Shaping Sense: The Paramaterial Phantasy

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Month: March, 2013

The World Turned Upside Down: Revolutions in the Microcosm and Macrocosm, and the Crystalline Humor in the Three Eyes of Early Modern Optical Anatomy. Part Two.

The World Turned Upside Down: Revolutions in the Microcosm and Macrocosm and the Crystalline Humor in the Three Eyes of Early Modern Optical Anatomy

Part II. The Revolution of the Eye and De-centering the Eye’s Sovereign

In the first section, I discussed Andre du Laurens’ extended metaphorical treatment of the eye’s structure. There, du Laurens represents the crystalline humor as the “sovereign” of the domain of the eye and as a Herculean figure heroically standing between the external and internal lights. Du Laurens’ metaphorical elaborations reflect and illuminate the importance with which theorists of vision and optical anatomists already attributed to the eye and its structure. The metaphors highlight the emphasis elsewhere on the organization of the eye and the early modern tendency to see correspondences and hierarchies within the structure of nature and the human body. Such popular discourses additionally shaped the understanding of the eye in elite discourses, locking the two in interpenetrating chains of influence.

In the elaborate chains of correspondences slowly eroding yet still powerfully influential in the early modern period, similarities in structure, resemblance, and appearance or in relationships or connections bespoke real rather than simply metaphorical chains of signification. In bestiaries, the appearance or form of an animal bespoke some of its hidden vertues. In herbals, a plant resembling a sexual organ could possess the real power to affect the sexual organs. In a psychophysiological model, the “black bile” of melancholy was or caused “black” thoughts and, in some, delusions of dark shapes. In anatomy, the circular and square figures found in the human form represented the most perfect shapes within the created world. In optical anatomy, the eye’s shape and structure resembled and reflected the structure and order of the cosmos.

Du Laurens sees the image of political authority in the eyes’ structure, and, in this section, I will turn to the eye’s resemblance to the cosmos. As the corporeal world and its light were proper objects in the eyes, its shape, order, and structure and its similarity to the shape, order, and structure of the world carried with it a powerful set of correspondences that shaped the sense of sense.

It is interesting that the revolutions in both theories of the microcosmic eye and theories of the macrocosm occur at roughly the same time and through the influence of Johannes Kepler. Following his contribution to the science of each, there would be revolutions in each that de-centered the central component within both systems. Kepler is probably best known for his contribution to the radical revolution in early modern science that, when elaborated and built upon, overturned the Ptolemaic conception of cosmography. Kepler challenged the Ptolemaic model and defended and elaborated upon the work of Nicholaus Copernicus of nearly a century before. The eventual adoption of the Copernican system with the earth no longer situated at the center of the cosmos de-centered the Earth and its inhabitants within the frame of the universe.

The world turned upside down: A man whose eyes have been turned inward from Bartisch.

The world turned upside down: A man whose eyes have been turned inward from Bartisch.

Less discussed, however, is the revolution Kepler accomplishes in his optical anatomy, which, I argue, remains linked to, and might prove more important than, his role in creating a revolution of the heavens. Discussed lesser still are the changes occurring from roughly 1543 to 1619 of optical anatomy itself. Kepler plays a role in revolutions in both the macrocosm and the microcosm. These dual revolutions and their relationship with the elaborate systems of correspondences in pre-scientific eras that linked microcosm to macrocosm, give me occasion to return to the structure of the Galenic eye and the mediate early modern eye.

The spherical shape of the eye and the placement or near placement of the crystalline humor in its center makes the eye a prime candidate for analogical relationships between the microcosm of the eye and the macrocosm. Such a correspondence did not escape the notice of Helkiah Crooke, who, although he challenges vision’s position as the superior sense, draws on Galen to describe the beautiful structure of the eye, explaining that the primacy of vision might depend, in part, on its shape as well as upon its being a microcosm. Crooke says,

[Galen,] being a man of great and profound knowledge, … considered that the Eye was the true Microcosme or Little world in respect of their exact roundnesse and revolutions: wherein besides the Membranes which I dare boldly call the seaven Spheres of Heaven, there be also the foure Elements found. (Crooke [652][i]).

The “exact roundnesse and revolutions” of the eyes commend them not only as reflections of the macrocosm’s perfection, but also, by virtue of that correspondence, speak to the “excellencie” and nobility of the sense of sight. Crooke notes in an earlier section devoted to the “admirable proportion of [man’s] parts” and the human body as a microcosm that

in this proportion of his parts, you shall finde both a circular figure, which is of all other the most perfect; and also the square, which in the rest of the creatures you shall not observe. (Crooke 6).

In this description of Virtuvian man, Crooke notes that the circle and sphere are “the most perfect” shapes. In many descriptions of the Galenic eye, the perfectly spherical eye and the perfectly centered and spherical crystalline humor bespeak the eye’s importance and grandeur. In emphasizing the human eye’s perfectly spherical shape, Crooke follows both the Galenic eye and the mediate early modern eye’s emphasis on the perfectly orbicular shape. Jest as the heavens in a geocentric Ptolemaic system consisted in concentric perfect spheres, the structure of the eye follows that postulated heavenly structure.

In the passage quoted above, one catches another reflection of the macrocosm in the microcosm of the eye. Crooke mentions two more aspects of optical anatomy which argue that the eye is a microcosm within the body. First, he mentions that seven “Membranes” or coats resemble and reflect the “seven Spheres of Heaven,” and, second, that the eye contains “foure Elements.” In the first, the microcosm of the eye includes seven concentric spheres which resemble the Ptolemaic macrocosm. While Crooke does not go on to make such an explicit connection, taking his description one step further, places the crystalline humor in a position that corresponds to the Earth in this Ptolemaic structure of the microcosm, placed at its very center.[ii]

The crystalline humor or lens, when mapped onto this model, occupies the position of the Earth. Such an analogy reveals an interesting aspect of the eyes’ organization in Galenic, and even in the mediate, early modern eyes. The crystalline humor, thought to receive “impressions” or “actualize” the species of external objects, in effect, recreates the visual world within its substance.[iii] The eye not only stands at the center of the microcosm of the eye like the Earth, but also recreates or manufactures simulacra of the world and its objects. I will return to develop the paramaterial aspects of Crooke’s and others’ discussion of the “matter” acquired by the external senses in more detail in a later post.

Second, the microcosmic eye, according to Crooke, contains the four elements of the macrocosm. Crooke rhetorically asks after declaring that there is “Fire” in the eye, that

there is Aire who will denie which understands with what plenty of spirits they do abound? As for Water, who doth not see it in the Eye doth prove himself more blind then a beetle, all the other parts we will liken to the Earth. (Crooke [652]).

According to Crooke, the eye not only reflects the cosmos in its shape and structure, but also in its elemental constitution. Such a description further links the world of the eye to the universe as a whole, analogically confirming that both the eye and the cosmos reflect the majesty of a divine creator. As such, even though Crooke elsewhere shows evidence of post-Colombo ocular anatomy, where the crystalline humor did not occupy the exact center of the eye, and, although he declares touch rather than sight the predominant sense, Crooke still solidifies the eye’s representation as a smaller microcosm nestled within the larger microcosm of the body analogically connected to the macrocosm.

The corporeal eye, with the corporeal world, its objects, and its corporeal light as its objects, conforms to the nature and structure of that world. While I will not go into Crooke’s discussion of the visible species in this essay, I will say that his description also reflects how the eye received or “actualized” mimetic quasi-material, or, as I call them, paramaterial objects that recreated the visible world within the orb of the eye. Even if one does not accept my characterization of the visible and sensible species as paramaterial, the eye still not only reflects the nature of the visible world but also creates mimetic copies of the world upon which it looked.

Such relationships and associations extend beyond the discourses of anatomy and science. Drawing on the same analogical links, university wit Thomas Tomkis gives a similar speech to his character Visus, or vision, in Lingua or Combat of the Tongue and the Five Senses for Superiority.[iv] In Tomkis’ play from the early seventeenth century, the tongue demands to be included as an addition to the five external senses, and disrupts the traditional hierarchy of the external senses by trying to convince the ruler Common Sense that she should not only be considered as a sense but also should sit atop the hierarchy. When called before Common Sense and Phantastes to explain his superiority over the other senses, Visus includes, among other things, his stately residences and their situations in the head, saying,

Under the fore-head of mount Cephalon,
That over-peeres the coast of Microcosme,
All in the shaddowe of two pleasant groves,
Stand my two mansion houses, both as round
As the cleare heavens, both twins as like each other:
As starre to starre, which the vulger sort,
For their resplendent composition,
Are named the bright eyes of mount Cephalon:
With oure faire roomes those lodgings are contrived,
Foure goodly roomes in forme most sphericall,
Closing each other like the heavenly orbes. (Tomkis G2 verso).

In Tomkis’ nesting metaphors, the eyes become a stately “round” manor containing four “goodly roomes” whose perfect sphericality reflect the perfect spheres of the heavens. While Tomkis’ Visus mentions only four rooms rather than seven and while he frames it through the metaphor of the house, he still asserts the structural relationship and analogical links between the eyes and the heavenly spheres.

As with Crooke’s later discussion of the eye’s structure, Tomkis’ Visus offers the eyes’ shape and structural resemblance to the macrocosm as testimony for his supremacy within a hierarchy of the senses. Again, like Crooke, Tomkis might be challenging the conventional understanding of the superiority of sight, but both still continue to underscore how important seeing the eye as a microcosm was during the period.

Again, we find the crystalline humor occupying the central position and represented as the seat of visual power. While Tomkis’ play situates the visual power in subjection to the powers of the internal senses, he also represents the crystalline humor as Visus’ seat, saying that the fourth and most central room is

… smallest, but passeth all the former,
In worth of matter built most sumptuously:
With walls transparent of pure Christaline.
This the soules mirrour and the bodies guide,
Loves Cabinet[,] bright beacons of the Realme,
Casements of light quiver of Cupids shafts:
Wherein I sit and immediatly receive,
The species of things corporeall,
Keeping continuall watch and centinell. (Tomkis G2 verso).

Central to the manor of the eye is the room of “pure Christaline” where Visus “sit[s] and immediatly receive[s]/ The species of things corporeall,” and here we possibly see again, as late as 1607, the model of the Galenic eye. While Tomkis might have been aware of Colombo’s corrections to this arrangement, he does not say so here. As I discussed in part one of this essay, even in texts that represent the mediate early modern eye, including Crooke’s own later Microcosmographia, the verbal descriptions of the mediate early modern eye and the Galenic eye were often spoken of in similar terms. This shows, I think, the power of the analogical relationships and significance of the systems of correspondences that deployed the concept of the microcosm to the figure of the eye, especially when it comes to popular culture even if Tomkis understands the eye as structured like the mediate early modern eye.

