Wednesday, October 13, 2004


Dissertation glaucoma

Human beings are stuck, for better or for worse, with binocular vision. Our field of view encompasses only the 180 degrees in front of us. Plus, our peripheral vision is relatively weak: out of the corner of your eye, you can barely see colors or sharply distinguish shapes. This situation could be worse. We could have, like many mammals, monocular vision, with one eye on either side of our heads. We could have, like the Cyclops of legend, only one eye squarely set between our temples, which would provide our greedy brains with half as much visual data. But our field of view could also be better. We could have, like many mothers, eyes in the back of our heads. Even better, we could have, like many birds, 360 degrees of vision. Then there would be no such thing as peripheral vision. Where is the periphery on a sphere?

I was thinking about these things not because I am pondering a career in optometry, but because I am pursuing a career as an historian. And writing a dissertation in history makes me acutely aware of how limited human vision is.

From the moment that I began writing my dissertation, as the central themes of the work began to take shape, I also began to notice a large but blurry mass of indistinct ideas, just visible out of the corner of my eye. As I began with my archival research, and familiarized myself with the secondary literature, this blurry mass grew larger still. Now, huge bodies of literature stretch out indefinitely on the peripheries of my field of view. I know they are there, just as I know there are books on the coffee table to the left of where I am sitting right now, even though I cannot read the titles on the spines or identify their colors. Important questions -- about complex social categories like race, class, and gender -- remain in my peripheral vision. They resolve into focus only when I turn to pay them close attention. I know that all of these questions, all of these literatures, are worthy of my full attention. But the Latin roots of the word "attention" tell a tale: the word stems from attendere, literally "to stretch." And human vision can stretch only so far to the right or to the left, without inducing strain.

Speaking of a stretch, you might think the metaphor I am drawing is one. (This is the third entry in what it is becoming a series of posts that discuss dissertation writing with extended metaphors, some more extended than others.) But consider this: think of how often we speak about writing and thinking by using visual language? Writers promise, "I will show," or they assert, "We can see," or they remind, "As we have seen." Opinions are "points of view"; ideas "appear" differently from different "perspectives." (Out of the corner of my eye, I've been watching the presidential debate on PBS. I just heard Mark Shields and David Brooks talking about how "visionary" the candidates were. Or were not.) Even the way we "see" thought is shaped by the way we see. See what I mean? (In a mailing I recently received from the University of California Press, this book caught my eye, but I have not read it.)

All thinking, like all seeing, becomes blurry at the peripheries. Writing history requires the historian to focus the reader's eye. The past is an almost unfathomably brilliant kaleidoscope of shiny things. To take it all in would require the kind of rapid eye movement available only in the world of dreams. So I remind myself of this when that cloud of blurry ideas starts to bother me. How will I move that historiography into the center of my frame? When will that huge question about class identities come into sharper focus? It is when those questions seem urgent that I remind myself (yes, writers and historians are inward-looking enough to need reminding) that my lines of sight are limited. You cannot see it all at once.

When eye doctors evaluate vision, they do not raise their eyebrows if patients see what is in front of them better than they see peripherally. They do not ask you to read the eye chart on the wall to your left, without turning your head. If your peripheral vision is weaker than your frontal vision, that is not abnormal. Your vision is not defective. At least, a standard degree of peripheral weakness is normal. But there is such a thing as glaucoma. Some blurriness in your peripheral vision is normal; peripheral blindness is not. And in the worst cases of glaucoma, blindspots that appear first in the corners of your eyes converge gradually on the center, until total blindness results. A good ophthalmologist has to be able to tell the difference between the normal limitations of the human eye and the abnormality of diseases like glaucoma.

So too does the historian have to distinguish between normal and abnormal peripheral vision. If the blurry mass of ideas in the corner of my mind's eye becomes too big, and gradually shrinks my field of view, then I have a problem. The key is to remain aware of what and how much is there, to be able to focus on those things when they impinge onto your central frame, to make that what is out of sight is never out of mind. This is a long (but hopefully not "obscure," another visual thinking word) way of showing you that having a long list of things you still have to get to in your dissertation does not mean you are blind. But you do have to be on guard for signs of glaucoma. From time to time, you'll have to turn your head from side to side. The wrong way to deal with the problem of peripheral vision is to put on blinders. The right way is to accept your natural limitations, but patiently work around them. It might help, too, to remember that in history, as in art, "perfect" vision might not always be to your advantage, since perfect human vision, after all, is in some ways less than perfect.

Collective Improvisation:
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