Monday, March 24, 2008

Art, Language, and "Cognitive Equivalence"

When I usually speak about the Art versus Language Perspectives, I usually couch it in a view that there are "different potential ways our society treats graphic images." As I just realized, stating it in this way maybe obscures the true intent of the distinctions.

Really, this is a hypothesis about cognition.

At the heart of my theory of visual language is the observation that we have three modalities by which we can convey our concepts: Sound, Body motions (faces/hands), and creating graphic images. That's it. To push it further, the theory is that when these modalities take on structured sequences governed by a system of constraints (a grammar), it becomes a type of language: speech, sign language, or visual language.

The "Language Perspective" assumes that all systems of conceptual expression work in similar ways — what we can maybe call "cognitive modality equivalence" or some such. Under such a view, we would expect for the graphic modality (drawings) to operate under the same principles as the verbal and manual domains.

If you look at the ways that speech and gestures (and sign language) grow developmentally in children and are used and treated in society, you see certain patterns — conventionality, imitation, communality, etc. While many of those patterns do emerge in the graphic domain, they appear "dampened", are dismissed, or just aren't recognized as such.

So, the question becomes raised: "Why don't you see these things fully in the graphic modality?" and/or "why don't we know them when we see them?"

The offered explanation is the Art Perspective — a cultural force that suppresses the patterns that would normally emerge from any other modality of conceptual expression. With polar opposite emphases, the Art Perspective works to dampen the "usual" course of development and treatment for graphic images.

So, given this, a new set of questions can be asked about this underlying "cognitive modality equivalence": What are the trends that a conceptually expressive system shows in development and society? How do modalities differ? Do these trends reflect broader cognitive processes than just conceptually expressing systems?


Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

Interesting. Some thoughts off the top of my head:

1) If the "Art Perspective" is "cultural", is it also a cross-cultural universal? Or are there cultures without the Art Perspective to interfere with the "normal" development of the graphic modality?

2) You might say "yes, cultures with pictographs". In which case, the second question is whether these cultures show the "normal" development of the graphic modality across the board, or only in the realm of pictographs. That is, do their graphic representations in general show a grammar? Or only their pictographs?

3) Given the existence of the "Art Perspective" in our culture and others, what sense can be given to the claim that the "normal" or "usual" course of development is towards a visual grammar? You put scarequotes around "normal" and "usual", so you're obviously aware that there's something funny here. But claiming that we would "normally" develop a visual grammar without the "Art Perspective" is sort of like claiming that children would "normally" develop no linguistic grammar at all without the appropriate linguistic input.

You might equally well say that the normal development is away from a visual language and towards the art perspective, insofar as there are a couple of obvious differences between the graphic modality and the other two you mention. Viz.

(i) graphic representations are longer-lasting;

(ii) it's, by and large, easier for creatures like us to create resemblance-relations between sign and referent in the graphic modality than in the other two (at least for the sorts of physical objects that we commonly talk about). In English: it's easier to draw a tree that looks like a tree than to make a sound that sounds like a tree, or make a motion that looks like a tree.

(iii) Because of (ii), it would seem to be natural, in the graphic domain, to move away from conventionality and towards a semantics based on resemblance. Which makes it harder for rich graphic representations to representation a univocal proposition. Pick a sentence from "Great Expectations" and you can tell me what proposition it expresses. Pick a panel from "Maus" and try to do the same. You can't blame that entirely on some cultural force, I don't think.

4) Finally, exactly what sort of "cultural force" is the "Art Perspective"? I like Sperber's approach to culture, which tries to cash out everything in terms of (the distribution of) representations in people's heads. But then I have a hard time seeing what sort of representation the "Art Perspective" is.

Neil said...

Wow, ok, thanks for the queries Jones... Let me see how much of your concerns I can address...

1) No, I don't believe that the Art Perspective is a cultural universal. As I see it, it's a largely American/European thing.

2) Japan does seem to show more language-like behavior in their development and treatment of the VL, though the Art perspective does have some influence at least. A more "pure" Language Perspective culture would be native Australian communities that draw narratives in the sand, which are highly conventional and are transmitted through imitation alone. (these representations are not longer lasting, because they are in sand)

I can't say I'm entirely sold on the idea that pictographs are always visual languages, especially since they might not have a visual grammar. I also find the term distasteful and vague.

2) By "normal" I mean the type of development that occurs in other modalities. I put it in scare-quotes because the Art Perspective doesn't necessarily give "abnormal" development, it just suppresses/dampens the tendencies towards things like learning via imitation, conventionality, drawing for communication, etc.

As for the factor of iconicity, I think that it plays a huge role in the Art Perspective by what I've called Iconic Bias. Conventionality is not opposed to iconicity though — when drawing the same characters over time most authors have a more and more refined and conventionalized way of drawing. Or, conventional faces in manga still look human, but are highly systematized.

Conventionality may be a requisite for symbols, but it does not equate to symbolism. (This is a limit of Saussure's semiology, and an oft overlooked/ignored part of Peirce's semiotics)

What "life drawing" does though is rebound the system, so that those conventionalized patterns don't take hold.

4) The Art Perspective is a "cultural force" in a mental representations sense. It's a paradigm of thought comprised of a set of assumptions and expectations that people make about graphic communication.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Glad to see you're still at it, Neil. When did you move to Mass? I see you're working with Jackendoff-kudos!