The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Science   /   Fall 2016   /    Notes And Comments

Simply Seeing

B.D. McClay

When Ralph Ellison sought to communicate what it was like to be a black man in twentieth-century America, he also spoke of “being seen.”

Of all our senses, vision is the one most overburdened with meaning. Seeing is linked to rational judgment, yet also to self-deception: Descartes fretted over the stick that seems straight in the air, bent in the water. Seeing allows us into a shared world, but also creates doubt that anyone sees precisely your world. Justice is traditionally blind because it is impartial; blindness can also stand for willful stupidity. Leaning on both of these meanings, movements attempting to draw attention to injustice or suffering often employ the language of visibility. Invisible People, for instance, is a charity that conducts video interviews with the homeless. “Some content may be offensive,” its website warns. “Our hope is you’ll get mad enough to do something.” People just don’t see how bad things are; if they did, well…

The hope of making people mad enough to do something is also behind many of the videos of killings by police that have been posted online in recent years. In 2011, for instance, a homeless man named Kelly Thomas was beaten to death by six policemen, and a thirty-four-minute video of the encounter was captured by a security camera and subsequently uploaded to YouTube by the Orange County Register. Today, even casual users of Facebook or Twitter can watch a video of someone dying before even realizing what they are looking at.

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