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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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OCT 2019 Issue
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Pareidolia and Signifying the Insignificant

By chance, the interiors of sliced bell peppers look like screaming faces. A cloud can resemble an animal, an Imperial Destroyer, or Godzilla looming over Tokyo. Pareidolia, or the perception of patterns in natural phenomena, can be lighthearted and imaginative.

Signs play, and we recognize patterns by connecting images we perceive to forms we already know. We assess and act accordingly. What does one do with this visual information except chuckle and move on, or keep scrolling? Some forms of pareidolia fail to register beyond temporary amusement.

The philosopher Richard Wollheim made a distinction between what he called “seeing-in” as opposed to “seeing-as.” We see in a sliced bell pepper a screaming face, but we would never see a bell pepper as a screaming face, never confuse a vegetable for a human. (First of all, the scale is all wrong.) In this case, seeing-as is an obvious mistake, a comedy of errors. But what if we think of seeing-as not in terms of a visual error in pattern recognition, but as more of a general means of making meaning of signs we perceive?

Consider pareidolia on a cosmological scale. Humans before us looked at the array of stars in the sky and saw images in them. These images solidified into constellations, and they acquired significance when we named them. For some, chance resemblance and chance circumstances then combine to signify a world view. Astrology tells me that the arbitrary timing of my birth has much to do with my personality traits. As a Taurus, I am told that I am prone to being stubborn. I might reflect on all my experiences and remember all the times I was unyielding, and agree. But in that process of filtering through my memories, I might discount all the times I conceded. This is confirmation bias at work. I see what I want to see. Nowadays, if I want to see a screaming face in a sliced bell pepper, I will see it.

Why, in our eyes, do things that are not alike look alike? The answer might lie in the stars. Returning to cosmological scale—and scale is everything—Carl Sagan reminds us of our puny, insignificant existence relative to the universe. There are more stars out there than there are grains of sand on earth. Human history on the cosmic calendar corresponds to the last minute on December 31. The magnitude of this scale can hardly be felt; comprehending it is humbling enough. The remedy, according to Sagan, is this: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” What is love but connection? We counter our own relative insignificance through the act of signifying and making meaning, through likeness.

To consider the chance play of signs in the wide expanse of our meager lives is to engage in constellational thinking. Its effect on our conception of reality has less to do with the signs themselves, and more to do with us who perceive the signs. We register the signs as real in the process from perception to conception, from seeing to seeing-as. It only happens if we make it so. In the face of our relative standing in the cosmos, any meaning will do.


Jessamine Batario

Jessamine Batario is an art historian who lives in Maine. She is currently the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Lunder Institute for American Art at Colby College.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

All Issues