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There is grandeur in this view of life…

Brecht and mimesis #1

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I’ve reached a point in my sequence of articles on The ethics of belief where I have to get to grips with aspects of Kant’s writing and thinking. That’s what I’m doing, which is why I haven’t added much to my blog for a while.

But I did add a few more words to my About me page, which reminded me of my MA dissertation of nearly 30 years ago. I realised that while this was not particularly related to Kant or ethics or belief, there were a surprising number of links to what I had said on The front page: Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbits, seeing as, Hamlet and even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

So the writing below is off in a different direction to The ethics of belief. It’s based on my MA dissertation on mimesis – which is what my PhD would have been about if I had actually got anywhere with it all those years ago.

Berthold Brecht

Bertolt Brecht

The subject is a particular aspect of mimesis: its significance for some of the criticisms Bertolt Brecht levelled at ‘Aristotelian theatre’. I start by developing a relationship between two possible senses of the classical notion of mimesis: representation and identification. This relationship would also be relevant to Plato’s position on representational art. But although it was through reading Plato himself, EA Havelock [Preface to Plato, Blackwell, Oxford (1963)] and Iris Murdoch [The fire and the sun, OUP (1977)] that the idea originally took shape, the vista which opened up was so huge that I thought it better to avoid the Platonic connection almost completely, and focus on something more manageable.


I start by condensing, I hope accurately, Roger Scruton’s account of pictorial representation [Roger Scruton, Art and imagination, Methuen, London (1974)]:

(i) X pictorially represents (a) Y if and only if X is a picture and is intentionally so designed that a normal viewer in normal conditions would be disposed to see X as (a) Y on account of an irreducible analogy between experiences of seeing X and experiences of seeing Y(s).

A question immediately arises concerning imaginary or fictitious objects. Presumably pictures of unicorns must be possible, in which case the experience of seeing a picture of a unicorn must be irreducibly analogous with the theoretically possible or imagined experience of seeing a real unicorn. It might be argued however that unicorns, like Hamlet and John Bull, only exist in the form of their representations. But this may not be problematic, and an explanation in terms of (i) could be something like this: It is now possible to draw a picture of Mickey Mouse. But until his invention the possibility only existed as the one Walt Disney realised. Walt Disney drew a picture of a mouse and named it ‘Mickey Mouse’. Until he published his conception however he would have been the only ‘normal viewer’. In schema (i) a normal viewer must be someone who knows what (a) Y is. From the time he is invented, Mickey Mouse exists (for those who know who he is) as a fictional character to be represented or identified in representations. Walt Disney did not call the picture ‘Mickey Mouse’: he drew a picture and called the thing the picture was of by the name ‘Mickey Mouse’.

In consideration of the Mickey Mouse example the dictinction does however seem to be important between (A) the ‘immediate’ kind of representation of, say, a dog or Winston Churchill, directly explicable in terms of (i); and (B) the ‘derived’ kind of representation of a newly invented fictional object (eg the first drawing of Mickey Mouse). I call this ‘derived’ because an asymmetric dependency seems to operate between (A) and (B) in that the possibility of (B)-type representation rests on the prior fact of (A)-type representation, but not vice versa. It is only once the convention of (A) is established that (B) can operate by analogy with it. It is only once the primary type of representation of real objects has demonstrated the relationship between pictures and depicted objects (in general) that the secondary type can exploit the category of depicted objects in order for, say, unicorn-shaped markings on paper to be taken as pictures of objects which could never be depicted directly as in (A), since they do not exist.

When a fictional object has become established, like the unicorn or Mickey Mouse, then type (A) can perhaps be stretched to include them. But at the time the fictional object is invented it only fits into formula (i) on the assumption that it must always exist in its creator’s imagination prior to its depiction. The depiction would then be a case of ‘the creator representing to himself, but in a publicly observable form, the object in his imagination’. This must be wrong. It is surely unlikely that all painters first create their paintings in their imagination and then faithfully ‘represent’ those creatures to themselves in paint. And even if it was a fact it must surely be a contingent one.

What then could be happier account of type (B) representation would be a formulation factoring in a reference to ‘intention’ similar to that in Paul Grice’s analysis of meaning [see eg: HP Grice, Meaning, published in Philosophical Review 66 (1957): 377-88]:

(ii) X pictorially represents (a) Y if and only if X is a picture and is intentionally so designed that a normal viewer in normal conditions would be disposed to see X as (a) Y on account of his recognition of the intention behind X that it should be seen as (a) Y as if there was an irreducible analogy between experiences of seeing X and experiences of seeing Y(s).

If I paint an original (representational) picture, then I intend my picture to be seen as a representation through recognition of that intention. The thing represented exists as a fictional or imaginary object (if that is what it is) insofar as the object I intended to be its representation (the picture) is taken as its representation.

Aspect perception

These descriptions of the two kinds of representation both rest on Wittgenstein’s account of ‘seeing as’ or ‘aspect seeing’ [Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical investigations, translated by GEM Ascombe, Blackwell, Oxford (1978) Pt IIxi]. It is uncontentious that ‘seeing as’ is subject to the will, which means it is never necessary for anyone to see a representation as the thing it was intended to represent. For a representation to succeed therefore, the seeing-as (or a transition to any particular seeing-as) must be either natural or habitual or the result of something like persuasion, suggestion, compulsion or even chance. It is also significant that, if this analysis is correct, then (successful) pictorial representations will be a subset of ‘things to be seen-as’; and in order to be successful a pictorial representation must be seen both as a representation and as the thing represented. This does not mean that a representation must never be mistaken for the thing represented, only that a ‘normal viewer’ under ‘normal conditions’ would not so mistake it. Pictorial representation in general therefore depends upon the existence of a community of thinking beings (which may be a community of one) who know what a representation is when they see one.

If X represents (a) Y then X is to be seen as a representation and as (a) Y. Both of these seeings-as may be subject to persuasion, suggestion, compulsion, chance etc. In the realm of art priority is surely given, over other candidates, to suggestion (and perhaps persuasion), either habitual or novel. To see something as a picture is not normally problematic, but if someone hung a tray (particularly a rectangular wooden one with a raised edge) on the wall, this could quite easily be taken as a suggestion to see the tray as a picture, though not of course immediately as a representation. But one could certainly be led by the suggestion to see the tray as a picture to see it further as a representation (since pictures are very often representations), and therefore to see a face-shaped pattern in the grain of the wood as a representation of a face – all the while knowing it is neither a face nor the representation of one. The converse of this would be exemplified by a waxwork which, although a representation, is one whose similarity to the thing represented is so detailed and forceful as continually to suggest to (or even persuade) the viewer that it should be seen as the thing because it is the thing.

The next article in this sequence will start to apply this thinking to dramatic representation.

© Chris Lawrence 2008


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