Heaven and Earth
Festschrift to Honor Karsten Harries

Vol. 12, No. 1
August 2007


___Hagi Kenaan
Tel Aviv
  The Ground's Hidden Surface



In the wake of astronautics, astronoetics invites
an altogether new postpostmodern geocentrism.

Karsten Harries, Infinity and Perspective

1. Looking up to the Stars

Although the earth lies right under our feet, the possibility of a new form of geocentrism is not easily given to us. So close, our eyes remain far away from the ground on which we stand. What separates us from the ground that supports us, however, is not the simple span of a distance, but the disappearance of the very condition of distantiality without which the question of our orientation and directionality could not be opened at all. Consequently, the very first step toward a new geocentrism already requires that we release our philosophical gaze from the obviousness of what is "always before our eyes," that we open new perspectives on what constantly "lies open to view."[1] For Merleau-Ponty, "true philosophy consists in relearning to look at the world."[2] Yet, how, in our immersion within the ordinary, can we meet the familiar world at a new angle? In what sense can we return to what always already encompasses us? How can we return to what we've never left?

Having a place in the world is not a univocal or simple experience. It is, rather, a complex experience whose distinctive character has been a constant concern in the work of Karsten Harries. Yes, we are in the world; but, reading Harries, the Heideggerian interpretation of our "being-in" often seems too narrow for accommodating the continual interplay, the dialectics, of proximity and distance that determines our relation to the ground on which we live. For Harries, the familiarity of our world is inseparable from a structure of estrangement. The familiar world that we take to be in our possession is something that has really never been ours. And what seems to be radically beyond our reach – distant and unattainable – has always been, and still remains, intimately tied to who we are.  Hence, while Harries emphasizes again and again the need to come to terms with the ways in which human progress has "made this earth seem ever less homelike,"[3] with the senses in which "the modern world is shadowed by this loss of the center," it is just as important for him to resist "the nostalgia for what has been lost." Nostalgia, according to Harries, is a dangerous attitude that may easily turn the critique of modernity into yet another and perhaps more dire form of blindness regarding "dimensions of reality we need to affirm to live meaningful lives."[4] Nostalgia is blinding because it tends to take for granted the meaning and structure of the condition of loss – thus covering up a whole range of questions regarding the relationship between place and placelessness, between the scientific and the existential decentering of the human world, between having and having not.

Moreover, reflecting on the ways in which we are at home in-the-world, we need to recognize that our attachment to the world as a place of dwelling cannot be understood independently of the human tendency toward self-decentering and self-displacement. "It is precisely such a self-decentering," Harries writes "that found its classical expression in the tale of Thales who, looking up to the stars, fell into a well only to be ridiculed by that pretty Thracian servant girl."[5]  For Harries, it is not a coincidence that the gesture of looking up to the stars has become so integral to the legacy of philosophy. "Philosophy and astronoetics indeed have the same origin."[6] Yet, the image of the first philosopher – his gaze turned upwards – cannot be understood merely as an indication of philosophy's pursuit of a truth that transcends our worldly being. There is more to Thales's gesture toward the sky than a turning away from, an opposition to, our immersion in the ordinary. "What did the stars matter to Thales? What do they matter to any of us earthlings?" Harries suggests that a clue for a possible answer may be found, surprisingly perhaps, in Vitruvius's account of the building of the first house.

Perhaps Vitruvius was thinking also of the story of Thales when, in his account of what makes the still-brutish builders of his first house different from such shelter-building animals as ant and bees, swallows and badgers, he mentions first not their extraordinary ability to use their hands, nor their capacity to imitate, learn from, and improve on what they observe, but their verticality, their upright posture which lets them rise from the horizontal earth, raise their eyes up from the supporting ground and "gaze upon the splendour of the starry firmament."[7]

In his description of "the human being as the being who looks up to the firmament," Vitruvius gives voice, according to Harries, to an important intuition: the horizontality of our human existence upon the earth has a vertical dimension always already built into it. "Standing up and gazing at the firmament… the human being transcends his or her natural place;"[8] and, in this gesture of transcendence, responds to a dimension of his or her existence that underlies the very possibility of dwelling and building, of finding a home in the world.. This also means, and here we return to our opening question, that we need to learn to "look at the stars" in order to see the earth again.

