Pareidolia Sunday

by John Holbo on August 21, 2011

Next week in my Philosophy of Literature module I’ll be talking about pareidolia and theories of how and and why it works. How and why pretty much any closed loop with three dots in it is a face, because it ‘looks like’ one. The occasion for burdening my students with this is discussion of overly-linguistifying (in my view) theories of how literature ‘works’ and, more grandly, linguistifying theories of what Aristotle called mimesis, a.k.a. that whole ‘poetics’ ball of wax. I posted some of my thoughts about pictures and pictoriality before: it’s important to realize that even though a smiley face is an utterly conventional icon, it doesn’t follow that it works by convention.

Anyway, I thought it was a nice coincidence that Andrew Sullivan linked to this today, for his Faces of the Day thing.

Also, I just stumbled on a real sparklepop/powerfolk earworm of a tune by Vetiver, “Wonder Why”, which turns out to have a a pareidolia-based video. Great track. Get it free from Amazon.

The maps and the video are good examples for me because they preemptively emphasize something that is often raised as an objection to efforts to ‘naturalize’ the pictorial function: namely, it’s a learned process. By the end of the map series, and the video, you are more sensitized to faces and figures in maps, mailboxes and trashcans than you were at the start. To that extent your responses are ‘conventional’, in the sense of learned (when you could perfectly well have been learning something else, so the result is somewhat ‘arbitrary’). Fine, fine. But the point still stands. From the fact that a result is path-dependent, it may follow that it is conventional (in a perfectly good sense of that word). But, again, it does not follow from the fact that something is conventional in that sense that it ‘works by’ convention in some other senses that tend to be carelessly bundled in. The mechanism by which we recognize things as faces is cognitively distinct from the mechanism by which we recognize that ‘faces’ denotes faces. My target here is Nelson Goodmanian thinking, which tries to explain pictorial resemblance and representation on the model of linguistic denotation. He doesn’t say it works exactly the same, all the way up and down; that would be pretty obviously crazy. But he pushes the line that, in order to theorize how pictures work, you have to build on a kind of denotational foundation. I think the opposite: theories of linguistic denotation need to rest on a foundational theory of pictoriality. But enough about me. Enjoy the video and the song. Great song, I think.



Fall in queue 08.21.11 at 10:02 am

But is there any good sense in which language and denotation are conventional? Is it by convention that “aardvark” means aardvark — the beast as such, and not, say, undetached aardvark part?


phosphorious 08.21.11 at 4:27 pm

Is overly “linguistifying” literature a danger? Literature is, after all, language. Presumably whatever pleasures literature offers are the pleasures of language.

It seems to me that there is has been a strong tendency to treat literature, especially poetry, as if it were on all fours with painting or music; that is purely “senuous.” Arnold Isenberg argues this way in “The esthetic Function Of Language,” and he seems to be following I.A. Richards and the New Critics in this.


Glen Tomkins 08.21.11 at 5:01 pm

Eidololatreia, on the Lord’s day when all godly people should be in church (an iconoclasticly cleansed church, of course), is just par for the course from this secular humanist website.


Pollian 08.21.11 at 6:35 pm

John…have you shared the full syllabus at any point. I’d love to see it.


joel hanes 08.21.11 at 8:54 pm

Good lord, Pierce thought, snapping shut the book and reinserting it in its row. Star temples and ley lines, UFOs and landscape giants, couldn’t they see that what was really, permanently astonishing was the human ability to keep finding these things? Let anyone looking for them be given a map of Pennsylvania or New Jersey or the Faraways and he will find “ley-lines”; let human beings look up long enough on starry nights and they will see faces looking down at them. _That’s_ the interesting thing, _that’s_ the subject: not why there are ley-lines, but why people find them; not what plan the aliens had for us, but why we think there must, somehow, always have been a plan. — John Crowley, Aegypt, 1987


Anders 08.21.11 at 9:06 pm

Hasn’t the more objective-orientated work of John Hyman et al, focused on occlusion shapes and sizes, pwned all that Goodmanian ‘denotation’ guff?


