The Aviary

This project has its roots in my ongoing exploration of painting as an expressive and conceptual practice, in this case asking how the theoretical can be made visible, and how the visible can be made theoretical; therefore its main focus is on the nature of the image.

The initial impetus for this work came from reading Martin Heidegger’s account of Plato’s Theaetetus, a dialectical discourse on knowledge as truth, from which emerges the figure of truth’s seeming opposite, error. Plato achieves this by showing that we can know and not know the same thing, a form of error. Rather than demonstrated logically, this paradox is made visible through two related images: the wax mass and the aviary.

Visually the works are derived from images found in Fulton’s Book of Pigeons, a work from 1880 which attempts to document all the varieties of domestic pigeons then extant. The book contains a number of hand-drawn lithographed illustrations, based upon paintings by the Victorian bird painter J. W. Ludlow.

There is a further unseen source for this project, which is the work of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, whose project can be understood as the overturning of Platonism and its appeal to transcendence, the prioritising of timeless truths over the physical. He does this not by opposing but by adopting the logic of Platonism, carrying to its “absolute limits…the reasonless reason, of its mad dialectic” (FoP, 116).

The project has come to be about images, in particular the relationship between what we see and what we know. In the Theaetetus Plato asks how error is possible given the fundamental principle of knowledge; that we either know something or we do not know it. There is no room for error in this understanding, there is nothing between knowing and not knowing, we either know something or we do not know it. Yet a mistaken view, what Plato calls pseudes doxa, of what we know, is an everyday occurrence. Out walking we approach a distant figure, we form the view that it is someone we know. When we get closer we realise that it is not that person, thus our original view, our doxa, was false, pseudos. This means we can have a pseudes doxa towards what we know, effectively overturning the basic principle of knowledge.

What is between knowing and not knowing is memory. It is the faculty that enables us to make present what we know, in anticipation of its confirmation, or in this case rejection. Here memory is not mere recollection, it is instead the mnemonic, that capacity of the soul to make present that which is absent, in this case the person that we think we know.

Plato uses two similes, two “sensory images” to elucidate the mnemonic, that of the wax mass and that of the aviary. Both reside in the soul. The wax mass is malleable, everything we perceive as we move through life is imprinted into it. We draw upon this imprint, this image when we bring something to mind mnemonically. One way in which this happens is explained by the aviary simile. As with the wax mass the aviary is a container, which holds our perceptions in the form of birds we have captured and stored therein. We have these birds in two ways; inactively as mere possessions, they are left to their own devices to fly around within the aviary. We can also have an active relationship with them, we can enter the aviary at any time and grasp any of the birds, bringing it under our direct control. This means that which is inactively retained can be brought to mind, made present as the being it is. To know something we do not need to have it concretely before us.

Derek Hampson

Further reading
Part One of my commentary on Heidegger’s interpretation of the Theaetetus
Part Two of my commentary on Heidegger’s interpretation of the Theaetetus