I saw it with my own eyes, we say. And with that, we have all the proof we need. In a world full of illusions and mirages, Photoshopped images and deepfakes, blind-spots and substance-induced hallucinations, we still believe we know the truth when we see it. Even after decades of research into the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, our faith in our own eyes remains strong. Because it’s always different when it’s personal, when the eyewitness is you. When it’s your own eyes, it’s difficult for the mind to let go of the thing you have seen, or the thing you think you have seen.
René Descartes famously called sight the “noblest” of the senses. In its nobility, he argued that “the inventions which serve to augment its power are among the most useful that there can be.” Today it sounds ridiculous to think of the senses in terms of virtue or social class. And yet, in action, the high status of sight is truer than when he wrote the words in 1637, as the printing press was taking the place of oral traditions. Inventors have closely followed Descartes’s advice in the centuries since—from film cameras to television, computers to smart phones, emojis taking the place of words.
We live in an ocularcentric culture—one that prioritizes sight over all other senses—and as technology moves forward, adding screen upon screen, vision’s reign spreads. It has in effect moved up the social ladder, from nobility to royalty. It might feel silly to call it our noblest, but it’s the sense we give the bulk of our responsibilities to and work the hardest to please.
Heidegger says that, “The fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture.” Because of this conquest, and the length of its rule, we no longer realize how much we’re reliant on vision, or that there’s anything lost in relying on one sense so completely. “The predominance of sight is so deeply embedded,” Hannah Arendt says, “that we seldom find any consideration bestowed on it, as though it belonged among things too obvious to be noticed.”
“The eyes are hungry,” W.A. Mathieu says in The Listening Book. “They eat brain energy. When you close your eyes your brain opens to your ears; sound rushes in to fill the sphere of the skull.” When I was in my early 20s, I read Mathieu’s books about the hidden music of daily life, hoping to train my ears, to hear the world differently, to be open in a way I didn’t yet know how to be.
Popular with aging hippies, the books weren’t cool, weren’t something I shared with my roommates and friends, but when no one was around I tried out Mathieu’s often ridiculous exercises. Humming along with the refrigerator’s motor. Harmonizing with the phone’s dial tone. Testing the resonance of objects by drumming on them. Speaking in gibberish to remember the joy of language.
Mostly I felt foolish. But every now and then, I let my guard down enough to have fun, to be a child, to discover. I closed my eyes, again and again, trying to forget what I looked like while I assigned textures to tones, wrapping myself in a wool blanket and curling up in front the stereo speakers. “Open your eyes,” Mathieu instructs, “now the brain is crowded, and the bright screen of sound grows dim.” And it was always true: the visual world had a way of narrowing what the ear could take in, of turning the volume down.
As I read Mathieu’s books, attempting to privately heighten a sense, a friend introduced me to walking meditation, or at least a drastically simplified version she learned in a class on mindfulness. “Just close your eyes,” she told me, as we walked down the street. After a few steps, we bumped into each other and stopped, laughing. But the next day, on a walk alone in the woods, I reached a stretch of wide, maintained path, closed my eyes, and felt the forces of the world rush toward me. It wasn’t just that my brain opened to my ears, but that my whole body opened to the wind, the small plants under my feet, the trees that towered over the path. My moderate pace suddenly felt wild and rushed, reckless. There was no way, it seemed, to know what I was walking into, my peaceful walk now so full of risk.
Philosopher Dana Michael Levin says, “The will to power is very strong in vision. There is a very strong tendency in vision to grasp and fixate . . . a tendency to dominate, secure, and control.” Levin writes about “the specters of patriarchal rule” that haunt our ocularcentric culture—vision’s aggressive desire to own that can be directed toward a person, groups of people, entire cultures.
There’s undeniable truth in this: judging by surface-level appearances is the source of most the great injustices and cruelties across history. But there’s also a slippery slope into damning vision entirely, when perhaps it’s more about the primacy we put on it—the drunk power of vision’s nobility. What gets lost when we dull the other senses in favor of a single sense? How does being disconnected from our bodies change how we are in the world and how we judge other bodies?
“The eyes want to collaborate with the other senses,” says Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa. The senses aren’t meant to take turns—to see something, then touch it, then smell it, then listen to it—but to work in concert. In the words of Xenophanes, “It is the whole that sees, the whole that thinks, the whole that hears.”
In our current culture, where images come in faster than ever before and arrive through largely passive interactions, our senses don’t have a chance to collaborate. Pallasmaa says that, “The only sense that is fast enough to keep pace with the astounding increase of speed in the technological world is sight.” It’s typically only when our vision is in some way limited that our other senses come alive. We feel our way through the dark, aware of the slightest change in the air, listening.Joshua James Amberson is the author of the chapbook Everyday Mythologies on Two Plum Press. He co-hosts the book and music podcast The Steer and is working on a book about eyeballs.