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Archive for February 7th, 2009

This is a response that I wrote to a classmate’s post on my class discussion board, but I thought I’d post it here as well just to get the brain juice-a-flowin’!  We were discussing Descartes’ scientific writings, and were talking about a section he wrote on optics:

 

I appreciate your honesty about your struggle with Descartes.  I am amazed, like many others, at how closely his ideas are to modern ones.  I suppose that in some respects, we think that we’re making such great progress with ideas, but then we find that often the classic thinkers or even the ancients are already there ready to meet us, having gotten there before us long before. 

 

I really appreciate that you pointed out a part of the reading that I marked but did not write about in my own post.  You write, “[Descartes] continues by saying that any invention that enhances sight or increases the power of sight, is among the most useful of inventions.  The example he uses is the telescope as enhancing the ability of man to view the stars.”  This idea of Descartes’ is a good one on which to linger, because it has such significant ramifications in the way Descartes describes it.  He talks about an invention enhancing sight, and uses the telescope as an example.  Marshall McLuhan, writing in the 20th century, describes any medium as an extension of ourselves.  In his book The Medium is the Massage, he says that “The wheel is an extension of the foot…the book is an extension of the eye…clothing an extension of the skin.”  I can’t help but wonder what Descartes would say if he were to see all the things that extend our sight: telescopes, satellite cameras, camera phones, electron microscopes, surveillance cameras, books, blogs, discussion boards, and even computer programs like iPhoto, which now has face recognition tools in it. 

 

I would say that you’re exactly right about the fact that the vision of our world has changed over time.  Our vision has been expanded, not just to see the night sky, but it has been extended in different modalities.  If I could have lunch with Descartes I would ask him, in light of the enormity of the expansion of our sense of sight on multiple levels, what the implications are of his claim that the senses are deceptive, and (perhaps) especially sight.  

"The book is an extension of the eye"...What else is?

"The book is an extension of the eye"...What else is?

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Beware the image and the text.  Beware the text, for it can “make the weaker argument appear the stronger” (Plato’s Apology) through the enthymeme and the wily rhetoritician.  Beware also the image, because through repetition and the strength of the sense of vision, it can have a curious side effect to those who are not aware: it has the property of becoming the stronger idea in the mind while choking the weaker ideas until they become latent, just as a large tree will overwhelm the surrounding growth, covering it with its shade, until at last nothing else of strength grows under the canopy of its branches that will threaten it.

 

The most visceral examples of this phenomenon that I witness day to day is with my students, who watch movies and TV a lot and read a little, if at all.  Consequently, they do not know that the real battle of Stirling was fought on and around a bridge and was not led by someone resembling Mel Gibson in stature.  They do not know that Beowulf was an epic poem over a millennium before it was the film they watched.  They do not stop to realize that battles are fought without soundtracks, and are seldom glorious.  The little history or literature they read in their high school history class or English class (if they read it) is overwhelmed by the images they see and constantly fill their eyes with all the time.  This is not in itself a bad thing; rather it points to both the prominence of the image in our own society, or at least in the culture of the community in which I teach, and the fact that images can be accepted as valid ones simply through repetition.  They are children of fiction, and stories have become their world, but their understanding of stories does not have the transparency that might let in the contextualizing light of the rest of reality.  Their paradigm is opaque, and therefore for them is the only thing they know.  It is difficult, in this state, to make the distinction between fiction, history, narrative, politics, and anything else.  Everything blends into one thing and that thing loses its exhilaration because it is all they know.

 

This is why I want to teach freshman and sophomores in college.  I want to make a difference.  This is why I want a mead-hall. (nods to Marshall and Rich!)

 

The Form of mead-hall

The Form of mead-hall

 

 

 

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