discourse >> cognisant : curt cloninger | binary : david ball | obsolescent : rajesh k. sharma
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lurkin' in the murk:
a unified theory of congnisance
by curt cloninger

This is actually not a unified theory of cognisance, but an attempt to synthesize several different paths of study I've been pursuing. Source material includes:

Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition -- Umberto Eco

Understanding Comics -- Scott McCloud

The Man Who Tasted Shapes -- Richard C. Cytowic

Black Foliage -- Olivia Tremor Control

Astral Weeks -- Van Morrison

Eco describes a phase of gradual comprehension prior to the point of "naming."  By the time we say, "I saw a dog," we've already gone through several levels of recognition, categorization, and abstraction.  But before any of this naming happens, there is an object that exists which has somehow attracted our attention to the exclusion of all the other existing objects that could have attracted our attention.  Eco describes this object as an impressor, a cast-maker.  We are the "impresee"s, the clay into which the "impressor" object presses.  The impression, the cast or mold that results from this encounter, is the icon.  It is what we consider the object to be.  It is not the object (cf: Magrite's "This is not a pipe" painting).  This icon is an impression of the object, created by the object, and thus defined by the absence of the object.  In binary terms, the object is 1, and the icon is 0.  Presence and absence.

So icons, signs, words, and symbols are the 0's created by a real world full of 1's.  As we turn these icons into art and transmit them via media, these icons become objects in and of themselves.  An image on my web site is no longer an impression on my mind; it is now an object that can leave an impression on someone else's mind.  So I've taken my 0's and turned them into 1's.  Dreams made real.  And when people visit my site, my site makes an impression, a 0, on them.

If I take an analog cassette tape and record it, and then I record the recording, then I record the recording of the recording, the quality of the audio on that tape is going to degenerate pretty quickly.  It's like the "secrets" game where you whisper something to someone, and then they pass it on, and on and on.  In the end, the message invariably gets distorted.

So as the creator of a web site (or of any art), I have the opportunity to intentionally throw my own distortion into the remix process.  Actually, since I'm passing on my impression of the primary object rather than the object itself, I will necessarily re-interpret it and remix it.  I've got an impression, a cast, an empty shell, an outline in my mind created by an object in the world.  When I make art, I attempt to reverse the concavity of that void, and throw its dimensions out into convex reality.  Whatever corners or edges or niches in the initial impression were vague or hazy must necessarily be given dimension by me if my newly created convex "1" is going to be able to stand up on its own in a world of objects.  In the transition between memory and art, information is necessarily lost. Oftentimes the craft of "art" simply comes down to the ability to minimize (or at least creatively control) the amount of information lost during this transitional process.  To quote Lou Reed, "Between thought and expression there lies a lifetime."

Cytowic suggests that everybody receives sense impressions on a synesthetic, pre-sensory (or proto-sensory) plane.  In other words, as color travels through my eye, before my brain is able to abstract it as "sight," it perceives it simply as "sense."  The same with taste, touch, smell, and sound.  All these sense impressions "occur" to our minds first in raw form, and only later (albeit milliseconds later) are they hierarchized into comfortably "recognizable" sensory impressions.  I find it interesting that both Eco (coming from a semiotic perspective) and Cytowic (coming from a quasi-neurological perspective) both identify a pre-cognisant arena of first sense. Both authors speak of this pre-cognisant arena with delicacy, reverence, and awe.  It is the rich, totally experiential and visceral ground from which all human knowing and understanding are abstracted.

Words derive from this pre-cognisant arena, but this arena itself is a-verbal.  All art "speaks" in this arena first, and then on and up it goes.  Most concrete art strongly influences its viewer to move away from this vague murky area of first perception and on to higher areas of understanding, categorizing, and naming.  A crisp, clear, photograph of a shiny new car is a crisp, clear, photograph of a shiny new car.  It insists that we perceive it as such.  But what if one could make art that was so vague in its representational intent that it invited the viewer to remain in this fecund, pre-cognisant arena of existence.  We can't even refer to this arena as a state of "understanding," or a state of "appreciation," or a state of "interpretation," because to speak of it in such concrete terms belies the fact that mental abstraction has already been made, in which case the viewer has moved on up the path of knowledge, they are no longer "lurking in the murk."  To even call this pre-cognisant arena a "state" is dicey, because a state connotes stasis, and this is an arena that is by definition "pre-."  You don't stay in pre-cognisance; you pass through it (and pretty darned quickly according to Eco, Pierce, Kant, et. al.)  To even refer to this pre-cognisant arena of firstness in any way at all is to cause it to evaporate.  Like sub-atomic particle physics.  Once you know where the electrons are, you've lost the ability to know how fast they are moving.  So too with pre-cognisance.  Once you call this transition murk "the pre-cognisant arena," it's clear that you've already passed through said arena and are now looking back down on it from the cozy heights of cognition.

