Joseph Jastrow’s “duck-rabbit”
These days, I often find myself staring into a chain-link fence with green privacy slats inserted within the links. If you look at the fence straight-on, a sense of vertigo ensues as your eyes alternate between focussing on the slats and focussing on the chain; an optical illusion, the topic of today’s Weekend Gallery. Like the idea of multiple personalities — not invented by Freud — visual illusions are an essential part of the “psychological imagination”, an image of the mind derived from the matrix of cultural impetus and technical means which brought the discipline of experimental psychology into being in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The “duck-rabbit” known to contemporary Anglophone intellectuals from Wittgenstein’s doodle was the subject of previous research by American psychologist Joseph Jastrow (as John Kilstrom notes, Jastrow’s rabbit was based on an illustration that appeared in the German humor magazine Fliegende Blätter and was also reprinted in Harper’s Weekly; I move to table the question of whether the illustration was originally about whether one’s natural inclination was to “read” things left-to-right, or right-to-left). Like the enclosure, the duck-rabbit is a “bistable” figure: our focus shifts from one to the other “interpretation”, and as Wittgenstein said we can hardly say one, both, or neither is contained in the “real” image; we hardly need be orthodox in our Wittgensteinianism to appreciate the “depth” of this point.
I think the importance of optical illusions for aesthetics might be glossed as this: although the Hegelian strain in aesthetics down to Adorno considers truth as the central category of aesthetic goodness, we cannot and perhaps should not try to escape from the irreal character of the aesthetic “message”, even in conceptual art, even in verbal conceptual art like Holzer’s. The conceptual content of art need not be classified as “basically” agreeable neurophysiological oscillations in the vision system to appreciate how it comes apart, how nothing is ultimately “said” by art in which the teleological cross-checking of hermeneutics is absent. Optical illusions reinforce the point that “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent”: the visual artist remains a cipher to us, because the art is not a “language-garment”; instead, an inherently multifarious stimulus for our physical and intellectual sensors.