Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images

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Barbara Maria Stafford is at the forefront of a growing movement that calls for the humanities to confront the brain’s material realities. In Echo Objects, she argues that humanists should seize upon the exciting neuroscientific discoveries that are illuminating the underpinnings of cultural objects. In turn, she contends, brain scientists could enrich their investigations of mental activity by incorporating phenomenological considerations—particularly the intricate ways that images focus intentional behavior and allow us to feel thought.
As a result, Echo Objects is a stunningly broad exploration of how complex images—or patterns that compress space and time—make visible the invisible ordering of human consciousness. Stafford demonstrates, for example, how the compound formats of emblems, symbols, collage, and electronic media reveal the brain’s grappling to construct mental objects that are redoubled by prior associations. In contrast, she shows that findings in evolutionary biology and the neurosciences are providing profound opportunities for understanding aesthetic conundrums such as the human urge to imitate and the role of narrative and nonnarrative representation.
 Ultimately, she makes an impassioned plea for a common purpose—for the acknowledgement that, at the most basic level, these separate projects belong to a single investigation.

“Heroic. . . . The larger message of Stafford’s intense, propulsive prose is unassailable. If we are to get much further in the great puzzle of ‘binding’—how the perception of an image, the will to act on intention, or the forging of consciousness is assembled from the tens of thousands of neurons firing at any one moment in time—then there needs to be action on all fronts.”—Science

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226770529
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 302
  • Product dimensions: 8.50 (w) x 9.80 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Stafford is the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. She is the author of seven books, including, most recently, Visual Analogy, and a coauthor of Devices of Wonder.

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Read an Excerpt


The Cognitive Work of Images

Copyright © 2007

Barbara Maria Stafford
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-77052-9


Toward a Cognitive History of Images

[We can think of] art as an independent life form ... inanimate artifacts, patterns of sound, scribblings that get insinuated into the activities of human brains which replicate their parts, assemble them into systems, and pass them on. TERRENCE DEACON

... the natural object is always the adequate symbol. EZRA POUND


Performance and video artist Joan Jonas's 2005 installation Lines in the Sand begins, as Neolithic art might have begun, with her own elongated shadow blackening the bright floor of the Nevada desert. Then, with a stick, she starts to draw: incising the ancient ocean bed, depositing her traces next to its windblown stripes, and imprinting another, diagrammatic self beside the original flat and fleeting projection (fig. 2). By combining perception with action, she both gives shape to surface and feels the underlying order of the world.

Inspired by the work of the American poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1884-1961)-a member of Ezra Pound's imagist circle-Jonas looks to myth as a way to configure self-awareness. Shifting sand-like the chalkboards, mirrors, masks, and video monitors she has deployed throughout her career-is first and foremost a distributable medium. Old as the earth, this granular material invites the expansive choreography of gesture and ritual, rather than the linear logic of text. This galaxy of scattered particles serves as a reminder of even more remote processes of patterning. Almost all star formation, astronomers believe, was in clumps and blobs for the first four billion years of cosmic history. Recognizable features-such ur-forms as flat disks, ellipses, spirals, and bars-coalesced from chaotic puffs of rich warm gas due to the merging pull of gravity.

Fascinating though it is, we cannot follow Jonas's associative trajectory of eternal return: her deft transposition of the modern story of H.D. to the archetype of destruction and construction, Helen of Troy. Nor can we pursue-although we will meet these cognitive mechanisms later in this book-the geographical and temporal analogical jump from the epic sites of Iron Age Greece to the stepped façade of the pyramidal Luxor Hotel and the mirages of present-day Las Vegas. But what we do now need to keep in mind-prompted by Jonas's work-are the myriad speculations on the connections between traditions. I mean the ongoing quest to locate points of connectivity between global practices centered on schematization born of contrasts from Egypt to Easter Island.

