Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Imagining Itself (Part IX: Representation and Imagination)

For a more coherent and persuasive account of the evolution of human imagination than is provided by either Steven Mithen or Susan Blackmore we might instead look to the work of Australian artist and art theorist Donald Brook. Over the past 50 years Brook has developed a formidable theory of representation that has broad implications for an understanding of both perception and imagination and takes as its foundation the incontrovertible fact that human perception is limited.

Whenever we observe something, no matter however carefully we do so, we are inevitably locked into the specific characteristics of our perceptual makeup. These have evolved to gather sufficient information about our environment for optimal survival at the scales and speeds at which we operate. And, although the quality and quantity of this sensory information generates a richly detailed perception, this is by no means total or unbiased.

The natural world is full of creatures with very highly developed senses that also provide a rich awareness of the environments in which they live. Some are especially sensitive to vibration, others to smell, some to heat and yet others to taste etc. Each tends to specialize and to prioritise the information gathered through a single sense. We humans are adapted to prioritise sight above all other senses and it is not surprising therefore that we tend to consider this sense to be relatively infallible. Brook’s premise is that human beings are subject to systematic perceptual failures that make it very difficult, often impossible under certain circumstances, to discriminate between thing A and thing B in certain respects. It may be difficult to discriminate between two closely coloured things, a coloured swatch of paper and a painted wall, for example. We might even use the paper as a reference in order to buy a matching pot of paint and in this way to substitute thing A for thing B in respect of colour.

Substitution, Brook believes, is the foundation upon which all representations and representational practices rest and he describes three fundamental forms of substitution: Matching, Simulation & Symbolising.

Matching is the form of substitution which exploits the fact that two things are truly alike. The game of “Snap” where two cards are sensorily indistinguishable in a variety of ways: weight, size, shape, thickness, colour, pattern, etc. could be thought a paradigm of matching.

Matching also occurs in cases where one or more attributes are shared by two different objects. For example, the way a pencil matches the length of a finger or the colour of the pencil matches an orange or the spherical shape of an orange matches the spherical shape of the moon. In each of these cases we speak of the representation and its subject as ‘matching’ because we judge that they are alike in the criteria by which we are matching them. Perhaps a more accurate sensing device might detect some significant discrepancies, but though approximate, the fundamental equivalence between the two matched objects, clearly exists (at least at the perceptual level at which our species has evolved to function).

Unlike matches, Simulations are often radically different from the things they simulate. When holding a pencil at arm’s length it may seem to duplicate the height of a more distant object – a telegraph pole for example, yet we know that it does not actually match the height of the telegraph pole. The reason this strategy works is due to a regular (and exploitable) characteristic of optics in which distant objects are presented to the mechanisms of the eye as disproportionately small, relative to closer objects. Cameras exploit precisely the same characteristics in order to produce the images that we recognize as photographs. Brook describes this simulation process as:
“…a systematically regular discrimination failure, attributable to, and fully explicable by, the circumstances under which we are attempting to perform the sensory discrimination.” [Brook: in private correspondence]
In other words, in some situations it is difficult to discriminate (visually) between a simulation and the thing simulated, even though we are fully aware that the simulation and the thing simulated are not, as a matter fact, actually alike in the simulating respect.
Brook contends that this inability to discriminate between two objectively different things is due to systematic perceptual failures that are common to our species (and have also been observed in a number of other species, most notably our primate cousins).

By establishing this clear distinction between Matching and Simulation Brook provides a vital means to understand how representations function which cuts through decades of muddled thinking about perception and pictorial representation. No longer do we have to choose between what Nelson Goodman called “na├»ve resemblance theories” or theories that conjure up insubstantial so-called “mental images”.  Instead we have a solid basis upon which to examine representations as forms of substitution that employ varying degrees and kinds of both matching and simulation. However, before we turn to the evolutionary implications of all this theorisation there is one further component that we need borrow from Brook’s representational toolbox: Symbolising.

Symbolising is the means by which we represent things without recourse to either matching or simulation. For example I could use the same orange coloured pencil to represent a tree, a bowl of blancmange or even the moon for that matter and I wouldn’t even need a piece of paper to draw upon - simply designating the pencil as a representation of the moon would be sufficient. And, so long as we were willing (and this mutual consent is crucial to symbolic representation) to accept the pencil as a code for the moon I could use it at any future time – so long as we remember!

Brook speculates that the development of communication, imagination and even human consciousness must be the result of a progressive evolution of representing practices from rudimentary matching, through simulation and eventually to that most sophisticated form of symbolic representation known as language. He distinguishes between symbolic non-verbal representation and language by pointing out that the former still relies (as do matching and simulating) on sensory perception, whereas fully linguistic functions such as naming and describing and referring do not.

