Framing perception

As a friend and I stood gazing at a Renoir, I felt its beauty gently suffuse my body. My friend turned to me and I smiled, expecting to share the moment. “Wow!” He said. “How much do you reckon that’s worth?’

Tasmanian rainforest with large tree in foreground. Copyright Adrian Harris

Seeing the wood or the trees

When you look at this photograph do you see a rainforest ecosystem or thousands of dollars worth of timber? It’s all a matter of perspective; the logger who makes his living from cutting down Tasmania’s rainforest sees wood, while I see trees.

Let’s frame it differently: Let’s drain out the colour and simplify the representation to show this area in terms of logging rights.

Tasmanian pulpwood concession areas, 1985

Pulpwood concession areas, 1985

It’s pretty hard to see a rainforest ecosystem now.

My photograph and the map are cultural representations of place, but is either more ‘true’? The photograph is an aesthetic attempt to record a sensual, embodied experience of place, whereas the map is a simple representation of data, so surely it’s more rational and objective? No; evidence from cognitive science – and elsewhere – suggests that reason cannot function without emotion and the ‘objective’ world simply doesn’t exist. As the enactivist Varela explains, “knower and known, mind and world, stand in relation to each other through mutual specification or dependent coorigination” (Varela et al., 1991).

We create our world in the very process of perception.

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