Eye-pparatus: Re-imagining the Human Eye in the Nineteenth Century. In: Towards Technosophy (2022)
In Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Vilém Flusser attempts to define technical images, apparatuses, and how they come into being. Flusser suggests that any apparatus and its products, technical images, exclusively emerge as the offspring of scientific texts:
The technical image is an image produced by apparatuses. As apparatuses themselves are the products of applied scientific texts, in the case of technical images, one is dealing with the indirect products of scientific texts.1)
He then moves on to differentiate between two types of images that fundamentally possess distinct identities:
This gives them [technical images], historically and ontologically, a position that is different from that of traditional images. Historically, traditional images precede texts by millennia, and technical ones follow on after very advanced texts.2)
Traditional images arrive before texts, and technical images come after texts that carry advanced information. Each stage of technical invention functions as the translation of the previous one into a new realm. While traditional images translate the tangible and experienced world into shapes and colors, linear writing reduces those shapes and colors into a pre-determined set of symbols, in other words, texts. At last, adequately information-loaded texts, as a result of applied science, bring about apparatuses that can produce technical images that are translations of the concrete world at a third degree. The distinction between traditional and technical images is essential in Flusser’s discussion of apparatuses and how they possess the power to produce images that signify concepts rather than phenomena. Their importance does not arise from their relationship with the concrete world but rather from their close ties with culture.
Flusser constructs his thesis with the example of the camera apparatus, which produces photographs, a type of technical image. The most critical feature of the camera apparatus is its property as a black box. The user can dictate the input that enters this black box and estimate the output that comes out of it but cannot exactly know what happens inside. If the camera apparatus is programmed well, it becomes impossible for photographers to comprehend the totality of the apparatus and solve the mystery inside the black box:
“It is precisely the obscurity of the box which motivates photographers to take photographs. They lose themselves, it is true, inside the camera in search of possibilities, but they can nevertheless control the box.”3)
By dismantling, investigating, and testing the possibilities of the camera apparatus, photographers aim to peek inside this mystery box. This is what Flusser calls playing with and against the apparatus. However, the play always takes place to the extent permitted by the camera program. The program dictates what can and cannot be done with the apparatus. Soon after, apparatuses that are created by humankind to automatize their process of transforming the world turn their creators into functionaries which comply with the intentions of the apparatus.4) Each program is tied to a metaprogram, and the intentions of the apparatus are determined by its metaprogram. As Flusser puts it, “the hierarchy of programs is open at the top.”5) This means that each program operates as a function of its metaprogram.
This whole organization of programs creates a fluid structure that is in constant transformation due to being in a feedback loop with society:
Likewise reduced to its basic elements, the camera’s program is as follows: first, to place its inherent capabilities into the image; second, to make use of a photographer for this purpose, except in borderline cases of total automation (for example, in the case of satellite photographs); third, to distribute the images produced in this way so that society is in a feedback relationship to the camera which makes it possible for the camera to improve progressively; fourth, to produce better and better images. In short: The camera’s program provides for the realization of its capabilities and, in the process, for the use of society as a feedback mechanism for its progressive improvement.6)
In light of Flusser’s remarks on apparatuses, programs, and technical images, this text diverts its attention from the camera apparatus and sets sail to speculate on the human eye and how it was imagined as a technical-image-producing apparatus in the late 19th century.
Optogram as Technical Image
Among many scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, the 19th century witnessed a set of physiological experiments that revolved around the eye and its light-sensitive capacities. Those experiments significantly influenced how the human eye was attempted to be instrumentalized, similar to the camera apparatus. In 1876, Franz Christian Boll (1849-1879) discovered a light-sensitive retinal pigment through his experiments with frogs. He named the pigment visual red (in German: Sehrot) due to its reddish-purple color. Boll’s experiments showed that the pigment generated in the dark and bleached out when it was exposed to light. Boll also found that the pigment persisted in the retina for 12 to 24 hours, even after the death of the inspected living being.7)
In an 1877 experiment, Boll placed a paralyzed frog in a room wit a window that had partially closed shutters, allowing only a strip of light to enter the room. Soon after, he observed a projection of a similar light strip in a bleached-out form on the frog’s retina, thus discovering not only the light-sensitive properties of the retina but also the eye’s ability to make temporary imprints of what is seen.8)
In the same year, another German physiologist Wilhelm Friedrich Kühne (1837-1900), inspired by Boll’s findings, began to experiment with rabbits to closely examine this pigment, changing its name to visual purple (in German: Sehpurpur) and naming the chemical responsible for the pigment rhodopsin.9) Kühne’s enthusiasm toward visual purple exceeded that of Boll greatly. He aimed to permanently fix the pigment before it completely bleached out, allowing him to acquire an image of the last vision of the living being. In his article Eye and Camera, George Wald summarizes Kühne’s experiment as follows:
An albino rabbit was fastened with its head facing a barred window. From this position, the rabbit could see only a gray and clouded sky. The animal’s head was covered for several minutes with a cloth to adapt its eyes to the dark, that is, to let rhodopsin accumulate in its rods. Then the animal was exposed for three minutes to the light. It was immediately decapitated, the eye removed and cut open along the equator, and the rear half of the eyeball containing the retina laid in a solution of alum for fixation. The next day Kühne saw, printed upon the retina in bleached and unaltered rhodopsin, a picture of the window with the clear pattern of its bars.10)
Image 1. AI-generated image with the command line “a rabbit in a dimly lit room looking towards a bright window, black and white sketch, 19th-century aesthetics” Created with Midjourney’s AI image generator. In the words of their creators, “Midjourney is an independent research lab exploring new mediums of thought and expanding the imaginative powers of the human species.” They focus on design, human infrastructure, and AI. www.midjourney.com/about. Accessed on November 22, 2022.