Tomkis’ play also dramatizes the connection to the internal senses and its reception of the species in what I am calling the paramaterial mind. While I can provide only a brief sketch here, I will be exploring the paramaterial sensory system more in future posts and provide lengthier sketches in my previous posts. Tomkis represents Visus as subservient to Common Sense, the ultimate seat of judging immediate perception and assembling the discrete species received by the external senses. It was also this system of the paramaterial that the retinal image would help eventually dismantle.

The optical revolution of Felix Platter and Johannes Kepler had already started by the time Thomas Tomkis wrote his play in 1607 and Helkiah Crooke first published his Microcosmographia in 1615. In 1583, Platter argued that the optic nerve was the seat of vision, and, in 1604, Kepler further developed some of Platter’s, achieving a broader acceptance of the retina and the retinal image as the most significant part of the eye. More work needs to be done to map out the lines of transmission of Kepler’s work on optics as it spread and affected optical anatomy, but what is certain is that Kepler’s theory ultimately contributed to a type of conceptual regicide of what André du Laurens previously declared the eye’s “sovereign,” the crystalline humor, and may have had consequences for the system of correspondences that seemed to require the microcosm of the eye’s conformity with and relationship to the macrocosm.

Platter likened the crystalline humor to a looking-glass that projected light upon the retinal screen, describing,

Primario, crystallinus humor, perspicillum est nervi visorii: at qante ipsum & pupilae formen collactus, species oculo illabentes veluti radios colligit, & in ambitum totius retiformis nervi diffundens, res majores ille, ut commodius eas perciperet, perspicilli penit nodo, representat. (Platter 187).

[Primarily the crystalline humor is the perspicillum (*looking glass) for the optic nerve, but as to the crystalline humor and the pupil, the visible species enters as a collection of rays, and diffuses itself on the whole of the retinal nerve, representing bigger things than the small glass represents.]

But Platter never elaborated upon or demonstrated the concept convincingly, and did not, publically and in print anyways, acknowledge that the retinal image would be inverted with respect to horizontal orientation and flipped with respect to the vertical.

This later development and acknowledgement would come with Kepler, who declares:

Visio igitur fit per picturam rei visibilis ad albam retinae & cauum parietem; & quae foris dextra sunt, ad sinistrum parietis larus, sinistra ad dextrum, supera ad inferum, infera ad superum depinguntur: viridia etiam colore viridi, & in universum res quaecunque suo colore intra pingitur; adeo ut, si possibile esset picturam illam in retina foras in lucem protracta permanere, remotis anterioribus, que illam efforma bant, hominiq; alicui sufficiens esset visus acies, is agniturus esset ipsissiman hemisphaerii figuram in tam angusto retine complexu. (Kepler 170).

[The vision then becomes a visible pictura on the white and curved retinal wall, and things which are outside on the right, are depicted on the left wall; left to right, upper to lower, lower to upper. Green colors appear green, and the whole thing, whatsoever its color, is depicted upon the retina, so that, if it were possible for a man to maintain the system’s light on the retina when removing the back of the eye, he would see a figure of the whole hemisphere remains in that small space of the retina.]

Unlike Platter, who described the crystalline humor as the “looking-glass” for the retina and placed the seat of judgment in the optic nerve but did not mention the retinal inversion, Kepler confronts this theory directly and publically in print after developing the theory of the retinal image more extensively than his predecessor. Displacing the crystalline humor itself was an intellectual insurrection, as was the previous trend in early modern optical anatomy that de-centered it within the eye, but acknowledging the retinal inversion began the revolution within the eye in earnest. Both moves, however, challenged not only prior medical authorities that considered the crystalline humor the eye’s sovereign, but also the cultural beliefs surrounding and shaping the sense of the eye and its structure.

Acknowledging that the eye did not see in the same way that either the visual plane laid out before the eye or as it was perceived in the mind that Kepler’s theory is profoundly revolutionary. Not only did such theories allow the retinal screen to usurp the position of primacy previously held by the crystalline humor, but they also turned the eye’s image upside down within the eye itself. The image within the eye, for the first time in recorded human history, was recognized as upside down. From the perspective of an early modern, the world (at least within the eye) no longer looked as it appeared. Revolutionary in both senses, Kepler challenged a fundamental way in which observers perceived and engaged with the world as a whole. I do not mean to suggest that Kepler’s singular genius emerged out of a historical vacuum, but I do want to suggest that the development of the very ability to recognize the inverted retinal image itself and its subsequent effects constituted a real radical shift and break with traditions of the past towards something new and modern even if it took some time for culture to recognize and realize those revolutionary consequences.

The retinal image, itself revolutionary in its movement towards a modern understanding of vision, also had other revolutionary consequences that would only reveal their full effects once the quasi-Aristotelian system of the paramaterial sensory system and mind were altered and abandoned. Whereas previously the crystalline humor received the visible species of corporeal things, transmitting them through the “spirits” to the inner senses and the brain, the retinal wall would eventually become an opaque wall that blocked the paramaterial transmission of these species. The species survived the retinal image and inversion, but, I argue, also challenged some of the conventional popular associations and its traditional theorization. The sensible species and especially the intellectual species persisted in some form until they disappeared into something like the Lockean Idea.

Kepler himself famously chose not to follow the visual image, species, or, as he calls it, pictura as it entered the human brain and mind, saying,

Visionem fieri dico, cum totius hemisphaerii mundani, quod est ante oculum, & amplius paulo, idolum statuitur ad album subrufum retinae cauae superficiei parietam. Quomodo idolum seu pictura haec spiritibus visoriis, qui resident in retina & in neruo, conjungatur, & utrum per spiritus intro in cerebri cauernas, ad animae seu facultatis visoriae tribunal sistatur,an facultas visoria, ceu quaestor ab Anima datus, e cerebri praetorio foras in ipsum neruum visorium & retinam, ceu as inferiora subsellia descendens, idolo huic procededat obuiam, hoc inquam Physicis relinquo disputandum. Nam Opticorum armatura non procedit longius, quam ad hunc usq; opacum parientem, qui primus quidem in oculo occurrit. (Kepler 168).

[I say vision is accomplished, when the whole hemisphere of the world which is before the eye, and bit more, an idolum stands on the curved, reddish-white retinal wall. How the idolum or pictura joins the visual spirits, which reside in the retina and the optic nerve, and whether it is made to appear before the soul and the tribunal of the visual faculty by the spirits in the brain’s caverns, or whether the visual faculty, like a magistrate sent by the soul, descends to the lower court to meet the idolum, I leave to the dispute of physicists. For the opticians’ troops do not advance beyond this first opaque wall met with in the eye.]

Kepler refuses to proceed past the retinal screen, halting his inquiry once he follows the path of light through the lens and onto the rear surface of the eye. Not only does Kepler offer the first explication of the real image formed on the retinal screen, but he also interposes an “opaque wall” between the eye and a perceiver in a way not previously in place in earlier theories of the crystalline humor. Whereas before the images received or formed by the crystalline humor found their way into the inner senses through mediating spirits through to the gatekeeper of the sensus communis, the pictura here seems stuck on the rear wall of the eye.

This additional barrier that strengthens the boundary between the eye and the mind started with Vesalius’ observation that the optic nerve was not hollow. While Kepler gives a nod to the quasi-Aristotelian model of perception in the second half of this passage, it is my contention that the interposed retinal wall further fractured earlier popular theories of sensation and perception. Additionally, I think this wall between the eye and the mind takes part in a general and much broader transition from a paramaterial mind and “selfe” to more of a perimaterial sense of the modern self. In brief, I mean the transition from a less bounded and insular “selfe” towards a less permeable and porous modern self.

As I discussed earlier in my sections on Crooke and Tomkis, even with the revolutionary potential of Kepler’s retinal inversion, the change to popular understandings of vision emerged very slowly, and it was not until Scheiner in 1619 that a representation of the modern eye appeared in print. Just as the Galenic eye might have popularly survived Colombo’s corrective to Vesalius’ optical anatomy, the belief in the centrality of the crystalline humor survived, at least for some time, beyond Kepler. While creating more public controversy, the transition from a Ptolemaic universe to a Copernican one also took some time. While the revolutions in the microcosm and the macrocosm had begun by the first quarter of the sixteenth century, they were far from accomplished or won.

I will now return to several more examples which conjoin the microcosmic eye to the macrocosm in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth. By viewing their symbolic and, perhaps, real connections, we may begin to understand how their fates were aligned in the dual revolutions that overturned previous explanatory models of each, and might partially help explain why both revolutions were roughly historically congruent.

The microcosmic eye like the one found in Tomkis and Crooke uncomplicatedly reflected the majesty and order found in the macrocosm. Pierre La Primaudaye’s The French Academie contains yet another comparison of the microcosm to the macrocosm and the eye’s position within that order. La Primaudaye says,

We have yet another point to bee noted touching their situation, which causeth a certaine proportion and agreement to bee betweene the heavens and the head, and between the eyes of the great and little world, and those of the body and soule. … For this cause, as God hath placed the sunne, moone, and all the rest of the lights above named, and the eyes that are created to receive light from them, and to be that in man who is the little world, which the sunne, moone, and other lights of heaven are in this great universal world. Therefore as much as the eyes are as it were the images of these goodly bodies and celestiall glasses, they occupie the highest place in this body of the world, whereof they are as it were the eyes, to give it light on every side. For this cause also the eyes are more fierie, and have more agreement with the nature of fire, then any other member that belongeth to the corporall senses. … In all these things we see a goodly harmony and agreement betweene the great and the little world, the like whereof wee shall also finde betweene the worlde and the spirituall heaven, whose sunne and light is God, and betweene the eyes of the soule and of the minde. (La Primaudaye 77-78).

In La Primaudaye’s analogy, the eyes represent not the earth but the celestial sphere of the heavens within the microcosm of the body. The eyes receive the light of the world, but also serve as the light of the body. He goes on to suggest that the eyes’ close proximity to the inner senses and especially to reason also confirms their connection to both spiritual as well as bodily light. At the same time, he also notes a distinction between the fleshly or bodily eye and the eyes of the mind and soul by comparing the bodily eye and its received light to the corporeal world and the physical sun to the spiritual heaven whose sun and light is God. La Primaudaye links the corporeal eye to the spiritual or intellectual eye and the corporeal world and light to the divine world and light through a chain of signification and correspondence.

The anagogical significance shines through earlier in La Primaudaye’s discussion of vision when he talks about the special role the bodily, fleshly, or corporeal eye plays in acquiring knowledge and in understanding the divine. He says that the eyes’ “nature approacheth nearer to the nature of the soule and spirit, then any other, by reason of the similitude and agreement that is betweene them,” and proceeds to detail their function in natural and spiritual knowledge and understanding, saying,

…They are given to man chiefly to guide and leade him to the knowledge of God, by the contemplation of his goodly works, which appeare principally in the heavens and in al the order thereof, and whereof we can have no true knowledge & instruction be any other sence but by the eies. For without them who could have noted the divers course and motions of the celestiall bodies? … It is the first Mistresse that provoked men forward to the studie and searching out of science and wisedome. For the sight is ingendered admiration and wondering at things that are seene: and this admiration causeth men afterward to consider more seriously of things … In the end they come to the studie of science and wisedome, which is the knowledge of supernaturall light, namely of the light of the minde, unto which, science and doctrine is as light to the eye, so that it contemplateth and useth by that, as the eye seeth by light. (La Primaudaye 68-69).

