Le Groupe µ et "le système de formes plastiques” -à propos d’une évaluation-
L’objectif de cet article est de fournir quelques exemples et de proposer certains éclaircissements qui peuvent contribuer à la compréhension de la théorie du signe plastique conçu par le Groupe μ. Plus précisément, l’article porte sur les éléments de la théorie en question qui constituent une analyse du système de la forme tant qu’elle est distincte du système de la couleur et du système de la texture. Dans l’espoir de faire connaître quelques-uns des fondations et des implications de ce système de forme plastique, principalement aux lecteurs anglo-saxons, l’article tente également de clarifier sa place au sein de la théorie générale du signe visuel articulé par Groupe μ dans son Traité du signe visuel (1992).
La première section de l’article traite de la notion esthétique générale de forme et de sa relation avec d'une part la notion de forme/formation visuelle et de l'autre la notion de forme sémiotique telle qu’elle a été développée par Hjelsmlev. On prend note du risque que les visées d’une sémiotique plastique puissent être indûment confondues avec celles du formalisme dans l'esthétique. Selon l’avis de l’auteur, les études de sémiotique visuelle ne sauraient bénéficier de ce genre de confusion, mais devraient plutôt tenter de maintenir sa distance par rapport aux conjectures et luttes de pouvoir dans le(s) monde(s) de l'art.
La deuxième section explique la distinction faite par le Groupe μ entre le signe iconique et le signe plastique, conçus comme des couches séparées du signe visuel. Selon le Groupe μ, le signe iconique forme une structure triadique contenant le signifiant, le type et le référent. Il y a des similarités entre cette conception et le triangle d’Ogden & Richards. Or, la notion du Type a des implications plus vastes que la conception d’Ogden & Richards, selon lesquels il existe une image très générale qui met en relation symbole/signifier et référent – le type est ici le résultat de modélisations et de catégorisations, et il est valable aussi bien pour le signe iconique que pour le signe plastique. Par définition, le signe plastique manque de référent : la relation entre un motif et ses variations dépend donc uniquement du rapport Signifier/Type. Sur la base de cette relation Signifier/Type, les signes plastiques apparaissent, selon le Groupe µ, aux trois niveaux de la sémiose, sur le niveau purement plastique, sur le niveau extravisuel (ou symbolique), et dans une interaction avec le signe iconique sur le niveau iconico-plastique.
La troisième section de l’article explique le système de forme plastique telle qu’elle est conçue par le Groupe μ. Le système est constitué par trois « formemes » (ou catégories), à savoir position, dimension et l'orientation. Il est conçu en termes de figures apparaissant dans un plan restreint. Comme les relations fondamentales dans le plan sont celles entre le centre - la marge, le haut - le bas et la gauche - la droite, le système de positions alternatives (par exemple marginal, au-dessus et au centre) est isomorphe au système d'autres orientations (par exemple vers l'intérieur, d'en haut vers le centre). Le système d'autres dimensions/tailles, par contraste, est défini par le biais de la fonction de la taille de la figure en relation à la taille du plan de l’image et le point focal. Ces valeurs plastiques de position, de dimension et d’orientation sont les signifiants du système. Ils sont liés à leurs signifiés de la manière suivante : la position à l’attraction, la dimension à la domination, l'orientation à l'équilibre. Cette corrélation est validée par les auteurs au moyen d’une démonstration visuelle.
Dans la quatrième et dernière section de l’article, des observations sont faites au sujet des répercussions plus vastes ainsi que des applications du système. Conformément à la visée du propre Groupe µ à surmonter les limitations qui résultent de la spécialisation de disciplines telles que la psychologie de la perception, l'auteur soutient que des systèmes théoriques comme celui du système plastique peut fournir un cadre interdisciplinaire qui facilite l’évaluation à la fois des données scientifiques et des discours philosophiques généraux concernant le monde visuel. En ce qui concerne des applications plus proches, l'auteur estime que les théories du sens visuel et de la rhétorique du Groupe μ, si elles étaient plus largement connues, contribueraient considérablement à la compréhension de l'importance du sens plastique dans la communication visuelle et au développement des méthodes pédagogiques pour la description et l’interprétation de l'image.
