Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Representation and Appearance (Part 4 of 4)

This article is the last in a group of four on the subject of appearances and is intended to provide further support for the claim that when we speak of appearances - of one thing ‘looking-like’ something else - we are in fact speaking of how we could represent the thing in question through the use of one or other form of visual representation - most commonly what Donald Brook would define as a “Simulating Representation.”

Several months ago my two year old son went through a phase of exclaiming “Same!” whenever he saw two identical things; toy figures and character cards especially. One thing I could never get him to do though was say “same” when presented with an object and its representation. Two pictures could be the same and two action figures could be the same but an action figure could never be the same as a picture of the action figure. Obviously a single test-subject is poor proof of principle but it seems highly likely that this would be the case for all children at the same stage of early language development. Pictures are not the same as objects, that’s pretty obvious, but what is far from obvious is quite what distinguishes representations from the things they represent but the difference is far from simply a question of physical dimension.

Donald Brook defines three fundamental forms of representation. Only two of these are really needed here, so for the sake of brevity I’ll simplify (anyone wishing to find out more can read here). The first form of representation is what Brook terms “Matching”. Matching representations rely on the fact that we are unable to discriminate between certain things, or properties of things, because they are genuinely alike in certain respects. A prime example would be a circular paint chip halved. In a whole variety of ways these two halves would be indisciminable from one another: colour, thickness, shape, reflectance etc. Even if we were to examine them through the use of modern technologies we would probably find more ways in which they match than ways in which they differ. In this sense we can say, with a high degree of certainty - although we may be mistaken - that the respects in which they match are objective such that any other species of perceivers would also find it equally impossible to sensorily discriminate between them in these same respects.

It might be objected that the two chips are not representations of each other. It is certainly true that there is nothing intrinsically representational about either of the chips, yet it just so happens that we can use one to refer to the other: I can substitute one for the other, for example by holding one up and asking: “Have you got the another one of these?” In such a situation I would be using one chip to draw your attention to the other chip by dint of their matching characteristics. Equally, I could focus on just one matching characteristic by holding out three 1p coins for instance and saying: “Do you have this many 2p coins?” If you were in possession of sufficient coins, you could match my 3 with your 3 in respect of quantity and coinage. The coins might be different in all manner of other respects but in respect of quantity and coinage (which were the required attributes of the request) they would match perfectly. The primary point to bear in mind here is that we are able to substitute thing A for thing B if they are genuinely the same in one or more appreciable respects.

Another paradigm case of a matching representation is provided by two identical copies of the same photograph. Just as with the game “Snap” we are able to use one image as a match of the other in a whole variety of respects. However - and this is where we move on to another vital form of representation defined by Brook as “Simulating Representation” - the two images are not just potential matching representations of one another, they are also simulating representations of whatever was registered upon the once light-sensitive emulsion coating their surfaces.

Simulating representations are appreciably different than matching representations and are dependent upon systematic limitations of our perceptual makeup that, in certain circumstances and in certain respects, leave us unable to discriminate between things that we know with absolute certainty are different. With one eye closed I can hold up a pencil in such a way that it is indiscriminable in height from a distant telegraph pole. I know that it is not the same height but when it is held in careful alignment I cannot perceive a difference in their respective heights. Similarly I can mix a quantity of paint that simulates the colour of distant mountains viewed through hazy atmosphere. The colour will not match, yet in certain circumstances (prevailing illumination especially) we would find it very difficult to discriminate between the colour of the mixed paint and colour of the distant hill viewed through haze.

Cinematography, photography, representational painting, and representational drawing are predominantly simulating representational media, although they often also incorporate various aspects of matching: a mug shot might match its subject in terms of facial symmetry, proportional relationships of features, quantity of eyes, nose and mouth etc. The point to bear in mind about simulating representations is that they are an incredibly sophisticated form of representation that has been gradually developed over many centuries and particularly since the discovery of perspective, photography and the moving image to become an indispensible part of the modern world. Despite the fact that we find it immensely difficult to discriminate between simulating representations and the things they represent in certain respects and in certain circumstances we know categorically that simulating representations are simulating representations. Nobody, unless placed under very specific perceptual constraints, has ever mistaken a simulating representation for reality.

When we speak of the appearance of something, there are broadly two respects in which we might use the word. Firstly we might wish to draw attention to the objective properties of an object. We might say of a red ball that “It has a scarlet appearance”. We might even say that “The red ball appears red”. Notice though that the use of the word "appearance" is somewhat redundant in this second example. If the ball is red then we would be more likely to say: “The ball is red.”

The second and much more common use of the word “appearance” is the use I have been exploring in these last few posts (and their associated and sometimes lengthy comments). In this sense appearances are analogous to simulating representations: we know that appearances are not objective properties of objects but we find ourselves almost instinctively compelled to describe the appearance as "looking-like" something else; as being plausibly substituted by a representation of this appearance. The reason we are compelled to do this is because we have become so adept as a species at making, selecting accepting and offering visual representations of the things that we perceive that  this prodigious ability has become second nature; we are almost completely unaware of it.

The final challenge that I would lay before any philosopher on this subject then is this: out of every conceivable appearance of this latter kind (the kind that we know not to be an objective property of things seen) there is not one, not a single one, for which you, or anyone else for that matter, could produce a matching representation. Why? Because appearances are strategies for producing simulating representations: the type of representation that exploits systematic limitations in our sensory capabilities.


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