brittlestars are eyes -- 8/9/23

Today's selection -- from Oceans by Pandora Syperek and Sarah Wade. Brittlestars are creatures that do not have eyes. They are eyes:

“[ ... ] 'Eyeless Creature Turns Out to Be All Eyes' announces the New York Times. An international team of material scientists, theoretical physicists, chemists and biologists were featured in the Times for their amazing finding that a brainless and eyeless creature called the brittlestar, an invertebrate cousin of the starfish, sea urchin and sea cucumber, has a skeletal system that also functions as a visual system. The ability of this critter to reconfigure the boundaries and properties of its body is prompting technology enthusiasts to reimagine what it means to be human. This multi-limbed sea creature is being enterprised up for new computer designs and telecommunications optical networks (giving new meaning to the AT&T slogan 'Reach Out and Touch Someone'). Summarising the results of a study published in the 23 August 2001, issue of the scientific journal Nature, Jonathan Abraham, the author of the Times article, continues: 'The brittlestar, a relative of the starfish, seems to be able to flee from predators in the murky ocean depths without the aid of eyes. Now scientists have discovered its secret: its entire skeleton forms a big eye. A new study shows that a brittlestar species called Ophiocoma wendtii has a skeleton with crystals that function as a visual system, apparently furnishing the information that lets the animal see its surroundings and escape harm. The brittlestar architecture is giving ideas to scientists who want to build tiny lenses for things like optical computing.'  The researchers found that the approximately ten thousand spherically domed calcite crystals covering the five limbs and central body of the brittlestar function as micro-lenses. These micro-lenses collect and focus light directly onto nerve bundles that are part of the brittlestar's diffuse nervous system. Remarkably, the brittlestars secrete this crystalline form of calcium carbonate (calcite) and organise it to make the optical arrays. According to Alexei Tkachenko of Bell Laboratories, one of the authors of the study, 'The brittlestar lenses optimize light coming from one direction, and the many arrays of them seem to form a compound eye.' 'It's bizarre -- there's nothing else that I know of that has lenses built into its general body surface', says Michael Land, who studies animal vision at the University of Sussex, Brighton. [...] 

“In talking with the press, Joanna Aizenberg, a Bell Labs scientist and the lead author of the study, likens the brittlestar to a digital camera that builds up a picture pixel by pixel. In this exchange, one quickly loses track of whether the digital camera is a metaphor for brittlestar vision or the reverse, especially as the metaphor begins to take on a strikingly material form: 

'Instead of trying to come up with new ideas and technology, we can learn from this marine creature .... The [calcitic] lenses surround the whole body, looking in all different directions and providing peripheral vision to the organism .... This is the quality we all want to incorporate in optical devices, in cameras in particular. Instead of having one lens pointing in one direction, you could have thousands of lenses pointing in different directions. This will give you perhaps a 360-degree view of the whole space.'

“In summary, the remarkable finding of this international multidisciplinary team of scientists is that the brittlestar's skeletal system is composed of an array of micro-lenses, little spherical calcite crystal domes (on the order of tens of microns in diameter) arranged on its surface, which collect and focus light precisely on points that correspond to the brittlestar's nerve bundles, part of its diffuse nervous system, suggesting that the combined system seemingly functions as a compound eye (an optical system found in insects).[ ... ] 

Common brittlestar

“The brittlestar's optical system is different in kind from the visualising systems that many science studies and cultural studies scholars are fond of reflecting on. The history of Western epistemology displays great diversity and ingenuity in the generation of different kinds of epistemological and visualising systems. (Plato's is not Descartes' is not Kant's is not Merleau-Ponty's is not Foucault's.) But as long as representation is the name of the game, the notion of mediation - whether through the lens of consciousness, language, culture, technology, or labour -- holds nature at bay, beyond our grasp.

“The brittlestar is not a creature that thinks much of epistemological lenses or the geometrical optics of reflection. The brittlestar does not have a lens serving as the line of separation, the mediator between the mind of the knowing subject and the materiality of the outside world. Brittlestars do not have eyes. They are eyes. That is, it is not merely the case that its visual system is embodied. Its very being is a visualising apparatus. The brittlestar is a living, breathing, metamorphosing optical system. For a brittlestar, being and knowing, materiality and intelligibility, substance and form entail one another. Its morphology -- its intertwined skeletal and diffuse nervous systems. its very structure and form -- entails the visualising system that it is. This is an animal without a brain. It does not suffer the Cartesian doubts of an alleged mind-body split. Knowing is entangled with its mode of being. Brittlestars are not fixated on the illusion of the fixity of 'their' bodily boundaries, and they would not entertain the hypothesis of the immutability of matter for even a moment. Dynamics is not merely matter in motion to a brittlestar when matter's dynamism is intrinsic to its biodynamic way of being. A brittlestar can change its colouration in response to the available light in its surroundings. When in danger of being captured by a predator, a brittlestar will break off the endangered body part (hence its name) and regrow it. The brittlestar is a visualising system that is constantly changing its geometry and its topology -- autonomising and regenerating its optics in an ongoing reworking of bodily boundaries. Its discursive practices -- the boundary-drawing practices by which it differentiates between 'itself' and the 'environment', by which it makes sense of its world -- are materiality enacted. Its bodily structure is a material agent in what it sees/knows. Its bodily materiality is not a passive blank surface awaiting the imprint of culture or history to give it meaning or open it to change. [ ... ]”



Pandora Syperek, Sarah Wade




The MIT Press


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