More Thinking About Thinking with Images: A Response to Ivan Gaskell, Deborah Knight and Sonia Sedivy

More Thinking About Thinking with Images:
A Response to Ivan Gaskell, Deborah Knight and Sonia Sedivy

John M. Carvalho


I want to start by thanking my critics for reading my book and coming to so many insightful comments and challenging observations about it. I especially want to thank Deborah Knight for suggesting a panel to discuss the book and for doing so much to realize it. There is so much to say about the intelligent and generous commentary offered by Ivan Gaskell, Deborah Knight, and Sonia Sedivy. Put briefly, in the short space below, I say my book thinks mostly about how and that artworks mean rather than what they mean, as Gaskell recommends. Knight’s remarks prompt me to clarify how, in a world of cinema set on the Mediterranean Sea populated by Fritz Lang and Brigitte Bardot, Le Mépris is the enactment of Jean-Luc Godard’s moviemaking skills refined in the course of making that motion picture. Responding to Sedivy’s criticism, I give a fuller account of the enactivism guiding the treatment of artworks in my book. Overall, my critics have urged me to draw a more complete picture of what was, for them, only sketched in Thinking with Images.

Key Words
Francis Bacon; Diego Velázquez; Duane Michals; Marcel Duchamp; Jean-Luc Godard; images; motion pictures; perception; enactivism; embodiment; thinking


1. Images

Having lived for forty years with an art historian, I worried that I would be found out by someone with Ivan Gaskell’s skills. Gaskell gently reminds me of connections I might have made were I a cultural historian with a keen appreciation of artworks in the European tradition as well as in the tradition of the South Pacific Islanders. I am very happy to take his points about the connections I might have made between the works by Duane Michals and Marcel Duchamp to the European tradition, though I am also wary of claims, favored by art historians, that a Western artist must be referencing antecedents in that tradition. I see why Gaskell sees Titian and Rubens in Michals’ Balthus and Setsuko (2000). I can even imagine Michals making an irony of comparing the wizened Balthus to the beauty of Venus, but that just makes the image less interesting to me. It brings my thinking to a halt. It is more interesting to me that, in the image, as I say, Michals “gives us Balthus’s left profile as if it were the right,” so that, enigmatically, we “seem to see two right profiles with the left as right appearing to the right of the one genuinely right.”[1] I take this to be an example of the firsthand encounter Gaskell urges me to feature more regularly in my accounts and the art historical connections as a gesture toward criteria for what thinking to include and what to leave out that Gaskell thinks I’ve left out.

Gaskell recommends that we read the title, “Aesthetics without Theory,” rhetorically since, he says, Thinking with Images “is, in truth, anything but an aesthetics without theory.” As he goes on to note, however, in instructive references to Terry Eagleton, Stephen Knapp, and Walter Benn Michaels, it is literally “theory” that I aim to do without, that late-twentieth-century obsession, still, alas, extant today, which aims to reduce everything to an occasion for demonstrating that the theorist knows her or his theory. When Gaskell chides me for recourse in my account of Duchamp’s La mariée mis à nu par ses célebtaires, même (1915-23) to the “lucubrations” of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, he is right. Deleuze and Guattari add nothing to my treatment of Duchamp’s work which is abbreviated to keep the focus of the chapter on Duchamp’s Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage (1946-66). As far as a theory that is embraced in Thinking with Images, I think most readers would say I rely too little on J. J. Gibson’s ecology of affordances and too much on Alva Noë’s cognitive psychology of skills. I try to correct for that slight in comments toward the end of these remarks.

I am puzzled by Gaskell’s thought that I pursue meaning at the expense of making and use. I am quite in agreement with Susan Sontag’s recommendation that criticism show how a thing is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than what it means. Again, other readers of Thinking with Images have charged, not all dismissively, that the book stops everywhere abruptly short of saying what the artworks I discuss mean. I am, in fact, not especially interested in what they mean. So, what am I interested in? I am interested in the chance to think, undistractedly, without knowing what to think, and I think that artworks can afford the occasion for such thinking. In my studies of artworks by Francis Bacon, Duane Michals, Marcel Duchamp, and Jean-Luc Godard, I attempt to enact or achieve that thinking. It appears that for some readers I did not accomplish that goal. I attempt to make up for that shortcoming, again, in more comments toward the end of these remarks.