Significantly, Jonas creates a time-based resonant object out of videotape recorder and camera. She demonstrates that this electronic medium has ancient roots in the situatedness of live performance. Not black and white, but grayscale monochrome-like early television-video images are a standing wave of electrical energy that interrupts the homogeneous space of the screen. Her protracted piece oscillates between Jonas's real-time assemblaged self-image and what video pioneer Staina Vasulka called "gaunt" images. These audiovisual forms are the linear patterns abstracted or cut from their source that get crystallized on the mirroring face of the monitor. As a result, Jonas's work links up with the venerable aesthetic practice of disconnecting, or freeze-framing, copresent formal elements from out of the spatiotemporal continuum. These signals oscillate between input and output, internalization and externalization. They both produce and broadcast information.

Using findings from brain modularity research as well as its connectionist critics, I want to reopen formalism as a serious, even generative, topic. Certain neurobiologists consider the brain as a collection of dedicated modular structures (in the case of V. S. Ramachandran based on his investigations of neurological dysfunctions or abnormalities such as phantom limb syndrome and synaesthesia) with each module doing a specialized job independent of the others. But evolutionary psychologists, such as Steven Pinker, put the focus back on the interdependence of such units and on the specific aspects of the environment with which they resonate. Thinking animals, he argues, are always embedded within their changing natural and social habitats.

Both positions, I believe, come together in the realization that we must sculpt our milieux as we move through them and that these spatiotemporal reorganizations or recompositions emblazon our minds in turn. Works of art-which I am defining as a special class of images that both coalesce and work to make the viewer coalesce large amounts of novel and taxing information-bring a crazy-quilt of physical phenomena to our notice. This constraining and compressing design makes apparent the normally hidden ways by which domain-specific interface systems (vision, hearing, taste, touch, smell, proprioception) render the ambient intimate for us.

I realize that formalism has been a dirty word for quite some time now. "Theories of embodiment," for example, are typically opposed to the description of a theory as "formal" as, say, in generative linguistics. Here, "formal" is a way of stating that it makes no claims about how components or processes hypothesized by the mind might map onto the anatomy and physiology of the brain. The assumption, which I find problematic, is that formalism-revealing the significant morphological homologies and dissonances within and between ordered compositions-is necessarily antithetical to embodiment. In other words, that we are unable to deduce significant correspondences between our internal biological mechanisms and external configurational practices.

Equally limiting, I think, is the dismissal of literary and artistic "formalist criticism"-and with it attention to the efficacy of material objects in shaping through their shapes human thought and action. As Richard Strier has argued in defense of I. A. Richards or Cleanth Brooks-critics purported to uphold merely the perfect adequation of language and world , image and material, intention and meaning-they, in fact, assert that the results of a formalist analysis may well help us understand a specific historical moment. Let me be clear: I am not promoting a revival. What I am saying is that the baby of content-in-patterning has gotten thrown out with the bath. We have forgotten the fundamental insight of British polymath D'Arcy Thompson that underneath the wild diversity of organisms lies an elegant and simple mechanism of shape evolution.

Images-whether the result of natural imprints or artificial impressions-lay down tracks that affectively activate our eyes and mind. They stamp us with the marks and textures of the phenomenal world. As David Bordwell commented about the light traces and shadowy figures created in cinema, they demarcate an otherwise unpunctuated visual array for our attention. Pattern formation and pattern recognition-from schematic outline to full-blown illusionism-illuminate both neural functions and symbolic processes resulting from social agency.

As Steven Pinker noted in How the Mind Works, "it is highly likely" that art helped ratchet up and sustain our capacity for design and so stimulated thinking beyond our inbuilt preferences. According to this evolutionary biologist, art is not an adaptation, rather, it is one consequence of certain compositional resources appealing to our inborn cognitive preferences. We can think as well of anthropologist Albert Gell's remark about how not just human beings, but informational artifacts, have been widely assumed to be operational, that is, capable of initiating causal sequences through acts of mind.

