11 May 2007

Affordances of the Meaningful Environment

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:59 am

This is a variation on the theme I began in my last post on Deleuze’s virtual-actual distinction. Turns out it’s a hot topic, with recent posts here, here, and here. Before moving on to implications for the self, I want to talk a little bit about J.J. Gibson’s The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1979). Gibson’s theory of environmental affordances corresponds to the virtual realities of Gilles Deleuze as I understand them.

Gibson begins his book by defining environment as the surroundings of those organisms that perceive and behave, that is to say, animals. Animals and their environments are inseparable: No animal could exist without an environment surrounding it. Before animals evolved there was an earth and an atmosphere but there was no environment. The physical world can be described in terms of space, time, matter, and energy; the environment is described relative to the animals that occupy it. Every animal is both a perceiver of the environment and a behaver in the environment. Consequently, an environment can be described in terms of its affordances for perception and behavior. Here’s an example of environmental affordances relative to the behavior of pedestrian animals:

An open environment affords locomotion in any direction over the ground, whereas a cluttered environment affords locomotion only at openings… A path affords pedestrian locomotion from one place to another, between the terrain features that prevent locomotion. The preventers of locomotion consist of obstacles, barriers, water margins, and brinks (the edges of cliffs). A path must afford footing: it must be relatively free of rigid foot-sized obstacles.

This isn’t a neutral description of physical objects; it’s description of what the environment means to the animals that occupy it.

The world of physical reality does not consist of meaningful things. The world of ecological reality does. If what we perceived were the entities of physics and mathematics, meanings would have to be imposed on them. But if what we perceive are the entities of environmental science, their meanings can be discoveredThe affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either good or ill.

So, an animal is motivated to behave: maybe it’s hungry, or it’s being pursued by a predator. The animal is currently at point A. There’s are many possible pathways leading away from point A. Perhaps one of the paths leads to point B, at which perhaps there is a raspberry patch that provides food or a protective hiding place. The path to point B affords intentional behavior that coincides with the animal’s current motivation as it is passing by point A. If there were no animals in the world, the path and the raspberry patch wouldn’t offer any behavioral affordances: they would just be two features of the physical world. There may be other times when this particular animal passes point A and is not hungry or being pursued, or other times when the animal is hungry or threatened but is nowhere near the path or the raspberry patch. The affordances of the path and the raspberry patch remain part of the environment, but they aren’t salient to the animal’s present motivation. To borrow Deleuze’s terms, the environmental affordances are always real, but they are virtual. Only when a behaving or perceiving animal directly encounters the environment’s affordances do those affordances become actual. Here’s how Gibson puts it:

The affordance of something does not change as the need of the observer changes. The observer may or may not perceive or attend to the affordance, according to his needs, but the affordance, being invariant, is always there to be perceived. An affordance is not bestowed upon an object by a need of an observer and his act of perceiving it. The object offers what it does because it is what it is.

In Gibson’s theory, perceiving isn’t the passive reception of visual or auditory stimuli but an achievement, a keeping-in-touch with the world, a continuous active experiencing rather than a having of discrete experiences, an awareness-of rather than a free-floating awareness. Affordances aren’t communicated by the environment to the perceiver; rather, the affordances are always already out there in the environment, always available to be detected by whoever has the active intent to do so.

The environment changes through the unfolding of natural events, but humans also change the environment. Why? In order to change the affordances: to make environmental benefits more accessible, to render threats less potent. How? Not by creating an artificial environment entirely separate from the natural one. Rather, humans take intentional, incremental, constructive action on the natural environment that the environment itself affords.

For humans the richest and most important environmental affordances are to be found in other humans. Unlike other features of the environment, other people interact with us: they provide us with affordances, and vice versa. That’s why even infants behave differently with other people than they do with any other objects: early in development children become attuned to the interactions afforded by other human beings. When the other person too becomes attuned, an environmental arena of joint attention is established, generating interactional affordances like nurturing, fighting, playing, learning, cooperating, communicating. What other persons afford, says Gibson, comprises the whole realm of social experience for human beings.

This is a radical hypothesis, for it implies that the “values” and “meanings” of things in the environment can be directly perceived. Moreover, it would explain the sense in which values and meanings are external to the perceiver… It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.


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