ISSN 1466-4615



David Large

Ecology and Reality: Notes Towards an Ecological Film Theory




Joseph D. Anderson

_The Reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory_

Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996

ISBN 0-8093-2000-2



Jean Baudrillard is famous for the opinion that reality is disappearing rapidly from our conception of the world as the gap between what is real and what is imaginary is being closed by the increasing role played by technology in our everyday lives. The technology of cinema and film has an important role here, a point widely discussed by Paul Virilio and others in a literature of its own. For them the difference between reality and illusion is becoming less and less useful to us, to the point where our understanding of ourselves requires only myths and tales generated not from common experience of the world shared from one to another but from what is supplied to us by machines producing images and sounds that reflect, but that themselves are not, part of the real world as understood from the dawn of consciousness up to a few decades ago.


Such a view is popular from the point of view of critical theory but there is at least one other side to be considered, namely the empirical, or reality based approach of Experimental and Cognitive Psychology. Researchers in these areas look not at the effect technology is having on reality and illusion but rather at the way in which technology can be used to tell us more about reality where illusion is taken to be part of that reality.


In _The Reality of Illusion_ Joseph D. Anderson presents us with a study in cognitive psychology as it applies to film and video studies. He sees the work as taking cognitive theories, encapsulating them in a metatheory or overview, and presenting the whole to students of film and video as a consideration of reality and illusion from the point of view of the audience watching the film, rather than from a sociological point of view. He sees the ecological approach as a way of achieving this encapsulation, one which will appeal both to the experimental scientist and to the critical theorist, as well as to straightforward students of film and video. In order to determine whether the ecological approach will do such a job we here need to examine it in some detail.


The ecological approach was originated by the psychologist J.J. Gibson. It offers a new way of thinking about the world which takes an organism in its environment to be the fundamental starting point of any enquiry. In that this is the case the ecological approach may be regarded as very firmly founded in reality. The entities involved in ecological theory are most usually animals (as complex organisms) and environments. These entities stand in an ecological reciprocal relationship to each other. This relationship exists and is maintained by the operation of ecological resonance, which for visual perception operates under the governances of ecological optics. For perception the ecological environment supplies perceptual invariants. For the animal to function in general the environment provides what are termed affordances. A chair, for example, affords sitting whereas food affords nutrition and so on. The ecological approach is therefore instructive wherever thinking about cognition has come to focus on what is inside the head. The ecological approach holds that much philosophy and psychology of cognition has been led into a conception of visual perception that is too narrow to provide room for a fully satisfactory account. The ecological approach is thus able to offer insights into the nature of these phenomena valuable to theorists in these areas.


It is not clear that Anderson fully appreciates that this schemata is just what constitutes the ecological approach. Anderson, rather, appears happy to trade on the overarching associations and favourable connections to be accrued from calling the work an ecological approach without coming to terms with what must be taken on board and, importantly, what must be discarded in order for a work to be in a proper position to call itself an ecological approach. This is especially important when we consider that by using these ecological ideas in this ecological way we may explain our cognitive, and in particular our perceptual, awareness of the world (considered as our environment) in a way that satisfies the demands of both intellectual rigour and common sense. This applies as much to our relationship to film as to our everyday experiences of an outdoor environment. That Anderson wishes to use the ecological approach in order to develop his own theory of film is laudable (17). That what he does in this book is to use it as a platform for other cognitive theories is puzzling as many of these other cognitive theories are clearly opposed to the position taken up by the ecological approach.


The problem ecological theorists have with this book is that Anderson regards the ecological approach as a metatheory of cognitive theories. It is highly questionable whether it is a metatheory at all but even if we say that it is then it is not possible for it to be a metatheory of theories it fundamentally disagrees with. That this is in fact the case is uncontroversial for the ecological approach has yet to find favour among the majority of contemporary cognitive psychologists and philosophers.


