07 December 2011

Art #2: Statuary & Statutory Animacy

In which the author learns about animacy from a statue.

Phenomenon: The strike by support staff at McGill is now over, so I've resumed my usual walk to work through McGill campus. It was nice to be back on old turf, and as I was walking through I found a familiar fellow catching my eye and then my whole attention, pulling me round to give a gander as I passed him by:

This is a statue of James McGill. What really caught me (and what my absence from campus let come to the fore, I hadn't quite noticed it before, it was all too familiar) is the flapping of his coat tails in the wind (not so much the gentle clapping of hand to head to keep his hat in place). This flapping isn't as noticeable in the photo; it's much more compelling when you're walking by on equal footing with him, in the round. (I noticed that right way: my iPhone screen caught him dead, took the wind right out of his sails.) [You should know that McGill himself is reported on various website to be a slave owner; this is also stated in the book James McGill of Montreal (search for slave/slaves). My affection here is for the statue, not for the fellow himself.]

Wonder: How is that I am caught by and see: coat tails blowing in the wind, not just a solid, fixed piece of bronze? How is that I perceive animacy in a statue? (Two related phenomena that I ran into many years ago in a Merleau-Ponty reading group that met at the Green Room in Toronto: I walk into meet the group and find myself skirting around a person so as not to have him step into me, only to realize the person is in fact a mannequin; and then I find the group, and think there are some more mannequins behind them, but it turns out they are real people, actors practicing freezes. This is a true story, with witnesses; the coincidences are explained by the fact that the Green Room wasan actors hangout with the mannequins as a deliberately theatrical prop.)  

Insights and answers after the jump...

Methodological framework: This is a case in which a curiously compelling phenomenon gives an insight into something bigger, viz. waht the philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnstone would call the primacy of movement. Indeed, I think the phenomenon helps give insight into Sheets-Johnstone's concept of animacy. This is curious. Sheets-Johnstone is a philosopher of movement and also a dancer, and very often feels her way into animacy by describing dance and movement from within. How perverse, then, to appeal to a statue! But the wondrous and insight prompting thing is that the statue compels me to see it as moving. In fact, I think he caught me in a bit of dance this morning, wrong-footing me on my stroll as I got caught and wrenched round by him, until I figured out what the flap was all about. So bear with me.

It would be easy to say that the phenomenon is an illusion, in the sense of a mistake of perception. A mere trick, jiggery-pokery, wherein the sculptor (David Roper-Curzon) fools the eye into seeing movement where there is only inanimate metal.

But, I have read the philosopher Merleau-Ponty too many times to buy into seemingly easy claims about illusions. (Here I'll do a lit bit more technical stuff, to nail a methodological point, so you can skip this if you want.) Basically, Merleau-Ponty teaches us to start analyses of such phenomena by taking our sense of the perceived phenomenon on its own terms--and then let that teach us something about what it is that perception really perceives. In general what this shows is that we do not in the first instance perceive an objective world, and then overlay it with our own values or judgement: we perceive things as they matter to us. The ecological psychologist would say that we perceive what the world affords us, as creatures having a certain ecological relation to our surround.

Put another way, we grasp the world as already interpreted according to our evolved, habitual and culvitated interests. I'm certain that you, dear reader, have made errors in proof reading, and you realize that you've done so because you do not so much read the letters there on the page, as what you anticipate interpreting in what you are reading as a whole. Maybe you've read a sentence you've read a million times and have not actually seen the errors in it. Similarly with perception. E.g., Merleau-Ponty famously argues that in the case of the Müller-Lyer figure, it's not the case that vision as it were apprehends several line segments, wherein the horizontal ones are visually or objectively the same length, and then assembles these into arrow figures, and then mistakenly judges that the figure with open arrowheads is longer. When we become fluent readers we don't see, piece by piece, the letters that go into words, or the words that go into sentences. We chunk out words and sentences as a whole. Similarly, as fluent seers, we chunk the Müller-Lyer figure in two, wherein the top figure is (to lean on Melville a bit) is a squinchy, pinchy, crabby sort of fellow, scrunched in by the outward arrows with their inner closing arms, and the bottom one is a loosey, goosey fellow, flapped out through open arrow arms. And these two figures, in virtue of the way they fall together for evolved human vision compose themselves each with an altogether different sense of breadth and expanse than the other, such that if the eye must compare them, one is longer than the other. Compare a case of taking a musical piece composed as a stately adagio and playing it three times as fast as it should be played: it doesn't sound like an adagio played too fast, it sounds foolish or nutty; the very structure of the adagio sets up its own playing speed, its own stately standard. (By the way, did you catch the typo I deliberately introduced many sentences back?)