Articles du même auteur parus dans les Actes Sémiotiques
This is not a paper about art, but an attempt to grasp and evaluate a complex theory about the semiotic levels of visuality in general. However, because the article is in fact written by an art historian who views the scholarly field of semiotics from the point of view of art history, a comment on the very phenomenon of Art (with or without a capital A) might be appropriate. In sociological terms, plastic arts or “bildende Künste” are most readily defined as the activities of certain actors or agents within certain social fields that originally were justified in terms of the rules and institutions of image making. However, as the activities of some of the said actors began to develop in the most diverse directions, often with the utilization of other semiotic resources than purely visual ones, the very terms “plastic arts” or “bildende Künste” acquired a rather anachronistic ring.
Drawing heavily upon the example set by Marcel Duchamp and his notorious “Richard Mutt case”, the groups associated with “advanced” trends within the field began to realize that it was now much more relevant to describe contemporary art in terms of just Art, i.e. art in general, without any specifications of certain semiotic resources or certain qualities that had to belong to a work of art. A remark by Stephen Bann in his preface for the international anthology Concrete Poetry (London 1967) is characteristic in this respect. Pondering on the heterogeneous character of the emerging field of visual or “concrete” poetry, he writes that “We would do well to […] ask, not weather the abandonment of discursive speech qualifies it to be classed as poetry or painting, but under what terms and according to what inherent principles it may be classed as Art”.
The aesthetic theory that maybe suffered most damage (if not to say complete destruction) from this abandonment of specific procedures and qualities as defining characteristics of art was the theory of aesthetic formalism. Associating quality in plastic arts with the ill-defined concept of Form (whether seen as composition, general Gestalt qualities, “form” as opposed to color, or some other more or less vague entity), formalism tended to focus on the image as a distribution of colored patches on a surface, disregarding subject matter and motive. Thus it also tended to produce highly a-historical accounts, treating images from various epochs and cultures as exponents of the same inherent dynamics of Form. However it also certainly anticipated (albeit in an unsystematic and intuitive manner) the specific semiotic research field that is, in the writings of Groupe , Jean-Marie Floch and other groups and individual scholars, called the semiotics of the plastic sign.
There is an evident risk that the semiotics of the plastic sign might be too closely associated with aesthetic formalism and its outmoded and limited accounts of artistic activities and their outcomes. This confusion of matters could most certainly be expected from people who are personally involved in the power struggles within the field of art, polemically taking sides for or against certain aesthetic theories. Thus, an interest in investigating the communicative import of plastic signs and even “plastic language” (langage plastique) might be dismissed, by people with less more than surface knowledge of contemporary semiotics, as just another variant of elitist and modernist formalism. And to be honest, scholars like the members of Groupe have often fueled such reactions by primarily choosing art images and preferably modernist art images as their examples when defining plastic semiotics.
Therefore, it would be important to bear in mind that just as Art is no longer supposed to equal Form, so Form can’t be supposed to equal Art either. To the extent that we still want to use the term visual Form, it could be seen as referring to general compositional qualities of visual experience, i.e. of visuality. However, these qualities are too vaguely defined to provide a basis for a theory of plastic semiotics. As we will soon see in connection to the terminology of Groupe , there is also an ambiguity inherent in the largely heterogeneous notions of Form that have developed within different scholarly traditions.
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For a sociological definition of the term “art worlds”, see for example H. S. Becker, Art worlds, Berkeley 1984.
At its best, plastic semiotics can provide a coherent and terminologically valid theory of the communicative import of visual composition – taking into account not only planar images but also patterns and other elements and objects that surround us in our daily life and daily activities. With this objective in mind, it would make no sense to focus solely on artistic images (i.e. images produced within the confines of various “art worlds”) or risk any confusion with formalist aesthetics.1 What we need, in this research, are comprehensive models of how forms, colors and textures can carry meaning and evoke associations. On a second level, we also need straight, empirical data on how certain visual phenomena are received and interpreted in various environments, groups and cultures. Thus, plastic semiotics can also defend its position as a part of cultural semiotics at large.
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On German ground, the programs for Bildwissenschaft (roughly “Image Science”) by Horst Bredekamp, Klaus Sachs-Hombach and others provide an equivalent to the Anglo-American Visual Studies trend.
