Monday, 19 November 2007

Everyday philosophy of vision?

In an article in today's Guardian which reviews an exhibition of Sidney Nolan, and successfully persuades me to look at his work afresh, Germaine Greer says some irritating things about perception:

By now everyone should be aware that what we see is not really there. What is really there is a boiling stream of disconnected bits of information that is turned into a moving picture by the brain.

So far, so typically scientistic albeit with the racy addition of ‘boiling’. But even though there may be much work necessary behind the scenes to make the world visually available to a subject, it does not follow that all that is really seen is not what we think it is (but is instead the boiling stream). We need an argument but we don't get one. Oddly, she continues:

When it comes to recognising a picture, we have to post it up next to one of our brain-made images of the same thing. If the two don't tally we say that the photograph, drawing, painting, bust or whatever is a poor likeness. We even dare to say that it is unrealistic, as if our brain images were more real than somebody else's.

How is the comparison supposed to work? A real picture on the left and a brain-made image on the right? Or a brain-made image of the picture and a brain-made image of the scene? But if this latter idea, what is wrong with the idea of a comparison? Then:

There would be no point in painters simply doling out versions of pictures we can summon up at will; they impose their own convention on what they see.

Far from being motivated by her account of what is ‘really’ seen (the ‘boiling stream’ of neural events), the second part of this sentence could better fit the na├»ve model of vision Greer takes to be obviously false. If vision merely copied the world then that would explain the interest of an art which did not. Later she says:

When Nolan's paintings of the outback were exhibited at David Jones's department store in Sydney in 1949, according to Cynthia Nolan, "old ladies from central Queensland carrying string bags" came up with tears in their eyes and said: "It's so true, so real". The old lady writing this travelled from south-east Queensland to Sydney to see the current Nolan retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and found herself saying the same sort of thing. Cynthia Nolan's old ladies had not had the advantage of seeing Nolan paintings all their lives, as I have. For them the shock of recognition was exactly that.

So Greer now seems to think that somehow Nolan got things right. But how can that be, given her starting point?

I’ve no qualms with putting forward a revisionary philosophical view of vision but it is annoying to be told that this is obvious and we should all be aware of it. I suspect no one is or can be aware of any such thing because it isn’t true.