Following Blumenberg, Harries takes up and elaborates the image of the Astronoetiker: "The Astronoetiker is not someone who actually seeks to fly high above the earth, although he does delight in thinking about and in reading accounts of such flights, even when they end in disaster. Such flights do not tempt him to leave the earth; they rather let this earth appear more precious, a bit more homelike."[9] Sensitive to the implications of human hubris, the Astronoetiker knows that he will never actually travel into the infinity of space. Yet, in his contemplations of such journeys, his existence on earth overcomes the grim captivity implied by the condition of human finitude. This is also the case with the work of Astronoetiker Harries whose explorations of the "splendour of the starry firmament" not only open up new spaces for thinking, but also create actual trajectories to be mapped by thought. "When we have lost our way, it is only natural to search for maps that might help to reorient us, to reflect not only on the goal of our journey, but even more on how we got to where we now find ourselves, and on roads not taken."[10]

2. Looking back to Earth

But, what does it mean for us "earthlings" to learn to look and see the earth again? The image of the first philosopher with his gaze directed up to the sky reminds us that "philosophy has its origins in dislocation, in a leave-taking from what normally orients and grounds us."[11] It reminds us that some form of separation from the ground on which we stand, from a fixed point of view, is a necessary condition for reflecting on the nature of that ground. But, can the image of Thales also guide us in learning how to turn our gaze back to where we stand? What should we make of the second part of this philosophical anecdote, i.e., the falling of Thales into a well? Is the event of Thales's stumbling merely a sign of that philosophical condition (dislocation) which enables us take leave from the everyday? Or, is it also a sign of a philosophical difficulty to return to the ordinary? As he fell into the well, Thales, we remember, was mocked by a Thracian maid. "She scoffed at him for being so eager to know what was happening in the sky that he could not see what lay at his feet."[12] Are the words of the young woman merely an expression of her complete ignorance of what philosophy is all about? Or, can we also hear in her words an echo of a certain warning that is relevant to the philosopher? The Thracian maid finds it funny that the philosopher's alleged wisdom is of no use in earthly matters. For Plato, her laughter is symptomatic of the laughter of the crowd whose complete immersion in the ordinary allows it neither to understand nor to respect the position of the philosopher. Yet, being, as she is, an absolute outsider to philosophy, the young woman nevertheless recognizes a blind spot that haunts the philosopher's vision: the philosophical gaze that allows us to transcend our natural place can easily prevent us from seeing what lies at our feet.

But, what kind of spectatorship – what kind of optics – is called for by that which lies at our feet? In order to answer this we need first to recognize that the visuality of the world is neither the mere façade of things nor simply that which imposes itself on the eye. The inner-frame of the visual is depth and thus what we see is always more than what we see. In this sense, we cannot genuinely be said to see as long as our eyes remain bound to a fixed perspective, as long as we do not overcome our fundamental "thrownness" to use a Heideggerian term into the realm of visibility. Yet, in allowing our gaze to realize its freedom, it is just as important that we do not forget the claims of the body. Human vision needs a body. Seeing is not an event that can occur inside a virtual mind; it is not a relation between an ideal viewer and an image, but a real condition of our moving about in this world. The visual field is not a rear screen of a camera obscura, but a life-world that opens up through the “intersection”, as Merleau-Ponty calls it, between the eye and the body’s possible routes of action. "This extraordinary overlapping," he writes "forbids us to conceive of vision as an operation of thought that would set up before the mind a picture or a representation of the world… Immersed in the visible by his body, itself visible, the seer does not appropriate what he sees. He merely approaches it by looking. He opens himself to the world."[13] And thus, for Merleau-Ponty, it is the painter who most clearly embodies the true potential of seeing. "The painter takes his body with him… Indeed we cannot imagine how a mind could paint. It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into painting."

