James J. Gibson

Before playing her eerie cover of “Smells like Teen Spirit,” Patti Smith repeatedly urged the people in the booth to turn down the lights.

With the lights on, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us

Being the geek I am, I think about James J. Gibson as I remember this moment.

I’d never heard of him until a fateful conversation with Dr. B. We were reading Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen’s abominable book Multimodal Discourse. It wasn’t my first introduction to Kress; I spent a bunch of time with Literacy in the New Media Age while I was working on my Master’s thesis, partly because of Dr. G’s obsession with Reading Images. I couldn’t go along with the foundational constructs of Kress’s work. I tried to elaborate this to Dr. B by paraphrasing what was for me the most contentious part:

The two modes of writing and of image are each governed by distinct logics, and have distinctly different affordances. The organization of writing—still leaning on the logics of speech—is governed by the logic of time, and by the logic of the sequence of its elements in time, in temporally governed arrangements. The organization of the image, by contrast, is governed by the logic of space, and by the logic of simultaneity of its visual/depicted elements in spatially organized arrangements. (1-2)

For years I have repeatedly disassembled the fallacies involved here; but Dr. B. pointed out something I didn’t know—that affordances is actually a technical term originating with James J. Gibson’s Ecological Theory of Perception. Affordance and governance are not synonymous. To generalize that images are governed by spatial logic assumes that such a logic exists—this distorts the groundbreaking nature of Gibson’s work, replacing it with an absurd sort of essentialism. So, just what is an affordance?

With the lights on, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us

Simply put, darkness affords danger, while having the lights on doesn’t. It does not mean that darkness governs or supplies logic for danger, it simply means that it can facilitate it. The distinction seems quite crucial to me. This summer, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Reasons for Realism, a collection of posthumous material from Gibson. In an unpublished manuscript from February 1971 “A preliminary description and classification of affordances” there are some tantalizing developments:

The hypothesis that things have affordances, and that we perceive or learn to perceive them, is very promising, radical, but not yet elaborated. Roughly, the affordances of things are what they furnish, for good or ill, that is, what they afford the observer. A list of examples and a classification is needed; the reader is invited to make his own list, or to supplement the list given below.

Not only objects but also substances, places, events, other animals, and artifact have affordances. We might begin with easy to perceive components of the environment consisting of surfaces and surface layouts. And we should assume a human animal as observer, to start with, since the list of affordances will be somewhat different for different animals.

I assume that affordances are not simply phenomenal qualities of subjective experience (tertiary qualities, dynamic and physiognomic properties, etc.). I also assume that they are not simply the physical properties of things now conceived by physical science. Instead, they are ecological, in the sense that they are properties of experience relative to an animal. These assumptions are novel, and need to be discussed. (403-404)

Gibson’s list is a bit sketchy and vague, until he gets to some really specific brainstorming:

  • the edge of a cliff affords falling.
  • the wall affords collision (but may afford climbing)
  • an approaching missile (“looming”) affords injury
  • a knife edge affords being cut (but also affords cutting).
  • a fire affords being burned, but also affords warmth.
  • a snake affords being bitten
  • a surface of deep water affords drowning, but a surface of shallow water affords bathing.

He goes on to suggest that affordances can be undetectable, invisible or learned, — or easily detected. Like most powerful concepts, the idea of affordances seems simplistic or vague at first. But today, I started thinking about one nearly universal affordances for visual artifacts explains a lot about the circulation and proliferation of images.

Images afford entertainment.

Meaning making always seems contingent on sequence (either in words or images) and specific traversals of a sequence, either temporal or spatial. But entertainment does not depend on these things. One can be entertained without necessarily being conscious of a meaning; in fact, the more meaningless the entertainment, often, the more we enjoy it. True/false and sense/nonsense are frequently independent of entertainment value. Entertainment can only contextually afford meaning.

Hundreds of thousands of images were produced in the nineteenth century with virtually non-existent records of the material condition of their production, or the intentions that they were designed to serve. I begin to think that one of the primary motivators for the explosion was simply that images are fun to make and view. Yes, they can communicate messages; but sometimes, things are simply important because they’re fun.

Come to think of it, to return for a moment to the Patti Smith group—I think the point that Lenny Kaye was trying to make with the Nuggets reissues, actually, is that the most important quality of rock and roll music is that it affords fun.