Virtual Structure

 [Available in PDF format here.]

In Emotion As Cognition, I suggest that emotion is a natural response to the quality of patterns. As a capacity to discern that quality, they may be considered a form of perception, a gateway to our consciousness of realities that would otherwise elude us. Those realities include beauty, goodness, and harmonies of every kind, as well as their opposites — structural qualities, in other words, that we associate, or that coincide with, values typically aesthetic or moral.

Like value judgments, emotions are haunted by the suspicion that they are infected with subjectivity. Used in connection with cognition, the word “subjective” is virtually synonymous with “unreliable” or “biased”. Hence the suggestion that emotion may be a form of cognition invites the objection that a kind of cognition that is subjective would be systematically unreliable, and, in that sense, undeserving of the name “cognition” at all. Trying to come to grips with that issue, I have found it useful to think about colors.

As a painter, I occasionally try to understand how it comes about that some colors strike me as more beautiful than others. Like most people who paint, I was taught to think of that impression as an illusion. Apparently, there is no such thing as a beautiful color. The beauty of a color depends entirely on the composition in which it figures as an element. And even there, it is not, strictly speaking, the color itself that is beautiful, but the composition that brings it to life by causing it to glow, or to vibrate, or otherwise to come into its own.

This sort of art instruction aims at disabusing painting students of the common but erroneous conviction that what makes a color composition visually compelling is the beauty of some of the individual colors in it. It encourages them to focus on color relations and their effects instead, this with a view to acquiring an intimate acquaintance with those relations, along with a painterly sensibility more likely to issue in credible works than a sterile fascination with the beauty of individual colors. But while those are sensible teaching objectives, the lesson conveyed overstates the case. Both in painting and in everyday experience, some colors do present themselves as beautiful, or as more beautiful than others. The contention that they are not – cannot be – beautiful in themselves because all such beauty is context-dependent is accordingly counter-intuitive.

In painting, for example, some red brought to vibrant life may look beautiful, where it makes no difference that its look is the effect of composition. Similarly in everyday life, the rich blue glow of the enamel of the skillet on my stove may strike me as visually engaging, irrespective of the fact that it may owe some of its power in that respect to the comparative drabness of the stove top or of the other colors in my kitchen.

The idea that no color is beautiful in itself recommends itself on the basis of two sets of considerations, one experiential, the other theoretical. Remove that beautifully glowing red from its compositional context, and its glow vanishes. Alter that context, and the same red may actually appear dull, or even ugly. These and similar common observations encourage the notion that the real red – the color as it is in itself – is the one that presents itself when viewed in isolation from compositional contexts. It is the red, if you will, that comes out of the paint tube, or the red you see when when you cover an entire canvas with an even coat of it. It is neither beautiful nor ugly.

But one may just as plausibly think that the red presenting itself thus is an anemic, incomplete, or impoverished version of a color that needs a felicitous context to show its true face. It is like a part viewed in isolation from the whole that enables it to come to life and to reveal itself as the part that it is, or like a fish out of water, and a lifeless fish at that. Seen from that perspective, the painter’s endeavor does not add something that makes that red appear more beautiful than it really is. Instead, it restores the natural beauty of the color by supplying the air and the breath, in the form of the composition, of which it has been fortuitously deprived until then.

Theoretical reflections supporting the view that no color is beautiful in itself are not so easily dismissed. If, as seems undeniable, beauty is a structural quality, then nothing lacking structure can be beautiful in itself. Colors have no structure. Therefore, when they present themselves as beautiful, the reason must be that they owe that appearance to the structure in which they figure as elements. The beauty of that red is a contextual reflection, not an intrinsic property of it. Hence the perception of the red itself as beautiful comes awfully close to being an illusion.

Persuasive though it may sound, the argument is flawed. It depends on the dubious proposition that colors have no structure. Have a look at the two circular red patches below:


They are the same red (out of the same tube). Remove the square color frames and they would look the same. But framed as above, they do not look the same. Apart from seeming a more vibrant red, the one on the left appears more three-dimensional. By comparison, the one on the right looks flat. It looks like a red circle, while the one on the left suggests a sphere.

