As I have discussed before, we can conceptualise the objects of our experience as having both a ‘real’ and a ‘sensory’ aspect or in Kantian terms a noumenal and a phenomenal aspect. The latter is what presents itself to us as conscious experience being that experience which touches us through our senses and is recognised by our perception. However, Kant, Heidegger, Ortega, Harman and others point to the fact that we cannot fully perceive the reality of what we experience – there is an aspect, the ‘real object’ in Harman’s terms, which is withdrawn. It is withdrawn because, in another sense it is emergent, i.e., it is the ‘more than’ in the Aristotelian phrase the ‘whole is more than the sum of its parts’. But as soon as we try to find it, it disappears, and we are left with the parts and not the whole. So how do we experience the ‘emergent’, is it as Husserl believed it to be a nonsense concept. The answer, I believe, takes us to the nature of narrative.
Cognitive psychology tells us that our experience of the world is mediated and understood by two co-dependent ways of thought: the conscious and the non-conscious. These are not opposites but rather balancing forces in our cognition, the first activated through mental effort and the other spontaneously as emotional cues bring to the fore depths of experience and knowledge that lie beyond the reach of conscious recall.
Our conscious mind is algorithmic, it looks for answers through the exercise of reason and logic.
It works with causalities, looking for changes in direction and predicting outcomes using the rules of logic. The conscious mind sees narrative as causal sequences, ‘if ‘A’ happens, ‘B’ will follow. This is beautifully illustrated by Carl Court’s image of a chair and a bottle being thrown at an England fan walking through tear gas at a clash between fans and police in Marseille in June 2016. This is narrative from the perspective of the photo-journalist. It captures that decisive moment just before the culmination of the act. You see it, and in a moment, you make the causal link. But it can be more subtle than that. Below is an image I once took in the Masai Mara of the moment where a young cheetah is just about to take down its prey. You know how it will end, you can see the chain of cause and effect and the story is told.
But is that the only sense by which we understand narrative or is there a deeper level of storytelling? For that, I believe, we have to activate the non-conscious in our photography. The non-conscious doesn’t work with causalities it works through the recognition of patterns and nuances of relationships – it integrates rather than differentiates. Katherine Hayles in her book ‘Unthought – the power of the cognitive non-conscious’ says this:
‘…nonconscious cognition operates at a level of neuronal processing inaccessible to the modes of awareness but nevertheless performing functions essential to consciousness…these include integrating somatic markers into coherent body representation, synthesising sensory inputs so they appear consistent across time and place, processing information much faster than can consciousness, recognising patterns too complex and subtle for consciousness to discern and drawing inferences that influence behaviour and help to determine priorities). Perhaps its most important function is to keep consciousness with its slow uptake and processing ability, from being overwhelmed with the floods of interior and exterior information streaming into the brain every millisecond. (Hayles 2017:10).
This indeed is the processes of thought that can take us to the essence of experience and make sense of the real object that lies withdrawn from conscious discernment. Take, for example, Don thatMcCullin’s iconic image of the Shell-Shocked Marine, taken after the Battle of Hue in 1968. Where does its power lie?
There is no causality here. We see before us a man hollowed out and broken by war. As Heidegger in his famous analysis of the hammer observed – it is only when something is fractured that the real nature of what is before us is revealed. The power of this image is not in speculating what has happened or what will come. There is no decisive moment here. The image punches us in the gut because we see, in the instant of recognition, the appalling nature of war and what it does to those caught up in its horror.
My search for the story of Skye is not that which might be told by a photo-journalist. My early journeying along the Road to Elgol produced those sorts of stories in abundance. However, my search now is trying to find the ‘real Skye’, the Skye that emerges and overwhelms us but then when we look for it, it withdraws. It is ephemeral and it is withdrawn but it is what makes this island what it is – it is what brings me and others back time and time again. It is this sense of narrative that compels me to press the shutter.
Hayles, N. K. 2017. Unthought: the power of the cognitve nonconscious. Chicago, Illinois, University of Chicago Press.