Orchestrating Embodiment: Things Outside & Inside The Head
Paper presented to LERN Conference, Armidale 1997.
Expressive Arts, Faculty of Education, USQ
ORCHESTRATING EMBODIMENT: Things Outside & Inside The Head.
Our prime concern as human beings lies with survival, and our interaction with the environment consists of struggle at every step along the way. This is because we are surrounded by objects, people and ideas that do not emanate from ourselves, but that act upon us in stirring our emotions, confronting our beliefs and confusing our personal maps of meaning that, in a Postmodern society, no longer seem to correlate with what happens in everyday life. All around us, outside us, are signs and symbols that vie for our attention, and the way in which we respond to and decipher these codes determines our systematic understanding of our environment.
For example, the simple task of grocery shopping is now a voyage into a fantasy world where one enters a huge cool (or warm, depending on the opposite real weather outside) supermarket where fruit and vegies sparkle under adjusted lighting, freshly dripping from aerosol irrigation, where packages promise 'ultra white', 'daily squeezed' or 'no cholesterol', and where our power to pay is validated by the zip of a metallic strip. This environment offers us experiences that acquaint us with various events that influence us in some way.
Experience is an event that consists in sense-perception. I use the word 'in' to emphasise the immediacy of experience because the event is instantaneous, not before or after the sense-perception, but in tandem with it. The senses initiate a shock that causes us to think differently, and this change in thinking constitutes experience. We see, touch, hear, taste and smell things around us, and through this sense-perception we become aware of some new stimulus that our brain must interpret. However, I believe that many of us overlook the importance of initial experience in our concentration on the product of the experience, and thus ignore the basic foundation of learning.
From my perspective as an artist and an art educator, I believe that a major problem regarding learning lies in identifying language and visual experiences that enable people to make sense of something. The vital question is: how do people interpret experiences? It appears that the crux of the problem may be questioned from two perspectives: Is meaning dependent on individual responses to external stimuli? Or is meaning dependant on individual imposition of meaning on external stimuli? In other words, does the "outside" determine meaning, or does the "inside" determine meaning?
The dilemma posed appears reasonably black and white until we consider the implications. On the one hand, if we respond to external stimuli, and our response (mental or physical) confirms meaning as belonging to 'that other', this implies that we are acted upon by something beyond our control. On the other hand, if we interpret something external to ourselves, this implies that we are active in controlling the 'something' because we designate meaning to the something. In either case the stimuli causes us to do something in a passive or active way, and our action constitutes an experience that allows us to acquaint ourselves with meaning. But from whence does this meaning originally come?
Gee (1992, pp. 10-12) considers that meaning is a matter of words or actions being 'recognised' as meaningful in specific ways within the practices of specific social groups, and thus meaning is a study of social practices. He suggests that what goes on inside our heads has nothing to do with meaning, and argues that what we do have in our heads are 'tools' that we use to interpret the complex network of associations and 'folk theories' that have been acquired as a result of membership in a particular "Discourse" (p.88). A "Discourse" we are told is the device in and through which mental networks and 'folk theories' are formed, adjusted, and regulated, and which serves as the mediator for any scientific principles that will eventually affect members of the Discourse.
This is a crucial point because we don't often think about how we learn things. We are told that it is important to learn things because knowledge may make our survival more assured, and thus we are inculcated into the practices of the community of which we are part. We are shown techniques such as writing, and taught 'facts' about our society, and our knowledge of these things is constantly tested through examinations, interviews and such throughout our life. It seems to me that the basic framework underpinning the regulations of the 'culture club' into which we are born is maintained by a constant flow of 'folk theories' that guide us to the what and why, but not the how.
According to Gee (1992) we are born with cognitive tools in our heads that we learn to use in interpreting networks of associations that we accumulate in our heads during our lifetime. These networks are part of the Discourse of which we are members. From an educational point of view we can take the example of a child who belongs to a family Discourse, and thus the primary amalgam of ways of acting, interacting, talking, valuing and thinking is associated with objects, settings and events that are characteristic of that particular family Discourse. The child acquires knowledge of the Discourse through a type of apprenticeship whereby other, more senior members, model appropriate values and behaviour thus inculcating 'folk theories' upon the child. As the child grows, the range of surrounding Discourses increases with schooling, sport, religion, government and hundreds of other social practices vying for attention.
