• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

The strategy called trompe-l’oeil – literally, “trick the eye” – originally identifies “an art technique involving extremely realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects appear in three dimensions, instead of actually being a two-dimensional painting.” In other words, the “trick” is to generate three dimensions from two, to add an extra axis of vision that, in a purely literal sense, isn’t there. Illusion, perspective, trickery; all well-meaning, of course.

Caso stages an escape

An often-cited work in oil, “Escaping Criticism,” by the nineteenth-century Spanish artist Pere Borrell de Caso makes the point memorably.



Escaping Criticism, 1874, Pere Borrell del Caso1

A boy seems to emerge from the very painting of which he is a part, with both of his hands, his head, and one of his feet extending outside the apparent canvas to the “frame” that is actually part of that canvas. For the viewer the effect is nothing short of arresting: the basic relationship between the art-work and its boundary or enclosure appears to be compromised, as the figure escapes his assigned space and encroaches upon the normally segregated world of the viewer. A defining line or division is crossed, a border is transgressed.

A game of perspective and perception

Similarly, consider an exhibition description by the National Gallery of Art, which maintains that trompe-l’oeil amounts to “a game artists play with spectators to raise questions about the nature of art and perception.” And how is this game of perception and perspective played? By using expressive signals in a curious and powerful way – not to recall but rather to fracture fundamental conventions, to cause the viewer to “misapprehend” or “misread” what seems to be happening. As the boy climbs out of his painting, we have to redraw the boundary between where the painting ends and our world begins. We misconstrue before we can reconstrue. We adjust our perspective, realize we’ve been misled, and see things in a new light.

Pushing the envelope

The trompe-l’oeil strategy, inherently an exercise in misdirection, is finally just a special case of idiom, an overlay on literal meaning. The boy emerging from the portrait reminds us that art – and for that matter, communication in general – depends on using signs to manipulate reception. Notice the emphasis here on active manipulation of the viewer. Communication always involves so much more than just mirroring “what is.” It always adds up to so much more than merely mapping static, objective ideas onto a shared surface for unfettered distribution – as if that were even possible.

Truth to tell, manipulation is unavoidable in any medium and at any level. We manipulate whenever we construct a sentence for people to hear or read, whenever we prepare a document for people to pore over, whenever we paint or sketch or sculpt an image for people to view. Idiom is inherently a trick or trope, just as language itself is a trick or trope – only not quite as obviously as trompe-l’oeil manipulation.

Nor is the effect limited to particular contents or styles. Whether the subject matter in question consists of the cherubic musicians in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Young Girls at the Piano, the symbolic dismemberments in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, or the geometrical frenzy of Wassily Kandinsky’s On White II, the rules of the game remain the same. We learn to operate – to be manipulated – within the frame of reference established by the outer limits of the canvas. We learn to accept and live with the convention that what we receive is limited and defined by the boundaries of that visual territory. So when we set out to translate the literal into the idiomatic, we start by knowing where the image ends and our world begins.

By pushing non-literal representation to an extreme, “Escaping Criticism” accomplishes at least two purposes. It exposes its own tenuous reality as well as the much more general illusions of object and stasis that underlie tAgora trickery. Our conventions call for the frame to mark the boundary between it and us, between art-object and art-viewers. Transgressing that boundary is unthinkable because doing so would call the most basic parameters of experience into question. And then we’d be lost. If there’s no segregation between art-object and art-viewer, no discrete object that can be held at arm’s length by its observer, then interpretation as we know it is impossible.

Forgetting that it’s a trick

“Wait,” you say; “this is far too elementary, far too obvious!” Agreed: in a situation where we were consciously and continuously aware of our operating assumptions you’d be absolutely right to complain. I would certainly stand guilty of belaboring the obvious. But viewing a painting depends on our having “forgotten” that it’s against the rules to transgress the boundary of the frame. Not forgetting in the sense of an outright failure to recall, but rather in the sense of sublimation, of elimination from conscious, moment-to-moment awareness. We forget that simple rule of perception by making it part of our cognitive firmware.

Only if we internalize this most fundamental law of separation – obeying it without weighing alternatives – can we proceed to play the game fluently. Only if our reception process is pre-calibrated can it succeed. Nineteenth-century British landscape painters depended on this kind of forgetting when they used decidedly unrealistic color combinations, shapes, and perspectives to manipulate spectators into interpreting their creations as photographic realism. In effect, they succeeded by tricking us into accepting their bogus construction of reality as, well, the reality it both is and isn’t2. Communicating always involves being fooled, and having forgotten that we’re being fooled.

So as we watch the boy stepping out of the painting, we become conscious of the artifice, aware of Caso’s manipulation of perspective. We admire his cleverness and the effect he achieves. But it’s an interesting work from a more general point of view as well. In exposing a convention we normally take for granted, the artist is showing us how idiom works, and even more basically how language functions. At the most fundamental level, he’s reminding us of a vital dynamic we customarily submerge – that perception always relies on trickery.

Learning how to be manipulated

Citizens of multiple agoras, whose responsibility it is to negotiate each media-technology on its own terms, need to respond to different bags of tricks. They need to learn – and then to “forget” – how to manage manipulation of various sorts without caving in to culture shock and agoraphobia. They need to recognize that each technology employs and deploys a different idiom, a different special case of language, a different tool for expression and reception. Like anyone who seeks to communicate in multiple diverse arenas, they must become willing dupes of whatever compromising scenario happens to be in force. They must play the game according to the applicable rules, or sacrifice all hope of fluent exchange.

