Homogenous Eclecticism and Disembodiment in Neutral Semantic Space


By Terryl Atkins


While still in art school I saw my first Benneton ad that featured a row of about a dozen perfectly coifed teenagers cajoling each other in a nondescript empty space. Mix and match brightly-coloured clothing suggested a non-specific ethnicity and their visible racial diversity was intended to echo the notion of a world united as one big happy global family through the united colors of Benneton.1 Their relative youth and visible ethnic backgrounds displayed a taxonomy of hope and a typology of promise in the exotic - a progressive, tolerant and accepting vision of a brave new world. In the world of semiotics, though, these actors were reduced to the role of text, exhibiting an homogenous eclecticism reduced to a neutral semantic space. And by its very nature, text requires a neutral semantic space. Analogous to Wittgenstein’s ‘aspect blindness’ of the duck / rabbit illusion (Gregory 1987:237-8), it is not that the space of text simply recedes into the background of a figure / ground relationship, but is not perceived as existing at all. As such, this non-space presumes a disembodiment of the reader of the text.


Inasmuch as a post-modern society embraces a pluralist ethic, supporting and promoting difference, this movement has been compromised by the very drive towards the codification of reality as information, a shift from the modernist age of mechanical reproduction to a post-modernist age of digital reconstitution, from a Baudilairean interweaving to a postmodern reified replacement.2 A contrast of the qualities of, and bodily relationship to, developments in pre-modernist and modernist pictorial space illuminate both the conceptual and physical requirements of semantic space.


There are two kinds of spatial organization in drawn and painted pictures. The first is the organization across the surface, or picture plane. It can be assertive, holding ones eye to surface patterning, or it can be unobtrusive and transparent. Regardless, it is always present as a corollary of drawing a mark-making implement across a surface. The other kind of spatial organization is that of illusionistic space, which can be organized in numerous ways, from applied methods of geometric perspective to more casual methods of suggesting spatial recession, such as the as stepping up of pictorial elements, overlapping, diminishing size, lessening of the accutance of borders between elements, or the use cooler colors. These methods seem natural and are easy to interpret in terms of space because they reflect some of the methods we already use to visually determine space in the environment around us.


The surface of the picture plane and the implied depth of illusionistic space are viewed in alternation much like looking through a tessellated window pane at a scene and it is this active play between surface and illusion which makes drawn or painted pictures compelling. Harmonious phasing back and forth from surface to illusion is effortless because it is a fictional refocusing rather than an actual act. The scanning and fictional focusing take place on the same surface, associating qualities of one aspect or part of the picture with another and thus provide two different ways of realizing meaning within a continuous space. Elements are blended through the construction of foreground, middleground and background complexes into a common space.


The history of the development of illusion in pictorial space can be traced  back to its rudimentary beginnings in prehistoric cave paintings, but the creation of a continuous pictorial space became most rigorously evident with the scientific development of linear perspective at the beginning of the Renaissance.3 The development of single point perspective in the Renaissance situated the individual at the centre of an objectively viewable world, held at a distance as a complete view.  According to Ramonyshyn in his study on technology and the disembodiment of perception, this created a split between the self-conscious self and the world of knowable objects and presented a completely different view of the world from that of the medieval world. As evidenced in paintings and sculpture, the preceding medieval perceptual world was more closely linked to bodily experience. (Romanyshyn 1989)


Using two views of Florence as an example of this change, the first dating from approximately 1350 shows a walled conglomeration of buildings from a variety of perspectives, each one only slightly behind the other as they pile themselves up the drawing.  One gets the distinct sense, as Romanyshyn points out, that these buildings were each based on something very particular in terms of the bodily experience of them by the artist.  The second vision of Florence dating from approximately 1480 has none of that.  It is essentially a bird's eye view of Florence from a great distance wherein, other than the odd landmark building of great size, such as a basilica, it is hard to tell any of the buildings apart from one another and everything appears schematic.  The sense that one gets is the lay of the land and the full extension of Florence across the lay of the land.  Two things the second image portrays that the first one could not are a single overall fixed and distant vantage point, and spatial homogeneity.  (Romanyshyn 1989:36)  As we know from Albrecht Dürer's instructional engravings, the enlightened view was from a fixed vantage point, preferably through a gridded window, onto the world as landscape and heralds an age unprecedented in terms of the discriminating eye and the fixed gaze. This space of linear perspective remained the standard for the depiction and the experience of pictorial space in the western painting tradition until the late 1900’s.



