The hazards of projection

by Terence MacNamee

There are several kinds of projection. A familiar kind is the projection of the earth’s surface onto maps, or of three-dimensional reality into the two dimensions of a picture. Projection is a psychological reality too. We see the depth in pictures by projecting it onto them; otherwise we could make no sense of either still or motion photography. Indeed, there is a sense in which we perceive all depth “out there” by projecting it out of our own three-dimensional bodies. Jean-François Billeter has described Chinese calligraphy in terms of creating an illusion of three-dimensionality on the two-dimensional surface that the viewers can project their own depth into.

Projection is also a metaphor used by psychologists since Freud: in this sense, the subject projects or transfers qualities or feelings of his own onto other people, especially those qualities or feelings he does not want to see in himself.

We are projecting all the time, in at least one of the above senses. What you are doing now – reading this text – involves projection. In order to interpret what you are reading, you need to project meaning into it, not just the word-for-word meaning, but the whole surrounding penumbra of context and connotation. You cannot see the writer – by the time you read this I will be off doing something else – so you have to guess what I am like, what sort of a mood I am in, whether I am joking or not, what my purpose is in writing, what I am really getting at.

The trouble with this kind of projection is that it is to a great extent a conjecture. We usually know from long experience of reading how to interpret what the writer means and intends; but we may get it wrong, projecting our own preoccupations onto what the other fellow is saying. There are traps for the unwary. The writer may belong to a different culture or sub-culture from us. Even without that, we may imagine he is lecturing us, or patronizing us, or insulting us; he may have intended nothing of the sort, but for some reason we were in a mood to be provoked.

This is a problem for the writer. In fact there is no bigger problem for the writer, because in writing you may have done your best to entertain and persuade and stimulate thought, and without realizing it you were waving a red rag at a bull. Now the bull is hopping mad, and it’s too late to correct the impression with soothing signals. In a moment he will charge and gore you, unless you take to your heels and jump over the barrier, hoping the maddened brute will not be able to follow you out of the arena into the stands. There – I’m gone.