I wanted my treatment of Francis Bacon’s Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) to enact my embodied encounter with the painting. (Gaskell says he appreciates my emphasis on these concrete encounters.) I wanted what I wrote to capture the effort it takes to make the painting present, something that cannot be achieved by simply looking at it, something that is not given but must be enacted in the encounter with it. I also want to capture the fragility of that presence and the fraught labor it takes to share that presence with others who are curious about the painting. What is most present for me in the painting that lives in Des Moines is the immediate, palpable affect achieved, finally, in that particular work after the many, many laborious attempts Bacon made to achieve the affect he felt by consulting myriad copies of the Velázquez Portrait. My account of the artifact attempts to unpack the way I am affected by the work and to do so in a way faithful to the lessons learned from encounters with the writings of Svetlana Alpers and Juliette Lichtenstein, namely, that we always locate what we have to say about an artwork in affordances that turn up in the artwork itself.

In a useful discussion in another space, Gaskell asked about the use of “images” in my title, and I admit, now, he is right. Bacon’s painting is not an image but a physical object existing in the world. So many things we call “images” – photographs, painting, motion pictures, still pictures, advertising, illustrations, signage, icons, avatars and text on a computer screen – are, likewise, objects or things we find in the world. Aristotle writes, “without an image, thinking is impossible” (On Memory and Recollection 450 a1) and appears to have in mind (pun intended) an idea, mental picture, or representation. Enactivism, however, eschews representation and all cognition that might be found or collected in a separable substance, so what do I have in mind (more punning) when I describe my encounter with the Bacon as thinking with images?

I thought it was a way of describing the way my encounter with Bacon’s painting included thinking through the fifty or more other pictures of popes Bacon painted, the Velázquez itself, other paintings by Velázquez, the reproductions of Velázquez’s Portrait Bacon consulted, illustrations of candida alcibans, Eisenstein’s film and stills from that film, including a still of Eisenstein himself screaming, Deleuze writing on the Baroque, Wölfflin writing on the Baroque, and so on. What I wanted to call thinking was working through all these thoughts on the way to sharing what this thinking without knowing what to think was like and what it amounted to, what the result of all this thinking was and why it mattered. Gaskell’s comments have led me to question this assessment. What I thought of as images worked through in my mind are better characterized as non-representational responses to what is sometimes described as “coping” or, better, as pre-predicative encounters with challenges presented by the painting.[2] Already, with this account, I am moving toward a more phenomenologically inspired enactivism than I achieved in Thinking with Images. Once again, I say more about what that means shortly.

I attempt to draw on this non-representational, embodied thinking to say how the painting means and that it means without saying what it means. That may mean, however, that a book declaring so loudly its allegiance with the artwork and against theory ends up being about the embodiment of thinking as described by enactivism. So conceived, embodied thinking is not just being physically present with the object. That lapses back into dualism. I am trying to account for the embodied navigating of affordances in the world that brought me to an encounter with this artwork, and of affordances in the artwork that invite me to think without knowing what to think. In my account, there is an affective intensity that motivates and colors these encounters. Especially given, but not only due to, the singularity of affect, there will be differences in differently embodied encounters with those artifacts. The gamble is that there will always also be something to share about these encounters that connects the embodied, thoughtful encounters of others with the same or other artworks. I try to say more about those enactments and about the thought that artworks are not given in our encounters with them but achieved in my remarks on Sonia Sedivy’s comments.

2. Motion pictures

Deborah Knight too finds me out for the amateur I am, exploiting her knowledge of cinema to multiply the allusions and, so, the meanings of Le Mépris for us. As I said in my comments above, I am truly more interested in that Le Mépris means and how it means, but I am also interested in what Knight thinks Le Mépris means, especially what she has to say about what it means for Fritz Lang. In my attempt to understand how Le Mépris means, I discuss Alberto Moravia’s Il disprezzo, originally translated into English as A Ghost at Noon.[3] Not an avid consumer of literary fiction, I wanted to compensate for that shortcoming, and, knowing Godard based his film on the novel, I wanted to start with that background for my encounter with it. The same thinking motivated my extended treatment of the interpretation of Hölderlin’s poem in the film. This time, because Godard added this element to Moravia’s narrative, and because sources for the alternative endings to “A Poet’s Vocation” are obscure, I wanted to assert that it was meaningful. Given Knight’s comments, I now wonder what the debate about the meaning of the poem means for Lang’s fate in the film and for the world of cinema, considerations of which, I agree with Knight, contribute mightily to Godard’s making of Le Mépris.

