Abstract- Cynthia Ward

Minding Realities: Geometries of Cultural Cognition

My paper examines the blind spots between disciplines that study visuality and the role of representational images: visual culture, perceptual psychology and cognition, art history, aesthetic philosophy, and evolutionary psychology (to name a few). My additional interest in African cultures adds yet another perspective that illuminates blind spots created by the largely ethnocentric approaches used in those disciplines. A crucial blind spot: the attitude toward scientific studies of cognition displayed by visual culture critics--such as Meike Bal's claim that "visuality is not just visual perception"--reveals a blindness to precisely what cognition studies does argue: that perception is not just seeing "what's there," but a recursive process involving higher cognitive functions, including what we've seen before. What I ultimately argue is that the geometries of the representational styles prevalent in our cultural environment structure both what and how we see--how "reality" itself is perceived. To make this argument, I draw on Margaret Hagen's Varieties of Realism: Geometries of Representational Art, which uses James J. Gibson's ecological optics to examine painting styles across the world and history in terms of the geometric invariants or "the kinds of information an artist can transmit about objects and scenes." While Hagen's claim that all styles are equally realistic echoes Nelson Goodman's "conventionalism," he denies precisely what Hagen stakes her claim on: that realism is a function of information. Scholars unaware of Hagen's thesis retain a Eurocentric hierarchy that puts "our" single-station point perspective at the pinnacle of mimesis, even if mimesis is repudiated. What Hagen's perspective doesn't take into account, however, is the function of another type of geometry: fractal geometry, which models recursive processes rather than "objects and scenes." While fractals weren't "discovered" until 1975, scientists and art critics have since noted a tradition of fractal art going back to Pollock and Picasso, with many seeing it as distinctly postmodern. Ethnomathematician Ron Eglash, however, argues that fractal art and concepts have been and remain prevalent in Africa since ancient Egypt, where fractal concepts such as infinity first arose. I examine the history of the aesthetic reception of fractals, which until recently were regarded by the west as irrational and pathological (as were African cultures), while acknowledging that fractal art is as "realistic" as and no more "abstract" (or pathological) than European art. Using Arthur I. Miller's work on the geometry of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, I argue that Gibson's concept of affordances can explain both Picasso's epiphanous receptivity to what he "saw" in the African art displayed at the Trocadero as well as our own increasing receptivity to fractals as they become more ubiquitous in our environment.