The associations and interrelations of the bodily eye and the intellectual eye, and the corporeal light and the light of God were fairly conventional at least since Augustine, and their deployment in both analogical and anagogical systems underscores the conventional parallels and relationships established between them. While distinguished from one another, conventional theories connected the two and helped theorists explain the frisson and connection between the corporeal and spiritual worlds.

Many popular discussions of the superiority of the eye also proclaim that its primary Godly purpose was to acquire knowledge of the world. In this, many stressed the heavens as the best object one’s eyes could focus on to inspire heavenly thoughts and greater contemplations. In his Nosce Teipsum, John Davies, for example, plays with the conventional association with looking to the heavens as leading to knowledge when he describes that

These Mirrors take into their litle space
The formes of Moone and Sunne, and every Starre,
Of every Body, and of every place,
Which with the worlds wide Armes embraced are.
Yet their best object, and their noblest use,
Hereafter in another world will bee,
When God in them shall heavenly light infuse,
That face to face they may their Maker see.
Here are they guides, which do the Body leade;
Which else would stumble in eternall night;
Here in this world they do much knowledge reade,
And are the Casements which admit most light. (Davies 42).

Davies suggests that true knowledge and a true light will not come to the eyes until after death, but he also associates the corporeal light of the world with knowledge suggesting that that corporeal light, as in La Primaudaye, can lead to contemplation of higher things.

Science, including astronomy and anatomy, derives from the wonder generated by the corporeal eye, leading a perceiver from the physical sensation, to contemplation of the natural world, to a contemplation of God’s magnificence. It was the searching eyes of astronomers and anatomists that would soon challenge the conceptions of both the microcosmic eye and the macrocosm.

This returns me to the Augustine notion of three eyes with which I opened this post. While Augustine established three types of eye (the bodily eye, the spiritual eye, and the intellectual eye), all three converge and are mediated by what I call the paramaterial Phantasy in many sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century theories of sensation, perception, and cognition. While La Primaudaye too distinguishes the bodily eye and corporeal light from the spiritual eye and heavenly light, both reflect and resemble one another, interlocking them in a theoretical system and conceptual order that represented them as interrelated and mutually informing. It was the second eye, which, according to Augustine, was the eye of the spirit, but which according to many early modern variations was the eye of the mind, the Phantasy which was often thought to mediate the relationship between the external senses and the intellect and soul.

Not everyone had faith in the powers of the bodily eye and its corporeal light, however. In some theological accounts, the bodily or fleshly eye can lead one into spiritual blindness. The implication lies behind the passage from the La Primaudaye quotation above but the relationship remains one widely repeated in the early modern period. George Hakewill, English Calvinist theologian, argues that the bodily eye can lead to spiritual blindness and sin. Hakewill’s Vanitie of the Eye details many spiritual diseases resulting from the bodily eye, criticizing those who overly commend it, saying,

Though manie and singular bee the commendations of the nature and frame of the eie, & the use of it in the ordinary course of life bee no lesse diverse then excellent as wel for profit as delight, yet the dangerous abuses which arise from it not rightly guided, are so generall, and almost inseparable, that it may justly grow to a disputable question whither wee should more regard the benefit of nature in the one, or the hazard of grace and vertue in the other. (Hakewill 1).

For someone like Hakewill, the bodily eye leads to spiritual corruption in the form of lust, greed, envy, and other sins dependent upon or having their origin in vision. Later, when listing the diseases incident to the eye, he includes, “those which are many times imparted from the distemper of the braine (with which the eie holdes a marvelous correspondence)” (Hakewill 93). Because of the psychophysiological model of the embodied mind, the distempered brain can affect the eye, and the unruly eye can distemper the brain, and both, to some extent, can undermine the soul. It is this conjunction that I attempt to explore in my work on the paramaterial Phantasy.

Even La Primaudaye, who valorizes sight and champions its role in the production of knowledge of the world and of God elsewhere in the same book, cautions against the power of the corporeal eye. While I will expand upon this idea in later posts, the bodily, mental, and spiritual eyes converge in a much more ominous way in a later passage from The French Academie. La Primaudaye cautions people about the types of objects and images their bodily eyes receive. Like Hakewill later, La Primaudaye warns,

let us beware that we feede them not with the sight profane and dishonest things, least they serve to poyson the minde and soule, whereas they ought to become messengers, to declare unto it honest & healthful things. For he that doth otherwise is worthy to have, not onely his bodily eyes put out, & pluckt out of his head but also the eyes of his minde, that so he be may blinde both in body & soule, as it commonly falleth out to many. (La Primaudaye 79).

The three eyes are related through the reference to “poyson,” as the bodily sights are said to “poyson the minde and soule.” While metaphorical, the interrelation of the bodily, mental, and spiritual eyes exceeds metaphor in the way in which many of the references to them explain sensation, perception, and cognition. Just as the corporeal eye could lead to divine contemplation and the illumination of divine light as we saw in my previous example from La Primaudaye, he additionally argues that the bodily eye could also lead to bodily and spiritual corruption.

In addition to the mental and spiritual consequences resulting from a corrupt bodily eye as we have seen in La Primaudaye and Hakewill, still others challenged the type of knowledge the corporeal eye could acquire. The philosophical skeptics, even before Descartes, questioned the knowledge humans could gain through the bodily senses. For them, the eye along with the other bodily senses could not provide certitude or verify judgment. It is my contention that while sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century philosophical skepticism resembles the later seventeenth century developments as one sees with Descartes, those earlier skeptical movements and arguments were expressed through a quasi-Aristotelian and Galenic understanding of the sensitive soul. The developments in optical anatomy might have shifted the epistemological horizons even as they deployed tropes available at least since the time of Sextus Empiricus. Skeptics often challenged the paramaterial nature of the mind and its objects, emphasizing enclosure and the individual in what I call a perimaterial system. (See my previous post on philosophical skepticism here, and my sketch of the paramaterial and perimaterial here).

The eye as microcosm survived the challenge Colombo offered when correcting the situation of the crystalline humor within the eye. This process of de-centering the eye’s long-standing sovereign and seat of the visual power happened over the course of the time period from roughly 1543 to 1619, and although it would take much longer before its full effects were felt, the revolutionary potential of such a change in optical anatomy should be recognized. Later philosophers like René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and George Berkley were still grappling with some of the ramifications of the real image within the eye well into the eighteenth century.

Part of this new approach to physiology was to split the function of the eye from the broader understanding of “vision,” and refusing to speculate beyond the mechanical processes that occurred within the eye. Kepler declared that the mental processing of sensory data was beyond the scope of his argument, and as David C. Lindberg puts it “optics, [Kepler] argues, ceases with the formation of the picture on the retina, and what happens after that is somebody else’s business.” Lindberg suggestively notes,

It is perhaps significant that Kepler employed the term pictura in discussing the inverted retinal image, for this is the first genuine instance in the history of a real optical image within the eye—a picture, having an existence independent of the observer, formed by the focusing of all available rays on the surface. (Lindberg 202).

What Lindberg lauds as the first “real optical image within the eye” also points towards the extinction of another form of “image” within the eye that “had an existence” that was not “independent of the observer,” and, as I will argue, the extinction of images within the mind of that observer that resembled the world it represented. While not, according to Lindberg, a “real optical image within the eye” the previous image within the eye was something more, a product of an eye that depended upon the living eye of an observer that was thought to have more contact with the external world, and, even more importantly, perceived that world with the same orientation as perceived by the mind through images that resembled their objects.

Altering that previous arrangement, not only in the process of de-centering the crystalline humor but also in the Keplerian revolution that made the lens subservient to the retina and its retinal image, might challenge the important system of correspondences established between the eye and the macrocosm. This might partially help explain Vesalius’ misrepresentation of the crystalline humor as well as the continued reiterations of the mediate early modern eye in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. While we have no reason to doubt Colombo’s criticism of Vesalius’ dependence upon the animal eyes for his optical anatomy, and while incredibly speculative on my part, it is possible that the importance assigned to the central placement of the crystalline humor colored Vesalius’ perception of his optical anatomy. The anatomist, coming to the eye with cultural constructions and an a priori understanding of the eye’s function, found his perception of the eye shaped such constructions, not allowing him to see what was before his own eyes.

What is less speculative is that variations of the Galenic eye persisted to a degree well after Vesalius’ mistake was registered and noted and that those depicting the mediate early modern eye often did so through descriptions developed out of the earlier model. One wonders why early modern optical anatomists did not develop a modern representation of the eye until 1619 with the lens positioned just behind the pupil and towards the very front of the eye and without representing the whole of the eye as a perfect sphere. In this, I am more convinced that the a priori system of correspondences which structured the perception of the eye distorted its position because of the stress on the microcosmic structure of the eye as well as upon the centrality of the crystalline humor in the process of vision.

As I discussed in the conclusion of part one of this essay, I believe these popular beliefs and cultural constructions shaped discourses on ocular anatomy, which were, in turn, shaped by them. The system of correspondences and the emphasis on the eye as a microcosm reflected the shape, order, and majesty of the macrocosm. Historically congruous, the de-centering of the microcosmic eye and the de-centering of the Earth within the macrocosm historically emerge together to challenge long-standing authorities and chains of significance. The changes to optical anatomy might not have faced the same type of outrage as the reorganization of the cosmos, but it would profoundly shape and influence subsequent thinkers and their theories of sensation, perception, and cognition.

The system of correspondences, an a priori system of interconnections between world and cosmos, part and whole, slowly decayed under the developing power of a posteriori experimental science. At the same time, those systems of correspondences did not quickly or easily relinquish their hold on the understanding of the world and of the human body even as the new scientific gaze loosened their grip. It was precisely this power of mental Idols which Francis Bacon hoped to eradicate from his New Science because their influence could shape and distort an understanding of the world (see my previous post on Bacon’s Idols here). Even before Bacon, Vesalius attempted to correct the undue influence of classical thought on an understanding of the body, but, for whatever reason, his own work fails in the case of his representation of the eye. Those cultural constructions shaped and informed the development of the New Science even as that New Science attempted to strip knowledge of those very classical and cultural accretions from their perception of reality.

