Critical Perspectives on Visual Imagery in Media and Cyberculture

"Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak." - John Berger

Developing a critical approach to visual culture requires, first of all, recognizing the central importance of visual imagery in contemporary culture. As my opening epigram from John Berger suggests, visual images have long been of utmost significance for human life and our ways of seeing. Indeed, how we interact with and interpret visual images is a basic component of human life. Today, however, we are living in one of the most artificial visual and image-saturated cultures in human history which makes understanding the complex construction and multiple social functions of visual imagery more important than ever before.

In this study, I want to argue that living in a new world of images generated by the industries and machines of media and now cyberculture requires a multiplicity of approaches to negotiating visual culture, including the critical perspective. Wandering through this novel terrain of image, spectacle, and multimedia requires new mappings and theories that contextualize and critically analyze the multiple forms of visual culture that surround and sometimes overwhelm us. I will argue for the saliency of the critical approach that relates visual imagery and culture to political economy, that provides a historical analysis of what is novel and different in contemporary forms of visual culture, and that cultivates critical visual literacy to empower individuals to enjoy and productivity use the new images and cultural forms.

More specifically, I propose innovative modes of critical visual literacy to analyze the imagistic dimension of cyber and media culture. I will develop a concept of critical multiple literacies by discussing the pedagogy of visual literacy through the example of a critical reading of Madonna music videos. First, however, we must grasp the history, production, and dissemination of visual culture from the 19th century to the present.

The Rise of Visual Culture of the Image and Spectacle

As we enter a new millennium, it is clear that we live in an era in which mass-produced and multimedia visual imagery is ever more central to our culture. From the computer and television screens that greet us as we wake up in the morning, to the headlines and images in the daily newspaper, to the billboards and advertising that clutter our cities, to the movies, television, and multimedia cyberspaces that instruct and entertain us, we find ourselves in a highly saturated culture of the image and spectacle (Kellner 1995 and forthcoming).

This rise of the image and visual culture to cultural centrality arguably began with photography in the 19th century, and migrated into newspapers and advertising by the turn of the century. It accelerated with film, that became one of the major art forms and sources of visual imagery in the 20th century, and exploded to the omega point with the rise of television, one of the most powerful image machines ever created. Today, the long march of visual culture to hegemony continues apace in the multimedia terrain of the Internet and cyberspace where images quickly joined words and sounds to help constitute a new digitized and interactive multimedia culture.

Computer culture, for many of those of us who started off in the late 1970s or early 1980s, was initially text-based and constituted an intensification of print culture, albeit in a different mode of digitization -- a word now central to all computer-mediated forms of culture and communication. With the spread of Apple computers and then Windows, however, images, graphics, sounds, video, pop-up animations, and various forms of visual and moving images came to the fore requiring visual literacy as one interacted in the new multimedia environment.

Technological developments connected with the information and computer revolutions have intensified the technical developments of photography, film, and television, as well as creating new forms of cyberculture that are in addition absorbing previous cultural forms in the on-going and highly evolving Internet experience. Accordingly, films spectacles are more dazzling, with high-tech special effects, computerized simulations, and epic scope. Television too has been proliferating media spectacle ranging from ever more high-tech sports spectacles like the Super Bowl, NBA basketball championships, or World Series, to political spectacles like the Gulf War, the O.J. Simpson trial, the Bill Clinton sex and impeachment scandals, and the Battle for the White House in the spectacular aftermath of Election 2000 (Kellner, forthcoming).

Exploring the new cyberculture and multimedia visual culture critically requires that one deploy all the tools of previous visual culture developed by art, film, and television theory. Yet I would venture to speculate that despite the centrality of visual images in both film and television, I do not think that either film theory, television studies, or, more broadly cultural studies has ever come to terms with the importance of visual images in contemporary life, developed adequate tools of analysis and interpretation, or created adequate forms of what I'm calling critical visual literacy. Hence, my remarks here can only serve as a prolegomenon to a more extensive project.

Given the rise to increasing importance of the culture of the image and spectacle that I briefly sketched out, it is more important than ever to understand how visual culture is constructed, communicates, and effects us and how to critically analyze, interpret, and use visual images. To advance this project, in the next section I want to reflect on what constitutes a critical approach to visual images and will provide a pedagogical example of reading images critically through engagement of a Madonna music video.

