2005/05/27

Evocation, part 5

5. "Non-linguistic" experience and communication.
Understanding of the world, we shall say, results from cognizing experience. And experience itself has structural features that can be found in the memory of an experience. One object, significance, emotion, or relationship is connected to another by the circumstances or events making up the experience. And these experiences then influence our understanding of the world we encounter through experience, that is, just the world we live in. That heat should be associated with pain is not any sort of necessary association of the concepts, whatever their form or content, but rather a relation due to the common experience of burning oneself or being burned. The commonality of the features of multiple burning experiences, which are painful, are not (except accidentally) by the cause of the burn object-wise, but rather in terms of a quality, i.e. extreme heat.
One may be tempted to say that the features of an artwork, in evoking emotion, do so by reminding us of past experiences in which that emotion played a part in understanding—or of one in which the emotion was the significant result of the encounter. If this is correct, it can only be so upon clarification of experience and emotion, and of what "reminding" might be. An artwork, after all, according to the theory we have in hand neither resembles its subject nor resembles what denotes it or what it expresses. Any reminding, therefore, must take place due to the structural associations between the concepts expressed (or represented) by the artwork being in some manner similar to the associations between those in one's repertoire of experiences as techniques for understanding situations in the world.
What that amounts to is the thought that if there is a quality or property possessed by a work that has for someone an association with another quality, such that the predicate is associated with another in one's world-understanding style, then the cognitive state that is constitutive of "seeing" the property gives rise to the associated state(s) whether it be emotional or purely linguistic or somewhere between. Let us illustrate with two examples. The first one is a picture in which a politician is represented as a bloated hog. Our concepts associated with hogs, as indicated by our past experiences with this (clichéd) metaphor as well as with our beliefs (spurious or not) about the behavior of hogs, are that hogs are gluttonous, which is a concept associated with self-interestedness and greed. The organization of the political world via the metaphor of a barnyard animal schema results in the associated concepts coming along for the ride, as it were, and so the implication is made complete only when the audience of the work has the associated concepts of greediness, etc. already in place vis-à-vis hogs. Then, supposing that we feel revulsion at bald gluttony, our reaction to the depiction is predictably emotional as well as verbally expressible. The second example is one in which strong emotions, perhaps fear and grief, are possessed by an artwork—let us imagine a highly abstract painting that is angry, violently so, in which the expression of the emotion is a result of the vivid colors, slashing lines of paint, jagged solids, etc. The elements of some situations in which one has become angry may have features that are echoed in the painting; we imagine sharp focus on the object of anger, quick action, percussive contact, and so on. The elements of this painting are related to each other in such a way that their associations with dynamism, confrontation, penetration, intense focus, and so forth, remind us, in the special sense we are trying to indicate, of the structural features of an angry confrontation we have experienced from the inside—as it were—or of one which we have observed (another sort of experience). So here we not only see the emotion expressed in the work, but also by association with our memories, which are themselves our repertoire of methods for understanding, the angry emotion may be evoked in us—or some other emotion we associate with violently angry situations, for instance the fear response.
That emotions in experience are the result of structural features of the associations of concepts rather than of bare concepts is not a spectacular revision of Goodman's theory, nor a revolutionary characterization of cognitive processes in appreciating artworks. To the contrary, John Dewey seems to suggest something similar, although coming from a different direction. What is proposed above is that we should not expect emotional responses to be merely cognitive states that result from, or constitute, recognition of the properties of some part of the world (specifically, an artwork). Rather, they are the result of an interaction between the audience and the work, which depends to a great extent upon the history of the audience member and how she is prepared to navigate the world through understanding. Dewey's suggestion has to do with experience generally, though especially applicable to encounters with artworks. His idea seems to have the relevant (for us) features that experience is emotional—that a piece of one's history is an experience consists in its being unified by some emotional quality(s)—and that experiences are resolutions of problems, tensions, confrontations, obstacles, through the use of skills obtained in prior experiences. The intensely emotional experience of an artwork has the features of requiring the audience to interact with the qualities (properties) found in the work, for in understanding the work the experience of it consists in resolving some conflict, tension, etc. through the understanding. One's skill in such resolutions amounts to one's repertoire of methods from which one selects an appropriate technique with which to solve the problem one is presented with; and this sort of idea looks very like the account we have given of the structural features in a work evoking emotions in the audience by way of the associations of concepts (in memory, so to speak) the audience member possesses.
It is interesting to note as well that if this amounts to communication, it is non-linguistic—what Goodman might call nonverbal. For we have no easy way to describe the associations we have between our various cognitive states (here we are, and have been, including emotions). What it is that evokes spiritual elevation upon catching sight of the interior of the Sistine Chapel? Perhaps one cannot quite put one's finger on it. It does not seem a great stretch to say that if what is expressed by a work is communicated to the audience by it (just in the "act" of expression), that the associations of ideas that allow us to say that a work makes us feel sadness or lust are themselves a kind of communication. The artist may have even intended the work to evoke this emotion, as one might expect an anecdote to evoke one, and in this there is a definite transmission of some understanding of the world.

[Update. See the rest at parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7.]

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