Knight appeals to Laura Mulvey to say something about how Le Mépris means. On Mulvey’s view, the film means by trafficking in “signs, images and allusions that reference the world of cinéphilia,” “a world interested in films, film theory and film criticism,” Knight adds. This world is, indeed, the world of Jean-Luc Godard. In interviews he gave as part of that cinéphilia, Godard discussed casting Brigitte Bardot in Le Mépris and the problem she presented for his moviemaking aims, forcing him to modify those aims. Though to my knowledge he never discussed it, I wonder whether Godard found in Fritz Lang, whom he cast in his film as Fritz Lang, a force that caused him to reconsider his instincts, to discover new skills and to achieve a world of moviemaking, and the world of Le Mépris, that was only enacted in the course of making the film. To achieve or enact Le Mépris, I try to say, Godard engaged the world of the film with a scheme he adapted to what was afforded him by that world – including everything embodied by Bardot and Lang – the world, that is, that turned up for the embodied moviemaking habits and skills he acquired and was refining in the course of making Le Mépris.

To say something about the images that puzzle her most, I find their absurdity to be precisely the point and Mulvey’s characterizing them as a tableau to be on point. What are the gods in the world of Homer’s Odyssey or the world of Godard’s Le Mépris? They are fictions, invented by mortals, to account, vainly, for circumstances mortals cannot otherwise explain. They are no different than plaster busts known by their Latin names that the Greeks, we now suspect, decorated garishly, and the faux sexuality of the statues in the field we are shown that leave Prokosh flat are likely intended to contrast with the naked, swimming woman, the only motion picture that might pass as a “rush” that so “inspires” Prokosh. (“That’s fine for you and me, Fritz,” he says, referring to the naked woman, “but do you think the public is going to understand that.”) I’m not sure Prokosh wanted swaggering, oiled, muscled men in short skirts on his movie screen as much as women willing to take off their clothes, as he says about the woman from the appropriately Brechtian dance hall sequence. Knight’s evidence is compelling, and cinema today is full of swords-and-sandals stuff, but there are also plenty of alternatives, and Godard made many of them. About the triptych, well, isn’t this moviemaking reduced to its bare elements? The source of an action, the affect attending it, and its result are connected by simply putting one image after the other. There is no other reason to suppose there is a connection between them. The exaggerated make-up could be a sign that it’s all fake, because movies are “the most beautiful fraud in the world,” but Knight’s point about the actual use of such exaggerated cosmetics in the blockbuster peplum sagas is well taken, and I take it.

I see what Knight is getting at with the critique of Hollywood in Le Mépris, no doubt that is part of what is going on, but against all the references she makes, and that she knows so well, I wonder whether it is worth pointing out that the Oscar for best picture in 1959 went to Gigi, directed by Vincente Minnelli, the director of Some Came Running referenced, as Knight notes, in Godard’s Le Mépris. Yes, in 1960 the best-picture Oscar went to Ben-Hur, but in 1961 it went to The Apartment, directed by the great Billy Wilder (Sunset Blvd. (1950), The Seven Year Itch (1955), and so many others in the 1950s). I wonder, if Prokosh represents what Godard doesn’t want moviemaking to become, whether he wants it to return to the drama of M (1931), a film I love but as an artifact of a time that is past and that deserves a revered place in that past. Knight and I agree on this point, I think. Nothing else Godard made up to Le MéprisBreathless (1960), A Woman is a Woman (1961), Vivre sa Vie (1962), Le petit soldat (1963), La carabiniers (1963) – and nothing after it are of a species that would fit the genus, and genius, defined by M.