In this way we can see that 'folk theories' comprise the peculiar nonlinguistic modules of the mind that cause a person to talk and act in certain ways, and these are picked up as part of apprenticeships in particular social practices. The key notion if that of being picked up, because it implies a sort of osmotic process through which various words, actions, associations and beliefs are computed in our minds that then leads to speculation about the expectations and actions of others and ourselves. The convergence of speculation amongst various people manifests allegiance to the Discourse in which they belong (are members), and thus determines the way in which particular meanings are embraced.
Each Discourse has its own peculiar 'folk theories', the unwritten laws that direct its members, and the importance of these laws, their weight, will only affect someone according to the degree of association that person has with the particular Discourse. The more involved someone is within the Discourse will determine the gradual change from apprenticeship to formal learning whereby the person can learn "metaknowledge" and move to abstract thinking about the scientific principles underpinning the Discourse. It is through immersion within the social practices of the Discourse that we become more aligned with the values of the Discourse, and thus are more deeply affected by stimuli coming from that particular Discourse.
We might consider this as step one in the learning process where we acquire habits, customs and beliefs from our immediate environment. We are basically acted upon.
Stimuli from competing Discourses are like voices in a crowd that are heard only if they are loud enough, and this largely depends on their similarity to, or extreme difference from, what our system of understanding has become accustomed to.
This notion brings me to the important aspect of how we come to focus on something, because focus has to do with sifting through stimuli, and investigating the effects various stimuli have on our senses.
The "crowd" metaphor may suggest Grossberg's (1988) account of Postmodernism with its equality of images, temporary styles, and "sites" at which we may pause and "install" ourselves for a short time, without any possibility for real commitment and investment. This conjures up in my mind a related metaphor, that of a show something like the Brisbane Ekka, where main ring events and side show alleys compete for our attention until we become so exhausted with the decision-making that any "site" will do for the moment. But, if however, we have a particular focus stemming from personal knowledge and relevance, the main ring may present an opportunity for personal engagement while we are oblivious to other 'noise'.
Moving into the educational environment we recognise that our world, and that of our students, is now more complex and human life multidimensional. According to Grossberg (1988, p.35), the "complexly produced affective structures" of desire, emotion, pleasure, mood, etc. direct the way in which we live through ideological positions. By this he means the way in which our society manufactures contexts (such as the 'shopping voyage' I mentioned earlier) that intentionally play on our senses and emotions and cause us to act in a certain way. However, Grossberg highlights the growing distance between the available meanings, values, and objects of desire that socially organise our existence and identity, and the possibilities for investing in them or caring about them which are enabled by our moods and emotions. In other words, things outside our heads appear to have taken on a chameleon skin that envelops us in ever-changing possibilities, but, like the Emperor's clothes, have no substance for us to recognise, and nothing for us to embrace. We seem to be left with moods and emotions in a void.
It seems to me that we need to investigate moods and emotions more thoroughly when we talk about learning. I emphasise 'learning' rather than 'teaching' because the former connotes a desire to make sense of something, rather than being given information, and, if we investigate how moods and emotions are triggered by sense-perception we may be able to understand the process of experience, rather than concentrating on the resultant product. From an art education point of view this is where we begin. We start with sensations that initiate some sort of feeling. For example, the tactile sensation of touching a sharp object may cause a feeling of pain, the sight of an oblique line may cause us to sense movement and a feeling of motion, and it is through awareness of how the stimulus affects us that we may be able to direct our actions in a meaningful way. Of particular importance is the way in which artists play with illusion in creating make-believe worlds using the vocabulary of sensation.
Our crisis appears to be one of coming to terms with a world of artificial images, the world of illusion, in which television, film, advertising and computer technology offer avenues for creating accessible heroes (such as Madonna, Robocop, Rocky, Rambo or Dame Edna) who embody temporary moods and personalities that can be appropriated by anyone and 'worn' as a different, new 'self'. This raises the question of locating identity and reality amongst the proliferation of individualities parading on multiple and fragmented surfaces of our multicultural society. It also raises the question of how we may experience new artforms with some degree of personal relevance and commitment when art has been so radically transformed in what Huyssen (1980) calls "technologized life".