Critical Visual Literacy

After the eras of modernism in the arts and its succession by postmodernism (see Best and Kellner 1997), it would be pedantic and futile to criticize visual images for masking, distorting, or simulating reality, although in some cases one could, and should, make such criticism. For example, one could deploy criteria of truth and falsity in a critical perspective if corporations or political institutions or figures consciously manipulate images to fool or exploit the public. Likewise, if news institutions begin simulating visual imagery and not telling viewers or readers, then one could and should deploy an epistemological critique using criteria of truth and authenticity in opposition to simulation and fakery.

By now, however, we should be aware that all technologically-mediated visual images are constructed, that photography, film, television, and other media are technologies of image production that have their codes, conventions, and biases and that every technologically mediated visual image is the product of image-producers who themselves have agendas and biases that should be subject to scrutiny. Likewise, we should be aware that in a digital culture, images can be constructed, transformed, refined, and modified through technical means and that not everything one sees in visual culture is an exact copy or replication of the object or event portrayed.

Hence, I would focus the critical approach on, first, contextualizing all image production in the matrix of its production and reception to help decode its biases, ideologies, and intended effects. Critical approaches have classically been grounded in the political economy of cultural production, analyzing the system of production and distribution, and raising questions of who is producing, promoting, and disseminating the images in question and for what purposes. So, if one is criticizing a specific website, and if one is interrogating the images and design, one needs to ask if this is a commercial site, if the images are promoting certain products and are a form of advertising, and what values, messages, and ideologies are being communicated by the specific images under scrutiny. If it is a political or informational site, one needs to raise questions concerning the perspectives of those producing the site, their biases, and the actual content of the images and information portrayed.

Moreover, the critical approach involves systematic examination of the politics of representation, of the images of class, race, and gender in a specific arena of visual communication. Hence, after engaging the production and political economy of images, the critical perspective focuses on the politics of representation: do the visual images advance class, racial, gender or other forms of domination, or are they empowering to oppressed groups? One would, in this case, criticize images and representation that promote such things as racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression and would valorize representations that presented resistance to oppression and the empowerment of oppressed groups, or that promoted positive values such as democratization, individual rights and freedoms, social justice or other positive values.

A critical cultural studies sees society as a contested terrain, as a battleground for domination and hegemony between competing gender, race, sex, ethnic, class, and other forces (see Kellner and Ryan 1988 and Kellner 1995). Images and representations often reproduce and circulate competing social discourses, as when positive and empowering images of women transcode feminist discourses, and thus contest sexist stereotypes that promote the oppression of women. Of course, images can be ambiguous, as we will see below from the example of Madonna who some see as an icon of pop feminism undermining and opposing traditional images of women, while others see her as embodying traditional stereotypes of women as sex objects, or, as I would do, stress the contradictions in the politics of Madonnaís texts and their reception.

In any case, a critical cultural studies situates visual imagery in terms of an ongoing contest of representations between opposing social forces. From the perspective of the politics of representation, the critical approach grounds its standpoint of critique in measuring whether images promote oppression or empowerment, whether they further the subordination of oppressed groups according to gender, race, class, sexuality, and other criteria, or the empowerment of these groups, thus undermining oppression. This is the original sense of ideology critique developed by the Frankfurt School and notions of the politics of representation developed by the Birmingham School of contemporary cultural studies, as well as feminists, gays and lesbians, multiculturalists, and various oppositional groups. From this perspective, critique is motivated by political goals and values such as equality, empowerment, democracy, or other positive values, while opposing negative phenomena like oppression, domination, or subordination.

Thirdly, however, since not all images and representations are overtly political, one needs to get at the multiplicity of values, meanings, or messages encoded into the form and content of visual images, and explore the multiplicity of ways in which audiences decode visual images and media texts according to their own subject-positions. Visual images and media texts are often polymorphous, containing a wealth of meanings; images function in contexts and their meanings evolve in terms of narratives, sequences, and resolutions. A critical approach would not, therefore, reduce visual images or media texts to one singular interpretation, although one could well privilege a certain reading. Yet one also needs to know how various audiences process visual images and the variety of ways in which images can be read.

