Notes on Failures of Vision




Author’s Photograph, Dirty Window Viewed from my Bedroom, Levenshulme, November 2015



Scotoma and PVD

I woke up on a Tuesday morning in February 2011 with a growing visual blank patch in my right eye[i]. The preceding night I’d also experienced flashes of light in the same eye prior to going to sleep and my wife and I became concerned that I might go blind on one side. By the time I saw the doctor later that day, at Manchester Eye Hospital, the scotoma (to use its medical name) had begun to recede. He dilated my pupils with Atropine and, after a prolonged examination, informed us that a migraine[ii] had caused the scotoma. The drug worked by relaxing the focusing muscles of my eye, and also led to me experiencing sensitivity to light and blurred vision- the edges of all objects, such as buildings, overlapped with those of others and my visual field was extremely out of focus. The Doctor informed us that the eye flashes, on the other hand, were caused by posterior vitreous detachment (PVD) and that around fifty percent of the population aged forty or above have this disorder, due to age related degeneration of the eye.

In a less dramatic fashion, eye floaters in my field of vision remind me on a daily basis that the images I perceive are embodied (and this includes my perception of paintings, photographs, films, texts and the world at large). The floaters tend to come into consciousness on bright days, or when looking at large fields of light tones- such as those of an overcast sky or an expanse of snow.  I used to be frustrated by the sudden appearance of these spots, threads, or fragments of ‘cobwebs’, which float within my eyes. They are generally dark but, very occasionally, can be clear. Either way, the floaters are never a ‘nothing’ in the way that the migrainous scotoma was. I perceive them as an active presence that obscures my ‘ideal’ vision, rather than as a series of omissions of vision.



R.L. Gregory (1998) explains that,

“It might be said that whenever we look from the central fovea towards the periphery we travel back in evolutionary time- from the most highly organised structure in nature to a primitive eye barely capable of detecting movements. . . .” [iii]

I’m myopic, so what about the fringes of my vision when I’m wearing glasses? How important is the difference between centre and periphery when I’m not wearing glasses and all of my visual field is blurred and indistinct? It is apparent to me that Gregory’s comment on the ‘primitive eye’ lends credence to my experience of my attachment to the world of blur, what Bryson (1990) describes as an emotionally warm quality due to the fuzziness of edges[iv]. I’m beginning to wonder what painting and drawing would be like if I didn’t wear my glasses. Would this conversely result in work, which, like the ruined camera, fulfils the conceptual aspects of my research on ruination through its use of disorder, or would it lead to ‘illustrative’, rule-bound work? It seems that, in some sense, I am already carrying out this out by using my finger to paint with. The prioritising of tactile sensations seems to have overridden my visual senses, at least during the production of paintings based on ruination of the space under the bridge on Crescent Road in Levenshulme[v], and hence access a more ‘primitive’ sense.


Vision and Ruination

The three different kinds of failures of my visual apparatus: scotoma, floaters and blur, due to short sight have links to ruination in their ability to draw attention to the shift to a material disorder leading to the collapse of the ideal. Migraine as visual neurological disorder causes not only visual but also muscular, vascular and other neurological forms of disorder. Like many of the forms of ruination observed in the area of East Manchester it can be caused by aspects of the variable local climate, particularly to the passage of low pressure systems. The photograph at the top of the page exemplifies the visual disorder I have observed in the form of dirty windows and distorted reflections and seem to me to be pictorial equivalents for my embodied experiences of optical and neurological ruination.

The academic Peter Schwenger (2006) use the work of  theorists such as Maurice Merleau Ponty, Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva to discuss thoughts on the nature of vision, painting and language to allow for full possession by the subject of the object.[vi]



[i] I explained to my wife that this emptiness wasn’t black or white or grey nothingness but was, instead, an absence of anything; rather like looking at a clear lump of ice with nothing behind it. Except that didn’t quite explain it, because there’s too much materiality attached to the iceness of the ice. I later read James Elkins description of black lake ice “You see into it as if into a thick deep darkness: you do not see a black surface like the wall of a room at night, but a placewhere light becomes weak, where it loses energy , slowas, and diesin some viscous depth.” This has made me consider the nature of the absence: it is something internally generated as a response to external stressors, rather than from a direct external, light based source. It stresses the way in which vision is as much about the brain and mind processing information on a material and perceptual level, as it is about a direct encounter with the world.

Elkins, J. (2011) “What Photography is”. Routledge: London p.19

[ii] Hystvedt, S.  (2013) “Living, Thinking, Looking” Sceptre: London

[iii] Gregory R.L. (1998) “Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing” 5th edn Oxford

University Press: Oxford p.55

[iv] Bryson, N. (1990) “Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting”. Reaktion: London

[v] The notion of optical, haptic and tactile are described by

Deleuze, G. (1981/2005) Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Continuum: London pp. 108-9

[vi] Schwenger, P. (2006) The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects.

University of Minnesota Press: London



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