Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The revision of vision


I have persistently written about the limitations of vision and how language can affect our perceptions. In “Why naming the ‘thing’ can be a problem” I pointed out how language defines our visual interpretations. Another post, “Intuition is just another form of pattern recognition”, was also about the limitations of language description and the importance of trying to find new patterns by defining information in a different way.

When I posted “Shades of Truth” at the beginning of August this year, I was reminded, yet again, of the similarities to an essay I came across in the Disney Imagineering Library in Glendale, CA many years ago.  The essay was “The Revision of Vision”  by S.I. Hayakawa (1906-1992), a linguist, psychologist, and teacher. It was written as an introduction to the book "Language of Vision" by Gyorgy Kepes. There are many writings that have impacted my interpretations of painting and art, and this essay is certainly at the top of my list.


The Revision of Vision

by S.I. Hayakawa, Illinois Institute of Technology 

Introductory essay for "Language of Vision" by Gyorgy Kepes, originally published in 1944

Whatever may be the language one happens to inherit, it is at once a tool and a trap. It is a tool because with it we order our experience, matching the data abstracted from the flux about us with linguistic units: words, phrases, sentences. What is true of verbal languages is also true of visual "languages": we match the data from the flux of visual experience with image-clichés, with stereotypes of one kind or another, according to the way we have been taught to see.

And having matched the data of experience with our abstractions, visual or verbal, we manipulate those abstractions, with or without further reference to the data, and make systems with them. Those systems of abstractions, artifacts of the mind, when verbal, we call "explanations," or "philosophies"; when visual, we call them our "picture of the world."

With these little systems in our heads we look upon the dynamism of the events around us, and we find, or persuade ourselves that we find, correspondences between the pictures inside our heads and the world without. Believing those correspondences to be real, we feel at home in what we regard as a "known" world.

languages select . . . they leave out what they do not select.


In saying why our abstractions, verbal or visual, are a tool, I have already intimated why they are also a trap. If the abstractions, the words, the phrases, the sentences, the visual clichés, the interpretative stereotypes, that we have inherited from our cultural environment are adequate to their task, no problem is presented. But like other instruments, languages select, and in selecting what they select, they leave out what they do not select. The thermometer, which speaks one kind of limited language, knows nothing of weight. If only temperature matters and weight does not, what the thermometer "says" is adequate. But if weight, or color, or odor, or factors other than temperature matter, then those factors that the thermometer cannot speak about are the teeth of the trap. Every language, like the language of the thermometer, leaves work undone for other languages to do.

Visually, the majority of us are still "object-minded" and not "relation-minded". 


. . . Revisions of language are needed. Every day we are, all of us, as persons, as groups, as societies, caught in the teeth of what the older languages leave completely out of account. We talk of a new, shrunken, interdependent world in the primitive smoke-signals of "nationality," "race" and "sovereignty". We talk of the problems of an age of international cartels and patent monopolies in the economic baby-talk of Poor Richard's Almanack. We attempt to visualize the eventfulness of a universe that is an electro-dynamic plenum in the representational clichés evolved at a time when statically-conceived, isolable "objects" were regarded as occupying positions in an empty and absolute "space". Visually, the majority of us are still "object-minded" and not "relation-minded". We are the prisoners of ancient orientations imbedded in the languages we have inherited.

The language of vision determines, perhaps even more subtly and thoroughly than verbal language, the structure of consciousness. To see in limited modes of vision is not to see at all - to be bounded by the narrowest parochialisms of feeling.

. . . Purposely depriving us of the easy comfort of all aesthetic stereotypes and interpretative clichés, Mr. Kepes would have us experience vision as vision. (His) endeavor may perhaps best be characterized by the following analogy. To a Chinese scholar, the pleasure to be derived from an inscription is only partly due to the sentiments it may express. He may take delight in the calligraphy even when the inscription is meaningless to him as text. Suppose now a singularly obtuse Chinese scholar existed who was solely preoccupied with the literary or moral content of inscriptions, and totally blind to their calligraphy, How would one ever get him to see the calligraphic qualities of an inscription, if he persisted, every time the inscription was brought up for examination, in discussing its literary content, it accuracy or inaccuracy as statement of fact, his approval or disapproval of its moral injunctions?

Something of the quality of a child's delight in playing with colors and shapes has to be restored to us before we learn to see again . . .


It is just such a problem that faces the contemporary artist, confronted with a public to whom the literary, sentimental, moral, etc., content of art is art - to whom visual experience as such is an almost completely ignored dimension. . . . We have all been taught, in looking at pictures, to look for too much. Something of the quality of a child's delight in playing with colors and shapes has to be restored to us before we learn to see again, before we unlearn the terms in which we ordinarily see.

...How we deal with reality is determined at the moment of impact by the way in which we grasp it. Vision shares with speech the distinction of being the most important of the means by which we apprehend reality.

When we structuralize the primary impacts of experience differently,we shall structuralize the world differently.


To cease looking at things atomistically in visual experience and to see relatedness means, among other things, to lose in our social experience... the deluded self-importance of absolute "individualism" in favor of social relatedness and interdependence. When we structuralize the primary impacts of experience differently, we shall structuralize the world differently.

The reorganization of our visual habits so that we perceive not  isolated "things" in "space" but structure, order, and the relatedness of events in space-time, is perhaps the most profound kind of revolution possible - a revolution that is long overdue not only in art, but in all our experience.