As for the first level — the model level — Groupe µ has offered the hitherto most complete definition of the plastic sign (“le signe plastique”) in its seminal work Traité du signe visuel (Treatise on the visual sign, 1992). In its account of the plastic dimension as precisely a sign, Groupe µ aims at a synthesis between what it calls the provincialisms of methods (“provincialisme méthodologique”) in disciplines such as perceptual psychology and aesthetics. As for the second level — the empirical one — the findings of Lindekens in the Seventies and of Espe and Krampen in the Eighties could provide a platform for further investigations. One could hope that such investigations can take place within a truly interdisciplinary field of ”visual research” — a field in which problems and hypotheses could be formulated quite independently from the temporary conjunctures of the fields of art. At present, the emerging university subject Visual Studies (theorized as a more open-ended alternative to the sociologically informed Visual Culture subject) seems to carry some promises in this respect – even though the term Visual Studies appears to be at least as ill-defined as the age-old term Form.2
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I refer to Groupe µ, Traité… (1992). This work has been translated into Spanish as Tratato del signo visuel (Madrid 1993). The German translation of the passages concerning “the system of plastic form” I refer to as: Groupe µ, “Das system…” (1988).
In relation to such wide prospects, my aims with the present text are quite modest. I wish to give a brief summary of some parts of Groupe µ‘s theory of the plastic sign — parts that hitherto have been directly available only to those familiar with French, German or Spanish.3 In addition to the plain and simple presentation of the theory, I shall also suggest some interpretations of laconic or unclear passages, and present some reservations.
Whilst Groupe µ performs an analysis that concerns as well the system of visual forms/shapes (“systématique de la forme”), as the system of colors (“systématique de la couleur”) and the system of textures (“systématique de la texture”), I shall focus solely on the system of visual forms/shapes (as distinct from Form in general). In accordance with the German translation of the relevant passages of the Traité (passages actually published before the book itself), I shall however refer to this system as the system of plastic form (”Das System der plastischen Form”). Here, it is highly important to note that Groupe µ use the term Form in two very different senses. On the one hand the popular and ill-defined one, compromised by aesthetic formalism, which is the one referred to in the phrase “system of plastic form”. On the other hand the semiotic one, defined by Louis Hjelmslev and his followers. To make things more clear, I shall from now on use the term “plastic form” for the former and the term “semiotic form” for the latter.
The system of plastic form is of course more basic than the other ones — those of color and texture. The reason is that in everyday perception, we experience most colors and textures as belonging to distinct objects and hence to visual forms. And this gives the former a secondary role in the visual rhetoric that is the main and final topic of the Traité. It’s almost trivial to point out that color and texture lends itself to a lesser extent than plastic form to distinctions and classifications, and hence to the repetitions and regularities that constitute the basis for rhetorical deviations.
Consider Groupe µ’s model of the iconic sign, reproduced here as illustration 1. At the first sight, it looks quite similar to the widely known “semantic triangle” of Ogden & Richards — a variant of which I reproduce in illustration 2. The position of the “Type” corresponds to that of the “Reference” or “Image” in Ogden & Richards’ model, whilst Ogden & Richards’ “Symbol” has switched position with their “Referent” and is now called signifier (“signifiant”). It’s however important to notice that the notion of “Type” cannot be synonymous to that of “Reference”, let alone that of “Image”. It certainly has much broader implications. The following quotation from the Traité, about types, should make this point quite clear:
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Groupe µ, Traité…, p. 97. My translation: “it’s not a matter of raw empirical reality, independent of any structuration: [types] are theoretical models. Between the typical form and the perceived form, the typical color and the perceived color, the typical object (which will later be defined as icon) and the perceived object, there is consequently a relation similar to that between the phoneme and all the sounds that might be associated with it […]”.
“[…] il ne s’agit de réalités empiriques brutes, antérieures à toute structuration : ce sont des modèles théoriques. Entre une forme type et la forme perçue, la couleur type et la couleur perçue, l’objet type (qui sera plus loin défini comme icône) et l’objet perçu, il y a donc le même rapport qu’entre le phonème et tous le sons qui peuvent lui être associés […]”.4
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Groupe µ, Traité…, p. 97.
