What’s On Your Face?

60 percent of people wear glasses, yet we know so little about the lenses we look through

How do you see around a metaphor, instead of through it? It should be easy. But there are elements of the world that make truly neutral clear-sightedness difficult.

One of those elements is the human body itself. Consider my reliance on the physical in the previous sentences.

I am already relying on biological sight as a figure for all perception. Besides, when I hold my hand out in front of me and gaze upon its five marvelous fingers, am I looking at something, or am I in fact simply being, with two different parts of the same self? I’m as much my fingers as I am my eyeballs, even though they’re usually a couple feet away from one another.

Then again, if I lost both hand and eye, I would still be myself. So, where does that leave words like me, the world, and metaphor?
It leaves them more connected than they were when we found them.

Objects that muddle the distinction between the inside and the outside of our bodies are thrillingly confusing to contemplate. Consider the lens.

The lens makes up for deficiencies in our eyesight. It sits so close to our eyes, resting on our very noses, that it very literally defines the way 60 percent of our species see the world—or would if they had access to adequate eye care. (Lens manufacturers and the World Health Organization disagree on what “need” means when it comes to “needing glasses,” but conservative estimates say that 200 million people don’t have the specs they should.)

A lens is an optical device.

A lens is usually colorless. It is often used to clarify, by focusing light to a desired point. It can also be used to magnify. The word lens is Latin for lentil, a pulse with a biconvex shape. But a lens can also be plano convex, have a positive or negative meniscus, or be concave on one or both of its sides. A lens can be compound, in which case it is formed of many lenses.

The lens is an analytical metaphor.
We perceive a topic through a “lens” when we inflect our understanding with some particular valence.

At the end of last year, New York Times gender editor Jessica Bennett wrote in an extremely mixed visual metaphor that “the #MeToo moment has become something larger: a lens through which we view the world, a sense of blinders being taken off.” To clarify, blinders are little screens that horses wear to obstruct their peripheral vision, and here Bennet suggests that the horses are now wearing glasses.

This is a classic way to conclude an argument in writing. The author sets out a topic, then explains her interpretation, then concludes that, when we see x through the lens of y, it is clear that she is, of course, correct.

This is a rhetorical metaphor that frames the cultural critic as optometrist of the culture, gently setting a pair of glasses on the nose of the reader (or horse).
The lens is a figure for subjectivity itself.

I found a charming example of this in a commercial photographers’ newsletter. In one article, a photographer disagreed with another about whether a speaker at a meeting was interesting.

“When looking through each lens,” the writer observed, “the world looks a certain way, and the objects in the world are shaped, even transformed, by the unique differences of each lens.”

Each lens — and, in this case, the photographer really meant all the different lenses she carried around in her lens case — provides a different perspective. “I think you know where I am going with this analogy.”
I did indeed.

But how much do we, the ordinary people, know about lenses?
I asked my Twitter and Instagram followers to guess when they thought eyeglasses were invented. Forty-three responded.

(I don’t use the word “eyeglasses” myself — just as I don’t say “nearsighted” — but I understand it to be the American standard, as opposed to “glasses” and “shortsighted,” so that’s how I phrased my question.) By the same token, a large group of responses repeated to me a story about America.

Benjamin Franklin invented eyeglasses, four people suggested. Of those, two thought that he had developed the monocle into glasses as we know them.

Others knew that Franklin invented the bifocal, not the two-lens pair of spectacles, but could not help bringing him up.

Almost all respondents appended explanations and caveats to their guesses, each of which were equally charming. Many people suspected they were going to give a date that was far too recent and feared looking foolish.

One person wrote that she “began to type a response and then died of feeling too stupid.” Six respondents guessed that eyeglasses had their origins in the ancient world, specifically ancient Egypt, China, Greece, or Rome.

Two respondents specifically cited a story they remembered from their youth, which told of Nero holding up a shard of crystal to his eye — one person remembered it was an emerald — to see more clearly.

Of those “ancient world” guessers, many wrote that they thought Europeans had probably refined a technology discovered much longer ago by an uncredited population elsewhere in the world.

Four people mentioned the book and movie The Name of the Rose, which does correctly refer to the invention of eyeglasses — but most respondents who cited Umberto Eco’s fiction could not remember when it was set.

Twelve respondents made no comment, just guessed a random year, like 1427. A few people guessed that eyeglasses were invented in Germany. Only one respondent explicitly suggested that eyeglasses had perhaps been invented by different people at different times.

The century with the most popular vote for eyeglass invention was the 15th century, which is wrong. Six people gave roughly correct answers, and only a single person was bang-on correct. This person works at the eyewear company Warby Parker.

There is absolutely no shame in not knowing when glasses were invented. We know almost nothing about most of the objects we rely upon. How, say, does the thermostat on my wall so precisely regulate the heat coming out of the grates? I have no idea.

However, this gap in our vision — see how the lens proliferates metaphor like a vine creeping up a wall! — might have something to do with the nature of the lens itself.

We do not often consider the lens, I think, because we cannot see the lens. It is designed to disappear into our very sight, to conceal itself within the vision.

We cannot see around that which we see through.
And see what fills our imagination in the absence of the fact itself. My kind respondents provided a very accurate generalist knowledge about the history of many technologies.

Plenty of crucial things were invented in the 15th century, like the movable-type printing press. Much of our technical knowledge does derive from the ancient world, especially in the field of geometry, which is related to optics. China is indeed the originator of many technologies later claimed by Europeans, such as the compass, paper, and gunpowder.

That a very popular movie and a nationalist story about an old president got mixed in there makes perfect sense.
But let us look closer. In a series of essays — of which this is the first — I want to investigate what it means when we ignore the material history of an object that is so key to the way that we describe perception itself.

We use the lens to represent the impossible; to express the ineffable phenomena that exist in the interstice between the self and the world, that intangible thing which refracts sheer existence into the specialized experience of each of the world’s inhabitants.

The lens is overloaded, piled under all our feelings and confusions about what it means to be an individual in a shared universe.

There are academics who have investigated this question, as part of the field of history’s triple turn toward the senses, nonhuman materiality, and disability. But that research is hoarded, and it is not designed for you.

But this history matters, I think, because it holds inside it a special interplay of philosophy and science with lived experience, in the material histories of fashion, the material histories of medicine, and in the history of metaphor itself.

For the record, eyeglasses were invented in Italy in approximately 1296 CE. The Dominican theologian Giordano da Pisa made a speech on February 23, 1306, in which he reminded his flock that eyeglasses were not yet 20 years old.

Of course, that’s what historians call an “extrapolation,” rather than a material fact, but that’s the best we’ve got. They had sunglasses in China in the 12th century, but that’s a story for another day.