Does the Barreleye Dream of Swiss Cheese?

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Amelia Stein Does the barreleye dream of Swiss cheese? Windows, mirrors and holes

[Cover image: Obsidian mirror belonging to John Dee, 15th-16th Century AD]

Summary: This series of passages explores how transparency, reflectivity and opacity can adhere to, encroach on and confuse ideas about colour. It imagines a spectrum not just of light but of the mediation of light by these surface properties, which transmit, reflect and absorb light in time and space in ways both distinct from and connected to colour. Using the models of windows, mirrors and holes, and the examples of the barreleye fish, sunglasses and Swiss cheese, among others, this piece asks what we see when we look at, through, and into surfaces. 1. The Macropinna microstoma, or barreleye, or spookfish, is a small, deep-sea fish with tubular eyes that rotate within its transparent head. Its optic structure contains both a mirror and a lens, making its eyes highly receptive to light. It can look upward through the surface of itself to see potential predators silhouetted in the darkness. It can also look forward to see the bioluminescent clearness of its food, the jellyfish. The barreleye sees by seeing itself clearly — seeing through its clear self. But what does the barreleye know of clarity? Can it contemplate the transparency of its own head without contemplating the transparency or opacity of the heads of others?