Ktismatics

6 January 2010

Iconic Speculations

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:29 pm

I think I have shown that all the propositional attitudes require a background of beliefs, so I shall concentrate on conditions for belief. Without belief there are no other propositional attitudes, and so no rationality as I’ve characterized it.”

- from Donald Davidson, “Rational Animals”

In October 2007 I wrote a post about another Davidson essay, “Three Varieties of Knowledge,” in which he makes the same point. At the time I was interested in the implications primarily for hermeneutics, secondarily for psychoanalysis, and tertiarily(?) for language acquisition. I could revisit Davidson’s arguments this time with respect to epistemology — is there an important difference between knowing something and knowing that you know it? We could talk about whether belief is (Davidson) or is not (Dennett) an important distinction between human language-users and other kinds of creatures. Though Davidson doesn’t really get into ontology in these papers, we could surely engage in yet another discussion about the difference between what is and knowing that it is. However, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to set my amateur ontologizing aside as best I can.

But now I’m thinking about fiction, and especially about the idea of an icon-maker. An old-school icon isn’t just a symbolic representation of a holy object or person; rather, the icon actually participates  in the reality of that which it depicts. Icons played an important part in my first novel, The Stations, including the idea of humans participating iconically, as avatars, in the reality of non-material beings. So maybe I am hung up on ontology after all, especially in its medieval variants, and especially in speculative fiction.

Davidson contends that “propositional attitudes require a background of beliefs.” The relationship between proposition and belief is particularly salient in the case of icons. If I express the propositional attitude that “this icon gives me access to an alternate reality,” implicitly I’m saying that “I believe this icon gives me access…” But if I don’t first believe, does the icon “work”? And, ontogenically speaking, might not the icon be effective in opening up access to an alternate reality even if no one recognizes it or believes it? But this is ancient thinking, and only tangentially related to my interests in the book I’m thinking of writing.

In his “Rational Animals” essay Davidson interacts with two thought experiments invoked by other philosophers to illustrate their ideas. The first, from Norman Malcolm, involves a dog chasing a cat; in the second, Donald Weiss proposes a scenario involving what Davidson calls “a superdog from another planet” who hatches on earth. Inventing fictions to explore serious philosophical theories is a time-tested strategy. I could invent a fiction that would explore a serious ontology and epistemology and hermeneutics of icons. But my seriousness is entirely fictional here, entirely speculative, occupying an imagined alternate reality without any attempt to apply the results of the thought experiment to the reality most of us ordinarily occupy.

Finally, I like the idea of fictional characters actually speculating about their own ideas, attitudes, beliefs, theories, ontologies, and so on. I understand the appeal of not doing this, of showing without telling. But the people who interest me are often self-reflexive. Why shouldn’t fictional characters be this way too?

Enough of this. I’ve been looking at seven randomly-selected sentences as icons: that’s what I see in this sentence.

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9 Comments »

  1. Hi John,

    “Davidson contends that ‘propositional attitudes require a background of beliefs.'”

    “What I know, I believe.” – Wittgenstein, On Certainty.

    “An old-school icon isn’t just a symbolic representation of a holy object or person; rather, the icon actually participates in the reality of that which it depicts.”

    Because we are language-using creatures, doesn’t that mean that symbolic representation often participates in the reality of that which it depicts? At least, as much as we let it, until, say, we divorce “tree” from a tree. That might shake us from mistaken beliefs, false knowledge, but what are we going to do with “tree”? Where will it take root? Not in the soil.

    “is there an important difference between knowing something and knowing that you know it?”

    Is that wot they call the unconscious?

    “Though Davidson doesn’t really get into ontology in these papers, we could surely engage in yet another discussion about the difference between what is and knowing that it is.”

    The difference is empirical, separate. But language allows us to participate, discriminate, exclude. It gives us relations, beliefs, knowledge, grounds for knowledge. This is as much an ontological condition as an epistemology because language is an empirical fact. One twloo, thlee – why Joyce didn’t bother with “perverted commas”.

