Jim Hamlyn has previously been described on Aesthetics for the Birds as an “asshole” and a “Brook acolyte”, [**in the comments section here, with a snapshot found here**] at least one of which he freely admits is probably true. Aside from this Jim is a lecturer at both The Glasgow School of Art and Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, Scotland where he is also an established member of the IDEAS Research Institute. His research on the subject of imagination led him in 2011 to the work of the Australian art theorist Donald Brook whose theories of representation and cultural evolution, Jim believes, have significant but largely unexplored implications for our understanding of art, perception and consciousness.
[**CHRISTY NOTE: In the following guest post, Jim has adopted a fictional Q&A format for rhetorical purposes.**]
Q: What is representation?
A: It’s the substitution of one thing for another. Representations are stand-ins.
Q: So, if I replaced a cat with a dog, would that be a representation?
A: That depends on several things – the respects in which you want the dog to represent the cat, the strategy of representation you use and the skills and especially the perceptual weaknesses of the person or creature you’re offering the representation to.
Q: So you’re saying that it’s possible, but only in certain ways and for certain perceivers?
A: That’s right.
Q: So, could I use a dog to represent a cat in respect of its being a furry, four-legged house pet?
A: Sure you could, because in those specific respects dogs and cats are alike.
Q: So something has to be like something else to be usable as a representation?
A: Only in this specific kind of representation. There are two other kinds of representation where the representation doesn’t have to be like the represented thing at all.
Q: Could I use a dog to represent a cat using these other kinds of representations?
A: Yes, but let’s try to keep things simple. The strategy I’ve just outlined is what the theorist Donald Brook calls “Matching”. Matching representations trade on our ability to match attributes. Other species’ might perceive differences between things that humans find identical, so representations of this kind are dependent upon shared perceptual limitations. If things were never like one another in any respects then Matching would be impossible.
Q: What about approximate matches then?
A: Sure, you can have approximate matches. Some approximations are better than others obviously.
Q: Ok, I get it that Matching representations must seem objectively the same or approximately the same in some way as the things they represent. But what about these other kinds of representation? How can I represent a cat with a dog?
A: Well the easiest way to represent the cat with a dog is to tell someone that this is what you intend. We actually do this all the time with language: we substitute sounds or words for things. The word “dog” doesn’t share anything in common with dogs but because we know the rule that assigns the word “dog” to a particular species of animal we can use the representation with other rule users.
Q: It’s symbolic then isn’t it?
A: That’s exactly what it is.
Q: So, what about the third type of representation, the one where the representation doesn’t have to be objectively like the represented thing?
A: This strategy requires careful control of the way the representation is presented in relation to the perceptual skills of the person or creature you are producing the representation for. You couldn’t very easily use a dog to represent a cat with this strategy so I won’t even try. Let’s concentrate on some simple examples. Let’s say you have a blue piece of paper and you hold it up to the sky and find it to be indiscriminable from the sky. The assumption might be to say that the paper Matches the sky but this would be incorrect. A bee, for instance, probably wouldn’t perceive both colours to be the same because bees are sensitive to a wider range of colours that than we are.
Q: Isn’t it just an approximate match then?
A: Actually no. Let’s take another example that might help. Imagine you have a colour-blind friend who cannot discriminate between red and green. Say you want to represent a green field to them but you only have red paint. For you the red painting would look completely wrong but for them it would look exactly the same as if it were green.
Q: So, the red doesn’t actually match the green at all, yet my friend would perceive that it does?
Q: But in the case of the sky and blue paper, wouldn’t it be possible to get the blue sheet to reflect the exact hue, saturation and brightness as the sky so that all possible perceivers would find it impossible to discriminate between the real and the represented blue? Wouldn’t this be a matching representation?
A: In principle, maybe, but you’re missing the point. The point is that when we “simulate” – as Donald Brook would say – the sky with a sheet of blue paper we exploit the fact that the perceptual capacities of normally sighted humans have regularly occurring limitations. These limitations make it impossible for us, under certain circumstances, to discriminate between one thing and another in a respect or respects in which they are objectively different.
Q: Can you give me another example?
A: Sure. Imagine you have a circular object – a coin say. You can easily use this to match other circular objects in respect of their shape – by matching them – but you can also use it to simulate the size of other circular objects too, depending on how you present it.
Q: I don’t follow.
A: Think of it this way. If you hold a coin at the right distance from your eye you can get it to look like it’s the same size as other circular objects despite the fact that these are different sizes. You can even get it to look the same size as the moon if you want.
Q: Well yes, but only in a sense. Its obviously not really the same size as the moon.
A: No, of course not. But the point is that it looks like it is.
Q: So you’re saying it’s an illusion?
A: No. I’m saying that under these precise circumstances of presentation, the coin is indiscriminable from the moon in respect of its size.
Q: I’m still not getting it. I don’t see how these examples add up to a form of representation. They just seem like cases where we mistake one thing for another thing.
A: These are just examples of the principle. Such mistakes are systematic characteristics of our sensory capacities and because we’re all subject to them to the same degree we have learnt to exploit this. The discovery of perspective was a case in point. Simulating representations of this kind are a very sophisticated form of representation which has been discovered only gradually – although our ancestors have no doubt been susceptible to it since early prehistory.
Q: So are images simulating representations of this kind?
A: In the main yes. The problem though is that images also contain aspects of matching and symbolisation, which is no doubt why the question of representation has been so vexed for so long. It’s also handy to think of sculpture as predominantly a form of matching representation and language as symbolic – as you already guessed.
Q: Are you sure that there aren’t any other forms of representation? Three seems a bit limited.
A: Well, there are countless representations and representational media but there are only three distinct procedures for creating them: Matching, Simulating and Symbolising. There are also many sub-categories of the main three, like indicating and referring for example, which are both forms of symbolisation. But if three seems limited to you then it might be worth thinking of computer code. From a simple combination of ones and zeros we get an infinite variety – and let’s not forget that numbers are symbols too.