But I don't claim to be writing this essay from a pre-cognisant state.  I'm just saying that such a state exists.  Furthermore, I'm saying that as we make art, we are able to create a primary object (albeit a once-removed, mediated object) which, when presented to a viewer, will cause an impression on that viewer that forces him to travel through this pre-cognisant state and on toward knowledge. What if, as artists, when we turn our concave 0's (our sense impressions) into convex 1's (our art objects), we push these impressions out into reality in an intentionally vague, non-specific way, a way which barely distinguishes between our impressions and our art objects.

To extend the analogy, let's say I see a dog.  (Already the sentence "I see a dog" puts me farther down the spectrum of understanding than I want to be, but I've got to use language, so bear with me.)  As this "dog object impressor" begins "impressing" me, it pushes its way in first gradually and non-distinctly.  What if I immediately turn my attention away from the dog the split-second after it begins to impress me?  Were I to then return in my mind to the memory of that aborted impression, it would have only pressed in on me a bit. Interesting.  What if I continue looking at the dog, letting it impress in all the way, and then I return in my mind and memory to the beginnings of this "impressing" event.  What if I determine to whittle down all of the distinct and clear impressions that the dog has ultimately made on me, and I simply retain the impression of the beginnings of my contact with the dog object?

Now, what if I take that vague initial impression, that primordial icon, that blurry 0, that shallow hole, and push it back out into reality by making it art.  Now my art object, my tangible 1, is nothing more than an unformed mound.  Any person on whom that mound makes an impression will not be impressed too concretely.  They will not perceive "dog" in any concrete, highly abstracted "knowledgeable" way.  They will perceive the beginnings of my experience.  I will have forced them to perceive these murky beginnings by not giving them anything beyond the beginnings.  "Rational" art patrons will try in vain to abstract my rudimentary pre-cognisant art to higher levels of "knowing" and "naming," but my art will thwart their attempts to do this by not giving them enough information with which to work, and they will dismiss my art as meaningless.

But other patrons will recognize my art as familiar.  "Hey, this is the place I always pass through on my way to recognizing and labelling a dog.   I remember this place.  Boy, who on earth would have ever thought to stop and document here?"  Such patrons will "get" our art.

Furthermore, according to the principles set forth by McCloud in Understanding Comics, the web is set up by its very nature to present a pre-cognisant world; a world that exists at the boundary where objects become words; a world that exists at the divide where raw sense impressions are parsed into sound, sight, and touch.  Web art presents a "1" object, but not a very concrete one. Web art presents a "1" of light, sound, and shifting sand.  It pushes on our minds, and our minds give.  We push on the interactive art, and it gives.  Web art has the ability to leave a shallow primordial footprint.  Web art invites us to lurk in the pre-cognisant murk.

Olivia Tremor Control states, "We will find a way to animate the sounds we feel inside."  They wonder, "How can we liberate the world of sound?"  They confide, "You are the subject of sketches I've made for a sculptured sound."  The Olivia Tremor Control is a band attempting to push their shallow 0 into a blunt 1.

By referring to this pre-cognisant impression stage as "shallow" and "vague," I am forced to perjoratize it.  "Shallow" and "vague" sound derogatory.  Such is the tyranny of language, which surely has a predisposed bias against such a pre-linguistic state.  (Which explains why Eco is so danged difficult to read!)  But "shallow" is also thousands of miles wide, and "vague" is also full of thousands of possible meanings.  Furthermore, such art need not be blurry and abstract.  It can be iconic and crisp a la Dali.  A human fetus is on its way to becoming an adult, but a snap shot of a fetus need not be blurry.  You can take a very clear and crisp picture of a primordial state.  It just might look a bit strange.

Such pre-cognisant web art need not exclude words.  Indeed, there are some genius artists so skilled at hacking and reverse-engineer words, that they use even these enemies of pre-cognisance to create wonderfully blunt and resonant art objects.  Neil Young, Paul Simon, Emily Dickinson -- if they can invoke pre-cognisance using mere words, surely we can invoke it via the multi-sensory arsenal of web media.  I'll leave you with one such primordial lyric, and an invitation to join me in surfing the murk:

"If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dreams
Where the mobile steel rims crack
And the ditch and the backroads stop
Could you find me
Would you kiss my eyes
And lay me down
In silence easy
To be born again"
              - Van Morrison

Copyright © 2000 Curt Cloninger. All Rights Reserved.

Curt Cloninger is so close, he's almost inside.

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