    Comment by NB — 12 January 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    • “doesn’t that mean that symbolic representation often participates in the reality of that which it depicts?”

      Here’s my tentative view, NB. I think that an icon participates in that toward which it points if the icon represents or imitates functions as a simulacrum for the original object. I.e., the icon participates in the shape or size of the original Hieroglyphics are iconic in this way. A symbol points to that which it signifies but doesn’t participate in this way: the word “dog” doesn’t look or sound anything like the creature; jmy finger pointing at my glass of beer doesn’t resemble the beer. In a more Greek reality, the word “dog” might actually participate more directly in dog-ness, because dog-ness is an abstract ideal and not identical with the material creature that drools and sheds on the floor. The word “dog” participates in the idea “dog,” which as a mental construct participates in the ideal realms of the spirit. An old-school religious icon purposely does not represent the physical characteristics of the saintly figure it depicts, because it’s attempting also to take its representation beyond mere physicality to the spiritual essence of the saint.

      “Is that wot they call the unconscious?”

      Right: unconsciously I know things without knowing that I know them. Consciousness seems self-aware by definition. My cat knows who I am but doesn’t know that he knows; the sunflower knows that the sun traverses the sky from east to west but doesn’t know that it knows. There’s a lot of unconscious knowing going on among non-sentient creatures.

      Comment by john doyle — 12 January 2010 @ 5:37 pm

  2. “I like the idea of fictional characters actually speculating about their own ideas, attitudes, beliefs, theories, ontologies, and so on. I understand the appeal of not doing this, of showing without telling. But the people who interest me are often self-reflexive. Why shouldn’t fictional characters be this way too?”

    Have you ever read At Swim-Two-Birds? One of the greatest and funniest books ever.

    Comment by NB — 12 January 2010 @ 2:41 pm

  3. Finally, I like the idea of fictional characters actually speculating about their own ideas, attitudes, beliefs, theories, ontologies, and so on. I understand the appeal of not doing this, of showing without telling. But the people who interest me are often self-reflexive. Why shouldn’t fictional characters be this way too?

    Because they CANNOT do it, it is ridiculous to pretend that they can. They are written by an AUTHOR to do it, so it looks like they are doing it, but fictional characters never DO anything, that’s why they are fictional. I don’t see why their ‘doing this’ is different from anything else they do. It means that someone wrote fictional characters who seem to have a ‘life of their own’. But they just seem to, they don’t have a life of their own. Or better, they don’t have anything but am imitation of life. Ho Ho Ho. And that is what happens: Real people become fictions as a fantasy of their selves, they prefer it, and when you see some of these, why shouldn’t they? Bound to be better than what they’ve got in terms of dailiness, and they don’t know how to go beyond their ‘safe armchairs’, but we’ve heard all this before, and we know it. What you’re saying, John, is you like certain kinds of fictional characters, but the FACT is that they still are fiction, even if they seem to be ‘doing it themselves’. They don’t do it themselves, somebody manipulates them. It’s so obvious.

    Comment by butch cazza — 12 January 2010 @ 2:51 pm

  4. I have read At Swim-Two-Birds, NB, and agree that it’s excellent. I’m not necessarily talking about self-reflexive fiction though, or characters who are aware that they’re being controlled by the author. And Butch, I’m making no hyperstitional claims here either, that the fiction will itself become real. My proposal is much more modest and even traditional: fictional characters who don’t just act and talk but who also theorize. I’ve written theorizing characters before, and I intend to do it again. And thanks for the reminder about Imitation of Life: I’ll try to secure both versions from the library.

    Comment by john doyle — 12 January 2010 @ 6:23 pm

    • I hope you can see both versions, as it will then be interesting to report to Jack, as we’ve argued over these ad infinitum. He thinks because Colbert is such a better actress that the original is better; but the soaper material is not the greatest to begin with, so accidents happen that make something more authentically alive happen. I think it was in the 80s that Sirk started stimulating such interest again, and his version is very kitschy, and has howlers in it. But it’s probably his doing that made it go beyond that kind of pulpy novel, even though god knows it’s still plenty pulpy. Ms. Colbert you’ve probably seen in her best things, like ‘It Happened One Night’ and ‘Palm Beach Story’. She’s a delight, and also good in Bluebeard’s 8th Wife with Gary Cooper, and in ‘Midnight’ with extremely handsome Francis Lederer. No scandals to speak of, but had minor Lesb’an flirtation with Marlene Dietrich, which has been photographed.