Just as the Copernican revolution would metaphorically turn the world upside down, the Keplerian discovery of the retinal image literally turned the world upside down with respect to the eye. Somewhat displaced from the center of the eye’s orb, the lens, in Kepler’s formulation, played a subservient role to the retinal screen, upon which visible reality was projected. The images within the eye no longer “impressed” themselves on the crystalline humor or bore the same orientation as objects in the external world or as they appeared in the mind of a perceiver, and were, instead, projected upon a curved surface and flipped with respect to vertical and horizontal orientations. Once this explanation eventually replaced the theories which declared the crystalline humor the seat of vision, the image within the eye no longer matched the visual field or the way in which the visual field appeared within the mind. I will return to these ideas more extensively in later posts, but want to say now that this new understanding radically split sensation from perception and, arguably, had ramifications for both the development of mind-body dualism, philosophical skepticism, and formation of the modern self.

While I agree to some extent with David C. Lindberg that Kepler’s theory “at bottom … remained solidly upon a medieval foundation,” I do believe that the retinal image offered a revolutionary change with respect to a person’s theorized orientation with the world despite this medieval foundation. While the full extent of the revolutionary implications would take some time to affect broader cultural shifts, the very fact that Kepler recognized and proposed an image within the eye neither conforms directly to the visual field before it nor to perception as experienced in the mind already took a revolution to see the retinal image as even a possibility. Kepler’s retinal image, of course, finally dethroned the crystalline humor as the seat of vision, but, even before this, anatomists challenged the notion that the crystalline humor occupied the physical center of the eye.[v] In this development, anatomies of the eye moved the crystalline humor from its place of prominence at the center of vision to a de-centered place.

The revolution of the eye involved in unseating the crystalline humor as the centralized power of the human eye, but it also literally de-centered the seat altogether. I cannot help but think this moment of de-centering within the microcosm of the eye itself prefigured and paved the way for radical re-envisioning and restructuring the macrocosm. I also cannot help but think that Kepler’s discovery of the retinal image and the consequent displacing of the crystalline humor combined with the Copernican revolution also helped dismantle the importance of the a priori system of correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm altogether. While I will return in a later post to discuss the emergent tensions between the paramaterial and the perimaterial and the type of philosophical skepticism that was available in the period preceding the real image’s influence upon the sensory system, systems of cognition, and the sense of “selfe,” I must for now, like Kepler, stop at the “opaque wall” of the retinal screen.

Works Cited

Banister, John. The Historie of Man. London 1578. (The English Experience 122). Amsterdam: Da Capo Press, 1969.

Bartisch, George. [Opthalmodouleia] Das ist Augendienst. Dresden: durch Matthes Stockel, 1583.

Clark, Stuart. Vanities of the Eye. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Colombo, Realdus. De re Anatomica libri XV. Paris: Apud Andream Wechelum, sub Pegaso, in vico Bellouaco, 1562.

Crombie, A.C. “The Mechanistic Hypothesis and the Scientific Study of Vision.” Science, Optics, and Music in Medieval and Early Modern Thought. London: The Hambledon Press, 1990. 175-254?

Crooke, Helkiah. Mikrokosmographia. A Description of the Body of Man. [London]: William Iaggard, 1615.

Davies, John. Nosce Teipsum. London: Richard Field for John Standish, 1599.

Descartes, Rene. Selected Philosophical Writings. New York: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Du Laurens, Andreas Richard Surphlet translation. A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight: Of Melancholike Diseases; of Rheums, and of Old age. London: Felix Kingston for Ralph Jacson, 1599.

Guillemeau, Jacques. A Worthy Treatise of the Eyes contayning the knowlege and cure of one hundred and thirteen dieseases, incident unto them. London, 1587.

Hakewill, George. The Vanitie of the Eie. Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1608.

Kepler, Johannes. Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena, Quibus Astronomiae Pars Optica Traditur. Francofvrti: Apud Claudium Marnium & Haeredes Ioannis Aubrli, 1604.

Lindberg, David C. Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Paré, Ambroise. The workes of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey translated out of Latine and compared with. London: Th[omas] Cotes and R[obert] Young, 1634.

Park, David. The Fire Within the Eye. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1997.

Platter, Felix. De Corporis Humani Structura et Usu. Libri III. Basil: Per Ambrosium Frob., 1583.

Scheiner, Christopher. Oculus Hoc Est: Fundamentum Opticum. Apud Danielem Agricolam, 1619.

Spruit, Leen. Species Intelligibilis: From Perception to Knowledge. Volume Two: Renaissance Controversies, Later Scholasticism, and the Elimination of the Intelligible Species in Modern Philosophy. New York: Brill, 1995.

Summers, David. Vision, Reflection, & Desire in Western Painting. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Tachau, Katherine H. Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham. Optics, Epistemology, and the Foundation of Semantics. Amsterdam: Brill, 1988.

Tomkis, Thomas. Lingua, or the Combat of the Tongue and the Five Senses for Superiority. London: G. Eld for Simon Waterson, 1607.

Vesalius, Andreas. De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Venice: Apud Franciscum Franciscium & Joannem Criegher, 1568.

[i] Misnumbered as page 646 in the 1615 edition.

[ii]It should be noted that there was some controversy regarding the number of membranes of the eye. While Galen, Vesalius, Crooke and others affirm there were seven membranes, others, like Realdus Colombo, John Banister following him, and others affirmed there were only six.

[iii] I argue that in the pre-Keplerian system of vision that I call paramaterial, these species, including the species acquired by the other senses and re-conjoined by the common sense, retain some theoretical connection between them and their external object originals in many popular discussions, but, even aside from my arguments about the paramaterial, the crystalline humor receives or creates simulacra of external objects.

[iv] While this play has received critical attention spearheaded by the ever insightful Patricia Parker and Carla Mazzio, no one, to my knowledge, has yet discussed the importance of Tomkis’ Visus, Common Sense, and Phantastes. I will discuss Tomkis’ representation of Common Sense and Phantastes in a separate post as they pertain to the paramaterial Phantasy.

[v] I should note that I also think the development of linear perspective in the visual arts probably contributed to the discovery of the retinal image. I would like to talk more about this as an influence on its development but have not yet done the reading necessary to make such a claim at this time. Additionally, the ultimate assertion by Descartes and others that the eye works like a camera obscura reveals that it too made an important contribution to the recognition of the retinal image.


The World Turned Upside Down: Revolutions in the Microcosm and Macrocosm, and the Crystalline Humor in the Three Eyes of Early Modern Optical Anatomy. Part One.

The World Turned Upside Down: Revolutions in the Microcosm and Macrocosm and the Crystalline Humor in the Three Eyes of Early Modern Optical Anatomy

Part I. The Three Fleshly Eyes of Early Modern Optical Anatomy

Augustine famously discusses the three eyes of a perceiver. He details that, first, there is the eye of the flesh. Second, there is the eye of the spirit. And third, there is an eye of the intellect. All three eyes converge and interact to constitute sensation and perception’s interrelation with thought. The fleshly, bodily, and corporeal eye, consisting of the bodily organ, experiences the physical vision of things present before it. The spiritual eye, consisting of the faculty of the mind responsible for internal vision, mentally imagines or reconstructs things not immediately present before the corporeal eye. The intellectual eye, consisting of the Christian as well as spiritual soul, attends to knowledge acquired by the other eyes and also to spiritual matters and God. While all three of Augustine’s eyes have a bearing on early modern understandings of vision, for this post, I will focus on three very different eyes in early modern optical anatomy.[i]

The three eyes that I will discuss in this essay are all bodily eyes. Representations of the bodily eye, responsible for sensation and, in many theories, for perception, underwent a major shift during the course of the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth. The changes in ocular anatomy from 1543 to 1619 occurred at an alarming rate as anatomists turned their eyes from classical authorities and dissected non-human animal eyes to the eyes of the human animal. It is possible to debate the elite science’s sphere of influence upon popular beliefs and cultural practices, and while new theories of vision and models from optical anatomy took a long time to establish themselves in scientific and popular thought, it is my contention that they led to fundamentally different theories of a perceiver’s relationship with the world and to themselves. The eye, like the heavens to which it was often compared, became a conflicted space that underwent a radical theoretical reorientation and reconfiguration by the early seventeenth century.

In a period when natural philosophers found reflections of the divine ordering and structure of the universe, the macrocosm, in the body, the microcosm, and even in its parts, the conceptual framework often depended upon analogical and anagogical thinking that read similarity as a bearer of genuine connection. Astronomers and anatomists challenged the traditional ordering of both the macrocosm and the microcosm of the eye from the mid-sixteenth century and developed new models by the early seventeenth.

The German polymath, Johannes Kepler, played a key role in the revolutions in both the macrocosm and the microcosm. Perhaps most famous for his contributions to astronomy when he defended and elaborated upon Nicholas Copernicus’ hypothesis that the universe revolved, not around the earth, but rather around the sun, Kepler made important contributions to theoretically reorganizing the structure of the cosmos, and his work helped replace a Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe with a Copernican heliocentric one.

At the level of the microcosm, Kepler made another important contribution to yet another revolution. Arguably the most important development of early modern physiology, his 1604 Astronomiae Pars Optica argued that the bodily eye’s lens focuses light and projects it onto the retinal screen at the back of the eye. The problem for Kepler and for theorists of vision and optics for some time following was that if the lens focuses the visual field and projects it upon the retina, the image within the eye would be inverted with respect to vertical orientation and flipped with respect to horizontal orientation. 

The importance of this revolution in the microcosm should not be understated. A. C. Crombie argues that Kepler’s discovery of the eyes’ function constitutes an achievement that rivals, if not surpasses, William Harvey’s discovery that the heart operates as a pump that circulated blood. Crombie argues that a theory of “mechanization” of the body preceded Harvey’s discovery and that this “mechanized” view of the body helped lead to Kepler’s revolution in optical anatomy.

Historian of vision, David C. Lindberg, challenges Crombie’s argument that Kepler was a revolutionary figure. Lindberg ultimately concludes that Kepler represents “the culminating figure in the perspectivist tradition,” “strenuously object[ing] to Crombie’s and Straker’s attempt to view him as a revolutionary figure who transformed visual theory by ‘mechanizing’ it” (Lindberg 207). While Lindberg objects to Crombie’s arguments, I do think Kepler’s theory of vision was revolutionary at its core. To me, the very idea of postulating an eye that did not see either as the visual field before it or as the mind perceived it was a revolutionary move that had the effect of turning the world upside down with respect to the eye. In order to understand the groundbreaking nature of Kepler’s revolution with respect to ocular anatomy, I will use this essay to explore the representations of ocular anatomy and the eye’s functioning preceding and immediately following Kepler’s.