Figure-1.jpg (62607 Byte)
Figure 1:
Dolmen, Gamla, Golan Hights,
photo by Vad Levin
  With Merleau-Ponty the condition of embodiment has become central for our understanding of the visual field. Embodied vision "is not a view upon an outside , a merely physical-optical relation with the world." It is not a relation of representation. And yet, following Merleau-Ponty, the "intertwining" of body and vision has all too often remained an abstract conception, one that carries no specific implications for our concrete ways of seeing. How can we locate the actual chiasm of body and vision? In what sense is the visual always already marked on the map of the moving body? I think that this is where the presence of the concrete ground under our feet becomes relevant. The ground supports our body. It supports a whole domain of objects, a complicated matrix of objecthood, whose most simple complexity is one in which one thing is laid upon the other,  a stone upon a stone, like a field of dolmens. Indeed, no complexity is simpler. [Figure 1] Yet, this condition of objecthood underscores the fact that the grounds of the visual are always concrete – a horizontal plane. The ground not only produces crops, not only supports and makes possible the stable posture of bodies; it is not only the lower boundary, nor only the place where seeing reaches to and ends: it constitutes, rather, a condition that makes our seeing possible. This visual dimension opened up by the ground – or by the floor – maintains, however, a strange relation to the gaze. While intersecting with the gaze, the floor is that which never fully faces – is never in front of – the viewer. Its form of appearance is never frontal, since the viewer never stands parallel to and separate from the floor, but is always already implanted in it. Whereas the framing of an image in a picture hanging in front us is dependent on the picture’s distance and separation from the viewer, the ground's surface enables the visual to appear only because the viewer is connected to it directly and bodily. In this respect, the ground is the origin for a non-frontal kind of visuality. So too in the city, in the field, at home, the floor hides a unique possibility of vision. When we usually think about vision, we tend to forget the ground and the ground, in its turn, is not especially receptive to the demands of the gaze. It eludes the gaze because our ways of seeing typically direct us at the objects facing us. That ground remains hidden because we typically look at the wrong direction; and even if we were to look at the right one, ground's surface is most likely to remain concealed by the arrays of objects covering it. In this respect, while the ground's surface may mark for vision the beginning of that tremendous compression, of an opacity impervious to any seeing, its zero thickness also enfolds and then unfolds an entire expanse of visibility.

The most common image for this unfolding of a visual domain from within a horizontal plane is that of a water surface – a pool of water. It is the pool that “alone dreams its dream of an inverted world,” writes H. N. Bialik in one the more influential modern Hebrew poems of the early 20th century.[14] The water pool “views all and all is viewed in it”. And, naturally, here with the surface of the water, we cannot but acknowledge the presence of Narcissus.

3. Narcissus's Gaze
Figure-2.jpg (48982 Byte)
Figure 2:
Fresco of Narcissus,
House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto,

Figure-3.jpg (122254 Byte)
Figure 3:
Caravaggio, Narcissus, 1597-1599
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome)

Figure-4.jpg (5608 Byte)
Figure 4:
Viewed from a, the oblique presence of the horizontal section x1x2 loses its autonomy when translated into the vertical section y1y2.

The story of Narcissus is familiar, but it is, in fact, a less known aspect of the story which I wish to underscore in the context of this discussion. Focusing on Narcissus as "he lay, like a fallen garden statue/gaze fixed on his image in the water"[15], we may first notice that Ovid's description of Narcissus's gaze is inseparable from the description of the place and posture of his body. Hence, turning to Narcissus in a manner that releases his image from its Freudian – Narcissistic – connotations, let us allow his figure to illuminate for us the option of a particular kind of gaze, i.e., of an embodied vision that concerns us. According to Merleau-Ponty, "it is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into painting" and how is it with Narcissus? Is it, perhaps, the unique character of his involvement with the visual that has lead the Renaissance humanist, Leon Battista Alberti to crown Narcissus as the “inventor of painting”?

