Believing is seeing
From The Gutenberg Galaxy, a revisionist tour de force that gave us the axiom”the medium is the message”, Marshall McLuhan argued that moveable type was the prime offender in shaping a civilization enslaved from the tyranny of the visual.
Marks on the published page owned a visual logic, he explained, in being not just indelible, but replicable, legible, homogeneous. Growing over the contingencies and subjectivities linked with standpoint, that is, standpoint, they insist that ocular information is overriding, or seeing is believing. It’s a strong argument. And it appears, at first blush, to apply equally to the development of scientific knowledge, which, to put it simply, tests its own claims to veracity contrary to the inarguable proof of observable phenomena. But one does not need to appear very far to come across all manner of strongly-held beliefs flourishing in the complete absence of such proof. Not least spiritual ones; in fact, you could say that the beauty of God is that he does not need to exist in order to be believed. Or the attractiveness of anyone, for that matter, because at the eye of the beholder those not blessed with conventional good looks may nevertheless be cherished as beautiful. More to the point, folks routinely believe in ghosts and goblins, in mythical lost worlds, eccentric conspiracy theories, or even the emptiness that the Earth is flat not because of visible evidence, but despite it.
Back in 1917, a 16-year old girl called Elsie Wright took her 9-year-old cousin Frances by the hand and disappeared down the family’s Yorkshire garden, with borrowed her dad’s camera, a Midg quarter-plate. Arthur was a keen amateur photographer who had his own darkroom, and when the women returned from their trip”triumphant” he published the picture they had shot, which revealed Frances crouching behind a small bush, observing a troupe of mini fairies dancing. Another photograph followed, of Elsie that moment, revealing her sitting on the grass, her outstretched fingers reaching to touch the small hand of a friendly gnome. Arthur chided the women for their prank and refused to give them his camera , but Elsie’s mother believed the creatures were real.
Following Polly Wright took the photographs to a meeting of the Theosophical Society, they came to the attention of Edward Gardner, a leading light of the spiritualist movement, who marvelled at the girls’ efforts to”materialise” these spectral beings”at a density adequate for their pictures to be recorded on a photographic plate”.
When painters in Kodak examined the photographs and discounted any fakery, Gardner setup for Cottingley, bearing two cameras as presents for the girls, and begged them to take more images. The girls duly obliged, shooting three more fairy photographs which Conan Doyle published from The Strand magazine, hoping to attract the public around to his way of viewing. However, Elsie confessed the Cottingley fairies might have been”figments of my imagination”, thus managing to imply that she had somehow photographed her own thoughts. Afterward, in the early 1980s, when the journalist Austin Mitchell (later an MP) interviewed Elsie to get Yorkshire tv, she piped up, saying:”a sane person does not see fairies”.
At the time when the Cottingley fairies turned into a public sensation, photography was widely seen as a goal all-seeing eye, Fox Talbot’s’pencil of character’, representing only that which was there. Yet Elsie turned this notion on its head by suggesting that by some unexplained process photography may be effective at depicting illusions. If it sounds farfetched, consider this: if Gardner made a last trip to Cottingley in 1921, after public attention in the fairies had subsided, he chose the wellknown philosopher, Catholic priest and occultist Geoffrey Hodson with him. But Hodson”saw them anywhere”. Hodson was a champion of the supernatural. Because he believed, he saw.
When Elsie proclaimed that sane people did not see fairies, she had been trying to exculpate herself out of wrongdoing. But she could also have shrugged her shoulders and stated that people see what they wish to see. This, after all, was that the lesson she learnt 16. Elsie was incorrect on several counts, however. Rational individuals literally see all types of items that aren’t there. As are those vertically-stacked optical illusions created by heat distortions of mild, more romantically called mirages. (Interestingly, optical illusions caused by reflected light can be photographed,because the purpose of observation precisely coincides with the point where the reflection occurs). Yet even when we are not hallucinating, it is not possible to keep a visual fix on a thing which is’out there’ in the world, as the duck/rabbit phenomenon all too clearly reveals. Also, Rorschach tests, which encourage people to describe the images they see in inkblots and which psychologists use to start up a window onto their minds.
There is a term with this persistent trend of humans to see meaningful messages and shapes in random phenomena; to see that the’Man in the Moon’, state to recognise animal shapes or family objects in the clouds. That term is pareidolia, also it is a subset of apophenia, which denotes the broader tendency of individuals to make connections between matters where no apparent connection exists. In its brilliance (or possibly its nervousness ) the human mind is indeed determined to impose form and pattern on the planet that it creates the entire world in the process of apprehending it.
This, incidentally, is what the historian Thomas Kuhn called out once he required science to task over its claims to correspond to reality. At a landmark book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn argued that we discredit one scientific theory and adopt a better one, not when we have observed better truth that argue for it, but when we experience a’paradigm shift’ or alteration in perceptual sensibility, that alters the way we examine the world. Truth only get value inside the concepts that interpret them.
However there can be disclosure is illusions too. A faint mist from the hills”brings out the gradations of elevation and of distance [therefore ] there is seen to be a near and a much”, and”the reflection of land in glassy water defines and clarifies its factors”. For Shepherd, these deceptive enchantments have a beauty of their own. At best, they disclose a hidden understanding of this kind I feel sure Conan Doyle could have accepted.