance to see things freshly, even foolishly or insanely.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, the question of dimensionality was subordinate to ideas about what lay beyond the present world. One example of "beyond" was the apocalypse, a religious moment of total collapse and finality, a tallying-up. Another "beyond" was the world of the Orient and Africa, and regions reached only at great peril. Stories of these regions, as well as the reports of traders such as Marco Polo, fueled the idea that elsewhere was great. Yet, we can't form an image of the Middle Ages as a backwards time. This was a time when people traveled often, and for great distances. Multiple crusades drew generations of Europeans to the Middle East or as far as they could get towards that goal. No less important were pilgrimages made by every devout individual who could afford it, and by many of the non-devout who simply needed a change of scene. For those who wished a Crusade-type experience, there were several installations known as sacred mountains, where life-like painted and clothed statues presented the main scenes of the Passion. In lieu of the real thing, these sacred mountains were good substitute destinations on Medieval itineraries.
Pilgrimages redefined the space and time of the Middle Ages. The journey could last months or years. Pilgrims had special dispensation and privileges; still, they endured many dangers. But, by and large, pilgrims enjoyed a greater freedom of movement than modern-day travellers. They did not have to carry passports.
Frequently, food and lodging were provided free of charge. And, when they got somewhere, there was a "there there." In the course of travel, as Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales amply illustrate, travelers saw the world through new eyes. Not only did they encounter new landscapes; they saw the space in front of them as a sequence of spaces leading towards a primordial center, that was at the same time a moment of regeneration. At the shrine that was the object of their pilgrimage, they were reborn, reset to zero. This was a sophisticated way of looking at time and space.
In terms of dimensions (our version: 1+2 / 4 / 3), the first two dimensions went into making up life's many layers. In a famous painting in the town hall of Sienna, "Good Government in the City," the painter Lorenzetti depicts a city viewed from an indeterminate point so that the buildings enclose scenes in layers. Like the ivory spheres that are carved inside each other, each layer "rotated" within its own space. The family celebrating a wedding in the foreground move from left to right, past street vendors, workmen, beggars. In the background, roofers move within their own altitudinous zone, content to fix the roof on the same sunny day. Lorenzetti's view can be seen over and over in Medieval spatial representations of urban form. The idea of a city is that of the coexistence of many different layers of activities of reality, really that live both "at the same time" and within times of their own.
This meant that layers (two-dimensional things, like lives) moved alongside other realities without conflict. Access to the common mystical core of regenerative space and time was equal for all. It was suspended within the fourth dimension, and associated with religious or intellectual vision. Reality, a vision of the fullness of space, was put together either by collating one's extensive travel experiences to pilgrimage shrines or the Holy Land, or by meditating. This is to say that something quite profound was going on for about 800 years: people felt the thinness of life in relationship to the thickness of a reality added by spirit, by poetry, by insight.
Knowledge of this thickness came through "thin things": the icons, for example, of religious devotion; or the many screens and diaphanous sculpted and carved surfaces found in churches of the times. The screen, the portal, and the veil had intense meaning for the minds that felt their own lives to be a kind of sandwich. The surface was a means of passage. A wall was important because even if the body could not pass through, the imagination could.
Thus, much of the visual arts of the Middle Ages seems to be claustrophobic to us. Scenes move left to right, like comic-strips. In fact, the left-to-right motion was to allow the scenes to serve as reminders of important narrative events. One character could appear in one scene and, a few feet to the right, in another episode. This lateral movement was a supplement for a largely illiterate audience, but to use the word "illiterate" in this context is misleading. The Middle Ages in Europe was a scene of intense reading. Reading took place at all levels and in all forms. Images could be read, so could experiences. Reading was the key to salvation and enlightenment. Reading was, like pilgrimage, a rite of passage.
There is not room enough to give a full picture of the rich spatiality and temporality of the Middle Ages. The point is to reverse a common misperception that the Middle Ages were "deprived" of the technical means of portraying space as, well, "spatial." What we mean by that is, usually, space as shown in perspective, with things vanishing off into the horizon, like train tracks meeting at a point. To move from the Middle Ages' view of space and time to our own actually involves a serious loss. As Victor Hugo once wrote in Notre Dame de Paris, we have forgotten how to "read" our cathedrals and other monuments. Our understanding is restricted to words printed on paper, which is to put eggs in a basket that is not just small but fragile.