So for Groupe types are at the root of the very order that makes it possible to fit the objects of our everyday world into kinds and categories, and thus to attend to the content of iconic signs. But even the expression plane of such signs — i.e. colors and plastic forms — is said to be a matter of types and of typifying. From this, the valid conclusion would be that there are plastic types of the plastic sign as well as iconic types of the iconic sign. This is also in agreement with the definitions in the Traité, even if iconic types (“types iconiques”) and plastic types (“types plastiques”) are for the most part subsumed under the common term “Types”, plain and simple. And “Types” in this general sense are in several passages defined as semiotic form — i.e. as form in Hjelmslev’s sense (“au sens hjelmslévien du terme”).5
The complex status of the “Type” is shown with arrows in the upper part of Groupe ’s diagram (illustration 1 again). The referents of our everyday world are defined as “stabilized” in relation to the types under which they are subsumed — a stabilizing (“stabilisation”) of the “order of things”. In a symmetrical manner, the mental act of catching the content of an iconic sign is said to be one of recognizing (“reconnaissance”) types in the Signifier. This mediatory function of the “Type” supposes that its relation to both “Referent” and “Signifier” is one of conformity (“conformité”). The lower axis of the diagram, between “Referent” and “Signifier”, is however an axis of transformation. This means that the signifier is always to a greater or lesser extent altered and transformed in relation to the referent — to a lesser extent in photographs, to a greater extent in simple or deformed representations.
Ill. 1 Groupe µ’s model of the iconic sign, reproduced from Traité du signe visuel
Ill. 2 Semantic triangle, reproduced from Simeon Potter, Modern Linguistics
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See the link http://epa.oszk.hu/00000/00005/00010/34_1.jpg
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Groupe µ, “Iconism”, p. 34.
A quite useful example of the dynamics of transformation is the painting reproduced in illustration 3 : Victor Brauners Small Morphology of 19346. This is actually a piece of applied semiotics, just like the work of so many other surrealist painters. The reason that the last “man” in the upper row could still be seen as at least “human”, in spite of the fact that he has now become a tower, is that there is still enough left of the type “human” in this image of a tower. But the only way to trace an analogue or “motivated” connection to the referents of real humans is through the preceding variants — i.e. along the axis of transformation. The signifier-type relation is, on the contrary, claimed to be “arbitrary”. Because, as Groupe writes: “many different objects can fit one type (whether as signifiers or as referents)”.7 The difference between the heads of the “women” in the lower row could be seen as an example of this relation. However, the fact that many different objects fit the same type doesn’t necessarily mean that there can’t as well be some likeness between the elements. This is certainly the case in this example, and the relation between the heads could hardly be regarded as “arbitrary” in a strong sense.
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Groupe µ, “Toward…”, p. 584.
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This must amount to the same thing as Peirce’s definition of icons as the only signs in which “the Interpretant may be the Object”. See Peirce, The Essential…, p. 277.
The plastic sign, by contrast, “has no referent by definition”.8 This statement of Groupe could be modified, if we say that the plastic sign must be a sign in which the referent is identical to the type (like in an “exemplification”).9But there could be no axis of transformation here, and the reason is obvious even if I can’t see that Groupe spells it out anywhere. Think of a circle again: if it was to be deformed in a way similar to how the man and the woman are deformed in Brauner’s picture, the plastic type “circle” would no longer be there. With a more moderate deformation it would however still be present, because even imperfect circles are in fact seen as circles. But once again, it wouldn’t be possible to separate the plastic type from any hypothetical “plastic referent”, and consequently there would still be no axis of transformation.
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The “type” here equals the “gestalt” of mainstream perceptual psychology.
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Groupe µ, “Toward…”, p. 584.
By contrast, the signifier-type relation of the plastic sign cannot be dramatically different from that of the iconic sign, because even in the plastic sign different objects can fit one type.10 I give an example of this in illustration 4. And this obvious constancy in pattern recognition must be the main reason that Groupe , today and in the Traité, considers the plastic sign to be an utterance (“énoncé”) whose semiotic form could in fact be separated from its substance.11
Ill. 4 Variation of a circular pattern. Compare ill 7. Drawing: Fred Andersson
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Groupe µ, “Iconique et…”, p. 180.
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Hjelmslev, Omkring…, p. 104. Here, Hjelmslev draws a clear distinction between connotations (“konnotationer”) and signals (“signaler”). Groupe µ’s examples must be defined as signals.
