Fixed fuzziness and the precision of flux

When you attend carefully to things in motion or in flux, like spoken language, you’ll observe that at any discrete moment, the image or sound or feeling is indistinct, lacks a precise edge or boundary, is seemingly incomplete. But when it’s taken in the greater flow, in the flux and motion, you easily process and coalesce the whole stream of perceptions and impose an organization so that it seems distinct and precise. Listen to the way people speak: slurred consonants, mushy vowels, missing syllables, warbling pitch, but their utterances seem complete and coherent to you. Likewise, the fuzzy brushmarks in the painting, the brutal chip marks in the stone, the peripatetic vowels in the song.

Words are spoken in long strings of sounds that aggregate and blend together. But because we can move small sections of the sounds around—what we call words—we disaggregate the whole stream. Orthography has followed suit: word spaces were introduced into writing long after entire sentences and thoughts were inscribed on monuments in an unbroken parade of marks. Nowadays, we hear separate words with the reinforcement of having seen the words written as separate entities. (I’m sure you’ve had the experience of not being able to figure out what the song lyric says until you read the words on the album cover. Then you can “hear” the sung words as meaningful, rather than as a muddle of unfathomable sounds.)

Somehow, our attentive faculties enable us to perceive things clearly as they blur by. But when those transient things are made to be static, when the passage is halted, what we perceive undergoes a metamorphosis. Things in flux become like a snapshot of a friend that makes him look odd or funny, because his face is frozen with one eye squinted and the tip of the tongue sticking out of his lips. We don’t see those small details when he speaks, but the photograph records the instantaneous transformations between one stable pose and another. News photographs are particularly susceptible to this kind of freeze-frame exhibitionism. (On opinion and commentary sites, it’s very common to see a photograph of an opponent taken at an unflattering moment and a much more complimentary photograph of a favored person, used for rhetorical effect.)

Sounds, by the way, are harder to stop in a “freeze-frame” manner because we hear them across a span of time. If we halt a sound recording at a specific instant, we will hear a continuous, unvarying tone without any way to construct a full context. In a photograph, despite the interruption to the motion, the full visual field is preserved and we can form a complete context for it.

We construct clarity and precision out of fuzziness every day.

Copyright 1988–2018 by Michael Brady or the publishers