In book 2 of On Painting, as he reflects on the essence and origins of his subject matter, Alberti writes:

I say among my friends that Narcissus who was changed into a flower, according to the poets, was the inventor of painting. Since painting is already the flower of every art, the story of Narcissus is most to the point. What else can you call painting but a similar embracing with art of what is presented on the surface of the water in the fountain?[16]

For Karsten Harries, Alberti's celebration of Narcissus as the inventor of painting is not at all self-evident. The negative connotation of the Narcissus's myth, make Alberti's choice not only surprising but also, in many ways, subversive. Is Alberti saying that "the art of the painter originates in the same pride that caused narcissus to perish, only that the painter escapes his precursor's fate by substituting the creation of an art-work for the futile attempt actually to embrace himself?"[17] According to Harries, Alberti's Narcissus is a figure that should be read against the background of a complex set of tensions that are central to Alberti's writing and, specifically, in connection with "Alberti's proto-Nietzschean praise of painting" whose presentation of the artist as a second creator, ultimately "threatens to usurp the place of God."[18]

For the purpose of the present discussion, however, I wish to read Alberti's Narcissus by pointing to a specific connection between the figure of Narcissus and Alberti's understanding of the visual structure of painting. Alberti's evocation of Narcissus is based on the following analogy: "What else can you call painting but a similar embracing with art of what is presented on the surface of the water in the fountain." In what sense can painting be said to embrace "what is presented on the surface of the water"? While in itself, the water's surface is of no concern to Alberti, a similar kind of surface does occupy the center of his perspective construction. This is the transparent surface of a window pane which functions, in Alberti, as a regulating model for understanding the picture surface. The window-surface is not only a framed transparency that allows the rays reflected from objects to reach our eye, but it is also in itself a medium of representation. A window-pane is a vertical plane which, in intersecting with the visual pyramid, presents a full mapping of the visual field. "What presents itself" on the window-surface are things "as they appear." The window surface is a screen of appearances whose virtual double is the picture surface. On it, the painter traces the appearances that could have shown themselves to him, if that surface was transparent. And, thus, the initial condition for a painting is its framing as a virtual window: "I inscribe a quadrangle of right angles, as large as I wish, which is considered a window though which I see what I want to paint." Lacking any real depth, the picture surface, just like the window, opens up as if it were an actual visual field. Yet, in order to represent things "as they appear," the painter must come to terms with the unique presence of that infinitely thin surface which makes his appearances possible and yet which, in itself, needs be concealed so as to allow the eye to enter the painting's virtual visual space. In other words, the painter needs to learn how to "embrace" the substratum of appearances. And this is precisely where the figure of Narcissus becomes relevant.

Narcissus is affected by and falls in love with his own image, reflected in the water. Indeed, Narcissus embodies a principle of reflection; but, the common understanding of Narcissus and narcissism in terms of the question of mirroring may conceal a crucial dimension of the story. Something hides between the Narcissus who looks and the Narcissus who is looked at: the surface of the water. This is an infinitely thin plane that nevertheless contains within itself both the possibility of reflection and that of transparency. This surface on which the visual drama initially transpires is something that hardly ever calls attention to itself. Narcissus, however, is the one whose attentiveness uncovers this domain of the in-between. Thus, Narcissus not only surrenders to a visual illusion, not only falls in love with an object that turns out to be an image, but in doing this he also ends up making the dramatic discovery of a concealed region hidden between the object and its reflection. With Narcissus a new kind of human look is born – a liberated gaze that, in its deep sorrow, can see beyond the object-form of that which appears. "Then Narcissus wept into the pool./ His tears shattered the still shrine/And his image blurred." What Narcissus sees for the first time is the inner-layer of the field of visual appearances – a discovery that indeed inaugurates the possibility of painting.

Narcissus's gaze embraces the presence of a surface that underlies the possibility of representation, a surface which typically remains hidden by the actuality of appearances. Yet, what Narcissus discovers is not just a prototypical version of the Albertian window, not a medium of representation standing opposite, but a horizontal visual plane on which his eyes and his body intersect. As we can see in the fresco of Narcissus at the house of Marcus Lucretius Fronto in Pompeii [Figure 2] or, alternatively, in the famous painting by Caravaggio [Figure 3], the surface which reflects Narcissus's image is one to which Narcissus has to bend. He is located on, supported by, the same plane that opens up as a visual domain. Narcissus's gaze is thus never frontal. This is an oblique or diagonal gaze that uncovers a primary dimension of the visual, one that is so easily forgotten in a standardized space whose fundamental axes are the vertical and the horizontal. In such a space, "Narcissistic" visuality typically remains buried by the common kind of vision that appropriates the visual head on. This is what happens, for example, in Alberti's construction in which  the unique possibility of the diagonal gaze is completely erased by the established isomorphism between the eye's relation to the floor (x1x2) and its relation to a vertical screen of appearances (e.g., a window in which the floor appears, y1y2) [Figure 4].

