Philosophy and Visual Imagination
I just saw this fantastic video (how to call it– animated commentary? visual explication? graphic subtitles?) of an excerpt from a Zizek lecture (it’s one of a series, check out the RSA YouTube channel for more).
Independently from the contents of the talk itself, I found the real-time drawings an absolutely brilliant idea. Then I started wondering why, and a doubt arose in my mind.
It turns out that I like the idea because that is the way my mind works (and then I started doubting whether that is actually a good habit). I often wondered, when I am attending talks or conferences: what are the others in the audience thinking? According to what kind of logical process are they assimilating the information? (now this is a bad habit, because wondering about the mental processes of those around me tends to distract me from the actual talk…).
Do they link new information by linking them of nodes of knowledge which they already possess? (probably we all do: some time ago I remember reading a report of a psychological experiment which demonstrated how we tend to reshuffle new information in ways which end up confirming our prior beliefs, even when these new information are openly undermining them). Do they analytically divide the talk into all of its logical points and then structure them in a memory-friendly way? Or do they give up the ambition to grasp every single detail and try to grasp the ‘spirit’ of the communication, isolating some key ‘conceptual bundles’ and somehow envisioning them in a coherent narrative flow?
This last option, of course, is what I think the video above is trying to accomplish. Zizek always offers very ‘graphic’ talks, and to pictorialize them is relatively straightforward. But I tend to do it with any degree of abstraction, and I sincerely wonder if others do the same.
The question is less trivial than it sounds, and I believe it goes to the heart of philosophical communication and production. Can one really grasp the ‘pure’ idea of, say, the Spirit achieving self-realization through history without ever imagining its movement? Can one avoid picturing in one’s mind a windowless monad? Can one understand unconcealment truth without ‘seeing’ the opening in its dynamic happening? Can one understand the event taking place from the void of the situation without somehow supporting the abstract message with a graphic metaphor? (of course the issue becomes much more complicated when the concept of infinity is involved: but how many of us, knowing how it is impossible to satisfactorily picture in our minds an infinite set –or even worse a hierarchy of infinite sets– do not ever try to picture a very long line, or a very large circle or an enormous 3-dimensional solid?).
I say this being sure that there is a way to articulate thoughts in a purely abstract manner (I guess that’s what the training of a mathematician produces), and I often perceive my ‘allegorical’ way of thinking as a limitation, effectively constraining my understanding within the limits of that vast but not infinite reservoir of images and impressions which I already possess. And yet, perhaps images and impressions are better suitable to ‘see’ connections (which is really what I care about). Wether or not we believe in the story about Friedrich August Kekulé‘s discovery of the benzene ring — its structure being allegedly suggested to him by a dream of a snake biting its tail — isn’t the moral of the story that connections are easier to grasp when we let the abstraction be substantiated by an allegory, as if by giving it a metaphorical ‘substance’ it becomes possible to physically connect it with another abstraction? Or again, if the answer of the questions above is yes, it is possible to grasp the pure idea without any prosthetic support from imagination, what can these ideas do?
From another perspective, this seems to hint once again to the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics for the physical sciences’: a perfect example of abstract mechanisms which can (or can not, and this is the key) be successively (and successfully) applied to physical processes to explain and predict them [and yet the topic of how contemporary physics is becoming more and more refractory from any kind of physical analogy should be probed too] . But is philosophy the same? What is of a philosophy that is produced in a way which does not require its application/translation to real objects and real processes, a philosophy strong enough in its abstraction to survive without the slightest commerce with metaphoric material? (it becomes analytic philosophy, I hear someone slyly suggesting…)
[Note how Badiou escapes this stalemate: mathematics is the presentation/discourse of being qua being, yes, but philosophy always necessitates a constant (historical I would say) exchange with its four generic conditions. So that the advent of truth requires a break with the abstract presentation: isn't militant fidelity a form of artistic meta-phorizing?]
~ by Fabio Cunctator on July 30, 2010.