How did this happen?
The easiest way to grasp the significance of the Enlightenment's radical revision of European visual practices is to look at paintings that portray some important event in the foreground with a city scene in the background. With the newly reformulated science of perspective drawing, objects could be shown as changing in apparent size with their distance from the observer. The observer's point was fixed, as if the painting were like a snapshot taken in the blink of an eye. The horizon in the distance was the place where all objects, all visibility, "vanished." Parallel lines ended up at a common point on the horizon, but they really simply went from being visible to invisible. The classic element in almost all of these paintings is a temple a church modeled after the classical holy buildings of the ancient Greeks and Romans located at the vanishing point. Sometimes the door of the temple is open, allowing a peek at the vanishing point behind it. But, the temple is really thought of as a kind of vanishing point you can look at up close, without vanishing yourself. Its perfect plan symmetry made it a series of steps leading upward from a regular based to a small cupola and, finally, a point at the top where things really did vanish. Why a temple? It was important to site the vanishing point as a point of origin, and the Enlightenment favored, above all contenders for this point, classical antiquity. You put a classical temple on the spot that vanished because all things of value began in that temple.
The structure of these kinds of paintings is temporal in a narrative way. Instead of time the comic-book style of the Middle Ages, time moves from back to front. The point of origin is in the distance, things happening today are right up front, at the edge of the "stage" which the painting has all of a sudden become. Sometimes the foreground moves left to right, as in the old schema, but the larger scope of events projects from the back of the canvas. Usually the painter sets up a parallel between the story in the "present" foreground and an important event in the past, told in the midground.
It is clear that this way of looking at space and time is quite different from that developed in the Middle Ages, where one looked from side to side. Perspectival painting looks into a deep space and freezes the eye of the viewer to make it perfectly opposite the vanishing point at the other end of space. Clearly, the new way of seeing, and the new space and time it introduced, changed life in radical ways.
first thing to note is, apart from the alienation it brought,
the new way of looking at things was quite useful. The science
of perspective was a way of using projective geometry to apply
actual measurements to the drawing of objects. The idea was, if
we can actually measure how big things would look if they were
40, 50, 200 feet away, in thus and such a position, the representation
would be more real. The term "real" in this argument
takes on new meaning. What is "real" actually changes.
Reality is now whatever can be measured and drawn in this new
perspectival way. The representation calls the shots. Life is
real to the degree that it resembles the new "scientific"
way of drawing things up. Quite a turn of logic!
The usefulness of perspective done in this way was that the use of projected measurements could be applied to all kinds of things that "projected." Like what? Consider: cannonballs. Consider: ships filled with virile Europeans armed with cannon. Consider: kings and other administrators who wanted to extend power. Consider: scientists who wanted to demonstrate the infinity of space as a physical, rather than a spiritual, entity. It may be hard to believe at this point, but all of these relied on the same principles as the perspective drawing. They all required an "inversion" of the Medieval world and an installation of a space and time that moved in and out rather than side to side. Reason? You can't shoot a cannon sideways. Or shouldn't, if you like your fellow soldiers.
In a relatively short time, whole new sciences grew up around the new science of projective geometry. Perspective led directly to surveying, which was like drawing carried out at great distances. Surveying led to navigation, which helped move people around the landscape and globe to extend Europe's power. Then, the surveyors came back to tally up what had been won by force of arms. Astronomy actually measured stars that were before the basis of all measure, thus dispelling the idea of a heaven as close as the sky or a Hades as close as the earth. People kept believing in these things, but they regarded them as being much further away. Microscopes saw no humors inside the body. Rather, they saw cells, germs, gook. People seemed now to be machines. This played back into the logic of power: if people were machines, they didn't need laws; they needed social controls, surveillance, coercion. If space were infinite and physical instead of spiritually "closed," the stuff inside was technically dead. You could do anything you wanted. The sacred grove could be cut down to make paper, upon which cartographers could plan the next expedition. And, since real things were becoming scarce, you could also use paper to make the money which payed the men on ships and the surveyors who gave you a rough count of your annualized future income.
