The Way the Eye Works – Carol Shillibeer

Sharp crease in a grey trouser leg, no cuff, polished black shoe, no lace, stepping over my splayed left leg. That’s the first thing I saw when I came back to consciousness. Then other feet. High heels. A woman probably. Blue, short-heeled, open-toed, scuffed, rhinestone straps. I sat up. Checked for injury. Just a small scrape on one knee. Good. Palms pressing against the concrete sidewalk, I levered myself up, moved a few feet to make sure I could. I leaned, up against the corner light-post, waiting for stability.

I headed for the hotel’s tea room at the far edge of Museum Square. The light over the museum’s front wall told me it wasn’t too late. China pots, lemon, scones and sweet cream. And after, the academic library. After an unplanned absence, I usually needed to calm, to feel civilized, and this tea/museum/read routine always helped.

Naming as I went along: ginko, Japanese maple, cucumbertree magnolia; red stiletto, blue pump, oxblood loafer. By this strategy I reached the tea room, and after a begged tea, the library.

Down the spiral metal stairs, by the books in Latin, a woman behind the desk smiled at me.

Back again Mary?
I blinked at her. Yellow sweater, pearl buttons. Pearl earrings. Short grey hair. My name is not Mary and I couldn’t remember seeing her before, but I didn’t say anything. There couldn’t be too many 16-year-old girls with cogito ergo nihilo tattooed on their necks, so she wasn’t mistaking me for someone else.

Are you OK?

I turned; stood facing the glass-walled reading room. I could see tables and chairs. Oak, white. Quercus, album. Pine, yellow. Pinea, flavi. Bookshelves: metal, grey. Libris- capsa (capsa? ioculamentum? I should check that): ferrum cinereo.

At my lack of response, she lost her smile but gestured inside.
I picked up two order slips and went in.
I’m researching the question of invisibility. There are many kinds. Latin, for example. Almost no one knows what it means and yet it is everywhere. So is it visible or not? What is a clear case of invisibility? That’s my basic research question.

So far, the data set accumulated from my own periodic (unplanned) absences is that invisibility stems, at root, from the tendency of human systems to deal with the magnificent weight of sensory data by grouping it and treating blocks of information as if it were one item. The eye, for example, is a categorizing machine that limits all possible electro-magnetic radiation to “the visible spectrum”.

In other words, the eye sees by rendering much of the world invisible.

The light in this reading room, for example, the ultraviolet present, the infra-red, all of it I couldn’t see. Only a small range, useful to the species in pursuit of its interests, of radiation is detectable.

Yellow sweater with pearl buttons came back. She placed 2 books on the table near my elbow and handed me some tissues, pointed to my knee. There was a little blood oozing.

We close in two hours Mary.

She went back to her desk. I could see her back as she picked up her pen and sat down. Duo. Duae. Hora. Horae. Scriptum. Scripta.

I pulled the books up against my body. They were that dark green of institutional texts. Hard-bound. Warm. Linen under fingertips. I knew there would be smooth paper inside on which images of the eye and light’s spectrum would gleam.

Having reduced the world of radiation into a much smaller problem, one of categorical discernment, the visual system (the eye, the optic nerve, optic chiasma, pulvinar, lateral genticulate body, superior colliculas, oculomotor, trochlar, abducent nerves, the primary visual and prestriate cortex) categorizes even further by sampling from the visible spectrum and using the cortex to create likely links between small points of data.

All without awareness. All in the dark of the under-mind.
The other points of data are absent. They are all there, but invisible to us. Names are categories. Names make some things invisible. Nomina. Videre invisibilem. Non videre invisibilem. Naming trees as a practice, that was my first case- study in this research. I saw them much more clearly once I knew something about them, and yet I do wonder what went missing because of that.

One hour and thirty-five minutes left. I opened the first book, smoothed the page, read.

Climbing out at closing, the sky’s deep blue of evening stuttered down on the shoes pounding toward home. I sat down at the corner where the library wall met the closed doors of the adjacent museum. Checking to see if my sleeping bag was still there, I stuck my arm through the gap in the box elder hedge. There was just enough room between the wall and the hedge for me to sleep, if I stayed on my side.

I pulled my arm free and waited for full dark and the shoes to diminish.
What I didn’t know: if I would wake up where I went to sleep.
Brown? leather lace-ups. Black? thigh-high boots. Runners. More runners slapping concrete in a group. Two pairs of ballet slippers. Could have been pink, but it was getting too dark to tell.

What I do know: as a system sensory and categorical invisibility works for the species as a whole. There is too much data in the world, too much to perceive with the limited equipment we have. And given that any limited species will make use of what it already has, instead of creating something brand new, it isn’t a surprise that the same system of strategic invisibility created in the use of our perceptual systems is also used by social systems to make some people invisible.

Too many people to deal with? Make some invisible. I climbed in behind the hedge.

Carol Shillibeer lives on the west coast of Canada. You can find her at

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