III. A Further Note On Linguistic Abstraction
The disciplines of thought can be characterized by the ways in which the symbols manipulated are parsed. An arithmetical manipulation of symbols, for example, divorces the quantity of an object from its other qualities. An ecological abstraction of a cow is different than the same creature considered culinarily.
Artistic disciplines, as opposed to scientific ones, seek to manipulate symbols while maintaining a multiplicity of correspondences.
A painting, for example, is collection of pigments arranged in flat plane. The colors and forms invoke a mood irrespective of the subject matter.
The subject matter, in so much as the forms represented are recognizable as visual abstractions of real world elements within the viewer’s sensorium, are likewise evocative.
The level of abstraction–what is called the degree of realism–in itself conveys meaning. A cartoon style drawing may contain the same narrative elements as a photorealistic painting, however the manner in which those elements are presented to the viewer changes both the nature of the elements and their relative weights within the narrative. (Consider, for example, if the results of Wyle E Coyote falling a hundred feet into a canyon were depicted with the graphic realism of a pathologist’s report.)
Before I discuss the effect of symbolism across levels of abstraction, however, I want to take a moment to discuss fiction in particular, because it is my primary area of interest.
Fiction involves an irreducible minimum level of abstraction not applicable to painting or sculpture in that fiction is conveyed through the medium of language. Language, or more properly the manipulation of symbols with correspondence to the perceptual universe using the medium of language, is the weapon of first resort to the human animal, as horses run and cats pounce.
We talk about things, That’s what we do. And our “what ifs” allow us to survive in environments that should be instantly fatal to us.
Words have power.
And yet our symbolic abstraction of our sensorium cannot go beyond the limits of our senses. No description of the color blue, no matter how poetic or detailed, can convey the sensation of “blueness” to a person color-blind from birth. The medium of fiction can describe things that the author and the reader (and, in fact, no human who has ever lived) has ever experienced, and can make them as cognitively real as a genuine experience, but only when described by analogy to common sensory experience.
I can write about a cat as big as a house and make you “see” it, but only because we are both familiar with cats and houses. “A slarg as finglish as a glimp” would require first defining slargs and glimps, as well as the quality of finglocity.
Thus fiction involves a bilateral sensory recursion. The author uses words which are defined by his or her sensory experience, which are then read by an audience who interprets those same words in the context of their own sensory experiences.
And yet we perform this eldritch magic continually, unconsciously, without either of the participants being aware of the process.