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The Optical Body

  • Suzannah Biernoff
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

W e saw in the last chapter that sight could provide a secure foundation for scientific knowledge by virtue of its privileged relation to the mind and its conformity to mathematical principles. As such, medieval optics played an important part in the rationalisation and disembodiment of vision; distancing the eye from the inchoate and obscuring matter of the flesh. This chapter will approach the optical gaze from a different direction. Instead of asking how Bacon’s optics anticipates modern science, I will consider its residual affinity with carnal vision. Indicative of this affinity between thirteenth-century science and other medieval discourses of vision is the reciprocity implicit in Bacon’s synthesis of intromission and extramission optics; his emphasis on physical contact so that looking becomes analogous to touching; the idea that we are altered in every act of perception; and finally the inescapable presence of ocular desire. In light of these more foreign aspects of the optical gaze, we can begin to rethink the relationship between the subject and object of vision, and between science and sight.

Keywords

Visible Object Visible World Psychical Distance Oedipus Complex Sensitive Force 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Plotinus, Enneads 4.3.8, quoted in M. Miles,’Vision: the Eye of the Body and the Eye of the Mind in Saint Augustine’s De Trinitate and Confessions’, The Journal of Religion 63.2 (Apr. 1983),129 n.14.Google Scholar
  2. 29.
    Such a distinction between sight and touch leads Irigaray to argue that Western ocularcentrism and phallocentrism are inter-implicated, and as such that ‘the predominance of the visual, and of the discrimination and individualization of form, is particularly foreign to female eroticism’. ‘Woman’, she concludes, ‘takes pleasure more from touching than from looking…’ L. Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One trans. C. Porter and C. Burke (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 25–6.Google Scholar
  3. 31.
    G. Didi-Huberman, ‘The Figurative Incarnation of the Sentence (Notes on the “Autographic” Skin )’, Journal ,The Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (Spring 1987), 68.Google Scholar
  4. 52.
    For Lacan’s account of the mirror stage, see Jacques Lacan, ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’ (1949), Écrits: a Selection , trans. A. Sheridan (London: Tavistock, 1977), 1–7. In addition to this source, my synopsis and discussion draw on: J. Gallop, Reading Lacan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), especially chapter 3; E. Grosz,Jacques Lacan; and M. Jay, Downcast Eyes (chapter 6).Google Scholar
  5. 61.
    Similarly, Grosz distinguishes between the child’s ‘psychic’ and ‘neuro-physiological’ images of self, others and world. It is through the internalisation of its visible ‘self that the child gains a (psychic) ‘self-image’ as well as an ‘understanding of space, distance, and position’. Jacques Lacan 32. Lacan’s comments on the relationship between the gaze, the eye and light are too complicated to go into here. See chapters 6–9 of Four Fundamental Concepts; and for a commentary on these seminars: Jay, Downcast Eyes 357–70; and K. Silverman, ‘Fassbinder and Lacan: a Reconsideration of Gaze, Look and Image’, Camera Obscura 19 (Jan. 1989): 54–85.Google Scholar
  6. 68.
    H. Putnam and M. C. Nussbaum, ‘Changing Aristotle’s Mind’, Words and Life , ed. J. Conant (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 32–42. For Aristotle’s theory of perception and emotion as bodily functions, see: On the Soul 403a25–b27; 427a27.Google Scholar
  7. 83.
    See the entries for ‘Imaginary’ and ‘Symbolic’ in J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis trans. D. Nicholson-Smith (London: Hogarth/Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1973), 210, 439–40.Google Scholar
  8. 96.
    T. Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 35, 59.Google Scholar
  9. 107.
    Plato, Phaedo ed. and trans. David Gallop (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 36 (83d).Google Scholar

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© Suzannah Biernoff 2002

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  • Suzannah Biernoff

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