The Hegemony of the Eye

Insofar as the most innovative instruments of the era – the telescope and the microscope – extended the range and acuity of one sense in particular, scientific experience tended to privilege the visual, with its capacity to produce knowledge at a distance, over the other senses. Even when Bacon castigated normal vision for staying on the surface of things and failing to pay attention to the invisible world beneath, he hoped that ultimately its secrets would be “brought to light.” Paracelsus’s metaphor of “overhearing” nature’s secrets was laid to rest. Abetted by innovations in the perspectivalist depiction of space on Renaissance canvases, which seemed to be in tune with the rationalized universe assumed by the new science, the hegemony of the eye meant not only the denigration of the other senses, but also the decontextualisation of experience in general. A few unheralded figures aside – the Portugese philosopher John Poinsot (1589-1644) has been recently raised from obscurity to play the role of rule-proving exception – modern thinkers tended to suppress the semiotic and cultural mediation of experience and seek to ground it firmly in pure, primarily visual, observation and controlled experimentation.

Martin Jay, Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 37-38.

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