Techniques of the Observer

  1. The thaumatrope and flipbook are two similar optical devices in that they both rely on the sluggishness of the eye, the fusing of successive images, and the hands of the observer, themes illustrated by Crary in Techniques of the Observer. The thaumatrope is a disc with a drawing on either side, and, when spun, the images mold together because of the persistence of our vision.  According to Crary, the first picture persists “about the eighth part of a second after the image is removed…and the consequence is that you see both sides at once.” The afterimage is also integral to the function of the flipbook. The flipbook is a series of slightly varied pictures that appear to be animated when flipped through rapidly because the sluggishness of the eye fusees the images together. This blending of images tricks our mind into seeing motion through a series of still photographs. Another parallel between the two is the observer’s ability to dictate their experience of the illusion using their hands. Depending on how fast or slow the viewer rifles through the flipbook or turns the thaumatrope, they will encounter a different experience. The faster the viewer’s hands, the less time they have to cognize the images and thus the more continuous the images appear, or vice versa. Therefore, the two optical devices are unique as a result of the power of the observer to govern their own experience. 
  2. Although these devices can be used by anyone, in my opinion I believe they are geared more towards children because of the images they display. The colorful, geometric shapes of the kaleidoscope and the trivial, silly images on the zoetrope seem to infer that they are tailored for a youthful audience. In addition, because they are not fully developed, children may not comprehend the illusions and thus would be more enamored by the objects. Because of the childlike nature of the objects, the context for viewing appears to be in a living/play room setting, where kids play with their toys and have fun. In addition, I believe that the objects are more of a solitary ordeal because the individual observer dictates how they wish to experience the objects using their own hands. 
  3. Crary’s assertion that “the retinal afterimage is perhaps the most important optical phenomenon” is upheld by the objects which all rely on the afterimage to convey their illusion. In most of the objects, the presented image lingers because of our lethargic eyes. In doing so, the first image partially sinks into our consciousness but begins to blend with the successive picture due to the lasting afterimage of the first image. For example, the thaumatrope is a disc with different pictures on each side, images which blend into one when the disc is spun as a result of the persistence of vision. This fusing of images is a similarity between the objects that allow the observer to experience a false sense of motion and a blending of retinal pictures. The illusion of the objects is also furthered by binocular disparity, which Crary describes as “the self-evident fact that each eye sees a slightly different image.” Humans have the ability to synthesize the two opposite retinal pictures and blend them into one, furthering the tricks that the devices play on our eyes by reconciling the disparity and creating unity in the images presented by the objects. 

The reading led me to wonder in what discipline these studies were based: Were they psychologically based to understand more about the human senses, or did they come from a film/media perspective that sought to understand these tricks in order to entertain humans and advance media?

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