But the affect from Le Mépris that captures my love for the film most is felt in the collage of images Godard shows us at the ruined villa where Prokosh and Camille have been waiting for Paul to join them. Camille – but, as Knight says, it is really Bardot – gets up from where she has been looking at a book and walks away from the camera. Her hair is snarled from her reluctant ride in Prokosh’s convertible. She stops in front of a mound of dried grass that echoes her snarled blonde locks, turns to face the camera, and here Godard cuts in images we’ve already seen in the film, images from parts of the film we’ve not yet seen, and outtakes that were never meant to be part of the film, at a pace and in an array suited to recognition but not cognition. We don’t know what to think. What does this collage of images mean? Why has Godard inserted them here? Is it his homage to Bardot? Godard’s riposte to Joseph E. Levine’s demand for nudity? I find it beautiful, but I don’t know why. And its value for me is precisely that I don’t know why.

Which leaves me with a discussion of Lang’s status in Godard’s film. Knight’s report about what befell Lang in the years just prior to being cast in Le Mépris is helpful. I describe Lang as the hero of Godard’s film. Knight argues that Le Mépris “is a film without a hero, that heroes are relics of a previous cultural epoch or, should we say, are only characters in certain genres of film.” I suppose she is right, but I wonder, then, what to make of the centrality of Lang’s role in the film, his elevated status as the director of the film within the film, and the wisdom he imparts about filmmaking, about German poetry, and about life in general. He is not the protagonist; that would be Bardot. Is he, as Knight suggests, a tragic figure, the director of Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) (and Rancho Notorious (1952)) now reduced to making a saga, of sorts, for a know-nothing American producer and ably completing that production even after that American is dead? Wouldn’t that imply that his fate was inexplicably cast by a power greater than him, the gods, even? But the gods are a fiction, which leaves Lang’s role in Le Mépris and in the world of cinema something to think about without knowing what to think.

3. Enactivism

The questions and concerns raised in Sonia Sedivy’s remarks suggest, as Gaskell noted, that I should have spelled out more clearly what is enactivist in my aesthetics. I did not do this in Thinking with Images because frankly I thought I was late to the party. Enactivism had been around at least since the early 1990s.[4] And when I encountered it in Alva Noë’s Varieties of Presence, it seemed just that Anglophilic philosophy of mind had finally seen the phenomenological light of day.[5] Sedivy’s questions about my enactivism show that I was mistaken about much of this.

The enactivism I took to be mainstream and that I deploy in Thinking with Images is an option in what Sedivy and I understand to be generalized as E-cognition – extended, embedded, embodied, and enactive. As I understand it, though, enactive cognition importantly differs from other E-models because in enactivism there is nothing to extend, embed, or embody. From the point of view of the enactivism enacted in Thinking with Images, extended, embedded, and embodied cognition do not advance on the substance dualism they were supposed to supplant. In enactivism, as I deploy it, embodiment is the continuity of what is otherwise distinguished as mind, body, and environment, a notion first proposed by Henri Bergson in Matter and Memory and developed from a basis in Edmund Husserl’s eidetic phenomenology by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception.[6]

So, as I understand enactivism, it is a philosophy of mind that accounts for perception in terms of experience. In an aesthetic experience, enactivism gives an account of that experience in terms of embodiment. Enactivism is not an aesthetic theory, then, but a philosophy of mind that allows us to do without an aesthetic theory. Instead, in an enactivist account of our engagement with the unity, complexity, and intensity of an artifact or its expressive and aesthetic properties, our embodiment prepares us to respond to the challenge that artifact poses by thinking about it, a thinking that engages the resources of my particular embodiment and the affordances that turn up in the environment for that embodiment.

