Cultural Studies Essays - Communicate Ideas

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Universal way to communicate ideas or facts.

Images, particularly photographs, are usually thought to be more direct and comprehensible than language, be it written or spoken. Thus, they are considered a universal way to communicate ideas or facts. An instrument intelligible everywhere by everybody, able to overcome any difficulty due to cultural, spatial or temporal gaps between the creator and the receiver of the message. That is why visual communication is often seen as ‘natural’, while language, being ruled by norms and habits that vary from one cultural group to another, is regarded as ‘conventional’ (as it is) and therefore not effective outside specific boundaries. As has been pointed out by art historian Ernst Gombrich, “we do not have to acquire knowledge about teeth and claws (or hands for that matter) in the same way in which we learn a language... our survival often depends on our recognition of meaningful features as it does the survival of animals”. Images are useful so far as they do not need to be translated into foreign languages, that is why today in many countries there can be found the same (or very similar) signals that may be easily understood both by locals and tourists. It is the case, for instance, of the ones indicating a public phone or a train station. But there are even images whose meaning is not merely functional but highly symbolical, reaching everybody with its emotional or psychological meaning, such as the white dove standing for peace or the tau circle reminding anyone of inner wholeness. Not only do these and many other images not need a translation from one language into another, but they express an idea which would often take many words to be conveyed; so it can be comprehended by non highly literate persons too, and this happens in a shorter time than it would take to read its verbal equivalent. This notwithstanding, there are some exceptions, that is to say some images that do not have the same meaning in every region of the world, or in every historical era, so that communicating through language (although more difficult to accomplish) can attain better results. To understand this point it will suffice to think about the meaning of the swastika in Germany during the 1930’s and what it stands for in Indian Hindu tradition. The same happens even when photographs are taken into consideration. In fact, if it is true that realism is the peculiar characteristic of photography, it is equally true that some subjects do not have the same psychological and cultural significance for everyone. An enlightening example of this can be found in one of the most famous portraits taken by Arnold Newman, father of the ‘environmental portraiture’ (which implies taking pictures of  persons in their daily life places). It is the picture of the composer Igor Stravinsky, captured while leaning on a piano.

It might seem strange, but this instrument, in this specific image, is not understood in the same way by everybody. In fact, an Italian observer would look at it as a simple musical instrument, typical of the work of the composer. But if the observer were American he would look at it in a different way, since to him the big, black cover of the piano would remind of a huge ‘b’, which is not only a letter of the alphabet but a musical note too. So, the picture would acquire a further symbolic element, referring poetically to the proximity of Stravinsky to the very essence of music. An extra meaning that is very probably lost when the portrait is experienced by the Italian observer. So, it becomes clear that the images may have a basic, literal meaning which is the same for everybody (a piano is a piano), but they have also many other symbolic meanings which vary from one culture to another and can be easily misunderstood or not grasped at all (for someone, a piano can represent a musical note as well). Consequently, not even extreme realism and photography can be fully trusted, thus being not safe from the wave of uncertainty characteristic of post-modernism, for which nothing can be taken for granted any more. As has been pointed out by W. J. Mitchell, these observations imply a partial rejection of some thoughts on photography by Roland Barthes. In fact, Mitchell states, “this overcoming of what has been called the natural attitude has been crucial to the elaboration of visual studies as an arena for political and ethical critique, and we should not underestimate its importance (see Byron, 1983). But if it becomes an unexamined dogma, it threatens to become a fallacy just as disabling as the naturalistic fallacy it sought to overturn. To what extent is vision unlike language, working (as Roland Barthes, 1982, observed of photography) like a message without a code? In what ways does it transcend specific or local forms of social construction to function like a universal language that is relatively free of textual or interpretative elements? (We should recall that Bishop Berkeley, 1709, who first claimed that vision was like a language, also insisted that it was a universal language, not a local or national language.) To what extent is vision not a learned activity, but a genetically determined capacity, and a programmed set of automatisms that have to be activated at the right time, but that are not learned in anything like the way that human languages are learned?”.

Visual communication, Mitchell seems to suggest, is in between natural and conventional systems, so that its reception might not be so immediate and uncontroversial as it is often thought. Moreover, he goes on to describe as visual communication, although very popular today thanks to photography, graphic art, illustrated magazines, etc., is not new at all. Many times in history the inner, natural power of images has been evoked to explain what it would be difficult to communicate with words. But, he stresses (quoting the greatest thinkers of western philosophy), it has never to be regarded as perfect just because it depends on the sense of sight, since this could be misleading. So he makes clear the necessity to “acknowledge the perception of a turn to the visual or to the image as a commonplace, a thing that is said casually and unreflectively about our time, and is usually greeted with unreflective assent both by those who like the idea and those who hate it. But the pictorial turn is a trope, a figure of speech that has been repeated many times since antiquity. When the Israelites turn aside from the invisible god to a visible idol, they are engaged in a pictorial turn. When Plato warns against the domination of thought by images, semblances, and opinions in the allegory of the cave, he is urging a turn away from the pictures that hold humanity captive and toward the pure light of reason. When Lessing warns, in the Laocoon, about the tendency to imitate the effects of visual art in the literary arts, he is trying to combat a pictorial turn that he regards as a degradation of aesthetic and cultural proprieties. When Wittgenstein complains in the Philosophical investigations that a picture held us captive, he is lamenting the rule of a certain metaphor for mental life that has held philosophy in its grip”.

