In order to be cognitively perceived, a stimulus must cross a threshold. Below this threshold, everything is noise that we must ignore in order to go on about our business. I was thinking about one of my persistent problems until late in the night—the inability of postmodern or even aesthetic thought to admit the importance of realism outside a Platonic universal of a shadow reality which presents itself as “natural” or essential. Indictments of resemblance have proliferated, and continue to proliferate. Nobody defends realism convincingly. Everyone indicts it, and yet realism always proliferates. It might be a class problem—the indictment of realism immediately sets up the critic in a superior position to interpret “reality” as they see fit.
Finally, last night, several figures coalesced. The modernist flight from resemblance can be seen as a reaction against the community perception of the real; in its iconoclasm, it seeks to remake the world as abstract. Alienation from the crowd reaches a threshold where perception is only registered as something new (irreal, not unreal). On the popular side, a similar trend provokes feeling only in reaction to trauma. War becomes the measuring stick for reality; its gruesome trauma breaks the chain of the day to day. But underneath this there is an unexamined threshold.
Trauma and novelty are extreme manifestations of the recognition of something outside ourselves that breaks a perceptual threshold. The initial threshold, however, is the threshold of resemblance. We see our image in the mirror, and we recognize that this perception is not us, but of us. I revisited Eco’s Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language and became even more convinced. Apart from the negative connotation of the “mirror stage” promoted by Lacan, there is a positive, generative quality to viewing our own reflection.
It is not just a sense of loss, but the knowledge of possible worlds that might resemble our inner image that drives us to explore. The perceptual threshold of resemblance need not be lost in endless chains of similitude. While not reflexive in the manner of similitude, resemblance is the threshold where we sense a new world. It is not a necessary condition, as most critics explore—but it is a threshold, a threshold that can be explored that does not insist on novelty or traumatic experience.
There are shades of resemblance; there is almost no gradation in the concepts of shock or trauma. They are by nature abrupt and discontinuous. In this way, they seem an unnecessary condition for the concept of realism. We have been too long conditioned to reach for the “flash of insight”— living and dying happens by degrees.