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ORNAMENT AND DISTRACTION: PERIPHERAL AESTHETICS IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 May 2017

Alison Georgina Chapman
Affiliation:
Harvard University

Extract

In the section devoted to “Attention” in The Principles of Psychology (1890), William James describes how the “‘adaptation of the attention’” can alter our perception of an image so as to permit multiple visual formulations (417). In his example of a two-dimensional drawing of a cube, we can see the three-dimensional body only once our attention has been primed by “preperception”: the image formed by the combination of lines has “no connection with what the picture ostensibly represents” (419, 418). In a footnote to this passage, however, James uses an example from Hermann Lotze's Medicinische Psychologie (1852), to show how a related phenomenon can occur involuntarily, and in states of distraction rather than attention:

In quietly lying and contemplating a wall-paper pattern, sometimes it is the ground, sometimes the design, which is clearer and consequently comes nearer. . .all without any intention on our part. . . .Often it happens in reverie that when we stare at a picture, suddenly some of its features will be lit up with especial clearness, although neither its optical character nor its meaning discloses any motive for such an arousal of the attention. (419)

James uses the formal illogicality of the wallpaper (its lack of compositional center prevents it from dictating the trajectory for our attention according to intrinsic aesthetic laws) to demonstrate the volatility of our ideational centers, particularly in moments of reverie or inattention. Without the intervention of the will, James says, our cognitive faculties are always in undirected motion, which occurs below the strata of our mental apprehension. Momentary instances of focus or attunement are generated only by the imperceptible and purely random “irradiations of brain-tracts” (420). Attention, for James, is the artistic power of the mind; it applies “emphasis,” “intelligible perspective,” and “clear and vivid form” to the objects apprehended by the faculties of perception, it “makes experience more than it is made by it” (381). Reverie, a moment when attention has been reduced to a minimum, thus demands an alternative aesthetic analog, where composition is reduced to a minimum too.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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ORNAMENT AND DISTRACTION: PERIPHERAL AESTHETICS IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
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