Saturday, March 3, 2012

Words, images, and the delay of perception and awareness.

Much of what I've been reading in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and in the Guidebook to Zen... revolves around this idea of pre-conscious awareness. Pirsig calls his Quality the leading edge of the train. (In his view, the classicist views the train as made of various compartments which ties to an analytical view, while the romantic views the train as a whole.) 

My thinking here regards the verbal and visual analysis of perception.

The gestalt psychologists value the whole over the individual part. Additionally, they define the whole as the structure or form. Reading an article on gestalt psychology last night with Kristen, it occurred to me that the visual image is able to be processed--or made available to awareness--as part and whole at the same time. Think of those famous gestaltic images of the vase/face.

There are at least two images available to human-organized perception: There is the two faces in white or the vase in black. (I say "at least" because I have also heard argued, though form where escapes me at this moment, that the third images is the unreconciled switching between the images. I'm thinking this is akin to Magritte's "The Treachery of Images." In the in-between we are aware that we are seeing neither a vase nor faces but an assemblage of color and shape.)

Going back to gestalt and Pirsig, the mind is capable of seeing the two (three?) images--from a human perception of time, of course--simultaneously.

Contrast this with an essay or paragraph. The thinking progresses with each semi-completed thought or sentence; the perception occurs word by word. In a verbal text, there is a considerable time lag between perception of the individual words and the sense of meaning of the passage as a whole. Additionally, it seems that the verbal text is more amenable to "slicing" (to use Pirsig's analogy) as it can be divided by word, by clause, by sentence, by paragraph, and then by all the various reader-responses/understandings that border/fall between the textual structures just mentioned.

It is hard for me to imagine the vertigo of perception occurring with a verbal text. The perception of the face/vase occurs in the same "place" in the individual and can occur at very nearly the same time. Personally speaking, (or is that phenomenologically speaking"?) I do not "feel" the flow of words and the assemblage of meaning in the same "place" or at the same "time".

Which leave me wondering, as a person personally and psycho-metrically identified as a "verbal" thinker, what am I missing? To see the "whole", to get to what analogically feels to me like the paragraph or page-level understanding, must I process the parts in a verbal/linguistic manner first? Finally, is the brevity of Zen koans, Taoist aphorisms, and other eastern verbal statements in part an attempt to shorten the verbal processing time? Are the koans, for example, similar in intent as the gestaltic optical illusions?

[EDIT: I realized I did a poor job of explaining what Pirsig's train means. Pirsig uses a train as a model of how perception and intellect work. As I mentioned initially, the classicist (the thinker/professor/critic) understands the train--whatever he or she is perceiving--by cutting it into individual cars. He categorizes by whether the cars are for freight (what kind? weight? tonnage? monetary value? etc.) The romantic, on the other hand, views the train as a complete entity, as indivisible. This view on the train sees only if the device serves its purpose, its feel. (Soul train, anyone?)]


Kristen said...

I think I can see all three, but I am not sure if I am seeing them simultaneously or with too short an amount of time in between the timing to decipher the distance.

I agree with your sentiment about it seeming to be a completely different thing to see all the text and comprehend it at once.

Perhaps that is a difference between the representative capabilities of words and images. Images might just be more transcendental and words might just leave us with ever abstracting ideas about the universe as it is.

JamesR said...

Pirsig's Quality awareness, I believe, is like an instantaneous awareness, not mediated by time. I believe he hints that it is transcendent, reached on a different level of consciousness--whatever that means.