Winter 2000–2001

Trickster Eye

Some thoughts on ocular prostheses

Frances Richard

Naomi Ben-Shahar, Fragmented Photo 1, 2000.

Grandiosity and depression are inversions of each other. Fantasies of extraordinary potency and sensations of nagging lack are linked phenomena in the psyche, an­d so it follows that a similar polarity might arise in the somatic imagination, between extra-sensory ability and sensory wounding. In this light, consider the glass eye. Or rather, the artificial eye, for contemporary versions are rarely made of glass. Merging intimate bodily function with highly artificial fabrication; representing both use-value and decoration; versions of which have been made for thousands of­ years although science continues to experiment with radical technologies: the ocular prosthesis, obviously, originates in response to injury. Its presence denotes an irreparable damage to the sense most privileged in Western phenomeno- logical tradition. But as a screen or decoy for lost sight, the unseeing, removable eye becomes a node around which paradoxical ideas about vision crystallize.

A false eye is not prosthetic in the way a wooden leg is—it cannot replace lost function. That is, it cannot replace it for the wearer. A false eye does remedy harm done to vision, but it is other people’s vision of the wearer that gets corrected. The appearance of the world is not preserved for the one whose sight has been impaired, but that person’s appearance is restored in the eyes of the world. And so on. Contemporary ophthalmic prosthetics achieve a high degree of naturalistic illusion, so much so that “after” photos in the brochures of ocularists are themselves rebuses for tricks played by appearance. Following the circular narrative of these medical information sites[1] (which look as much as is professionally seemly like ads for contact lenses—those transparent, innocently functional cousins of the false eye) we understand that a wound to vision can be made invisible, and furthermore, that we are looking at a picture offering visual proof of that invisibility.

Such shimmering oscillations in meaning are the bailiwick of cultural tricksters, and they seem endemic to thoughts about the disembodied or unseeing eye. Vision/blindness, body/object, concealment/display: the false eye is trompe l’oeil to the nth degree, a profound cosmetic, a meta-corporeal trick. Of course, to the person using one, the prosthesis is a fact of life, not a critico- cultural bibelot. But in navigating trauma and reconstruction, in learning to compensate for lost binocular vision and depth perception, and to carry off the artificial as natural, perhaps the wearer[2] becomes as much a trickster—a player in the realm of interpretation, appearance, and desire— as the ocularist who moulds, fits, and paints the eye.

Coyote was going along and as he came over the brow of a hill he saw a man taking his eyes out of his head and throwing them up into a cottonwood tree. There they would hang until he cried out “Eyes come back!” Then his eyes would return to his head. Coyote wanted very much to learn this trick and begged and begged until the man taught him. “But be careful, Coyote,” the man said. “Don’t do this more than four times in one day.” “Of course not. Why would I do that?” said Coyote.

When the man left, Coyote took his eyes out and threw them into the cottonwood tree. He could see for miles then, see over the low hills, see where the stream went, see the shape of things. When he had done this four times, he thought, “That man’s rule is made for his country. I don’t think it applies here. This is my country.” For a fifth time he threw his eyes into the tree and for a fifth time he cried “Eyes come back!” But they didn’t come back. Poor Coyote stumbled about the grove, bumping into trees and crying. He couldn’t think what to do, and lay down to sleep. Before too long, some mice came by and, thinking Coyote was dead, began to clip his hair to make a nest. Feeling the mice at work, Coyote let his mouth hang open until he caught one by the tail.

“Look up in that tree, Brother Mouse,” said Coyote, talking from the side of his mouth. “Do you see my eyes up there?” “Yes,” said the mouse. “They are all swollen from the sun. They’re oozing a little. Flies have gathered on them.” The mouse offered to retrieve the eyes, but Coyote didn’t trust him. “Give me one of your eyes,” he said. The mouse did so, and Coyote put the little black ball into the back of his eye socket. He could see a little now, but had to hold his head at an odd angle to keep the eye in place. He stumbled from the cotton- wood grove and came upon Buffalo Bull. “What’s the matter, Coyote?” asked the Bull. The Buffalo took pity on him when he heard the story, and offered one of his own eyes. Coyote took it and squeezed it into his left eye socket. Part of it hung out. It bent him down to one side. Thus he went on his way.[3]

As told by mythographer Lewis Hyde, this Navajo story contains both the promise of fantastic sight and the trauma of ocular injury. Removable eyes, injured eyes, and prosthetic eyes all appear here. Such tales, according to Hyde, are meant to be funny. But they are also “a kind of medicine. ’Eye-juggler’ is not just a critique of Coyote’s egotism; its telling plays a role in any healing ritual intended to cure diseases of the eye...As entertainment, the story stirs up a fantasy of amusing disorder; as medicine, it knits things together again after disorder has left a wound.”[4]

