An optical toy

Attributed to Alexandre Quinet and published in 1853, this drawing of names is titled Le Stéréoscope des enfants. Entangled in the puzzle of their own letters, the names are the names of optical toys: the polyorama panoptique (a magic lantern with fade-out and fade-in effects for changing the pictures without a break), the jeu pyrique (a simulated fireworks show that used colored projections), and, yes, the lorgnette enchantée through which you’re intended to look at and thereby solve the puzzle. You can also read about its pieces in the history of technology at (for instance), and they’re otherwise readable as primary texts in this anaglyph.

(Requires a red-and-blue stereo viewer.)

Seen in the anaglyph as they’re meant to be seen, with both eyes operating at full power, the terms exhibit themselves in a polyhedral cage.  Down the centuries, schools have trained us to think of encaging concepts like this one and the others that confine us in an as if mode: as if  we were free actually to see them in three dimensions. However, this bulletin from 1853 notifies us that thought has taken a small physical step closer to actual, non-metaphoric freedom. Empowered by optical illusion beginning circa 1853, the idea of a polyhedron became realizable elsewhere than in the mind’s eye. It began enforcing belief not by recourse to thought but by recourse to sight.

One human consequence is that the idea of polyhedron has been unmoored from the two-dimensional plane it once shared with text. Set afloat in three-dimensional space, it now orbits the mind that once seemed to hold it firmly down. Yearning to reunite itself with that escaped form circling it in the dark, mind now desires to know it in three dimensions as it once knew it in two: as immediately as an axiom. And now, too, such a change in the ways of contemplation seems possible. As from 1853, all the polyhedron will require to complete its metamorphosis from an object of mediated thought to an object of unmediated sight will be a momentary withdrawal into the dark. There in pure thought, unseen, the concept Polyhedron will be able to change. And at the end of that interval, to think of it again will be to see it for the first time in the round.

But the eye didn’t change in 1853. It has always been locked and held still within its own orbit, an orbit of bone, and there it has always resisted ceding even a moment of its sight to the idea of dark. Inside the eye, moment by moment, a muscular iris is at its work of holding constant the desire for what dims and rebrightens, only dims and rebrightens. The eye contemplates neither the dark idea of death nor the illuminated idea of rebirth but only changing light, unbeginning and unending. In the dark before the eye began to see was only the lightless terminal space of death. Seen within the blinking eye are only the flashlit heres and nows of life.

The image against the idea


Interviewer Thomas Vašek: You speak of a “metaphysical antisemitism” . . .

Donatella di Cesare, vice president of the Martin Heidegger Society and author of Heidegger e gli ebrei. I “Quaderni Neri” [Heidegger and the Jews: The “Black Notebooks”], forthcoming in English translation: [Heidegger] outlines a metaphysics of the Jew. That is, he doesn’t speak of specific Jews in their individual differences and he isn’t interested in the history of the Jewish people. Rather, he asks: What is the Jew? What is the nature of the Jew? And when he does that he falls back into metaphysics, against which he guards himself at all other times. That’s why I would speak of a metaphysical antisemitism.


Sources: “Heidegger-Enthüllung” [“Unmasking Heidegger”]. Hohe Luft 10 February 2015, Online.

The Warsaw Ghetto in Photographs: 206 Views Made in 1941. Ed. Ulrich Keller. New York: Dover, 1984.

Photographing the perfect

Detroit Publishing Company, “S. S. William G. Mather — stern view before launch.” Great Lakes Engineering Works, Ecorse, Michigan, October 1905. . Click to enlarge.

Rising through the black verticals of men’s upright bodies and the sheer of the William G. Mather’s side, your eye soars upward. At the top, a climax to the shape begun by the ship’s rudder, the ship’s stern executes a curve. The curve is a parabola, the arc traced by a body rising and then falling back on itself, but this rise reaches its limit only when it has passed out of the ship’s body and reached the sky.

On that day it was a lightly clouded, all but touchable sky. Far beneath it, legs spread wide and steady, a tripod held up a camera in which waited an 8-by-10-inch glass negative. Then the lens opened wide the camera’s rosewood box, and it poured in cloud and steel and flesh and light. It molded them there into the round of the image’s great dome. Ever since, it has been launching the dome back upward. 

As of 1905, that gesture in the light might have taught Ecorse to see itself as a universe made of tangible things — the camera’s glass and wood, the ship’s bronze and steel, the men’s bodies. In an embodied universe like that, in an Ecorse under its dome of light, you don’t look at the dome, passively. Instead, you watch it be. Changing through time as it lights the ship which is about to descend the ways and begin moving outward from Ecorse, the dome has a beginning and will have an end. In the old sense of the word, meaning “complete,” it is perfect.

Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.


But to look at Ecorse today is to look not outward but downward.

The Great Lakes Engineering Works went out of business in 1960, and if any trace of it remains, it isn’t visible from orbit. To Bing Maps (early in the disapearance) and Google Maps (later), the most prominent feature of Ecorse in 2012 is the bulldozed ruin of what was once a steel mill.

This full-color image, captured from space by a process unrealizable in 1905, depicts an economy which itself has been derealized. If any people were visible in this 21st-century Ecorse, they would be seen differently by the lens because their bodies would have a different relationship to the eye. They would have to be conceptualized eyelessly, with the mind alone, because they are now subjects of a bodiless economy. In an Ecorse without a Works, their exchanges with one another are governed not by anything with a heartbeat but by capital’s Platonic idea of buying and selling per se. Ecorse in 1905 became perfect for a single instant: the fraction of a second it took a shutter to open and fill a rosewood box with light. But Ecorse in 2012 is imperfect everywhere. Its economy is now only an exemplum of the idea of money operating at a distance, far from the light that once could complete a picture by localized duplication as it reflected itself upward from flowing water to completing dome.

Have the laws of perspective in this new economy been established yet?

Perhaps they will be. If and when they are, let’s spare a moment to remember Ecorse. By then, perhaps, we’ll be seeing upward toward the domed sky of a new Ecorse. That may help light our way out of the art of the long twentieth century.