The scientific practices that provide us images of Martian landscapes also cast seeing itself in a new light
This spring, the Curiosity rover made headlines when scientists reported new evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars. By measuring the temperature and relative humidity in a crater over the course of a Martian year, the researchers found that salts in the soil could pull water vapor out of the atmosphere and form a brine during the overnight hours, before the moisture would evaporate again at sunrise. “We don’t really see the water,” the study’s lead author acknowledged in an interview. But other instances of seeing, like the dark markings that show up in orbital images and that appear to be water flowing downhill, were what motivated this latest set of measurements in the first place. On Mars, what we can see shapes what we can know.
Vision is commonly taken to be the most direct way of perceiving the world around us. But since the 1970s, visuality has taken a drubbing in the human sciences as feminists and scholars of colonialism have linked the gaze to projects of domination. A prominent anthropologist called for a turn toward “sensuous scholarship,” which would foreground smell, taste, and texture instead of the bloodless rationalism of sight. Quietly, though, a revival of interest in vision has been gaining momentum, one that brings specific practices of seeing into focus while emphasizing their partiality, plasticity, and rootedness in the material world. Some of the most interesting contributions have examined the screen-based graphics and data visualizations that increasingly organize contemporary seeing, at least in the wired global North.