You get the picture. It was a tight relationship
among phenomena that fueled each other. It was a true revolution.
Things acquired their reality from their usefulness, a situation
we call "instrumentalism." Instrumentalism was an attitude,
but also a way of talking, acting, governing, and thinking. The
Enlightenment's new "program" of knowledge and power
was invincible. Things just fit together too well to do anything
The take-home message to be gleaned from all this has to do with power. Vision, through the various programs of "instrumentalism," became power. To look at something didn't mean you had control over it, but it was assumed that there was a link. To see was to exercise power; to be seen was to be an object of power. Because power wished to control as much as possible, it developed strategies of seeing as much as possible, the goal of which was to see everything. The word would have to wait a few centuries to be coined by the inventor of a prison that used "seeing everything" as a principle of discipline: "panopticism," or "seeing everything." Before panopticism was a word, it was a goal of, for example, governments whose spies were everywhere. Not surprisingly, models of ways to extend power towards the ideal of panopticism were largely visual.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault uses the example of the late recurrence of the plague in France. By the 17c., nearly everyone was aware of the nature of contagion, whether or not they understood that the chief "vector" of the disease was the flea. To fend off the plague, towns adopted strict measures of quarantine.
But, with the new "science" of panopticism, these measures would be based on vision's capabilities and limits. Every resident was required to remain at home. Only the "syndics" (agents) of a central governing committee were allowed to move about to inspect each home from the outside. The syndics collected data each morning on the condition of the household. They specified that the same person stand in the same window each day; any deviation was punishable by death. The syndics were like the eyes of the central committee. Their surveillance was visual, and the visible presence of the residents at specific windows were the means of maintaining control. An ideal diagram of the situation would be a circle of light. At the center, the point of control. At the margins, the line between light and dark, knowledge and ignorance, health and disease. The line was not only a horizon of visibility, it was a place where vision was equated with control.
Several centuries later, panoptical logic was applied with particular clarity to the institution that was to give it its name: the Panopticon. Jeremy Bentham, a British legal philosopher, got the idea from his brother. If, he said, you think you're being watched, you'll be as good as if you actually are being watched. So, if the inmates of a prison think that they are always being watched, even if that's not always true, you can use fewer guards to control them.
Bentham's design made this trick possible. The prison building was circular, with cells lining the perimeter wall. They faced inside, towards a tower. No prisoner could see another, but they could all see the tower through the bars of their cell. The tower itself was enclosed with a venetian-type blind. It was impossible to tell whether or not the guards were present at any given time. It was like having a fake surveillance camera not connected to anything but whose red light indicator makes you think you're being watched.
Bentham made an ingenious observation: if the Panopticon made a perfect prison, it would also be good for other kinds of institutions where discipline was essential. This included hospitals, schools, poor-houses, nearly everything. Bentham inadvertently discovered the geometry of the modern institution. Control always central in spirit if not in actual form needed to see without being seen. The controlled, whether prisoners or students, thus always acted as if they were being watched. You could control lots without investing much. Perfect leverage! Perfect Enlightenment. Knowledge = power = control through vision.
A perfect emblem of this relationship can be seen in a popular engraving by the German artist Dürer. Dürer shows an artist in the process of drawing a perspective drawing of a woman model, who is reclining on a table, her figure partially draped. The artist is behind an instrument that sits on the same table. The instrument is called a "lucinda." It was invented to help artists locate their subject matter with correct proportional relationships. The lucinda was constructed by a frame laced with threads that divided the visual fields into regular rectangles or squares. The same number of lines were lightly traced onto the drawing surface. By holding the eye steady to a fixed point in front of the lucinda, the artist could record what he saw through the frame on the drawing surface.