Oddly enough, although cultural and literary critics and historians have extensively studied vision from the late medieval and early modern periods, no one, to my knowledge, yet theorizes the importance of the very profound differences between pre-modern and modern optical anatomy and the theories of vision to which they are bound. In pointing out this oversight, I am not only referring to critics who anachronistically refer to the retinal image in their discussions of pre-seventeenth-century literature and culture, but also to critics who discuss philosophical skepticism or the early modern sensorium without acknowledging the importance of the way contemporary theories of the senses and vision underwent profound changes in the early modern period.[ii]

Historians of science and historians of the senses, on the other hand, cover some of this ground, but their methods often promote and trace narratives of scientific progress that, in my opinion, have two major shortcomings when viewed from the perspective of a cultural and literary critic. The first shortcoming is that these histories of science often deploy a top-down approach that rarely turns to popular culture to explore how scientific developments and thoughts shape and are shaped by broader historical and cultural concerns and shifts. The second is that the focus on scientific progress leads to blind spots in their field of vision when they only study the major figures without attending to how popular and vernacular works describe the same processes.

Take Lindberg’s discussion of the retinal image, for example. In his discussion of Leonardo da Vinci’s unpublished journals that grapple with the notion of the possible inversion of the image within the eye, Lindberg says with subtle sarcasm, “one of Leonardo’s major preoccupations was with the actual path of rays through the eye. His chief concern was to get the rays to the visual power at the end of the optic nerve without inversion, for he must by all means guard against that absurdity” (Lindberg 166). The lengths to which Leonardo goes to try to right the inverted image makes perfect sense when you consider that proposing an inverted image within the eye would be an unthinkable absurdity. For most of human history, the image within the eye was thought to necessarily conform to the visual field before it and to the way in which it was perceived by the mind.

While Lindberg proves a valuable resource for the study of the history of theories of vision, and while he places our understanding of Kepler’s contributions within the framework of a long history of optics, situating him as tied to the medieval tradition, his work is also directed towards exposing the paths that lead to major discoveries rather than exploring the terrain of how such theories and discoveries shape and are shaped by popular culture. My hope is that by exploring those elite discourses alongside popular discourses, we can come to a better understanding about how vision and our sense of “seeing” is itself culturally contingent and shaped through discourse.

Perhaps the best recent work on early modern vision, the eye’s relationship to the inner senses, and the changes happening in both elite and popular discourses on the eye is Stuart Clark’s fascinating book, Vanities of the Eye. In conjunction with his earlier Thinking with Demons, Clark provides invaluable insight into early modern theories of perception and cognition that straddle the boundaries between elite and popular discourses, and between intellectual histories of vision and cultural criticism. In Vanities, Clark argues that vision was “derationalized” over the course of the seventeenth century, challenging the notion that understandings of the eye became more scientific and rational. Even Clark, though, does not really address the profound changes in optical anatomy from roughly the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries. It is my contention that the process of de-centering the power within the eye contributes to the process of “derationalizing” premodern conceptions of the eye and orders of vision.

This essay will address the potential revolutionary changes in optical anatomy from 1543 to 1619 in two parts. The first half of this essay maps the terrain of early modern optical anatomy. In this part, I argue that the early modern period had three different stages and models of the eye’s structure. The three early modern eyes I detail in this part trace the de-centering movement of the crystalline humor in theories of vision from its early placement at the very center of the eye to its position towards the front of the eye.

The second half of this essay details the associations established between the microcosm of the eye and the macrocosm. In this part, I argue that the developments I discuss in part one relate to changes in theories of the macrocosm. By exploring vernacular discussions of the crystalline humor and its position within the bodily eye, I show how those symbolic resemblances and correspondences in its de-centering prefigure and reflect the reconfiguration of the cosmos.

As I discuss briefly in a previous post, prior to Kepler and the ultimate acceptance of his theory of ocular anatomy, the lens itself did not focus and project light upon the rear surface of the eye, but, instead, was thought to be the “seat of vision.” This seat of vision, called the “crystalline humor,” received the impressions or species of external objects, transferring them, no matter if vision acquired those impressions through extramission or intromission[iii], to the inner senses. While I have discussed those “impressions,” the objects of sensation and perception, and the internal senses before and most likely will again, for now I want to focus on the ways in which the material organ itself underwent a broad historical shift from the mid-sixteenth century to the early seventeenth century.

The crystalline humor was thought of as the seat of vision. Its important position with respect to vision depended not only upon its function, but also upon its physical location within the organ of sight. At the center of a sphere, the crystalline humor occupied not only a central position within explanations of its function but also a central position within the physical eye itself. Early optical anatomies and theories of sight seemingly depended upon the notion that a physically central component reflected and manifested its nobility and centrality to functioning. Many early optical anatomies distorted the position and shape of the crystalline humor within the eye to make it conform more to the idea that it was the most important component of the eye. As with contemporary theories the macrocosm, the physically central position bore symbolic and real significance. Just as the earth stood at the center of the cosmos, the crystalline humor stood at the center of the eye.

The Galenic Eye and Vesalius

I will turn first to the model of the eye I will refer to as the “Galenic eye.” While its representation has the longest history, my visual example comes from the first widely printed work of early modern anatomy, Andreas Vesalius’ monumental De Humani Corporis Fabrica of 1543.

The eye as Vesalius represents it in his De Fabrica. This image from a Venetian 1568 edition, page 495.

The eye as Vesalius represents it in his De Fabrica. This image from a Venetian 1568 edition, page 495.

In Vesalius’ figure, we see the crystalline humor positioned at the exact center of the oracular orb. The shape, too, appears more spherical than it should when compared to the images of optical anatomy from a modern anatomy book, and I will compare this Galenic eye to the modern eye later in this post. First, however, I want to attend to Vesalius’ representation and its subsequent critics.

Vesalius famously took issue with anatomies that were based in the repetition of ancient authorities and upon the dissection of non-human animals instead of upon direct observation of human bodies. Despite his corrective to many classically based misunderstandings of human anatomy, Vesalius errs in his representation of the eye, conforming to a model of optical anatomy that placed the crystalline humor almost in the center of the eye.[iv] While the crystalline humor he positions at the eye’s center is not perfectly spherical, in previous and in many later descriptions of the crystalline humor, natural philosophers often referred to it as a sphere. While not perfectly spherical in the image above, many texts continued to describe the central position and spherical shape of the crystalline humor as evidence of its nobility and its central role in the process of vision well past criticisms of such representations.

In the first widely printed work of modern anatomy, Vesalius followed classical authority in placing what had long been considered the seat of vision directly at the center of the eye. The whole of ocular anatomy’s description of the eye placed the eye’s other parts in relation to the crystalline humor. Vesalius, and many other optical theorists and anatomists, emphasized the importance of the crystalline humor. It was not only physically positioned at the very center of the eye, but also the whole of the eye served its centralized power. The fluids which filled the eye provided the crystalline with “nutrition,” the eye’s coats and its spherical shape were designed to protect and enclose it, and the colors on the inside surface of the eye “refreshed” it. It would seem that the crystalline humor’s unassailable centrality to the eye’s function demanded that it remain physically as well as symbolically central to the organ of sight.         

The figure in De Fabrica maintains the eye’s integrity and analogical link to the cosmos by placing the crystalline at the eye’s very center.  Like the earth at the center of the geocentric universe, the crystalline humor maintained its importance by that centrality[v]. The crystalline humor, analogically, and, often, anagogically, related to its object, the world itself, received likenesses of that world in the form of visual objects. 

Despite his placement of the crystalline humor, Vesalius made at least one important contribution with respect to ocular anatomy. The optic nerve, previously widely reported as hollow, turned out not to be hollow at all. Although the notion of the optic nerve as a conduit for vital spirits to transfer to and from the eye and the internal senses or wits persisted in dominant theories of visual perception, the change might have challenged the understanding that spirits carried the species or images into the inner recourses of the brain.[vi]

The Mediate Early Modern Eye

Vesalius’ distortion of ocular anatomy, however, did not go unrecognized for too long after the publication of his book. It was Vesalius’ possible successor at Padua and eventual rival, Realdo Colombo, who corrected Vesalius’ optical anatomy, pointing out and partially amending Vesalius’ error in Colombo’s only publication, the De Re Anatomica, published in 1559. Colombo claims that, like many of the errors Vesalius corrected based on classical anatomists’ dissection of animal bodies, Vesalius’ error derived from the anatomy of large animal eyes, most likely bovine, instead of human eyes. As Colombo puts it,

At aliorum animalium oculi non sunt undique orbiculares, sed vel oblique, vel depressi: neque id mirum est, cum hominis figura tanto interuallo a reliquis distet animantibus. Scito praeterea neminem ante me hominis oculum descripsisse, sed omnes beluinum oculum descripsere, magno & turpi errore, in quem ipse quoque Vesalius incidit, in eius universa pene formatione cum aliis Anatomicis deceptus. Quod verum, esse facile perspicies,si Galeni,vesalii, aliorumque Anatomicorum historiam de oculo cum nostra contuleris. & profecto non leviter hi homines accusandi sunt, Galenus praefertim,& post ipsum Vesalius, qui tantam rem, tam illustrem, tam optatam, tam negligenter scribendam putarent, beluinum oculum pro humano dissecates. (397).

[But the eyes in other animals are not perfectly orbicular, but are either oblique or depressed: it is not difficult to tell the difference of human eyes from the eyes of beasts. Know that no one else before me describes the human eye, but instead described the eye of a beast, and this is the great basis of Vesalius’ error. Vesalius fell into deception with the others of his training in Anatomy. That this is true, it is easy to see clearly, if Galen, Vesalius, and others compare their history of the anatomy of the eye to mine. Many prefer Galen [before] and Vesalius after him that they accept such a thing, so illustrious, so longed for, to be negligently written, taking a dissected beast’s eye for a human eye.][vii]

Colombo goes on to note other errors in Vesalius’ anatomy of the human eye, saying later,

Erroresque Vesalii in historia de oculo nullo negocio deprehendes … nam non modo in musculis & membranis, sed in humoribus quoque decipitur, & tota errat via, existimans cristallinum humorem in centro oculi exquisite situm esse. (405).

[Errors in Vesalius’ history of the eye are not difficult to find … for he is deceived not only in the muscles and membranes, but also in the humors, and he completely errs [in positioning] the crystalline humor in the eye’s center.]

Detailing Vesalius’ errors, Colombo notes that Vesalius’ most grievous concerns the placement of the crystalline humor at the very center of the eye.

While criticizing Vesalius for distorting human optical anatomy through animal dissection rather than human dissection, Colombo distorts the eye in his own way.  He maintains a largely spherical eye, and while he moves the crystalline humor towards the front of the organ, he does not place it just behind the pupil at the front of the eye. But despite not placing the crystalline where modern anatomists situate the lens and while maintaining its centrality in the perceptual process, Colombo de-centers the crystalline humor within the organ.[viii] Even once Colombo’s de-centered crystalline humor became the norm, popular anatomies continued to stress the importance of its centrality to the eye as well as the importance of its and the eye’s spherical shape.

