Monday, December 13, 2010

The Blind Side

Oliver Sacks’ latest book, The Mind’s Eye, contains a chapter on the author’s development of a small tumor in his right eye and the radiation and laser treatment he underwent. The description of the side effects of his treatment makes for a surprisingly astute, and wholly unintentional, political allegory.

Sacks developed the effect of holding an image in his vision after closing his eyes:
At one point, after gazing at the bookshelves in my bedroom for a few minutes, I closed both eyes and saw, for ten or fifteen seconds, the hundreds of books arrayed on the shelves in great, almost perceptual detail. This was not filling in but something quite different—a persistence of vision similar to what I had experienced in the hospital eighteen months earlier, when I seemed to see the washbasin so clearly “through” my eye patch.

Sacks also developed a black, “Australia-shaped” blind spot that would show up whenever he used only his right eye. When focused on an object, it would fill in the void with the appropriate color or pattern:

I experimented with this visual spread one day by gazing with my right eye at the old tree with a particularly exuberant and brilliantly green mass of foliage. Filling in soon occurred, so that the missing area turned green and textured to match the rest of the foliage. This was followed by a “filling out,” an extension of the foliage, especially towards the left, resulting in a huge lop-sided mass of “leaves.” I realized how outlandish this had become only when I opened my left eye and saw the tree’s actual shape. I went home and looked up an old paper by Macdonald Critchley on types of “visual perseveration” which he called “paliopsia” and “illusory visual spread.”2 Critchley saw these two phenomena as analogous: one a perseveration in time, the other a perseveration in space.

The key to these passages’ political significance lies in the footnote:
Although Critchley coined the term “paliopsia,” most people now use “palinopsia.”

With this terminology we arrive at a wonderful encapsulation of Sarah Palin’s reactionary posture. When Palin looks at the Left, including green politics, instead of a liberal technocratic approach to problems widely understood by experts to be problems (climate change; Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; American health care; under-taxation and over-spending), she perceives only a “lop-sided mass,” a distortion of the reality. This perversion also affects her conservatism, such that the good old days she wishes to go back to have little basis in reality.The small-town “Real America” Palin so venerates, for instance, in fact only accounts for 18% of the United States’ population and has not been a majority in nearly a hundred years. Quite the “perseveration in time.”

Oliver Sacks’ closing thoughts on Palinopsia are further appropriate:

Here perhaps one has to use the word “pathological,” for one can hardly have a normal visual life if every perception gets extended and smeared in space and time; one needs restraint or inhibition, clear boundaries, to preserve the discreteness of perception.

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