Visualising the Visual

The visual dominates so many areas of life now. Our view of the world is mediated through TV, and increasingly the Internet as it in turn becomes a more visual and interactive medium. Most forms of communication are highly visual. Is there a day that when we don’t use the power of simple icons to carry out complex instructions, whether on our personal computer or the local ATM? And this type of interaction applies even more so to our students who are adept with their computer games and the imaging capabilities of their mobile phones. But having acknowledged the wealth of visual experience in our culture does not necessarily translate into the ability to analyse and manage that experience. So what kind of educational program could we devise that might help our students navigate more successfully this enticing and alluring visual world?

Firstly, it is important to appreciate that there are different notions of the “visual.” A way of demonstrating this is to look at three contemporary attempts to capture essential qualities of our visual world. One notion can be found in the writings of the art historian, Gombich. He describes an ordinary day in the following terms:

We are living in a visual age. We are bombarded by pictures from morning to night. Opening our newspaper at breakfast we see photographs of men and women in the news, and raising our eyes from the paper, we encounter the picture on the cereal package. The mail arrives and one envelope after another discloses glossy folders with pictures of alluring landscapes and sunbathing girls to entice us to take a holiday cruise…Leaving our house, we pass billboards along the road that try to catch our eye and play on our desire to smoke, drink or eat. At work it is more than likely that we have to deal with some kind of pictorial information: photographs, sketches, catalogues, blueprints, maps or at least graphs. Relaxing in the evening, we sit in front of the television set, the new window on the world, and watch moving images of pleasure and horrors flit by. Even the images created in times gone by or in distant lands are more easily accessible to us than they ever were to the public for which they were created. Picture books, picture postcards and colour slides accumulate in our homes as souvenirs of travel, as do the private mementos of our family snapshots (Gombrich, 1996, p. 41).

In this account, the visual world is one of images, which “entice”, “tempt us” and “play with our desires.” At work we have to “deal with” a variety of pictorial information, while at home we relax by watching images on TV which “flit by.” It is a description of a world where images cannot be avoided. They demand attention and we seem helplessly before them. Gombrich goes on to argue that unlike language, which can inform because of its ability to conceptualise the world, the power of images lies in its ability to arouse emotions, “the visual image is supreme in its capacity for arousal” (Gombrich, 1996, p. 41).

A recent attempt to update Gombrich’s description of a typical day provides a second notion of the visual:

Putting the bread in the toaster we notice its quaint retro styling. After eating we visit the bathroom, which is hidden in a part of the house that is away from public view. Driving to work in our 4WD car whose bulk symbolizes our status and whose styling pays homage to the frontier ideologies of our country we read the play of traffic in the road in order to ensure a safe passage. We arrive at the security gate of our office building and pass by the panopticon-like security cameras. As we walk in from the car park we notice how the design of the office building gives off an impression of power and wealth…Entering our office we water the plants which give it a homely feel and pin up some new postcards (Emmison and Smith, 2000, pp viii-ix)

It would be easy to dismiss all these visual items as a “mindless fascination” with the trivial. However, Emmison and Smith’s description seeks to make us see the visual in new ways. The visual as they understand it is much more than photographic images. Their account presents a series of visual spaces that in turn contain visual items. Some of these spaces are personal ones and they reflect our own values and ideas of design as well as the influence of certain cultural trends, such as, the idea of the “frontier”. Others are public spaces and these in turn are invested with a variety of attitudes that reflect ideas of power, how people should move through these spaces, how individuals and groups can be influenced and directed to see within these spaces and finally, how they in turn are seen by “the panopticon-like security cameras.”

Emmison and Smith’s proposals are valuable for highlighting that what constitutes the visual needs to be thought of in broad terms. