Intangibility: Transcending Visuality

By Rajiv Trivedi



Consciousness, perception, reason, intelligence are concepts necessary to establish a relationship between man and the world. His senses help him in formulating such a relationship on basis of actions which involve classification; language is a tool developed for this purpose. This tool has limitations and thus representation of reality is neither precise nor permanent. It is not merely the inadequacy of language which gives birth to idea of intangibility; it predates language as essence of consciousness itself. It is that which vitalizes consciousness and propels one to know. On a practical plain, it represents that which is perceptible but defies quantification. One has to ultimately recourse to such terms as ‘essence’ and ‘spirit’, after qualification and quantification still leave a residue.

Commonly, the question of intangibility arises only when dealing with process of human comprehension. Like the recurring decimal in arithmetic, even when a phenomenon has been explained in all possible manner, there always remains a non-terminating section of sense that eludes language. This indicates that indestructibility is an essential aspect of intangibility. In other words being holistic, certain phenomena or ideas can not be divided in a linear fashion. Psychologists would theorize that this concept becomes apparent only at a certain age, but experience shows that everyone possesses this sense though its expression may vary. Thus, it is universal. Similar reasoning would also make it true in all ages and probably lead to intangibility being eternal.

If intangibility has always existed in human consciousness and motivated expansion of capabilities of human brain while remaining invisible, why should this notion be critically examined today? Why does the premiere global organization have to nourish a movement to promote preservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage? The simplicity of questions hints at complexity of human history. One school of Indian philosophy attributes creation to interaction between Prakriti and Purush – Nature and the Consciousness. While one aims towards ideal, the other pulls towards the material. For thousands of years human philosophy, expressed often through religion, placed ideal above the material. Past two centuries have turned the equation. For some time, the track of human evolution seemed inviting with the twin waves of material and intellectual progress meeting harmoniously and attaining a never-before peak, but as the downward roll starts the distance between the two looks ominous. It is the fear that solidity of matter would destroy the delicate, ethereal idea that propels us to examine the question of intangibility and determine ways to safe-guard it. This instinct for survival presumes destructibility of the ideal on one hand and graph of human progress as a permanent blueprint. However, such fear is to be respected as concern without which human history would have been in altogether a different shape.

During the past century the role of language has been usurped by other forms of expressions; till then, it was the hand-maiden of progress. That which had started merely as helping tool grew into a reality of its own. Bakhtin hails twentieth century as period of the novel. This genre of literature became popular because it offered layers of reality – it offered insight with an intensity that could never be matched by the unstoppable pace of real life. To understand life around was not enough, the reader was consumed by variety of arrangement of relationships and interactions which through a small change would render a completely different reality. In a way, this expanded the focus from a narrow individual standpoint to a broad historical one. Invention of camera liberated intellect from this absorbing exercise by presenting a clear simple version of perceived reality. The photograph has the power of evoking emotions and other responses without burdening the intellect. Technique filled this too with layers and visuality, which till now was limited to sculptures and paintings, began to broaden its base. Set of pictures presented in quick succession created a more intense reality reducing absorption time of the viewer. The visual input, which in case of script first translated the linguistic symbols into abstract concepts before they could activate adequate perception points, in a photograph did away with abstractions, appealing directly to visual perception. Several non-visual signals, apart from intangible ones that language conveyed, were lost in this direct translation. The intellect was now charged with gathering numerous simultaneous visual stimuli into coherent experience.  If the photograph was interesting, film was immensely absorbing.

Films and photographs occupy a much greater space than script based documentation today. The script based communication has grown limited primarily because of lack of compression. It is difficult to compress the experience, which a photograph produces in a quick glance,  in words which can be read in equivalent time. Thus film has the capacity to pack a huge amount of information within a short duration of time giving rise to intense experience. This, in turn, trains the receptors to absorb and process information at a heightened rate. As there is a limitation to mind’s absorption, quite a part of information is rejected on the first run. On viewing it within period of easy recall, the mind picks up some bits of information rejected earlier and adds to information retained by memory, thus keeping this experience from turning monotonous. The appeal and ease of visual experience has given rise to visuality – the intrinsic visual appeal in any object which renders it fit for human experience. The mind trained for direct visual processing inclines to glean information visually rather than through processing of abstractions. Intangibility is the casualty in this process. With a world filled with still and moving pictures, the mind is no longer free to mull over abstract bits of sense arranging them in random combinations to eke out maximum knowledge. Thus the century that started with hailing the linguistic abstraction -- the novel – ended up being flooded by continuously streaming packages of colour and motion -- the film.