It is clear that Dürer saw the depth and irony of this situation. The artist is fixed on one side of his apparatus; the eye is no longer free to roam, the hand made to obey the rule of geometry. The eye and hand in effect become parts of the apparatus. "Nature" on the other side of the lucinda is imprisoned by the grid-work of regulating lines. "She" is partly revealed, partly concealed, a token of the division made by appearance between the visible and invisible parts of a scene. In the window one can see an allegorical landscape. The land mirrors the contours of reclining nature; the sea the void of the gaze. In the window sill are Medieval iconographs, standards of the past age: a topiary tree and a pitcher of water. These would have been the accompaniments to standard scenes of the Annunciation. The plant would have represented the of life in the Garden of Eden, the pitcher the purity of Mary. Annunciations commonly depict Mary in the act of reading from a book on a lectern. The angel is usually to the left.
In this new context, the "annunciation" is a reverse action: flesh made into the diagram of the artist. "Mary" is silent, perhaps asleep. The artist reads from his book of grids. The windows, twin apertures of two different worlds, respectively represent what's on their side of the scene. Those sides, and those worlds, are glued together by the lucinda, whose face is barely visible to the viewer standing at the angle.
Dürer captures the riddle of visibility and invisibility by showing both in this single scene. We see the representation as a woman, as Nature; artifact as the artist, his hand in motion, his eye fixed upon the obelisk. The Enlightenment is captured in this small, modest image its reuse of ideas of birth and purity, its imprisonment of the viewer and the viewed, its preference for the instrument. The dominance of the artist over nature, but also his own self-subjugation, is clear by the insertion of an instrument nearly invisible in the middle of things.
After the Enlightenment, power and visibility never parted company. Painting became increasingly accurate as a means of recording the world and the people in it. The gaze generated by power became increasingly "male." Paintings portrayed women and non-European natives as objects of a controlling European gaze. The practice of collecting developed around this gaze, and museums became the chief institution. Around this time, houses developed galleries for the display of paintings. They also contained cabinets, and sometimes whole rooms developed as cabinets, to contain curiosities: narwhal bones, pickled fetuses, ostrich eggs, shrunken heads, and so on. The market in fake oddities grew to meet the enormous new demand for monstrosities. Europe was alive with tales of strange things, the by-products of newfound powers over the globe: domination in a box.
reason breeds mysticism
This gives us an insight into an odd by-product of the Enlightenment. On one hand, the Enlightenment was devoted to logic, science, exploration, and the orderly expansion of power. On the other hand, the Enlightenment gave rise to a curiosity that was increasingly attracted to the bizarre, the spiritual, the supernatural. The famous art historian Mario Praz used to say that all things exists in all ages; the only things that change are the relative proportions. This is a good rule to follow when making generalizations. Despite the fact that the new age of visual and temporal organization based around the vanishing point, horizon, and geometric perspective was the dominant force, there were other forces that perverted, subverted, and diverted this projective instrumentality. It is worthwhile to consider this as a confused and complex as well as a monolithic age. The Enlightenment would seem to be intensely rational, but it was the time of a growth of mysticism and superstition. Where we expect social control and uniformity, we also find a diversification of society and creation of a new kind of individual, self-defined.
Paradoxically, the Enlightenment spawned a yearning for a return to belief, just not the old belief. How did this happen? Descartes had freed reason to act alone, on the basis of its one bit of secure knowledge, "I think, therefore I am." Spinoza had cherished the freedom of doubt. Leibnitz had found in mathematics an infinity to rival the gods of the old religions. But, Berkeley based everything on the perceiving subject, who guaranteed existence only as long as consciousness was present (the old "sound of the tree falling in the forest without someone there" idea). Who guarantees nature, when no one is looking? God, replied Berkeley, who is always looking. But, asked Hume, what if he is not paying attention? Hume's skepticism, based on the idea that knowledge cannot exist without a knowing subject, led him to madness. Kant began with that low point, and began to reason forward. There is knowledge, he asserted, but knowledge of what, and how do we know? His formulation of answers to these questions had to do with the necessity of space, time, and other "structures" invented to contain the possible. Given the fact that we are alive and aware, said Kant, there must be a space and time that gives that fact its form. Space and time are conditions of our being human, and although we invent their specific form, which we may change from time to time, we cannot escape their necessity.
