Saturday, 1 October 2016

A Brief Introduction To My Research

The following is an introductory text produced for an exhibition of research staff currently teaching at Gray’s School of Art.

Throughout my career as an artist and academic, I have always been interested in the theory as well as the many practices of representation. During the last 5 years this interest has developed to the point that my research has become wholly devoted to the theory of representation and its wider implications, most especially as it pertains to perception, communication and consciousness.

What is representation? By "representation" I mean precisely what we commonly mean by the term in ordinary language. Representations are stand-ins. Even political representatives act as proxies for the people whose views they represent. In short, representations are useful substitutes for the things they represent. The means by which representations function might seem to be extremely varied, because they are can involve so many different techniques. But in fact representations can be divided into three distinct categories (vide Donald Brook 1997, 2013), two nonverbal and one verbal. The two nonverbal strategies of representation rely on two importantly different sorts of resemblance, whereas verbal communication relies upon the capacity to accept absolutely anything as a symbolic substitute for absolutely anything else. This is an extremely sophisticated skill, almost entirely restricted to most humans.

It is my view that our prodigious skill in the use of symbolic communication is the result of a long history of tool-use and especially of practices of social exchange in which objects and behaviours become interchangeable due to socially negotiated attributions of value that are ascribed to them. It is this process—this technique—of value attribution that I regard as such a vital factor in the emergence of practices of symbol-use and the ascription of symbolic meaning.

It will be clear then, that I regard symbolic meaning as an exclusively human invention because it is fully dependent upon the capacity to treat objects and circumstances as having significance or “content” that is not a measurable or quantifiable property of them. But when we say that a ball means "playtime" to a dog, we need not be committing ourselves to the belief that the dog regards the ball as a symbol of playtime. We merely mean that the dog knows that the ball usually accompanies playful activity. In other words, we take the dog to be capable of forming associative responses to things and thus to know what they mean in this limited sense.

Returning to nonverbal representations, we find that language enables us to treat even these as verbal constructs, but it obviously does not follow that it is always appropriate to do so; to treat them as messages, signifiers, descriptions or texts. What a nonverbal representation is of is what we might regard as a first-order representational feature. What it is about, on the other hand, is a second-order representational feature and thus depends on a different set of interpretive resources on our part.

There is another common confusion that my research seeks to disentangle. Images, for example, do not resemble things in the same way as models. Models, copies, replicas, reproductions, re-enactments, and exemplification etc. all function because they share features in common with the things they represent. These shared features may be approximate to various degrees, but they do not rely on our taking a particular point of view to maximise the effect. Images, on the other hand, are only fully like the things they represent in certain ways and under certain conditions. In other words, depictions can sometimes be mistaken for the things they represent, but such mistakes rely to a very significant degree on the particular circumstances of presentation or encounter (i.e. the level and evenness of light, our point of view, our level of attentiveness etc.).

So to sum up, to say that an image is a description or that a description is a picture or that a picture is a model or that models delineate the world etc. is to talk in circles. My research is intended to show how the theorisation of philosophers, researchers and sometimes even scientists goes awry when they confuse, misunderstand and mischaracterise distinct categories of representation.


Paul Herman said...

What do you think of this by Pinker?

“A brain is a computational system in which knowledge and goals are represented as patterns in bits of matter (‘representations’). The system is designed in such a way that one representation causes another to come into existence; and these changes mirror the laws of some normatively valid system like logic, statistics, or laws of cause and effect in the world. … The design of the system thus ensures that if the old representations were accurate, the new ones are accurate as well. Deriving new accurate beliefs from old ones in pursuit of a goal is not a bad definition of ‘intelligence’.”
Steven Pinker

Jim Hamlyn said...

Well, let's examine the logic. Either a representation is intentional or it is unintentional. If it is unintentional, then action cannot logically be intentional. And if it is intentional, then logically it must be initiated by another intentional representation and then another and another ad infinitum.

Pinker is often good. But on this subject he is bewitched by the reflection he sees in the cauldron of our own technological prowess.

Paul Herman said...

I'm afraid I don't take your point, Jim.

First, I don't see why a sequence of representations must be either intentional or not. An unintentional representation can instigate an intentional response, can it not? And, logically, the inverse is also true.

Second, why ad infinitum? I don't understand your objection to an initiating representation. There is a point when a baby has its first conscious thought, just as the adult might begin a reasoned line of thought based on the memory of a dream.

Jim Hamlyn said...

"I don't see why a sequence of representations must be either intentional or not."

Well what else could they be? It's a logical point. They either are or they are not intentional. If they are not, there can be no intention (according to the inner representation model) and if they are, then (by this model) we have no way to avoid the charge of an infinite regress.

The supposition that a baby has its first conscious thought _ex nihilo_ is a crude rendering of what is most likely a gradual dawning based upon the acquisition of a repertoire of socially shaped skills. Representing (verb) is one of them and it is fully and necessarily public.

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