What Pauses my Gaze? (part 1)

An artist friend has posed an important question:
As a figurative painter I wonder, what is interesting and important in art to my friends and fellows. What images and artists pause your gaze?
I want to give a two-part reply to this question, but will limit this post to the first part. I will consider the paintings of Francis Bacon, who has certainly made me pause my gaze on numerous occasions. In a separate post, I will consider some alternative principles for considering this question that are taking root in a sub-community of artists and designers who concern themselves with the notion of "embodiment."

First of all, let me be clear: I do not particularly like or enjoy Bacon's paintings (I mainly refer to his portraits--he was primarily a portrait artist). I do, however, find them fascinating. They stop me in my tracks. What causes this? Dfynt's description of himself as a "figurative painter" made me think of Bacon and his paintings' affect on me. The great 20th century philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote a book analyzing Bacon's paintings called The Logic of Sensation (TLoS).

In that book, Deleuze draws an important contrast between the figurative and the figural. The figurative is the “illustrative, and narrative” character of representation (TLoS 6). For Kant, a representation is something before the mind that we synthesize in order to connect it to the rest of our experiences. This definition of representation fits Deleuze as well: “The figurative (representation) implies the relationship of an image to an object that it is supposed to illustrate" (TLoS). Within the order of representational thinking, or as Deleuze will now call it, figurative thinking, “a story always slips into, or tends to slip into, the space between two figures in order to animate the illustrated whole” (TLoS 6).

Opposed to the figurative is the Figural. The figurative is characterized by intelligible relations, whereas the Figural presents us with ‘matters of fact’. For Deleuze, a fact “acts immediately upon the nervous system, which is of the flesh, whereas abstract form is addressed to the head and acts through the intermediary of the brain” (TLoS 31). The figurative is defined by intelligible relations (of objects or ideas—connectedness), whereas “the relation of the Figure to its isolating place defines a ‘fact’” (TLoS 6-7). Thus, in order to move away from figuration, away from the intelligible-relational order of representation, toward the Figure, Bacon uses the method of isolation in his paintings.

Deleuze thinks that painting has two options for escaping the overly cerebral/cognitive realm of figurative representation: it can move "toward pure form, through abstraction; or toward the purely figural, through extraction or isolation” (TLoS 6). Painters such as Mondrian and Kandinsky use abstraction,

whereas Bacon (along with Cézanne) makes figural attempts to paint pure sensations. Bacon’s method of isolation employs “asignifying traits that are devoid of any illustrative or narrative function” such as involuntary free marks, isolated scrubbing with a rag or brush, and large monochromatic fields (TLoS 8).

Bacon's paintings enact an epic struggle between the figurative and the figural, and this, I feel, grabs my attention. The tension of this struggle emanates from the canvas, particularly localized in the faces of Bacon's subjects. The face is a great cliche in figurative painting, portraiture specifically. The face is an organizing structure. A face tells us something about the person to whom it belongs. This is our typical way of looking at faces. In fact, it is so ingrained that we are accustomed to equating faces with thoughts and emotions. They are a window into private mental life. We see the anger on the face of the other. We see the joy in his smile.

But in the work of Bacon, all of this is shat upon. The tension I mentioned above, created by Bacon's use of isolating and deforming techniques, is best seen in the faces of Bacon's paintings. In these faces, the typically figurative manner of representation is locked in tension with Bacon's attempt to paint figurally rather than figuratively. Rather than painting faces, Bacon paints heads. He attempts to dismantle the face, rendering visible forces that deform the face as the head beneath it attempts to emerge. Bacon’s adamantly insisted on painting “the scream more than the horror” (TLoS 34). He wanted to paint the sensation of the scream devoid of the figurative narration that connects it to a cause, to a reason for its existence. This is the meaning of ‘painting’ for Deleuze, as opposed to mere ‘illustration’.

The key to Bacon’s faces, for Deleuze, is the tension that he maintains between the isolating, deformative, dissipative movements of the figural and the illustrative, narrative, representational movements of the figurative. Bacon’s faces are not symmetrical. They appear as faces, yet geometric forms invade from the materiality that is presented along side them. Noses curve up and out. Eye sockets are split apart, or completely absent. Mouths occur where they should not. Animal traits invade the comfortable regularity of the facial schema. One is uncertain about these faces, but they nevertheless ‘appear facially’.

So as I said, I do not enjoy the work of Francis Bacon; but I am able to recognize its significance, as it makes me pause my gaze in a much more profound way than many of the things I actually do enjoy. To answer the initial question in the most general terms possible: tension causing discomfort is interesting and important; it pauses my gaze. This, however, is only one possible answer to this wonderful question.


The New Philosophy of Mind

Despite the popularity of criticizing Descartes’ understanding of the mind, philosophers and theorists remain in the shadow of Descartes. This is evident from the fact that endorsing a theory of mind largely means congratulating its author for being “thoroughly anti-Cartesian,” while criticism typically amounts to a theory’s remaining “too Cartesian.” Amidst the contemporary rush to de-center the mind and overthrow the Cartesian paradigm, two distinct trajectories emerge: the body and the environment. These days, there is nothing particularly radical to the assertion that the mind is thoroughly embodied. This is accepted as fact, with debates focusing on the conceptual particularities and the empirical substantiations. Slightly more radical is the idea of “the extended mind”—succinctly articulated by Andy Clark and David Chalmers in their 1998 paper by the same name—which de-centers the mind not only from the skull, but from the entire organism. Key to both trajectories are analyses of the complex set of causal relations that constitute cognition. In these analyses, something counts as a component of cognition if it plays a significant role in the causal network that enables a certain cognitive task. Debates in this field have largely focused on how significant a certain feature of the body or the environment must be in order to be counted among the causal components of cognition. For instance, the presence of oxygen is obviously an enabling condition for cognition, insofar as an organism requires it to be alive. For Clark and Chalmers, however, oxygen is not sufficiently proximal to the cognitive functions in question to actually be counted as a component of mind. Were we to extend the criterion of causal proximity too far, we would end up with a rather trivial insight, as all of the basic laws of nature would be included in cognition.

How then, are we to determine a criterion of causal proximity for determining whether a feature of the body or environment is to count as a component of cognition? This question exposes the shaky ground that theories of embodied and extended mind stand on. Malcolm MacIver, who argues that the unique structure of bat ears is responsible for a kind of non-neural cognition, falls prey to the same (ultimately Cartesian) presupposition as Clark and Chalmers when he reasons that “although we may not have a clear definition of cognition, we have some intuition about when we are closer to it or further away from it.” Indeed, we do have “some intuition” about proximity, but it is more likely than not based upon a Cartesian presupposition about what counts as cognition in the first place. I propose that we build on Descartes' insights rather than seek to demolish them. More specifically, I wish to focus on Descartes' conclusions concerning the consciousness that characterizes our cognitive states. Strictly defining cognition in functional terms (as contemporary rhetorics of embodiment and environmental embeddedness typically do) leaves out an essential property of mind--its irreducible qualitative and subjective character. The phenomenological tradition, especially Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, have never lost sight of this essential feature of mind, and thus provides a logical starting point for the reorientation that I am calling for. This is not to totally discount the value of functional analyses of cognition. To deny functionalism is not to deny function (as David Woodruff Smith often reminds us). However, if we wish to have an adequate understanding of cognition, we must account for its embodiment and environmental embeddedness without losing sight of what it is like to think--i.e., we must do the phenomenology of embodiment and the phenomenology of being-in-the-world. Only in this way can we gain a clearer understanding of our intuitions regarding what cognition is, thus putting us in a position to evaluate precisely how Cartesian we ought to be.