From the physiological to the cultural to the cosmological level, human experience is oriented by the sense of sight. And yet, there is a profound ambiguity to this sense, an ambiguity that structures through and through our everyday being in the world. So, when CBS started airing Star Trek: Discovery this Fall (which just wrapped its first half-season of nine episodes in November), I was fascinated to see it so consistently deploying vision as a cinematic device. Star Trek: Discovery takes up issues of race and friendship, war and justice, trauma and redemption, but, intriguingly, these issues appear as structured through vision. But what is it to say that something is structured by vision? What is it really to be oriented by sight?
Early in the first episode, a whole sequence of shots plays with vision, constructing its action through shifts in perspective. Series protagonist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) must venture out from the U.S.S Shenzhou (her initial posting) in a spacesuit to investigate an unknown object. As she launches away the camera focuses in on her eyes, then switches to her vantage from within her helmet. As she flies forward we fly with her, continuously cycling between these perspectives: looking at her looking, looking with her looking. From her point-of-view, our own vision is blurred at the edges, distorted by the curvature of her helmet; the flattening of the camera is invested with an illusion of depth. We move to the Shenzhou where the crew, too, are fixated on Burnham, looking at her through sensors and data. We see her helmet point-of-view overlaid on the bridge display; the camera zooms in on the display, and then the frame disappears entirely and we’re with Burnham again; camera and instruments are interchangeable, oscillating between each other. Just before she arrives at the object, we get an extreme close-up of one of Burnham’s eyes in profile, and we see her surroundings reflected on her cornea, the world slipping by as she slips by the world. And then, when she reaches her target, all of this is vocalized: “do you even see this?” she asks. The drama that follows results from the fact that the crew no longer can see; their sensors lose connection; their vision is severed from its instrumental symbiosis with Burnham’s. Indeed, the reason for her mission is precisely this sightlessness; the Shenzhou cannot “see” the object, and so “real” eyes are required. Burnham must pass into the zone of sightlessness in order to see.
In later episodes, once Burnham finds herself on the U.S.S Discovery, the viewer is introduced to Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), whose eyes were damaged by looking at the explosion of his old ship, and for whom sudden changes in light causes intense pain. This pain serves as a reminder for him of his lost crew; his wounded perception is the embodiment of his war, his peculiar sightlessness a different kind of seeing, the physical concretion of his situation. We go on to learn that the Discovery is a science vessel—thus its name—but that its future-tech drive, which allows for near instantaneous travel across interstellar space, makes it a vital asset in the war. The chief engineer, Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), accuses Lorca of being a warmonger, and resents him for militarizing his experiments. This tension between vision-as-discovery and vision-as-power only intensifies as the season progresses. When Stamets is given implants allowing him to interface with the Discovery’s drive in order to act as its navigator, his eyes, like Lorca’s, become manifestations of his situated vision. In the final moments of episode nine (the mid-season finale), his eyes completely cloud over following a period of intense activity, becoming milky-white and “sightless.” His “real” eyes are replaced, or rather, extended beyond themselves, concretizing vision-as-discovery and reflecting the ambiguity of the lens as something that both magnifies and obscures. Stamets, like Burnham and Lorca, enters into sightlessness in order to see.
The philosopher Don Ihde has argued that our culture has been shaped by our vision technologies, that we think through lenses, as it were, and through lenses our experience is situated, focalized, oscillatory. Similarly, Michel Foucault, in his analysis of the painting Las Meninas, remarks that, with Renaissance perspective, painter and observer, both typically invisible, are manifested in the artwork, brought into an “unstable superimposition.” The gaze oscillates, circulates, and we see our own shifting focality realized. The gaze is not permitted to continue in its illusion of weightlessness; its haunting is made effective. Through our arts and technologies, we see the inherent ambiguity of vision in its physiological constitution made explicit. Maurice Merleau-Ponty has explained how naked vision disappears into itself, and that this invisibility has led many philosophers to assert an immediacy of sense. But such a view, Merleau-Ponty demonstrates, entirely misses the thickness of experience, the shifting and sliding of sense through the folds and fissures of being. Blur and instability are definitively real visual phenomena, realizing the resistance and mediation of sense that is typically effaced in its operation. Our arts and technologies can trouble this obfuscation, releasing vision from the illusion of translucency.
We find ourselves ensnared by vision and so also woven into our arts and technologies and the systems of production and power that they inhabit. Inasmuch as sight allows us to draw near to that which is seen, it also allows us to grasp, to possess, to strike: discovery and power are inseparable capacities, aspects of our situated capacity for action that depends on the concrete, bodily integration of sense. This ambiguous structure of experience has found dramatic expression in Star Trek: Discovery, but the show does not ask us to resign ourselves to the problematic figured therein. Star Trek: Discovery is no power fantasy; it does not accept violence and conflict as given or necessary. Rather, it presents the potential for power as always requiring a choice. It acknowledges the invisible face of the visible, that in every discovery, or every act of war, there is something that escapes us, something that escapes our power. Star Trek: Discovery beckons us into the limits of our capacities so that we might embrace a vision that is never simple, never neutral, never unproblematic. It requires us to think about what it means to watch, to think about the complicity of our gaze, to think about the choice dwelling within every action. And above all, it is a show that welcomes us into that sightlessness by which we might learn to see anew.