Reading images critically thus involves cultivating visual literacy, that enables one to situate images in social and political contexts and grasp their range of meanings and effects, and to criticize images that promote blame-worthy phenomena such as sexism, racism, or homophobia. This critical approach requires fluency in a multiplicity of critical and hermeneutical theories, in what I've called a multiperspectivist approach, combining qualitative and quantitative, hermeneutical and critical, semiotic and structural, and the various critical theories to get at the full range of meanings of visual images (Kellner 1995).

Moreover, one might deploy critical perspectives engaging not only the politics of representation, but the moral, philosophical, and aesthetic dimensions of cultural texts in which case the critical project becomes vastly richer and more complex depending, obviously, on the magnitude, goals, and scope of the project at hand. As an example of a critical approach to visual literacy, let me use as an example the phenomenon of Madonna music videos and spectacles to illustrate my positions. I would argue, first, that to get at the Madonna phenomenon, to understand the texts and cultural influence of Madonna, one needs to critically contextualize and decode the images disseminated in her music videos, stage spectacles, films, and publicity photos. I would indeed claim that image is a central aspect of the Madonna phenomenon, that she is exemplary of a postmodern image culture in which look, style, and appearance is a key to identity and the cultivation of resonant images and style is the key to cultural and social success (see Kellner 1995).

To contextualize the production of Madonnaís images, we need to read her musical texts and their reception in the context of the rise of MTV and music videos as a major medium of the production of popular music. Madonna was one of the first superstars of the music video and her work deployed the most talented music production, film, and performance crews which gave her videos a distinctive look and feel, that made her an icon of a generation. Madonnaís imagery in her music videos was enhanced by the spectacle of dancing, high-tech special effects, and dazzling editing, as well as music and lyrics.

Madonna became a cultural icon in large part because of her look, because of her image and status as an arbitrator of fashion, sexuality, and style. She became a role model, first, for young girls who identified with her working class ethnic images, overt sexuality, and distinctive fashion accoutrements with chains, crosses, ripped blue jeans, and rebellious appearances. As she migrated into more overtly glamorous images, emulating Marilyn Monroe in a postmodern parody of the beauty queen, Madonna identified shifts in style and fashion appropriate to the materialism of the Reagan era in which her early work appeared.

But Madonna also emerged as a major celebrity star in a culture of image and publicity, in which public relations operations disseminated her image through tabloid culture, the press, film and television, as well as music culture. Her transition from boy-toy flash-trash style to glamorous icon of film and fashion to exotic diva of gender-bending eroticism and hard technobody figure, to mother and more traditional pop singer encompassing genres from pop, to R&B, to country were highly publicized in photos, music videos, films, and publicity stunts. Her well-publicized loves, affairs, marriages, divorces, birth of children, and most recently marriage to director Guy Richey were highly promoted media events that kept circulating images of Madonna as a superstar celebrity.

So reading Madonna in terms of the political economy of cultural production discloses how she was an appropriate iconic figure for a culture of the image, in which the visual became an important part of musical production, and in which musical success depended on the production of the spectacle of music videos, concert performances, and film, all of which Madonna exploited to the maximum. Reading the politics of representation of Madonnaís music videos, however, gets us into a highly contested domain of cultural studies. For some, Madonna is an icon of a resistant pop feminism that provides empowering images for women to create their own styles, looks, fashion, and to express themselves in oppositional and resistant ways. Music videos like "Express Yourself," from this perspective, transcode a feminism that positions women in the role of phallic power, as when Madonna, decked out in Marlene Dietrich-like masculine couture, grasps her phallus and defiantly tells her audiences to "express yourself!"

Others see Madonna music videos and images as replicating traditional images of women as sex object and as a highly commodified cultural artifact that sells particular images and looks as an instrument of promotional culture and the fashion industry. From this perspective, Madonna is condemned as a representative of commodity culture, narcissism, and capitalist-consumerist values (see a wide-range of readings of Madonna, see Schwichtenberg 1992).

As I hinted above, I read Madonna as containing a set of contradictions and would not reduce her texts and reception to either an unqualifiedly positive or negative interpretation (see Kellner 1995). I would argue that Madonna videos contain both feminist and traditional images of women and that her gender representations are highly contradictory and ambiguous. While the early Madonna promotes positive and sympathetic images of working class life, rare in musical culture or iconic celebrity imagery, her middle and later work privileges highly glamorized images of beauty and fashion. Likewise, while one could valorize Madonnaís inclusion of multicultural images of a diversity of races and sexuality, there have been critiques of her exploitation of cultures of color and gay and lesbian culture for her own commercial and promotional purposes.

