Sunday, April 10, 2011

Response to Handbook of Visual Communication: Theory, Methods, and Media

Overall, I found the first half of this anthology to be interesting. Like some of the other anthologies we have read this semester, some of the essays seemed to be more "on point" and timely than others. Although the book covers a wide range of topics in visual communication, I was most struck by two of the pieces in the "Perception" section of the book--Sheree Josephson's "Eye Tracking Methodology and the Internet" and Ken Smith's "Perception and the Newspaper Page: A Critical Analysis."

Although the methodology of the pieces was significantly different, it seemed that these two essays were in direct conversation with each other. Josephson's essay examined the influence of ad placement and advertisement animation on web pages in determining where readers' eyes looked most often. Smith's piece looked at three different styles of newspaper layout with regard to the use of gestalt principles of design. Both pieces are concerned with how we can implement certain design choices to influence potential readers' responses to forms of media.

What I was left wondering after reading both of these pieces, however, was how the discussion from the first section of this book on aesthetics plays into design choices. With regard to Josephson's essay, which, to be fair, was written long enough ago that web design standards have understandably significantly shifted, it was hard not to think about the design of sites like MySpace or the pop up advertisements that use animation and blinking buttons. Although it may be hard to argue with her findings that advertisements placed at the top of web pages are, overall, the most effective at getting readers' attention, it seems that the most important design consideration today with regard to the web is the creation of a professional appearance that is eloquent in that the form it takes should be suited to the content presented. In other words, designing a web page that a reader would find to be annoying, too visually loud or confusing to parse visually is pretty much a sin. These are the choices, however, that are much more difficult to quantify. On one hand, Sandra Moriarty and Lisa Rohe's essay "Cultural Palettes in Print Advertising: Formative Research Design Method" seems to address some of the ways in which we can account for taste when we are designing, but, to be honest, I found the idea that encouraging designers to use chili peppers but stay away from sombreros and cacti when designing for a population with Mexican heritage to be a bit strange. On one hand, global communication courses will discuss the difference between cultures, for instance the difference between designing for a high or low context culture and the importance of using symbols that translate or are not offensive. On the other hand, simply encouraging someone to design using one set of colors and symbols while avoiding the color blue and donkeys seems to needlessly eliminate design options. Perhaps from a corporate perspective, this would be an acceptable policy, but it didn't seem to be that academically sound? My favorite restaurant back home is owned by a family from Mexico. Here's the mural from inside their restaurant and it's also printed on the t-shirts for the restaurant. I don't think it would pass the "Cultural Palette" test though...

Briefly, to return to Smith's essay, I am interested in how newspaper design has shifted over the years. All of these three designs that he chose to analyze seemed very outdated (even considering the format of papers such as the WSJ or the NYT). I would be interested to see this discussion taken forward to look at the format of different front pages throughout the country such using the Newseum's today's front pages feature. Again, though, with newspaper design, I'm not sure how much rules and gestalt principles come into play consciously at the end of the day. Guidelines held, different sizes of text in things like subhead and photo captions help, but all the rules in the world can still lead to an ugly/unreadable publication at the end of the day. Professional designers are often brought into daily publications when they decide to take on a redesign. With recent consolidations and cutbacks and outsourcing to central location design desks, at least one national newspaper chains have been attempting to redesign their publications to make it easier for one team of people to design 15-20 newspapers. These conferences have been especially problematic because it requires editors from across the country to agree on the ideal look of a publication. Good design's elusive.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Response to Ann Marie Seward Barry's Visual Intelligence

Barry's use of descriptions of the biological processes involved in seeing and perceiving was fascinating. The explanations of sight throughout my years in elementary and high school always seemed inadequate. We were given detailed pictures of the bones of the body, the chambers of the heart, descriptions of how the lungs work, the layers of the skin. But with the eyes, it always seemed like I was asked to rely on a type of faith. There were rods and cones. A teacher would hold up a prism and say something about different waves of light. Yet, even then, it seemed that sight was one of the best ways to start getting at the idea that our knowledge of the world was contextual, that our beliefs were situated and not universal. For a number of years when I was a child and young teenager there was a question that came up in conversations; it seemed that many people had individually had this thought and didn't know what to make of it. ... What if we each saw colors completely differently? What if my blue was your orange, but, at the same time, we were consistent in our difference and so we would never know?

I haven't thought about this question or my dissatisfaction over the rod and cone explanation in quite a while. In part, my reflections were inspired by Barry's descriptions of biological processes, the parts of the eye, the ability to see as learned. However, I wonder if I'm also brought back to my earlier years in school by the number of times in this text that Barry references "Channel One."

