Perception an object seeking correlation to a subject, but

Perception as Interpretation: What Happens When We See

 

 

A metaphor
gives concrete substance to an impression that is difficult to express. An
image, on the contrary, is a product of absolute imagination. … It is a phenomenon of being.

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Space is
nowhere. Space is inside it like honey in a hive.

 

 

 

Let us,
before starting the following meditation, assign a concrete semantic field to
its chief concept: phenomenology. We will understand it as an attitude, a concept
which definition is not a doctrinal issue in the history of ideas, but a performative
act: it occupies us in simultaneity with the aesthetic experience in relation
to which it merely exists as an intellectual reflection. So was it understood
by Heidegger or Merleau-Ponty when, each starting from the epistemology of
sensitivity in Husserl, they arrived at the experience of the image that will
occupy is throughout.

To better
understand this development, and how it correlates to an artistic praxis, we must
first understand the turn operated by Husserl from an epistemology concerned
with the mind through the notion of truth and its subsequent dualisms
(inside/outside, self/world, dream/vigil, etc.) to one that seeks to account
for the very subjectivity of consciousness –that is, one that poetry innocently
enforces from its very inception.

As part of
the Lebenswelt that the body builds
on each subjective experience that grows unchecked by external epistemic values,
Husserl provides us with an example persuasive in its absurd disproportion to
what these values agree on. He states: Earth does not move. Each of us, he
says, posses, so to say, a parcel of ground we bring with ourselves: it never
escapes the horizon of our gaze. It moves on our account, and not the other way
around. Not only in this sense is the uncontested truth of the Copernican-Galilean
model foreign to our essential subjective experience: this experience, through
its thousand permutations, is not on its own stable enough as to set a standard
of certitude for itself: the ground we carry with us varies in accordance to
history as well as in accordance to the moments that constitute history. In a similar
expression of subjectivity, Balzac says: ‘When he used his entire strength, he
grew unaware, as it were, of his physical life, and only existed through the
all-powerful play of his interior organs, the range of which he constantly
maintained, and according to his own admirable expression, he made space withdraw
before his advance’. The abstract notion of space disappears, in Lefevbre’s
terms, as we create (or produce) upon it our own space, or ground.

When ontology
gazes on this structure of embodied experience, or Lebenswelt, it names the apparition of the ground an image: not an object seeking correlation
to a subject, but rather the context in which the Dasein reveals itself: from Husserl’s world of images, which retained
the hint of idealism, we are thrown into a world that is the image.  

Is this
not, aside from the abstraction that paradoxically results from seeing
ourselves in isolation, what happens when we look at a painting? Is the act of
painting, because it mirrors the act of being, a duality, a contingent
commentary about a previous fact? Or, on the other hand, far from being a
document, is it an image of its own? Do poetics -to generalize the question- deal
with the image only in commentary and imitation or are they what brings the being of the image in full sight?

We may
start to answer this question asking another, more propaedeutic one: what is a
painting, aside from a thing among others? Is it only the representation of
what is outside itself (mimesis), analogous, as Plato said, to the reflection
of shapes on the water, or, instead of an object defined in outward relation,
is it the source of an experience of its own? This is, evidently, the famous
shift towards an art theory grounded on the ‘sensitive’ (aisthésis) that Kant,
reading from Baumgarten, subjected to subjet-object categories (Urteil). Once
it undergoes the phenomenological transformation it develops the kind of
anxiety that is generally equated with modernity: sensitivity becomes sensible
to itself.

Thus is the
possibility of a phenomenological analysis of painting presented. Painting is
not the subsidiary appearance of things that were before in sight: it is the
very event of sight coming to being. As Merleau-Ponty says in The Eye and the Spirit: La concentración
y venida  a sí de lo visible.

 

*

 

The notion
of ‘phenomenon’ we have so far cheerfully implied needs to be accounted for. As
in Heidegger, it begs being introduced after
the concept of phenomenology –the one is not contained in the other, and
only through the methodical employment of the second does the first become
apparent:

The Greek
expression cpawop.£vov, to which the term ‘phenomenon’ goes back, is derived
from the verb cpalvw8at, which signifies “to show itself”. Thus
cpatvop.£vov means that which shows itself, the manifest das, was sich zeigt,
das Sichzeigende, das Offen bare. cpalv£a8at itself is a middle-voiced form
which comes from cpa{vw–to bring to the light of day, to put in the light.
C/Jalvw comes from the stem cpa-, like cpw>, the light, that which is
bright-in other words, that wherein something can become manifest, visible in
itself. Thus we must keep in mind that the expression ‘phenomenon’ signifies
that which shows itself in itself, the manifest.

