Look at Your Fish

Longform recently linked to an interview with David McCullough in The Paris Review (Sept. 1999). It opens with a wonderful story about the 19th-century naturalist Louis Agassiz.
He would take an odorous old fish out of a jar, set it in a tin pan in front of the student and say, Look at your fish. Then Agassiz would leave. When he came back, we could ask the student what he'd seen. Not very much, they would most often say, and Agassiz would say it again: Look at your fish. This could go on for days.... After several days, he still could not see whatever it was Agassiz wanted him to see. But, he said, I see how little I saw before. Then [he] had a brainstorm and he announced it to Agassiz the next morning: Paired organs, the same on both sides. Of course! Of course! Agassiz said, very pleased. So [he] naturally asked what he should do next, and Agassiz said, Look at your fish. 
I love that story and have used it often when teaching classes on writing, because seeing is so important in this work. Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what's been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than from discovering something new.
It's a lovely ethic -- one which we might pair with Donna Haraway's injunction, "We have to be responsible for what we learn how to see." I spend so much of my time looking at the neighborhood I'm working in, trying to see something.
Sümerbank Fabrikası (Feshane), Eyüp 1976 (From the archives of IV. Bölge Kültür ve Tabiat Varlığını Koruma Kurulu)
The year is 1976, the back of the photograph tells me. We know it's four years until the military coup, but Turkish politics and society are becoming increasingly polarized. Neighborhoods become known as being associated either with the nationalists or the leftists, and people passing from one to the other can be assaulted for being on the wrong side. This photograph –– and the file in which it's found –– makes no mention of those politics. As near as I can understand, a resident in the neighborhood wrote to the council informing them that a set of stairs (visible on the right side of the center photograph) had been built over an old fountain and requesting their evaluation of whether or not the fountain had any historical value.

But on the upper register of the building, we see something unexpected: In giant letters, a slogan in support of the workers, of the işçi. It seems as though the slogan was soon painted over a second time, and we can imagine groups of leftists and ultra-nationalists sneaking around the neighborhood at night, engaging in a running battle to mark their territories in words. The Sümerbank factory, as one of the biggest and oldest factories in the neighborhood, must have been a particularly important site in these struggles.

Residents of the neighborhood have described to me how the medrese of Zal Mahmut Paşa (just down the street from where these photos look) was used as a dorm for nationalist university students during this period. They elected a president, who would inform the local muhtar of the arrival of new students and the departure of old ones and who had final authority over any new students entering the dorm. We could imagine they were some of the ones who would embark on these nighttime excursions to paint slogans across the neighborhood.

On its own, the story is interesting stuff; but what interests me is my own relationship to these photographs and to the neighborhood in which they're taking. Haraway reminds us that no knowledge can be totally free and objective; her project is developing a positional knowledge, one that takes into account the contexts which enable a relationship between the observer and the observed. In my case, this involves the institutions which fund my research, the kinds of training (academic, intellectual, professional) I receive, the kinds of relationships (social, political, professional, personal) in which I'm embedded, the kinds of politics I ascribe to.

To look, we know, is not necessarily to see. I've spent well over a year in Istanbul –– in Eyüp –– at this point, much of it looking at things, at reports, at newspapers, at buildings, at people. And sometimes –– this past Monday, for example –– I feel a moment of joy, Ah, I think, I've seen something.


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