From an educational point of view I believe that the artificial images of television, film, advertising and computer technology may either exhaust our capacity to make sense of them, or they may present a challenge for us to focus, through association, on aspects that are relevant to our experience within a particular Discourse. I have found that gradual modification to existing 'folk theories' is possible through presentation of metaphoric associations that encourage linkage from personal experiences to the new experience. Work I have done with tertiary students, using metaphoric projections, suggests that their acquired attitudes and feelings towards making art have changed in the process of formal learning in which acquisition of skills is combined with learning about theoretical principles. This may be considered step two in the learning process.
Thus I argue that our tools for understanding our environment in which art symbols predominate may be modified and increased to enable us to plug into personal and technological art processes without losing our own sense of being part of those processes. In doing this we need to consider not only the human aspects of creating symbols, but also the enormous collective external 'nervous' system of the electronics revolution and how it affects human experience. All this strangeness needs to be made familiar so that we may re-start inventing unique images drawn from our own imagination, and re-establish the primacy of physical sensory experiences.
Of particular interest to me is Gee's (1992) proposition that meaning and memory are not in the brain or the mind, but lie embodied in the social practices that helped set values in the first place. If we agree with this proposition, the investigation of beliefs, thinking and memories is the study of social practices, and these do not reside in anyone's head. Social practices are those relevant and right experiences fostered by a particular social community through apprenticing newcomers, and constantly checking and nudging each member towards some 'norm'. Because these practices are handed down through time, and 'membership' is sanctioned and operated by a socioculturally defined group of people, human action is only meaningful and recognisable within some Discourse. Consequently it is the 'ideal' norms of the Discourse that constitute meaning, memory, believing and knowing, and these belong in the community outside the head.
Similarly, Gardner (1993, p.237) refers to 'authentic domains' that are socially valued disciplines that allow acquisition of skills and knowledge through effort over time supported by feedback; Gordon (1961, p.95) refers to conventions; Grossberg (1988) talks of sites at which we may stop and "install" our selves into practices, and Rosenblatt (1983, p.161) draws attention to personality patterns dominated by automatically absorbed prejudices and expectations. In each case the dominant social mores are sufficiently strong to temper our sensations until some dissonance between our beliefs and our sensory perception causes us to question the social mores.
I reiterate that experience consists in sense perception that, having a degree of intensity, sets up a sensation of struggle between the external stimulus and our inner soul resulting in modification to our ways of thinking. I am not sure exactly what our inner 'soul' is, but Peirce (1898) refers to 'instinct'; Langer (1957), Gordon (1961) and Arnheim (1986) to 'intuition'; Rosenblatt (1968), Rosenberg (1983) and Johnson (1987) to 'imagination'; Lakoff (1987) to our 'conceptualizing capacity'; Gee (1992) to 'sixth sense', and Solso (1994) to 'connectionism'. In each case it seems that this unquantifiable 'something' that each person has within them, suggests inferences, constructs explanations, directs decisions and moderates emotions so that we become aware of resultant feelings initiated by the sensational struggle.
What causes the struggle in the first place depends largely on the environment outside the person. Various researchers, (Arnheim, 1986; Gardner, 1993; Gee, 1992; Solso, 1994) discuss the biological processes within the human body and eye that are triggered by external sensations that activate neural impulses that are sent to the brain. The interesting part is the way in which these impulses affect our thinking. If every impulse carried the same force our cognitive apparatus could not deal with the volume of 'traffic', so the 'something' within us applies a culling system and sorts out the important from the not-so-important sensations depending on our established value system.
The most interesting and complex part in speculating on the essence of meaning lies in recognising the way in which the mind works, and this involves understanding the chemistry of the apparatus. Researchers such as Gee (1992), Churchland (1983) and Solso (1994) propose that neurons in the brain can each be activated to different degrees, depending upon how greatly they are stimulated by other neurons that send them signals. It appears that we have three basic clusters of neurons that are triggered by firstly input sensors (sight, touch, smell, taste, sound) that clamour for the attention of the second cluster comprising the "interpreter" modules that sift expectations, decisions, emotions and actions through language to the third cluster of output sensors that manifest the result of the input sensors moderated by the "interpreter".
