Monday, December 31, 2012

Fever in a Snowstorm: Musings on Perspective

I've had a fever for the past couple of days, and it's got me thinking about perspective. There's something surreal about feeling the heat radiate from your own skin as you watch the snow fall and fall. The dissonance between my experience of the world right now and the fluffy, frozen reality of the world mingles with the haziness of my fevered brain. Of course people always feel temperature slightly differently. I joke with a good friend that we could never get married because the thermostat wars would be epic. But fever brings these differences of experience into sharp relief.

Not only do we feel the air differently, but we often see the world differently as well. I bicker with my mother when she mentions a blue car that I am quite sure is violet. I've never understood why such moments of seeing color differently are so annoying, but now I think that it's those very trivial moments that call our attention to the fact that we may not be looking at the same thing as everyone else when we open our eyes. We go about our days resting upon the assumption that we're seeing basically the same things as the other people in our vicinity. Our sense of sanity rests upon this premise. But when you say that's a grey shirt and I insist that it's tan we bump uncomfortably into our own assumptions. Color definitions are more tangible than other differences of experience, such as one friend commenting that it was a lovely dinner party just as another blurts out that it was a terribly awkward evening. Such moments are startling, but we can chalk them up to mood, whereas color seems more objective, verifiable.

Yet color, like everything else, exists on a spectrum. Even assuming I am not color blind, I neither see nor identify color in the same exact way as everyone else. Primary colors are fairly straightforward, but things get murkier as we delve into the complicated depths of the color wheel. It's incredible how three basic pigments can produce such infinite variety ... And it's not just how we define colors, but how we experience them. What emotions they provoke.

Senses are strange. We speak of our senses as ways of directly engaging with the world, of accurately assessing our surroundings. Yet what does accuracy mean when something that looks suspiciously like opinion flavors our sensory perceptions? This song sounds beautiful to me, but you say it's just noise. That food tastes delicious to you, but I find it revolting. What factors mediate our senses? And what do we do when our most direct means of accessing reality proves to be so fickle?

Perhaps it can be refreshing to admit that we have individual perspectives. Maybe we could see the world more clearly if we admitted that none of us is omniscient and that multiple perspectives are useful. I am part of an interdisciplinary group in grad school, and we joke that all our discussions boil down to how we approach T/truth. We read the same text, but notice different things and approach it in different ways. We define words differently. Like the cliched story of the blind men and the elephant, we all emerge with a bigger picture when we compare notes, when we engage in dialogues rather than monologues (and promoting dialogue is certainly at the heart of my teaching). What good does it do any of us to assume that our own way of reading is the correct one, that alternate methodologies are silly? Rather than devalue other disciplines, I find myself grateful that so many people are trying out so many different paths. I find the best approach is to acknowledge that my perspective is both valuable and limited, and that it is more valuable if I can admit that it's limited.

Granted, a fever is an extreme. Certainly this illness alters my perception in potentially dangerous ways. But as I try to nurse myself back to health before I have to head to Boston for the MLA conference, I consider that fact that we're all always perceiving things differently to a greater or lesser degree. And maybe these perspectival particularities could be useful and even delightful.


  1. Well said, my dear!! I agree. When I was a little girl, one of my favorite mental projects was to close my eyes and try to imagine a brand new color that was nothing like any of the colors I already know. I couldn't do it, which led me to marvel and muse about why.

    Also, I hope you feel better! Let me know if you need anything. Hugs and love to you!!!


    1. I love the idea of trying to imagine a new color, Hilarie! How can we imagine something beyond the spectrum of what we've seen? I've spoken to visually impared friends before and asked them what they picture when people mention colors, and it's interesting to try to imagine what that would be like as well. I feel the same about colors we can't see. When people talk about "ultraviolet," for example, all I can imagine is a color that's really really violet. In fact, the name itself must reference a color we do see, because we only talk about ultraviolet in terms of its extreme placement beyond violet. We have a place for it as a color, but no possible image. As always, you've got me on an interesting train of thought!

      Also, I do feel much better. Thanks!


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