Thursday, July 27, 2006

Jamais vu

The opposite of déjà vu is jamais vu, literally 'never seen'. It's the phenomenon whereby things are at once familiar and unfamiliar. The former morphs into the latter as exposure to a known stimulus is repeated again and again. Type out the word 'again' one hundred times, and you will have experienced jamais vu first hand.

This phenomenon has been studied extensively by Chris Moulin at the University of Leeds, in the hope that it will help to understand certain psychiatric disorders that relate to schizophrenia and Capgras delusion.

Cognitive neuropsychiatry aside, the term seems like it may also be an appropriate designation for those old familiar feelings of fear and uneasiness that creep into one's psyche in the dead of night, loosening their grip ever so slowly as the light of day emerges, and only fully retreating when the day has taken hold of your life, or rather, when your life has taken hold of the day. What I mean is, why do we get so afraid of things that we have faced hundreds and thousands of times before? Most of the time we know what to expect and we can visualize what we are going to imminently experience, but the element of the unknown nevertheless trumps that of the known while in the recumbent position. I would think that insomnia may intensify these angsty late night/early morning sojourns, but even the fleeting consciousness associated with turning over in bed or grabbing a nocturnal drink of water from the glass on the night table has left me grappling with worrisome thoughts that thwart swift return to somnolence. Why should unknown knowns be so frightening?

I venture to posit that the answer may be that we revert to some childlike vulnerability when we go to bed and sleep all those hours in the effort to renew ourselves. We retreat from life and become unencumbered by the restrictions that it imposes while we are conscious. It is a time to be free and a place to be safe. Once the hours start to steal away the night, we have to re-adapt to the idea of how we fit into the outside world, and how do we make the transition from horizontal to vertical without falling down? Man, that is some scary.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

And her epitaph read: "she was fond of words..."

I am trying to understand whether the pairing of words and pictures precludes full appreciation of either medium: does the presence of both at once cloud comprehension? Does one without the other provide enough context? I am leaning toward tentatively answering each question with a no and a yes, respectively, despite the perceived disparity involved in doing that. It might be argued that descriptive prose may be more readily understood if one has to rely solely on imagination and intellect to conceptualize what is being put forth in words and words alone. As soon as a photograph is added, that which was imagined changes, especially when the image is a secondary consideration, as when it appears on a subsequent page. Is the change a good or bad thing? Does it muddle our understanding, or sharpen it? It would seem to largely depend on the perspective of the reader, as well as on the nature of the prose in question. Newspaper article vs. academic paper? Teen novel vs. postmodern tome? Wasn't there once an experiment carried out in which an academic article was presented through the auspices of a broadside format? How would the reader be able to reconcile the presence of an intellectually rigorous article on page two with the presence of a bikini-clad girl on page three, especially when the bikini-clad girl is purported to be the author?

Alas, I have strayed from my original question, which I have so far left largely unanswered. I suppose the answer is that when the picture or photo is well-placed, it can be elucidatory, and hence helpful. But my mind keeps providing itself with the example of a photo accompanying a newspaper article, or a graph accompanying an academic article. Not exactly the sort of thing Kafka had in mind when he refused the inclusion of an illustration in The Metamorphosis, for fear that it may not come across as monstrous as he had in mind (indeed, Peter Kuper's rendering of the giant beetle is decidedly amusing). It would seem, then, that there is some validity in the claim that a picture takes something away from the prose when it does happen to be ill-placed. As Flaubert said, "...a woman drawn in pencil looks like a woman, that is all. The idea is thereafter closed, complete, and all words now become useless, while a written woman conjures up a thousand different women." [taken from Alberto Manguel's Reading Pictures].

So the answer to the first question is a wishy-washy 'it depends'. But what of words and pictures as mutually exclusive forms? I've already established that words work better on their own when the addition of pictures is intrusive, and I believe the same can be said for a picture. Captions are usually extraneous information. Pictures convey words just fine on their own. I accept the convention that dictates a caption to be present, but again, I fall back on the example of the newspaper article (the photo) and the academic article (the graph). As visual art goes, words are mostly absent (unless, of course, the use of words as a medium is inherent to the work itself: elucidation may or may not follow). Works are titled, of course (again, elucidation may or may not follow), but interpretation is left to the observer. Why, then, have I titled and captioned the photos on my new flickr account? Captionless, the photos can be taken at face value, or they can be interpreted according to the frame of reference of the observer. My problem is that I am too fond of words, and alas, it has turned my brain. But I am fond of pictures too.


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