In the patch on the left, the contrast between the slightly greenish blue and the slightly orangish red, (which happen to be complementaries,) emphasizes the redness — the intensity — of the red at the edge of the circle. Moving toward the center of the circle, that effect fades slightly, creating an incipiently three-dimensional look. Because the contrast between red and orange is not nearly as strong, the red on the right looks structureless by comparison.

Although the cause of the difference in the appearance between those two reds lies in the human eye, there is nothing subjective about it. Being alive to the difference does not mean seeing something that is not there to be seen. Anyone with normal eyes will see it. In that sense, seeing it is not a a private illusion. It is an awareness of virtual — as opposed to intrinsic, structure, meaning that a. it owes its existence to the context, not to the thing itself, and b. it hovers somewhat uncertainly, intriguingly, engagingly, or, as in the case of that particular red, perhaps somewhat uncomfortably. Its virtual structure is at odds with its intrinsic (lack of) structure. The tension causes the red to vibrate. Look at it for too long, and that vibration becomes hard on the eye. But model that circle ever so slightly (through shading) in the direction of concavity or convexity, which is to say, reduce the tension between actual and virtual structure, and the painful vibration stops. Reduce it to zero, however, and the red stops looking interesting.

Actual color composition in painting is typically richer, more complex, and more subtle than this example suggests. Engaging composition usually eschews hard, direct contrasts between complementaries. It involves more colors and softer edges between them. Still, an orange placed next to a red patch will push that red in one direction; a violet, placed on the other side, will push it in another. The red patch, now imbued with a degree of structure, spatial and/or spectral, consequently becomes visually more complex. Sizes and shapes matter as well, as do competing intensities and degrees of brightless, to say nothing of representational content. Even in the same painting, the same red used to represent the color of blood will look like a different red — exhibit a different resonance — when used to render the color of roofing tiles.

These effects are not illusions in the sense of being imaginary. They are every bit as real as the look of a painting is real. No particular private predilections or biases are required in order to see them. But they do depend on the presence of virtual structure.

By virtual structure I mean the configuration of properties something presents itself as having as a consequence of its inclusion in a context. Set next to larger, small looks smaller; set next to smaller, it looks larger. Set next to darker, light looks lighter. Set next to larger and darker, small looks smaller and lighter. Set next to a dozen other such differences, it emerges imbued with a complex look that it would not exhibit absent that relational context, but which is not on that account illusory or unreal. That look reflects its virtual structure.

Virtual structure differs from intrinsic structure. The latter is the structure, if any, reflected by the look of a thing when viewed in abstraction from any context. But being included in a context does not cancel out or annihilate the intrinsic structure of a thing. The context may obscure, distort, or modify the latter, but it does not swallow it up. That red in the left patch above retains its intrinsic (lack of) structure in what one might call vestigial form. Were that not so, then it would not vibrate. Its vibration is the tension, experienced visually as dynamic, between its vestigial intrinsic (lack of) structure and its virtual structure.

The virtual and the intrinsic structures of elements in a pattern or configuration may clash or complement one another. They may enhance one another in happy effects, as when the beauty of a face makes a person’s beautiful eyes appear still more beautiful. At the same time, however, a person’s beautiful eyes may also cause his or her small mouth, or thin lips, or protruding ears, to look uglier than they would in someone with eyes somewhat less beautiful. The reverse is true as well: in a face thus disadvantaged, beautiful eyes can look like a gift from God.

The key point here is that none of that is imaginary or not there to be seen by anyone with eyes like ours, animated by a sensibility like ours. The perception of it is not subjective in any sense of the word that would impugn the reliability of that perception.

Now I can imagine the response that even if it is true that virtual structure presents itself as real and is, for all purposes that matter, the equal of any objective fact, it is a long way from the truth of that assertion to the contention that beauty is real or its appearance the equal of an objective fact. Plenty of people discern beauty where there isn’t any, and plenty fail to see it even when it stares them in the face. Isn’t that where problematic subjectivity enters the picture?