John Holbo 08.22.11 at 2:28 am

Hi Pollian, my syllabus is actually not distinctive at all. We read Aristotle’s “Poetics” first week and then it’s on to the Intentional Fallacy. I am somewhat distinctive in actually assigning C.S. Lewis, “The Personal Heresy”, which I consider a better argument than Wimsatt and Beardsley’s piece. I make the readings pretty simple and then, in lecture, I try to keep things simple but then add some you-don’t-have-to-know this stuff that is likely to go over some heads. But that’s ok. The only really hard or oddball things we’re reading are Donald Davidson and some Ruth Millikan articles about convention and meaning.

Re: Fall In Queue’s comment. You are kind of skipping to my punchline. Picture are conventional but don’t work by convention. To understand how language works you have to piggy-back on an understanding of how pictures work, i.e. how things are recognized as being the kinds of things they are. So, even though language is obviously conventional in a certain sense, it actually isn’t conventional in others.

Re: Nelson Goodman. I think a Goodman-style view is still very dominant in literary studies, in part because literary studies is word-focused, and the Goodman-style view is least obviously mistaken in that connection. A lot of literary theory presupposes something like Goodmanian irrealism. And I don’t think that’s a good thing to presuppose at all. I haven’t decided whether actually to stick some Goodman into the readings. I think instead I’ll just lecture, in a generic way, on ‘the linguistic picture’, as I call it, a kind of generalized Goodmanishness in thinking that I think is important to notice because a lot of people share it, from the New Critics to intentionalists like Hirsch and Fish, to deconstructionists and others.


John Holbo 08.22.11 at 2:30 am

Thanks for that quote from Crowley, joel. I’d forgotten that one. (I never really liked Aegypt as well as some of the other stuff, but I can make use of that point.)


ben w 08.22.11 at 2:57 am

Haves you got in your sights as well a view like Walton’s? Watching the video (which is v. nice) I was thinking that after a bit in each change of scene you’re primed to identify for yourself where the faces are or will be, in a fairly explicit way that doesn’t (or needn’t) involve seeing them as faces. But frequently when you do see something as a face* the element of “there’s the nose, there are the eyes, …” that you get when the scenes change in the video seem to go missing. (Of course they can be brought up if you try to show someone else the face, but they don’t seem to be primary—not what the treating-as-face is based on.)

* there’s a really great example of this in Peter Blegvad’s collection The Book of Leviathan; I can’t remember if you’ve mentioned it but I bet you’d get a kick out of it.


Fall in queue 08.22.11 at 7:43 am

John: ok, I think I now see the point you were making here:

“theories of linguistic denotation need to rest on a foundational theory of pictoriality.”

So the idea is not that denotation is picturing, but that denotation presupposes the ability to experience things as like each other. That seems right to me.


Mike 08.22.11 at 2:49 pm

You may think your syllabus isn’t distinctive, but I don’t know if philosophy of literature is widespread enough for people to have a standard syllabus for that (unlike, say, philosophy of language).
And what Davidson are you using? I hope it’s “A Nice Derangement” as I’ve developed a soft spot for that essay.


ben w 08.22.11 at 7:02 pm

I took a “philosophy of literature” class as a student and was a TA for a “philosophy and literature” class and the two syllabi were not very alike at all.


John Holbo 08.23.11 at 2:33 am

Yea, “Philosophy of Literature” and “Philosophy and Literature” are often very different. The latter is often reading things like The Grand Inquisitor scene and talking about the theory implicit in it. Then repeat for other philosophy-rich literary works. It’s a good way to teach, if done right, and I TA’d a class like that for several years, under Bert Dreyfus. I liked it. But I don’t teach that way. Mine is more like: literary theory with the sort of slant that an Anglo-American philosopher like me would be likely to give it (since, naturally, my way is best.) That said, almost 10 weeks of my 12 week syllabus could be an English department history of literary theory course. Wimsatt and Beardsley. Cleanth Brooks. E.D. Hirsch. Bit of Derrida. Fish. Then I finish up with some analytic papers about intention and meaning and Grice. And then I do Davidson. I do “Nice Derangement”, of course. And “Metaphor”. Then I explain why I actually like Ruth Millikan stuff on meaning and convention as a supplement to it. I should post on my take on Millikan, because that’s the really distinctive part of the syllabus. I may do a bit of Flint Schier, if I can find room for it as well. But I think a lot of that stuff is too hard for my students, so I want to put it all at the end with a ‘if you don’t quite get it that’s ok because it’s hard’ qualifier. (Not that Derrida is easy, mind you.)

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