Colombo’s observations led to a new model in early modern optical anatomy which I will refer to as the “mediate early modern eye.” My second image comes from the tables attached to the 1583 edition of Felix Platter’s De Corporis Humani Structura Et Usu.

The Mediate Eye represented in Platter's 1583 De Corporis. Table 49.

The Mediate Eye represented in Platter’s 1583 De Corporis. Table 49.

Felix Platter, who challenged theories of vision that argued the crystalline humor was the vision’s seat as early as 1583, follows Colombo in positioning the crystalline humor more towards the front of the eye. Platter was the first to argue that the crystalline humor was not the seat of vision, arguing instead for the primacy of the optic nerve and the retinal image. Kepler probably drew upon Platter’s description, but Platter did not, at least not in his text, discuss the inversion of the retinal image.  I will return to Platter’s contributions to the retinal image below, but, for now want to discuss the representations of the mediate early modern eye like his which were the most popular representations of optical anatomy from the mid-sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries.

What follows is a series of what I am calling the mediate early modern eye taken from popular vernacular anatomies printed in English from the sixteenth and early seventeenth century.


By far the most popular image of ocular anatomy, the mediate early modern eye persisted in various forms and copies. Most of the above examples represent copies or close approximations of one another, but George Bartisch’s 1583 German work on ophthalmology, Opthalmodouleia Das ist Augendienst, contains a flap anatomy of a very similar construction of the eye.


Bartisch’s figure shows a perfectly spherical eye, but also includes flaps that show the mediate positioning of the crystalline humor as well as by the aqueous humor before it and the vitreous humor behind it.

This mediate early modern eye is by far the most common in early modern anatomies from the late sixteenth century and well into the seventeenth. Not quite placed in its modern position just behind the pupil, but no longer positioned directly in the center of the eye, anatomists positioned the crystalline humor there for quite some time. What remains peculiar is that although most late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century anatomy books include representations of this mediate early modern eye, their descriptions often draw upon the Galenic eye even when they correct the errors found in the descriptions and representations of the eye like those found in Galen and Vesalius.

Even the printed version of Kepler’s manuscript conforms to the model established by this mediate early modern eye.

While not in Kepler's manuscript, the printed version included this image of the mediate eye.

While not in Kepler’s manuscript, the printed version included this image of the mediate eye.

While Kepler himself did not provide an illustration in his manuscript, this published text did include an image that resembles the ones I posted above. I will return later in this post and in subsequent posts to the importance of Kepler’s discovery of the retinal image, but it is important to note that the figure appearing in his 1604 Ad Vitellionem paralipomena Quibus Astronomiae pars optica traditur contains the image of the mediate early modern eye.

Despite the mediate early modern eye appearing in the printed version of his Paralipomena Kepler famously challenged the primacy of the crystalline humor, arguing instead for the importance of the retina and the retinal image. As he puts it,

Visionem fieri dico, cum totius hemisphaerii mundani, quod est ante oculum, & amplius paulo, idolum statuitur ad album subrufum retinae cauae superficiei parietam. (Kepler 168)

[I say vision is accomplished, when the whole hemisphere of the world and a bit more which is before the eye, an idolum is placed on the curved, reddish-white retinal wall.]

Unseating the crystalline humor’s primacy within the eye and in the process of vision, Kepler offers the retinal image in its stead. Before I discuss Kepler more extensively, however, I would like to turn to some early modern textual descriptions of the eye as they embody the tensions between the representations of the Galenic eye and the mediate early modern eye.

Even in texts which represent the mediate early modern eye, the verbal descriptions often draw upon the Galenic eye for the significance of the organ of sight. Despite acknowledging that the crystalline humor was not at the center of the eye or in the shape of a perfect sphere, later anatomical treatises often laud it for its centrality and spherical shape. In his 1578 The Historie of Man, John Banister does the same while simultaneously registering Colombo’ corrective contribution to ocular anatomy when he describes the crystalline humor as follows:

The second humor of the eye is Christalloides; or Christallinus, called so, for because it shineth like light, and in pure clearenes comparable to the christall. The place where it is sited is towardes the forepartes, almost in the centre of the eye, beyng amplected olf the hinder part with the vitrious humor, hauyng no other Membran interiacent or lyeng betwene: but before couered with Aranea. The figure of the christalline humor is round, but in the fore part depressed: where it respecteth the watrish humor, it is lyke the kynde of a pulse called a lentill. The substaunce, of this humor is somewhat hard. The vse therof is exiellent & most noble: beyng almost the principall member of sight, pleasaunt to be marked, and worthy to be knowen, not iniuriously therfore called the idole, or Image of seeing. (Banister 102).

In Banister’s description of the eye, we see that he has corrected his optical anatomy in accordance with Colombo’s observations, but he also partly conforms to the notion that the crystalline humor lies more central to the eye and that it has a round shape though depressed on the forepart. Banister does acknowledge that the chrystalline humor only “almost” sits in the center of the eye, and notes that the lens is round but is “in the fore part depressed,” but the legacy built up around the crystalline humor’s centrality to the organ of sight remains strong in Banister’s description. Banister notes that the crystalline humor is “excellent & most noble” partly based on the notion that its centrality confirmed the nobility both of the humor and of vision in general.

Banister even refers directly to Colombo’s critique of Vesalius, translating Colombo’s attack almost verbatim. He says,

The fashion of the eyes in man is rounde: which if you marke well, you shall finde that nothyng elles in the body hath a direct rounde proportion. But in other creatures the eyes are not directly round, no, rather oblique or depressed. Neither is that marueilous, whilest the figure of man differeth from all other creatures in no small poynt. Neither more openly, then worthely, hath Realdus Collumbus reproued such as hitherto haue made description of the eyes, by frequentation of brutish Anathomies: which clearely he noteth in Galen, and after him Vesalius, whose skilfulnes in matters Anathomicall no man neglecteth: yet with no small negligence is he spotted in this point, since, so carelesly to write in a matter so great, excellent, and oft wished he blushed not. (Banister 102).

Again, Banister notes the spherical shape of the eye, going further to suggest that no other part of the body comes as close to the shape of a perfect sphere. It was the perfectly spherical shape and the crystalline humor’s centrality within it that reinforced and confirmed the eye’s connection to the macrocosm’s ordering of the heavenly spheres.

Similar to the English Banister, the same tension appears in popular works on the eye translated into English towards the end of the sixteenth century. The French physician Jacques Guillemeau, in the English translation of his One Hundred Thirteen Diseases of the Eye, describes the crystalline humor as follows:

His seat is in the middest between the waterish and glassie humor, not onlie ministring nourishment and moisture, and so preserving from drinesse, but also to helpe and preserve the same, and to moderate & appease the rage of spirites and colours, which might hurte it. The fashion of it is rounde, whiche more easily resisteth outward injuries: for this figure is hardlie hurt, because it hath no corners. It is true that the roundnesse of it is somewhat pressed and pinched before and behind, but so that therby it remaineth more sure and stedfast in the place, whiche was harde to bee done in a round figure. (Guillemeau Chapter 4).

Guillemeau does not include any illustrations, but his description appears to place the crystalline directly in the center of the eye like the Galenic eye. Even if Guillemeau is referring to the mediate early modern eye, his verbal description could give a potential reader the impression that the eye was arranged in accordance with the Galenic model. He, too, notes the centrality of the crystalline humor, providing an explanation as to why the seat of vision is not perfectly spherical.

Nearly every other work published in English on the anatomy of the eye I have found from the late sixteenth century into the early seventeenth century, when they include images, represent the mediate early modern eye, and, when they describe optical anatomy, describe the crystalline humor as the eye’s primary part, but also note its centric, or nearly centric, position within the orb of the eye. This includes works by Englishmen like John Banister, Helkiah Crooke and popular works translated from French into English like Pierre La Pimaudaye’s The French Academie, André du Laurens’ A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight: of Melancholike diseases; of Rheums, and of Old Age, Jacques Guillemeau’s A Worthy Treatise of the Eyes, and Ambroise Paré’s Workes among others.

The crystalline humor’s centrality to a spherical eye trailed clouds of significance. I will return to some of those elements below when I discuss the treatment of the eye as a microcosm, but here want to discuss one description that casts the crystalline humor’s position in heroic terms. In 1594, French physician André du Laurens first published his Discours de la conservation de la veue: des maladies meloncholiques des catarrhes, which the English Richard Surphlet soon translated. With good reason, I quote the beautiful 1599 Surphlet translation at length:

Loe thus all vailes, shadowes and covert being taken away, it is now time to make a plaine and open shew of the most precious jewell of the eye, that rich diamond, that beautiful christall, which is of more worth than all the pearles of the East. This is that icelike humour, which is the principall instrument of the sight, the soule of the eye, the inward spectacle: this is that humour which alone is altered by colours, & receiveth whatsoever formes the things that are to be seene. This is that chirstalline humour, which in more hardie wise then Hercules, dares to encounter two at once, namely, the outward and the inward light. This is that onely christalline humour, which all the other parts of the eye acknowledge their sovereigne, and themselves the vassals thereof: for the hornie tunicle doth the office of a glasse unto it: the apple, the office of a window: the grapelike coate is as a fayre flowering garden, to cheare and rejoyce the same after wearisome labout: the cobweblike coate serveth as lead to retaine such formes as are offered: the waterish humour as a warlike foreward, to intercept and breake off the first charge of the objects thereof, assaying all upon the sudden, and with headlong violence to make breach and entrance: The vitreous humour is his cooke, dressing and setting forth in most fit sort his daily repast: The nerve opticke, one of his ordinary messengers, carrying from the braine thereto, commandment and power to see, and conveying backe againe with all speede whatsoever hath been seene: The muscles are his loftie steedes and couragious courses, whereup being mounted it advanceth it selfe aloft, casteth it selfe alow, turneth it selfe on the right and left hand: and finally in every such sort, as seemeth best unto it selfe. In briefe, this is the principall part of the eye, which I intend to describe… (Du Laurens 34).

Du Laurens positions the crystalline humor, which he later states is “placed in the middest of the eye, as in his center, to the end it may equally and indifferently intertaine and admit of both the lights” (34), as a Herculean hero and sovereign of the eye. The whole of optical anatomy serves the crystalline humor as its master, and that master engages in a mythological epic battle between two different assailants, the outward and inner lights.

The centrality of the crystalline humor to the eye reaches a metaphorical apex in du Laurens’ description, and his wonderful elaboration also exposes how the crystalline humor was seen as a type of sovereign as well as how the physical arrangement of the space within the eye could take on analogical and significance. The physical centrality and the functional centrality of the crystalline humor are intertwined not only in du Laurens’ elaborate metaphorical riffing but also in the anatomical descriptions of the eye itself. The sovereign of the eye must be spherical and central to its kingdom. Kepler would play an important role in de-centering its power further and culminating in its regicide. Before that time, however, the crystalline humor, as in du Laurens’ description, ruled the eye from a centralized seat of visual power.

