The Datum: Theory and the Feverish Madness of Vision

From the Series: Book Forum: The Blind Man

Photo by Juanre Retlef, licensed under CC BY.

Troubling the dominant critique of vision as an objectifying and distancing sense, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1968, 75) suggested that “there is a sort of madness in vision.” One of the maddening paradoxes is that while “to see is to have at a distance” (Merleau-Ponty 2007, 357), a form of visual touching brings us into the heart of a shared flesh. This common texture of difference both unites and separates us from our objects of vision (Carbone 2015). To see is also to “see farther than one sees, to reach a latent existence" (Merleau-Ponty 1964, 20). This is because our vision is screened by a quasi-present membrane, a being of latency that veils the visible while unveiling it. Our objects of vision shimmer across a nocturnal clairvoyance, and their whispers announce an imminent reversibility of the gaze: to see is always already to be seen. But by what? This visual madness holds a feverish secret.

In keeping with Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the in/visible, there is a sort of madness in Robert Desjarlais’s phantasmography. His tracing of phenomenal phantasms takes us for a journey inside the obsessions of an ethnographic I/eye that unveils a mediatic vulnerability through intimate exposures developed at the fluctuating rhythms of a camera’s shutter.

In this short commentary, I sketch out an exegesis of Desjarlais’s iEye, following two lines of flight that I seem to see flickering and twitching and zigzagging across the pages. Both lines intersect in the notion of the phenomenon, a word that, as we read in the book, stems from the ancient Greek verb phaínō (φαίνω), meaning “to appear, to cause to appear, to come to light.” First, I would point out that there is no phenomenon without vision and that there is something intrinsically theoretical in every act of vision. In this sense, there is a sort of madness in every theoretical gesture. Second, I want to conceive of the phenomenon as a datum, which in Latin means “something given, a present.” I will take the datum as a gift that inaugurates the noncircular circulations of ethnographic forms of capture, thinking, and relating.

As I encounter phenomena through the book’s visual dispositifs, I am reminded of how Martin Heidegger makes the work of theory a luminously visual affair. Stemming from a cluster of ancient Greek verbs and nouns connected to vision, theory is, for Heidegger (1977, 163), an attentive way of looking, an optical surrender that pays heed to the apparition of the phenomenon. However, we can see phenomena only because we have created a cut in time and space that allows them to appear. “There is no vision without the screen,” Merleau-Ponty (1968, 150) writes.

This theoretical cut is a ghostly presence in The Blind Man. The cut is at the root of the Latin word for theory, contemplatio, which contains the word templum: a sacred enclosure created by the act of cutting off and delimiting a determinate area on the ground (the Greek verb temno (τέμνω) means “to cut”).

Through contact lenses, torn subjects, broken glasses, cameras, retinal cuts, and corneal abrasions, the “blind man” is an ethnographic phenomenon that appears through the divinatory gestures and theoretical cuts of the author’s ophthalmic hermeneutics. Perhaps there is a sort of madness, too, in these etymological drifts.

This does not imply that the “blind man” is a solitary invention or a postmodern hallucination; if anything, the figure is a postmortem spectral apparition. So what or who is the blind man? The blind man is an image. An image, following Henri Bergson’s (1991, 9) immanent transcendentalism, is an “existence placed half-way between thing and representation.” An image is the affective vibration of matter, a trembling that is as abstract as concrete, as phenomenal as phantasmatic. Images possess the demonic force to affect us and take up residence within our psychic life, fueling our obsessions and screening our desires. To see is to be possessed by the invisible force of the visible. This force sustains our attachment to images we consume, internalize, and identify with: we are the dramatic unfolding of our becoming-image, we are existences placed halfway between thing and representation. “He who sees cannot possess the visible unless he is possessed by it, unless he is of it,” writes Merleau-Ponty (1968, 134–35). In the book, the blind man’s image takes up residence within the ethnographic iEye, one that wants to see itself being seen by a sightless gaze. It is a restless search for a gaze that exists beyond the eye, a lookless look, a black mirror that will never reflect back but only absorb, transform, and “haunt us down.”

Following Bergson (and perhaps also Desjarlais), who place images in the realm of matter and the realm of abstraction, I take images in this book to be sent forth from matter. They are gifts of matter that allow the world to appear (phanomenically) within our theoretical apparatuses of capture. Again, the Latin singular form of the more common term data is datum, “that which is given, the present.” There is something already past in the present (as temporal dimension) of the present (as the gift). The datum reveals itself across heterogeneous temporalities that haunt the spectral punctum of the image (see Barthes 1980, 26).

Desjarlais receives, refracts, and steals a gift-image that cannot be reciprocated. He is thus haunted by the raucous screams of saintly beggars, abject objects, Roma women, and blind men. Voleur! Thief! Suspended above uncertain, shifting ground, the ethnographer thinks about offering his corneal body as a possible sacrifice, the ultimate countergift. But the iEye keeps trembling and the mimetic, mediatic play of mirror-images never stops. The datum is an image, a gift, a visionary vision, the maddening force of theory. The theory that comes from a bleeding cut never finds is closure. Once in the datum, always in the datum.


Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Originally published in 1980.

Bergson, Henri. 1988. Matter and Memory. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. New York: Zone Books. Originally published in 1896.

Carbone, Mauro. 2015. The Flesh of Images: Merleau-Ponty between Painting and Cinema. Translated by Marta Nijhuis. Albany: State University of New York Press. Originally published in 2011.

Heidegger, Martin. 1977. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Translated by William Lovitt. New York: Harper and Row.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1964. Signs. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. Originally published in 1960.

_____. 1968. The Visible and the Invisible: Followed by Working Notes. Edited by Claude Lefort and translated by Alphonso Lingis. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

_____. 2007. “Eye and Mind.” In The Merleau-Ponty Reader, edited by Ted Toadvine and Leonard Lawlor, 351–78. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. Originally published in 1964.