“The Lens and the Modern Self” by Magdalen Ki

courtyardImage source: The MET Museum (via.)

20/20 vision indicates good eyesight, but this is impossible without our built-in crystalline lens. As we age, we demand more lenses and thus discover a new world with the use of the camera lens. We are often taught to see the world through sexist, racist lenses and we are further taught to remove these lenses by putting on deconstructionist, postmodern, post-humanistic lenses. Our crystalline lens never stops growing, but our epistemological lens also changes gradually. We all desire clear vision, but our outlook can only be as good as the lens through which we look.

The young crystalline lens, like a fresh mind, is accommodating. Accommodation works on a continuum: it is not limitless, but neither is it content with narrow limits. Nature has a way of determining what is comfortable for each person. Though all crystalline lenses look alike, each is unique.

The loss of innocence comes with the arrival of an artificial lens. The kaleidoscope allows us to see wholeness in incompleteness, but the microscope turns our idea of wholeness into ugliness. Everyone or everything becomes disgusting: the most beautiful woman has parasites crawling on her face; pillows are infested with mites; pets have worms. It is little wonder that humans want to escape into the world of illusion. For centuries, homes were centered on the Bible, but the 21st century norm is to bring widescreen TV to center stage in all living rooms. Through this camera lens, sensational images are created, and sensational shows seem to rule every family. Althusserians may say mass media creates ideological misrecognition, but they are fools who care not about entertainment.

In the 17th century, Bacon dwelled on the four idols of the mind—the tribe, the cave, the marketplace, and the theatre. Only in the 20th century did the Frankfurt school indirectly focus on the Baconian wisdom. Marketers idolize money, they study alienated workmen, and inform the studio of what types of films are to be made. The theaters make everyone see the same thing, share the same laugh. Alone in the dark cinema, everyone is tribal, everyone is a cave-person. The camera lens controls our mind. The fisheye lens, the telephoto lens, and the polarizing lens allow us see the world variously. In addition, the zoom lens has definitely redefined modern aesthetics. Since the camera lens is panoptic and has the ability to add 10 pounds to anyone, the number one sin of a model is to have blemishes on the face, and fat in the belly. The zoom lens raises our aesthetic threshold, and people worldwide endorse this distorted understanding of human beauty. Many models look malnourished, but no one blames the lens.

Sated with watching others, we take advantage of the lens in our cell phones to produce ‘selfies’ and short videos. Everyone is now a narcissist and an exhibitionist. We reveal parts of our life, and create a different (usually false) persona on the web; we have our own channel, we market ourselves on Youtube. Previously, people prayed to God before they ate or took a journey; nowadays, the camera is the religion, used before a meal, or before venturing forth. The lens, like God, sees and documents everything, and the human compulsion to share and confess leads to unprecedented virtual fraternity and busy internet traffic.

The lens also creates identity problems: we are obsessed with ourselves, but we need others’ “likes” in order to see, and further stage ourselves. We are interested in seeing how others are doing, but the more voyeuristic we are, the more miserable we feel. Like all voyeurs, we find that all 3D humans are not as interesting as we see them through the lens. If that person refuses to be seen, that person is not considered friendly. A friend who has been away and refuses to upload photos is violating the code of reciprocal voyeurism. However, even if s/he sends many pictures, these images cannot satisfy us, for all Lacanians know that if mirror reflections generate misrecognition, lens refraction can only heighten distortion. Our eyes naturally tell us that grass is always greener on the other side, and seeing beautiful grass through the lens of others can only intensify our sour grapes syndrome. If we reciprocate by uploading our own pretty images, we secretly initiate a competition. When we finish viewing all the images, we feel lonely. If nobody sends us anything, we feel abandoned.

Solution, anyone?

[This piece was first published in the English Society “Envision” newsletter, Lens.]

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Maddie KiMagdalen Ki is Associate Professor at the Department of English. [Click here to read all entries by Magdalen.]

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