With the modernist pictorial developments of Cézanne and, consequently, the Cubists, pictorial space became discontinuous, an orchestration of localized negotiations in terms of illusion and a continual displacement of the viewer. This unstable and ambiguous pictorial space, without the unifying effect of an overall compositional device, such as chiaroscuro and linear perspective, remains disjunctive, elements juxtaposed rather than blended. This kind of picture can contain different spaces, things and times at different levels of abstraction. Not only do these parts form diverse and fluctuating patterns on the picture plane, as well as variations in illusion of space and light, they also produce a space separate from the picture, within which the same elements float free of any patterning on the picture plane or coherence as illusion, and relate to each other irrespective of what they represent. This new space dislocates the viewer from harmoniously phasing from picture plane to illusion, positioning her or his vision momentarily outside of the painting, a disruption which makes the picture seem to be in a continual state of forming and reforming.


This fragmenting space interested the Cubists, who were fascinated by both its structure and with what it could contain. In the structure of Cubists’ pictures there is no hierarchy. Through the orchestration of elements, foreground becomes background, background becomes image and so on. An element of one identifiable figure is conjoined with a section of another figure in such a way that the same element functions as parts of these two no matter how different the figures or perspectives. The reorganization between the picture plane and the illusion causes both setting and image to be fractured and various. Because of the shifting, dislocating and relocating of ones vision, there is no harmonious movement from plane to illusion. Heterogeneous elements transform the intricacies of a de-centred picture whose shifting borders seem to continuously expand outwards and one also finds ones focus in the space of the room, just in front of the picture plane, in a space that is virtually that of the picture. It can be even more various than the collective conversation at a party from which voices emerge and are then enveloped back into the din.


Collage is perhaps the most pervasive pictorial form in modern and post-modern art and is made possible only in the space that the Cubists developed out of the pictorial structures of Cézanne. Collage allows for the juxtaposition of discrete and heterogeneous units in a discontinuous space and can be defined as the extrication of things from what is understood to be their natural place in an indigenous order to their orchestration in a space that is constitutionally discontinuous. A collage is a kind of serial construction inasmuch as it is made up of discrete pieces but it differs from other series by virtue of the kind of space that it constitutes. The space of a series, such as a taxonomist’s board upon which rows of butterflies have been pinned, or the array of artifacts that archaeologists call a typology, have the same kind of space as the symbolic figures on washroom doors, which is a semantic space. In serial structure, the units are placed in a neutral space. The construction is non-pictorial, even though some or all of the elements may be pictorial.


Series and montage4 existed before modernist pictorial practice, but collage is a method of picturing that grew out of modernist space. In collage, because the surface scanning and the movement through the illusion are fractured and various, it allows a kind of heterogeneity that cannot exist in traditional pictures. There are passages of transformation that are not formed by reasoned continuous space, yet they have a unity. It is also a type of serial relationship inasmuch as it is made up of pieces taken from various environments and placed in discreet relationships with each other, thereby separating and alienating them from each other in their new relationship and from their original setting. Despite this alienation, in collage one is able to hold the pieces in a kind of pictorial space, which differs from the serially constructed neutral space of symbolic language.


Schematic simplification is the initial result of conceptual growth, as a result of language. The visual space of written language is not meant to be experienced spatially, but as barely a planar surface. In fact, once semantic space was invented,5 it became clear that the existence of text within pictorial space was a mentally confusing situation. In order for symbols to be experienced as text, for iconicity to be held in abeyance, their transparency as conveyors of meaning could not be in conflict with either surface patterning or pictorial illusion. Here, the historical shift from pictographic elements as purveyors of narrative meaning to a more abstract phonetic alphabet becomes important.  The development of a written symbolic system that referred purely to the sound of spoken words without any iconic reference to the world of objects, separated written language from a limited specific cultural context and interpretation. This gave it a dimension of apparent truth-value neither tied to the world of objects and environments, nor to a particular time. It could now carry timeless reified truths from reader to writer to reader, unsullied by mere referents.


