Monday, February 1, 2021


Ok, I admit it, I've been reading Barthes. So I see semiotics everywhere now. It's all signs! Aiiig! Barthes strikes me as obscure, but not very difficult. He seems to have been a frustrated mathematician, although he may not have known it. He's constantly trying to systematize everything along distinctly mathematical lines with, uh, mixed results, let's say.

Anyways. Be that as it may, I'm not talking about Barthes here. Let's talk about biosemiotics instead, which is a very fancy word for a not very fancy idea. A quick consult on wikipedia will give you the basic idea.

The example always started with is a tick. Its sensorium reduces the world to quite a small set of data: a vague sensitivity to light, a acute sense of smell that works on one chemical associated with mammals, temperature, and hairiness. This suffices to the drive the pattern of the tick's life. The world is modeled in the tick as nothing more than "how light, smelly, warm, and hairy is it here." This world-view is termed umwelt and that's the idea that matters to me.

Light is reduced in the tick to a cascade of biochemical reactions that end up with a specific set of motions, a behavior.

People also have a sensorium which reduces the world. Our vision yields color, but reduced from an infinity of dimentions, to three: R, G, B. Our hearing produces a precise but often inaccurate idea of a sound's origin. Our sense of touch is very relative, and so on. Light, heat, sound, real things are reduced again to cascades of chemical reactions, to neural firing, to cognition (whatever that even is) which all results in behaviors, or doesn't.

Being conscious, or something, we are aware that we live within a model, an umwelt, which isn't the same as reality. Even setting aside dense philosophies that wonder if reality even exists, perhaps the universe is a construct of our conscious observation, Heisenberg! Heisenberg! we still get a separation between our grasp of reality, and reality itself. They're different. We are even clever enough to devise experiments and equipment to probe the underlying reality that our sensorium gives us a précis of.

So all this crap falls under the head of "biosemiotics" and I think the semiotics comes in thus: the "signifier" is the internal model of how bright the light is, the "signified" is the actual light, and the "sign" is the combination of these two. The meaning assigned to the world by the system we name "a tick."

A lot of Arnheim's book Art and Visual Perception is about experiments looking in to what are arguably human biosemiotics, specifically applied to visual representations of stuff.

The evidence of children's drawings suggests that when we see a bus, we identify it as "a horizontal longness" atop "several roundnesses" for instance. Older children draw a box on top of wheels, and later add more boxes for windows.

At some point it leaks over in to cultural semiotics. The meaning of the bus becomes "mode of transportation, primarily for the poor."

I speculate, and this is just me here, that the cultural semiotics and the biological semiotics constitute a spectrum that influences both up and down the chain. We might biologically identify a bus as "moving stone, weird predator" as well as "box on roundness" which flows upwards through langauge and culture to mean "bus." The biological meaning is, naturally, non-verbal so "weird predator" should be understood that way.

The cultural identification of "bus" with "mode of transport for poors" flows downward to soothe the animal and assure it that it's not a weird predator at all, although perhaps best not to stand in front of it.

Let me hasten to add that I don't think these ideas are my invention, they seem pretty obvious so I assume someone else has made similar guesses. I just don't know who, and I don't recall having read them anyplace.

So, traditional semiotics teaches us that we have a word "bus" (signifier) which refers to a specific kind of box on wheels, a real world object (signified) and together these make a sign, and that's what "meaning" is about. Is the signified the actual object, or is it the abstract object our sensorium has identified?

Does the word "bus" point to the actual object, or to the biosemiotic sign for that object? Beats me, not sure it matters much. Angels on pinheads and so on, maybe.

Where I am headed is here: consider a painting of a bus, as compared with a photograph of a bus.

Both will strike us as flat objects with color and tone smeared on them. Both will, eventually, lead the way to the word "bus" and also that internal model of "bus" to which, perhaps, the word refers. That internal model of a bus, that précis of bus-ness that our sensorium digs up when we actually see a real bus, is the landing spot for both the painting and the photograph.

The paths here are many. We go through the word to the précis-model. We go directly to the précis-model and then back to the word. We return to the painting/photo and around and around. There are probably layers of signs and meaning that slosh around.

The part that really matters to me is that I am pretty sure that the photo lights up pathways that are pretty similar to the pathways that a real bus lights up, more than a painting does.

That is to say, a photograph of a bus strikes us the same way a bus does, whereas a painting of a bus strikes us inevitably as a painting of a bus.

My conceit here is that the painting reaches downward, through the cultural and social machinery, through the conscious mind perhaps, to reach the précis-model that carries bus-ness, while the photograph reaches upwards through the biological machinery, the unconscious mind, to reach the same place.

My efforts to devise some sort of cognitive experiment to test this largely failed, except that I returned to the same place I have been before.

Namely, that photographs of great heights induce vertigo, and that pornographic photographs arouse.

In truth, there are probably matters of degree here. Any visual representation will strike us at all levels of semiotics, to one degree or another. A crude sketch of a bus probably does not tickle the biological "moving stone/weird predator" level much at all, but as the depiction of the bus gets more and more realistic, that biosemiotic plane of meaning is more and more activated.

