Tonight I went to dinner with my best friend in Boston in Downtown Crossing, where you can find tourists along with locals shopping, eating, and rushing off to work or appointments (well, Bostonians are always rushing everywhere, anyway). We had our usual chat and then took a walk to find a café on Washington Street where we could continue our conversation. As I waited for her to get her hot chocolate, I looked out the mostly-glass front of the place onto the street and watched people and cars passing by. Across the street was the Paramount Theater, one of several in the area that Times Square would scoff at but which for Boston are about as flashy as you get.
Without focusing, my eyes followed the flickering lights as they moved across the façade, red, orange and yellow crawling along in mesmerizing patterns. The lights themselves of course don’t move; it’s the alternation of “on”/”off” modes that each bulb has that gives the appearance of discrete colored lights which are “moving” across your line of vision but in reality everything is staying just where it is. (If this doesn’t make sense, this gif can give a similar example: http://www.smashingbuzz.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Creating-an-AJAX-Style-Animated-Loading-GIF.gif It looks like a rotation is occurring but in reality the bars are lighting up in a set pattern.) The hard part was, as much as I tried to focus on a single light in the display to perceive its alternations between “on” and “off,” I kept ending up watching what my eyes told me were the crawling lights from left to right.
“What if reality is like this?” I suddenly thought. “What if we are so used to seeing things one way that we find it almost impossible – unless through a laborious, conscious act – to try to change our perception, let alone maintain this alternate vision?” It occurred to me that reality indeed works in this way, our social, cultural, everyday reality where we operate with a million assumptions and givens and intersecting values that have developed over time to create a massive human way of seeing things. But it is just one way, if you think about it.
It’s hard to perceive our physical and social reality as we exist in it, of course, and I’m not a philosophy student (yet?). I’ve written about Althusser recently and his conception of how human subjects are interpellated into their social realities, but the concept of ontology itself (the study of being and reality) has concerned thinkers as far back as Aristotle and continues to preoccupy philosophical discourse today. My question is a simple one: How do we know that our perception of what surrounds us is “real” and that it is the only “reality” that we are capable of seeing? And is the way we’re built – physiologically as well as socioculturally – a fundamental block to our seeing things in a different way, meaning, a sort of learned myopia, perhaps in order to exist as physical beings as well as coexist in society?
Still confused? Me too. Here’s a final image to clarify what I mean just a bit more. The Checker Shadow Illusion is a classic example of how our eyes can tell us with total certainty that something is true when it’s not. Click on this link and compare squares A and B: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/60/Grey_square_optical_illusion.PNG/800px-Grey_square_optical_illusion.PNG. Your eyes should tell you that they are different shades of grey. Now click on this second link that demonstrates a proof that the squares are the same color: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Checker_shadow_illusion#mediaviewer/File:Same_color_illusion_proof2.png. Even if you go back to the first image, your eyes go back to the old way of seeing things, right? Pretty mind-blowing.
Now if we apply this to any number of deeply rooted sociocultural “realities” that surround us (think about what values we hold most dear about certain social groups, certain rites of passage, certain ways we see morally correct or incorrect behavior, certain national truths, etc.), we might start to get a very small glimpse into a loosening of the coils, so to speak, of the assumptions of reality. This gets into pretty out-there territory, I’ll admit…but then, why not consider what’s nearly impossible in a time of such great cynicism? The potential of civic imagination, where citizens employ creative thinking to explore problems in society, certainly invites us to redefine the terms of reality in order to make change. Rather than accepting what we see as the only option, we can step into this reality – one of millions, in fact – and become agents in its alteration.