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G. Sonesson, Pictorial…, pp. 119-23 and 150-51. Sonesson here uses the term “stylistic connotation” in a sense close to Hjelmslev’s “signal”.
This later theory of the Traité is however very different from Groupe ’s first systematic account of the iconic/plastic distinction, in an article of 1979. Here, it actually chose the circle as example.12 If the circle might stand for such things as “head” or “balloon” on the iconic level, the group argued, it would then on the plastic level stand for the concept of “circularity”. By the same token, the group defined both the iconic and the plastic associations as signs in a strong sense, i.e. as “denotations”. It then stated that both kinds of denotations, respectively, are connected on a secondary level to “connotations”. As a possible connotation to the iconic content “balloon” they suggested for example “joy”, and for the plastic content “circularity” they suggested “God” and “formal perfection”. But if we read Groupe ‘s master Hjelmslev closely in his original Danish, it becomes obvious that the mentioned “connotations” cannot be connotations in his sense.13 This is one of the main points of Göran Sonesson’s critique in Pictorial Concepts.14
And strangely enough, the 1979 definition of the plastic sign as a denotation with connotations happened to be incompatible with what Groupe had to say, in the very same text, about its basic nature. In 1979, Groupe hadn’t yet arrived at its later conclusion that both the iconic and the plastic layer must involve semiotic form. Instead, it stated that plastic language (“langage plastique”) is something that is always unique for each and every plastic statement — for each and every picture. The consequence of this, the group concluded, must be absence of semiotic form, because:
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Groupe µ, “Iconique et…”, p. 182. My translation: “A ‘form’ would be, for example, an opposition between standard blue colors, standardized as a lexical code that invests fixed values (not necessarily semantic) into each and every one of its units”. Note that the term “fixed values” here implies both phonetic (“not necessarily semantic”) and lexical values.
“Une ‘forme’ serait, par exemple, une opposition de bleus reçue comme un lexique établi, investie de valeurs fixes (non nécessairement sémantiques) pour chacune de ses unités”.15
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Hjelmslev, Omkring…, p. 101 ff.
But the necessary condition for there to be a denotation is, still “in Hjelmslev’s sense”, semiotic form. So if there is no such form on the plastic level, there could be no denotations either — and consequently no connotations, as long as we stick to Hjelmslev’s definition of the connotation as a function in which the denotation itself is a functive (“funktiv”).16 As a consequence of this, the definition simply turns out to be contradictory. And from such conditions it would come as no surprise that the concepts of “denotation” and “connotation” are almost absent in the later Traité.
Groupe observes that each of the three plastic systems that it defines — the system of texture, the system of color and the system of plastic form — is determined by its own set of basic factors. These factors are called, respectively, texturemes (“texturèmes”), coloremes (“chromèmes”) and formemes (“formèmes”). The number of texturemes are said to be two, namely the “textural element” (as for example a brushstroke) and textural repetition (as for example the repetition of brushstrokes). The number of coloremes are said to be three, namely chroma (“dominance”), brightness (“luminance”) and saturation (“saturation”). The number of formemes are likewise said to be three, namely position, dimension (i.e. size) and orientation.
At least as regards coloremes, these distinctions confirm to the scientific principle of exhaustiveness and mutual exclusion. Chroma, brightness and saturation are the dimensions commonly utilized for systematic color description. As regards formemes, however, the criteria for specifically choosing position, dimension and orientation as the relevant categories remain unclear, and the Traité remains silent on this point. Within topology, the categories chosen by Groupe belong to the basic traits that will not be affected if a certain shape is deformed together with its support (like a spot painted on a rubber band that is stretched), but so do other traits as well, for example closure and connectedness. Intuitively, the most obvious criterion for choosing the categories position, dimension and orientation would however be their relevance for the analysis at large.
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See Felix Thürlemann’s definitions of “plastic” and “topological” categories (“catégories”) in: Greimas & Courtés (red.), Sémiotique…, pp. 239 and 168.