The
phenomenon would then be the being as given in its appearing. It exists neither
as a positive object nor as the imitation of another positive object. This is the
‘performative’ (put into practice through ontology) development of a previous
definition by Husserl:

La
percepción pretende dar el objeto mismo. Esto permanece como una pretensión. El
objeto no es dado efectivamente, es decir, no es dado plenamente e
integralmente tal cual es en sí mismo. Aparece solamente ‘de frente’, solamente
‘en perspectiva y como esbozo’, etc. Mientras que muchas de esas
determinaciones son representadas en el núcleo de la percepción, otras no
entran, aún bajo una forma representada, en la percepción: los componentes del
revés invisible, del interior, etc., son sin duda proyectados al mismo tiempo
de una manera más o menos determinada, pero ellos mismos no entran de modo
alguno dentro del contenido intuitivo de la percepción

By
phenomenon, then, we understand the perception that exceeds its object without
exhausting it. For Husserl it was the main logical transaction in the world-experience
of the body; for Heidegger, the way in which any world started to present
itself. Figurative painting relies on the same paradox: our perception of it as
phenomenon surpasses the sum of its parts. If we behold it only as a yuxtaposition
of parts, signifying a reality outside of itself, we start a logical chain
which reduction ad absurdum would lead
us to refuse too as illusory such ‘reality’. What might be a useful tool to
produce the patchwork of History and classify its works can, when applied otherwise,
stall the instant of perception that, ultimately, exists as the sole certain
episode in the aesthetic experience.

Let us
consider a painting which typifies the previous.  In Der
Höllensturz der Verdammten, a composition of exceptional density and uncomfortable
perspective, we see, like in Brueghel or Bosch’s chastisements, a catalogue of
deformities that initially invites, under what Ballard called the ‘mysterious
eroticism of wounds’, to close inspection. We see bodies piled and contorted,
tracing a helix between Heaven and Hell. Their degrees of damnation, the
tortures they are subject to, and the light gradient -from the palatine grey shed
behind Michael Angel’s wings to the earthy ochres on the opposite corner- that frames
them, suggests different narratives within a tripartite structure. However, on
attempting to confer entity to the divided parts, we discover our initial
mistake. The fastidious drawing of each face of damnation is something of an inverted
trompe-l’oeil: it veils, until the
spectator is acquainted enough with the composition, the extent of its
dramatism. In fact, only when seen in the profoundness of a single glimpse,
does the painting fully manifest to the vision. The piled bodies become a fluid;
the smoke and fire a sudden impression that affects the sight not by weighing
it down under accumulation, but by sheer trauma; the absence of a horizon
strikes discomforts us in a way that has nothing to do with criticism.  What was an allegorical space, an array of
signs referring to a set of canonical Christian emotions, becomes a
psychological one. Although we might talk about pictorial spaces in the
thematic sense, only thus do they survive. Our way of reading or looking at the
painting seems to depend on the logic of its contents only upon a deferred,
educated analysis. Immediately, we do not notice them but the mere appearing of
the image. As Henri Maldiney dictates in Regard
Parole Space: ‘The artistic function of the image is not imitation. It is
apparition’.

This theory
of perception, built solely with the instruments perception itself provides,
leads onwards to an introspective tour of abstract art. Avoiding historiographical
debate, we will consider art to be abstract when it does not serve as a token
of an exterior, ‘more real’, object, even if its aim is also to represent or
even imitate. For when Braque and Picasso, in their cubist period, put the ‘domestic’
on display (a guitar, a …), they do so incidentally, conveying not objects but
the mental foundation of these. They put forward the paradox -so it would be
for classical theory of art, obfuscated with the subject-object correlation- of
the apparition becoming clearer in despite of the object’s absence, or perhaps
on its account. Similarly, the line in Kandinsky’s composition, expanding without
closure, in counterpoint, so to say, to an interior theme and so indifferent of
objectivity, seems to us to be fulfilling an artistic integrity as demanding as
that of an exterior object would be.

What we ‘see’
in the abstract painting is, then, the event of sight: phenomenologically, the
image makes its apparition the same way it would in a figurative painting -it is misleading to enforce the
stylistic distinction between the two-, but without the constraint of it
being readily reduced to a sign. In a pedagogical narration of art, we could go
as far as to assign to abstract art the function of manifesting the way we see.
However, there must be something in the work of art that escapes this
tautological formulation: if this was not the case, the phenomenon would be
shaped like a loop, and the whole edifice built on phenomenological experience
would crumble, for loops are, when logically visualized, binary. Husserl would
retort to this that our method’s immanence is not a logical mistake, but its
essential feature as part of the larger phenomenological field. That is, since
phenomenology deals with the sphere of consciousness, nothing lies transcendent
to it. But although this is solipsist remark stands true of our method in
relation to general phenomenology, it cannot stand of the phenomenon we apply
it to unless we generalize this methodical solipsism to the whole of our
epistemology, in which case the discussion is futile. This dilemma, the so-called
‘paradox of subjectivity’, has, apart from the previous two, a third horn: subjectivity
(or consciousness) being something in the world it constitutes (if we reject
the solipsistic dead-end), can neither be said to be transcendent, for it
belongs to a larger frame, nor immanent, for it creates such a frame –internality
and externality would thus be merged. For Bachelard, this paradox is an
invitation to map philosophical spaces at a scale independent of the world-concept:

