September 07, 2004

More seeing and hearing

In this post I discussed what counts as seeing or hearing something--do reproductions and broadcasts count? I proposed, as an attempt at approximating vernacular usage, that one factor is how much the reproduction diminishes the experience; and claim that seeing the Mona Lisa requires going to the Louvre, because you can't fully appreciate art if you only see a reproduction.

Nicole Wyatt, in comments, raises questions about my example. Nicole points out that almost everyone has seen a reproduction of the Mona Lisa (especially in Calgary). So

Pragmatically speaking then, saying "I've seen the Mona Lisa." while not quite on a par with saying "I'm awake", is stating the obvious. Unless the context is such as to make it up for grabs whether you have seen a picture/reproduction of the Mona Lisa, the natural thing for a hearer to do is to try and interpret the utterance as conveying something non-obvious--namely that they have seen the original in person.

This led me to think about when seeing something from a distance counts as seeing it. For instance: I can see Lake Michigan from some parts of my living room. That is to say, if I crane my neck or stand behind the couch, I can see a couple of slivers of Lake Michigan; and I think this counts as "seeing Lake Michigan." On cloudy days it's not immediately obvious that what I'm seeing is Lake Michigan or even water, but the fact that light rays are bouncing off Lake Michigan and heading into my eyeballs is (more or less) enough to make it true that I'm seeing the lake.

Now, suppose that there is a book open to reproduction of the Mona Lisa on my kitchen table. The reproduction is at a bad angle, so that I can't make out Mona Lisa's smile, or even tell that it's a picture of a painting. But light rays are bouncing off the page and hitting my eyeballs--I can see a darkish blur on the book.

Have I seen the Mona Lisa? I would say not.

On the other hand, this may not tell in favor of my original thesis. Say I'm walking down a hall in the Louvre. I glance to the side, and I can see a humongous crowd around a painting. I can see the painting's frame, but I can't make out anything on the canvas. But in fact light rays are bouncing off the canvas and hitting my eyeballs. We can stipulate that the light rays are bouncing off in the exact same pattern as in the previous case, if we can do so without straining my neck.

In this case, have I seen the Mona Lisa? I think it would be at best misleading to say so. I can say "I've seen the Mona Lisa from the side," but is that the same thing?

So that may not help the thesis that seeing a painting is not seeing a reproduction. But it may help the thesis that whether you've seen an object is sensitive to the reasons it's important to see it. Because viewing the Mona Lisa from the side doesn't give you a much better experience than viewing a reproduction.

This is reminiscent of Ram Neta's recent argument that seeing is context-dependent (from his 2004 INPC paper, which I don't see online). Ram gave this example (as I remember it): Suppose that a ladder is leaning against a wall, and you walk along the other side of the wall. You haven't seen the fusion of the ladder and the wall, but only the wall itself. But suppose an artist designs a sculpture, which consists of a ladder leaning against a wall. You walk along the other side of the wall. Now you have seen the sculpture.

(Ironically, here turning the wall-ladder into art makes it easier to see--the opposite effect from the Mona Lisa. My speculation is that when a sculpture consists of a wall and a ladder, you're supposed to be able to appreciate it without looking at all sides. Also, sculptures in general may be viewed from more than one angle--I don't have any problem with saying that you've seen Michaelangelo's David if you've seen it only from the back.)

Ram uses the context-dependence of seeing to apply to direct realism (if I remember)--what you directly perceive (thus bypassing skepticism) depends on your context. Of course there is debate about this; Liz Harman had some good points about it at the INPC (which I can't reconstruct). But it's safe to say that seeing is very complicated.

One question I have, for any linguist types who are still reading--what is the significance of modifiers such as "Seeing the Mona Lisa in person" here? Does "in person" specify a value for a parameter of "seeing," or does it modify it in some other way?

Posted by Matt Weiner at September 7, 2004 03:20 PM

Looking at a reproduction of a work of art may be nothing like the experience of the original. This was brought home to me when (after a long lapse of time) I saw Picasso's "Guernica." First of all, it's much bigger than I had envisioned. Second, it's in black, white, and grays! I'd thought I was looking at a b & w reproduction of a work in color. There are works of art MEANT for reproduction, or meant to look cheesey, but you can't even tell it's supposed to be cheesey until you see it in the original. So, if you've seen a reproduction (that is, photograph) of the Mona Lisa, you've seen a translation--the prose content of a poem. So to speak.

Posted by: Matt's Mom at September 12, 2004 08:40 AM