Issues around the idea of symbolic forms

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Lev Manovich argues that the database is replacing central perspective as the dominant symbolic form by which we make sense of our world. This essay is simply me thinking aloud about some of the issues and questions that this raises: issues that I may want to think about more deeply sometime soon.

The Essay

Lev Manovich argues that the database is replacing central perspective as the dominant symbolic form by which we make sense of our world. In this he follows the work of Ernst Cassirer, whose Philosophy of Symbolic Forms defines the task of humankind as seeking “the categories of the consciousness of objects in the theoretical, intellectual sphere” and suggests that this “starts from the assumption that such categories must be at work wherever a cosmos, a characteristic and typical world view, takes form out of the chaos of impressions.”. This work examines language, myth and the phenomenology of knowledge.

I should admit from the outset that I have not read Philosophy of Symbolic Forms in its entirety. I have read excerpts and I am waiting for the library service to give me the complete work. What I am writing therefore extrapolates from what I have read – which might well lead me to erroneous conclusions. It could be that much or all of what I am thinking will be answered by reading Cassirer’s work in full. This is therefore tentative at best, but I am writing it as a form of thinking aloud, and because I would be grateful for any responses.

Cassirer claimed that symbols mediate between perception and understanding, and enable humankind to make sense of the world. He suggests that the mind takes in impressions, processes them, and fits them into certain symbolic referents which enable it to understand its world. In this, in many ways, he follows Kant. His thinking arguably draws from Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics, especially the first part Of the Symbolic Form of Art, in which Hegel says “the symbol is a sign, but it is distinguished from the signs of language in this: that between the image and the idea which it represents, there is a relation which is natural, not arbitrary or conventional. It is thus that the lion is the symbol of courage, the circle of eternity, the triangle of the trinity”.

Cassirer claims that the symbolic form of central perspective pervaded the “point of view” of western civilisation for almost 700 years. It was not just an artistic technique nor a metaphor, simile or analogy. It was (to borrow Peirce’s term) “diagrammatic”. As a diagram of “how the world is” it was used, consciously or unconsciously, in all serious fields of endeavour, providing a cultural paradigm that guided both thought and action.

In some ways this argument parallels Marshall McLuhan‘s technological determinism. Marshall McLuhan says that the way we perceive the world, the way we organise our thinking, changes when a new medium comes to dominate the cultural landscape. We literally live in a different world after the invention of television. Cassirer makes a similar claim: we inhabit a different mental world after the invention of perspective. Perspective gives us the individual point of view, which gives us the means to think about ourselves as individuals, which leads to political and social changes as people assert their individuality and demand that their point of view be taken account of.

However, if we accept the idea that the central perspective as a symbolic form is, or was, a dominant mode of perception in western culture, and that it is being superceded by the database as symbolic form ( in Manovich’s words: “the central perspective becomes a precursor of the database”), then we are necessarily accepting another, underlying argument. We are accepting that, for human beings, experience of the world is mediated by symbolic forms. If we decide that we do accept this argument then we should, perhaps, wonder whether this is a local or general phenomenon.

A local phenomenon is something that happens in one place or one time, but need not have happened. A general phenomenon is something that evidence suggests is necessary or universal. Take this sentence as an example: “the widespread viewing of television in America in the 1950s led to many Americans becoming overweight”. Assuming for the moment that this is true, we can ask whether it is true locally or generally. If it is true generally then we would expect to find people ballooning wherever television was introduced. We can note the surprisingly small number of fatties in Helsinki and conclude that the television/fat person phenomenon is local. It appears to be a consequence of other conditions specific to American society. It is something that could have been avoided, and indeed we can see that it was avoided in other places, because we can see that other cultures watch television without increasing in weight.

If we believe that our world is mediated by symbolic forms then it is important to know whether this phenomenon is local or general. If it is local it is a temporary bewitchment. It is something we can grow out of, or shake off. If it is general then it is part of the human condition. Hegel suggests strongly that this is a general phenomenon, that there is a relationship between the symbolic form and the world which is “natural, not arbitrary or conventional”. This raises some interesting questions.

If there is always a dominant symbolic form that, in some ways, governs how we rationalise our sensory input, then why have we only detected two of them: central perspective and the database? Self-evidently there must be more. We can see this by asking the question: what was the dominant symbolic form in the western world before the invention of central perspective? Since the invention of central perspective is a historical event that can be precisely dated, then this question makes very concrete sense. If central perspective was invented in the thirteenth century, and if it gradually became taken up as a metaphor, a symbolic form, then it must have superceded another symbolic form. To paraphrase Manovich, an older symbolic form must have been a precursor to central perspective.

What was this older form: what were its characteristics, and what was its core metaphor? Marshall McLuhan’s analysis can be extended back in time in this way; and indeed Marshall McLuhan himself extends his analysis to discuss the way the world changed with the invention of the printing press. He also looks, in outline form at least, at the invention of writing and the way that this changed the world from oral/nonlinear to literate/linear. If symbolic forms underpin perception in a similar fashion then a theory of dominant symbolic forms should also be able to cope with the mental worlds of ancient Greece and Rome.

In an answer to the question “What is the symbolic form?”, someone (I am not online here and so I will find and add the name later!) wrote: ” The central perspective is such a good example because … these methods can also be used in urban development the entire architecture is planned according to such principles. One can anticipate the future, one can make calculations: if I do it in this way, I will be at this point at that time “. This statement illustrates the difficulty I am describing. If the statement is true then the author must be completely baffled by the Parthenon and by the elegant system of Roman roads. Somehow the ancient Greeks and Romans managed to “anticipate the future” and “make calculations” one thousand years before central perspective was invented.