Semantic space has existed in opposition to pictorial space at least since the time of Roman wall murals, around the third century BC. The discursivity of text precludes its occupation of the same space as images. This problem has been variously grappled with, sometimes inventively, in terms of spatial cohabitation, but at no time has there been a reconciliation of this fundamental spatial difference. Unlike surface scanning of the picture plane which looks to stylistic qualities of mark making (fluidity, direction, composition, texture, to name a few), the meaning of text is not derived from any of these considerations, and undue elaboration of these qualities inhibits reading. Spatial illusion, whether harmonious or disjunctive, does not accommodate the written word. As example of one solution, medieval manuscript illuminators attempted to deal with the creation of a separate semantic space within pictorial space by the addition of virtual scrolls that floated across the surface of the picture plane, carrying the written message and functioning similarly to text balloons in a comic strip.


Whether story telling (narrative) or conversational (discourse), text unfolds over time – it is read and as such implies response, interjection and a kind of reflection that is held within a mind space. The images that are conjured are only virtually tenable. Like dream imagery, these images are never stable, but fluctuating, reforming, hovering tentatively at the edge of the meaning of the text as it unfolds. Unlike dream imagery, the images are always negotiable, created and maintained by a consciousness. The linear construction of text requires constant interpretation and reinterpretation, a movement forward and backwards in time. Pictures are different inasmuch as they are encountered whole first and are embodied inasmuch as one is always already physically placed in relation to the picture. Ones placedness may be made uncomfortably apparent, as with collage, where ones relationship to the picture shifts with each shift in perspective, but there remains an overriding gestalt that provides a kind of unity.


The banalization of images through mechanical mass production and reproduction has desensitized the viewer to bodily engagement with the picture. Over-stimulated by shear volume of pictures and speed of image intake has led to the semiotic interpretation of pictures as a form of self-defense. The decontexualization and re-presentation begun by the Cubists pales by comparison to the present condition of bodily displacement one would experience if one were to physically engage with all pictures presented on any given day. The creation of a semantic non-space filled with an egalitarian array of images, symbols and text as information does not reinforce physical situatedness. It separates self from body and places it within, not only a virtual landscape, but a discursive one, which is an indeterminate and purely conceptual space. And, current textual analytic techniques do not afford the embodied reception of images. Semiotic readings of images and pictures do not adequately account for a more direct engagement based in sensibility. It became rare in modernist society that images existed without accompanying text. In post-modernist society, it is rare that images are not read as text.


It is not that disembodiment precludes functioning in a body. The disembodied still breathe, shit, fuck etc., but they understand these experiences in a more abstract way. The mood of modernism and post-modernism is one of skeptical dismissal. In trying to free ourselves from illusions we shy away from more direct but less articulate forms of engagement. Sensibility is the experience of understanding through immediate but nebulous forms of perception, which are mediated through the body. It is ideology in its most settled and naturalized state. For understanding to occur - to be carried away by the song, enveloped by the picture or drawn along by a story - one must become passive to the form and the mood necessary for distancing oneself from illusion cannot be maintained by these elusive forms. The problem is that one does not get free from illusions to breathe the pure air of truth only to be drawn into other illusions. The necessary restraint and peculiar rigor necessary to maintain the distance needed, to feel free of the illusions, has produced an attitude, informed by a kind of Presbyterian zeal, that seems doomed to anchor itself in an antique form of iconoclasm that is content to supplant them with stern but arbitrary laws.

One could liken this to the experience of schizophrenic overwhelm, where, because of a lack of the capacity to edit perceptual stimuli, which would presume a hierarchy of meaning from which to make such choices, control is maintained by one or both of two tactics. Either there is a running stream of linguistic attempts to provide some semblance of control, or there is withdrawal from information bombardment from the environment and the construction of an alternate world of the mind, which remains virtually unaffected by exterior reality. If one considers art-making as way of orienting to the world of experience and accepts that that can be a cathartic activity, generating imaginative possibilities, alternatives to what is, then what happens with schizophrenics? Essentially they go through the machinations of generating drawn and textual alternatives, but what these constructions amount to is the repetition of thoughts that go nowhere and do not resolve into any type of gestalt, developing no hierarchy of meaning, accompanied by a highly patterned ‘word salad’. Any overarching control comes from outside of the self in the form of an hallucinated commanding voice of an authoritative other in terms of the prescriptive, punitive or instructive.