      Comment by butch cazza — 12 January 2010 @ 8:43 pm

  5. “I think that an icon participates in that toward which it points if the icon represents or imitates functions as a simulacrum for the original object. I.e., the icon participates in the shape or size of the original Hieroglyphics are iconic in this way.”

    Yes, I see what you mean. Do icons always have a religious function, an access point to a higher realm? They are more literal than words or letters, I guess. Perhaps Monroe obsessives feel a greater connection to their icon via a picture of her blowing a kiss than just from the words “Marilyn Monroe” – though I think that words can eventually achieve this. I think Warhol was simultaneously an iconist and an iconoclast – his genius perhaps. Muslims have difficulties with the graven image so they create wonderful mosques full of writing and geometry. That is the spirit of God to them perhaps. Although, on the Hajj they also throw stones at the devil iconised as three pillars (now walls for safety reasons). We need action!

    “My proposal is much more modest and even traditional: fictional characters who don’t just act and talk but who also theorize.”

    Sounds good. Nietzsche created characters too.

    Comment by NB — 13 January 2010 @ 5:26 am

  6. An icon is anything that resembles something else. A religious icon presumably also has a spiritual resemblance to what it resembles physically, opening up a kind of portal into spiritual realms for the devotee. The Old Testament frowned on this practice, prevalent in the Near East at the time: no graven images, no golden calves, etc. What interests me about iconic representation is the Lacanian idea that “god is unconscious,” coupled with the Deleuzian idea of an immanent and primal creative force that projects lines of flight through the world. Is it possible to discern and decode the secret language of unconscious Creation as it expresses itself in the world? Is it possible to speak back to Creation through this secret language? This is an iconography not of physical resemblance but of unconscious or spiritual or ideal resemblance.

    Attempts have been made to “hear” through mystic praxes like astrology and Kabbalah. The eluv strikes me as a prototype for an iconic language of speaking back to the gods. Remember our discussion of John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns, in which a film curator is commissioned to find a film called La Fin Absolue Du Monde, which presumably has that effect on its viewers? Alexander Scriabin, the Russian composer, believed that if the right chord were played in conjunction with the right colors and patterns, then the world would come to an end. This sort of madness intrigues me. So I want to write a fiction about an iconist who isn’t religious but who’s trying to influence the hidden Lacanian/Deleuzian primal force of creation/destruction that shapes/fragments the world.

    I did some of this already in the first novel as a kind of individual praxis, like walking the stations of the cross in the Catholic tradition brings the acolyte into closer personal connection with the passion of Christ’s walk of death. Philip Dick was into this sort of thing as well: in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep he invents a kind of high-tech stations of the cross practiced by Martian colonists. I want to take the icon idea farther this time, bringing its effects beyond subjectivity and into the world. If that makes sense.

    Comment by john doyle — 13 January 2010 @ 6:20 am

  7. Recently I interpreted an espresso machine suspended from the tree as an iconic message. It resembles the fictional espresso machine in my 2nd novel, which in turn resembles the old nonfictional and nonfunctional machine I used to own. I chose to interpret the treed machine’s presence as a message from the Creator telling me to carry on with the fiction-writing. That I failed to complete my NaNoWriMo could be regarded as a sin of omission. As you pointed out, NB, it’s less a matter of my interpreting the icon’s message as of creating a meaning that speaks to me. But couldn’t this act of meaning-creation be regarded as iconic in its own right? Or, to make a contempocultural reference, do human creators act as avatars for the immanent spirit of creation that flows through the world? For me it’s an interesting fictional premise anyway; others take the idea more literally.

    Comment by john doyle — 13 January 2010 @ 8:09 am


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