When Hegel looked more closely at what Kant had said, he found deeper mysteries than the master had seen. Kant doubted that we could ever fathom the two things that made us most human: "the starry sky above us and the moral law within us." Nature could not be perfectly known, neither could our own impulse to sympathize and feel guilt over wrong. Hegel saw that even our own reason, which we had devised to secure the world of the senses, was suspect. An idea inherently forms its opposite, he conjectured. Thought is, if anything, a movement from one point to the antipode. It knows itself only in its rejections and reformulations. Nietzsche had an even darker vision: thought knows itself only in destroying itself.
a quick tour of rich times
This philosophical glide downwards to its own self-destruction was only the polite surface of the Enlightenment inheritance. Once the authority of the church and the security of the layers of Medieval institutions had eroded, the search was on for something to guarantee reality. Increasingly, the public sought the occult. Here is a brief and very imperfect synopsis of what happened.
With other souvenirs of exotic cultures, the knights returning from the crusades had brought home ideas tinged with oriental heresies. Zoroastroism, Coptic Christianity, mystic Judaism, and other eastern "cults" informed Europe of unthinkable religious aspirations. Albigensianism, which was the heresy of the Cathars in southern France, shared many features with eastern cults, such as the view that the human world was created by a false and evil god, and that the real God is revealed through poetry and extreme acts. Among the fraternities set up to control security, banking, and transportation to the Holy Land, the Templars were the richest and most influential group. They were also the group most affected by exotic religions of the lands they occupied. The Templars' influence grew, especially in France, until the Church and government began a ruthless persecution during which thousands of Templars were imprisoned and executed. Many fled to friendlier lands, but the "ideas" of the Templars influenced similar groups that sprang up some two hundred years later.
The new secret societies had only one real thing in common: they were secret. Membership was illegal and prohibited by the Church, which had begun the process of Inquisition to make sure people got the point. Survival was a matter of maintaining obscurity. But, as Umberto Eco has remarked, secret conspiracy is the most enduring of social structures. You only have to think that a conspiracy exists to have insured the existence of at least one conspiracy your own. The earliest group to succeed the Templars was the Rosicrucians, whose members were among the educated elite all over Europe, but particularly in Italy. By the 18th century, a more socially secure group had formed: the Free-Masons. Based on the idea of the Medieval guilds, Free-Masonry held that Egypt was the origin of true religion and knowledge. The group was secret, conspiratorial, and serious about their own importance. Mozart, who was a Mason, let go a few too many Masonic secrets in his opera, The Magic Flute. The rumor was that his death was not entirely to kidney failure and overwork, but was the project of fellow Masons carrying out their duties.
The beliefs and practices of Rosicrucians, Masons, and other secret societies is not the issue here. The point is that the members of these groups were widespread and prominent. In other words, the men who ran Europe, and later America, were people who believed in the primacy of Egyptian gods, occult wisdom, and the transcendental experience of initiation. To keep you from thinking that this might have been just a lot of fraternity fun, remember that George Washington and most of the founding fathers of this country were Masons. What does that mean? The answer begins with the evidence on the U.S. dollar bill: the pyramid with the eye at the apex a Masonic symbol of wisdom.
Although Jews were not admitted to the Masons' club, their mysticism was one of the main sources of lore. Names were changed later to make the Jewish terms read like Egyptian ones. Hebrew angels became Egyptian deities, but their functions were the same. Spain in the 1600s made one very poor management decision. Still sore about being occupied by the Moors until 1492, they decided to expel everyone who wasn't a true Catholic. This was another way of saying "Jews." Unfortunately, for Spain, the departing Jews happened to be the bankers, cartographers, translators, scholars, and all-round expert types it took to run the empire they had just won through aggressive exploration of the globe. Jews constituted what is now called "infrastructure." You can have lots of stuff, but without infrastructure, it goes uninvested and undeveloped; in other words, you lose it.
The Spanish Jews had several popular ports of exile: southern France, notably Marseilles; Venice, whose isolation from mainland Europe had given it a reputation for tolerance; and northern Europe, mostly Holland, where trade and commerce were up and racial prejudices down. Mostly, they got down to the business of making these new host countries glad they got them. They produced maps, set up banking systems, did translations, and became general all-round consultants on practical affairs.
Their other talent was, however, not in the world of the practical but rather the spiritual. During the Middle Ages, Jews in the Middle East had been working on the religious "problem" of meditation. In brief, this was the question of how prayer might enable the pray-er to unite with the pray-ee, not just communicate a message. This was a troublesome issue. When Moses had asked God to allow him to see Him, God informed Moses that it would kill him. In a compromise move, God allowed Moses to see his "nether parts," although the Bible is not clear on what these were or what they looked like. Serious rabbinical scholars were sure that a union with God would have to deal with the possibility of destruction, and so they looked for ways around the problem.
The strategy was to do the thing in steps. At one level, one prayed to a lesser form of the divinity, but found a way to advance to the next stage. The final process of prayer was related to the various "lights" or aspects of the divine. Getting through these had a reciprocal action on the meditator. His three souls were sorted out, and the higher separated from the lower. Once this internal purification process was complete, meditation could proceed to the highest levels.
Curiously, European intellectuals were thinking about the same kinds of things, but from a different angle. Along with the Renaissance came the rediscovery, usually from Arabic sources, of classical texts. Platonism had been alive throughout the Middle Ages, but the discovery of some new key texts fueled new interests. Plato was a complex philosopher. On one hand, he seemed to offer practical positive advice for self-government based on knowledge and reflection. On the other hand, there was a deep mythical stream of thought derived from Plato's first-hand experience with Orphism, a cult practiced in the Athens of his day. Orphism was a secret lore; all members of its societies were sworn to silence. Initiation involved abasement of the initiates, instruction, and finally a symbolic rebirth. A variant of Orphism was dished out at the shrine of Apollo at Eleusis. Drugs, sex, and loud music were certainly a part of it, but there are clear historical indications that the ritual induction of thousands of people every year were nothing less than totally convincing and effective. Visitors to Eleusis were, according to all reports, cured of their fear of dying. Sworn to secrecy, no one ever breathed a word about the goings-on and things went on for over four hundred years.
When interest in Plato was revived in the Renaissance, the dry concern for philosophical matters was coupled with an esoteric interest in magic and mysticism. Rich intellectuals formed "reading groups" that mimicked the Orphic groups. Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and others embellished Plato to produce a humanism based on cosmic magic. Strange sources, such as "Hermes Trismagistus," began to surface. German mystics, such as Michael Meier, began to contribute. In England, John Dee and Robert Fludd fueled rumors about alchemy. Not only Platonism, but Epicureanism and Stoicism were revived, primarily for their occult contents. Secret societies in Italy spread doctrines about a soul divided into animus and anima, male and female. The animus was common to all things and penetrated matter as an active "idea." Because animus was like a wedge, things that promoted it, like metaphors and witticisms, were said to be "argute," or sharp.
This was an age of contradictions, to be sure. New sciences were enabling investigations of nature to compete with the Aristotelian teachings of the church. The new imports of Platonism and Eastern religious influences led to a serious study of Jewish mysticism, and a blending of Hebrew lore with a great variety of other beliefs.
Whenever religious blend, we call the result "syncretic." Syncretism happens throughout history, and often. When the Greeks finally formalized their Olympian gods, they had not as yet associated them with any planets or stars. When they studied Babylonian religion, they "realized" that the Babylonian star-gods were close to their own Olympian system, and so melded the two. Without this syncretism, we would not have the names for the planets that we do: Mars, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn Roman variants on the Greek system. During the Enlightenment, "syncretism" began with the discovery of other cultures, ancient texts, and new scientific beliefs that destroyed Catholic dogma. When the Reformation of the church began to spawn violence everywhere, the "syncretic" esotericism of intellectuals such as Giordano Bruno voiced the hope that some new universal religion might be found. Based on ancient rituals, compatible with new sciences, and synthetic in every way, some new syncretic religious belief might satisfy not only Catholics and Protestants, but Jews, Muslims, and Taoists as well. The stakes were high.