Barry doesn't seem to have a high opinion of the programming -- "Given the current pervasiveness of advertising in public schools under the guise of educational programming, particularly as part of "Channel One," this type of exploitation may be more generally acceptable than might at first be thought" (61). Ok. Yes, there was something about Channel One that seemed very similar to MTV. I don't remember the commercials, but I'll trust Barry on this one. However, Channel One also brought free televisions to each of the classrooms in my middle school. And every day we would watch roughly 10-15 minutes of news, engaging with current events in a way that many of us arguably would not have otherwise.

On a different note, I was immediately struck by Barry's epigraph to Chapter 1 -- "The map is not the territory" (15). We've heard this phrase so many times, and I think it becomes ever more relevant as we increasingly rely on things like Google maps, our GPS devices, and Yelp to guide us from point to point on the map. When GPS doesn't recognize that a road is shut down for construction, when a business isn't at the location that Google Maps shows, it's frustrating, of course, but it also makes apparent the difference between the map and the territory. What was surprising, for me, about this epigraph is that I had no idea before reading this book who Alfred Korzybski was. To find that he was the first to use this phrase, as opposed to Jean Baudrillard who used it and then argued not only was the map not the territory but that the map now preceded the territory, may seem like a little thing to take away from this book. However, this is a phrase that I've returned to several times in my writing, and am now grateful to have learned more of the back story behind it's origin. At the same time, it still upsets me to some degree that Barton and Barton's "Ideology of the Map" is so similar to Baudrillard's and doesn't explicitly give him credit. Their piece also begins with a reference to the Borges tale, discusses the difference between the map and the territory and then expands on this idea by saying that there are rules of inclusion and exclusion.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

More thoughts on Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites' No Caption Needed

The authors' case studies of iconic photos in this book continue to amaze me. I especially was struck by the follow up photo of Kim Phuc and her child and the authors' analysis of how a political event has moved into the sphere of domesticity for resolution. Also, in that same chapter, we find another reference to Disney in -- "the Disney theme park that would have been located near the Manassas battlefield" (200). The accompanying political cartoon is particularly shocking, maybe in part because of the expression on Goofy's face. Again, an analaysis of the relationship of the political unconscious to Disney seems to be something that, at least if we take the examples from the texts we've been reading in class as an indication, would lend itself productively to further research.

Several pages later in the chapter, the authors bring in another re-appropriation of the napalm photo in their analysis of an editorial cartoon that appeared in 2004 depicting a shrouded detainee fleeing behind Kim Phuc. The cartoon shares the iconic photo's composition, with the soldiers walking in the rear and the young man in the front silently mourning. From the cartoon, the authors draw a comparison between Abu Gharib and Vietnam. They say, "Once again, war crimes are occurring because of U.S. policy, once again, the public is trapped in a space between pain and indifference; once again, the war will not go away ... Worse yet, there is room on the road for more figures to be added as Americans continue to repeat history rather than learn from it" (202).

On one hand, I agree that the comparison is effective. Especially in the visual rendering, the image is shocking. However, in the conclusion to the book the authors return to a consideration of the photos of detainee abuse. Although I don't particularly mind that the authors have been up front about their politics throughout the text (in fact I agree with/ most if not all of their leanings), I'm not sure if I agree with all of their analysis of these photos.

Throughout the text, the authors have referred to the place of professional photojournalists in capturing iconic moments on film. (A separate issue here, especially when considering WJT Mitchel's description of the relationship between image and text is that many, if not all, professional photojournalists today are often referred to by their employers as multi-media journalists. They write, post to the web and shoot video in addition to taking photos.) However, with the Abu Gharib photos, these were not professionally shot. I would have liked to see more consideration given to the ways in which these photos function differently because they were privately shot and leaked through the Internet and therefore suggest something has changed about our world today.