Narcissus marks a primordial possibility for vision. And the term "Narcissism" may thus be used to recall that dimension of the visual which is constantly there to be seen and, yet, cannot be captured in any direct or frontal manner. Narcissus is a figure for a visual relation to the ground on which we stand, a relation which allows the gaze to remember the weight of our body, the rhythm of our pace. There are, of course, other ways to look at the ground: from an airplane or a satellite, for example, high above. It is important to remember the existence of these perspectives which typically make no room for Narcissus, although their exclusion of Narcissus is not always a necessity. With Narcissus, on the other hand, we are invited to come closer to the threshold of the image by acknowledging the unique presence of that which can only be seen obliquely and can never be framed.


4. A Concluding Remark

"Working in philosophy – like work in architecture… " Wittgenstein writes, "is really more a working on oneself… on one's ways of seeing things."[19] This paper shares a similar intuition. It is written with the conviction that an understanding of the nature of the visual is crucial for architectural theory. Yet, the question itself of how architecture can accommodate the gaze of Narcissus still needs to be elaborated. How can an architectural object acknowledge its own horizontal projection, its shadow? What would it mean for architecture to respond to the non-frontal dimension of the visual space? How can architecture allow the hidden surface of the ground to become part of the way we live?





[1] See, for example, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Blackwell 1958), sec.126

[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Introduction.

[3] Karsten Harries, Infinity and Perspective (The MIT Press, 2001), 321-322.

[4] Infinity and Perspective, x.

[5] Infinity and Perspective, 322.

[6] Infinity and Perspective, 320.

[7] Infinity and Perspective, 322.

[8] Infinity and Perspective, 323.

[9] Infinity and Perspective, 324.

[10] Infinity and Perspective, x.

[11] Infinity and Perspective, 50.

[12] Plato, Theatetus,

[13] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Eye and Mind," The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetic Reader ed. and trans. G. Johnson and M. Smith (Northwestern University Press, 1993), p. 141.

[14] H. N. Bialik, "The Pool," Poems (Tel Aviv, Dvir, 1956)

[15] Tales of Ovid, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book III, 421-422, Tales from Ovid, trans. Ted Hughes (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997)

[16] Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, trans. J.R. Spencer (Yale University Press, 1966), 64.

[17] Karsten Harries, The Broken Frame (The Catholic University of America Press, 1989), p.15.

[18] For Harries, these tensions or forms of ambivalence make Alberti's thought particularly helpful in illuminating for us the threshold of modernity in order to hint not only "at where we might have gone wrong" but also at those roads that presented themselves as options and yet remained unexplored. While offering the painter of his day the means for achieving a mastery of appearances, Alberti's method of representation can be achieved only if the painter "reduces experience to momentary, monocular vision and places us on a flat earth." That is, Alberti's reconstruction of the visual space does violence to the ways we actually see. Moreoever, according to Harries, "the perspectival art of Alberti subjects what it presents to a human measure that has itself been subjected to the demand for ease of representation." In this respect, "Alberti's understanding of the art of perspective offers itself as a figure of Cartesian method, perspectival painting as a figure of scientific representation of nature."(77)
Yet, as Harries shows, there is another voice speaking in Alberti. Whereas his "perspective construction offers the painter a spatial matrix" that presupposes "the infinite space of the new science," Alberti is also attentive to an important dimension of the visual field that cannot be captured within the coordinates of a fully objectified, e.g., mathematical, space. What may easily pass unnoticed within the apparent homogeneity of Alberti's space is his concern for "something like a natural measure, center, and point of view…[that] enables the painter to escape arbitrariness." (78) This is where, according to Harries, the human body becomes important for Alberti whose embodied theory of perspective thus offers itself as a proto-phenomenology.

[19] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans. P. Winch (University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 22.



Vol. 12, No. 1
August 2007