Briankle G. Chang reviews a fascinating account of the cultural significance of spectacles.

Stefana Sabin, In the Blink of An Eye: A Cultural History of Spectacles (Reaktion Books, 2021), 112pp.

The glasses are not literally glasses – Isaac Asimov

From Emperor Nero watching gladiator fights through the green gemstone to the pince-nez atop the nose of a miser depicted by Rembrandt in The Parable of the Rich Fool (1672), from Benjamin Franklin’s DIY bifocals to Marilyn Monroe’s cat-eye spectacles to those worn by Oprah Winfrey and Harry Potter, glasses are oft-overlooked heroes of our literate and visually oriented culture. Simple in design, but indispensable to the many who need them, glasses are not only personal seeing aides, but are also artefacts symbolic of the culture, in which reading words accurately is no less important than seeing things clearly. Ready to hand to those who are in need of them and adopted by many for reasons other than securing normal vision, glasses can be regarded as the medium of all media, a proto-medium that, standing between our eyeballs and the world, enables the former to touch the latter in desired clarity. So to “eyes made of beryl” we go for help, when our vision starts to fail. They work well, and, unlike our body, they don’t age.

A paired discs of polished glasses designed to stay put in front of our eyes, spectacles are prosthetic devices that work quietly in correcting or improving one’s declining eyesight. Like any good prosthesis, they supplement what the body could and should do but is, for various reasons, no longer capable of doing. An add-on to the body–like a cane to the blind man, for instance–glasses extend the eyes into the world by readjusting the input of light, thus helping the wearer to see clearly what would without them appear blurry. Transparent “small moons (lunettes),” eyeglasses are glass eyes. As such, they become like a part of our body, a part no more intrusive than the tiny stent placed in the veins of a heart patient. Indeed, sitting atop our nose, they stay so “remotely close” to the body, as Heidegger describes them, that those who have them on easily see through them. It is through them, through their transparent presence, that our marred vision is repaired – that is, made ready again by the see-through supplement that the lenses are.

But glasses are not merely corrective or protective supplements to the eyes compromised by age, overuse, or damage. More than a seeing aide, glasses are also signs of social gesture. Like the clothes and various accessories one puts on, eyewear is worn for the symbolic valence and value the wearer seeks to project. Chosen as much for their function as for their style, eyewear  makes a statement, to others as well as to oneself, especially when one has no need for them for better vision. Glass eyes see and are (to be) seen, showing and making shown more than meets the eye. They transform a veritable physical deficiency into a technical issue and turn the technical solution into an opportunity for self-fashioning, and much besides. Not only do they offer a sharper view of the world, not only are they actively adopted to influence how we are viewed, they “connote a particular worldview (82).” Try them on and the world comes into view anew.

In this precious history-in-miniature, Stefana Sabin traces the development of the temple piece as a cultural artefact in gradual but visible motion. Form Pliny the Elder’s mention of smargadus (green minerals) around 77 CE, through Arab mathematician Ibn al-Haytham’s discovery and description of the magnifying property of curved glass surface, to modern day fashion eyewear, glasses, as Sabine tells the story, have progressed far beyond the technical orbit of lens making and frame design to become an integral element of personal, cultural, historical, and political expressions. In life as well as in multiple imitations of life, glasses more than make for good vision. They signify. Just as the journalist Clark Kent, the alter ego of Superman, needs glasses to see clearly the dangers threatening the world, which he can than save, so does Angelina Jolie feel compelled to sport dark-rimmed glassed as a layer of emancipation and independence on top of the femininity that is all her own. And just as the dark round frame worn by Sigmund Freud suggests the penetrating gaze of the doctor, simple and light glasses worn by Gustav Mahler and Walter Benjamin suggest lightness and imagination associated with creative arts. In a world where choosing what to read has become a self-conscious activity and how to read a cultivated skill, one may even wonder if the contorted style of writing, which make James Joyce the genius he is, might have its roots in the abnormal long-sightedness that his ever-present glasses only fail to correct.

Behind the glasses lies our irrepressible desire to see. From the grinding of simple magnifying lenses, through the development of telescope, microscope, and subsequent televisual innovations, to the planetary surveillance machines of late that literally see everything everywhere all the time, glasses have driven our desire to see to run full circle. Not only have they, as Sabin reminds us, “fostered the development of civilization by more than doubling working life, permitting greater precision and enabling professions reliant on reading and calculation to emerge and thrive” (7), they have also brought the instruments that they have fostered to invade and reshape a certain part of our body – as in LASIK procedure, for example – for whose defects the reading glasses were first developed. What was once a prothesis returns to remold the body from within; what used to be an add-on to the body returns to modify its organ, with infinite precision. Glasses have done much for us, but they are now doing much more to us.

Clearly written, full of tidbits of literary historical value, In the Blink of an Eye makes a pleasant, informative read, all the more so for the generous illustrations accompanying the text. But this is where my only complaint comes in. Given the small size of the book, the relevant details in several of the wonderful reproductions appear too small to be seen at all. On page 67, for example, the reader is directed to an oil painting by Car Spitzweg, The Poor Poet, 1839. “Wrapped in a nightshirt, with a nightcap on his head, among manuscript sheets, books and inkwells,” the poor poet, as Sabin tells us, “is wearing spectacles.” But, alas, I cannot see them. As I squint my eyes trying to see the glasses Sabin says is there, I hear myself murmuring, “where is my magnifying glass?” 

Briankle G. Chang teaches media theory and criticism in the Department of Communication at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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