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Elements Of Shape

LET us now examine some of these relations, not in the
genealogical or hierarchic order assigned to them by experimental
psychology, but in so far as they constitute the elements of shape,
and more especially as they illustrate the general principle which I
want to impress on the Reader, namely: That the perception of
Shape depends primarily upon movements which we make, and
the measurements and comparisons which we institute.

And first we must examine mere extension as such, which
distinguishes our active dealings with visual and audible sensations
from our passive reception of the sensations of taste and smell. For
while in the case of the latter a succession of similar stimulations
affects us as "more taste of strawberry" or "more smell of rose"
when intermittent, or as a vague "there is a strong or faint taste of
strawberry" and a "there is a smell of lemon flower"--when
continuous; our organ of sight being mobile, reports not "more black
on white" but "so many inches of black line on a white ground," that
is to say reports a certain extension answering to its
own movement. This quality of extension exists also in our
sound-perceptions, although the explanation is less evident. Notes do not
indeed exist (but only sounding bodies and air-vibrations) in the
space which we call "real" because our eye and our locomotion
coincide in their accounts of it; but notes are experienced, that is
thought and felt, as existing in a sort of imitation space of their own.
This "musical space," as M. Dauriac has rightly called it, has limits
corresponding with those of our power of hearing or reproducing
notes, and a central region corresponding with our habitual
experience of the human voice; and in this "musical space" notes are
experienced as moving up and down and with a centrifugal and
centripetal direction, and also as existing at definite spans or
intervals from one another; all of which probably on account of
presumable muscular adjustments of the inner and auditive
apparatus, as well as obvious sensations in the vocal parts when we
ourselves produce, and often when we merely think of, them. In
visual perception the sweep of the glance, that is the adjustment of
the muscles of the inner eye, the outer eye and of the head, is
susceptible of being either interrupted or continuous like any other
muscular process; and its continuity is what unites the mere
successive sensations of colour and light into a unity of extension,
so that the same successive colour-and-light-sensations can be
experienced either as one extension, or as two or more, according
as the glance is continuous or interrupted; the eye's sweep, when not
excessive, tending to continuity unless a new direction requires a
new muscular adjustment. And, except in the case of an
extension exceeding any single movement of eye and head, a new
adjustment answers to what we call a change of direction.
Extension therefore, as we have forestalled with regard to sound,
has various modes, corresponding to something belonging to
ourselves: a middle, answering to the middle not of our field of
vision, since that itself can be raised or lowered by a movement of
the head, but to the middle of our body; and an above and
below, a right and a left referable to our body also, or rather
to the adjustments made by eye and head in the attempt to see our
own extremities; for, as every primer of psychology will teach you,
mere sight and its muscular adjustments account only for the
dimensions of height (up and down) and of breadth (right and left)
while the third or cubic dimension of depth is a highly complex
result of locomotion in which I include prehension. And inasmuch
as we are dealing with aspects and not with things, we have as
yet nothing to do with this cubic or third dimension, but are
confining ourselves to the two dimensions of extension in height and
breadth, which are sufficient for the existence, the identity, or more
correctly the quiddity, of visible shapes.

Such a shape is therefore, primarily, a series of longer or shorter
extensions, given by a separate glance towards, or away from, our
own centre or extremities, and at some definite angle to our own
axis and to the ground on which we stand. But these acts of
extension and orientation cease to be thought of as measured and
orientated, and indeed as accomplished, by ourselves, and are
translated into objective terms whenever our attention is turned
outwards: thus we say that each line is of a given length and
direction, so or so much off the horizontal or vertical.