In diagrammatic form the process of interpretation might look something like the following:
Figure 1. Diagrammatic representation of the process of interpretation.
It is important to remember the strong influence the environment and social groups play in moulding personal experience. Habits, customs, beliefs and values of the Discourse are mastered through acquisition and enculturation and thus we have inherited the communal meanings. For example, we, as members of a Western society, have inherited an attitude that regards art as unimportant to cognitive development, and yet many of our affective experiences are triggered by images - images on television, images on billboards, images on computer screens, movie images and corporate images. The problem is how to deal with visual information that confronts us, eludes us, and teases us in changing form, when we have been accustomed to thinking of images as peripheral to our survival.
Our own value system, our inherited meanings, has developed as a result of our personal experiences that have been greatly affected by years of schooling in which the value systems of our immediate environment have been imposed upon us, and which in turn we have had to re-think at a later stage as we have moved into other communities beyond schooling. An example of this is the way in which our methods of making sense of something are directed from imagery to writing through education. As young children, the most immediate way of coming to know the world is through development of a personal repertoire of image symbols and the manipulation of media (Dover et al, 1986). By Year Six however, many students are embarrassed to use imagery because on the one hand no guidance in refining skills has been available and so they feel inadequate, and, on the other hand, imagery it is too often regarded as peripheral to learning and therefore unnecessary. By Year Eight I have found that many students have forgotten how to make images. Or worse, they are afraid.
Too often art is ignored as a means of personal experience in the classroom and considered as something other people make that we might respond to as a form of entertainment or amusement. I suggest that production of 'art objects' by 'artsworkers' within the 'culture industry' has led many to consider art as a commodity, and, in similar fashion to the way texts have become "sites of many different activities and effects" (Grossberg, 1988, p.35), I believe that art too has become another "site" for the consumer.
It appears to me that the most immediate way of experiencing our environment through the eye-in-the-mind has been appropriated by cultural mandarins leaving many of our students visually illiterate. This highlights our educated loss of childhood 'imaging horizons', the ability to imagine, that we now need to help us make some sense of our world in which reality and images have become so confused.
The questions of how and why images were superseded by written words in the civilised Western world, and how images are now being used in place of written words (for example logos) raises issues to do with perception and understanding that have not kept pace with the changing relationship between a text and images. Our world is predominantly visual, and if images are now "sites" that might suggest different activities and effects, this means that a new type of sense-perception is required.
My suggestion has important implications for learning because it calls into question our conventional approach to knowledge that has taken priority in our Western educational system. Gordon (1961, p.92) cautions us that "[L]earned conventions can be windowless fortresses which exclude viewing the world in new ways", and it is the 'learned conventions' that designate verbal and written language more important than visual language. I challenge these conventions on two grounds. Firstly, our eye-mind mechanism is so efficient that we take it for granted, and have basically ignored the swift and complex way in which we process visual data. Secondly, we tend to think of meaning as residing in words, when in fact the word, like any gesture or mark is simply a sign.
Both words and images have a vital role to play as symbolic systems that allow individuals to make sense of their world through metaphoric connections linking personal experience to their cultural environment. Work I have done with tertiary students in forming these sorts of connections has been important in demonstrating that how something is presented makes the difference. By this I mean the type of metaphors, analogies and examples that are used to suggest associations between lived experiences, words that describe those experiences, and images that depict those experiences. Both Gee (1992) and Solso (1994) point out that previously stored information affects the processing of neural impulses, or to put it another way, membership in a Discourse affects the way we see things. This notion has important implications for learning because the sensory system which "sees" reality, and the corresponding neural network which "interprets" reality, form a mutual partnership in perception, and if we overlook the fact that the sensory system and the central nervous system have remained structurally unchanged for thousands of years we deny our basic way of recognising objects, situating them in space and understanding what function they perform.