The source of much of this dissatisfaction centres on the essential, ecological premise that requires perception to be direct. Though this directness often appears to be misunderstood and to be of a more general nature than required by the ecological approach it nonetheless denies any role to processes in the proper description of perception. This is seen, with some justification, to downgrade the role of cognition in perception. Ecological directness therefore requires careful and detailed explanation, something not to be found in Anderson's book


The ecological approach develops a particular, ecological, direct theory of perception as a result of the ecological requirement for the perceiver to perceive the environment as it actually is in reality. This ecological ontology is achieved through ecological reciprocal resonance between the perceiver and the environment. This operation is free from any intermediaries or forms of circuitry. In this way both awareness of and gaining knowledge of the world does not require any process or inference, nor does it require combinations of raw perceptions with representations, images or memories.


There has been much debate over the issue of direct perception. Use of the term 'direct' in this debate often varies from speaker to speaker and from viewpoint to viewpoint. Directness in ecological philosophy means that perception itself is not inferential and that it does not involve mediation. It does not, for instance, involve mediation by sense data or any role for qualia. The ecological approach to perception is therefore direct in a way that much contemporary Anglo-American philosophy of perception is not. Perceptual content is to be taken in an evolutionary, ecological way.


The ecological approach argues against sensation based accounts of perception regarding the senses as perceptual systems. Indeed sensations need play no part in our account of perception and in particular our ecological theory of film. According to the ecological approach the senses are perceptual systems, and sensations are associations with these systems. The senses are not themselves perceptual in any ecological sense. Sensations are not themselves perceptions nor are they perceptual. Sensations are, rather, deliverances of the perceptual systems. The role given to sensation in sensation based theories of perception has proved problematic even for sensation based theories themselves. In contrast, the role of sensations in ecological philosophy is clear, straightforward and logical.


The ecological approach does however offer a fruitful and rewarding general investigation into the role of representation and images in cognition and hence in perception and film. Such investigation forms the basis of arguments against what is known as the computational account of cognition. In brief, as perception is direct so there need be no place for computation in perception. Similarly, there need be no place for processing in perception. This position requires careful analysis and is not explored in Anderson's book.


Much discussion in the theory of cognition centres on cases of perceptual illusion and hallucination. The ecological approach regards such phenomena as the exception, requiring exceptional explanation, rather than as is commonly found, a proving ground for the general case of perception. The most accurate account of perception is that of the ordinary case, where perception may be judged to be successful by the criteria chosen. This account differs from cases where things go wrong or tricks are played. In treating the viewing of film as an exception from the general case the ecological approach does not exclude or downgrade film theory, it rather accounts for the phenomenon as an important part of a more general theory. In this very particular way the ecological approach may be regarded as a metatheory. It also, for instance, treats the viewing of pictures (photographs and paintings) in the same sort of way.


All told these various discussions yield an ecological account of cognition producing in turn room for the dynamic and important field of ecological psychology. To this end it is important that the ecological approach is able to account for and explain the realism, as well as the illusion, required to support these claims.


The ecological approach propounds a realist theory of cognition. Real objects are encountered in real environments by real organisms. Things really are very much the way we perceive them to be. How we choose to interpret these perceptions is a separate, and important, issue. In this way ecological theories may be said to spring from the outlook commonly known as naive or common sense realism. That ecological, perceptual encounters occur directly relates ecological realism to ecological direct perception. Though Gibson himself referred to this position as naive realism, it is neither naive, in the usual sense, nor necessarily realist, in the philosophical sense. It, rather, shares ideas in common with both terms.


The ecological approach may in certain respects however run counter to common sense. With the assertion that ecological events are real in their own right the ecological approach opposes the physical view of time and space. Just as physical space has no orientation being simply an abstract system of co-ordinates, so physical time is supposedly an arbitrary interpretation of physical motions or a statistical property of such motions. Physical motions qua physics may be reversible but many ecological events qua ecology are not.


The ecological approach is neither a scientific theory nor is it a psychophysical hypothesis. To think of it in such ways is to fundamentally misunderstand it's place. Physical science has not detected the kind of optical structures hypothesised by Gibson and practising ecological psychologists such as William Warren Jr. Furthermore, the function of the senses is not to send signals to the brain. As Gibson put it, nature does not seek to communicate with us. The ecological approach is therefore not a metatheory at all, at least not in the way Anderson would have it. In accord with Descartes, the ecological approach holds that I am not like a pilot in my ship. The physiological and neurophysiological processes which are held by scientists to form the basis of cognition are just and only underlying, support features. They constitute no part of the account of cognition itself.


