Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Verb-Based Approach to Representation

I have begun to wrestle with the philosophical treatise Art and Its Objects by Richard Wollheim, and it did not take the author long to start wrestling with the noun “representation” and try to tease out just what it means.  Of course he was hardly the first to undertake this task, and it will probably help my reading to have gone onto this ground under the guidance of past philosophers.  It may be that the most useful of those philosophers would be Charles Sanders Peirce, whose 1868 paper for the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “On a New List of Categories” offers the distinction of “three kinds of representation.”

This analytical approach has achieved somewhat classic status among those who study semiotics, and I see that I myself last visited it on this site this past December.  Still, it is worth reviewing just what those three “kinds” are in Peirce’s own words:
  1. Those whose relation to their objects is a mere community in some quality, and these representations may be termed Likenesses.
  2. Those whose relation to their objects consists in a correspondence in fact, and these may be termed Indices or Signs.
  3. Those the ground of whose relation to their objects is an imputed character, which are the same as general signs, and these may be termed Symbols.
This is useful as far as it goes, particularly in helping to negotiate Wollheim’s apparent need to establish a distinction between representation and resemblance, which seems to assume that, contrary to Peirce, he believes there is only one “kind” of representation.

However, there may be a broader issue at stake, which is the effort to think of representation in terms of artifacts (as in “objects” of art).  I am not sure this is a useful stance to take, particularly when the art in question happens to be music.  Back in 2009 I had the following to write after having experienced a series of concerts covering both volumes of The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach:

However, what this exhaustive account of the second 24 of the full set of 48 preludes and fugues achieved that was more important was a reinforcement of my appreciation that a fugue has less to do with a formal structure than with a particular approach to an imitative process.  Thus, my own composition teacher used to prefer to speak of fuguing as a process you acquire from performing the products of related processes, rather than by following structural guidelines and constraints.  In this same light I see from my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary that "prelude" can be used as a verb, meaning that one takes the same process-based approach to composition and performance.  In more pretentious language one might say that neither "prelude" nor "fugue" constitutes a particularly legitimate ontological category, although one can recognize "family resemblances" of particular preludes to other preludes and similarly for fugues.  (At least one of the preludes in the second volume actually bears a very strong family resemblance to one of Bach's two-part inventions.)  The lesson, as I see it, is that music is fundamentally far more verb-based than noun-based:  The music is in the making rather than in the note-bearing objects involved in that making.

In other words too much attention to those objects could actually be a distraction from the most relevant issues of the nature of art;  and this could be just as true of the making of a painting as it is of the composition of a structure of “note-bearing objects.”

From this point of view, we might do well to rethink the concept of representation in verb-based terms, thinking less about Peirce’s three kinds of objects and more about acts of representing (words chosen to reflect the title of Jerome Bruner’s book, Acts of Meaning).  In this framework we might do better to think in terms of those actions associated with achieving what Friedrich Hayek called a “sensory order,” or, as I recently put it in an article, those actions through which “the mind brings ‘sensory order’ to the stimuli of sense data (the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of William James).”  This does not eliminate the need for objects;  it simply establishes a different stance for thinking about them.

This may be appreciated in my summary of the fundamental thesis behind Hayek’s book, The Sensory Order:

Hayek’s most important point was that the primary function of mind consisted of the formation of categories and the recognition of those “objects” that are instances of those categories.

“Representing” is thus not only a matter of asserting that a given object is an instance of a given category but is also the broader and more challenging task of developing a repertoire of categories within such instantiation can be asserted.  From this verb-based point of view, the “making of art” (which would include the performance of music) as an ongoing process in the course of which pre-existing commitments to both categories and instances may be subject to change.

This is what makes the task of description so difficult.  The challenge of providing a textual account of “what is” is already, as has been previously discussed, formidable enough.  Where the performance of music is concerned, however, “what is” is secondary to “what is happening;”  but “what is happening” is already “in the moment.”  We cannot begin to describe it (and mind cannot try to deal with it in terms of categories and instances) until it has elapsed;  and then we have to worry about a “new moment!”  The act of description is not only formidable, it may also be theoretically impossible.  The best we can do is engage in an ongoing process of coming up with approximations;  and the beauty of the performance of music is that there will always be room for yet another approximation, which may or may not be a refinement of a previous one!

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