This essay appeared in Counterpunch.
I think there’s a close relationship between peripheral vision and the somewhat famous “overview effect”. The eye, after all, is an extension of the brain. Both peripheral vision and an overview imply a perception of context, which limits the distortions of self-interest.
What’s more, peripheral vision is too quick to be resisted by the ego. It’s only an immediate sensitivity to what is happening. Therefore it precedes wishful thinking. As soon as we “take sides” for or against what is noticed, then our focus has already narrowed. Therefore a peripheral vision engenders something of a suspended state (ala David Bohm). It allows contradictory ideas to sort themselves out.
As kids I think we tended to use our peripheral vision more often. It was needed in order to connect the dots of contradictory stimuli. (We were not yet defensive of a particular narrative).
Obviously our pupils dilate and constrict. But a peripheral vision needs to be primary if only because it helps us notice when our focus has become imbalanced. Our eyes constrict when an item of particular interest has been perceived on the periphery. That’s when a temporary zoom-lens state of mind seems necessary.
But the relationship seems to have gone topsy-turvy. Some deep-seated meme prejudices even small children to lose their peripheral gaze. Our eyes then become almost permanently focused, as if we were always under attack, or on the hunt for prey. And with this change in eyesight, a more competitive, self-centered and goal-seeking consciousness begins to dominate. (This is my theory at any rate).
So now we primarily look at the world through a zoom lens, which breaks up the whole into apparently unrelated fragments. This leads to a babble of competing memes. It’s impossible to string all the contradictory details into any sensible whole using only focused, analytical thinking. All we end up doing is furthering the fragmentation and babble.
However, a peripheral vision is never lost. It’s merely suppressed in a flurry of competitive detail. Already a peripheral vision (an overview mentality) is reasserting itself, exposing the nakedness of old divisive constructs such as nationalism and rugged individualism. We are going through a revolution, but it’s not grounded in politics and it’s not something we can champion. It’s something we have to stop obstructing in so many small ways. The revolution amounts to being radically honest with ourselves.
Experimenting for the Sake of Discovery, Not as a Means of Improvement
I’m experimenting with looking at the world peripherally. Not in order to change myself. (I try to avoid impossible tasks). This needs to be stressed. The experiments aren’t designed to make me more aware, but only to investigate a relationship between the way we look at things and the way we think about ourselves and the world.
I’m not a fan of self-improvement (i.e., “psychological evolution”) because the motivation to improve oneself already asserts a narrowing, self-isolating perspective.
So lately, as an experiment, I’ve been noticing how my eyes behave.
Mostly they’re directed at the sidewalk a few feet ahead of me, or at this or that passing person or dog. Now and then at my own clumsy feet, a piece of gum, a loud fire engine. And my thoughts follow suit, jumping from comment to comment, memory to memory, construct to construct. Awareness is broken into a jumble of pieces.
Once in a while I test whether it’s possible to survive with a less focused vision. So I lift my eyes to the horizon and widen my gaze. (Indeed, I notice the bulldozer much sooner).
But again, this isn’t my goal. Goals just narrow my focus. I don’t want to remove the symptoms before I have a chance to discover the source of the problem.
We Already See Things Peripherally – But We’ve Learned to Ignore It
There’s a hint of an overview effect in simply noticing the astonishing degree to which vision and awareness are circumscribed.
In other words, focused attention blocks much of what is already noticeable on the periphery. In fact, a peripheral vision seems to be primary. With a wide aperture we can detect details, and the relationship between details, but when a focused vision becomes dominant we lose sight of the whole. That is, the wide contains the narrow, but the narrow doesn’t contain the wide. (My poem “Periphery” deals with this a bit).
You’ve probably known people who get so absorbed in a television program that they don’t hear your question or respond to the doorbell. This is our culture in a nutshell. News is nothing but the strenuous narrowing of attention to extraneous nonsense while the planet is exploding.
If I focus my attention to the exclusion of a peripheral sense of what’s happening, stress is felt. It’s a stress we’ve learned to ignore. I’m not interested in “overcoming stress.” I’m interested in what the stress is suggesting. It’s a peripheral indicator of how I’m participating in throttling my own sensitivity. It’s a clue to my own responsibility in generating this conflict-inducing babble in the world.
I’m suggesting that an excessive focus explains why this culture seems to have no overriding vision or meaning. We lose ourselves in the unreal fog of everyday life. Our preoccupation seems insane. Why do people yoke themselves to such busy lives? And then on vacations or weekends we expect to unwind and rediscover a wider world? And even then we engage in more focused distractions.
The Problem’s In Our Eyes
I think we learned to see the world in this circumscribed way because peripheral vision is not always pleasant. It reveals things about ourselves which often don’t jive with the images we’ve been taught to maintain.
Peripheral vision is like a squad of little boys all pointing at the naked emperors of our own personal self-admiration societies. These kids mean no harm. They’re just honest. But the image doesn’t want to be exposed.
I’m claiming that the problems of the world can be seen in our eyes. But this doesn’t mean that by merely moving our eyes in a different way we’ll restore balance to the world. I’m only noting that the behavior of our eyes reflects a potentially disastrous bias towards a divisively competitive and comparative mentality.
Some may dismiss this as “human nature”, but from my perspective our nature is only an expression of how we imagine the world. The world is too plastic to have any set nature. The behavior of our eyes suggests a distortion that is not inevitable.
May I ask you to not merely read this? Experiment with me. It only becomes real when you participate. That means don’t try to maintain a peripheral vision. The intention itself, as I noted above, is already too focused. You’ll only kid yourself.