Image 2. Lithograph reproductions of Wilhelm Kühne’s rabbit’s eye optograms, 1877 E. A. Funke, Leipzig, details of ‘Table 1’, lithograph, in Wilhelm Kühne, Untersuchungen aus dem Physiologischen, Institute der Universität Heidelberg, vol. 1 (Heidelberg: Carl Winter’s Universitätsbuchhandlung, 1877), 103.
Under highly controlled lab conditions, Kühne managed to preserve the image exposed on the rabbit’s retina. He named his successful image optogram and the process optography.
In 1880, Kühne went one step further and conducted an optographic experiment with a human subject. The subject of the experiment was Gustav Erhard Reif, a convicted murderer sentenced to death by guillotine. Right after the execution, Kühne moved Reif’s head to a dark room, removed his eyes and retinas, and stabilized them in alum solution. Despite his effort, Kühne failed to repeat his earlier successful optographic rendering with his human subject. The obtained image did not reveal a real-life scene but only an incomprehensible abstract figure.
Image 3. Drawing of the abstract figure Wilhelm Kühne claimed to obtain from Gustav Erhard Reif’s retina, 1880
Wilhelm Kühne, Untersuchungen aus dem Physiologischen. Institute der Universität Heidelberg, vol. 4, (Heidelberg: Carl Winter’s Universitätsbuchhandlung, 1880), 280.
Kühne’s unsuccessful attempt with a human subject could be explained by the lack of controlled laboratory conditions he previously had with his experiments with animals. Nonetheless, it went down in history as the only human optographic experiment. Kühne’s experiments were undeniably motivated and influenced by the functional principles of the earliest photographic techniques. Kühne even built up an analogy between the eye and the photographic darkroom processes of the 19th century:
Bound together with the pigment epithelium, the retina behaves not merely like a photographic plate, but like an entire photographic workshop, in which the workman continually renews the plate by laying on new light-sensitive material, while simultaneously erasing the old image. 11)
Alongside his attempts to fix the ever-fleeing image in the eye, Kühne’s comparison of the human eye to a photographic workshop is one of the founding contributions to a discourse in which the eye, a biological organ, is discussed in terms of a technical-image producing apparatus. In addition to Kühne’s analogy, optograms were colloquially referred to as natural photographs.12) The public reception of optography as a natural form of photography is another important feature of the optographic discourse which ties it to Flusser’s discussion of technical images.
With the help of experiments and observations, 19th-century physiology discovered the rhodopsin protein and revealed the eye’s previously unknown capabilities. In the absence of adequate scientific texts, the eye has merely seemed to function as a biological organ in charge of vision. However, with the emergence of photography and development of physiological research, the eye assumed the role of not only seeing but also recording. No longer merely an internal part of the human body, it became an apparatus that can be utilized for various purposes. Nonetheless, the availability of adequate scientific research alone is insufficient to explain why people of the late 19th century strived after natural photographs. To gain a complete picture, we should look beyond technical information and focus on imaginary aspects of optograms.
Imagining the Visual Apparatus
Flusser makes another vital remark about apparatuses which is their embeddedness in culture and how they could carry clues and provide information about the culture they belong to. Certain characteristics of cultures are projected onto their apparatuses; thus, one can make observations and deductions about a culture by investigating its apparatuses:
They [apparatuses] are indubitably things that are produced, i.e. things that are pro-duced (brought forward) out of the available natural world. The totality of such things can be referred to as culture. Apparatuses are part of a culture, consequently, this culture is recognizable in them.13)
Natural and applied sciences may have laid the foundations for technical aspects of optography by revealing the roles of chemical components within the eye, however, they alone are incapable of illuminating the cultural significance of optography.
