The Ideology of Focus

Emerson's transparent eye, seeing without seer.

Focus, we assume, is a good thing. It is the stuff of the driven, the smart, the aware. We laud it without thinking. Focus! we snap at our kids as they daydream, play with a stray cheerio, babble on about aliens. Often, as we ready and rush for school at some godawful hour of the morning, I'll find my 10 year old son half naked in his room, one pant leg creeping up his calf as he plays with a freshly constructed Lego concoction, Vroom vroom.....bckshssssss....boom. Inevitably, I let the door fly and bark: Focus, dude, focus. 

The assumption of focus pervades. We believe focus is a natural movement of the eye, the lens bending to account for the difference in distance of objects and light. It defines our cameras which proudly offer autofocus. And not only will the camera focus automatically, it will automatically focus on faces.

Focus, like all things, is ideological. It necessitates that one thing be clear, be the center, while the rest blur into periphery. Why do digital cameras focus on faces? Sure, it's what most people photograph. But such is the way of focus: it keeps certain things fixed in view to the detriment of everything else. We privilege faces, the human. This is the very ideology that has lead to the decimation of the planet, the tyranny of the ego. The seemingly innocuous, even useful, autofocus on faces is destroying life itself.

But focus is not just ideological. It enacts the very ideology of ideology. Ideology is the demand of certain elements over others, a focus on this or that thing and the marginalization of other things. Focus, which we ideologically assume to be biological, enacts the hierarchy of a certain kind of knowledge and a certain mode of imperialist oppression.

Focus, for a moment, on your image of focus. The eye is the center to which the world comes, the center from which we observe. The world gathers itself to a point and radiates its energy, its very being, to a single point: the human eye, that conduit to the brain and its so-called intelligence. Or else our two eyes conspire together, like marksmen, to zero in on their target.

Inbound focus
Our image of in focus is a pyramid, a hierarchy. (That's an eye, not a fish.)

Outbound focus
Our two eyes conspire, like marksmen, to zero in on their target and bring into the fold.

We believe focus is so elemental that we find it difficult to imagine not focusing. I remember the first time I saw Andreas Gursky's photographs. I couldn't put my finger on what was so strange about them. And then I realized: there is no focal point. They are not pictures of per se — not pictures of people (portraits) or nature (landscapes). They sprawl, often infinitely in all directions.

What a strange image of a soccer game! Where is the focus? Where is the center?

At some point, absolute focus — focus without center — becomes blur.

Focus is constitutive of humanist ideology that imagines humans at the center of the world, our emotional lives essential, our dominion supreme. This logic of focus — this demand of focus — defines our sense of story. Hollywood (almost) always gives us one figure we that is at the center around which everything else revolves. We focus on Nemo and his terrible plight (he's lost, it seems, and must be found). But then think of Loony Tunes. There is no focal point, no center. It's all in focus at the same time that it's all a blur of motion and mayhem. Which is to say, in Loony Tunes, we don't focus on any one element: we see it all happening, a blur of action. 

This is what we call empiricism: seeing it all, letting it all happen. What we usually do is come to the scene already focused. We see the face, we follow the ball, we root for Nemo. But there are other ways to see.

We can see without focus. This is where the scientist and the mystic meet. At their best, they come to the world unfocused, their eyes not zeroing in. On the contrary, their eyes go wide, go panorama, to take it all in. They resist focusing, resist putting any one thing at the center. A crappy scientist comes to his experiment, comes to the world, already knowing what's going to happen. He comes to the world with focus. The best scientist lets his eyes go slack, yet clear, to see what focus cannot.

And so I imagine a different architecture of vision, one not premised on hierarchy, pyramid, target, one not predicated on focus.  I come back to Emerson's transparent eyeball, an eye that is not the tool of the seer, an eye that is seeing, an eye that is not the center point but moves amidst the endless teem and flow of all things. Forget the seer who stands still to train his eye on his object. See the eye that is transparent, the world moving through it as it takes in the world as part of the world. 

The eye is not the center. Nor does it focus. It moves amidst the fray, part of the fray.


dustygravel said...

Ideology and desire are not separate. There is no secret desire which ideology seeks to suppress only desire in conflict with desires. A critique of ideology "as such" is a contradiction, because it negates the Meta level which it assumes ideology 'falsely' comes from. Either ideology comes from lived desires or there is a transcendent source from which it comes. Conversely desire its self could be said to be transcendent because it seeks to actualize the dream, or the virtual possibilities of reality.

