Lentil Soup response: why vision?

This article was an interesting read given that I’m part of a generation that grew up in a thoroughly image-saturated culture, to the extent that it’s hard for me to truly internalize an understanding of what life must have felt like beforehand.

Its main argument—that “photography took root in an already fertile and well-tilled soil: a prephotographic culture deeply involved with lens instruments, lens-derived information, optics, vision, and representation”—strikes me as a useful piece of background knowledge but leaves me wondering whether there’s anything special about the lens, in particular, or if the lens culture is just the visual facet of a broader human drive to expand the reach of our senses and mind. After all, Coleman notes that lenses are tools for extending the scope of the eye, backing this up with references to the microscope and the telescope. But, comparable tools exist for other human faculties too, and these tools have become similarly ingrained in modern culture. Modern texting (as an extension of talking) comes to mind—it started with handwritten letters, and now it’s on our phones that let us instantly send messages that physical distance has only a trivial effect on the propagation of. I mention texting (rather than “computers” or “mp3 players,” etc., because it’s the only example I can come up with off the top of my head that, like photography, also has a preservation and archival method built into the act of faculty-extension).

As a trivial point to note, vision is the only one of our basic five senses that’s been extended into saturating our culture and defining our communications to such an extent. Hearing is definitely ranked second, however distantly, and touch/smell/taste are all very far behind. I suspect this is simply because visual images are the most readily mass-producible and mass-consumable: they’re cost-effective, and can be both generated and processed quickly, whereas it’s unclear how someone looking to disseminate a specific taste to a larger population could go about doing so.

Additionally, I wish the reading had contained more discussion of Coleman’s assertion that our culture needs to “understand the extent to which lenses shape, filter, and otherwise alter the data that passes through them.” I’m thoroughly on board with his argument that they’ve permeated Western culture, and therefore an understanding of the effects of that permeation is necessary, but I would like a more formal discussion of what sorts of distortions he thinks photography can propagate. I realize this may not have been in the scope of the piece, and I have a few vague ideas of my own—pertaining mostly to photoshop, staged photos, etc.—but I look forward to exploring that subject more formally and in more detail.


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