My first thought was, “How great!” but my second thought was, “Eek!” when our niece and nephew presented Pramote and me with an oil painting of ourselves for my birthday last month. “Ah, how nice that the kids are growing mature enough to have the foresight and to spend the money on a project like this,” I thought. That thought was followed by, “Where shall we put it so nobody sees it?” Now I’m thinking, “It rather misrepresents reality.”
I’ve been ruminating on this. A couple of days after the birthday dinner, one of the other nieces or nephews posted a picture on Facebook that stunned me by what it showed about how we “click” on reality these days, that is how we capture it, and how we turn it off and on in our minds. In the picture (accompanying this essay) Pramote and I are holding the painting given to us by Wave and Pran. In photo-talk, we are first generation, the living, breathing originals. The oil painting is third generation because it was rendered from a photograph. The photo that was the model for the painter is second generation as are the pictures of us being taken that night. And then, in the view screens of the cell-phone cameras, there are the pictures of the picture made from a picture of the originals.
There are a lot of chances in all that for reality to get out of focus. Reality is a fleeting thing, anyway. Most post-modernist philosophy is about that and post-modern political arguments are about our being manipulated into herds by the fact that reality is fluid.
Using the pictures of Pramote and me as examples, there are 5 ways reality is captured and beheld.
REALITY REFLECTED is how we see it. It is a mirror image or a selfie, still squirming in and out of focus before it is “clicked” and photo-shopped. But our minds can mess with it. “You look happy,” people say when they see the birthday picture, but I was feeling a lot of other things more than simple happiness.
REALITY PRESERVED is after the click when the shutter is snapped, when the prints come back from a Kodak shop or show up on Facebook. Pictures like that are shadows of reality reflected off the wall of the cave, to borrow Plato’s allegory. But when we look at the images years later the mist in the mind grows thinner. The image is light and shadow, but it stimulates a degree of 4-dimensional recall, selective as it may be.
REALITY SIMULATED is virtual reality, reality represented by something symbolic. This type of reality is an ephemeral moment of feeling one hopes to communicate by taking a picture of one’s food or “sharing” an inspirational aphorism. It could also be a snapshot of a candid, transitory moment. It is immediate and ambiguously evocative. Images on social Internet media become a language substitute we supplement with substitutionary glyphs: emoticons like J, abbreviations like LOL and non-verbal explicatives like “sigh”.
REALITY INTERPRETED is the rationale for art. Oil painted portraits are supposed to convey more reality than a mere snap-shot does; they are supposed to help viewers discern invisible reality (aspects of personality or character, perhaps). High quality photographic portraits do that, too, often relying on costume, pose, or facial expressions to capture reality. Portrait painters painstakingly try to entice profound reality to emerge from beneath the caresses of their brush strokes, whereas portrait photographers snap-snap-snap scores of “images” in order to select THE one to interpret layers of elusive reality about the subject.
We ought to be at least mildly disappointed with pictures of ourselves. Portrait pictures inevitably misrepresent. Nuances are missing or seem to be there when they shouldn’t be. Usually it is the circumstances that are fragmented. A life-story is running but the portrait only hints at its most extraneous and trivial bits. There’s a drama going on that no one else can completely comprehend. “Click” – an instant of it is captured, but it is two-dimensional and flat. Still, it has a reality of its own. It is a stand-alone object in a sea of images. To anyone else, the picture is solitary. Observers see what occurs to them, what “clicks”. Their looking is relational and one-directional (no one is looking back), and usually that relationship is as brief as short-term memory.
Yet, when we download a file of pictures, we are not usually disappointed. Even when we look at pictures of ourselves, we do not ponder on what is amiss. That is because there is a fifth way of processing second-hand reality, even about ourselves.
REALITY PERCEIVED has been operated on by the observer. It is treated from a secondary perspective. “Does it look like me? Will others recognize me? Does it convey an agreeable similarity to what I see in the mirror?” By these standards most pictures are satisfactory if they tend to shield our flaws and flatter us. Or they tell a bit of our story and hurl us into a conversation about our life and times. They are doubly satisfying if they elicit a wave of positive reaction from our virtual friends. As time passes and what we see in the mirror evolves, these pictures serve the purpose of “reality preserved”, and grow even more satisfying; it is pleasant to have proof that we once looked better than we now do. But “reality perceived” serves overlapping and self-contradictory purposes in which we are readjusted to fit our expectations.
Since this is how we treat representations of what we presumably know best, it is no wonder “reality” in general has fallen on hard times. Truth, facts, implications, conclusions and data are all subject to manipulation, alteration, derogation, and antipathy, because the line is gone between reality and desire. More precisely, we have just about lost the ability to distinguish between internal realities and external ones.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.