Thursday 22 September 2011

On Perspective

Henceforth, my dear philosophers, let us be on guard against the dangerous old conceptual fiction that posited a "pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject"; let us guard against the snares of such contradictory concepts as "pure reason," absolute spirituality," "knowledge in itself": these always demand that we should think of an eye that is completely unthinkable, an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active and interpreting forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something, are supposed to be lacking; these always demand of the eye an absurdity and a nonsense. There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective "knowing"; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our "concept" of this thing, our "objectivity," be.
- Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals (iii: 12)

What a monstrous notion: a truth is only true from a perspective. Doesn’t it follow that the mob rules? The truth of a hundred wretched thugs automatically overwhelms and outweighs that of a single, solitary beautiful mind. Could there be anything more threatening to civilisation?

Perhaps some would relish the rise of the baying mob. Yet to interpret ‘more eyes, different eyes’ as meaning simply ‘more people’ seems, to me, to be a little simplistic. When we re-read something we wrote a length of time ago do we not say that we are doing so ‘with fresh eyes’? When presented with fresh experience who doesn’t ‘change their minds’? What Latour says of scientists is true of everyone (and perhaps everything): we never stand in our standpoints (Pandora’s Hope, p.66).

Place a scientist, a painter, a builder, a journalist, a historian and a politician in front of a statue. If they are made to stand completely still, unable to move a muscle what will they be able to tell you about that statue? ‘There is a statue.’ Nothing. From a single perspective nothing can be said. But what if each are allowed to move, to follow whatever trajectory they please? Then you will see that each move differently. The scientist may examine the statue closely and perhaps take a sample of the stone and head towards a laboratory. A painter may set up an easel, size the object with thumb and forefinger and mix paints to match the weathered hue of the stone. A builder might wander up, kick and prod at the base and wonder how ‘they’ fixed it there. A journalist might walk around, asking other people what they think. A historian might head away from the statue and dig around in archives to discover what other people have thought. A politician might stand up and address the crowd, hoping to get a statue of her own!

Each subject, armed with its own interests and abilities, proliferates perspectives. This is why we should understand ‘perspective’ absolutely literally. If you stand bit to the left you are in a new perspective. If you close one eye, that is a new perspective too. This may seem ridiculous until you realise that the manner in which one (a) proliferates perspectives and (b) joins those perspectives together differs enormously. No one ‘stands in their standpoint’ but some shift in and out of frames of reference faster than others and there are as many ways of shifting in and out as there are subjects.

Perspectivism is only agnostic – not knowing – if we imagine each subject as a fixed point, forever condemned to see the same world through the same eyes. Perspectivism only leads to not knowing if we imagine each subject as a statue. Perspectives proliferate and they translate in various ways. Once we recognise this we become aware that we can follow the proliferation and translation of perspectives. The process of epistemic realisation becomes ontological, therefore experiential, therefore empirical.

But are statues ‘statues’? Do they remain fixed to their own standpoint? Hardly! They move and creak and groan. Some have captured the gaze of humans for centuries, even millennia. Conquerors and colonialists may have had no respect for those they raped, murdered and enslaved but they respected the statues they brought home with them. Statues might not prance, ponder, paint or pontificate but their reality is their own. They go about subsisting in their own way. And they might not ‘think’ but they do ‘act’ upon us. Their reality is not our own.

It should have been obvious – few philosophers despised the masses more than Nietzsche – but ‘mob rule’ and perspectivism have nothing to do with each other. If some have celebrated the descent of truth from a twinkle in a star-gazers’ eye to a cloud of spittle launched from a wild-eyed horde then they have been clutching very much the wrong end of the stick. If from a crowd of ten people you count ten perspectives then you have somehow remained stuck in three dimensions; you have forgotten time.

Everyone shifts perspectives but the (a) rate and (b) manner of this shifting is widely variable. Our task is to understand these variables.

Henceforth, my dear philosophers, let us be on guard against all those who would forget time and lock each and every person into ‘their’ standpoint.