Friday, April 17, 2015

Recognising the Problem of Representation

A week ago, I said I wanted to spend some time on the problem of how to get better at representing facts in prose. So far, I guess, I've talked mainly about why it's important. But also about why it's not an impossible, ridiculous, trivial or oppressive activity. The first step in becoming good at something is to recognise that it is within the realm of the possible and the valuable. Competence, after all, is just to realise that possibility, to capture that value.

Next, it is necessary to recognise the particular difficulty of representation. You are going to take something that has very little in common with life as we live it, namely, some black marks on a white page, and get them to stand for particular states of affairs, particular arrangements of things, particular facts in the world. The problem can be compared to depicting a three-dimensional object with a two-dimensional drawing. Except that it's worse: writing is one-dimensional—one word follows the other in a sentence—while life is four-dimensional—it occupies space and endures in time. You are going to take some relatively meagre means and accomplish some rather exalted ends.

So you have to recognise also the partiality of representation. The representation does not "take the place" of the fact in every sense, only in the experience of reading. A represented hammer can only hammer represented nails. It won't help you build your house. The representation captures only certain aspects of the thing represented and its place in the world. Again, consider a drawing of an apple. It may capture its shape and even its colour. But it will fail to capture its weight and its flavour and its nutritional value. You can't eat the picture of an apple, no matter how realistically it's been drawn. The representation presents a particular point of view, not the thing as it is in all its facets.

Finally, therefore, you need to recognise the human factor. The partiality of a representation is also its subjectivity. After the writing is done, no matter how well it went, you have not a produced a piece of paper that, on its own, forever after, stands for some fact in the world. The representation is made possible by your knowledge of the world, in the sense that only with that knowledge can we understand the words properly. An ant walking across your drawing of an apple does not thereby stand in any special relation to the apple it represents. It can engage with the apple, not with your representation of it. But you, or anyone else who knows how to look at a drawing, are different. It is meaningful to you. We might also say that a representation is always a performance; it is performed in the act of reading.

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