I will return to the significance of metaphors du Laurens deploys below, but, before I do, I first want to discuss the final early modern eye or, simply, the modern eye. It was not until 1619 with the publication of Jesuit Christoph Scheiner’s Oculus hoc est: Fundamentum opticum that an anatomically “correct” image of the eye was printed.

The modern eye from Scheiner in 1619. Page 17.

The modern eye from Scheiner in 1619. Page 17.

This crude figure of the eye more closely resembles the eye of modern anatomy.[ix] Here, we see an eye that is not a perfect sphere with a lens that is no longer close to being central to the organ. Clearly towards the forepart of the eye, the lens nestles just behind the pupil, focusing and reflecting light on the curved surface of the retina at the rear of the eye. As I mentioned above, even Kepler’s work contains an image of the eye that differs dramatically from modern representations.

Scheiner’s work on optics verified Platter’s and Kepler’s earlier contentions that the retina rather than the crystalline humor was the central component of the eye.[x] Not only did the retinal image now dominate optical theory, but also completed the de-centering and dethroning of the eye’s previous seat of power, the crystalline humor. From this point forward, in elite science at least, the formerly mighty crystalline humor was relegated to a subservient role with respect to the retina and its retinal image.  

One can see this modern representation of ocular anatomy in my final visual example which comes from René Descartes’ text, probably the single most recognizable image of early modern optical anatomy. In this image, we find an eye must closer to the ones we find in a modern anatomy book. Not only is the lens placed much closer to the forepart of the eye, but the eye itself is no longer represented as perfectly spherical.

The modern eye depicted as a camera obscura in Descartes.

The modern eye depicted as a camera obscura in Descartes.

I will return to Descartes’ conception of vision and the importance of this figure in the second half of this essay, but his representation stands as a good example of what I will call the “modern eye,” despite the fact that it still differs in some aspects from what we think of when we turn to contemporary books of human anatomy. Descartes not only compared the human eye to a camera obscura, but also claimed the eye worked in the exact same way as the device and effectively was a camera obscura.

Descartes, like Kepler before him, accepted the retinal image and its inversion. Unlike Kepler, Descartes did not stop his investigation at the retinal image, theorizing the image from the eye at least as far as the pineal gland, and explaining that “it is the soul which sees, and not the eye; and it does not see directly, but only by means of the brain” (Descartes, Selected Philosophical Writings 68). The retinal image contributed in no small degree to Descartes’ philosophical skepticism. The disconnect established between sensation within the eye and perception in the soul dismantled theories that expressed their relationship and connection. While Descartes borrows many of his skeptical arguments from prior skeptical models, it is the retinal image that creates slightly different epistemological horizons for philosophical skepticism.[xi]

I do not mean to suggest that either Kepler or Descartes were singular geniuses that emerged from historical vacuums. Kepler continued to promote a quasi-Aristotelian understanding of the sensitive soul and Descartes not only adapted earlier skeptical motifs but also reiterated the quasi-Aristotelian model of the sensitive soul even if he pushed it beyond the pineal gland. Both figures shaped and were shaped by theories of perception available at the time of their writing.

The three corporeal eyes I discuss in the first half of this essay present the range of ocular anatomy from before 1543 to 1619, and I have shown the predominance of the mediate early modern eye in this period. Lindberg wonders what took so optical theories and ocular anatomists so long in coming to the realization that the crystalline humor functioned as a lens that projected light upon the retina when the relevant geometry and understanding of lenses were present for a long time previously. Part of the reason it took so long to discover the retinal image and correctly represent ocular anatomy has to do with the “absurdity” of claiming that the image within the eye was upside down and horizontally flipped.

In the next section, I explore the analogical and anagogical relationships developed in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century popular vernacular discourses that help explain what made de-centering the eye’s seat of power difficult and potentially revolutionary. These cultural beliefs, I suspect, made recognizing the correct position and function of the crystalline humor so difficult even beyond the absurdity of the retinal image and its inversion.

Broader cultural beliefs and practices shape early modern discourses on vision. The very notion that the eye must contain a species or image that conforms to the visual plane before it or as it is perceived in the mind was the biggest obstacle for early modern theorists of optics to overcome, but other discourses shaped their own perception of the eye. One wonders, for example, why Colombo and those who represented the mediate early modern eye not only emphasized a perfectly spherical shape to the human organ of vision and why, even when de-centering the position of the crystalline humor, they continued to place it, not towards the forepart of the eye, but more towards its center.

One explanation is that when early modern anatomists looked at the eye’s interior, they saw a radically different eye than modern anatomists. They saw within it a microcosm of the macrocosm. They saw an organ whose central functional component should occupy the organ’s physical center, and whose other parts were arranged in relation to and served this “sovereign” within the eye. The legacy of discourses that proclaimed the crystalline humor’s superiority and sovereignty shaped their own perception of the anatomized human eye. Even when they recognized, following the period of Vesalius, that the crystalline humor was not in the exact center of the orb of the eye, cultural discourses shaped their thought and perception in such a way as to construct the mediate early modern eye.

The anatomists’ shaping of sense also influenced and affected the recognition of the retinal image and its inversion. Not only did they see the crystalline humor as the eye’s seat of vision, but it was also imperative that the image within the eye conform to the orientation of the visual field and the way in which the mind perceived that visual field, and such an a priori stance obstructed the retinal image and its inversion’s acceptance. Even though many theorists of optics were probably aware of the camera obscura, they did not directly argue that the eye worked exactly like a camera obscura until much later since it was known that the camera obscura projected an inverted image upon a screen placed behind it. In the next section, I will go on to discuss the retinal image and inversion as well as the ways popular vernacular discourses published in or translated into English shaped and were shaped by ocular anatomy.

Works Cited

Banister, John. The Historie of Man. London 1578. (The English Experience 122). Amsterdam: Da Capo Press, 1969.

Bartisch, George. [Opthalmodouleia] Das ist Augendienst. Dresden: durch Matthes Stockel, 1583.

Clark, Stuart. Vanities of the Eye. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Colombo, Realdus. De re Anatomica libri XV. Paris: Apud Andream Wechelum, sub Pegaso, in vico Bellouaco, 1562.

Crombie, A.C. “The Mechanistic Hypothesis and the Scientific Study of Vision.” Science, Optics, and Music in Medieval and Early Modern Thought. London: The Hambledon Press, 1990. 175-254?

Crooke, Helkiah. Mikrokosmographia. A Description of the Body of Man. [London]: William Iaggard, 1615.

Davies, John. Nosce Teipsum. London: Richard Field for John Standish, 1599.

Descartes, Rene. Selected Philosophical Writings. New York: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Du Laurens, Andreas Richard Surphlet translation. A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight: Of Melancholike Diseases; of Rheums, and of Old age. London: Felix Kingston for Ralph Jacson, 1599.

Guillemeau, Jacques. A Worthy Treatise of the Eyes contayning the knowlege and cure of one hundred and thirteen dieseases, incident unto them. London, 1587.

Hakewill, George. The Vanitie of the Eie. Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1608.

Kepler, Johannes. Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena, Quibus Astronomiae Pars Optica Traditur. Francofvrti: Apud Claudium Marnium & Haeredes Ioannis Aubrli, 1604.

Lindberg, David C. Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Paré, Ambroise. The workes of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey translated out of Latine and compared with. London: Th[omas] Cotes and R[obert] Young, 1634.

Park, David. The Fire Within the Eye. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1997.

Platter, Felix. De Corporis Humani Structura et Usu. Libri III. Basil: Per Ambrosium Frob., 1583.

Scheiner, Christopher. Oculus Hoc Est: Fundamentum Opticum. Apud Danielem Agricolam, 1619.

Spruit, Leen. Species Intelligibilis: From Perception to Knowledge. Volume Two: Renaissance Controversies, Later Scholasticism, and the Elimination of the Intelligible Species in Modern Philosophy. New York: Brill, 1995.

Summers, David. Vision, Reflection, & Desire in Western Painting. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Tachau, Katherine H. Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham. Optics, Epistemology, and the Foundation of Semantics. Amsterdam: Brill, 1988.

Tomkis, Thomas. Lingua, or the Combat of the Tongue and the Five Senses for Superiority. London: G. Eld for Simon Waterson, 1607.

Vesalius, Andreas. De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Venice: Apud Franciscum Franciscium & Joannem Criegher, 1568.

[i] For Augustine on the three eyes and the three types of vision see de Genesi ad litteram lib. XII. 6.15 to 7.29. I will talk more about these passages and the concepts of both the corporeal and intellectual species upon which they were based in later posts. Additionally, for a long history of the species, see both Katharine Tachau’s Vision and Certitude and Leen Spruit’s two volume work on the history of the intellectual species.

[ii] I would add, too, that recent critics, challenging the primacy of vision in their own right by tending to the importance of the other four senses often overlook the ways in which medieval and early modern constructions of the sensitive soul stress the interconnectivity of the external senses in the sensus communis. I do think their work makes important contribution to our understanding of the pre-modern sensorium, but would like to see more work that discusses the ways in which the quasi-Aristotelian sensitive soul, as inherited by medieval and early moderns, conjoin the discrete external senses in the inner senses. I intend to challenge the separation of the senses in later posts.

[iii] I will discuss the theories of extramission and intromission in a later post as well. While Lindberg stresses how theories of extramission were abandoned relatively early in elite discourses on optics and vision, there is evidence that the theories persisted popularly for some time following. Lindberg’s focus on elite discourses and in the pursuit of mapping out the discoveries that led to the development towards modern optics lead to ignoring the very real presence of theories of extramission in popular culture for some time following. On the other side of the spectrum, literary critics often fall into the trap of making the opposite claim, implying that the theory of extramission was much more widely accepted in the sixteenth century than they actually were.

[iv] For an excellent discussion of the history of early modern anatomy, see Jonathan Sawday’s The Body Emblazoned.

[v] One could argue that the geocentric model itself made only a strange type of sense in a macrocosm governed by God.  If the earth were important to an omnipotent and immaterial God, then the earth, with the exception of Hell, would be condemned to the basest realm of the cosmos.  David Summers makes a similar point in his Vision, Reflection, & Desire in Western Painting.

[vi] In this post, I would like to attend to the position of the crystalline humor but will discuss this more in a later post.

[vii] Forgive my hack job translation here. If anyone could help clarify and fix my translation, I would be most grateful. The Banister echo cited below probably comes closer to the sentiment in Colombo than my own translation.

