"Representation": Not a Simple Act

        The verb, "to represent," occurs so commonly in our speech that we do not often ponder its complexity.  Literally, to represent a person, place, thing, action, quality, idea, etc. is "to present it again."  What was wrong with the original "presentation"?  Usually, it is not available, as when a verb represents a past action, or it has gone away, temporarily or permanently, as when a loved one travels or dies and we represent the loved one with a noun.  The verb or noun "stands for" or "summons to awareness" the absent original presentation.  In that sense, it "represents" that which we cannot have or have lost.  Ideas, which are by definition "present" only in abstract ways, must be re-presented by words if we are to manipulate them or understand them.  Two famous Greek terms for artistic re-presentations are mimesis (imitation of the thing) and ekphrasis (verbal description of a work of visual art).

        Is this a problem?  Some thinkers, perhaps beginning with Socrates and Plato, wondered whether we had lost something crucial by the act of re-presentation of fundamental ideas like "truth," and "the good," and "virtue."  The fact that those three words overlap in their connotative meanings may be an early symptom of the danger resulting from language's re-presentation of reality to our consciousnesses.  What exactly do those words mean, especially in those fuzzy, overlapping senses?  This is a hidden cost of using language.  We can become infatuated with representations and fall out of touch with that which they re-present.  In such a state, we might accept verbal assurances of truth for actual verity, truth-performed-in-life, or the image of goodness in the place of good behavior, itself.  In medieval Europe, this problem generated the dispute between the Realists, represented most famously by Thomas Aquinas, and the Nominalists, represented by William of Ockham (also spelled "Occam").  Thomas taught that language, used carefully, might be used to reason one's way from earthly to divine matters, and thereby to discover the truth about the nature and will of God.  William taught that language, along with everything else on Earth, fell into Sin with Adam and Eve in Genesis, and that, therefore, language was inherently too corrupted to touch absolute truths.

        Some modern critical theories, followers of Aristotelian thinking, still treat the act of representation as the product of uncontroversial artistic skills, the equivalent of a craft making a useful commodity.  Other critical theories, following Platonic thought, still treat representations with skepticism, and examine artistic skills as if they were dangerous to us, creating not useful commodities but states of consciousness.  Plato's famous comparison of the painter painting a picture of a chair and the craftsman who makes a chair treats the painter as a third-order imitator, whereas the craftsman (alone) is presumed to have access to the eternal forms of "chairness" from which he creates his chair.  Aristotle seems to grant painters, and poets, the same access to "chairness" and claims important social and ethical effects can be achieved by literary representations.  These two points of view are the modern inheritors of the ancient dispute Anglo-European culture inherited from the Neo-Aristotelians and the Neo-Platonists.  As you read the contending interpretive theories from the past century, you probably will detect the ongoing struggle between these two ways of studying the act of representation.  You can succeed in English 215, and as an interpreter of texts in the larger world, by practicing either of these two schools of analysis, but you would do well to be aware, at some level, of which school you belong to, and of which school your likely readers belong to.