Conversely, one can readily imagine a painting of a bus which activates the cultural semiotic meaning of "transport for poor people" or, better yet, "transport for black people" first and foremost, and has to take quite a journey through our mind to arrive anywhere near the "moving stone/weird predator" plane of meaning.

Anyways, that's my thoughts. Long-time (and especially patient) readers will notice that this is the same sack of shit I've been plugging for like a year now, but dressed up in fancier clothes so I can say "semiotics" over and over, and will sound, um, accordingly smart.


  1. Is this what Mr. Smith, in the previous post, called "ostentatiously declaiming and arguing as in some academic circles, given to showboating various, absurdly reductive superstitions"?

    1. I cannot say for sure, of course, but I fervently hope so!

    2. I think you'll find Mr. Molitor is not a member in good standing of the self-styled, 'photoland' academy.

      Persona non grata, more like.

  2. I took a picture of a dead crow a while ago. I like crows very much, admire them. I'm sure I've seen paintings of dead crows (Andrew Wyeth, Durer?), and that was in my mind when I took my picture. I wanted to capture that essence of dead-crowness, sad as it is.
    Now, after a little googling, I learn that Getty Images has 746 images of dead crows, in case you need to rent one. It seems to me that those creepy paintings of crows have all the proper momento mori language, but my photo, as you say, took you there looking down at the dead bird by the sidewalk. I don't know; which do you prefer, or does it matter?

    1. They're just different, right? I mean, that's where I'm coming from, anyways.

    2. "I've seen paintings of dead crows (Andrew Wyeth, Durer?), and that was in my mind when I took my picture."

      Damn. You reduced my entire 1000-word manifesto to a tweet.

  3. "My efforts to devise some sort of cognitive experiment to test this largely failed, except that I returned to the same place I have been before.

    Namely, that photographs of great heights induce vertigo, and that pornographic photographs arouse."

    Hmm. Interesting pair of paragraphs, and light finally dawns. Look, as an excuse for getting caught "using" pornography this is getting out of hand, so to speak. Just ask your wife humbly for forgiveness and put an end to this charade.

    Seriously, though, folks... All such speculation leads nowhere unless (a) it can be tested, (b) leads to successful predictions, or even (c) more, better art. I mean, look at Freud and/or Jung... Some beautiful, quasi-systematic pipe-dreams, essentially useless therapeutically or medically, but a handy set of metaphors, at least until computers came along.

    Besides, I can experimentally confirm that paintings and cartoons can be very arousing. At least, that was my initial conclusion. Must get back to the lab.


    1. I don't think any of this leads to better art, nope.

      Mainly I am just curious and want to know what makes things tick, and secondarily I think that with a firmer grasp of what things like photography *are* we can maybe do a better job of them.

      We can, for instance, get our arms around what is and is not ethical, what is and is not truthful, and so on. I don't know if it makes better Art, or better Photos but it might just make better People, somehow?

      I dunno. Maybe I just like taking things apart, storing the parts well past the point when one might decently assume I'm ever going to put it back together, and then letting my wife throw them out.

    2. Well, why not? However, I think your basic premiss -- that "bus photo" stimulates different responses than "bus painting" -- is questionable. Are photos really essentially different from other forms of 2-D representation? At the very least, there must be a point where "photo of bus" and "photo-realistic painting of bus" overlap?

      However, this just in from our lab: the genre of Japanese woodcuts known as "shunga" has been found, in 100% of test cases, to be equally, if not more, arousing than photographs. Result not yet peer-reviewed.


    3. Yes, I think the correct formulation of my notion excludes abstract photos of various sorts, but includes photorealistic paintings/drawings. There's a threshold of "realness" I postulate.

      Something that I find interesting is the sheer amount of pushback I get on this, which strikes me as strange because I'm pretty sure we all know that there's *something* about photos that's different. They're not paintings, they're not woodcuts, they're not ink drawings or etchings.

      But somehow, universally, when I take any kind of stab are "well, why is that?" the responses are largely "yeah but woodcuts."

      Not to say that you're wrong, or that I don't appreciate it! Pressure makes the arguments stronger, and it's all good fun anyways, and you might be right about the woodcuts.

      But it's a curious thing that people seem to shy away from "so what, exactly, is it that makes photos not paintings?" kinds of things.

  4. I've never read Barthes but what you are talking about here reminds me of General Semantics. 'Science and Sanity' might be worth looking into if you can find an affordable copy.

    The book 'Schrödingers Cat trilogy' is fiction about this topic. Almost everything Robert Anton Wilson wrote is about this topic in one way or another.

    Your cultural semiotic meanings for bus are distressing to me. Mine are more like "efficient, easy, low cost, lower pollution, social good" along with a hint of "dangerous and smelly".

    1. Thanks for the reference! I suspect there are a dozen different sets of terminology and a dozen academic disciplines which cover more or less the same thing.

      I love buses. My kids love buses. Buses are awesome. I am a big advocate of public transit in general.

      Sadly, though, in the USA, the "transport for poors" is one of the dominant ideas around buses. My mother in law, who is firmly prog-left, firmly on the side of the poors, and so on, never ever rides a bus. The reasons are endless, and never "it's full of poors" but the real reason is simply that it's not a thing she does.