While the act of abstraction flared the ideas and imagination, the glut of visual stimuli produces a paradox of  experiential demand-satiety cycle. Excessive intellectual activity may cause fatigue leading to temporary cessation of all; rested, the mind craves for another such bout. The change from imaginary ideas to realistic sensuality also turns the stance from macro-consciousness to micro-consciousness. Self-centredness and narrowing of concerns result as mechanism of survival against the excessive burden of choice. The reduction in perception time also changes the perception of time. From being time-rich, one perceives himself to be time-starved. The spectator replaces the actor. He no longer thinks, he sees. It is the object’s visual appeal that has potential to draw his interest than its intangible qualities.

It should be remembered that being qualities, visuality and intangibility are both abstractions, yet diametrically placed. They both appeal to the brain but with different goals. One captivates, the other liberates. Visuality establishes the reality of here-and-now, the superiority of matter over ideas. Intangibility works when the mind desires to shed the bondage of the known and aspires for the infinite. The mind transcends the limitations of time and space and on discovering the eternal flow of life, subordinates the body to become a buoyant boat, which gently adds its momentum without disturbing the course. Through immersion one gains total possession.

It was on this principle of complete surrender of one’s self that Indian art was based. Depersonalization was achieved through sublimation of one’s ego in the art. For the Indian artist, his practice was not for any temporal, limited, material gain but for the final reward – absolution or Moksha. Never for a moment did he attempt to associate his temporal personality with his art – the words, contribution, achievement, possession, success meant little to him. In case they were within, the remnants of these ideas were impediments, which had to be cleansed out of his consciousness. Art as expression of the self never existed for him. The self or ego could be rid through art. He aspired for comprehension of the intangible; never for possession of the tangible.

If against such self-abnegation one insists on art as expression of the self, the art of such an artiste would certainly express his desire to transcend the material. If all artistes shared this desire, art of the period would gradually nurture such a belief in the people. But if everyone is moved to denial of the material, survival would be endangered. Yet, human beings have continued to exist against all threats. So, where exactly does art stand with respect to acceptance or denial of the material? One basic definition proclaims that Art is a ‘manifestation of spiritual through material’. The Indian philosophers ordained judicious admixture of three Guna-s or elemental aspects – Sat, Raj and Tam – to nurture one’s persona. An artiste who escapes the latter two following Sat or truth alone, loses connection with the material and becomes one with the truth he strived for. Dr. Lalmani Misra explains the various possibilities succinctly:

Through his art the artiste sees both the worlds and experiences both vicariously. When in the lap of truth his heart unsullied by any attraction is filled with blissful waves of content and peace; under the force of falsity the heart fills up with fascination and he is enticed into the world of desire and allure. If the artiste’s heart stumbles on to the latter, he loses sovereignty of his existence, only to create history; whereas the artiste staunch on path of truth can never create it1

As the fascination for the changing, moving world increases, so does the proportion of Raj; Tam is the essential darkness that destroys all creativity. The three Guna-s evoke three aspects of the personality; Sat leads to contemplation, Raj to appreciation and Tam to consumption. Mediation is pursuit of the intangible, consumption is immersion in the sensuous. Balance between the two is achieved through appreciation.

Evolution of human civilization balanced ideas with material achievements, to a large extent. With industrialization it seemed that balance tilted towards concrete, but technology brought abstract and the virtual back into focus. Yet, the tilt favoured the concrete as ideas were examined on the merit of their materialization and application. Intangibility itself is studied as  unutilized sales pitch for products and services.2 Art has always been a pathway to comprehension of the intangible; sensuality attempts to catch some aspects and freeze them as homage to moment of contemplation; visuality denying all else, relishes the presentation as Art. The end of visuality is annihilation of thought, excitement of passion and total consumption. All this takes place through drastically reduced time-span for attention and soon as the process completes, the mind gets involved with another such cycle. It is necessary to deny, bury and subvert the intangible in order to maintain the experiential demand-satiety cycle. Language is tolerated till the time it is fully replaced by images. This idea may sound as far-fetched as might have that of communicating through cell-phones two centuries back, but mankind shall have to work against this turning into reality.



[1] Contemporary Problems for Indian Music. Misra, Dr. Lalmani

[2]  The Dimensionality Of The Concept Of Intangibility : A Critical Analysis.  Bielen, F. & Lille Christophe



Back to Articles