The ethereal medicine of storytelling administers itself via imagination, and the artificial eye is an imaginative object twice over. On some level, all prostheses require the “as if” belief that enlivens surrogates, but—as Elaine Scarry describes—vision is uniquely linked to imaginative powers. Imagination, like the replacement eye, intrudes upon the body’s borders, because through vision

one seems to become disembodied, either because one seems to have been transported hundreds of feet beyond the edges of the body out into the external world, or instead because the images of objects from the external world have themselves been carried into the interior of the body as perceptual content, and seem to reside there, displacing the dense matter of the body itself.[5]

In the surrogate eye, the line between “perceptual content” and material existence blurs. Thus Coyote can “see the shape of things” only because he has scattered himself, disarranged his perception by dissolving his bodily borders. Because he is a trickster, he recuperates some vision, although his own matter remains displaced. Absence is not erased, but an image/object from the external world is brought to reside within it. The wound is decorated, filled, adjusted, soothed.

This basic craving to imagine ways of “knitting together” and embellishing the bandage has generated millennia of ocular disassembly-and-replacement. As early as the fifth century b.c., Egyptian and Roman physicians devised painted clay plaques to be worn on a string over the closed eyelid; ancient prostheses were also made in gold and colored enamel. By the sixteenth century, they were made of Venetian glass, and by the eighteenth, Bohemian glassblowers had established dynastic monopolies that remain palpable in the industry to this day. Immigrant German artisans brought their craft to the US in the 1850s, founding firms like Mager & Gougelmann and Richard Danz, Inc., which still operate in New York City. Established on Van Dam Street in 1851, Peter Gougelmann touted himself as the first American ocularist to fabricate custom prostheses rather than fitting his patients with “stock eyes” from drawers organized by color and size. Peter’s great-grandson Andrew Gougelmann now manages the business in partnership with siblings David and Laura, all of whom learned their craft from their father Henry, who was taught by his father Pierre.

Stock or custom, nineteenth-century glass eyes required considerable skill to make—and to use. They were full orbs, hollow, and so fragile that they were known to implode if the wearer progressed too quickly from hot rooms to freezing weather. (And yet: what other body part could conceivably be substituted in glass?) It was not until after W.W. II, when German exports were either unavailable or under boycott, that American and British army researchers developed acrylic eyes.[6]

In terms of durability, acrylic represented a great leap forward. But the essential design concept has not changed since the 1890s: artificial eyes consist of a two-part system, globe and shell.[7] A globe fills the socket; a shell covers the globe’s surface. The shell signifies importantly, but has no physiological impact. Globes, however, are medically necessary. An empty socket causes facial muscles to sag, and the patient often suffers from headaches; eyelashes can become ingrown, and the tear ducts, which lubricate the conjunctiva tissue of the eye region, may atrophy. There are two ways of introducing a globe into the body. In the more radical procedure, called enucleation, the eyeball is entirely removed. If the sclera (or white of the eye) is relatively undamaged, the eyeball may be left but hollowed out, with the implant inserted inside the slip-case of natural tissue. This is called evisceration, and its advantage is that ocular muscles remain attached to the sclera, allowing the artificial eye to move naturally in the socket. To achieve similar range of motion for enucleated patients, the surgeon must attach the muscles to the implant. Shells can also be attached with titanium pegs to the conjunctiva tissue, which allows even more naturalistic eyeball control. The pupil and iris, of course, can only “move” in the manner observed in all painted portrait eyes.

Ophthalmic surgeons perform the enucleation or evisceration, but the ocularist exclusively makes shells. As Andrew Gougelmann explains, patients arrive in his office perhaps one month after surgery. Gougelmann takes an impression of the socket with a malleable “alginate material,” and fashions a trial eye. Using this model in a positive/positive casting process, he forms the prosthesis in methacrylic resin; on subsequent visits the “blank” is tried, fitted, and polished. Finally the patient sits to have his or her iris and pupil painted from life. What makes a convincing eye? Attention to average pupil dilation, sunbursts or striations in the iris, odd flecks of color, reflection patterns, and the sclera’s distinctive tint (yellow, pink, blue, or green). Strands of red silk are laid into the surface to represent the patient’s individual veining pattern, and the whole is lacquered to achieve a translucent “wet look.”

Photo Frank Oudeman, 2000.

Maintenance is low, and the patient is encouraged to “forget it’s there.” Shells must be removed for cleaning and re- polishing twice a year, and the National Examining Board of Ocularists recommends a new one approximately every five years—though some patients have made shopping for ocular parts a more frequent pastime. Gougelmann has filled orders for multiple prostheses in assorted colors; he once fixed a cubic zirconium into a false iris, to make it sparkle. (“I thought it looked weird. Not that natural.”) He has made smiley-face and 8-ball shells; one man, after a golfing accident, requested a golf-ball eye, presumably not for everyday wear. (“Had the Titleist logo across the center and everything.”)

