Representation for whom? Who is the subject?

May 29, 2016 – 1:25 pm

When something is about something else, that relationship needs to be understood. There are very many ways in which one thing can bear a systematic relationship to another, but we would not consider most of them to be representational. When a foot leaves a print in the sand, we understand the causal chain connecting the residual trace with the originating event. We can infer many things about the original from the trace, and there are many we cannot infer. The footprint might be considered a “representation”, but because we are knowledgable about the entire causal chain, I would prefer to use the term “imprint” in this instance.* Imprints are many in kind, and one imprint may lead to another, as when one tree falls and knocks another down in a forest.

But we typically use the word “representation” for cases in which the causal chains are opaque, unknown and possibly unknowable. I want here to consider a relatively simple case that most would find unproblematically “representational”, because if we don’t understand what the notion of representation entails for simple cases, we will be in deep trouble when it comes to representations of a more hypothetical character. As a cognitive scientist, I am particularly concerned with the way the term “representation” is wielded in discussion of minds, brains, intentions, and the like, but the hard questions about representation extend far beyond such provincial concerns. They have formed the basis for intense theological dispute, schisms (e.g. between the Oriental and Western Christian churches), repeated paroxysms of iconoclasm, and even wars. Perhaps the violent execution of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for the perceived crime of representing the Prophet might serve to make it clear that the issues involved are wide ranging, important, and contemporary.

The simple case I want to discuss is a straightforward picture, nay, a photograph, of something. Let’s use this picture of a cat as an example. In what sense is this picture a representation of a cat? Perhaps the reader might attempt an initial answer before reading below the fold.


In discussion, I have sometimes found others to be baffled by this question. The photograph seems so uncontrovertibly “like” a cat, that deeper issues of intentionality, and the subject/object divide hardly seem plausible. But let’s consider for a moment the way in which this picture is like a cat. In what follows, I do not want to argue that the picture is somehow not about a cat. I want to understand what it means to be about a cat, and what the role of the subject (the viewer for whom this is a representation) is.

A first claim I want to make is that a strongly objectivist reading of “representation” would be forced to defend the notion that this picture is about a cat in a mind independent way. That is, that it should be possible to establish a link from the cat to the picture that does not necessarily refer to the viewer. This will be necessary if the term “representation” is be be bandied about without simultaneous reference to a specific subject (the viewer) in necessary conjunction with the object (the photo).

But this is not simple. Photographs capture patterns of reflected light. The photographic device has been chosen, engineered, and developed, in order to satisfy the viewing habits of people, not of martians, eels, owls, or bulls. So the specific sampling of the spatio-temporal situation that involves the cat is bounded by the physiology of the presumed viewer – not, it must be said, any specific viewer, but the assumed human viewer. If the actual viewer is blind, then the resulting photo may fail to be about the cat except in a very indirect manner, through the evaluative statements of other, sighted, viewers. The sampling of the physical situation is framed by the physiology of the viewer. If a tetrachromatic culture arose, photography would be different. If electric eels or heat-sensing snakes had driven the technology, the photographic medium would reflect that. So the image presupposes a viewing subject with a specific kind of physiology, affording a specific kind of vision.

A second and distinct observation is needed here. The photo is not taken from nowhere. The position of the camera at the moment of the shutter opening serves to pinpoint a location in 3D space. This is the viewing position. But when viewing the photograph, I am not in the viewing position. The photograph thus implicitly brings into being a nonce-viewer located at such and such a point in the vicinity of the actual cat. This has the additional effect of framing, so that the viewer of the photograph knows how to “read” the photograph. The cat is clearly thematised, and this thematisation is a matter connecting the photographer and the viewer, but the cat itself has no part in it. The following photograph is much less clearly “about” a cat. So the link from cat to viewer is highly mediated, not least by the framing and intentions of the photographer, who has in mind, of course, a specific kind of viewer.

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In an image saturated culture, in which we have all internalised the vocabulary of the motion picture, it is very easy to overlook the necessary relation between a photograph and a viewing position. The language of film has evolved so that we don’t notice the frequent visual cuts from one viewing location to another. Continuity in film is based mainly on sound. Photographs are necessarily taken from somewhere, and that somewhere is a fixed point in isometric 3D space. We have grown accustomed to paying little attention to the point from which a scene is viewed, but this is an educated form of blindness we acquire from constant bombardment with images for which the viewing point is treated indifferently.

Many viewers of the photograph may subscribe to the belief that the camera never lies. The photograph bears a different relation to the cat than, say, this drawing of the cat.

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The drawing is whimsical, and I don’t think anyone would lay the claim that it constitutes a representation of the cat in any strong sense. Certainly, the personality of the artist is inextricably part of the story to be told about the relation between the drawing and the cat. But for both the photograph and the drawing, the author, and the author’s intentions, form an essential part of the causal chain from “event in the world” to “representational object”.

But we are children, not only of a world of cinema, but of perspectival images. Perspective is a technique developed in the early Renaissance, for rendering a scene as it would be viewed from a fixed point. This is a convention that had to be learned in its turn. Image making techniques make it clear that the relation of the image to the thing represented is not necessarily tied to a singular fixed viewing point in this manner. David Hockney’s rather wonderful photo collages bring it home (to me, at least) how perspectival constraints are by no means obligatory in conveying to the viewer a sense for what it is like to view a scene.

Much of what we have learned about vision over the last 50 years serves to push back against the notion that the perspectival projection obtained with a camera at a fixed location bears a strong link to the experience of viewing something. Vision, as with all sensory perception, is based on change. If a static image is projected onto the retina, vision stops working. The eye is constantly moving, and the subject of vision is constantly negotiating its position within the world. Subjects dance, weave, move in and out. Vision is an activity (see, for example O’Regan & Noe, 2001)

Here, once more, we can recognise a specifically modern feature of our viewing habits: so much of our viewing now is screen-based, we forget that the immobility of screen viewing is an anomaly in a chronological sense. But even when viewing a screen, the eye jumps, drifts and trembles in ways we are unaware of.

In order to establish the link from image to the thing represented there are several subjects involved. There is the photographer, with her framing, selection, highlighting, and presentation. There are the assumed subjects for whom the technology arose. There is the fictitious viewer situated implausibly at a fixed location in isometric space. There is further the temporal freezing that removes a cat from its life world, excising it and presenting it to the viewer. The link from image to cat is not a direct one, it is not simply objective, and it is not independent of the viewer. Visual artists are typically well aware of many of these complexities. It is high time that cognitive scientists of all stripes took some of them on board too.

(As a final parting thought, the reader may be interested to further consider how Eastern Orthodox churches differentiate between Icons and Images, which are assumed to have different chains of relation from original to representation, or to consider the chains of reference traceable from the Prophet Mohammed through the hadith to the modern Muslim, or to recognize that the figure of Christ within Christianity is, of course, a form of representation mediating between the embodied person and a transcendent God.)

* I may have appeared to suggest that the footprint is a representation of the past event in a strictly objective sense. That is not entirely true. The footprint, qua footprint, has been framed by me, in making this argument. The actual foot moved many grains of sand, and I have selected some of those “effect” of the foot, privileging some over others, because I know that in so doing I can convey to you something of the legacy of the foot-on-sand.

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