From my point of view words and images are of vital importance because I use them constantly as both an artist and an educator, and I often find myself in the position of having to change roles depending on the context. This means that the way in which I use words and images changes from 'making worlds' as an artist to 'interpreting worlds' as an educator. Specific neural systems in my brain determine which signals to foreground or background in constructing decisions, explanations and emotions from sensory input units ignited by external cues. Depending on my role I act in a certain way. Often I am not aware of how the tools in my head sort out the appropriate associations, but I do know that my actions vary depending on context.
As an artist, I am also the author, and in producing works I select a particular area or site I want to investigate. Based on memories, sketches and photographs, the possible form of the images are rehearsed in my imagination, or a particular past experience seeps into my being and suggests the way in which the work takes form. In either case I cannot separate myself from all the influences of my context, but my past experience is not that of the audiences' and so the relationship between public exposure of the works and private intention constantly moves through transforming temporary alliances in which a variety of interpretations is possible.
As an educator I have a particular function to fulfill, and that is to be of service to students as a resource, as a mentor, as someone who can present new ways of looking at things, and as someone who, from time to time, acts as the 'devil's advocate' to challenge and upset 'zones of comfort'. In this role, which Grossberg (1988) terms "fan[s] and intellectual laborer[s]" the position of authority carries with it access to specialised practices, vocabularies and modes of production that empower our stories, but does not guarantee their effects. We can only attempt to be well-informed 'guides', mindful of personal biases and remembering that the way in which we 'translate' or interpret particular works is always determined by our own perspective and our own position in an ideology. Understanding only exists for the person who understands.
Things are outside us, influencing us and adding to the complex configuration of associations that we have inside our heads, and it is these associations and how we use them that allows us to claim experience as personal. But to make use of the experience we need to have some understanding of the forces outside that gave rise to that experience, and I suggest that the most potent force is a sign.
A sign functions to bring something other than itself into an organism's awareness. This may be a colour, for example, that brings with it an awareness of plurality, positions, shapes, and movements. (Deely, 1982) For example, we associate the colour red with anger, stop, passion and danger, and thus we are aware of other people, a position at a traffic light, the shape of a heart or some conflict between forces.
For something to be considered a sign means that sounds or visual patterns are interpreted into mental concepts that require representation (Eco, 1984; Gowans, 1981). This is a general function of a sign. Given this definition of what a sign does, the obvious question is - what is a sign? According to Peirce (c 1886) "[A] sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign" (Hartshorne and Weiss, Eds. 1978, p.135).
The important point to note in this definition is inclusion of the act of interpretation that is integral to investigating conventions that underlie modes of behaviour and representation in which meaning does not rely only on quality and reaction. Peirce's argument is based on the notion of a "triadic relation" that challenges our Western understanding of polar distinctions and binary relations as postulated by Saussure and generally accepted in our educational system and culture.
The influence of Saussure's binary system of signifier and signified has played an important part in the way we, as Westerners, understand the function of signs. It appears that Saussure believed that each language produces a different set of signifieds, which means that the object/thing is a different object/thing depending on what language is used to do the signifying. A legacy of belief from this notion is that language creates meaning and that the word represents, stands for, the object.
Saussure was able to promote a program for semiotics that involved a system of a functioning totality in which there were two kinds of relations - the signifier, and the signified. Peirce on the other hand identified three modes of being, and developed the theory of pragmatism in which experiences play a pivotal role in appraising ideas.
Peirce (Hartshorne & Weiss, Eds. 1978, p.50) opposed the accepted "synthesizing law” which he thought "pretend[ed]" to organise categories through assimilation. Instead his theory of human understanding proposed three prime categories, or modes of being, - originality (an unrealised quality), obsistence (suggesting object, obstinate, obstacle, insistence, resistance, etc) and transausion (suggesting translation, transaction, transfusion, transcendental, etc). In simpler terms he called these modes firstness (the may-be), secondness (the action) and thirdness (the connecting bond between the wish and the action).
It is Peirce's emphasis on thirdness that interests me because it involves how we do things and how we come to understand something. The 'connecting bond’ involves our intuition, our imagination, our conceptualizing capacity, our decision-making, and our interpretations of the networks in our heads. It is the complex link between sensory input units and personal output thoughts and actions, or in Peirce's words, "[I]t is the instincts, the sentiments, that make the substance of the soul", and cognition is "only its surface" (p.345). Peirce placed total emphasis on experience as the way through which we come to know something, and he further undermined accepted thought by strongly denying the pivotal place of reason. In fact he said: "[T]he very fact that everybody so ridiculously overrates his own reasoning is sufficient to show how superficial the faculty is".
