Construction of Reality:
Do you see what I see?
Hallie DeCatherine Jones
August 28th 2013.
Green or yellow? What do you see?
What you see in this image represents a recent debate between my partner and myself. This is a photo of an electrical box in a historical building that we own. Over the past few weeks, he has been working on the electrical system and color-coding the different breakers to correspond with specific electrical lines. He requested that I stand next to the breaker box to assist him in this process. As he tested the lines to see if they were “hot” or not, he would shout for me to flip specific breakers on and off. Sometimes, he would refer to them by their number, other times he would refer to them by their color code.
He wanted me to shut off “all the yellow ones”.
…. “Yellow?” I thought…. “I do not see any YELLOW ones here! What if I screw this up and he gets electrocuted?” These were the thoughts running through my mind.
“You mean green?!” I shouted back at him.
His response was something along the lines of “Yellow, green, whatever!”
To me, this was a problem. Given there were no analogous colors to green or yellow used being used to color-code the other breakers, it’s not hugely important in the grand scheme of things. However, it could have been. The color-coding on the electrical panel, someone doing electrical work and another person flipping power on and off based on this precarious interpretation of a color is a serious situation that carries the potential for accidents.
This, along with a subsequent color disagreement last night (we were moving a heavy couch and he wanted to place it next to the “green wall” that looked definitively blue to me) prompted me to ask if he was having trouble seeing. He followed by engaging me in a debate about the color of the wall. I told him my concern, and pointed out that he was also referring to the “green” breakers in the electrical box as “yellow”. Today, the debate continued as he approached me with a light green marker to demonstrate how it was “yellow” in the same manner that a “yellow highlighter looks green”. I did not, and I still do not, agree.
What does it mean to see things in the world? How is it that humans are able to coordinate our own visual interpretations with those of another when it’s such a complex and ambiguous interpretive space?
The example above illustrates the difficulty of gaining communicative consensus between two actors (he and I) in a socio-cultural lifeworld who are challenging each other’s “factual” interpretations of the objective, physical world (Habermas, 1984). His truth claim concerning what is “yellow” failed as a transsubjective validity claim when I compared it against my interpretative concept of what is “yellow”. We were at odds in our communicative relations pertaining to the seemingly mundane “facts” about the physical world of space and time… a world commonly referred to as “objective”. This can also be conceptualized as a philosophical impasse in the phemomenological sense of perception.
If visual interpretations can vary in degrees and types of meaning from person to person, it is therefore a wondrous accomplishment that humans can coordinate their behaviors, actions and movements across space and time in an orderly fashion. Just consider some examples of public space where humans move about in the physical, objective world. Navigating rush hour traffic is an apt metaphor. In rush our traffic, we depend on the tacit assumption that everyone sees and interprets the visual world according to the same rules. These rules are subject to the consent of all actors engaged in the process of navigating the rush hour traffic while behind the wheel of their cars. Essentially, we are willing to risk our lives based on the assumption that all other drivers are operating in synch with the rules for visual interpretation of the roadway, the makeup of three dimensional space, the manners in which humans experience motion, what traffic markings and signage indicate, etc. There is no time to stop and debate important things, such as the relative hardness of the pavement, how it feels to switch lanes at 40 MPH versus 70 MPH, the best color for striping lanes or how a driver could have altered their timing to perfect a traffic maneuver. Rather than calling all these potential points of disagreement into question, we consent to an assumed range of interpretations that operate as an average of all valid claims about states of affairs in the world. Humans do this as a matter of economy. It saves time, resources and energy to move along these shared interpretive horizons, rather than calling them into question and repeatedly engaging in the process of building consent toward an agreed upon working model of physical reality.
In our socio-cultural lifeworld, we humans coordinate our actions through social cooperation and communicative action (Habermas, 1984). From a philosophical standpoint, to describe the essence of how an individual experiences reality based on the assumption that the world is preexisting would be the central project of phenomenological inquiry, as description precedes theoretical explanation and analytical frameworks (Merleau-Ponty, 2002). Habermas was interested in the communicative means by which humans socially coordinate their actions in order to cooperatively construct our socio-cultural lifeworld. Communication and intersubjective relations, that is, communicative relations between two or more individuals, presupposes both an already existing world and the presence of an Other whom also presupposes an already existing world. Communication, social theories, scientific inquiry and philosophical frameworks are contingent on these basic assumptions. Phenomenological inquiry in its project of experiential description also requires communicative means for expressing the horizons of perception and experience. Yet, language tends to structure, convey, enable and also limit the expression of meaning in particular ways. Language has been characterized as an a priori theoretical framework by which we perceive, analyze and assign predetermined meaning to experience, although structuralist perspectives view language as a structuring phenomenon that prescribes meaning and post-structuralists view language as an interpretive framework where the receiving individual completes the communicative exchange through their own interpretation of meaning.
What could we come to know about the world and human experience if phenomenological inquiry and its subsequent descriptive artifacts were rendered in means other than linguistic? As a transdisciplinary visual artist and also an academic by training, I have a fondness toward language and words, but I am equally inclined toward other modes of communication and expression. I wonder how we could change the paradigm of inquiry, shift our understandings of knowledge and open new possibilities for human experience if the academy shifted toward emergent forms of creative scholarship that resist the hegemony of language and its subsequent institutional conventions.