Two additional points. First, the authors claim that learning of the detainee abuse "stunned the world" (292). Although it would be hard to argue that these photos did not stun, I wonder whether the influence they had was significantly less than it would have been in a different time period when the reading public was not constantly bombarded with images generally. Related to this first point is that it seems a significant number of Americans believe that torture is acceptable. Not having done a study or read any recent polls on this, it's hard to say with any authority. However, a fellow grad student at UF recently discussed torture with his class, and, according to him, only one student spoke against it. The other students apparently said they thought it was necessary. My second point here is related to the authors' claim that the photos of detainee abuse "revealed a pornography of violence at the heart of the occupation" (294). I would extend this critique to say that there is a collective "pornography of violence" in our culture (although culture may become a problematic term here, and I take issue with the degree to which it gets used to describe things like "print culture"). There was, around the time that these photos came to light, a growing resurgence of films that have been described as torture porn. I would argue that the success of these films was directly related to the invasion of Iraq and the nation's need to make visible a type of violence that had been authorized yet kept hidden from sight for the most part.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Response to Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites' No Caption Needed

The authors say, "The distinctive problem for a liberal-democratic society in such crises is that any political response has to be designed to meet needs defined in the aggregate, while still maintaining ideological commitment to the primacy of the individual" (88). They also say that "description of an individual's experience is the standard lead-in for any feature news story" (90). Here, I wondered not only about the effectiveness or the need of journalists to balance out their focus on more universal or wide-ranging issues with the focus on particular subjects, but more specifically how this tendency functions in publications as a whole. For instance, maybe several front page stories about government policy, the weather and local schools might be balanced out with a page 2 feature on specific individuals. Maybe this, in part, is the function of feature pieces (which also seem to be some of the easiest pieces to botch or make overly saccharin). There was an ongoing feature at the paper called "The Storyteller." The feature was usually devoted to an older member of the community's story (and, in a small, rural town many of the stories shared themes such as church, hard work, focusing on family)... what always struck me about these pieces, though, was the accompanying artwork, which tended toward portrait-like shots, highly detailed (realism over flattering shots) that seemed to, in some ways, echo the tone of "Migrant Mother." I had never thought about "The Storyteller" feature functioning to balance out the paper's necessary attention to stories about groups, stories about the impact on the entire city or county. Above Photo by Ken Ruinard, Independent-Mail, Anderson, S.C.

Overall, this book's case studies of iconic photographs were fascinating. One of the first questions to come to mind, however, is whether it is possible today for photographs to achieve an iconic status to the same degree that the photos discussed in the text have. Throughout, the authors refer to "print media" and the ways in which photographs function in print. Although the authors also use references to Google image searches to make some of their points about the recirculation of the photos, so far I found that the text left me wondering what the authors thought about the impact of digital forms of media. Additionally, and related to this question of how the internet might change the potential of images to achieve iconic status, is the authors' suggestion that there is still a definable difference between a public and a private culture.

They say, "Public culture includes oratory, posters, print journalism, literary and other artistic works, documentary films, and other media as they are used to define audiences as citizens, uphold norms of political representation and institutional transparency, and promote general welfare" (26).

The authors' model of the public sphere in this way ("other media") does seem to account for the influence of new forms; however, I would argue that the continual lessening of privacy and permeation of the mechanisms of surveillance have changed how the divisions that once existed between public and private once functioned.

They say, "Democratic publics need emotional resources that have to be communicated through the public media. That, and not the masses' childish yearning for enchantment, is why the public media include images" (36). To this I would add that the public media include images to turn a profit. Yes, maybe we have a collective unconscious desire for the affective nature of the photograph, but it is the attachment of a monetary value to the fulfillment of this need and not the desire to fulfill the need itself that seems to drive decisions of the "public media." In other words, "if it bleeds, it leads."

In chapter 3 "The Borders of the Genre," the authors discuss a statue at Disney World that is a play on the "Times Square Kiss" photograph. This was especially interesting to me considering Mitchell's claim in Picture Theory that we are in the "new world order of the theme park." Again, I would be interested in exploring further the connection between the mediation, through the theme park or maybe specifically through the Disney corporation, of how we view U.S. military policy.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Response to Ron Burnett's How Images Think

Overall, I found this text to be very useful in thinking through some of the theories of the visual that we have been discussing this semester. It seems that Burnett has outlined some of the most important issues within how we think about images, even if I somewhat disagree with his use of terminology in places and some of his conclusions. A few thoughts:

Burnett says, "[t]he process of copying was a precursor to new methods of disseminating information and ideas. This is most fully expressed through the zine movement and P2P communications systems that I examine in greater detail in chapter 7" (62). Although I found his later discussion of P2P systems useful for thinking about how we imagine new communities though emergent, digital forms of media, I would have liked him to continue the discussion of zines, which I believe are a valuable but often overlooked resource for thinking, as he suggests, about technologies of reproduction, the emergence of new forms of media, and collaborative design. What zines offer, I would argue, are a case study in the ways in which a given technology is often re-purposed within a given situation in order for a group to resist perceived cultural restraints. What I'm thinking of most specifically, here, is the founders of Punk in NYC in 1975 who claim that they had to create a magazine that would cover the music that was being ignored or disparaged in the mainstream publications. The editors of the publication also claim to have named punk rock more generally.

