If you look at a child’s depiction of a person, the head is – more often than not – prevalent. And in the centre of the face, are the two eyes. Children are fast learners; they pay attention when their parents pass on important knowledge about life and the world. Eyes and visuality has prevailed in ’Western’ culture: I see, therefore I am, Descartes’ famous existential dictum could be rephrased.
Take these marvellous binoculars. Bought by a Danish explorer in the 1940s, heading out for adventure. The object itself a worthy representative of Civilization. It was made in a top-notch factory in Europe on big, complicated machines. Undoubtedly a magical object for the native populations encountering the white man looking at the world through a power vision. It must have instilled respect, if not sheer fear, in those, who for the first time glimpsed at the world through this remarkable technology. Even for me, this technology, which almost magically brings the world closer to eye, is difficult to understand. But again, that’s how I think about – say – my car, computer, cell phone. Do not think too much about it – just use it, like everybody else, and do not think too much about it.
Perhaps not a typical example of artefacts in an ethnographic collection, these binoculars somehow come to represent the collector’s (often the Anthropologist’s) encounter with the people that he or she studies. Purchased (rather than collected) as a tool of the explorer in the 1940s for use in ‘less civilized’ cultures, they have a deep timbre of colonialism. Western Civilization observing the non-civilized. Or nature. Same thing, really. There is distance between the observer and the observed. The binoculars offer a strange kind of nullification of distance; bringing the observed closer to the observer. Or – that is at least the illusion, which the binoculars trigger.
So – what do we actually see, when we look at the world through binoculars? Our attention is certainly focused through vision. That is fascinating – sure. But is something lost on the high alter of vision? One could argue that other senses are pushed in the background. Imagine a device for bringing sound closer (oh, yes – that is invented already), or a device bringing emotions or even smells closer.
//Ulrik Høj Johnsen