Returning back to the prior discussion concerning the visual interpretation of the objective world, I am interested in Habermas’ notion of the social construction of “truth” and “reality”. In considering knowledge and the predominance of scientific and analytical logic in society, it is a broadly held commonsense that there are hard, concrete facts which govern nature, human experience and the world in which we live. Yet, Habermas calls on us to interrogate the notion that an objective world is an ontological given. He asks us to inquire “into the conditions under which the unity of an objective world is constituted for the members of a community” and points us toward the intersubjective process of communication through which the objectivity of the world is established by “counting as one and the same world for a community of speaking and acting subjects” (Habermas, 1984: p. 12-13). Simply, a rock is a rock because, through communication with Others, consensus is established about its rock-ness…. it is hard, it hurts when someone throws it at you, it actually exists in space and time because you both see it, its linguistic referential carries a shared meaning that others interpret similarly, etc…
As with linguistic interpretation of meaning, our visual interpretation of meaning follows similar rules and conventions that are constructed through social-cultural experiences. The retinal image, the sensory impression of light on the perceptual system of brains and bodies, is not the kind of seeing I am referring to in the context of visual interpretation. Rather, visual images are subject to an infinite range of possible interpretations and children are taught to construct shared conventions for visual worlds that are partially explained through biology and also dependent upon consensus and social confirmation of interpretive similarity (Hoffman, 1998). Before humans acquire linguistic skills, they come into the world seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling. Language helps us to describe our perceptual experience of worldly phemonena to Others, and it also helps us to make sense and assign commonly shared sets of meaning to our experiences.
Is it possible to describe, represent, challenge and interrogate human experience through purely visual, aural or tactile methods?
Can meaning and understanding be conveyed, communicatively, through taste or smell?
Is it possible to develop new methods for experiencing the subtleties of human experience through trans-disciplinary practices of making and creating?
Is it possible for trans-disciplinary modes of scholarship and knowledge production to develop communicative conventions that carry an interpretive sameness of meaning similar to that of language?
How could a shift in communicative paradigms subsequently alter the cognitive potential of humans? Eisner discusses the cognitive consequences of the arts, noting how they contribute to “the development of complex and subtle forms of thinking” and how researchers such as Piaget and Arnheim resist making a distinction between cognition and perception (Eisner, 2002). InUndoing Aesthetics, Wolfgang Welsch (1997) provides an overarching view of theoretical perspectives concerning the intersections of aesthetics and consciousness. He points out how Nietzsche’s contributions demonstrated the aesthetic basis of cognition and the construction of “reality”:
Neitzsche showed that our representations of reality not only contain fundamental aesthetic elements, but are wholly aesthetic in nature. Reality is a construct which we produce, like artists with fictional means – through forms of intuition, projections, phantasms, pictures, and so on. Cognition is a foundationally metaphorical activity.
Welsch points out how reality is structured by aesthetic interventions beyond cognitive processes, such as our experiences of the built environment, our seamless use of media and technology, epistemological aestheticization and so on. Positioning aesthetics at the crux of an ontological shift, he contends that “cognition and reality have turned out to be basically aesthetic” and thus, humanity is prepared for the widespread aestheticization of daily life (Welsch, 1997).
Similarly from the perspective of media studies, Mark Deuze (2012) advances his media life theory and dares us to conceptualize our discussions from the space of an ontological shift in which media and technology are viewed as an inescapable part of the material, social and subjective realities that render all aspects of human experience. For Deuze, questions about “the real” versus unreality no longer prove useful to understanding the nature of life, as humans and media are one in the same. Analogous to Habermas’ socio-cultural lifeworld concept as something that is non-falsifiable (we cannot step outside of it… we are, always have been, and always will be, internal to it), media are embedded within the phenomenological horizon of life experience. Media cannot be separated from epistemological, aesthetic, ethical, metaphysical or ontological questions, it inextricably penetrates all aspects of human experience and contemporary thought.
Through interdisciplinary practices and multi-modal methods for conducting scholarship, what kind of future for knowledge and human experience is possible? If we started from the ontological assumption that cognition, reality, media, perception, communication, etc… are givens, could we escape from carrying the baggage of recurrent philosophical and disciplinary axioms? Can we establish an intellectual space for creative freedom that fosters exploration of more interesting and productive questions about human experience, such as how we want to live in the world and what type of reality we want to construct? How would a shift in scholarly practices impact our students in new ways? How can creative approaches toward scholarship and inquiry communicate meaning and knowledge beyond the exclusive intellectual space of the ivory tower, the edited books and the peer-reviewed periodicals?
My partner…. he still sees yellow in the color-coding of the breaker box, where I see green.
Deuze, M. (2012). Media life. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Eisner, E. W. (2002). The arts and the creation of mind. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action. Boston: Beacon Press.
Hoffman, D. (2000). Visual Intelligence. New York: Norton.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). Phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge.
Welsch, W. (1997). Undoing aesthetics. London: Sage Publications.