Prompted in part by Sedivy’s comments, I make a more careful survey of what passes for enactivism in another place.[7] There, I point out that “enactivism” is a term of art that covers several distinct varieties of embodied cognition. Most generally, enactivism emerges from the failure of computationalism to fashion a context-sensitive and domain-general intelligence comparable to human cognition and the success connectionist neural networks promised for framing behavior on densely interconnected webs of interacting units.[8] The promise of neural networks echoed the progress J. J. Gibson pioneered in ecological psychology and was married to phenomenological accounts of a perceiver’s skillful negotiation of an environment to produce the model proposed in The Embodied Mind.[9] From this lineage, to date, at least four different models of enactivism have emerged: autopoietic enactivism, sensorimotor enactivism, radical enactivism, and a phenomenologically inspired enactivism.[10]

Autopoietic enactivism advocates a continuity between mind, body, and environment.[11] Its model is the single-cell bacterium adapting to access food sources needed to maintain itself as an autopoietic organism. Mindfulness is attributed to the adaptive behavior that maintains the organism’s autopoiesis.[12] Autopoietic enactivism emphasizes the continuity between mind and life and attributes this continuity to human cognition on the supposition that such continuity at the single-cell level could not be inferred by an organism that did not experience it in its own lived experiences.[13] The natural symbiosis between an organism and its environment contributes little to the enactivism that motivated Thinking with Images.

Sensorimotor enactivism emphasizes the actions taken to compensate for contingencies in human perceptual faculties. Low fidelity in the sensors on the perimeter of the retina, the blind spot in our visual field, randomly saccading eye movement, the fact that parts of the object – the front, the back, the insides – are seen at different times, all militate against the stable, clear, nuanced, and continuous world we say we see.[14] On this view, action in perception – moving our heads, squinting, adjusting the position of our bodies, physically or virtually, over time –overcomes what about an object is occluded on first sight. These actions are skilled for sensorimotor enactivism, and these skills are refined in the course of our active engagement with the world. As Alva Noë puts it, the world, objects in the world, and properties of those objects are not given “for free,” all at once, in all their clarity.[15] They must be enacted or achieved by our skilled engagement with them. This achievement takes effort, and it is fragile, in danger of being lost or coming apart, if we are not actively engaged in maintaining it. This variety of enactivism, with its emphasis on skilled encounters with the world that sometimes produces artworks and sometimes critical assessments of artworks, figures prominently in Thinking with Images, but an assessment of its prominence leads to questions about the limits of this view for the goals I had in mind in my book.

Radical enactivism takes itself to be the arbiter of everything enactivist. The aim announced by Daniel Hutto and Erik Myin, in Radicalizing Enactive Cognition: Basic Minds without Content, is to “cleanse” the latent cognitive content from all other claimants to the title “enactivist.”[16] In their follow-up publication, Evolving Enactivism: Basic Minds Meet Content, they tell a two-story story about how “basic minds” navigating the world naturally leads to the emergence of sociocultural scaffolds that are managed by content-involving cognition.[17] They also offer “RECtifications,” “corrections” along the lines of truly radical enactive cognition (REC), of other enactivist models of cognition. It is not clear, however, that this account, however radical, improves on what is on offer from sensorimotor enactivism, even if what count as skills and measures of their refinement for sensorimotor enactivism imply a cognitive scheme separate from the skills deployed. Hutto and Myin model the emergence of sociocultural scaffolds on dynamic systems theory, where intelligence arises without mediating representations or knowledge about the functioning of the system. Artworks and art criticism that would appear to be a part of that scaffolding do not obviously or naturally emerge from the regular circumnavigations of basic minds in the world. Critical theory has analyzed the harsh consequences of conceiving art and art criticism on such a model.[18]

There remains a phenomenologically inspired enactivism that draws our attention to the organic and affective regulations of the body – how it is built, how it moves, how it is disposed – as well as to the intersubjective and socio-cultural context where that body is regulated. Perception, on this enactivist model, is motivated by what Merleau-Ponty calls the “I can,” to contrast with Descartes’s I think, “the idea that I see objects in the environment pragmatically in terms of what I can do with them or in terms of what they afford.”[19] On this model, affordances, not skills or scaffolding, motivate the enactment of our goals and aims as they turn up for our distinct embodiment in an environment shared with others distinguished by their own organismic and affective embodiment of the goals they seek to achieve. Actions we are afforded incrementally modify the environment, turning up new affordances and reinforcing those already extant that, in turn, shape our embodied plans for further action. Additionally, this phenomenologically inspired enactivism counts the kind of reflective thinking that informs making and appreciating artworks as a style of embodiment that is not of a higher order than otherwise non-conceptual ways of engaging the environment but “as integrated with perception and action in an ongoing dynamical pattern.”[20] This variety of enactivism is the main inspiration for the reflective thinking about making and appreciating artworks in Thinking with Images. When I thank Shaun Gallagher in the acknowledgements, it is for his influential reading of enactivism. Based on the comments of my critics, I should have done more in the book itself to act on that influence.