In Brook’s view, to utilize one’s imagination is to summon dispositions to represent, whether or not we actually enact these dispositions. It is the process by which we muster the impulses and responses we would have if we were to actually experience the thing or event imagined and, since we are inordinate users of perceptible representations, these impulses and responses are invariably directed towards the formation of representations to both register the situation in which we find ourselves, and more broadly to communicate with those around us; to guide the thoughts of others towards the same objects and possibilities as we ourselves are contemplating. It is an extraordinary feat that, as a species, we are able to do this; to use representations (no matter how unlike the things represented) to prompt other members of our species to respond comparably as they would to an actual experience.

This ability to detach the cognitive response from the perceptual encounter – the feeling from the seeing – must be at the very evolutionary core of human imagination, since, without the ability to entertain thoughts of something in its absence, imagination would be literally unthinkable.

To imagine, it might be said, is to turn our thoughts to experiences that are beyond the current focus of our senses. And how otherwise could our ancestors have learned to do so without the emergent use of perceptible representations to mediate their thoughts and intentions?


Alex said...

The business of 'matching' is very interesting indeed and I'd like to think more about all that, especially with Photorealism in mind. You see, the Photorealist canvas better matches the downtown New York scene than a Mondrian, would that be right?, but no one is thinking for a minute that the Photorealist thing is any more 'less not the thing' than the Mondrian. We can agree that the match is clearer with the Photorealist thing for visual identification reasons, even though we can simultaneously register that the two pictorialisations are made of the same things - canvas, wood, paint, tacks.
I recall my totally brilliant-minded PhD supervisor repeatedly telling me that the Estes canvas is not the downtown scene, and me returning frustrated to say that it is as different as a Mondrian, yes, of course, but if we can agree, it is (at the same time) not so different, because we have agreed to identify such a thing as the Estes as in some way respresentatively, or linguistically, closer to the scene in the world out there.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks for your comment. I think I may have failed to sufficiently exemplify the crucial distinction between Matching and Simulating representations in my text - for you at least. A photorealistic painting is not more of a Match of a New York scene than a Mondrian’s “Broadway Booie Woogie” I’m afraid no. A photorealistic image of a New York scene is actually principally a Simulating Representation. In other words it is largely reliant on an as yet unnamed shared perceptual characteristic/limitation/vulnerability/regularity that allows us to substitute these flat things we call pictures for three dimensional scenes. If we had a replica of the painting then that could be used as a Matching representation because it would match the original in a whole variety of respects.

The point is this. An alien possessed of a non-optical perceptual system would reject both the Mondrian and the photorealistic painting as representations of the scene but s/he would be happy to accept the replica of the painting as a Matching representation of the other painting.

Let me put it this way. If we found that a species of alien perceived the world similarly to us only in black and white, then we could easily exploit this fact by creating flat black and white simulating representations for them. Some of the more philosophically minded aliens might declare (as you do in your comment) that they believe our representations match the scenes depicted. But we humans, with our colour vision would disagree – there is no Matching, there is only the exploitation of a limitation in perception: a Simulating Representation.

Even more disconcertingly for the aliens though, would be when we produced a black and white copy of a colour photograph. This time all of the aliens, without the slightest hesitation would agree “This is a Matching representation”, to which we would say “Well yes they match in a whole variety of ways. But they are also radically different in a whole variety of respects too.”

The Mondrian, on the other hand, is neither a Matching nor a Simulating representation. It is a Symbolizing representation.

Alex said...

So in fact the Mondrian has as much or more in common with language than it does with image-making?
Related to the 'as yet unnamed characteristic/limitation/vulnerability/regularity', and this may be down my apprehension of the meaning of your syntax (so it might be my error), is that I'm not clear what in fact the ' characteristic/limitation/vulnerability/regularity' is. To be honest, I don't think anyone really makes this mistake - neither intellectually nor as a lump of animal reactions - then again, maybe I did once looking at hyperrealist sculpture in a gallery and think that it was the real thing, but if I did, it was for a nano-second, and it's never happened again. So I think you have, one has, to be open-eyed about the extent to which the transcription of the thing in front of us (through pictures are 3D things) is actually something which can cause us to make a mistake of recognition - is it actually it? Well, no. Need to think about this, but that's my gut feeling.

Jim Hamlyn said...

That's right, the Mondrian uses a different form of representation than Matching or Simulation that has more in common with language – in fact if it weren’t for the title I doubt whether many members of our species would ever think of it having any more than the most attenuated relationship to Broadway (or the Boogie Woogie for that matter).

As regards the ‘mistake’ that you don’t think anyone really makes, how about this: in carefully controlled lab conditions it is possible to create an illusion that leads each and every member of our species to the same erroneous conclusion, ie: that an object in the foreground is the same objective size as another much larger object in the background. Our alien possessed of a non-optical perceptual system would never make this discriminatory error.

I think I know what you’re getting at though because words like error, mistake, failure, weakness etc. suggest a problem of judgement which is not actually the case. It’s simply an exploitable characteristic of our optical system, a fantastically useful one at that. Another of these felicitous and exploitable characteristics of our perceptual makeup is the fact that we can be presented with a successive bunch of rapidly changing still images that (for us) form a simulation of movement, or what we call “movies”.

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