These exuberant people, like Coyote, are enjoying trickster opportunities. In their play between impairment and exaggeration, they occupy a boundary-zone between shock and revelation, a trickster-realm in which imaginative transgressions lead to creative progress. The art these people make of their misfortunes might be called “abstract” in relation to the “realist” work preferred by patients with mimetic shells. But in both instances the wearer—collaborating with the ocularist—enacts an elaborate ruse. Swapping his or her organic-but-dead eye with a nonsentient- but-dynamic piece of plastic, the user activates a potent little sculpture, a sort of fake readymade signifying visuality and resemblance.

A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else...Thus semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.[8]

False eyes “tell” about vision in a way normal eyes cannot; their woundedness and artificiality become necessary conditions for understanding what it means to see. Usually such telling circulates metaphorically, in a familiar panoply of literary and pop-culture tropes. There is the blind sage, possessor of inner visions, whose avatars range from Sophocles’s Tiresias in Oedipus Rex to Stevie Wonder. There are Cyclopes, yogis with third eye-consciousness, the All-Seeing Eye of God on dollar bills. Coyote’s magic eye reappears frequently—in cartoons, for example, when the character’s eyes zoom out on strings of muscle, to demonstrate how far ahead of reality his lust takes him—or in The Terminator, where the invincible Schwarzenegger calmly sits down with an Xacto-knife to eject, repair, and reinsert his own palpitating organ. All virtual vision technologies—from infrared scopes and surveillance apparatus to magnetic resonance imaging and x-rays—are metaphoric eyes, as are more mundane inventions like mirrors, eyeglasses, and of course, cameras. In each of these, however, the split between sensory ability and extrasensory insight is mediated by immateriality. Oedipus and Tiresias have the Delphic Oracle to clue them in; Stevie Wonder expresses vision musically. The Terminator perceives via computer.

But the prosthetic eye remains particular in its overwhelming, simple materiality. It is not a metaphor—semiotic agility notwithstanding, its relationship to the seeing individual is absolutely direct and literal. It is not a story or a machine, but a solid object, a chip of the exterior world brought into and housed by the body. Because it is opaque—because the brain cannot look through it—the false eye becomes a lens traversed exclusively by the imagination. In this sense, it manifests an essential aspect of creativity: a sensualizing of the inorganic.

Thus, the reversal of inside and outside surfaces ultimately suggests that by transporting the external object world into the sentient interior, that interior gains some small share of the blissful immunity of inert, inanimate objecthood; and conversely, by transporting pain out onto the external world, that external environment is deprived of its immunity to, its unmindfulness of, and indifference to the problems of sentience... It is part of the work of creating to deprive the external world of the privilege of being inanimate.[9]

When the power of imagination incorporates and sees through the artificial eye, the scary/delicious implication—common, probably, to all prosthetic situations—is that flesh has achieved symbiosis with inanimate stuff. The body is made deathless through a fantasy of union, an omnivorous engagement with the universe of matter. I am glass, I am plastic, I am metal, I am wood, I am electricity: I am endless, boundless, incalculable, one. And “what happens after this plenitude, this ’chaotic Everything,’ appears?” Only discernment, interpretation, insight—the trickster’s gifts—can make sense of such promiscuous possibility. “The revelation of plenitude calls for a revelation of mind.”[10]­­

  1. See, an all-purpose information site for the industry.
  2. The firm of Mager & Gougelmann list in their promotional literature “a few prominent patients”: Alfred I. DuPont, Jay Vanderbilt, Joseph Pulitzer, Hellen Keller, Paul Muni, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Falk, Hume Cronyn, Senator Thomas Gore, and Jose Feliciano.
  3. Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), pp. 3–4
  4. Ibid., p. 12
  5. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 165.
  6. Due in part to the power of the glassmakers’ lobby, glass prostheses are still made in Germany.
  7. State-of-the-art eye-replacement includes something called the “Bio-Eye”—an implant made of hydroxyapatite, a mineral derived from coral whose chemical structure mimics that of human bone—and experiments with electronic sight. Researchers at Johns Hopkins opine that such “retinal prostheses” or “intraocular chips” may become available by the numerologically appropriate year 2020.
  8. Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, quoted in Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, p. 60. Italics are Hyde’s.
  9. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, p. 285. Italics in the original.
  10. Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, p. 295.

Frances Richard is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. She is a frequent contributor to Artforum and the non-ficiton editor of the literary journal Fence.

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