Joseph D. Anderson
Muddles and misconceptions prevail. We are led to conceive a sort of apparatus inside the head that is similar to the apparatus for making a picture show outside the head. We have been taught that a picture is sent up to the brain and so we conclude that a series of pictures can be sent up to the brain. We all know what a snapshot is, and we know that a film is a series of snapshots. If we are told that a movie presents us with a sequence of retinal snapshots joined by what is called the “persistence of vision, ” we believe it. But we are misled.
—James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception
A FEW YEARS AGO a student, a very bright Ph.D. candidate, stopped me in the hallway after class and said, “Why do you persist in your ecological approach to film theory when it makes everyone so angry at you?” I was a bit stunned. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Then he continued. “Is it just because it makes so damned much sense when it comes to explaining motion pictures?” “Yes, ” I heard myself answering, “It makes sense.”
This student had come to us with a master's degree in film studies, and he was familiar with conventional film theory, usually referred to by its adherents as “contemporary film theory, ” the residue of a series of theoretical formulations and political positions that fueled a succession of academic fads from the 1970s through the end of the century. The followers of these conventions were presumably the everyone to whom he referred as being angry. Apparently what made the conventionalists so angry was the introduction of literature from the sciences into the discussion of motion pictures. They were categorically against such a thing no matter how much sense it made.
At our urging, the student had also taken several courses in psychology and was aware of the controversy between advocates of perceptual psychology based on a tradition extending from Hermann von Helmholtz to the present and those who support the newer, ecological approach based on the work of James J. Gibson. At the heart of their disagreement is a difference in their basic conceptions of what it is to perceive the world. For the followers of Helmholtz,
We are essentially separate from the world of objects and isolated from external physical events, except for neural signals which, somewhat like language, must be learned and read according to various assumptions, which may or may not be appropriate. (Gregory, 1987, p. 309)
Percepts are thus constructed from the raw sense data. Ecological psychologists offer quite a different idea. They propose that we are part of the environment that shaped us and