In general, their distinctive style of picturing is a dense conglomeration of highly schematic figurative elements, repetitive patterning and rows of written text or numbers, often with no attempt at the depiction of illusionistic space. All surface is filled with a daunting tenacity and represents a running, if skewed, usually fantastical and grandiose, narrative. Essentially these creations are speculative, trying to develop an understanding of the world, but their constructions are based on insubstantial connections to the world. The bizarre meanderings of their ‘logical’ thought are desperate attempts to bring a substantiality to their condition but, because they don't experience much at the level of sensibility, they are left only with more abstract methods. Schizophrenics can form ideas but, because they cannot have a cohesive sensible experience to reference their ideas back to, the ideas can go any which way, therefore no way at all. Removed from the world of experience, their identity is continuously (re)negotiated through a solitary relationship to a fantasy world.


The virtual semantic non-space is analogous to the physical non-place of what anthropologist Marc Augé calls ‘supermodernity’, where ones identity within a social context is negotiated through a solitary contractuality with the non-place, not an organically social negotiation with others. (Augé 1995:94) The language of operation in non-places (planes, airports, trains, supermarkets, shopping malls, Holiday Inns, Club Med, where situatedness and identity are held in a kind of abeyance) is prescriptive, punitive or instructive. (Augé 1995:96) In this regard, language functions much the same as auditory schizophrenic hallucination.


In primitive cultures, non-place and the suspension of identity is considered a transitional state from one state of cultural being to another, where the extra-ordinary happens in order to better inform the ordinary. This liminal non-place and psychic state contains the revelatory and the transformative of a culturally meaningful process. According to Richard Schechner, when artists make art they expand the liminal, which, optimistically, could also be considered revelatory and transformative as well as culturally meaningful. (Schechner 1982) In the non-places of ‘supermodernity’ though, this expanding liminal is more likely to reflect the disembodied and meandering negotiations of the schizophrenic than culturally or personally meaningful revelation and transformation.


Pictorial space as an artistic construction is compelling precisely because it allows space for sensuous receptivity through bodily engagement. It is sensibility’s concrete proxy. This cannot be accounted for through semiotic analysis or any other analytic method (psychoanalysis comes to mind) which methodically reduces meaning to a linguistic construction.




1. Benneton is an Italian clothing manufacturing company noted for its often racially provocative ad campaigns. The United Colors of Benneton is their slogan.

2. According to Baudelaire, the new is interwoven with the old in modernist society. Marc Augé contends that the space of supermodernity is self-contained and expanding to effect more of our lives. from Marc Augé  Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity John Howe trans. London: Verso 1995

3. Even though Minoan and Egyptian scenes of the 2nd millenium BC were scenic, they exhibited no sense of illusionistic space, following much the same form as hieroglyphics, which were to be read in a linear fashion as a running narrative, all figures depicted in profile on a ground line. Roman murals from the 3rd Cen. BC until the 1st Cen. AD only accomplished a very shallow and unconvincing sense of illusionistic space. A kind of stepped up perspective shows up in miniatures of the 7th Cen. AD, but it is not until painting of the 15th Cen. AD that deep perspective shows up in miniatures such as the Très riches heures du Duc de Berry (1413-1416) or in what could be called a bird’s eye perspective or overview of the distant landscape. The Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi codified the laws of linear perspective through a series of experiments between 1417 and 1420, as did Alberti in 1435-36, Viator in 1505 and Dürer in 1525.

4. The distinction generally made between collage and montage is that montage is the assembly of diverse elements in a continuous space whereas collage is the juxtaposition of discrete and heterogeneous units arranged in a discontinuous space.

5. The use of pictographs evolved as the first type of written language that was not used just to keep records of the amounts of various goods, but eventually to tell stories and their combination into more abstract sequences of events and ideas are better known as ideograms. Ideograms came to represent what was already encoded through spoken language, which included abstract ideas. Analogues of concepts would be created through combinations of symbols, highly interpretive and not necessarily or easily translatable across cultures. from Denise Schmandt-Besserat How Writing Came About  Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. 1996 Sumerians were the first culture to methodically record events in pictographic form. Like Egyptian hieroglyphics, the symbols were arranged in horizontal rows, where figures would be depicted in profile and attached to a ground line.




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