We are left then with the following conception of ecological perception. The visual perceptual environment is governed by ecological laws in general and by ecological optics in particular. The ecological description of perception involves, and requires, the immersion of the perceiver in the perceptual information of the perceptual environment. For visual perception this involves optical arrays, invariants, and affordances which form the basis of the visual perceptual environment. This is accompanied by active, direct, unmediated perceptual information pick up, the presence of which is in turn the result of the optic flow of perceptual information present in the environment.


The ecological approach must also take account of this from the point of view of the perceiver. As Gibson wrote,


'Perceiving is an achievement of the individual, not an appearance in the theatre of consciousness. It is a keeping-in-touch with the world, an experiencing of things rather than a having of experiences. It involves awareness-of instead of just awareness. It may be awareness of something in the environment or something in the observer or both at once, but there is no content of awareness independent of that of which one is aware.'


- J.J. Gibson, 'The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception', (239).


This highlights the ability of the ecological approach to account for and explain visual awareness. It treats visual awareness at an appropriately high level of description and explains how it comes to be just thus and so. Visual awareness is shown to be a matter of ecological facts within evolutionary considerations. In short it is the product of the reciprocal relationship between the perceiver and the environment when considered in ecological terms. This in turn fits perfectly with our notion of what it is to watch a film and lies at the heart of any ecological approach to film theory. For in this way we may have awareness of environments, objects and concomitant affordances without the need for the physical presence of that actual environment and the real objects themselves. What we must always remember is to consider the perceptual environment itself, here for instance it may be the cinema we find ourselves within. This is the approach we require rather than a repackaging of cognitive theories that stand in fundamental disagreement with the bases of the ecological approach.


In this way, when taken to its full extent, the ecological approach offers a clear and deep understanding of cognition. Cognition in general and perception in particular are to be considered purely in ecological terms. To do otherwise is to mix approaches which in turn produces confusion. The ecological approach itself offers a wholly independent description, explanation and understanding of cognition. To appreciate the ecological approach fully is to understand the nature of cognition in a deep and connected way, connected that is both to the ecological environment and to the cognitive faculties considered in an ecological way.


An indirect result of fully understanding the ecological approach is that it offers us the opportunity to appreciate the redundancy of many widespread theories of cognition together with their attendant puzzles and problems. The ecological approach does this by taking ecology at face value to be the study of homes, habitats and in particular the niche an animal inhabits. Ecology is, in other words, the space that an animal takes up in the world. The ecological description of this environment focuses on the organism as it lives and cogitates in it's natural home. On the ecological approach, the concerns of cognition are the concerns of the various ways of cognate life. To this end a way of life is said to occur in an ecosystem and within an ecological niche. Viewing film characterises one such niche.


The ecological perspective on film may be made clear by reference to the notion of ecological ambience. This notion stands in contrast to other psychological explanations which begin inside the animal or within the mind. The ecological approach is concerned with what lies beyond the boundary of an organism's physical form yet always requires reference to the organism in describing the ecological ambience within which life exists. The ecological environment may thus be seen both in terms of ecological theory and in terms of psychological description. The ecological approach avoids the threat of physical reductionism and of environmental reductionism by requiring an appropriate ecological level of description and by tying physical ecology to ecological life in terms of (and thus at the level of) ecological function. In general the ecological approach is not exclusive for the purpose of producing as neater theory or avoiding difficult explanations. For film the level of description may be narrative, sociological, academic, financial and so on. What matters for the ecological approach is that the environment is considered and discussed in its own terms. To this end the ecological approach considers animals and environments together in the form of ecosystems. An ecosystem is characterised by a harmony of animals and environments wherein the animals have evolved. Here the animals have learned to meet the requirements of the environment and reciprocally the environment has been shaped (or has evolved) to meet the needs of its animals. The world of film and video constitutes one such particular ecosystem. That this is so may mean that when all the work is finally done the ecological approach to film is more akin to the analyses of critical theory than to the constraints of cognitive psychology.


University of Newcastle, England




David Large

Ecology and Reality: Notes Towards an Ecological Film Theory

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 1 no. 2, April 1997


Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1997






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