Another debatable topic on this level concerns what might be called “linguisticisms”. Why does Groupe speak of texturemes, coloremes and formemes ? These neologisms surely have strong connections to linguistics, and to the notion of the phonemes of spoken language. But Groupe ’s categories are hardly comparable to phonemes. The distinction between position, dimension/size and orientation is an absolute distinction — in fact a distinction between “dimensions” in a more abstract sense. In the realm of speech and phonology, they would be comparable to such dimensions as tone and duration. A phoneme is another thing altogether — solely determined by the articulation of language structure. It is, as Groupe itself remarks in one of the passages quoted above, a “theoretical object” of language analysis. Evidently it would simplify matters and give rise to less misunderstanding if we choose to speak of “dimensions” or “categories” (for example topological ones) rather than “formemes”.17
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Groupe µ, “Das System…”, p. 220.
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An analogy of sound would be increasing or decreasing intensity as a function of intensity and “position in time”.
In the system of plastic form, there is a hierarchic relation between two of the “formemes” in relation to the third — because position and dimension must be determining factors for orientation.18 As an example: consider a rectangular figure, composed as it is from two long and two short lines. If the short lines are posited at the bottom and the top of the figure, it will be vertically oriented. If the lines are, on the contrary, posited at the left and the right, the figure will be horizontally oriented. So the orientation of the rectangle, or of any figure, is a function of the dimension of its different parts in relation to the position of them.19
All three “formemes” are by definition relative in relation to the picture plane (Fr: “fond”, Ger: “Grund”) and to its central point of focus (Fr: “foyer”, Ger: “Blickpunkt”). This means that depending upon the position of an element in relation to the picture plan and its centre, we would characterize it as for example “behind”, “in front”, “in the upper left corner”, et cetera. The analysis of position must therefore take the form of a system of oppositions between for example “left” or “right”. And the fact that orientation is determined by position also means that the system of orientation is isomorphic to that of position. The system of dimension, by contrast, must have an intermediary function between those of position and orientation, and can only involve the oppositions “big versus small” and “distant versus near”. The system of position then looks like this according to Groupe ’s analysis:
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Groupe µ, “Das System…”, pp. 218-19.
The basic opposition is that of figure versus ground
The second opposition: figure and ground could be seen as if they were at the same plane (as in “planar geometry”) or as if they were at different planes (in which case enclosed shapes are seen as either massive objects or holes)
The third opposition: if seen as a different plane, the figure could be seen as either in front or behind
The fourth opposition: the figure could be central or marginal in relation to the center
The fifth opposition: if marginal, the figure could be above or under the center (opposition of verticality)
The sixth opposition: if marginal, the figure could be to the left or to the right of the center (opposition of horizontality)20
The system of dimension, by contrast, could intuitively be anticipated to involve only one opposition: “big versus small”. But this is but one aspect of the phenomenon. Dimension must also be defined in relation to the point of focus, which is always the point of focus of the spectator. Groupe gives one quite clarifying example: think of something that has been spilled out on a big table. The resulting stain could be tiny in relation to the table (when seen as a ground), but quite big in relation the ones sitting near.
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Groupe µ, “Das System…”p. 220.
The group also gives an opposite example: think of a miniature portrait with a stain on it. Here, the stain is gigantic in relation to the picture plane, but very tiny in relation to the spectator (i.e. in relation to the point of focus).21 This is illustrated in the diagram of illustration 5, in which the arrows indicate decreasing size in relation to the picture plane (vertical) and increasing distance in relation to the spectator (horizontal). The coordinates A and A´ stand, respectively, for the stain on the table and the stain on the miniature.
Ill. 5 Groupe µ’s diagram of the relation between size and distance, reproduced from “Das System der Plastischen Form” (Semiotische Berichte nr 2/3 1989)
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Groupe µ, “Das System…”, pp. 220-21.
Given: that there is a figure that is experienced as having a position either within the picture plane or behind/in front of it.
First opposition of orientation: that the figure is oriented either within the plane or beyond it (this separates fronto-parallel styles from more realistic ones)
Second opposition: if oriented beyond the plane, the figure could be oriented either outwards or inwards in relation to the plane
Third opposition: either if oriented within or beyond the plane (either if fronto-parallel or receding effect), the figure could be oriented either outwards or inwards in relation to the center (opposition of the centrifugal and the centripetal)
Fourth opposition: if oriented outwards in relation to the center, the figure could be oriented either vertically or horizontally
Fifth opposition: if oriented vertically, the figure could be oriented either upwards or downwards (opposition of verticality)
Sixth opposition: if oriented horizontally, the figure could be oriented either leftwards or rightwards (opposition of horizontality)22
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Groupe µ, “Das System…”, p. 220.
But this turns out to be an incomplete analysis of orientation, Groupe contends, because it only does justice to orientation experienced as direction — i.e. as “vectorality”. Orientation and direction are, however, not synonymous. As the group remarks, even a circle could be said to have an orientation, namely the inwards orientation of all the positions of the periphery in relation to the center.23 But of course it has no direction. And when we say that openings and cavities are “oriented” in certain ways (as in “the entrance is oriented to the South”), this is certainly not a question of direction either. Groupe therefore adds the following oppositions:
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Groupe µ, “Das System…”, p. 222.
Seventh opposition of orientation: a figure could be concentric (i.e. absence of direction) or not
Eighth opposition of orientation: a figure could be open or closed24
In case of a concentric figure that is closed — i.e. a circle — orientation is experienced as completely stable. But as soon as an opening is created, the dynamics become more ambiguous. Groupe takes the example of a semicircle, but we could for the sake of simplicity think as well of the letter “C”. What is its orientation? If the cavity were seen as relevant, we would describe it as oriented towards the right. If the convex left side were seen as relevant, by contrast, the orientation would be described as leftwards. And depending upon the overall plastic form of the letter (i.e. the typeface), its character would be seen either as horizontal, vertical, or both (i.e. diagonal/italic).
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Groupe µ, “Das System…”, p. 223 f.
However, this whole analysis only concerns the signifiers of the system (”les signifiants”), i.e. the expression plane of the plastic sign. The signifieds (”les signifiées”), i.e. the content plane, correspond to the signifiers in the following manner according to Groupe : position to attraction, dimension to dominance, orientation to balance.25 This is merely taken for granted by the group, and the examples provided are quite obscure. However, the theory can be validated as follows.
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Arnheim, Art and…, p. 14 f.
Lines or plastic forms that are identical in all other respects could be experienced as different as regards either attraction, dominance or balance. As an example of the first alternative: consider the experiments of Goude and Hjortzberg (referred to by Rudolf Arnheim) in which a circular black magnet was moved on a quadratic, white metal plate. Experimental subjects were told to indicate whether they experienced any variation in attraction at the various positions. It turned out that the positions at which the subjects experienced the greatest variation in attraction coincided with the structural skeleton of the picture plane (i.e. its medians including the diagonals).26 The variation could then be regarded as a plastic content that has nothing to do with the object as such, but only with its position in the picture plane.
This is shown in illustration 6: here the lower dot is obviously attracted towards the lower left corner (on the diagonal), whilst the upper one lies in a zone with weak attraction (around the center). I have inserted the two diagonal lines to demonstrate as well the phenomena of dominance by dimension and balance by orientation. I think that any experimental subject would say that the lines are in both cases appendages to the dot, rather than the reverse. But this dominance of the dots — or the experience that the lines are actually rays that are projected either inwards or outwards in relation to them — is in no way an objective fact. It’s rather a plastic content, determined by the sheer size of the dots. As for balance, the bottom line will probably be reported as balanced, the upper as unbalanced. Why then? Whilst the bottom line conforms to one of the diagonals of the structural skeleton, the upper line doesn’t. Balance, when regarded as the plastic content of a plastic sign, must be determined by orientation.
Ill. 6 Demonstration of plastic dynamics on a plane: Interplay of position, size and orientation. Computer drawing: Fred Andersson
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Groupe µ, “Das System…”, p. 224 ff.
According to the theory, a second level of plastic content is manifest when various positions, dimensions and orientations coincide to give the impression of distinct plastic forms or constellations.27 It must be remarked that such plastic forms and constellations can conform to plastic types to a higher or lower degree — see illustration 7. According to linguistic analogy, they are of course the morphemes (from Greek: “morphes”) of the system of plastic form. As Groupe remarks, plastic forms (and thus plastic types) are in themselves carriers of values of position, dimension and orientation — and thus of attraction, dominance and balance. Here, the group provides the example of triangles — being experienced as balanced if oriented upwards, but as unbalanced if the opposite is the case.
Ill. 7 Further variations of a circular pattern: a) change of extension, b) change of size, c) change of extension and orientation, d) change of position. Drawing: Fred Andersson
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Groupe µ, “Das System…”, pp. 226-30.
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It should be admitted that in ascribing the status of plastic signs to such perceptual effects, we run the risk of ending up in a theory that neglects all distinctions between higher and lower functions of visual cognition. Current findings in vision science can provide material for corrections and revisions on this point, and they should therefore be incorporated into visual semiotics. As evidenced by earlier contributions to Nouveaux Actes Sémiotiques, this important work has already begun in the research of Francois Edeline (one of the founding members of Groupe µ) and others.
The third level of content is said to be that of relations between plastic forms, and between the position, dimension and orientation of such forms. The latter relations constitute the structure of ornaments, and as Groupe remarks ornaments are basically variations of the positions, dimensions and orientations of identical, repeated plastic forms.28 My examples in illustration 8 could be details from simple ornaments. They show how attraction, dominance and balance can result from combinations of separate plastic forms. The constellation in example (a) is basically the same as in illustration 4, and in both cases the dots can be regarded as plastic forms in their own right. Example (b), the famous Ebbinghaus illusion, shows how far removed plastic content can sometimes be from objective facts (as in many other illusions involving dimension and orientation).29
Ill. 8 Demonstration of effects of a) attraction, b) domination, c) balance. Computer drawing: Fred Andersson
In the end, it might seem like a quite limited occupation to busy oneself with the system of plastic form. But it certainly has wider implications and applications. First, one should keep in mind that perception as well as plastic content is always relational and dynamic, and that the “formemes”, forms and signs in question always appear within a larger context of visual meaning – whether in a planar image or in some other medium. It remains for us scholars and students of “visual research” to do the analyses and provide the examples that can demonstrate the import of plastic content within these various contexts of meaning.
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Groupe µ, Traité…, p. 194 f.
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Groupe µ, “Iconique et…”, pp. 187-88.
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See also Groupe µ, “Toward…”, pp. 586-91
Maybe the most significant application of the theory so far is the one that Groupe performs itself, in its theory of visual rhetoric. According to the group, there are three levels of meaning (“sémantisme”) in which plastic features are involved, namely the purely plastic level, the mixed icono-plastic level and finally the “extra-visual” level (“sémantisme extra-visuel”). The last one is the level of arbitrary symbolism: such as the colors that symbolize different sacraments within the Catholic Church.30 The purely plastic level includes what the group defines as plastic rhetoric — for example certain positions, sizes and orientations that unexpectedly break the continuity of certain patterns. As for icono-plastic meaning, it has been at the heart of Groupe ‘s theory ever since the 1979 article. There, the group referred to the simple example of a Japanese print in which a heron and a weeping willow had the same downward curvature (“même courbure”) that was said to express the same sadness (“même tristesse”).31 In this manner, icono-plastic analysis basically shows that plastic features can be endowed with a striking and even rhetorical meaning at the background of iconic content. In the Traité, Groupe assures that there must also be rhetorical effects of unexpected iconic content at the background of the “plastic order” (“l’ordre plastique”).32
As previously mentioned, Groupe are opposed to the methodological “provincialism” of such sciences as esthetics and perceptual psychology. Whilst the former studies images from the macro-perspective of philosophical discourse and cultural tradition, the latter operates at the micro-level of isolated visual phenomena. Both approaches can appear highly frustrating: too much theory make one long for some raw evidence, too much unrelated data make one ask for “the use of it all”. However, a very useful aspect of Groupe ’s work is that it relates both experimental science and aesthetic theory to a semiotic framework that makes it possible to see more clearly the consequences of both.
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In the pragmatic context of visual teaching subjects, this will certainly prove to be a great pedagogical gain. To teach the skills of image description and interpretation is much easier with the aid of a coherent terminology into which the “provincialisms” of various theorists and schools (for example gestalt psychology) can be translated. Moreover: to let students perform systematic image description on the plastic level, and to make them connect this activity to the notions of plastic content as visual rhetoric, would provide a powerful counterexample to the contention of most newcomers that the impact of images has to do solely with their capacity to faithfully copy reality. A resistance to what the late cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard once called “the surrender of the image to the real”.33