Francis Steen (with Dwight Read)

Francis Steen is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at UCLA. Dwight Read, Distinguished Research Professor in Anthropology at UCLA, co-authored the paper.

Title of Talk: The construction of social reality through art

Teaser: A complex dimension of visual perception is the tacit presence of the agent. Studies of visual perception in neuroscience identify not only a pathway for generating our experience of percepts, but a second pathway for directing action. The functional interactions of the ventral object-processing stream, mediating visual object recognition, and the dorsal, mediating action and spatial analysis (Ungerleider and Mishkin, 1982; Goodale and Milner, 1992), suggest that concepts of objects arise from an integration of percepts and affordances (Gibson, 1979). We experience this coupling in our day-to-day movements, navigating the world as embodied visual agents, or as a subtle intention to move in response to visual stimuli. Surprisingly, this proprioceptive embodiment can be displaced onto another agent. The tight coupling of perception and action is confirmed in studies that show the same neurons responsible for controlling hand movements also fire when observing someone else moving their hands. Iacoboni et al. (2005) found that neural mirroring mechanisms seem to be coding more the intention associated with an observed action than simply the action. This remarkable ability for the deictic displacement of proprioceptive experience makes a transcendent and identity-changing immersion in visual perception possible.

These striking features of the visual system also open for an emotionally powerful mode of visual communication that may have been exploited in the beginnings of image-production. The ice-age peoples who painted the caves of Chauvet and Lascaux were cognitively modern, yet their images, at once eerily opaque and intimately familiar, remains unexplained. What motivated hunters of the upper paleolithic to devote significant scarce resources to the creation of monumental works of awe-inspiring representations, staying within a narrow range of themes across tens of thousands of years? This complex question is a transdisciplinary challenge; some light may be thrown on the issue by situating the historical facts of ice-age Europe within the context of contemporary studies of proprioceptive displacement and studies in anthropology of the development of kinship systems. In short, we explore the possibility that the paintings and sculptures of the upper paleolithic represents a systematic attempt to create functional collective identities by tapping into transformative types of visual knowing.

Francis Steen