Peirce and Saussure have left us with conflicting perspectives regarding signs, and since we need to differentiate one perspective from the other so that we can better understand the view we hold that influences our approach to sensory experience, especially visual perception, it is important to note the two theories that gave rise to the study of semiotics. This is crucial for anything to do with learning because it involves what Lepani (1995) calls the 'symbolic analytical activity'.
As more research into cognitive operations comes to the fore, the debate about what constitutes information and knowledge is becoming an issue of vital importance to teachers. From a Western perspective we have been taught to think of reason as abstract and disembodied that involves the manipulation of abstract symbols based on classical categories defined by properties common to all members of a particular category. However, what Lepani (1995) suggests, is that we must take a global perspective of knowledge sources and, acting as symbolic analysts, translate words, audio and visual representations into marketable products and services across the value chain of production. In taking a global perspective we need to recognise that our way of knowing things, emanating from membership in our Western Discourse in which reason is separated from bodily experience, may need modification.
The key question is how to do this if our system of identifying things, of understanding phenomena using our Western system of categories, does not correlate with the way in which other people might understand things? Perhaps, as Lakoff (1987) suggests, we need to re-think our concepts of categories, our concept of the mind, and also our understanding of the world. But before we can do this, we need to identify problems within our own system of how we make sense of the world before we can consider modification or change.
If we were to put ourselves back in history to the time of Peirce and Saussure I think that the prevailing status of objectivity derived from Plato and confirmed by Descartes in the 1630s, would also have convinced us that meaning lay in duality. Even to-day from a Western perspective we think in oppositions, of internal/external, of good/bad, of love/hate, of left/right and so on. We have developed systems of understanding based on classical categories and rules of human behaviour that involve accepting objective, external, quantifiable categories divorced from imagination, bodily experience and social context.
The work of Saussure has been very influential because of its duality and it was easy to understand that a sign pointed to, signified, some other independent thing. The 'other independent thing' could then be understood using the classical theory of categories through which common, shared properties of similar things, could be identified through reasoning and association that confirmed the accumulated weight of two thousand years of philosophy.
Classical categories and rules control individuals who are seen to be part of the externalised nature identified through formal logical demonstration of universal characteristics. The basic rule underlying efforts to maximise the appearance of "scientific objectivity" consists of using principles and manipulating symbols that correspond to objective categories and objective properties conforming to "classical" identification. In the process of this identification thought is seen as the correct and truthful product of reason, and thought is reported using the traditional method of categorical writing. Both the author and the audience are erased by the message that stands independent of either. Every message is an encounter between a level of expression (or signifier) and a level of content (or signified). Thus we can recognise the developmental links in objective thinking that formed the basis for Saussure's approach to semiotics.
Our recognition of categories underpins the way in which we normally make sense of things because we think of categories as quite natural. But in fact we have been taught to think this way. Researchers such as Lakoff (1987) and Johnson (1987) question the validity of classical categories, and in so doing, propose changes to the way in which we make sense of the world.
This is a crucial point to note because reason and logic are considered to be the corner stones upon which our Western system of understanding is based. Experience is usually associated with the body, and thus considered of secondary importance to our ways of understanding. However, there are strong arguments that now alert us to the prime role bodily experience and sensory perception play in how we make sense of something.
The work of Arnheim (1986), Johnson (1987), Lakoff (1987), Gee (1992) and Solso (1994) highlights the reciprocal partnership between sensory perception and thinking. If we consider that our basic commonplace sensations are the foundation for intuitive insight and creative application we must also realise that we can consciously note and learn how to cultivate these mental states and physical skills. Gordon (1961) stresses that fundamental originality depends on a review of the data of organic life that produced the synthetic objects to which our culture is heir. In other words our interaction with the environment offers the prime stimulus for a multiplicity of experiences depending on our ability to "range freely". Integral to this notion is the capacity to take risks that involve upsetting our usual ways of perceiving, and our usual expectations.