      This is sad, but whatcha gonna do?

  5. Not THAT Ross CameronFebruary 5, 2021 at 3:14 AM

    Always good to read and mull over your thoughts. I dare say one aspect is realism vs recognition. Photos are generally realistic, unless ones deliberately tries to be impressionistic, or is just incompetent in taking a photo. Paintings can be realistic, but it’s a lot of hard work, so easier to paint in a different style. This, depending on the style of painting, it may be recognisable from the world around us, even if not completely realistic. This may just be a different way to frame the point you are making. Once we get into images that are not recognisable from the world around us, all bets are off and it’s beyond my ken.
    Your thoughts also put me in mind of Platos Cave, although I’m not sure that’s a helpful reference to bring in.

    1. For reference, I distinguish between "photorealistic" and "realistic"

      My theory is that there's a threshold of detail, of realism, that shifts us from one general category of response to another. Whether the shift is abrupt ('at a level of detail 178.3 or more the response changes completely') or continuous ('the more detailed, the more the response shifts from cultural to biological') I don't know and, to be honest, I don't much care.

      I'm mainly interested in the endpoint, which is photographically realistic, and how that works on us.

  6. "Paintings can be realistic, but it’s a lot of hard work, so easier to paint in a different style."

    Realistic painting is arguably the easiest "style", because you know exactly what to do, so it's down to mastering a mechanical skill. Obviously it's a lot more complicated than that, and there's tremendous scope for individual creativity which (arguably) moves it away from realism (cf. Edward Hopper).

    Before the invention of photography, a lot more people who did not consider themselves 'artists' were very skillful draftsmen [er, -people] -- they could sketch like nobody's business -- and their sketches formed the basis of visual information that photography would come to replace.

    1. Do you mean "realistic" or "photorealistic"?

      I can paint a pretty realistic looking teapot, but nobody would mistake it for a photo. I am quite a bad painter.

    2. You can "paint a pretty realistic looking teapot", or you are "quite a bad painter" -- which is it? :-)

      Photo-realism (so-called) is an extension of realist painting, or maybe just a new name ca. 1970 for trompe-l'oeil.

      The most interesting modern painter who used photographic sources and ideas was Francis Bacon, who you probably wouldn't consider a realist.

      You'd have to read his interviews with David Sylvester to really dig into his um, unorthodox methods. I think you'd dig it!

  7. Not THAT Ross CameronFebruary 6, 2021 at 2:26 AM

    Hi Gents, thanks for the comments, and apologies for mine. Joys of trying to think (and type, and edit) coherently, while taking the bus home after a couple of post-work ales.
    To try and clarify, the Realistic scale may be more Photo-realistic down to Recognisable. We generally recognise the objects in a child’s drawing, but don’t consider them realistic. Realistic (and the risk of getting into Realism movements) probably sets the low end of the bar a bit high, in my unwashed opinion, but then it’s Mr Molitor’s concept, so he can drawn the boundaries where he pleases. Getting into semantics over semiotics will likely just give me a headache :)
    Interesting that there are papers about how to determine the level of realism in an image (mainly in comparing CG images to photos) but I didn’t see much about the viewers response - the core of the concept presented.
    To Mr Smith’s comment - good point. Maybe if I had phrased it as achieving photorealistic results in a painting (acknowledging that the term photorealistic probably came long after the paintings were done) is painstaking work. Would achieving photorealistic results in a painting or sketch be considered the work of a draftsmen/women, or some other skill-set?
    Even then, I must confess I don’t have lived experience to call upon. My painting skills didn’t progress beyond about aged 12, and sketching faded by mid teens (in line with the Australian school curriculum).
    Re last post, would Mr Molitor say his painting of a tea-pot is recognisable as a tea pot, or would it meet a level of Realism?
    A closing thought - might the response of the viewer be influenced by expectations about the image, derived by the level of realism? I.e. expectations of a photo (everything from how it was taken, level of truthfulness/reflection of reality etc) due to exceptionally high levels of realism (photorealistic end of the scale) could be different to expectations of a painting in which the subjects and objects are recognisable, even if the painting doesn’t achieve a high level of Realism?

    1. One may be a good, even extraordinary draftsperson (eh?), but not a photorealistic or even a good painter. Classical drawing is about picking out the salient details, using such elements as line thickness to economically suggest lighting, volume (etc) of the subject in a convincing way.

      A good drawing may be the basis of a good (or great) painting, and indeed this was the method of the old masters, who drew exhaustive studies before committing to paint.

    2. There is, I think, no doubt that some sort of "this is a photo, therefore it has a certain weight of reality to it, therefore I ought to take it more seriously in such-and-such a way" that happens when you look at a photo.

      This is specifically subverted by photorealistic paintings, I think often on purpose.

      It is, in a way, silly of me to emphasize a particular mode by which the photograph impacts us as humans, since more or less any fool can see that there's a lot going on. It isn't merely that we react to the photo of a bus as if it were a bus, at some physical level. You could probably enumerate a dozen similar, other, things that happen when you see a photo of a bus.