Instead, simply notice the absence of a wider vision. The very discovery of a hyper-focused mentality initiates a wider vision.
And don’t expect to keep this wide-eyed view when you momentarily find it. The expectation is already an unconscious focus reasserting itself. Just learn how it works – why focus keeps re-establishing its dominance.
Why It Happens
I wonder if the annoying “why? why? why?” mantra of childhood isn’t in some way trying to stave off this fragmentation of vision. The question “Why” demands some meaningful connection between seemingly disparate things.
Does an almost schizophrenic Zeitgeist relentlessly wear away a child’s connection with nature, animals and people? (Check out my poem “Wounded Bear”). My feeling is that children notice the fragmentation of perception, even though they can’t articulate this distortion. I felt it as an “unreal feeling” – an isolation that was at times terrifying. The backbone of my life is the question of what is real. It drives all these essays.
Clearly, children aren’t blank slates any more than an acorn is a blank slate. They have a sense of wholeness. If given a chance they show love for wild lands, and a love of learning. This suggests not so much a human nature (an established character) as a fact of nature (an established momentum in the whole).
A world whose depths can never be plumbed, where the very expansion of the universe includes the expansion of meaning, endows all living things with an urge to grow, to learn, to connect. Therefore a maple leaf is also a sign of creative genius.
The wholeness of the world is truer than its fragmentary nature. Those who see that this is the case – that the whole includes the capacity for fragmentation, but not vice versa – are not provoked into an imbalanced selfishness that loses all sense of the periphery, the wider connectivity.
Children slowly get absorbed into a culture “engineered” to be divisive, competitive and isolating. I wrap the word “engineered” in quotes because there’s no engineer behind the engineering. The engineers of this doctrine of narrowing horizons are the engineered themselves.
We are kind and empathetic when we perceive the world as a whole, from an overview perspective. And we appear to be selfish and unkind when we perceive the world in fragments. There are those who have such an overwhelming perception of the wholeness of the universe that they perceive no threat even when their lives are at stake.
A baby is no Buddha. Their biological selfishness is easily provoked. But children are seemingly more thoroughly grounded in the undeniable wholeness of nature, perhaps as an afterglow of the big bang of birth. And for a few years they remain in that shared fluid of a mother’s love.
The documentary Alphabet talks at length about Yale University studies and other research which shows that at 6 months of age children are decidedly empathetic – perhaps an expression of our initial perception of the whole. But by age 1 (just six months later) already 20% have learned to be aggressive and selfish. We grow in an environment of poisoned memes. (I conveniently dismiss research which shows older children sharing more readily, because I believe they simply don’t wish to appear selfish in the eyes of the testers. I ignore this evidence because the overwhelming evidence of an increasingly competitive and divisive culture is harder to ignore).
A Question of Reality
It’s a tacit indoctrination blowing through television and internet, through history books, the well-meaning mouths of teachers, roaring home from the hell we made of Vietnam, Iraq and every other war before and after, out of the mouths of purchased politicians, hypocritical preachers and lying advertisers, and from the whole shit-storm of what passes for respectability. And it’s highly contagious.
It’s nothing more than a tacit belief in the need to be ambitious, self-confident and competitive. These were the traits that would make us admirable, high-ranking, unique and real. And everyone who knew better had to go along with this indoctrination or risk being chewed up and spit out by the heartless momentum of this doctrine.
It promised reality. But the more we practiced these traits, the more unreal life began to feel.
Because what I gained by severing myself from others competitively was an isolated self-consciousness that depended for validation on its own unsupportable self-regard. I was being indoctrinated to live in a culture that rewarded the deceptions of self-confidence (literally a con game). But I was terrible at it. I could never completely fool myself.
A Peripheral Vision is a Wake-Up Call
There are millions of us, aren’t there? We lacked ambition and fell out of the race even before it started. Or we jumped into the competition full-blast for a while, just to prove that we weren’t without mettle. But our efforts were desultory. We didn’t live up to our potential. And we had no intention of doing so.
The fear of ending up crazy or broke drove most of us to find some half-satisfying way of joining this world. Maybe some got lucky and found something they truly loved to do. But many of us saved up the better part of our energy for a task that was not yet invented. It required following peripheral clues through this maze of unreality.
What drove us were inklings of a broader vision. It was like falling in love. Sometimes we saw the beautiful face of life itself, buried beneath this fragmented and meaningless mess.
It was a perspective that none of us could claim for ourselves. Because as soon as we tried to capture it, or implement any program to nurture it, it became something shoddy and selfish. It was more like a great, life-affirming NO. A rejection of all the distracting bread and circus dog and pony shows that produce this destructive sleepwalk of unreality.
The Real Revolution of a Broader Perspective
Maybe a child’s ‘why’ is all we have to stave off narrowing horizons. Without resounding NO’s and relentless Why’s our horizons shrink until we’re made submissive by despair.
It’s only when we hit upon a perspective that puts all these narrowing impulses to shame that we find ourselves in real revolt.
The phrase “overview effect” was coined to describe how astronauts were profoundly affected by seeing the earth from space. In some ways it seems to have had an impact on all of us. We will never see our planet the same way again. We were all made weightless for just an instant on July 21st, 1969.
In the midst of a sometimes heroic, but often confused rebellion against these narrowing forces, the moon landing consolidated our distracted attention. For one blessed moment we saw how trivial our empires and nations really were, how naked our emperors.
For an instant we became a whole people, entranced by this shaman’s vision of a world beyond our own, beyond these Platonic shadows on the screen. For a moment we huddled together against the dark unknowable majesty of space. Awed by a fathomless world.