On the enactivist model I adopt, an amalgam of Noë’s sensorimotor vision and Gallagher’s affordance-driven account, perception is an achievement of our embodiment, not a separate operation of a mind distinct from that embodiment. The lioness seeking to keep her cubs fed can be an illustrative example of this embodiment. In that scenario, the lioness does not gaze at the savannah and pick out white meat and dark, a serving for two or four. Rather, she picks up affordances that can enable her to achieve the goal of an embodiment that is continuous with the savannah and with the aim of providing for her cubs, a goal that embodies her being a lioness. When it comes to having an aesthetic experience, the same model applies. Sedivy’s remarks have helpfully led me to what I hope is now a clearer account of approximately how it applies.

4. Embodiment

What Knight calls “temperament” describes for me the valences differentiating forms of embodiment localized in a shared environment. Gaskell is, among other things, a professional cultural historian and sometimes art historian, and what he observes adds to my understanding of the artifacts that are important to me but that had not turned up in my encounters with them before he shared his own embodied observations. Knight is, among other things, a proper aesthetician with a keen eye for cinema and a knowledge of the history of cinema and criticism whose observations led me to explore engagements with Le Mépris that had not yet turned up for me. And Sedivy’s highly skilled philosophical attention to perceived inconsistencies in my reasoning alerts me to an unintended awkwardness in the embodiment of my thinking that I hope I have now accommodated to expectations I should have known to anticipate.

To answer some of Sonia’s specific questions, the enactivism in my studies of artifacts by Bacon, Michals, Duchamp, and Godard can be found in my eschewing of objective meaning in favor of a non-subjective encounter with those artifacts. My embodiment is non-subjective because it is shaped by an environment it shares with other forms of embodiment whose actions shape that environment even as they are shaped by it. What I encounter in an artwork is local to me but shared with others who have a role in locating my encounter. The narrative reporting of my encounters attempts to bring my readers into a dialogue they have helped form by sharing an environment with me. I see, now, that I should have characterized those encounters, and the artworks encountered, as the products of a reflective thinking that is continuous with a pre-predicative engagement with the environment at large. These encounters differ from those pre-predicative engagements in the way they challenge the embodied resources I bring to them, affording me the chance to think without knowing what to think. Perception is not left out of my account. It is redescribed as our enactive engagement with the world.

But now, then, what about that Vermeer? I, too, take myself to be an above-average student of Johannes Vermeer’s oeuvre. I was not surprised by the colors in the reproduction – the internet distorts color at so many stages in its transmission of information – but the lack of a connection between the two men in the painting and the rendering of the girl’s visage worried me. So, I went to my Lawrence Gowing and Arthur Wheelock and confirmed, though the image is variously titled The Girl with the Wine Glass (Wheelock) and Couple with a Wine Glass (Gowing) (on Google Commons it is call Two Gentlemen and a Lady),  that the painting is attributed to Vermeer and lives at the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in Brunswick.[21] The painting is dated 1659, so it’s early – Girl with a Pearl Earring, by contrast, is 1665 – but it is odd that it has not been shown at any of the many exhibits of Vermeer’s works I have visited. What this tells me is that my embodiment did not prepare me to recognize the painting as a Vermeer. At the same time, having acquainted myself with the artifact (or a reproduction of it, and none of my print resources reproduce it in color), I don’t know that my engagement with it makes me better prepared to appreciate more well-known works by the Dutch master. Continued encounters with Northern Renaissance painting, however, may include affordances that make my encounter with the Herzog Anton Ulrich Vermeer make a difference.