Burnett summarizes/takes issue with Baudrillard: "However, the artificial nature of these environments has made it seem as if simulation and virtual reality were illusions. This has resulted in rather superficial complaints about the world turning into Disneyland and artifice becoming the foundation for the real" (94). Several things here. I would say that Mitchell's summary of Baudrillard's description of Disneyland might be more on point with regard to the ways in which simulation might function. I think the bigger issue here, though, is a problem with the terminology itself. "Virtual" in this sense is just as problematic as "simulation." Or, to respond to Baudrillard's concerns, if we are in the desert of the real itself, then it is the desert that has been created by theories of the disappearance of the real, theories that the real is no longer real at all. Virtual suggests not real. In this sense, then, no images would be real. Unless we agree with Plato, then this seems misguided. Rather, I would argue, we have to begin to focus on the materiality of images and the ways in which things that we refer to as "simulations" or "virtual" are, in fact, actual creations. One example, here, and to tie into Burnett's discussion of immersion in video games, would be the story, printed in an Aug. 2007 editions of the WSJ of Ric Hoogestraat, who spends hours upon hours daily sitting in front of his computer playing Second Life. He is married, in name but not legally, to two women, one of whom he only spends time with when he logs into the game.

Burnett helpfully points toward the creation of a digital divide between those who are literate in computer languages and the rest of the population -- "[t]he opaqueness of 'coding' and the skills needed to create software are out of reach for the vast majority of people" (99).

Finally, I wasn't sure what to make of Burnett's claim that "[t]his is perhaps the first time in human history that a technology has been invented that could redefine what is meant by being human" (122). He argues that humans could not survive without machines (126). On one hand, yes, I agree that we should redefine how we have traditionally thought about what it means to be human. I also agree that humans could not now, nor have ever, survived without machines. This is perhaps, also, where I disagree with Burnett. He seems to suggest that there has been some sort of break that has caused us to redefine humans because humans have changed. Rather, if there has been a break, I would argue that it is that the degree of complexity of our reliance on machines has increased to the point that it has become visible. We have always relied on tools, even if they were not sophisticated machines with moving parts. But, to the first humans, those spears and rocks would have been every bit as valuable as the cars and ipods of today. Some have argued that the fact that humans walked upright came as a result of their use of tools. I believe not in technological determination but rather that man's relationship to technology has always been one of co-evolution.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

More thoughts on W.J.T. Mitchell's Picture Theory

In his chapter "Ut Pictura Theoria: Abstract Painting and Language" Mitchell says there is "a sense that postmodernism is an explosive breaking down of that barrier between vision and language that had been rigorously maintained by modernism" (217).

Throughout this chapter, Mitchell seems to suggest that this barrier was never actually impermeable, (and perhaps the barrier here may function like the semiotic barrier in that it is not what on either side of this wall that should concern us so much as the qualities of the barrier itself) communication remains in even the most abstract paintings of modernism -- "These paintings, no matter how abstract, are never merely formal or decorative" (223).

Again, to return to the theories of the Gutenberg Parentheses or the resurgence of myth after the Enlightenment, all things suppressed or pushed out will perhaps return with a vengeance. So, the "reopening of art ... to kitsch, mass culture, the mixture of media, political propaganda ... the resurgence of artistic impurity, hybridity, and heterogeneity" (239) may all suggest that we, as Latour argues, have never actually been modern. I'm not sure how helpful this is to the navigating the predicament that Mitchell finds himself in when he seems to want to say that we have moved beyond postmodernism but is unsure of what to call this moving beyond -- "the 'end of postmodernism,' if that word has any meaning as the designation of a period" (263). He says, "I have called the end of postmodernism, the era of the 'pictorial turn' " (417). In this sense, then, the pictorial turn looks a like a pictorial revolution, not only in the sense of the re-turning that revolution implies, but, it seems, even more strikingly in the sense of Jameson's conception of revolution as the moment at which modes of production become visibly (emphasis mine) antagonistic. This sense would also point us toward where Mitchell suggests at the end of the text we may need to venture to be able to engage the image -- "suppose we thought about representation, not in terms of a particular kind of object ... but as a kind of activity, process, or set of relationships ... a process in which the thing is a participant" (420). To look at modes of production would be one way, it seems, to achieve this thinking about process and not simply objects.