So far we have established relations only to ourselves. We now
compare the acts of extension one against the other, and we also
measure the adjustment requisite to pass from one to another,
continuing to refer them all to our own axis and centre; in everyday
speech, we perceive that the various lines are similar and
dissimilar in length, direction and orientation. We compare;
and comparing we combine them in the unity of our intention:
thought of together they are thought of as belonging together.
Meanwhile the process of such comparison of the relation of each
line with us to the analogous relation to us of its fellows, produces
yet further acts of measurement and comparison. For in going from
one of our lines to another we become aware of the presence
of--how shall I express it?--well of a nothing between them, what we
call blank space, because we experience a blank of the
particular sensations, say red and black, with which we are engaged
in those lines. Between the red and black sensations of the lines we
are looking at, there will be a possibility of other colour sensations,
say the white of the paper, and these white sensations we shall duly
receive, for, except by shutting our eyes, we could not avoid
receiving them. But though received these white sensations will not
be attended to, because they are not what we are busied with. We
shall be passive towards the white sensations while we are
active towards the black and red ones; we shall not measure the
white; not sweep our glance along it as we do along the red and the
black. And as ceteris paribus our tense awareness of active states
always throws into insignificance a passive state sandwiched
between them; so, bent as we are upon our red and black extensions,
and their comparative lengths and directions, we shall treat the
uninteresting white extensions as a blank, a gap, as that which
separates the objects of our active interest, and takes what existence
it has for our mind only from its relation of separating those
interesting actively measured and compared lines. Thus the
difference between our active perception and our merely passive
sensation accounts for the fact that every visible shape is composed
of lines (or bands) measured and compared with reference to our
own ocular adjustments and our axis and centre; lines existing, as
we express it, in blank space, that is to say space not similarly
measured; lines, moreover, enclosing between each other more of
this blank space, which is not measured in itself but subjected to the
measurement of its enclosing lines. And similarly, every audible
Shape consists not merely of sounds enclosing silence, but of
heard tones between which we are aware of the intervening blank
interval which might have been occupied by the intermediary
tones and semitones. In other words, visible and audible Shape is
composed of alternations between active, that is moving,
measuring, referring, comparing, attention; and passive, that is
comparatively sluggish reception of mere sensation.

This fact implies another and very important one, which I have
indeed already hinted at. If perceiving shape means comparing lines
(they may be bands, but we will call them lines), and the lines
are measured only by consecutive eye movements, then the act of
comparison evidently includes the co-operation, however
infinitesimally brief, of memory. The two halves of this
Chippendale chair-back exist simultaneously in front of my eyes,
but I cannot take stock simultaneously of the lengths and orientation
of the curves to the right and the curves of the left. I must hold over
the image of one half, and unite it, somewhere in what we call "the
mind"--with the other; nay, I must do this even with the separate
curves constituting the patterns each of which is measured by a
sweep of the glance, even as I should measure them successively by
applying a tape and then remembering and comparing their various
lengths, although the ocular process may stand to the tape-process as
a minute of our time to several hundreds of years. This comes to
saying that the perception of visible shapes, even like that of audible
ones, takes place in time, and requires therefore the
co-operation of memory. Now memory, paradoxical as it may sound,
practically implies expectation: the use of the past, to so speak, is
to become that visionary thing we call the future. Hence, while we
are measuring the extension and direction of one line, we are not
only remembering the extent and direction of another previously
measured line, but we are also expecting a similar, or somewhat
similar, act of measurement of the next line; even as in "following
a melody" we not only remember the preceding tone, but expect
the succeeding ones. Such interplay of present, past and future is
requisite for every kind of meaning, for every unit of thought;
and among others, of the meaning, the thought, which we
contemplate under the name of shape. It is on account of this
interplay of present, past and future, that Wundt counts feelings of
tension and relaxation among the elements of form-perception.
And the mention of such feelings, i.e. rudiments of emotion,
brings us to recognise that the remembering and foreseeing of our
acts of measurement and orientation constitutes a microscopic
psychological drama--shall we call it the drama of the SOUL
MOLECULES?--whose first familiar examples are those two
peculiarities of visible and audible shape called Symmetry and

Both of these mean that a measurement has been made, and that the
degree of its span is kept in memory to the extent of our expecting
that the next act of measurement will be similar. Symmetry
exists quite as much in Time (hence in shapes made up of
sound-relations) as in Space; and Rythm, which is commonly thought
of as an especially musical relation, exists as much in Space as in
Time; because the perception of shape requires Time and
movement equally whether the relations are between objectively
co-existent and durable marks on stone or paper, or between objectively
successive and fleeting sound-waves. Also because, while the single
relations of lines and of sounds require to be ascertained
successively, the combination of those various single relations, their
relations with one another as whole and parts, require to be
grasped by an intellectual synthesis; as much in the case of notes as
in the case of lines. If, in either case, we did not remember the first
measurement when we obtained the second, there would be no
perception of shape however elementary; which is the same as
saying that for an utterly oblivious mind there could be no
relationships, and therefore no meaning. In the case of Symmetry
the relations are not merely the lengths and directions of the single
lines, that is to say their relations to ourselves, and the relation
established by comparison between these single lines; there is now
also the relation of both to a third, itself of course related to
ourselves, indeed, as regards visible shape, usually answering to our
own axis. The expectation which is liable to fulfilling or balking is
therefore that of a repetition of this double relationship remembered
between the lengths and directions on one side, by the lengths and
directions on the other; and the repetition of a common relation to a
central item.

