Thursday, September 23, 2010

Perceptions and truth(s)

Perceptions and truth(s)
Torrey Orton
Sept. 23, 2010

I am struck these days by the various ways we can be deceived in our grasp of the world, and ourselves. This is apart from the consciously deceptive intent of our public world(s) and the conscious intent to create perceptions which our various artists demonstrate for us. There is also the unconscious distortion of our perceptions which arises from our premonitions of them in the form of 'previews' in the media, the reports of others about them, the interactions between the two and so on.

For instance of the later, there was the Millau Viaduc in my mind from quite a lot of exposures at a distance, among them the BBC series of great modern constructions, a web page full of site clips and photos, some local (regional French) tourist encouragements – all contributors to a sense I knew what I was going to see. Almost all were taken from the level of the bridge or above. Our approach to the reality was from the level of the river Tarn 250 meters below the road way. Grand enough at that, but not the hanging in air glory that the previews supported. I was not stunned, shocked, shaken, uplifted….but thought I should have been, which added to the letdown. It did not occur to me that 90 minutes spent beforehand in the Roquefort cheese caverns 25 Ks down the road might have constrained my expectations to things just in front of me.

The reverse of this was my first sight of The Nightwatch through a small door on an oblique angle to the picture in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam 40 years ago… a view which amplified the commanding stature of the work, and which in turn was intensified by its unconscious comparison with two existing images in my mind: (1) that of the picture from an art history slide show screened in a format close to that of the real thing and (2) its micro version in the text book of the same course. Then I felt visually completed, fulfilled in an expectation I did not know I had until reality rewarded it with fact.Yet another access to the perils of perception is the very common experience of seeing something which at a certain moment looks like something it certainly is not. The rooster on the road is a web-honoured example of this, including its own self-test against variable perceptions.

Extending the avian theme, I saw a rosella of unlikely hues on the ground overlooking the Loddon River at Glen Lyon, Vic. a few days ago. This bird turned out to be a lichen infested rock declining in similarity to my first impression with every step closer to it. My focus of course was much more intent than the first glance which created the perception. My search for continuing likenesses to support that first glance moved with the insistence that self- justification demands. And, too, it was a very unlikely spot to find a solo rosella in the open, as my wife implicitly noted by immediately debunking my perception. I gave in two steps later, losing in the doing a hope that I had seen something normal in a very unusual way. Trouble is, it was wholly unusual and firmly no way. My point here, in case I lose it in short term memory glitches, is that it is very easy to see what we want / need where it is not. For my painter friends this is a good thing, for their work is to create what we can't see in what is there. Even a gathering of others may work against the clarification of the imagined when too much group membership is at stake in a threatened group perception. The research and experience on this tally fully for once.

So what is the effect of a world in which two kinds of realities are confused by misrepresentation? First the intimate is made public and then the public is made banal. Public intimacy is the content of "reality" TV …public banality is the censoring of human (and animal these days) realities like death, injury and other matters attracting notices of too dangerous to be seen without forewarning. Listen to police reporting road trauma, family violence, drunk violence, etc. Intention is the source of this misrepresentation – the intention to obscure our world and our worlds from each other. Among The effects are an untraceable paranoia, low grade fears that we are being got at…but by who? Obsessive vigilance sets in, with an air of preparation for battles. We know from the "fog of war" that persistent uncertainty in a context of potential threat is destabilising to selves and groups. The needs which are assailed by this dynamic are those for intimacy (love, care, etc.), affiliation (belonging, membership) and their facilitating ones (appreciation, acknowledgment, etc,).

The question is: is the misrepresentation intentional or consequential, or some of both? It really does not matter, except that apparently unintentional misrepresentation (deception) is an aggravated assault because it is unaccountable. The consequence is a sense of being either the authors of our own paranoia, or, as can be seen in exaggerated forms in cults and conspiracy theories (both which are massively facilitated by the Web), victims of veiled dangers. This effect is prominently on display in the US in the phantasies about Obama's origins believed by 20+% of the population, paralleled by the beliefs about alien visitors kept secret by the government, and the origin of 9/11 in the CIA, etc. Not surprising the Tea Party plays so well, hatched in a fog which we '60ers associate with another kind of tea.And, they tend to multiply and mutually reinforce. They are also untouchable by empirical truth, having emotional truths (the threats) already occupying the relevant brainspace.

Woe are we, for these are the marginals. Woe are they because their leaders pre(a)y on and feed their paranoias. Under present conditions, the difference
between 'we' and 'they' becomes daily thinner.

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