What actually enters the picture is a larger context with its own peculiar complexities. I will concede that absent a sensibility like ours to animate our eyes, we would not see beauty, which takes more than eyes to see. We would not be dazzled by it, nor chronically and generically on the lookout, so to speak, for instances of this dazzling quality. We see beauty because we love it, and we wouldn’t see it if we didn’t. In addition to eyes, seeing beauty takes a heart.

I know that contention calls for argument and explanation, both of which are on the way. In the meantime, however, it is probably not too early to suggest that if one is willing to suppose that the goods can be delivered on that front, then one may be receptive to the possibility that in the larger context in which we perceive structures, our sensibility operates as a presence that, like any other element in a context, imbues what we perceive with virtual structure. That sensibility is itself part of the larger context, admittedly a rather important one, but as such a part, no different in principle from any other. It resonates when it sees what it seeks and is constantly busy casting about for it. That receptivity and that activity has an effect on all the other elements in the configuration that makes up our larger situation. They make us perceive as ugly that which falls short in relation to our aesthetic needs and as beautiful that which gratifies them. Moreover, that ugliness or beauty are no less real than any other virtual structures we encounter in experience.

With that thought in mind, let’s ask how can it come about that of two people looking at the same thing, one sees beauty and the other does not.

We are not just generic human beings. Each of us is also an individual person living in a particular set of circumstances, endowed with particular abilities at the expense of others, fortunate or less so in his or her access to opportunities, possessed of different beliefs and different sets of strong convictions, as well as of a personal history of successes and failures that continues to shape his or her journey into the future, including the quest for the things they love. As an individual, each of us has to contend both with the hand that we were dealt and with the results of how we have played that hand until now. It places us at the center of a vast complex of elements making up the configuration — the context — that is our larger individual situation in the world. We are ourselves part of that context.

In order to get a firmer purchase on the role that even temporary circumstances can play in our perceptions, let’s go back for a moment to the example of a situation, imagined here the other day (in Emotion As Cognition), in which a person hates the beautiful face of her rival in the quest for a third person’s romantic interest. Something odd is going on in this situation: a structural quality — beauty — that normally inspires love or admiration appears to be arousing hatred. On the surface, the explanation of the phenomenon seems simple enough. By virtue of her superior assets, the rival may prevail in the competition and consequently deprive her adversary of the romantic happiness she hoped for. Perceiving her desire potentially thwarted, the latter hates the rival, especially her face, the very perfection of which makes her own look that much plainer by comparison.

The explanation has the virtue of placing the perceiver’s desires and inclinations in a context in which the beauty of a face can present itself as odious to a beholder of it. That is a bow in the direction of acknowledging the reality that (a) beholders of situations are themselves part of those situations and (b) their inclusion in that larger context alters some of the other elements in it. In that sense, the explanation reflects what one might call an intuitive grasp of virtual structure. Phenomenologically, however, it leaves something to be desired.

Does the woman actually perceive her rival’s face as beautiful? It seems that she must; otherwise, she wouldn’t be worried about it endowing her rival with a natural advantage in the competition. But if so, how can she not love it? Well, perhaps she loves the face but hates its owner. That diagnosis sounds plausible only for as long as one does not imagine the situation playing itself out phenomenologically and in some detail.

Imagine you are that woman. You, your rival, and the person who is the object of your common quest are having a drink together. The occasion is some social event the nature of which doesn’t matter. Let’s just suppose that the three of you are acquainted with one another. And now you are sitting at a table having a conversation that starts by being about the weather, or the music in the place, the fender-bender you all witnessed in the parking lot, or some such thing.

The man at the table — let it be a man, just to keep it simple — is a gracious fellow and socially adept. Without being obvious about it, he encourages the two of you to talk and to shine. Whether he is or not, he comes across as interested in what you have to say. His eyes do not repeatedly wander across the room or stay focused on his drink. They are on the two of you. He listens attentively, comments occasionally, expresses an opinion now and then, though never at interminable length. Apparently, both of you have his full attention.

