In my last entry, I began to muse about depth, using my experiences with hypnosis and with multi-stable illusions like the Necker Cube. My interest in depth connects quite directly to my work as a psychoanalyst, where an encounter opens the mundane into different dimensions of experiencing. In my last post, I was especially interested in the shifts of state between one way of seeing and another, between different “states of being.” There is a distance yet connection between one state and another, something that is characteristic of all depth experiences.
These musings aren’t simply intellectual exercises, they are invitations to experience or perceive the shifts for ourselves. With visual illusions like the Necker Cube or the Face Vase illusion, we experience the shift from one perspective or state to another. In visual perception, this shift is characteristic of the figure-ground relationship. It’s with this notion that we enter the most basic experience of depth.
Most simply, depth is part of every experience as we live it, something so immediate and inclusive that we give it not a thought. When we see a figure, a bowl of apples for example, it always emerges from a ground. “The perceptual ‘something’ is always in the ‘milieu’ of something else, it always forms a part of a field” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/2012, p. 4). A figure never exists in isolation without a field. Put in another way, forms are given in context, and without context we do not have form. This figure-ground quality of experience is the most basic description of depth and it has several characteristics. The perceptual something stands out from its field. The apples emerge from the bowl that supports them, the bowl in turn stands out from the table as well. This isn’t some private inner event, it’s very much in front of me in the world as I live it. Even as the perceptual something stands out, it also obscures. Certain surfaces of the apples are present to view while other surfaces are absent or hidden in a way that conveys a dimensionality or fullness to the fruit, its thickness and realness. In turn, the apples obscure part of the field under and behind which they stand. The bowl is only partially in view, the table in turn partially obscured. There is a sense of space of distance between the object and its ground such that they stand in a way that is both separate yet connected. Depth is characterized as this distance, difference or gap (remember Merleau-Ponty’s term ecarté) between figure and field separating them yet holding them together at the same time. The originality of depth lies in how things are simultaneously present and yet mutually exclusive and absent, a “contraction into a single perceptual act…the dinension in which things or elements of things…envelope each other” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/2012, p. 276).
In photography, the depth experience is approximated through depth of field, the area of acceptable sharpness in a picture behind which, there is a relatively unfocused background. Unlike photography, in daily experience we fluidly shift from one figure or form (gestalt in German) to another with a reciprocal shift in background or field. This is a seamless dance of attunement not only characterized by the visual but integrated with all bodily awareness, a seamless structuring of sensing, thinking, imagining that we call experiencing. Much of what we understand as psychoanalytic “process” can be seen in terms of shifts between what is figural and its context. Consideration of these shifts as a perceptual phenomenon in the sense described here highlights a different way of experiencing process that might create a productive tension with other ways of seeing.
The figure-ground relationship is never arbitrary. As Merleau-Ponty (1945/2012) elaborates this core structure of Gestalt Psychology, the relationship is transfused with meaning. The sense (sens) of this experience is not applied after the seeing, it is not something we represent to ourselves like a label on a non-labeled thing. The very experiencing of a figure in its relationship to its field is how we create meaning. Meaningfulness is a process of formation, the process of coming to experience interdependent forms emerging in their fields that in turn become forms in larger fields (Merleau-Ponty, 1933/1971, p. 193). In the shifting of form and field, in the reorganization as forms “slip and reassemble, shift near and far, as some things eclipse others–some attaining a position of prominence, others resolving themselves to latent horizons–I witness the very advent of a new situation” (Steinbock, 1987, p. 338). Meaning is created in the gap, in the tensioned relationship between form and its field, and this meaning unfolds in the shifts from field to new form to new field.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1971). Projet de travail sur la nature de la perception. In: T. F. Garaets (Ed.). Vers une Novelle Philosophie Transcendentale. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. (Original work published 1933)
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2012). The Phenomenology of Perception. (D. A. Landis, Tr.). London: Routledge. (Original work published 1945)
Steinbock, A. J. (1987). Merleau-Ponty’s concept of depth. Philosophy Today, 31: 336-351.