Overall, enactivism appeals to me because it offers a cogent alternative to substance dualism that, in its phenomenologically inspired variant, takes the body to be the locus of intelligibility. Embodiment, so construed, makes good sense for me of the way artworks are produced and how we think with them in an ongoing dynamic relation intimately coupled with actions guiding our perceptions. This can be a messy business. Bodies, in general, are a messy business. Discrete cognitive substances are the domain of clear and distinct ideas. Bodies gearing into the world incessantly modify their style or scheme to turn up what most affords the achievement of their goals. When one of those goals is initiating and sustaining an ongoing, dynamic relation with an artwork, enactivism accounts for how bodies adapt to the environment where the artwork is encountered and adopt schemes that turn up those affordances that animate that relation.

Artworks that get my attention do so because an affective intensity turns up in my encounter with them. I describe this as not knowing what to think and beginning to think because I don’t know what to think. This not knowing what to think is felt in my body. My body is moved by these artworks, physically and virtually, and a phenomenologically inspired enactivism describes how I “cope with” or respond to the challenges posed by these artworks that move me. My body physically moves through architectures and design spaces the better to regard them. It pantomimes the movements of the performing arts the better to thoughtfully engage them. Visual artworks draw me closer to inspect their details and push me away to gain perspective. I adjust my posture for comfort and to focus my imaginative attention on literary works.

What exactly do I want to achieve or enact in these encounters with artworks? Different things in different environments. The affective intensity that gets my attention does not give me the artifacts that generate the intensity. Their presence must be earned and preserved. Minimally, I hope to make present the affordances that turn up for me in an aesthetic experience. Maximally, I hope to integrate what these affordances invite me to think into what I experience as the source of the intensity. My presence in an environment shared with others, especially because it is shared, turns up this or that artwork as worthy of my attention. My thinking in response to the affordances turned up in this encounter enacts the presence of a pleasure I seek to share with others in that environment. This variety of presence is achieved, in general, when I come across something that challenges the resources I have and affords me resources for thinking. In the case of challenging artworks, this variety of presence affords me the pleasure of thinking undistractedly with others, without knowing what to think.


John M. Carvalho

John M. Carvalho, Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University and Associate Editor at Contemporary Aesthetics, is the author of Thinking with Images: An Enactivist Aesthetics (Routledge 2019) and of essays on the aesthetics of music and motion pictures published in journals and anthologies, including the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Contemporary Aesthetics, the British Journal of Aesthetics, Oxford Handbook of Sound and Imagination, Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music, and many others.

Published January 27, 2022.

Cite this article: John Carvalho, “More Thinking About Thinking with Images: A Response to Ivan Gaskell, Deborah Knight and Sonia Sedivy,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 20 (2022), accessed date.



[1] John M. Carvalho, Thinking with Images: An Enactivist Aesthetics (New York: Routledge, 2019), p. 69.

[2] Shaun Gallagher, Enactivist Interventions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 202-203.

[3] Alberto Moravia, Il disprezzo (Milan: Bompiani, 1954); A Ghost at Noon, trans. Angus Davidson (New York: Farrar, Straus & Young, 1955).

[4] Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991).

[5] Alva Noë, Varieties of Presence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[6] Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, trans. N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer (New York: Zone Books, 1988); Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[7] John M. Carvalho, “Enactivism and Aesthetics,” Routledge On-line Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Garry Hagberg, ed. (forthcoming).

[8] Dave Ward, David Silverman, Mario Villalobos, “Introduction: The Varieties of Enactivism,” Topoi: An International Review of Philosophy 36.3 (September 2017), pp. 365-75.

[9] Varela et al., 1991.

[10] The following summaries are adapted from Carvalho (forthcoming).

[11] See Ezequiel di Paolo, “Autopoiesis, Adaptivity, Teleology, Agency,” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 4.4 (2005): 429-452.

[12] Ward et al., p. 370.

[13] See Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1966).

[14] See Alva Noë, Action in Perception (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004), pp. 35-73.

[15] Noë 2012, pp. 40-41.

[16] Daniel Hutto and Erik Myin, Radicalizing Enactive Cognition: Basic Minds without Content (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).

[17] Daniel Hutto and Erik Myin, Evolving Enactivism: Basic Minds Meet Content (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017).

[18] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cummings (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972).

[19] Gallagher, p. 153.

[20] Gallagher, p. 191.

[21] Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer (New York: Harper & Row, 1952); Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., Vermeer & The Art of Painting (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).