Each apparatus is built on imaginary foundations as much as they are built on technical ones. According to Eric Kluitenberg, technical media’s identity cannot be separated from imaginary aspects because the user’s rational and irrational beliefs and expectations are always projected onto those actual methods and technologies.14) “Imaginary media mediate impossible desires”15) and so do optograms. They carry the burden of unachievable expectations. Kluitenberg suggests that imaginary apparatuses/machines often come into existence as compensatory machines but eventually turn into machines of frustration. They are imagined by societies or individuals to resolve problems, deficiencies, and challenges in everyday life, communication methods, and technologies. However, each “machine” arrives with its deficiencies and drawbacks. It does not take too long before they start to frustrate their imaginers and users:
When tracing the lineages of imaginary media, one of the recurrent ideas uncovered is that somehow these machines would be able to compensate for the inherent flaws and deficiencies of interpersonal communication. The devices then become compensatory machines. They become sites onto which various types of irrational desires are projected. It would seem rather obvious that the machines in themselves cannot live up to the promise that they would somehow, as if by magic (as a true ‘deus ex machina’!), be able to resolve the age-old problems of human communication and relationships. Through this pre-programmed failure, imaginary media also become machines of frustration.16)
Even though Kluitenberg’s focus seems to be limited by communication media, his suggestions could be used as a blueprint for understanding Flusserian apparatuses. Apparatuses are human creations devised with certain intentions in mind, yet, they always slip out of the control of their creators and start to impose their own specific ways. Following Kluitenberg’s description of imaginary media, the following questions should be pursued to detect what kind of desires the optographic apparatus mediates and how it could highlight the hidden or unconscious intentions of its time:
- Which deficiencies or flaws did optography aim to compensate for?
- What were the technical and practical problems that turned optography into a machine/apparatus of frustration?
Big Brother is Within You
Metaphors have been constructed between apparatuses such as camera obscura and eye/brain to understand the principles of human vision. Scientific research on vision and perception also led to the invention of specific apparatuses. For instance, the discovery of the after-image phenomenon led the way to apparatuses such as thaumatrope, zoetrope, and phenakistoscope in the early 19th century, while principles of binocular vision found a tangible form with the stereoscope.17) With Boll and Kühne’s findings, on the other hand, the visual apparatus has been constructed by re-purposing an inherent part of the biological body instead of building it as an exclusive extension of it. Why did the human eye need to be re-purposed as an internal recording machine in the second half of the 19th century?
Even before the optographic information became available, it was “a commonly held belief throughout the latter half of the 19th century that the last image seen by the eyes of a dying person would be ‘fixed’ on the retina for a considerable period of time.”18) The belief was that the death of a person would cause the fixation of their final vision in their eye. In line with this belief, dozens of eye portraits were made of murdered people in England by the Scotland Yard Metropolitan Police in the 1860s, hoping to gain access to the images of the murderers. However, as rhodopsin and the light-sensitive properties of the retina were unknown, those initial attempts failed, and the interest in the approach diminished until Boll and Kühne’s findings were introduced to the public.
Images 4 & 5. AI-generated images with the command line “a 19th-century photographer photographing a murder scene in an obscure alley, at night, black and white sketch, victorian aesthetics”
With Boll and especially Kühne’s research, the interest in eye images resurfaced. Optography received both forensic and fictional interest, and public attention persisted until after the turn of the century.19) However, as the interest in optography increased, society’s collective imagination started to outweigh the scientific facts made visible by Boll and Kühne’s experiments which showed that optography, in fact, was not a practical method for creating images. Due to the constructed analogy between photography and optography, reasonable but non-scientific implications were made, and anticipations developed.
Approximations between the two types of image production increased. For one, there was a belief that pupils that dilated more, almost like the aperture of a camera lens (in cases of fear, anger, or any other strong emotion), made imprints that are “even clearer, more detailed, and easier to ‘develop’.”20) Once again, eye portraits in murder cases became a popular method of investigation. It even was used in one of the Jack the Ripper murder cases in 1888. Unsurprisingly, no images were found in the victim’s retina.21)
Even though optography influenced forensic eye portraits, there has not been a single case solved through retinal recording. Nevertheless, the interest and belief in optography persisted in the late 19th and even a couple of decades into the 20th century. There have even been murder cases where murderers carved out the victim’s eyes with the fear that their image might be recorded.22)
Optography also found itself a place in fiction. Authors such as Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Jules Verne, and Rudyard Kipling embraced the subject of optography in their novels and stories. In such literary work, optography was strictly treated as a means of solving crime. While referring to optography, authors moved away from scientific facts for the sake of developing attractive narratives. In fiction, unlike in real cases, optography almost always proved helpful. If the authors were to accept optography with its inherent flaws, it would not have provided an effective and alluring method. After all, it needed to be a practical forensic procedure.
