Unreal Nature

August 28, 2009

Hierarchy of Divisibility

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:50 am

The following are two of the (separate) entries from Rudolf Arnheim’s Parables of Sun Light (1989). The book is a compendium of selections from his daily diary or notebooks:

There exists an erroneous notion to the effect that only particular objects are sharply circumscribed, whereas abstractions are of necessity vague and imprecise. On the contrary, any abstraction, no matter at what level, needs precision in order to be usable. A tree seen out of focus by a myope is of little help; only when seen sharply can a tree at a distance serve as an abstraction for trees seen nearby. The distance makes details drop out but replaces them with the correspondingly greater prominence of the larger structure. On the other hand, we put an undeserved trust into what we call the individual case, which actually is nothing but the level of abstraction beyond which we cannot individualize, except with special help. Look through a magnifying glass, and you will see a much more specific object, compared with which the thing you saw with your naked eye is an abstraction, a generalization capable of covering lots of possible, more specific individuals.

Physicists speak of the “conditional elementary” to indicate the level at which, for the purpose of a given discourse, they are willing to treat a phenomenon as not further divisible. In the arts also, the level of abstraction in an artist’s style determines whether a figure is presented as an elementary unit or a complex of interacting forces. In a medieval mystery play or even in a Boccaccio story, each character stands for a single attitude. Compare this with what happens to the miser or lover or murderer in the psychological novel of the nineteenth century. Or think of the hierarchy of divisibility in a play, where subsidiary figures behave like elementary particles whereas the principal characters unfold a whole range of impulses.



1 Comment

  1. O.K., I’m a cultural myope.

    Comment by Dr. C. — August 30, 2009 @ 11:50 am

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