Thus, a critical hermeneutic of the polysemic nature of visual imagery reads the politics of visual representation from a variety of perspectives that articulates ambiguities and contradictions in the politics of visual representation, or valorizes competing images that either promote or contest domination and subordination. One generally needs to look to alternative realms of image production in photography, art, film, or video to provide genuinely emancipatory or oppositional cultural images, although the images of media culture often display a wealth and diversity of meanings and effects that a critical visual literacy can engage.

So to conclude and summarize: A critical approach to visual images and what I'm calling critical visual literacy would contextualize images and media spectacle within the political economy of their production and engage the politics of representation, but also develop a multiperspectivist approach to address a broad range of issues concerning text and audience response depending on the project, goals, and context of the critical work in question. Hence, I conceive of the critical approach not as a specific dogmatic perspective that is superior to all others, but as part and parcel of the enterprise of gaining skills and literacies to empower individuals in the rapidly proliferating image culture of the present.

But developing critical visual literacy is also a key part of a reconstruction of education and society that would incorporate new multiple literacies in a reconstruction of education that took seriously visual culture, that engaged the forms of media and cyberculture that are increasingly central to all realms of experience, and that would thus refocus education on providing the skills necessary for participation in contemporary culture and society (Kellner 1998 and 2000). Interestingly, notions of computer literacy are gaining ascending credibility and focus, even to the point of obsession, in some educational circles but those advocating computer literacy rarely stress the importance of visual and media literacy, thus operating with a truncated concept of computer literacy. Consequently, I would argue that promoting critical visual literacy is a key component in reconstructing education in an era in which new technologies and cyberculture are playing increasingly important roles in all aspects of life. I will thus conclude with some brief remarks on cyberculture as the new frontier of cultural studies that provides new challenges to a critical visual literacy.

Cyberculture and Multiple Literacies: The New Frontier

Moving into the cultural forms of the new millennium, I would argue that as cyberculture evolves further into the multimedia and interactive culture, notions of critical visual literacy developed in relationship to photography, film, television, or art could be deployed in analyzing the visual dynamics of cyberculture. Reading cyberculture critically involves multiple literacies including the ability to read hypertext, to read and contextualize visual representations, graphics, and now moving images as well (Kellner 1998).

Indeed, I would argue that developing critical visual literacy is an important part of computer literacy, that as cyberculture becomes more multimedia and interactive, the role of visual images in cyberculture is growing in importance and so becoming cyberculture literate will involve learning to read, interpret, contextualize, produce, edit, position, and organize visual imagery as part of cybercultural hypertexts. Thus, just as there is a technical literacy required to use computer programs and the continued importance of print literacy necessary to navigate and communicate in cyberculture, so too will visual literacy be part of the multiple literacies necessary to navigate and negotiate cyberculture.

Cyberculture is indeed emerging as a central cultural site that is rapidly absorbing all other media -- print and hypertext; archives and sites of visual imagery ranging from photography and art to pornography and advertising images; graphics, including moving ones; and, forthcoming, I would predict, proliferation of television, film, and video imagery in cyberculture. Thus, the literacies developing in reading visual imagery in art, photography, film, and television can be used in cyberculture, as well as developing new multiple literacies for multimedia and hypertext culture that requires one to read together images, text, graphics, and moving images.

Hence, as part of critical computer literacy, I would include the skills of deciphering and analyzing the visual components of cyberspace, of grasping the growing importance of images and multimedia, and developing appropriate critical and hermeneutical perspectives on new modes of visual representation. This procedure engages the issue of visual design in cyberculture, the question of aesthetics, and the role of visual images in cybercommunication.

Consequently, critical visual literacy emerges as a key element of the multiple literacies needed to read both media culture and cyberculture. Just as print literacy takes on new saliency in cyberculture, so too does the issue of visual literacy. Thus, gaining the skills of critical visual literacy provide competencies that will help individuals participate and succeed in the new economy, and will also provide access to participating in new modes of cultural production, political engagement, and interpersonal communication and social relations. Providing these skills to all, through a reconstruction of education, thus provide preconditions to producing a more democratic society, to overcoming the digital divide, and thus to producing a better and more egalitarian society of the future (Kellner 2000).

- Douglas Kellner, U.C.L.A.

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