For somebody who has been doing an exercise on perception with her college freshmen every semester for the last ten or so years, I have to admit to being slow on the uptake. In his essay, “The Loss of the Creature,” Walker Percy argues that we never really see things the way they really are because we have these other things that get in the way—ideas that society gives us or that our previous experiences of similar things give us. Like the tinted gels that theaters use to cast red or blue or yellow light on the actors, these lenses color our perception of what we are looking at so that we see the color more than we see the thing. But sometimes, as with theater, if you combine all three colors, you get clean white light and can see clearly. Knowing that the lenses are there is what enables you to use them to get around the problem.
Something like this is at work when we see optical illusions, such as the duck/rabbit or an M.C. Escher print. Our friend Wikipedia explains it this way:
“To make sense of the world it is necessary to organize incoming sensations into information which is meaningful….The brain has a need to see familiar simple objects and has a tendency to create a ‘whole’ image from individual elements….[I]n order to survive it was important to see form and edges. The use of perceptual organization to create meaning out of stimuli is the principle behind other well-known illusions including impossible objects. Our brain makes sense of shapes and symbols putting them together like a jigsaw puzzle, formulating that which isn’t there to that which is believable.” (“Optical”)
So we see either what we already recognize, or what we are afraid might be hiding in wait because we have the word PREY stamped on our forehead in animal language. Or perhaps we see both at the same time; we just accept the former thing and reject the latter thing and hope desperately, and maybe unconsciously, for the best. So if I grow up in a world where the only identity visible to me is straight, that is all I am going to see. And later, when other identities become increasingly visible, but carry a stigma, I am going to stick with my familiar identity.
Then too, I remember in grad school twenty-odd years ago, when one of my male friends was taking a class on censorship and decided to write his paper on pornography (a multi-tasker, that boy). He went out and bought research materials of the soft and hard variety and, with me in mind, included a Playgirl, since he knew I had very little research experience in that area myself. The thing is, it was the end of the month, and a female friend also bought an issue with me in mind (although she intended to keep it after lending it to me; also a multi-tasker)—but hers was from the previous month and his was from the coming month, so I had two issues to compare.
My physical reaction to the sight of naked men was immediate and unmistakable, and very different from the lack of reaction I had to his soft examples on the one hand and the outright disgust I experienced looking at the hard examples on the other. People, and men in particular, can be pretty darn sick, quite frankly. But what I mostly recall feeling was relief. I had spent the previous few years writing a lot of poetry for female friends in high school and college, and although I don’t remember consciously questioning myself before this moment, the relief I felt suggests I may have had some doubts about just how straight I was.
I remember thinking often that I loved men’s bodies and women’s minds. Well, that at least hasn’t changed. It’s just that now I recognize that there may be more inside me than I had previously thought.
“Recognize [from Latin re + cognoscere to know] 1: to acknowledge something formally, as a. to admit as being of a particular status b. to admit as being one entitled to be heard 2: To acknowledge the de facto existence of as a. to acknowledge with a show of appreciation 3:a. to perceive something or someone previously known.” (“Recognize”)
“Optical Illusion.” Wikipedia. 7 Mar. 2016. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
“Recognize.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictonary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003. 1039.