Another important factor which must be pondered upon is the relationship between length and language, on the one hand, and length and images, on the other one. In fact, both oral speech and written text are created and perceived along a line, which is the horizontal sequence of words in a book, or the time of exposition in a discussion. That is to say, neither of them can be perceived and experienced in a single moment. But images usually can, since they are entirely present in front of the observer, communicating their meaning at a glance (even though a quick observation is obviously only a superficial one). They have the power of immediacy, they are immediately received by the mind through the eyes, with no apparent filter interposed by language between them and the receiver of the message. That is explained by the fact that when someone reads or hears the word ‘tree’ they usually look at it as a sequence of four graphic signs or sounds referring to the actual tree, while when they see an image or a photograph of a tree they think that it is the real and proper tree, and not just a simple representation of it (to use Ferdinand de Saussure’s terminology, it may be said that ‘signified’ and ‘signifying’ are thought to coincide). Moreover, when there are many different objects in a single image, they can be perceived at the same time, thus making possible to experience the image following some basic principles in Jacques Derrida’s philosophical thought. In fact, when all the elements are present at the same moment in the same place (the same poster, record cover, or internet page) it is much more easy to get an idea of the full text, and consequently it is more easy to deconstruct it and rearrange the elements in a different way. This does not mean to change their position, but to subvert their hierarchical order, thus breaking one of the fundamental rules that in Derrida’s thought govern text structures. That is to say the binary relations which oppose two concepts (such as light/dark, masculine/feminine, new/old), the first of which, in western philosophical thought, is positive, while the second one is negative. Anyway, this are simple suggestions about how Derrida’s concepts might be applied to images, since the French thinker was mainly concerned with traditional written texts, rather than communication in its broadest sense.

It is interesting to note how one of the most esteemed masters of linguistics can be quoted in order to explain why sometimes images can communicate by means of the same elements that are found in literature. Saussure thought that every author has in mind a verbal theme, a sort of visual and phonetic leit motif that he repeats throughout the whole text. The same is true in visual communication, where some forms are repeated in order to achieve a particular dramatic effect or to enhance their meaning (it is the case, for instance, of the photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, or Elsa Thiemann). Also his syntagmatic and paradigmatic associations may be helpful to explain why many scholars think that visual communication is more direct than language. On the one hand, the first class of associations is necessary to language in order to produce a chain of words with a meaning; such associations are dependent upon the structure of the language itself, so that they are conventional and cannot be disposed of at one’s own will (they are connected to the langue). On the other hand, paradigmatic associations are individual, and are highly influenced by someone’s personal experience or background culture (the personal use of a language was called parole by Saussure). In images objects are juxtaposed but, as has been noted above, they do not need a linear reading, so usually the eye of the observer can move up and down, right and left without affecting the comprehension of the message. So, if they are looked from the point of view of Saussure’s linguistic theory, the meaning of images can be emitted and received even though they do not obey any rule of syntagmatic association. Sometimes they even acquire a further meaning that might not be achieved using language. This is due to the fact that everyday everybody is used to experience the world mainly through the sense of sight, so that anybody is accustomed to visual confusion (such as that typical of the main streets of big cities) and can make a sense out of it, while the same could not be possible if speeches and books were not subdued to the rules of syntagmatic associations. Thus, as a final consideration it may be said that images can be more communicative than language, since they are not ruled by the same amount of norms and do not have to obey the same conventions. Nonetheless, as has been explained by W. J. Mitchell, visual communication is everyday more complex and, consequently, the viewer cannot go on relying to his/her sight only, but must be aware of all the cultural implications of a single image in order to fully appreciate the message.

Bibliography:
T. Barrow, Reading into photography, University of New Mexico Press, 1982.
R. Barthes, Elements of semiology, Hill and Wang, 1964.
R. Barthes, Image, music, text, Hill and Wang, 1978.
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S. H. Bean, The efficacy of non-verbal images in multimedia, Economic Informatics Symposium, 2000.
V. Burgin, Thinking photography, Humanities Press Intl., 1982.
J. Derrida, Of grammatology, John Hopkins University Press, 1974.
J. Derrida, Writing and difference, University of Chicago Press, 1980.
J. Derrida, Dissemination, University of Chicago Press, 1983.
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