The case of RYTHM is more complex. For, although we usually
think of Rythm as a relation of two items, it is in reality a relation
of four (or more ); because what we remember and expect is a
mixture of similarity with dissimilarity between lengths, directions
or impacts. OR IMPACTS. For with Rythm we come to another
point illustrative of the fact that all shape-elements depend upon our
own activity and its modes. A rythmical arrangement is not
necessarily one between objectively alternated elements like
objectively longer or shorter lines of a pattern, or objectively
higher or lower or longer and shorter notes. Rythm exists equally
where the objective data, the sense stimulations, are uniform, as is
the case with the ticks of a clock. These ticks would be registered as
exactly similar by appropriate instruments. But our mind is not such
an impassive instrument: our mind (whatever our mind may really
be) is subject to an alternation of more and less, of vivid and
less vivid, important and less important, of strong and
weak; and the objectively similar stimulations from outside, of
sound or colour or light, are perceived as vivid or less vivid,
important or less important, according to the beat of this mutual
alternation with which they coincide: thus the uniform, ticking of the
clock will be perceived by us as a succession in which the stress,
that is the importance, is thrown upon the first or the second member
of a group; and the recollection and expectation are therefore of a
unity of dissimilar importance. We hear STRONG-WEAK; and
remembering strong-weak, we make a new strong-weak out of
that objective uniformity. Here there is no objective reason for one
rythm more than another; and we express this by saying that the
tickings of a clock have no intrinsic form. For Form, or as I prefer
to call it, Shape, although it exists only in the mind capable of
establishing and correlating its constituent relationships, takes an
objective existence when the material stimulations from the outer
world are such as to force all normally constituted minds to the same
series and combinations of perceptive acts; a fact which explains
why the artist can transmit the shapes existing in his own mind to
the mind of a beholder or hearer by combining certain objective
stimulations, say those of pigments on paper or of sound vibrations
in time, so as to provoke perceptive activities similar to those which
would, ceteris paribus, have been provoked in himself if that
shape had not existed first of all only in his mind.

A further illustration of the principle that shape-perception is a
combination of active measurements and comparisons, and of
remembrance and expectations, is found in a fact which has very
great importance in all artistic dealings with shapes. I have spoken,
for simplicity's, sake, as if the patches of colour on a blank (i.e.
uninteresting) ground along which the glance sweeps, were
invariably contiguous and continuous. But these colour patches, and
the sensations they afford us, are just as often, discontinuous in the
highest degree; and the lines constituting a shape may, as for
instance in constellations, be entirely imaginary. The fact is that
what we feel as a line is not an objective continuity of
colour-or-light-patches, but the continuity of our glance's sweep which
may either accompany this objective continuity or replace it. Indeed
such imaginary lines thus established between isolated colour patches,
are sometimes felt as more vividly existing than real ones, because the
glance is not obliged to take stock of their parts, but can rush freely
from extreme point to extreme point. Moreover not only half the
effectiveness of design, but more than half the efficiency of practical
life, is due to our establishing such imaginary lines. We are
inevitably and perpetually dividing visual space (and something of
the sort happens also with "musical space") by objectively
non-existent lines answering to our own bodily orientation. Every course,
every trajectory, is of this sort. And every drawing executed by an
artist, every landscape, offered us by "Nature," is felt, because it is
measured, with reference to a set of imaginary horizontals or
perpendiculars. While, as I remember the late Mr G. F. Watts
showing me, every curve which we look at is felt as being part of
an imaginary circle into which it could be prolonged. Our sum of
measuring and comparing activities, and also our dramas of
remembrance and expectation, are therefore multiplied by these
imaginary lines, whether they connect, constellation-wise, a few
isolated colour indications, or whether they are established as
standards of reference (horizontals, verticals, etc.) for other really
existing lines; or whether again they be thought of, like those circles,
as wholes of which objectively perceived series of colour patches
might possibly be parts. In all these cases imaginary lines are
felt, as existing, inasmuch as we feel the movement by which we
bring them into existence, and even feel that such a movement might
be made by us when it is not.

So far, however, I have dealt with these imaginary lines only as an
additional proof that shape-perception is an establishment of two
dimensional relationships, through our own activities, and an active
remembering, foreseeing and combining thereof.

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