Mitchell suggests that we look at the processes (and instruments) of production as a revolution -- "[t]here seems little doubt that we are now undergoing a revolution in the technologies of representation that makes possible the fabrication of realities on an unprecedented scale. At the same time, we know that this type of revolution has occurred before, that it appeared previously in the inventions of writing and printing and engraving and mechanical reproduction" (423). I would argue that until it is much more widely understood that these processes have happened before, then we cannot critically approach our current time without a neophilic beliefs in the potential of the image and the digital technology that sends it circulating in an ever widening gyre.

Mitchell says, "Perhaps we have moved in to an area when the point about pictures in not just to interpret them, but to change them" (369). This interesting, especially in light of his "hope for new and critical pictures of the public sphere" (369). Although, it seems several pages earlier that Mitchell may be suggesting the foreclosure of the possibility of a public sphere in the Habermasian sense -- "the telescreen effectively eliminates the boundary between the public and private spheres" (365). Or, again, its diffused -- it's all, in a sense, public (or privatized, branded), with the disappearance through ever more sophisticated, and perhaps now totalized, techniques of surveillance in the Western world, there is no longer privacy in the sense it was once thought.

From this point, I'd like to spend the remainder of this post focused on Mitchell's suggestion in "Pictures and Public Sphere" -- that what we might be experiencing "the new world order of the theme park" -- and the possibilities this suggestion holds for rethinking simulation and our current political situation.

On one hand, Mitchell's description of Disney World, in 1994, echoes Baudrillard's description of the function of theme parks to make our daily lives seem more real. In a different sense, how do we consider Banksy's choice for Disney World as the place to display an effigy of a tortured Guantanamo Bay detainee? That Banksy's photographer for the "installation," who later became Mr. Brainwash and whose art may ask us to reconsider what Mitchell has to say about Warhol, abstraction and the processes of commodification, was quickly captured and detained in a back room of the park, suggests, as Banksy's art does, that there is a relationship between the camp and the theme park. This is not connection that I can fully articulate here but one which I would be interested in pursuing further in the future.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Response to W.J.T. Mitchell's Picture Theory

In the materials we have covered thus far, it seems that "The Pictorial Turn" section of Mitchell's work may be one of the most commonly cited. So, it seems fair to start here (and because this is the first section after the intro.)

Mitchell says that "what is specific to our moment is exactly this paradox" that we encounter within the pictorial turn. He says that "it seems overwhelmingly obvious" that something has changed... here I hear an echo of Debord (who Mitchell cites 2 pages earlier) and yet, on the other hand, "the fear of the image" (15) is nothing new.

He goes on to say that the pictorial turn "is not a return to naive mimesis, copy or correspondence theories of representation ... it is rather a postlinguistic, postsemiotic resdiscovery of the picture as a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies and figurality" (16).

He says that the pictorial turn "is the realization that spectatorship ... may be as deep a problem as various forms of reading ... and that visual experience might not be fully explicable on the model of textuality" (16).

Here, I would add, as I believe Mitchell goes on in various places in the text to suggest. That is problem is not only as deep but also as old a problem as various forms of reading.

So, in that sense, the answers we may give in response to Baudrillard or Debord might be similar to how we approach Plato's consideration of the function of the image. This seems connected to what Mitchell goes on to say in "Beyond Comparison" (before another one of his phrases that we've seen quoted elsewhere this semester, "all media are mixed media" (95)) -- that "[t]he best preventitive to comparitive methods is an insistence on literalness and materiality" (90).

Later in "The Pictorial Turn," Mitchell says, "There is an ancient tradition, of course, which argues that language is the essential human attribute: "man" is the "speaking animal." the image is the medium of the subhuman, the savage, the "dumb" animal, the child, the woman, the masses" (24). This seems connected to what Mictchell goes on to describe in "Narrative, Memory, and Slavery" as "the blankness prior to the formation of memory" (188).

In the ancient theory (Aristotelian?) that Mitchell references, images would precede language, as we have traditionally understood it. Yet, it seems that before memory there is blankness. Could we then go on to say that blankness would be replaced by pictorial memories, which are then complicated and changed into narrative once the speaking subject is constituted? Or, it seems that from another point of view, and what Mitchell may also seem to suggest in his discussion of Morrison's Beloved, there is always the chance that we will fall, through images, back into a sort of blankness. Is it possible that this blankness is more of a sensorial overload, the presenting itself of presence in such a way that after we have acquired language, can be nearly blinding?

From a different perspective, if man is the animal whose nature is necessarily one of forgetfullness, then what is the monstrous quality of remembering? Is it one of images or words or is it something about the relationship between the two?