The Poetics of Thought

Body Space Image

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 30, 2009

As I have noted elsewhere, the different capacities that Mark Johnson indicates as allowing meaning and thought to emerge; perception, object manipulation, and bodily movement, cannot be entirely disentangled from one another, or indeed from the ‘capacity’ of space which also acts as a conceptual metaphor for the organisation of thought and meaning.  It is much more the case that these capacities work together, and in this working together an enriched and integrated vocabulary of embodied information is produced that might then lend structure to meaningful thinking.

So for example, the faculty of visual perception does not operate on its own, separate from the space in which that vision takes place or from the objects and entities upon which it falls.  Objects and their availability for manipulation are also intimately dependant upon the location of these objects in space and the bodily movement enacted in this manipulating.  The movement that bodies make requires space for this movement to occupy and is accompanied by a wide ranges of perceptual changes and potential collisions with objects.

Not only are these capacities deeply interwoven so that it is impossible to talk about one without invoking others, but there is also a set of organised relationships between the functioning of these capacities.  The extended space through which we routinely move is partially structured according to proximity and distance; small movements take us into the proximal spaces nearby whereas more extended movement places us at some distance from where we started.  Alongside this spatialisation through movement however there is also an experiential difference in the sensory mode through which we access that the objects in that physical space.  Whilst we can only see objects at a distance we can touch and possibly even taste objects that are close up.  In other words there is a consistent relationship in which spatially distant object only appear within visual perception whereas more proximal objects fall within reach of the hands, the skin, and the tongue.

There are also more elaborate correspondences which emerge from the properties of objects and the physics of our world.  Objects that feel hard and heavy in the hand tend to move downward through space toward the ground (through the influence of gravity) whilst those that feel lighter, more diaphanous or evanescent and which are difficult to grasp may dissipate in different ways, perhaps flowing or evaporating away invisibly.

There are also intersubjective differences and variations in salience that play our across the terrain of perception, objects and movements in space.  Events that we see are obviously outside of our body, possibly even a considerable distance from our body, and therefore do not have a direct and immediate ‘impact’ on our wellbeing.  Objects and events which are apprehended through the sense of touch, on the other hand (sic) do, by definition, have a direct impact on the body doing the touching, they are in extreme proximity to that body, and are likely to have a much greater significance for the person touched than for someone else who is not in contact with the object, (touching a flame causes a significantly different response than seeing one).  Visualised objects are also usually also visible to other people, existing in interpersonal shared space, which means that objects apprehended visually are likely to have similar significance for all viewers (seeing a tiger is likely to cause anyone in visible range to run away).  Touching is not only up close, but it is also usually personal and cannot be adequately shared.  Those objects that we put inside ourselves and which appear only as tastes are removed from interpersonal space entirely.  They can neither be manipulated nor moved around, nor are they entirely separable from our selves.

These completely embodied ontological differences and relations of difference suggest that there is a structured and organised set of variations in experience.  These include; the perceptual sense that is primarily used to access that experience, corresponding differences in the proximity of the stimulus to the body, the substantiality of the stimulus (whether it is hard or soft, heavy or light) and the degree to which an experience is shared amongst a number of experiencers.

What I would like to argue that this complex network of relations not only describes the organisation of lived experience in the physical world but also provides a template for the organisation of abstract thought.  This is a theme that I would like to develop by considering how the abstract idea of ‘knowledge’ might exist within this network and how variations in our use of the term might be seen to map differently across it.


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  1. Kaposvári Márk said, on October 2, 2009 at 6:53 am

    first off,
    as a sort of proof for your ingenious argument regarding Heath Robinson and Thomas Aquinas I would say that the fact that we cannot imagine (without our terms) the idea of not-being indicates a similar cause-causer sort of feature and circularity or even defect in our thinking, if you try to imagine not-being or existing-not you have an impression of its being a lack! of something
    but a lack in relation to what…..?
    and we cannot seem to grasp the fact that without our mind there would not be anything (perceivable) and rather speculate that maybe I would be in another mind or form of “perception” or
    in fact, this is so absurd that I can’t even approximate the sense that I am trying to express here
    how is it something at one time and nothing at the other?
    but imagining a vacuum of blankness is, again, something, but not nothing,
    but then, I am not sure that am not not just plain stupid with this kind of talk..
    connecting all this to the idea of embodiment is not groundless at all
    similarly to the “patterns of cortical and spinal output that lead to specific muscle synergies” that in turn “can generate a broad repertoire of movement patterns”
    the coactivation of different phenomenal structures you talk about here is also synergic and probably ‘can generate a broad repertoire of abstract patterns’
    the fact that we are not able to rotate clockwise our right foot while simultaneously
    trying to write a form of six with our right hand into the air is a constraint
    that defines the extensions of a certain structure which is probably inherited by
    conceptual synergies as well, as you might argue, this is an exciting idea,
    it could be interesting to tackle all the constraints that articulate motor synergies
    and how they relate to perceptual and conceptual domains specifically
    but I am still not sure what would an “image” (for I seem to understand ideas only if I have at least a rudimentary sketch of a mental image about them), so what would an image look like that displayed these “structures” and their convergent interaction,
    for sure, the word structure (despite its sound) does not necessarily evoke a rigid kind of functional hierarchy, it can also evoke an image of a loosely consistent, yet recurrent and highly plastic, say, grammar of interrelations,
    so, is it a dynamic structure? with constantly modifying attractors? should I imagine a distributed flux of consistency? I wonder,
    good posts again, this week,
    thanks for that Fred, in the name of all your followers,
    best, M

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