I agree that 'focus' is ideological because it is directed by desire. This, as you know, is called intentionality, and isn't necessarily subconscious. A stated goal can itself be a distraction from the bigger picture. Intentionality isn't the same as desire, it’s the way desire limits, and sharpens our perceptions. This is why Buddhists practice detachment. The idea behind meditation is that if you sit long enough with your desires you will eventually realize you don't need to fulfill them. This in turn makes you see things that are not directly related to your desires, but it doesn't dissolve intentionality completely. Intentionality makes thought and action possible. This might sound like I’m saying that intentionality traps us in our perceptions, I’m not. We shift our perceptions every time we change which task we are doing, intentionality is what allows us to do this.

Deleuze differs from the Buddha in that he encourages us to cultivate our desires. In a thousand plateaus, Deleuze writes about the empty Body without Organs, I think this is the same thing Vajrayana Buddhists call the "the diamond body," a bodily state free of desire. Deleuze instead prescribes a state he calls the Full Body without Organs.
There are two characteristics that define the Full Body without Organs: 1) no one desire is thought to be a stand in for another, as in the sublimated desire, and 2) the desire is self-fulfilling. Deleuze gives us two examples of a full B(w)O; 1) the masochist who enjoys his suffering, for the perverts, and 2) a lover obsessed with the mere thought of their lover, as in courtly love, for the prods. Both examples problematize Freud’s notion of sublimation because the object of desire does not require consummation, nor is it a stand in for consummation. The full B(w)O also provide us with a new conception of desire which opens new possibilities for discovery, because these desires open up to a multiplicity of subtlest experiences.

Ideology is thought to be a human construct, which means that humans create it out of nothing and then force it fascistically on reality, but ideas don’t come from nowhere much less the human soul, they are part of the natural world, that is not to say they are good, there are good ideas and there are bad ideas.

I recently read an article by Syreeta Mcfadden called ‘Teaching the Camera To See My Skin’, in it, she quotes Godard calling Kodak's film stock racist, because it couldn’t see dark skinned people.Can a film stock have desire or intention? Can it be focused on the wrong thing? Is Anti-ideology fascist? These are questions for an emerging world, where imminence isn't reduced to vulgar materialism, dialectical or otherwise.

Teaching the Camera To See My Skin, by Syreeta Mcfadden:

Donald said...

Another way to subvert focus is to approach the world the way some autistic people do, allow the hyper focus to roam wherever it wants, spending a few seconds or minutes here, then there, free from always elevating the human drama above everything else.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Dusty: I don't think desire and ideology are the same. Ideology is the organization of desires, a distribution of desires. Yes, there is no desire that's not ideological and no ideology that is not an expression of desire. But I'm not sure that makes them the same.

That all said, I agree that a critique of ideology per se is silly as everything is necessarily ideological. My goal here was to operate the discursive level by shifting how we think, and use, this word focus. It's one move within what might be a more elaborate critique of claims to the natural.

And I think, yes, film has desire and expresses ideology; or film has desire run through it, like all technology (from sticks to words to computers, etc). I look forward to reading that essay. Thanks, as always, for that and for making me think.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Donald: I love love love this. I think you touch on something great here — all those so called pathologies we have today — autism, ADHD, dyslexia. My kid is dyslexic, mildly, and it is incredible to watch the way he thinks, the way he sees, his sense of focus and vision. It is so so different than mine. I believe what we tend to consider pathologies are desires & alternate ideologies of seeing. Thanks so much for this; it's sent me down a whole train(s) of thought.

Donald said...

Thrilled at the reaction. For once my highly distractable nature had me ON point, instead of missing it. (I can't wait to show this to my wife.)

For lively interactions with a bunch of schmoes like me, come to PEL's Facebook group where we hyper focus on a dozen new topics every day.

Cormac Power said...

I like this piece, and the example of the digital camera is great! The Stoics also wrestled with this question of focus, albeit in thier own terms. In Marcus Aurelius for instance we see a kind of zooming-in and zooming-out effect; at one moment he will focus on the minutiae of a freshly baked loaf of bread, at another moment he imagines looking down on the world from space and seeing the smallness of human works and existences. There is an attempt to break up normative egoic perception with different modes of focus, to break up habitual preceotion and to try and make one's perception co-existent with the unfolding cosmos. Here "focusing" brings together both physics and ehtics.