For example, when I introduce students to drawing they are dismayed when the object they attempt to depict does not look like the actual object. What they do not consider is that what we all see are configurations of patterns that we need to play around with so that we can start to organise and regulate the impact of the sensory units into an image of some sort. We forget that the marks, gestures and noises we make to interpret our response to external signals need to be practised and regulated if they are to convey information about something. We ignore the fact that the word "horse" looks nothing like a four legged animal with flowing mane and tail, and yet we feel deficient if our drawing does not look like a four legged animal with flowing mane and tail. We have learnt to associate the word-symbol with the idea, but we have trouble with the image-symbol, and yet, as children, our first efforts to express our experience of the four legged animal with flowing mane and tail are through a natural behavioural tendency to draw.
The notion that language is valuable to much human thinking, but not necessarily the medium in which thinking takes place, is supported by Gardner (1993) who raises the vital question of multiple intelligences. For those of us who focus on verbal language and rely on the word as a valid instrument of meaning it might come as a shock to consider that learning is initiated by sensory input signals that are accepted or rejected depending on the social practices embraced by the community Discourse of which we are part. It may also come as a shock to realise that the meaning of something does not lie in words, but in its potential to be interpreted through a variety of modes of which words are but one.
Our ways of interpreting something and interacting within our culture become a habit and we do not readily recognise sign systems that depart from those with which we are familiar. Saussure's system of recognising signs consolidated the habitual way of understanding things as either physical or metaphysical, whereas Peirce's confrontational notion that the nature of signs is arbitrary, that signs are not only confined to language, and that "intellectual triplicity" (intention) is essential in arriving at meaning, now disrupts some existing comfortable habits of belief.
It appears that we now find ourselves in a situation of trying to live through inherited meanings while simultaneously recognising that such meanings contradict our experiences. Postmodernism entices us to design ourselves according to the temporary mood of the moment - new age man, corporate woman, or whatever 'type' we feel like, but the message and the actuality seem disconnected.
I suggest that refurbishing learning entails making the strange familiar and the familiar strange through recognising that grasping meaning is an event of understanding which goes beyond the linguistic use of word symbols to encompass all image schemata, their metaphorical projections as well as propositions. In this I support Johnson's (1987) opinion:
Meaning is thus a matter of relatedness (as a form of intentionality). An event becomes meaningful by pointing beyond itself to prior event structures in experience or toward possible future structures. The event is meaningful insofar as it stands against, and is related to, a background stretching from the past into the future. A word or sentence is meaningful because it calls to mind a set of related structures of understanding that are directed either to some set of structures in experience (either actual or potential), or else to other symbols. (p.177)
The key point to note is that if the existing skills of members of a particular group do not include appropriate schema to organise alien information into some form of meaning, if there is no background knowledge of the new phenomenon, the message carrying the alien information about the new phenomenon will not be understood.
Our current environment of changing relationships between words, images and sense of self seems an appropriate setting for investigating the ideas of Peirce (1886) who was exploring ideas at odds with the accepted way of thinking in his time. He envisioned human experience as a network of symbolic systems in a time when common understanding was underpinned by the notion of autonomous objects. He was talking about the human desire that makes connections between concepts and actuality when the majority of society still believed in the 'God's Eye View' of rationality as separate from bodily experience. It is only now, a century later, that some members of to-day's audience have developed sufficient and appropriate schema to unravel some of the complexity of his messages, and in the unravelling we may be shocked to find that we change our perceptions because of this experience.
We may find that the stories passed down through generations have other possible interpretations, and it is this potential for interpretation that constitutes meaning. We may recognise that our capacity for interpretation must be based on subconscious acquisition of 'folk theories' derived from sensory perception before formal learning can be sequentially developed. We may agree with Gee (1992, p.141) that "(t)he mental networks in our heads, as well as our general cognitive processing abilities, are tools that we each use to get in and stay in the social "games" our Discourses constitute".
These "games" with all associated meanings, are outside our heads. It is how we play the games that enable us to learn about them and, this involves first and foremost, sensory perception that triggers the massive and simultaneous activation of neural signals that engage the brain in a battle of interpretation. This battle is inside our heads. Our job is to orchestrate the battle.
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