‘Philosophers,
when confronted with outside and inside, think in terms of being and non-being
… We seek to determine being and, in so doing, transcend all situation, to
give a situation of all situations.’

For us,
however, it is an invitation to return to the smaller issue of method. It would
seem, again, that the implicit diversity of the work of art questions our
approach to it as a unified sensation. Is not the work of art capable of
undergoing transformations that upset our regarding it through this theory of
sensation, devoid of metaphoric relations? What of performative act when it
depends on an outward source of meaning? Of the intertextual play that
ironically follows that ‘death of meta-narratives’ Lyotard talked about, so
that every art seems to imply the others in its discourse, and subordinate a
significant part of the aesthetic experience to reference and irony,
hermeneutic satisfaction? In the instance of Francis Bacon’s Innocent X, is it intellectually honest
to disassociate the act of seeing the canvas, in its admittedly grotesque and
phenomenologically captivating state, from its cultural implication? Pushing
our poetics of the image to the extreme we arrive at the difficulty of
reconciling the poetic act, with which we have so far dealt, with the narrative
one (if we concede that they are formally different): by reducing time (the
deconstruction of the work of art, its being in time, only an aside of the
aesthetic experience) to space, to the immediacy of a space that constantly
unfolds itself anew, we risk an excessive symmetry between the way images -and
thus art- reveal themselves and the way we formulate our description of it. For
what is the point of a theoretical approach that mirrors the praxis it describes
to the extent of becoming an exercise in it?

These very
apt questions resonate with our first premise: that phenomenology would be
understood as an attitude instead of a dogma. For, in fact, the purpose of
examining the being of the work of art as in a sort of vicarious introspection
is not -I do not believe it is- to arrange a corpus of aesthetic ideas, but to
measure them, through experience, whether they are accessory to the work of art
or inherent to it. Phenomenology is thus, as applied to the arts, neither
theory nor praxis: it psychology in which the subject and the object are
omitted, and the poetic act experienced only immediately, therefore being too
vague to inspire a theoretical framework and too short to impose a pattern of
behaviours. And it is immediately experienced not because it lacks the
ramifications previously described, nor because it cannot fall into narrative
digression and thus be ubiquitous, but because this simple transgression
(tackling ontology without subject and object, without the sensations being
merely an exchange between separate realities) aspires only to experience ‘truth’, not to reason it. ‘When
metaphysicians speak briefly, they can reach immediate truth, a truth that, in
due course, would yield to proof’, Bachelard says. Even if the proof serious
phenomenology tries to furnish the instant of ‘truth’ with seems too intricate
to talk about naivety, this is precisely its purpose in analysing the work of
art: a deliberate innocence, if such a thing is possible.

 Octavio Paz finished his thoughts on the
matter with a similar corollary: el sentido de la imagen es la imagen misma (el
arco y la lira). We disagree with the logic that the irreducibility of images
is incompatible with criticism: if anything, it is the purpose of good criticism,
as Pound and Eliot had it, to explore these images and uncover their layers,
and perhaps put them in conversation. However, the general meaning is not
different from what we have henceforth stated. What happens when we see is, as
a diachronic process, essentially different from what happens in the exact
moment we see. The phenomenological contribution to interpretation or criticism
is therefore neuter: it should not dissuade from critical discourse, but
certainly not inspire it. Let us then not apply it teleologically but
understand it as the strange theoretical prosody that attempts to recapture, resisting
metaphor and analogy, in an unattainably pure form of verbal expression, what
happens in the instant when that purity persuades us of our own existence
better than the logical interaction between the categories we have broken this
into.

“Es
como si cada punto del cuadro tuviera conocimiento de todos los otros. Tanto
más participa cada uno, tanto más se combinan adaptación y rechazo; tanto más
cada uno vela, a su manera, por el equilibrio y lo asegura…. Todo no es más que
un asunto de colores entre ellos…. En este vaivén de mil influencias recíprocas,
el interior del cuadro vibra, flota en sí mismo, sin un solo punto inmóvil…. Te
imaginas la dificultad de abordar de manera precisa estos hechos”.

They,
indeed, cannot be dealt with in precision, but this compels us to keep trying.