Optography’s public reception in the late 19th century, both in actual and fictional terms, was almost exclusively developed around criminal cases, especially around homicides that were almost impossible to solve by the investigating authorities in the absence of concrete evidence such as an eyewitness. At the end of the 19th century, photographic technologies were still quite far from developing the automated, non-human components that we are accustomed to today. On the other hand, a more efficient and foolproof identification system, such as fingerprinting, was not a common practice in the world and was not used by Scotland Yard until 1901.23) Through the 19th century, alongside the homicides with unidentified suspects, many cases were labeled as “mysterious” or “suspicious deaths” as a result of the lack of evidence.24) This shows that there was a good chance that certain cases of manslaughter or murder would go without a legal sanction. Hence, it can be suggested that there was a significant period at the end of the 19th century during which an impractical identification method such as optography could be considered the sole remedy for solving certain criminal cases.
Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, even if it only offered a slight chance of success, many people referred to the possibility of the final image imprinted on the murder victim’s eye as a way to solve murder cases, if not decrease the number of cases altogether. A British photographer, William H. Warner, suggested in his letter to The Photographic News journal that:
The subject is of too great importance and interest to be passed heedlessly by, because if the fact were known through the length and breadth of the land, it would, in my estimation, tend materially to decrease that most horrible of all crimes—Murder.25)
In addition, Walter Dew, a former Scotland Yard inspector, wrote in his memoir about the murder of Marie Jeannette Kelly (1888), who was believed to be the final victim of Victorian-era serial killer Jack the Ripper:
Several photographs of the eyes were taken by expert photographers with the latest type of cameras. The result was negative. But the very fact that this forlorn hope was tried shows that the police, in their eagerness to catch the murderer, were ready to follow any clue and to adopt any suggestion, even at the risk of being made to look absurd.26)
These statements show that there was a sense of helplessness against certain cases of murder by society, as well as the investigating authorities, for which optography offered a glimmer of hope.
At this point, it would be a good idea to make my first cut and turn to media archaeologist Erkki Huhtamo’s remarks on the origin of the cyborg discourse. In Huhtamo’s research, we find a cartoon depiction of a quirky four-legged animal fiddling around in its natural habitat. It is instantly visible that this animal is an exaggerated representation of a 19th-century photographer operating a camera placed on a tripod while his head is covered with a hood blocking the sunlight. The cartoon was published in 1863 by the British satirical magazine Punch with the following description: Front and back view of a very Curious Animal was seen going about loose the other day. It has been named by Dr. Gunther “Elephans Photographicus”.27)
Image 6. Elephans Photographicus in its natural habitat
Huhtamo suggests that the existing conditions of Elephans Photographicus lay in the prominent discussions and scientific findings of the time, such as the hybridization of mechanical and biological components in mass production (assembly lines appropriating humans as part of a greater equation) and the recently published theory of evolutionary biology (Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection just four years before the cartoon).28) According to Huhtamo, combined with the notion of humans and machines fusing together, the discursive practice of evolutionary biology produced the Elephans Photographicus as a satirical brand-new life form.
The emergent discourse for fusing bodies of artificial and biological components also manifests itself in optography. What photography failed to achieve in its early years (automated and continuous recording) was imagined to be actualized when coupled with the human body. Although the success of optograms depended on highly controlled lighting conditions, and murder cases probably provided the worst possible field of application for optography, it did not restrain the Victorian 19th-century society from imagining exaggerated potentials and alternative futures for the technique. The optographic eye (or the eye-pparatus) could be interpreted as what Siegfried Zielinski calls an untimely apparatus. According to Zielinski, history is full of media, apparatuses, and machines that are “devised or designed either much too late or much too early. Realized in technical and media practice either centuries before or centuries after being invented.”29) The imagination of individuals or societies, fueled by either necessary or arbitrary desires, could come up with apparatuses that precede their physical manifestation for decades or even centuries.
