Saturday, August 11, 2007

Barbara Maria Stafford's "Echo Objects"

Barbara Maria Stafford is the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her latest book, Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Echo Objects, aptly for a book about the cognitive role of images, is half illustration and half text. Alexander Roslin's Portrait of his Wife (1768) -- with face seductively and partially hidden by a veil -- marks the mid-point of Chapter 3, entitled "Mimesis Again!" It concerns so-called mirror neurons and the revolutionary findings coming from the brain sciences showing that primates (such as monkeys) as well as humans habitually and automatically internalize the actions of others. While watching someone else perform an action, we spontaneously tend to imitate or mimic those social behaviors by virtually replaying them. For most of us, part of the process of understanding another being involves the simulating ability to routinely and subconsciously empathize or make emotional inferences about the physiognomy and gestures of others. Roslin's portrait of his wife in masquerade, for example, plays upon our intuitive impulse to imagine the inviting rewards of completely unveiling obscured, but potentially attractive, facial features.

In interesting ways I had not thought about before hearing of the "p. 99 test," Roslin's portrait encapsulates the larger theme of my book. I argue that the exciting findings coming from the brain sciences have much to teach the humanities, and vice versa. Cognitive psychology, neurobiology, and the evolutionary and developmental sciences are revealing how brain networks self-organize to produce complex mechanisms giving rise to behavior that is further enriched and complicated through biological and cultural evolution.

What interested me is how those evolving sensory and motor maps that represent the natural and artificial environments they interact with are largely subconscious. My book tackles the fundamental problem instantiated in Roslin's simultaneously concealing and revealing portrait. If the subconscious brain is far more active, purposeful, and independent than previously thought, what sorts of sights and sensory data make us pay deliberate, considered attention to the external world? How do certain kinds of artwork -- or consideration-evoking images -- support conscious noticing and evaluating, not just unconscious registration?

Echo Objects explores the uneven give and take between the bottom-up illusionizing, flowing story of consciousness we continuously generate and the top-down conscious construction of mental representations. To that end I analyze a wide range of compounded or doubled image formats, proposing that these make us notice and judge the subliminal priming process of knowledge construction. This is what I mean by the cognitive work of images. I argue that smoothly narrative types of composition play on the unconscious behavioral guidance systems (like the allure of Roslin's sitter's "half-dressed" features). While other, conspicuously synthetic genres or pieced-together patterns, that is, episodic types of visual organization -- blazons, mosaics, emblems, montage -- make conscious our unconscious perceptual pursuits.

At a time when so much scientific research is being devoted to nonconscious effects, and electronic media are being tailored to enlist them, there is special urgency in demonstrating how images (not just language) can help us gain conscious awareness. The array of graphic genres, past and present, high and low that I explore, prove that consciousness actually does things These deliberative sensory formats let us know when, why, and how a particular decision about our subjective experience has been reached.
Read more about Echo Objects at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue