The Dilemma of Representation

Articulating culturally mature concepts present us with a dilemma that might initially seem like a showstopper. When addressing mature perspective’s more dynamic and complete systemic realities, both images and words present difficulties. In part, the reason is just that cultural maturity’s new reality is new. But more important ultimately is how it is new. Like it or not, culturally mature realities are  not so readily depicted. Not only does the required new understanding not translate into familiar images, it doesn’t translate well into images at all.  For related reasons, it also messes with usual language.

Linguist Alfred Korzybski pointed toward this conundrum with these words: “Any organism must be treated as-a-whole. In other words that an organism is not an algebraic sum, a linear function of its elements, but always more than that. It is seemingly little realized, at present, that this simple and innocent-looking statement involves a fully structural revisioning of our language.” In Physics and Philosophy, Werner Heisenberg observed, “the problems with language here are really serious. We wish to speak in some way about the structure of the atom. But we cannot speak about the atom in ordinary language.”

Creative Systems Theory calls this quandary, pertinent to both visual representation and usual language, the Dilemma of Representation. This quandary confronts attempts to visually depict any culturally mature concept, whether the subject is ourselves, living systems more generally, or the inanimate world.

With regard to language, we see how popular writing commonly derives the desired “zing” and tension from playing one pole off another. But the representational quandary remains with the most precise and sophisticated of verbal communication, whether more academic or poetic. The common subject-verb-object structure of traditional discourse makes it very difficult to get beyond a traditionally causal worldview.  It is a conundrum we face in opposite ways with the implied mechanical causality of logical discourse and the more tautological,  “a rose is a rose is a rose” causality-of-connectedness common with poetic and spiritual expression. As with pictures, we can often make words work, but doing so usually requires that we use them in unusual ways, and that we be satisfied with inference.

The reason for the Dilemma of Representation is not that culturally mature reality is mysterious—really quite the opposite. Culturally mature perspective is, in the end, about seeing “just what is” with greater clarity and completeness. The quandary we face with depiction is a product of the more fully systemic nature of our quarry and the limits inherent to traditional representation.