In this context, Rosicrucianism, Free-Masonry, and whatever was left of the Templar cult held real promise in the Enlightenment. We can't, for this reason, think of the Enlightenment as a purely intellectual exercise in applying reason to everything. It moved in all directions at once. Thus, we can look at the esoteric images such as the mons delectus, or "mountain of choice," as something that held real promise for European intellectuals. This was not because it was a picture of a mountain, a kind of morality-tale of how you can go wrong in life, but because it referred to real secrets: the relation of the part to the whole, the temple to the labyrinth, the jewel to base matter. The systems generated by alchemy were not only syncretic in a religious sense, incorporating Jewish mysticism alongside Platonic Orphism, but they included scientific practice as well. Perspective drawing was regarded on one hand as a scientific way of representing space but, on another very mysterious and tricky hand, it was a way of telling (and keeping) a secret.
las meninas as a riddle of lines-of-sight
In the middle of the 17th century, the Spanish court painter Diego Velàzquez assembled some courtiers, two dwarfs, a dog, and the daughter of the King and Queen of Spain, the "Infanta Margarita," and her two maids of honor, or las meninas, as they are known in Spanish. The painter set up his canvas in a well chosen room in the Alcazar, the royal palace in Madrid, long since burned down. The palace was composed of series of chambers that enclosed two court-yards, one nearly square, the other a smaller rectangle. The corners of the building were punctuated by towers, The lower story was "rustic," of massive masonry. The upper two stories had closely spaced windows.
The room Velàzquez chose was longish and filled with paintings. (The reproduction here has been altered to show various spatial fields within the painting. Tall windows admitted enough light to see them all, but were normally kept shuttered to mute the harsh Madrid sunlight. At the one end of the room was a doorway leading up six steps to a hallway. At the other end, the chamber connected to other rooms. The realism of the painting which appears almost "photographic" in its clarity is achieved by a painterly trick. Velàzquez used daubs of color that, close up, were unintelligible. Like the dots of primary colors on the screen of a color television, the paint daubs were composed by the eye which, at a distance, interpolated the separate colors into the "correct" blend.
The photographic realism is more than a function of the use of paint. The scene appears to be a "snapshot" taken to capture a brief moment in the lives of these ten characters. The Infanta's head is turned although her eyes continue to stare straight at us. It is as if her attention were momentarily distracted from the ministrations of her two attendants by someone standing where we viewers of the painting now stand. The male dwarf's foot is on the dog and his hand suspended in a vague gesture. The menina on the left is suspended in the act of handing the Infanta a cup of water. So much is known about this painting, that the even the clay of the cup has been identified as a kind that allowed water to evaporate through it, keeping the water cool. Two adult courtiers stand behind the dwarfs and attendants, in the middle of a hushed conversation.
Three people cause a problem in this painting; actually five, for on the back wall is a bright mirror that reflects two images we can only barely make out. For these images to be reflections of real people, the originals would have to be standing almost directly in front. We can count them as characters in the mystery for now. The first troublemaker is the painter himself. This is a self-portrait of sorts. The painter painting himself in the act of painting. We assume that the painting he is working on, whose back we see turned towards "us," is the painting we now see face-on. It is as if Velàzquez was looking at a mirror while painting.
Another character that causes some problems is the man at the back who has one foot on the stair and one hand holding back a curtain. He is like the person in the tourist photograph who unexpectedly steps into the family group, preserved forever without explanation. Actually, his reason for being in the Alcazar is secure: he was an aposentador, or keeper of the keys. He was one of the few people besides the King, Filipe IV, his wife, Mariana, and Velàzquez, also an aposentador, who could be anywhere at anytime. This fellow looks a lot like our painter friend. And, he is standing in a suggestive pose that makes his pointing finger a paint brush indicating both the center of the painting and the "hole" in the mirror. To make things even more interesting, the aposentador's name was also "Diego Velàzquez," although he was called José Nieto. This makes three Velàzquezes: one painting the painting, one being painted, and a the look-alike with the similar name.
