… When the wind traces its impact on the sand [it] … is an active “contour” which both separates and connects the force of the wind and the resistance of the sand.
This is from Charles Morris’s essay ‘Man-Cosmos Symbols’ found in The New Landscape in Art and Science by Gyorgy Kepes (1956; 1967):
… Words and photographs have interpenetrated, and what is seen is no longer merely a differentiated surface, but the structure of a snail’s tongue or of a galactic system. The photographs have to this degree already become “post-language symbols,” symbols whose meaning is partly determined by the linguistic symbols which have been used upon them. What is seen is now perceived in terms of what was said.
Next is back to Kepes’s own text:
… Through repeated comparisons, we build the realm of things, of objects which have their separate existences in space framed by these axes. We fill the world with stones, mountains, leaves, trees, men and animals. These, even if they move, do not lose their fixed identities. We still see them as things and our self as the central thing — the subject — that observes, measures and understands all the others.
… Although it enables us to order our surroundings on the gross level of familiar experience, thing-seeing is too limited to help us discriminate on the extended scale of space and time, on the levels of the very large, the very small, the very fast, the very slow. The world measurable by our own bodies has been succeeded by a world with many unfamiliar configurations unrelated to our bodies. To bring coherence into this wider manifold of experience, we need new axes of reference, a new common denominator of the extended scale revealed by science and the gross scale of our unaided senses.
We may be guided by the new nature to structure as a common denominator. Structure brings together all the levels of experience that we know. But the structures that we find in nature are not independent, isolated “things.” They emerge from and disappear into other structures, both in space and in time. Molecules of water vapor become first a snowflake and then a raindrop. The fertilized egg develops into a child whose form, in turn, grows into that of a man. The patterns of structure are also patterns of action.
Although we see it as an entity — unified, distinct from its surroundings — a pattern in nature is a temporary boundary that both separates and connects the past and the future of the processes that trace it. Patterns are the meeting points of actions. Noun and verb must be seen as one: process in pattern, pattern in process.
… As our eyes range over the perceptual field, one part after another of the field becomes “figural,” and there is a constant shift of “figure” and “ground” to one part after another. Each figural part appears defined and delimited from the remainder of the field, its characteristic shape standing out as if contoured.
We may regard any configuration in nature — a physical object, a sensation, a thought — as the contour which marks the intersection of interpenetrating forces. We may find traces of force-interplay on one level alone, as in the physical pattern generated by physical events or the patterns of abstract thought generated by the interaction of the perceptual with the perceptual. There may be traces of interaction on intercepting levels, as in the perceptual pattern created by the interaction of physical with perceptual events.
When the wind traces its impact on the sand into waves and drifts, the sand pattern is not only a passive record of the wind’s activity; it is an active “contour” which both separates and connects the force of the wind and the resistance of the sand. It is not wind, nor is it sand; it is something new. In the same way, a crystal growth is not a fixed form that emerges from nowhere; it is a space-time boundary of energies in organization. The pattern of a branching tree is the trace of growth.
[line break added] And so are all the other graceful figures of equilibrium: a raindrop, falling through the air or splashing on a surface; the form of a bone; the fabric of a plant; the year-rings of a tree trunk or of a fish scale; the hills and valleys of the ocean bed; the geological stratification of a mountain; the shock wave in bullet-pierced air; the webs of spiders and of cosmic ray showers; the tree-like pattern of an electrical discharge.
A pattern may be a continuous linear path, like handwriting or the vapor trails of aircraft; a three-dimensional path, like the centrifugal motion of a potter’s wheel restrained by the potter’s hand; a discontinuous path, like footprints on snow, or puffs of smoke. The factor of time can predominate, or the factor of space. Patterns can be primary events: cells, crystals, bubbles or animal bodies.
[line break added] They can be mere secondary effects: shadows, the color patterns of sunsets, mirror images or perspective transformations. They can be generated from within, as in growth, or built from without and joined mechanically, as in coral deposits. Like volcanoes, they can be alive and durable, or, like fossils and seashells, the mere memories of live figures.
[line break added] They can reach their unique configuration through a forming process, like perceived images created through the excitation of brain cells; or they can gain separate and distinct existence as the boundary of other events, like snowdrifts. When we perceive, our perception structure is itself a force diagram of interacting systems — of optical stimulus and our sensory apparatus, of optical image and our store of memory images, of our immediate experience and our inner picture of ourselves or of the world.
Leading us away from the system of fixed things, and toward the system of spatio-temporal patterns, the newly revealed visible world brings us to the threshold of a new vision. We cannot relate its seen patterns to our familiar experiences of things that we know and touch and smell. The path of a cosmic ray, the growth of a crystal, the stroboscopic record of a raindrop are meaningful only as interrelations. We are compelled to interpret them as intersections of events.