Either symbolic forms are not an important part of people’s mental landscapes, or they are voluntary, or the Romans lived inside a different (and, apparently, equally potent) symbolic form of their own.

We may also question the local or general nature of symbolic forms geographically. Raimo has suggested that one of the characteristics of manga is that it does not have central perspective as its symbolic form. This may well be true, but the question then arises: what does Japanese culture have as its dominant symbolic form?

Looking simultaneously at both time and geography, one can wonder what did classical Indian culture have as its dominant symbolic form that enabled them to plan and execute buildings such as the Taj Mahal? How did the ancient Egyptians, with their flat “unrealistic” two dimensional visual art, design and engineer the pyramids, the construction of which still baffles twenty-first century engineers?

This process of comparison is important because, hidden inside his rhetoric, Cassirer and those who follow him make two completely separate propositions:
1. symbolic forms are mental tools that enable us to make sense of our world;
2. central perspective is the symbolic form that has underpinned the development of western civilisation since the thirteenth century.

Even if the first proposition is entirely correct that, in itself, tells us nothing about the truth of the second proposition. Moreover, unless we understand something about what a symbolic form actually is then we cannot even begin to approach the second proposition.

Furthermore, although Manovitch claims that the database is superceding central perspective as the dominant symbolic form, it is not immediately obvious why they are even the same kind of phenomenon. Central perspective, in its core sense, is a technique for producing two dimensional images that we agree to collude in perceiving as three dimensional. Database, in its core meaning, is a method for storing large amounts of information for easy search, sorting, and retrieval. These are similar only insofar as it is asserted that their cultural effects are similar or the same.

The everyday uses of central perspective and databases are not obviously similar either.

Central perspective is a creative methodology, a technique. The result of using this technique is to generate a quality in a visible object that we can experience directly. We view paintings and say confidently that this one uses perspective well; this one uses perspective badly, and this one makes no use of perspective at all. We look at a photograph and recognise it as a montage because “the perspective is wrong”. Indeed much of the America-never-landed-on-the-moon conspiracy theory utilises a detailed central-perspective-based analysis of the film and photographs depicting the moon landing. This shadow points the wrong way; that light source is impossible; and so on.

(This is, of course, to put to one side the entire argument that central perspective does not exist in photography in the way that it existed in painting and drawing from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century. I will just note here that Charles S Peirce has suggested that paintings and drawings that attempt to show perspective are iconical images – images that contain a visual resemblance of object reality – while most photographs are indexical images – images that present a true mapping, a point-to-point correspondence with the reality before the camera. Indexically, “central perspective” is an inherent attribute of a standard photograph, and thus very different in its immediate or its wider cultural effects, and in its ability to act as symbolic form, from a quality fashioned by informed choice and learned skill.)

A database, on the other hand, is not a creative methodology. There are many techniques for conceiving, programming and using databases. Databases are electronic arrangements that cannot be experienced directly, anymore than radio signals or bytecode can be. They may contain anything that can be stored digitally, and what characterises them as databases is simply the fact that (one way or another) the material is broken into individual records, and the arrangement is such as to make sorting, searching and retrieval as simple or efficient as possible. We can read the formatted output of a request to a database, and we can view a diagrammatic representation of the structure of a database, but we can never see, hear or touch a database itself.

Even Marshall McLuhan (who once airily claimed that it did not matter whether what he was saying was true or not, because his statements were “probes” that were only intended to be interesting) provided evidence for his assertions. What evidence does Manovitch provide for his implicit assertion that a database belongs epistemologically in the same category as the central perspective? It is true that he claims to find a link between databases, montage and nonlinearity, and that he uses this as an approach to analyse films and other artefacts; but this, on its own, is a circular argument that presupposes that his claim is viable in the first place.

At a subtle level Cassirer himself does not need to provide this kind of evidence. Phenomenonologically he could be said to be describing what-is, in the way it appears to him when it appears to him. Its objective status therefore need not be part of the discussion. Manovich, however, by declaring that B is superceding A (and that A is a precursor to B), is asserting something much wider than what appears to him when it appears to him. He is describing something that he asserts appears to us too, and thus he is describing an objective historical process.

Hegel also asserts an objective historical process, but, in contrast to Manovich he supplies a complete argument to support it. He also provides a taxonomy of a kind that supports both agreement and informed refutation. In his essay Of the Romantic Form of Art he concludes that “symbolic art attains its most adequate reality and most complete application in architecture, in which it holds sway in the full import of its notion, and is not yet degraded to be, as it were, the inorganic nature dealt with by another art. The Classical type of art, on the other hand, finds adequate realisation in sculpture, while it treats architecture only as furnishing an enclosure in which it is to operate, and has not acquired the power of developing painting and music as absolute form for its content. The romantic type of art, finally, takes possession of painting and music, and in like manner of poetic representation, as substantive and unconditionally adequate modes of utterance. Poetry, however, is conformable to all types of the beautiful, and extends over them all, because the artistic imagination is its proper medium, and imagination is essential to every product that belongs to the beautiful, whatever it type may be”.

This is sufficient to enable us to understand the shape of the process that Hegel is describing, and to marshall evidence that either supports or refutes his argument.

Unless we can understand the shape of this historical process that Manovich implies but does not state, the ways in which it is assembled, and the components from which it is constructed, then we can say nothing about it. Others (including Marshall McLuhan and also Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders, whose book The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind relates directly to this discussion) who have proposed hidden historical forces have produced sufficent evidence of where these forces can be found, and how they operate, to enable detailed debate and possible refutation.

Now watch my embarrassment when I discover that Cassirer and Manovich have, in fact, produced hundreds or pages of just such evidence and I haven’t read it.

To be continued…

This essay was first published on June 23, 2006