The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Revealing Hidden Knolwedge

This Ted talk by David McClandless is worth watching. I agree with his observation that data visualization is really the process of using Design as a means of solving problems and creating elegant solutions. He points out that information overload is now a very serious problem and data visualization is one powerful way to make sense of it.

I agree and will even go further and suggest that without data visualization (an important new emerging industry), we will experience paralysis.

Enjoy – as with all TED talks it is no longer than 18 minutes.

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The Ritual as Visual Culture

I have been fascinated by ritual for a long time and I’d like to explore it in this post.

A ritual is a set of actions, which often have symbolic value to a society. We normally associate rituals with ancient societies, religions or death ceremonies but we tend to not think of it as part of our modern, rational, educated, civilized society.

Rather than writing an essay, this exploration of ritual might best be achieved through image. Firstly, it might be useful to have a deeper understanding of what ritual is so that the images have more significance.

Ritual, as behaviour, is often expressed visually. It is the enactment of a set of fixed rules that are followed. The two notions of ‘sacred’ (the transcendent realm) and ‘profane’ (the realm of time, space, and cause and effect) are used to distinguish between ‘the’ ritual from other types of actions. Durkheim uses these two terms to identify what rituals are. Traditionally, we associate rituals with religion and the non-rational behavior of humans. Because society is increasingly secular, the notion of ritual has ended up being seen as primitive with no place in a modern civilized society.

If this attitude is correct, it might explain why symbols have little meaning in our current society. We still have symbols but are they just skin deep? By losing the ritual of mystery and all the grey tones in meaning, we are left with simple dualities that leave us visually impoverished. Because everything has to be rationally explained, the subtleties and synergies that emerge out of a ritual are banished – banished because language has limitations in articulating the meaning contained in a rich visual action of a ritual.

The function of ritual in the group is that of providing the rules for action in the realm of the sacred, as well as supplying a bridge for passing it into the realm of the profane – creativity in action.

Hongi: used at traditional meetings among Māori people and on major ceremonies.

Hongi: used at traditional greetings among Māori people and at major ceremonies.

First Communion - Catholic ritual in spain. Photo by Andrew Forbes.

First Communion – Catholic ritual in Spain. Photo by Andrew Forbes.

Rave party - modern shamanism.

Rave party – modern shamanism.

Lady Gaga - The black birds are symbolic of magic, hidden potential, awareness and transformation.

Lady Gaga – The black birds are symbolic of magic, hidden potential, awareness and transformation.

Celtic Wedding.

Celtic Wedding.

Patriarch washes feet of 12 Mowkow priests.

Patriarch washes feet of 12 Mowkow priests.Initiation of the mysterious 'Naga Sadhus', a  secretive Hindu sect. By Sam Webb. Mail Online 30 January 2013.

Initiation of the mysterious ‘Naga Sadhus’, a secretive Hindu sect. By Sam Webb. Mail Online 30 January 2013

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A Visual Essay

In this video, Paul Jenkins tells the story of a photograph. There is great skill in deconstructing meaning and putting the story together that is captured in the metaphors in the photograph.

The video is about 14 minutes long.

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Photographs And What They Say

I find this video fascinating and cannot resist sharing the lessons.

Paul Jenkins uses the International Mission Photography Archive to explore and analyse photographs. I particularly like the way he asks questions and visually answers them. The video is 29 minutes long – enjoy.

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What is visual thinking? Part 1

The previous posts on thinking – here and here – deal with an explanation of thinking. It is not a simple topic to define or even explain. It is a topic in evolution and this evolutionary notion fits well into a poststructuralist perspective. From this perspective, theories do not provide final true knowledge; they simply provide a way to make sense of that reality for the time and context. Knowledge is contextual, constricted and constructed. It emerges through a dynamic process of interactions of a variety of stimuli. This is the view I will take.

The notion of perception, as the act of gaining information through our senses from the outside world, has been and still is a preoccupation for philosophers.

Cover image to book: Techniques of the Observer by Jonathan Crary.

Cover image to book: Techniques of the Observer by Jonathan Crary.

That means not only is the sense of sight used in perceiving, we also use our sense of smell, touch, hearing and taste. However, the sense of sight remains the most important sense, estimated at giving humans 80% of information about our outside world. Levin goes even further and points out in his book, Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, that Western thought has been dominated by a vision-centered paradigm. I agree with this but with a qualification – it has been dominated by the Newtonian/modernist paradigm.

Thinking and sensory perception emerges from a dynamic interactive process of our five senses with the world. John Heron describes how sensory interaction between the individual and the world informs our cognitions. It intuitively seems to be a direct and immediate access to reality.

Langer is particularly important for explaining what visual thinking is. She proposed that thinking is a continuous process of meaning-making through vision and central to thinking is the need to symbolize. Her contribution was the distinction between discursive versus presentational symbols. Discursive symbolization arranges elements (including words) that have stable and common meanings into a new meaning. Presentation symbolization on the other hand, functions independently of elements with fixed and stable meanings. The important aspect to highlight is that presentation cannot be comprehended by progressively building up an understanding of its parts in isolation. It must be understood as a whole.

Heron describes discursive forms as being a one-to-one relationship between a set of signifiers and the signified. While presentational symbolic elements are characterized by a whole that is not divisible into its component parts.

This aspect is the important and key element  in explaining visual thinking. It is not only an integral part of thinking but a very special dimension to thinking – augmenting and enriching thought – the whole that is not divisible into its component parts. To explain this, one needs to turn to complexity theory. I will explore this in Part 2.

Arnheim establishes the notion that the visually thinking mind is not simply mechanically recording images and regurgitating them repetitively. He insists that perception is intelligent. Vision and perception are not passive processes that simply register reality. Instead they are active. To him, vision orders reality and it is a dynamic between the elements and the observer that reality emerges. Our access to reality is through sensory experience, not only thought, seeing and touching, but also including mental images and knowledge-based experience. All this constitutes our worldview.

Perception structures reality that allows us to gain knowledge. That knowledge, however, is based on objective reality. And perception is an objective fact. I do not believe that objective truth is or will ever be possible. It is contextual, constructed, temporary and evolving.

For Arnheim (and I agree) visual thinking is mainly about the development of forms and thereby fulfilling the conditions of the intellectual formation of concepts. It has the ability, by means of these forms, to give a valid interpretation of experience. Vision and perception are the active, creative, interactive processes through which meaning emerges.

Lift The Veil - Rui Martins

Lift The Veil – Rui Martins

The image has the essential ability to transmit meaning through sensory experience. On the other hand, signs and language are established conceptual modifiers; they are the thin layer of actual meaning. It is important to point out that perception arranges the forms that it receives as optical projections in the eye. Without form, an image cannot carry a visual message into consciousness. It is therefore the structured form(s) that delivers the visual concept that makes an image legible, not conventionally established signs such as language.

There is a strongly held belief that language is the main mechanism through which thinking takes place. So much so that some hold that the more eloquent, the better the quality of thinking. To this Arnheim explains, language is in itself without form. One does not think in words because words do not contain objects. Language is instructed by sensory perception. It codifies the given knowledge through sensory experience. This does not mean that language isn’t very important and significant to thinking. The point to be made is that language is the vehicle through which we have acquired the act of perception and, in so doing, it establishes and preserves the concepts it forms.

In the following post, I will be exploring perception and Gestalt philosophy as well as complexity science. Until then!