Figuring as form capture is a strategy to keep our eyes poised to alight in a changing environment. As Joan Jonas demonstrates, it is also a meditative practice, repeatedly pulling something that lies outside the contemplating observer inside, and vice versa-a sort of habitual condition of rethinking or redepicting of experience. In fact, researchers using magnetic resonance imaging scans have discovered that areas of the cortex associated with attention and sensory processing are thicker in subjects who have practiced meditation for many years thereby avoiding the thinning of the brain that inevitably comes with age. Further, electroencephalograms (or EEGs) taken of long-time meditators showed a high level of synchronization among neurons, particularly in a certain frequency of electrical impulses. Like mental training, as Jonas shows, the repetitive activity of drawing similarly stabilizes the mind. Copying snatches or abstracts enduring features from a flux of distractions.

When Plato's Diotima speaks of the "eros for form," she is describing the pleasure humans take in the recurrent search for order amid the blur. Introspection is conjoined with externally directed kinaesthetic perception in the performance of coherencing, or figuring out any composite object over and over again in real time. Both the aesthetic and the cognitive problem of form-of concept formation and re-formation spatialized in visible unitive structure-is that not only are our surroundings built of sand, so to speak, but that the brain is such a chaotic and noisy place.

As Gerald Edelman describes it, the cerebral cortex is an amazing sixteen-layer structure with different connective patterns in each layer. This gray landscape stretching over two hemispheres is further subdivided into regions that mediate the different sensory modalities as well as motor functions. Certain of these compartments (the frontal, parietal, and temporal cortices) connect only to other parts of the brain, not to the outside world. Beneath the cortex lodges the underlying white matter, thalami, and basal ganglia. Imagine, then, this largely autonomous world within a world containing a vast number of firing neurons: some igniting simultaneously, others not. Imagine, too, the difficulty of achieving and maintaining complex patterns of dynamic activity with some neurons inhibiting or suppressing the firing of those that are excitatory. Imagine, finally, modular feature extraction and the mysteries of binding.

We get a real sense of the ephemerality of mental objects and the difficulty of sustaining their fixed or random structure from the work of installation artists such as Anne Wilson or Martha Whittington. Their large-scale fiber pieces variously take on as their central theme episodes of individual dispersal and concentration. Physical handwork, material industry, and intellectual labor stand in for the hidden work of crafting self-awareness out of environmental fluctuations. If higher-order consciousness can be defined as the ability to be conscious of being a conscious entity, it also enables us to re-create past events by re-collecting and re-bundling them. To remember a prior occasion long since dissolved entails becoming conscious of some isolated moment or concatenated thing, precipitated out from a crowd of other memories.

In Feast (2000), Anne Wilson performs a self-effacing ritual of retrieval. She brings to the surface-as at a banquet-traces of the chaotic entanglements, the mutant forms of domesticity, personifying the vanished guests. At the deepest level, her topological inquiry seems to address the mystery of the relation of the phenomenal world to the mental world. She shows how a small part of the Platonic realm of ideal forms subsists within the bits of geometry eddying about us every day. Using fabric evocative of domestic rituals, in this case a white cloth pinned to a long wooden table, Wilson reiterates, and thus isolates, the outlines of past rips and yellowed stains by circling these discrete memory holes with tufts of thread and her own dark hair (fig. 3).

As if visualizing mathematician Roger Penrose's quantum mechanical explanation of the "cytoskeletal control of synaptic connections," Wilson produces a wavelike organization of linen, crochet stitches, knots, thread, and wire. Coherence does not emerge but, like Penrose's microtubular view of consciousness (where "quantum superimposed states develop in microtubule subunit proteins [tubulins] within certain brain neurons"), it is superimposed upon, or laced together from, such preconscious processes oscillating with discrete or "self-collapsing" conscious events. The table cloth's all-catching netlike structure is global, embedding the artist, the perceiver with her feelings, and the totality of the situation-past and present-within the matrix of its physical filaments. The centers of control (encircled circles) function like propagating electric signals in the nervous system. In this case, the messages are fibers distributed along the length of an animated tableau, but which nonetheless manage to operate in concert.

Martha Whittington similarly shows how an activity that occurs in a localized region of space is able to retain its discrete and particular character despite its tidal properties. Such "solitions" or wave-packets of energy appear, Penrose believes, in the innermost structure of the neuron, but they are evident as well in microbiology, in superconductors, and even in "the incessant interplay of vortices" of human invention. We witness something like this nonlinear congruence of individual forms when Whittington dramatically reconfigures the customary contours of a room with amorphous puffs of black and white dust rising from felt sacks thrown against the walls. Obeying the mysterious law of self-organization, bundles of powdered charcoal and gusts of marble settle triangularly into corners and trace pendant circles on the ceiling. This elegant self-assembly of patterns in motion-turning dispersion into a geometry of transient afterimages-echoes Penrose's new physics of objective reduction (OR) addressing the formal ordering of the universe at its deepest levels.

These contemporary artworks are a profound commentary on the doubleness inherent in the process of remembering: its rippling as well as its contouring effects. As John Sutton remarked (regarding early-modern theories), there were two different pictures of memory's operations that increasingly came into conflict. Thinking of fluids made memories seem like animal spirits or motions, but thinking of collections made them seem like defined items or individual bodies. Remembering's divided nature evokes a contradictory situation, not unlike the one that solition attempts to resolve.

The difficulties of conjunction, haunting the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, also surface in the very different connectionist models of cognition. Neural networks or parallel distributed processing models (PDPs) are also rethinking cognition as centered in the key problem of connection. Imagining cognitive processing as the spread of transitory activation across a network of interconnected neuron-like units still leaves open the question of how they combine with previously laid-down patterns.

The neural basis of object recognition-typically investigated by looking at the characteristic activity of single neurons-is grounded in the complex mechanisms for the retrieval and re-viewing of memories. Memory compaction is an intricate multistage process, moving from the immediate, to the intermediate, to the long-term. Short-term memory consolidates into long-term memory with synaptic reentry re-enforcement. Primary remembering occurs so continually and usually so imperceptibly that we rarely notice it at all. Novel object recognition tests show that our short-term memory formation is extremely labile. Any disruption during a critical window makes it unstable. Certain things tend to get prolonged in the margins of our awareness before sinking from sight. But, as William James evocatively proposed, their disappearance leaves behind an echoing "penumbra." This reiterative aura fringes any new input, even though the prior event has exited explicit consciousness.

Secondary remembering-that is easy or labored recall-salvages experiences that have entirely elapsed as live events. Importantly, this resuscitation involves both retrieval and revival of previously experienced objects and circumstances that must be re-enacted or re-presented. It seems that Gyorgy Kepes was right. Structuring, or what he called the "discipline of forming," is a fundamental part of perceiving because either we forget to remember the passing show so quickly or, the bits we do attend to, still must be actively accessed later through mnemonic re-performance. In confronting the ruined monuments of the ancient world, Romantic artists, I will argue, engaged in analogous rescue work. Just as secondary memories are not rote copies of the original object or occasion but generative symbols, the famous cultural materiality of pyramids, cavernous tombs, and colossal statues were potent distillates of experience liable to further distillation as formal schema. Art as cognitive imagery can be seen to shadow forth certain underlying truths about brain function that we still intuitively recognize today.


Excerpted from ECHO OBJECTS by BARBARA MARIA STAFFORD Copyright © 2007 by Barbara Maria Stafford. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. Form as Figuring It Out: Toward a Cognitive History of Images

2. Compressive Compositions: Emblem, Symbol, Symbiogenesis

3. Mimesis Again! Inferring from Appearances

4. Primal Visions: The Geography of Interiority

5. How Patterns Meet: From Representation to Mental Representation

6. Impossible Will? Unconscious Organization, Conscious Focus



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