[viii] Despite Colombo’s assertion that Vesalius’ error resulted from the dissection of animal rather than human eyes, Colombo’s own distortion gives us pause.  Why would Colombo correct the misplacement of the crystalline humor only somewhat, and why did he maintain a perfectly spherical eye?  We are, of course, in the realm of speculation here, but I would contend that his own error most likely resulted from the same cause that led to Vesalius’.  He simply did not see it, and could not believe the dissected human eye in front of his own living eye. I do not mean to say that Colombo’s charge that Vesalius’ eye was a deliberate distortion or that we have any reason to discount his contention that Vesalius dissected bovine eyes.  The cow’s lens is larger, more spherical, and more central to a cow’s eye but its overall shape is even less spherical than a human’s, and, yet, Vesalius maintains a perfectly spherical eye.  Why, then, would Colombo correct Vesalius’ gross error of the placement of the crystalline humor, yet not correct the overall shape of the eye itself nor place the crystalline humor in its “correct” location towards the front of the eye?  Dissection, I have been told and from vague memories of high school biology, is a messy business.  The body cannot be as neatly “seen” as a diagram supposedly showing the same structures.  Vesalius and Colombo could have accounted for their distortions by chalking them up to, say, the process of removing the eye from the ocular cavity or having pressed too hard while cutting into them, but I do think there is a possibility that they simply could not see the structure because their fantasies were shaped by their understanding of how vision operated.

[ix] I am not sure if more detailed figures were ever included in editions of this work, but my point is that even a crude figure like this offers an eye that more resembles modern optical anatomy than the previous examples.

[x] He also placed the optic nerve, not at the center of the back of the eye but in its more correct position towards one side.

[xi] While the relationship to skepticism exceeds the boundaries of this essay, as it will be an important concern in my other work, I wanted to mention it here.

George Bartisch’s Ophthalmodouleia Das ist Augendienst (1583): Animating the Early Modern Eye

For the past few days, I have been working on a long essay on the anatomy of the eye and the importance of the crystalline humor in early modern elite and popular discourses on sight, but I took some time away from editing to play around with both Flash and a digital edition of George Bartish’s splendid 1583 work on the diseases of the eye, the Ophthalmodouleia Das ist Augendienst.

A full-text digital edition of Bartisch’s work with some very high quality scans can be found here courtesy of the Internet Archive.

While I had seen some of the images from the Opthalmodoulia before reproduced in secondary sources, I had never seen a copy of the complete text before today, and, consequently, was unaware that the text also contained a woodcut of ocular anatomy with moveable flaps. Since I have been messing around with Flash to produce a few short videos for #WoodcutWednesday, I decided to try my hand at animating Bartisch’s anatomy of the eye.

What follows are two different animations. The first, an interactive animation, requires a Flash player, and the second, a Youtube video, does not have any interactivity but can be played on any device. Enjoy!

I hope to have my work on the crystalline humor posted by early next week.

Utopian Fantasy: Imagining the Form of an Online Scholarly Journal

As I have only been starting to blog in earnest for a few months, my experience doing so has given me occasion to reflect on the typical form of the journal article and scholarly publication. While many journals now have online editions or make their publications available through PDF versions, those online editions try to replicate the form of the print journal as closely as possible. One problem with this is that those forms, well suited for print, once applied to online versions, limit and obstruct the development of new forms of scholarly argument and critique.

It is probably inevitable that online journals will ultimately replace print journals altogether, but, in this interim period, I wonder if now isn’t the time to consider new forms of scholarly communication and publication. As people develop new wholly online scholarly journals, they often seem bound to the conventions of the format they intend to replace. I want to use this post as a way to speculate on some possibilities of form and format I have been imagining recently, and while I lack the time or the resources to put some of these imagined formats into practice, I hope to do so in the future. While I am limited for now to the restrictions on page editing on and by my own very limited coding skills, blogging some portions of my work on the Phantasy, the senses, the paramaterial, and skepticism, leads me to question the form I have been deploying within my posts.

So far, I have simply followed the conventions of print. I have used the MLA format for citation and have occasionally used ordinary endnotes. While one cannot really compare a blog to a journal, the experience has led to contemplating some of the practices of scholarly journals as well as their form. I have been imagining an online journal or scholarly publication platform that incorporates the freedom and non-linearity that less restrictive online forms might allow, breaking the conventions established by traditional print journals and books. Both the restrictions of and my own coding limitations render, for now, the impossibility of trying to create a form of scholarly article and process of publication I envision below. But, then again, this is a utopian fantasy and post anyway.

What follows is a list of features that I thought might be incorporated in a new format.

1) For all of our railing against the “stable text,” scholars often want and demand stable texts for scholarly publications. The idea of scholarly articles in print depends upon the idea that once peer-reviewed and codified, the article becomes a stable point of reference to which others can cite and refer. The problem here is that such articles contribute to an unrealistic idea of textual stability to which at least many literary scholars tend to theoretically object. What I’m imagining is an online journal or book that maintains a thorough history page so that one can track previous versions and note changes that have been made since the respondent referred to it. I could even imagine a scenario in which two articles that are speaking to and responding to one another can be integrated into one another through a series of hyperlinks or expandable menus. Such a format would allow for flexibility on both the part of the reader as well as upon the part of an author.

2) Footnotes, endnotes, and citations can be incorporated within the text as a type of expandable field within the body of the text itself. Some sites already use hovering to reveal the contents of a traditional style note, but I’m thinking of something much more developed here. Let’s say I’m writing about some topic but want to add a note that explains other scholars’ perspectives or offers a complicating factor that does not fit into the overall point of my topic. In this case, I could have the main text with an icon with something like “see more” within the body of my essay that expands to include the information and might be a point to link my later work or work from others on the same topic. When I ultimately switch to and have a broader range of coding skills, I intend to experiment with a citation and noting method based on the marginal glosses of early modern printed books. I hope to make a series of expandable glosses as well as pushing the citations to the margins of the block text and hyperlink them to online editions where possible.

3) By now, we all know the difficulty of citing websites and tracking down the content. When we do find references to online content, it is often difficult to find the passage or portion in question. This is part of the reason PDF files with specific page numbers are the best frame of reference at the moment. If all scholarly publications become virtual, I imagine that such methods of citation would become obsolete since one could theoretically link to the passage in question, in context, within the page itself to the edition cited. Another option would be to create a new standard of online reference points. As a way to create points of reference, we could return to the method of reference and citation found in translations of classical texts. Paragraphs and sections could be marked in the margins with a number system that would also allow for additions in the form of the expandable sections I mentioned in my second point. This method would allow for someone to find a particular passage in formats where hyperlinking is impossible (such as in print).

4) Because we are so used to the format of printed scholarly journals, we often find ourselves limited to a set number of pages that often means that some insightful points or tangents that might interest some readers but which must be truncated, cut, or buried in footnotes. Of course, such limitations are often useful. There are so many articles but very little time, and so the limitations of the traditional scholarly publication means that an author or authors must be concise and crop such extraneous limbs and outward flourishes. With the system I envision, however, one could have both short and long forms of the traditional essay. Instead of having a directly linear text of a set length, a system of expandable portions could allow a reader to follow an argument through a length most suited for their time and interests. Since I am playing a game of imaginary forms here, I could imagine a text which expands outwards from an abstract style block of text that could expand outward towards a full article length text.

5) Using the print format as the basis of design and format for online journals also creates limitations on the types of scholarly information and arguments we can present. Journals books and print mean that the form of our content must be limited to the verbal and the statically visual. This might be fine for traditional scholarly articles in general, but imagine a journal which incorporates video or interactive features within the body of its argument. For example, I can picture a film journal that allows a reader to watch the scene under discussion which could exist alongside a written description and transcript of the dialogue. Such a form would allow for the critic to show specific portions within the context of her argument. A second feature that I could see being useful is the integration of interactive demonstrations or presentations. In this, instead of having a static graph or visualization, one could include a way for the reader/ user to interact with the information the article provides. I am currently working, for example, on a Flash animated presentation that allows the user to guide themselves through a basic understanding of the sensitive soul in classical, medieval and early modern varieties. While Flash may be a platform marked for virtual death, I can imagine doing something similar with HTML5 that would allow a reader/user to interact with the data and information an article provides. You can see my test post here. One reason I have failed to finish this project is that the Flash format, limited as it is with respect to mobile and touch devices like the iPhone and iPad, will most likely soon be replaced by HTML5. While I only have a cursory understanding of Flash and Actionscript anyway, my knowledge of Javascript and HTML5 is virtually nonexistent. Something I hope to correct soon.

6) While collaborative publications are themselves not uncommon, the limitations of print present the illusion of complete unity between or among collaborating co-authors. I wonder if an online format that allowed multiple perspectives on a particular topic might help develop new areas of inquiry and challenge the way in which collaborate projects work. New formats might allow for collaborative projects that can occasionally challenge or open otherwise closed areas of debate and engagement.

7) The practice of peer-review. Here, I will probably enter my most controversial line of inquiry. From my perspective, there are two major flaws in the peer-review process. The first is practical and the second more theoretical. The first is that it often takes an inordinate amount of time for a scholarly work to move go from manuscript to publication. While it often assures a level of prestige and through this approval method, it also means that scholars must wait for months or sometimes years before the work they have done to appear in print. The notion of approval and prestige brings me to my second more theoretical objection. While in the humanities and social sciences, scholars tend towards challenging broader social and cultural hierarchies and top-down practices of society generally, academics often defend the rigid top-down structure and practices within academia itself. As I see it, the peer-review process is a top-down hierarchy based on prestige and power. Since I am playing a utopian game in this post, I want to sketch out one possible alternative method of peer-review that might be a more bottom-up method. My fantastical online journal or publishing house could have a system in place which creates two connected yet somewhat distinct databases of submissions. After a rigorous screening process, a scholar could first post a submission to the journal which would keep the submission within a “pending review” category which would still be publicly available. Other scholars could then access its content and, if they feel the work is a legitimate and meets some system of criteria for approval, they could then mark the submission as approved or could comment on what needs to be corrected or changed in order to meet their standards of approval. The journal could, once the submission reaches some level of broader approval, it could then become an official Journal “publication.” In this process, I would like to see complete transparency involved on the part of reviewers and reviews alike. The responses would be publicly available and readable alongside the submission under review. Such a system, though I am sure it has its flaws, would create a peer-review process that would allow readers to see the reader review process in action as well as to take issue with particular individual reviews or comments while making the article quickly available, searchable and citable.

8) Open-access. No paywall. If there is a paywall, then many of proceeds go to authors themselves and their institutions rather than to Elsevier, Springer and Wiley. To be honest, that is the type of paywall many universities and academics could get behind, and, considering the exorbitant fees siphoned by the publishing companies. Imagine if paywall fees were commensurate with what scholars are paid for the publication of their work. Such a paywall might be acceptable.

With that, so ends my game of journal utopian fantasy.

N.B. Since writing this entry, Scott Selisker has informed me about the existence of the online blog Vector which already incorporates some of my imagined scenarios into its form and structure. I have yet to explore the content more thoroughly, but it appears to include non-static visual demonstrations and animations nestled within its textual matter. I look forward to checking out the format and find its very existence encouraging.