Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

Chapter 1: Cognitive Iconology: Understanding versus Explanation

Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

Chapter 1: Cognitive Iconology: Understanding versus Explanation

Article excerpt

That images specifically are often ambiguous is without question. Here is one image that circulated the internet (Fig. 1). Of course, it is instructions from a hand dryer found in public bathrooms. However, the graffiti that is often found scratched on it reads, "Push button, receive bacon." Of course, no one gets bacon from the wall so there are no consequences to this joke. But there are plenty of times when images and diagrams need to be understood quickly and efficiently, which is no joke.

How can we talk about this ambiguity? We have already noted the gulf separating the goals of the biology of art and visual studies. We have also already noted that the aims of each are decidedly different: one going after things (ontology) and the other our knowledge of what we think about things (epistemology) (Minnerup, 2007). Here, we can at least say that an approach based on nature or nurture will not suffice.

Psychologists and biologists play into this ambiguity when they talk about a skill that is found in the genetic code rather than the expression of a genetic trait in a sentient being. Meanwhile, postmodernists believe that the only thing that is meaningfully scientific is genetic. And so the whole debate goes round and round. The approach I would take here is based on constancy in evolution, that is, the way in which organisms use the regularities they find in interaction with the environment, behavioral patterns of stasis, to do their living.

According to such a view, understanding behavior is not about structure (histology) or learning (experience) but rather their dynamic interaction. Learning itself is a dynamic process that is systemdirected. To learn is to learn via a dynamic system. Some patterns of perception, of behavior, are preferred because it is easier for the organism to adopt them. For example, the difference between walking and running is not a linear change of speed and length of stride, but a phase change, a qualitative change from walking to running and in the middle is a chaotic bifurcation, or catastrophy.

In the famous debate between Piaget and Chomsky (PiattelliPalmarini, 1981), this was the middle path outlined by the linguist Jean Petitot. The blanket notion of "enculturation" is overworked and is not much of an ally for the proponent of visual studies. Behaviors are not absorbed by whole populations but depend on interactions and require some form of intermediation, which is psychology.

As noted in the Introduction, "Cognitive," "perceptual" and "psychological" are used here interchangeably to refer to psychological facts of the science of behavior (even though we are speaking mostly of sensory perception) true of all human beings, necessarily instantiated in, but not derivative, of culture (Mandelbaum, 1972/1984; Manicas, 1982; Hatfield, 2002; Moll, 2004). We must simply begin with the premise that there are psychological and societal contributions that make up a semiotic or communicative act. A naïve conflationism, whether a pure mixture or a reductive psychologism or sociologism, will simply stall productive research. The missing psychological contribution to visual culture is precisely what I am calling "cognitive iconology": "cognitive" as a psychological indicator and "iconology" as a reminder that the "logic of images" includes both its historical context and its psychological effects upon perceivers.

Arnheim's Woes

The sore need for an articulated cognitive iconology can be seen in the woes Rudolf Amheim has faced in the misunderstanding of his theories. It is often said that his psychology of art is too naive for present concerns in the analysis of images. David Carrier (1997) writes how "Amheim's essentially ahistorical way of thinking treats art from all cultures as immediately accessible right now" (p. 92). However, Amheim is merely the most distinguished proponent of "cognitive iconology" as utilized in its proper place.

Amheim indeed outlines perceiving principles that he believes are operative for the artistic traditions of all people (i. …

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