Generations of art historians have argued about the two non-characters that appear in the "mirror" at the end of the room. Some have claimed that the bright image is not a mirror at all, but a painting of Filipe and Mariana, whose images the spectres appear to be. This claim is not supported by the conditions of light in the room, which do not illuminate the other paintings as well, or the wall. If a mirror, the images must be from some original standing at a considerable distance away. Given the optical properties of mirrors that doubles the distance they reflect, the sources of the images must be very large to appear nearly life-size in the mirror.
Those who have worked out the detailed geometry of the painting, such as Angel del Campo y Frances (La Magia de Las Meninas, 1978), have shown that it is possible that the mirror is reflecting the contents of the canvas turned towards us. The mirror is not quite on center. Tracing the line of sight from the observation point to the surface of the mirror, one finds a small angle that, if followed, leads to the canvas in front of (the painted) Velàzquez. It may seem that the mystery ends at this point. Actually, it is only beginning.
Consider the point where "we," the present viewers of the painting, stand. Who occupied it before us? The question leads into a phenomenology of vision. First of all, it is obvious that Velàzquez stood before the canvas in the process of painting. This, in Aristotle's terms, would be the "efficient cause" of the painting. In this position, it would seem that the contents of the canvas turned away from us would be the one we now see, entitled "Las Meninas." The "anecdotal" residents of the same spot were, most probably, King Filipe and his Queen, Mariana. Only they would have occasioned the respect seemingly given by the gazes of the Infanta, the painter, and the courtiers. In this position, they would have been the models for the self-portrait in process, the one we see Velàzquez painting in the painting "Las Meninas." This makes the King and Queen "present" three times: once occupying the space in front of the present canvas, once on the canvas turned away from us, and once again reflected in the mirror at the rear of the room. They see themselves being seen by being able to see what most models can't: their own portraits in process. That's OK. "Royal" also means "real." And, three (trés) times means very real.
The mirror accomplishes a pre-photography photographic effect. By virtue of the lucky angles in the room, it works just like a photographic plate inside a camera. If Velàzquez had taken a view-camera, inserted a plate, and photographed instead of painted the royal couple, he would have gotten a result like the image on the mirror, only smaller. We imagine that the canvas we see in the painting is like a blow-up print. Some, including Campo y Frances, have speculated that Velàzquez actually did use some kind of optical device, probably a "camera obscura" (small box with a lens, a mirror and smoked glass). Michel Foucault has observed that the mirror magically "freezes" the reflection it would have seen if it were the present surface of the canvas. Filipe and Mariana stand in the aperture of their portrait just as if the frame enclosed a mirror. The mirror "freezes" the view and is transported to the back of the room. The space in between is liminal, non-existent, trapped between the two reflections.
The mystery of the painting is caught up in the identities of who occupies the spot we stand in to view it. On one hand, the painting seems to be as faithful as it can possibly be. Every detail is recorded, every nuance of light. On the other hand, the mirror pulls the plug out of this visual tub of facts. Our certainty drains out of the hole at the rear. It is impossible to determine how the painting was constructed. Did Filipe and Mariana stand aside while Velàzquez added a few more patches? There are two paintings (maybe more) here, and more than enough subjects. It is as if, instead of painting Filipe and Mariana, Velàzquez painted what they saw that is, the exact obverse of the portrait being painted of the King and Queen. On one side of the universe is that portrait, at the other end is "Las Meninas." The two are "glued together" at the mirror in the back of the room, the one to which the "other" Diego Velàzquez appears to point and, at the same time is either opening or closing a curtain. How apt.
The Enlightenment's twin legacy is here in this painting: the passion for exactitude in observation; the purge of all fancy and symbolism; and, all the while, the shadowy presence of a mystery located within visibility itself. To return to the example of the lucinda, it is not the representation (the portrait of the royal/real king and queen) or the artifact ("Las Meninas") so much as it is the distinction in between, the lucinda turned sideways to us or the canvas with its back to us. The distinction, by being invisible, divides the world and allows it to be glued together again in such magic moments as Las Meninas, where we see two as one, or "twone," as James Joyce liked to call it.