The Kaleidoscope and the Microscope

Scrolling through my facebook feed, I recently came across the work of Michael Peres who photographs snowflakes through the lens of a microscope (here). The complexity of form in the images is strikingly beautiful.

I’ve been thinking about microscopes while completing my last assignments of the semester. What prompted my thought is the level of detail and accuracy that is required in graduate study. The requirement to identify pattern and isolate its directionality.

Sometimes it is like seeing through a microscope.

The microscope offers the capacity for fine-grained observation. Such observation capacity is essential to scientific understanding. In the case of biology, much has been learned since the discovery of the cell in 1655. Yet, this fine-grained observation has led to very mixed outcomes. It is the observation necessary, for instance, for the development of nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry. That this necessary type of observation for science can also be deeply problematic is evident in these mixed histories, such as the history of nuclear weapons.

Fine grained observation can lead to the temptation of reduction for the sake of knowledge. In this case, its motivation is to control, engineer, and domineer; To develop industrially. Yet, the knowledge of fine-grained observation can also be motivated by a desire to understand, to learn, to be free; To develop spiritually.

Actually, these motivations to reduce cannot be parsed so easily. We can see this dual impulse in Thoreau’s famous explanation of why he went to live in the woods in Walden:

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever” (here)

Thoreau wants to reduce life so as to understand it deeply, not to control it. His aim seems to be wholly that of spiritual development. Yet, we can see that Thoreau’s desire is deeply conditioned by the Protestant work ethic which Weber has described as giving rise to the capitalism which is exactly the dominating reduction of the world. Thoreau seeks to live ‘Spartan-like’ and seeks to more fully live out the claim of a foundational protestant document, the Westminster Catechism, quoting its answer to the question of man’s (sic) chief end.

It is important to remember that Thoreau’s trip to the woods did not truly separate him from the ‘civilized’ life of the city, but he was rather operating from within that context all the while. While I would not pursue this critique to an extreme and suggest Thoreau was merely imposing reductive control on the Walden woods while writing about freedom through reduction as simplification, I do think that the reductive impulse is inevitably dual involving domination and liberation potential.

A counter to the reductive seeing of the microscope is perhaps the inductive seeing of the kaleidoscope. In seeing through the Kaleidoscope there is an expansion of observation. Other possibilities beyond one’s scope are seen as interesting and enrich the view of what is in focus. Yet, perhaps the kaleidoscope is not unique in this. As is shown in Peres’s photographs of snowflakes at a microscopic level, seeing through the microscope can expand our observation as well by suggesting new ways of seeing common matter.

Perhaps it is possible, then, to see kaleidoscopically through the microscope. This possibility is advanced not by rejecting knowledge or its pursuit, but by resisting reduction. The dual impulse of reduction can perhaps be avoided by the expansive techniques of knowledge through induction.

Yet no one can be seen to be free of reduction, probably, if we turn the microscope onto us.