What we want to do here is not label the phenomenon as a mistake that our eyes make, but take the experience described on its own term, and figure out what this means. I perceive the statue as moving. I'm not an idiot. I know it's a statue. I know it's not moving. Yet: I perceive it as moving. The coat catches me as flapping in the wind, in the way that the mannequin in the Green Room caught me as person who might step into my way and that I ought not bump into.

What does it mean that my perceptual engagement with world can, as it were, squeeze animacy into what is not at all moving? (One thing to note here is that the phenomenon clearly involves various cultivated expectations. If we all started starching our coats like mad so they swept out behind us in duck tails, and I were habituated to this, no doubt I would see no movement in Mr. McGill's coat, and no wind breezing cross him. I would just see a fashionable fellow out for a jaunt.) 

Insight: I think the phenomenon means this: we can encounter animacy not in something moving from point A to b in an already pre-established space. In our movement and moving engagement with the world, we are wont to encounter certain figures as in themselves animate, as from within themselves establishing and manifesting their own movement possibilities and space of movement. The blowing coattails do not objectively move. Yet in our moving round them, and given our habits of reading movement in things, we are wont to encounter them as having inner animacy. They are rather like a cat ready to pounce: the very coiled stillness of the cat is what registers its pounciness and its moving sequel. But the coattails go a little further: their very stolidity (their obstinacy against the pull of gravity, perhaps) already registers them as billowing and sailing in the wind.

But return to the key conceptual point: something does not have to actually change location from A to B for us to encounter it as animate. Rather, things that have a certain way of shaping, bearing and comporting themselves in our world, in our familiar environment, in relation to our moving bodies, can catch us as animate. (Another example: the shadow whose sudden increase in size on the wall is experience as a case of a 3d figure looming at us.) This helps show that there is a certain sense of animacy that can establish itself and that resonates with our bodies that is not founded on a change of location in an already given objective space, but is rather anchored in a kind of change that establishes or enacts its own space of movement. As a rough analogy, this is kin to a musical composition that itself establishes its own tempo of playing, prior to any given metric of time in which its event could be 'located' in clock time. In this space of animacy, movements have a sense that does not have to do with changes of location, but with movement in a much more primordial and strange sense, movement manifest in a pre-objective animate form that we might try to capture with terms like contractility, explosivity, etc., where the contraction itself establishes the terms of contraction. Pre-objective animate movement is what we catch in a rock ready to fall, the leaf trembling in the wind, the bird arcing in air, the hand ready to greet as beckoning and orienting us--before analysis. This is rather like the sentence chunked out as a whole before parsed into its elements--and note that usually if you just you stick with the sentence elements you lose its overall sense.

I'd wager that in addition to the sculptors, the folks at Pixar and Disney, and the magicians, know quite a lot about these pre-objective movement forms, because that's what we really see. For what the above further implies (once we add further evidence from phenomenology and science) is that it these pre-objective movement forms that we have evolved, grown, learnt, habituated and cultivated ourselves to catch and latch on to. These not only can catch us, but these are the movements that first of all catch us, that human infants first respond, to for example: smiles, or tongues sticking out, forms uncoiling and describing their own animacy, not points moving in space. We encounter the world not as inanimate things that move about, but as a having a more fundamental 'statuatory animacy' for our moving bodies. And this should not surprise us, for what moves is what most of all matters to us. What moves is what can get you or help you. Living through this educates us into parsing out the world into things, locations, changes of location. But that's not what we first of all encounter in living perception. 

Finally, I've worked through this in order to help me get a better handle on what Maxine Sheets-Johnstone is working to articulate in her efforts to not have us not confuse animacy with motor changes, and when she tries to return us to movement in a primordial sense. If you go through the exercise of trying to catch what it is that moves in the statue, then I think this help you can catch on to what she is saying. No doubt I have not lived up to her rigour here, but this is a part of the process.

Further reading:
Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The Primacy of Movement; for a synopsis of some central points in a recent and innovative article, see Movement and mirror neurons: a challenging and choice conversation.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty. "Eye and Mind." In The Primacy of Perception. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. (See especially the passage on the statue bestriding space, in comparison to the Mubridge pictures.)

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