You do your best to repay that attention by being gracious yourself. So does your rival. Each of you is alert, focused, and striving elegantly to encourage the man to perceive you as interested in what he has to say. You may be interested anyhow because he is an interesting man, but perhaps not quite as interested as you are striving to present yourself as being. In any case, you gradually sense that your rival is better at this than you are, more at ease somehow, not looking or sounding like she is trying, nor like she is deliberately not trying. She exhibits the instinctive self-possession of women who are beautiful and know it. As a consequence, she comes across as just being herself. And a magnificent self it is. When she smiles, her whole face lights up, as opposed to her smile looking like a manneristic baring of her perfect teeth. When the man talks, her eyes radiate a combination of interest and understanding, surprise and delight, in just the right proportions of each. They are eyes so breathtaking as to make you want to weep. And then, of course, you notice that when she speaks in her melodious voice, the man really listens. His eyes are focused on her mouth with its fine lips shaping the words. And when she listens to him addressing her, something appears to be finding its way into his voice that is ever so slightly more intense than politeness or social grace. Pretty soon, you sense that two conversations are taking place: the open audible conversation and a silent subterranean one that consists of their mutual resonating to each other.

The situation is starting to get on your nerves, an effect made worse by the fact that whenever your rival addresses you, or listens to you talking, she radiates the same friendliness, interest, and understanding. She is not worried about you because you are not in her league. She understands that you are doing your best, but there is no contest. There is no condescension in her voice or cattiness in what she says to you because, well, given the odds, that sort of assault is unnecessary and would be pointless – a kind of overkill.

It does not take long for you to be quietly seething inside as you sense that you are losing the battle, defeated in it without any apparent effort by an adversary who has beauty on her side and is intelligent to boot. You are intelligent, too, but it is not doing you any good because you are not quite as beautiful as she is. And now, reeling from the catastrophe that you feel descending upon you, you look at her as, in an assured but delicate gesture, she raises her wine glass to her full lips for a dainty sip. Do you hate her, or do you hate her beauty that is ruining your prospects? She is not destroying your life; her beauty is.

It seems that you hate her beauty. But how can you hate it when it is so obviously, heartbreakingly, exquisite?

The appearance of beauty is sometimes the progeny of love or desire, the quality of a virtual structure engendered by their presence. That is the sort of beauty typically said to exist only in the eye of the beholder. But then there is beauty that inspires love or desire. The rival we have been imagining is endowed with the second. The structure of which it is the quality is intrinsic. Irrespective of contexts or particular beholders, she has perfect features arranged in a harmonious concert that takes one’s breath away. Add an elegant intelligence to that concert, and the sight of it becomes almost life-threatening in its power to stop one breathing altogether.

As beauty sometimes exists only in the eyes of the beholder, so does ugliness, as when it is the progeny of aversion. As such, it is the quality of a virtual structure engendered by a context in which aversion operates as an element. The causes of that aversion need not be, strictly speaking, aesthetic, any more than the causes of desire are invariably aesthetic in the narrow sense of the word.

The situation we have been imagining involves a context in which aversion, as progenitor of virtual structure, pits itself against intrinsic beauty, which is to say, against an intrinsic structure of which beauty is the quality. But although that aversion is strong, it cannot overcome the beauty against which it pits itself. It cannot transform it into ugliness. All the same, however, it succeeds in changing it.

The pain, the anger, the despair that the certain prospect of my defeat in the contest induces in me issues in a virtual structure that competes and clashes with her beauty at the level of perception. I do not see my rival as ugly, but neither do I see her as exactly beautiful either. I see a beauty that pains me in its assertiveness and in its imperviousness to my efforts to annihilate it perceptually. And the more it pains me, the more triumphantly it asserts itself. It pulsates, feeds on my impotent anger, keeps growing in power, and increasingly confronts me like a demonic living thing. What I see is not a serene, quiet beauty that in its self-sufficiency need not assert itself at all, and moves all things around it by attraction. I see the other face of that serenity, its aggressiveness and merciless destructive power. As it flickers on an and off, that face of beauty is not beautiful when you’re up against it, feeling as though it is eating you alive. You hate it and want to destroy it. Of course that desire of yours simply empowers it the more. It laughs at your impotence. The longer that goes on, the uglier it looks.

