Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Prepositions of Representation (some stipulations from ordinary language)

An image of a word about a non-particular hand.

As the Ordinary Language philosophers realised more than half a century ago, our linguistic categories and usage have the capacity to reveal a great deal about the sophistication of our concepts of perception and mind. I have written previously (here) of the ways in which complex procedures of representation are implicated in the usage of everyday terms. The following discussion extends this exploration through an examination of the prepositions "from", "of" and "about." If you are asking yourself "Why bother?" then it might be helpful to know that standard accounts of depiction commonly claim that images rely on signification, reference or denotation for their efficacy. With the help of a little ordinary language analysis I hope to show that this is not the case.

Pictures can be both "of" their subjects and "about" them. We also commonly say things like: "The portrait was made from life, from memory or from a photograph". "From", in this sense, is used to indicate the way a representation was made—how the image was derived from its source—rather than what it is actually of or about. If we intend to state that a picture is of Marilyn Monroe it would be both odd and imprecise to say: "This picture was taken from Marilyn Monroe." In standard usage then, we tend to say things like: "A photographic print was made from the negative," "A rubbing was taken from the tree," or "An edition was printed from the woodblock." It is also acceptable to use "of" in these instances, as in "A rubbing was taken of the tree" or "A photographic print was made of the negative" although it might be argued that this usage lacks precision. 

Casts, impressions and imprints also commonly take the preposition "from", as in: "A cast was made from Thomas Reid's face" or "They found an imprint from the burglar's shoe." However, where the use of "from" only ever describes the way images are derived, in the case of casts, impressions and imprints, the preposition describes what the representation is of by default. A cast from Reid's face is of Reid's face and an impression from a shoe is of a shoe. Where casts, impressions and imprints are concerned then, no further description is necessary to determine what the representation is of.

In many cases, "of" and "about" can also be used interchangeably, as in: "I've been thinking of you," or "I've been thinking about you." When applied to representations this usage changes considerably, as in: "This image is of you," or "This image is about you." If a representation is of something we would expect to see the thing represented, whereas if a representation is about something, there is no requirement that the representation actually depict the thing or idea represented. When we say that an image is about something, it is rightly assumed that the image involves meaning and therefore interpretation of some kind. However, an image of something need not be about anything and therefore need not involve interpretation of any kind. Passport controllers are not experts in image interpretation after all.

On the basis of the above we might reasonably stipulate that a depiction cannot be about something without first being of something. An obvious (but nonetheless faulty) objection might attempt to counter this stipulation by citing a class of meaningful images that are not of anything, i.e. abstract images. It is true that what we call "non-representational" or "abstract" images are not of anything, but nor are these depictions. Depictions depict things and are therefore of the things they depict. If an image does not depict anything then it cannot be said to be a depictive representation. Abstract images are by definition non-representational. This is not to suggest that abstract images are uninterpretable.

In order for images (including non-representational images) or objects etc. to have meaning (to be about anything) they need to be interpreted. Interpretation is a learned skill that requires the manipulation of abstract concepts. Meanings are therefore culturally informed attributions that do not inhere in things. Human infants do not interpret depictions but they are capable of recognising what depictions are of. The capacity to interpret things emerges with the acquisition of language. The capacity to recognise  things however, including depictive representations, is necessarily more fundamental.

1: When applied to an image, the preposition "from" describes how an image was derived but not what the image is actually of
2: When applied to casts, impressions and imprints, the preposition "from" indicates what the representation is of by default.
3: An image of something need not be about anything.
4: A depiction cannot be about something without being of something.
5: Meaning ("about-ness") requires interpretation which is linguistically enabled.
6: Image recognition does not require language or conceptual knowledge.


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