Thursday, 26 September 2013

Imagining Itself (part XVIII: objectivity and subjectivity)

There are few better ways to engage the imagination than learning a new language. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Germany in the last 25 years and in the 1990’s I attended evening classes in German at the Goethe Institute in Glasgow. With my background in fine art photography it was perhaps inevitable that I would be intrigued to discover that the German word for lens is “objectiv”. It shares its etymology with the English words "object" and "objective" but what I have always found curious about this word is the fact that lenses are by no means objective. Lenses possess unique properties that allow them to be used in various ways to alter the path of light, to focus it and, most notably, to produce images. We’ve come to think of images – especially photographic images - as highly realistic depictions; as truthful representations of the world, as unmediated representations even. But the only reason we might be led to this mistaken conclusion is because we have lenses in our heads which obey the very same laws of optical distortion.

We have become so familiar with photographs and the ways photographic images represent the world that it might be argued that they have become the very yardstick of perception; a standard by which we judge the veracity of our sensations. Nonetheless, for an organism lacking a functioning lens-based perceptual system – a bat for instance - photographic representations are of no use whatsoever.

If you wanted to produce a viable representation for a bat (or for an echolocating alien for that matter) you would probably have to provide some kind of headphone device and play echolocation recordings at a frequency they recognise. Of course a bat would probably find the headphones uncomfortable and the experience would, no doubt,  be extremely alarming in the absence of bodily control. Nonetheless the principle is workable. Some blind people have developed the skill of echolocation and research shows that it is possible to simulate the necessary sensory input through stereo playback of audio recordings.

Lens-based images and echolocation headphone devices are examples of a profoundly interesting form of representation that depends entirely upon the characteristics of the perceptual system which it exploits. If we carefully control the system of presentation then it is possible to produce these simulating representations in such a way that they are extremely difficult to differentiate from ordinary sensations. Virtual Reality, holograms, 3D film, TV and stereograms as well as numerous optical illusions – the Ames room being a prototypical example – all exploit the characteristics of the visual system in this way.

But it would be wrong to assume that simulating representations are objective. For a representation to be objective, it must be perceiver-independent. In other words, it must not rely on any form of distortion, foible or idiosyncrasy - no matter how consistent or mathematically specifiable - in any particular perceptual system. The only form of objective representation therefore is one in which the represented object and the representation itself match one another precisely. The reason this is the case is because only matching representations are likely to be acceptable to all conceivable perceivers – bats and bat-like aliens included.

In defining objectivity, dictionary definitions frequently refer to the notion of “mind independence”. This term serves to make an important distinction between objectivity on the one hand and all forms of personal opinion, emotional colouring or subjective bias on the other. However, it would be easy to loose sight of an important fact about objectivity. An objective view is one that represents things as they actually are. It enables the description or representation of material things, actions and states of affairs in such a way that any perceiver, no matter how intelligent or perceptually well endowed, would accept such a representation as accurate and true. The only way we can go about identifying, selecting and creating such representations is through our capacities as representation-makers and this would be impossible without the contribution of our minds. So, in this limited, but vitally important sense, objectivity turns out to be inextricably mind-dependent (or else an entirely unattainable ideal).

Far from being an impoverished and partial viewpoint, subjectivity involves a rich interweaving of representational dispositions, capacities and abilities, some of which have been genetically acquired, others that have been discovered and refined through cultural innovation over millennia and perhaps even some that are unique to the experience of the individual. But whatever distinctions we might wish to draw between objectivity and subjectivity there will always be a significant overlap, because both are a product of our capacities to make and to use representations. Both require minds and both involve the capacity to identify, select and produce matching representations.

These thoughts originally emerged from a consideration of prevalent attitudes towards childhood development, imagination and fantasy. In the previous accompanying post we saw how these attitudes, especially towards fantasy, often expose a certain disdain regarding the assumed lack of “reality” or “fact” in fantasy preoccupations. Perhaps the anxiety underlying such disdain pits the subjective against the objective on a checkerboard that turns out to be little more than a puritanical invention.

The reason that imagination and fantasy (which is simply a variety of imagination in which the improbable plays a more prominent role) are so vitally important for human beings is because we are prodigious representation users and even when we find ourselves wholly immersed in the most subjective of pursuits we are nonetheless sharpening skills of representation which, despite all claims to the contrary, are fundamentally social in nature and are directed towards a richer, more varied and more intelligible understanding of the world.

Inevitably there are instances in which individuals lives as so monotonous, harsh or unbearable that they feel forced to retreat into what we might call the solace of the subjective; of thoughts and imaginings of how things might be otherwise. We all do this on occasion – perhaps more than we are willing to admit. But how other than through this capacity to daydream, to fantasise and to imagine could we ever form hopes or ideals or even conceive of the very notion of objectivity in the first place?


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