So what does this responsibility consist of in each venue?

oAgora trickery

oTrickery comes down to two kinds of manipulation: pathways and code. In place of the default notion of a text – with linear structure, one-way processing, and the built-in page-boundaries – we need to accept the expressive program of the oAgora: navigation through a system of potentials and fluency in the special language of the oral marketplace.

Navigating, not trekking

Participants in oral tradition (on both sides, performer and audience) must be willing to step outside the textual frame of reference. oPathways just can’t be contained in a text, no matter how lengthy and detailed the document; it’s in their multiply linked nature to escape containment. The web of tradition to which pathways lead remains always present and available, always implied. Even when it’s not being actively explored within the performance, it remains immanent. And then there’s the matter of co-creativity, as performer and audience interact and evolve their itinerary together, as they go. That itinerary is a joint and emergent effort; it can’t take shape before they combine forces to bring it into being. The result is that reality remains in play in the emerging present of the event and can’t be textually foreshortened.

Code and trompe-l’oreille

And let’s not forget the crucial dimension of code, which as Lawrence Lessig points out in describing eAgora code, is performative. oWords have idiomatic implications, meanings well beyond the literal sum of their parts. If we’ve internalized the special language of an oral tradition – if we’ve “forgotten” its built-in trickery – then we experience what might be called trompe-l’oreille, or “trick the ear.” We may hear Homer say “green fear,” but we think “supernatural fear.” We may hear the South Slavic epic singers say “black cuckoo,” but we think “a woman either widowed or about to be widowed.” We may hear an Old English bard say “Lo!” but we think “Here comes a heroic tale.” OT manipulates our active reception, tricks us with its coded message.

tAgora trickery

For most of us, the text is still our default technology of communication. Why? Because it provides an ideologically rooted basis for so much of our daily activity. Even when we port our documents to cyber-space, translating paper into pixel-powered eFiles, we’re not necessarily moving beyond the stasis of text to interactive hyperlinks and navigation of pathways. We’re not necessarily leaving the tAgora even when it’s electronically powered.

Forgetting how texts manipulate

To put the matter another way, for a long time we’ve very successfully “forgotten” how texts manipulate our understanding. We’ve internalized the conventions of text as part of our much more general operating procedure. The rules of the textual game have become part of the way we view the world.

In-text tricks

One of the most fundamental tAgora tricks is narrowing the possibilities to the well-defined, convention-laden layout of the printed page, and to the one-way, pathway-less configuration we’re accustomed to trekking through. While detours can and do present themselves in the form of cross-references and footnotes, they’re finally dead-ends or blind alleys rather than interconnections within a living route-system. Likewise, tWords, the expressive bytes that serve as the currency within this marketplace, are defined by the white spaces between them, by inclusion in authoritative dictionaries, and by the idiomatic force they take on as unique, situated signs. Texts can speak to one another, of course, either directly or within a literary tradition, but it’s always an item-to-item relationship, not a shared web. Everything is understood as contained in the object, licensed and defined by the print on the page, the chapters in the overall volume, and the covers that enclose those pages and chapters.

Do texts reach beyond such brick-and-mortar limits? Can they support the virtual exchanges native to the oAgora and eAgora? Well, you might as well ask whether their words, descriptions, and events can climb out of the frame of the page, whether they can transgress the ideologically established secure boundary between the book and us.

eAgora trickery

eTrickery comes down to two kinds of manipulation: pathways and code. In place of the default notion of a text – with linear structure, one-way processing, and the built-in boundaries of the page – we need to accept the expressive program of the eAgora: navigation through a system of potentials and fluency in the special language of the oral marketplace.

Navigating, not trekking

Participants in web navigation (on both sides, site-builders and users) must be willing to step outside the textual frame of reference. ePathways just can’t be contained in a text, no matter how lengthy and detailed the document; it’s in their multiply linked nature to escape containment. The web of Internet reality to which pathways lead remains always present and available, always implied. Even when it’s not being actively explored within the performance, it remains immanent. And then there’s the matter of co-creativity, as site-builders and users interact and evolve their itinerary together, as they go. That itinerary is a joint and emergent effort; it can’t take shape before they combine forces to bring it into being. The result is that reality remains in play in the emerging present of the event and can’t be textually foreshortened.

Code and trompe-la souris

And let’s not forget the crucial dimension of code, which as Lawrence Lessig points out in describing eAgora code, is performative. eWords have idiomatic implications, meanings well beyond the literal sum of their parts. If we’ve internalized the special language of web communication – if we’ve “forgotten” its built-in trickery – then we experience what might be called trompe-la souris, or “trick the mouse.” We may click on http://43things.com, but find ourselves visiting a social networking site. We may click on http://labyrinth.georgetown.edu only to be whisked away to a rich collection of online resources for medieval studies in multiple different areas. We may click on http://slashdot.org, but discover ourselves entering a highly tech-savvy site that features “news for nerds, stuff that matters.” Web-code manipulates our active reception, tricks us with its coded message.

Notes

1 This image is in the public domain.

2 As explained by the celebrated art historian Ernst Gombrich in his Art and Illusion (see Foley, Immanent Art, pp. 48-53).