In more sober language, like that painfully vibrating red, my rival’s beautiful face confronts as an unstable visual structure in which her intrinsic beauty is at war with the virtual ugliness of its merciless assault on my interests. That complex structure pulsates unpleasantly with live tension. My perception of that tension and my emotional reaction to it are correspondingly unpleasant. I hate her beauty because I love it. And as I writhe in the grip of that awful emotion, so does that beauty before my eyes, like a terrible apparition from another world.

When we find ourselves at its mercy, beauty can look scary. That look is just as real as its typically more benign appearance. In dismissing it as a subjective effect, where “subjective” is a pejorative in relation to cognition, we deprive ourselves of the possibility of understanding that our perception in these instances is absolutely reliable.

When the perceptual annihilation of threatening intrinsic beauty proves impossible, one sometimes comes across attempts at conceptual annihilation instead. In a world where such beauty is prized, but unequally distributed, it is unsurprising that those who are not blessed by its possession would resent those who are. That resentment not uncommonly finds expression in the assertion, occasionally even the belief, that all beauty exists in the eye of the beholder, meaning that none of it is real. Instead of beauty there to be seen, there is only mere prettiness, or appearance that satisfies arbitrary social convention and bias. Aren’t there (or weren’t there) cultures where fat women are perceived as more beautiful than slender ones? Yes. Therefore, etc.

More subtle versions of this phenomenon occur as well. Trying to hold body and soul together in the quest for survival in a world where individual access to resources is limited, a person may conclude that beauty is a luxury that he is not only unable to afford, but a taste for which, if indulged, actually compromises his chances of success. It can be a short step thence to seeing egregious self-indulgence where others see love of beauty, or to perceiving gratifyingly sparse functionality where others see ugliness.

It is one thing to say “I love that rug, but I cannot afford it; hence I won’t buy it.” It is quite another to tell oneself that one’s resonating to the beauty of the rug is inappropriate because one should be resonating to plain wall-to-wall carpeting instead. The latter is more functional, less expensive, more durable, as well as easier and cheaper to maintain. In actuality, it is also badly dysfunctional in relation to a human sensibility that craves beauty and feels unhappy in an ugly environment. Deprived of beauty in its environment, that sensibility will find it elsewhere, perhaps in the apparently commendable match between a man’s beliefs and his feelings. He favors functionality and makes himself love it as though it were beauty. Perhaps he is dazzled by his own strength of character and forgives himself for loving his wife’s beautiful eyes. But should she leave him for greener pastures because she feels endlessly depressed by that carpeting and everything that goes with it, he may discover that he misses her more than he would all the money he saved in his pursuit of aesthetic austerity. She was the only thing in the place that made its ugliness bearable. Or, perhaps more likely, he’ll convince himself that she didn’t have the right stuff — no character — and he is therefore better off without her. God knows what might happen next. In any event, he would have been better off not holding beliefs that insulted his real feelings. But he came by those beliefs as a way of coping with a world and a personal situation that he could not bear without denying those feelings. He tried to save the day, only to end up with a day that could not be saved.

In any case, however, for as long as he remains in the grip of those beliefs, he will be conscious of bare functionality under the description “beauty”, and of beauty under the description “excess” , or “extravagant clutter”, and of the love of beauty as “reprehensible self-indulgence.” And within the context that is his situation in the world, he will not be wrong. What he sees is virtual structure there to be seen.

None of this proves that emotion is a form of cognition. But then, that wasn’t the point of the exercise. It was to show that the subjectivity of emotion, or its variability, need not be seen as impediments to its cognitive reliability.

© Serge Kappler 2014

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