In the technical sense, what can be achieved with the eye-pparatus is highly limited. The eye does not carry the ability to produce technical images that are as distinct and easy to circulate as the camera apparatus. Although its technical insufficiencies came to be known, the aura of the human eye as a technical image-producing apparatus was at its highest in the late 19th century. While photography introduced the technical and practical possibility of fixing and storing the ever fleeing image, optography introduced, maybe not the practical possibility, but the idea of perpetual seeing and recording apparatus. People who believe and commit to the eye’s ability to create tangible images like photographic cameras are programmed by not only the apparatus of photography and 19th-century science but also the apparatus of surveillance. What was absent in photography but present in optography in the 19th century was the concept of automatization and continuity of recording. The human eye, now part of an apparatus rather than the biological body, is constantly monitoring its surroundings and lying in wait to capture the ones who go against the rules of society.
There is no doubt that optographic desire was tightly connected to the technical possibilities that were made visible by early photography. Just like a photographic plate, the human eye became a site for recording and storing information. From the moment it was born in the form of Nicéphore Niépce’s heliography, Louis Daguerre’s Daguerreotype, and Henry Fox Talbot’s calotype and salted paper process, the term photography has referred to a diverse set of processing and printing techniques. Such diversity was mainly motivated by making photography a more efficient and consistent process. One after another, each technique introduced quicker chemicals and fairly effortless processes, to make the recording and storing process more standardized.30)
Not only the photographer’s role as a technician and artisan was on its way to turning into an everyday user, but humans themselves were also on their way to becoming obsolete in the process. By the early 20th century, with the impact of Kodak’s simplified and automated camera as well as “You press the button, we do the rest” advertisement slogan, the most common role attributed to the photographer was that of a shutter releaser. In other words, photographers were employed by the apparatuses of photography. It would be helpful to speculate on optography with this background in mind. Attributing the role of the camera to the eye and the photographic plate to the retina was an attempt towards instrumentalizing the human body as a surveillance apparatus, but with the increasing detachment of humans from the process of photography, the human body was also detached from the apparatus of surveillance.
The optographic eye or the eye-pparatus was an untimely apparatus that fused photography and the human body together, forming a biological camera. It was conceptually devised in the second half of the 19th century but physically realized in the 20th century in the form of various nonhuman surveillance technologies. Because of its shortcomings, the recording eye had to transform by taking a non-biological, hence, a more controllable and predictable form, just like its intellectual counterpart, photography. Frustrative features of optography were compensated with new surveillance technologies, which would eventually pose Eye-pparatus: Re-imagining the Human Eye in the Nineteenth Century their own problems. Problems that we strongly sense and experience today.
Blink of an Eye
This brings us back to Flusser’s suggestion of apparatuses and technical images being the products of applied scientific texts as well as representatives of cultures. As much as applied science stands as a prerequisite for apparatuses to take a physical form, collective or individual imagination also plays essential roles in the formation of apparatuses and discourses. The mad aura formed around optography in the 19th century is connected to the paradigm shift that arrived with photography and how it reorganized the understanding of human vision. Yet, the collective imagination of everyday people alongside scientists, authors, law enforcers, journalists, and even murderers, influenced by the prominent discussions, technical orientations, and needs of the time, surpassed the actual capabilities of optography. In other words, the human eye as an apparatus that surveils emerged as a collective effort of both applied science and social imagination.
Eye-pparatus also provides a good example of what Flusser suggests when discussing the feedback relationship between apparatuses and society. Optography offered a glimpse of a technical possibility for retinal recording, and society used such information to imagine practical uses. The feedback provided by society, in turn, helped apparatuses of surveillance to improve progressively. Moreover, such social imagination seems to be prompted by the apparatuses of modernism. Just like every remote corner of the world was discovered and touched by the Western world, the human body and soul have also become a primary field for discovery during modernity. Although scientific developments identified the light-sensitive properties of the eye and a few isolated experiments demonstrated the possibility of optograms, optography was a limited and technologically infertile invention. However, it proved to be quite fruitful for imagining alternative futures for media and everyday life. The social program in which optography was merely a function scaled up the desire to handle the human eye as an apparatus. It had to assume a role it could not live up to. This imagined eye-pparatus could record images that can be physically extracted and displayed, unlike its biological counterpart, the eye.
In a Foucauldian sense, like any other institution, with the presupposition of the human eye as a recording apparatus lying in wait, the medium of human vision became a site for imagining regulatory and disciplinary institutions. The emergence of automated cameras and video devices has been foreshadowed by imaginary practical properties of the eye-pparatus. The functional embodiment of the previously imagined aspects resulted in a more precise and comprehensive form of visual surveillance in the century to come. Yet, this is not to say that optography’s ultimate aim was to arrive at contemporary surveillance technologies. An intricate network of technologies and discourses lies beneath the idea of surveillance, of which the optographic desire could only be read and interpreted as a contributing part.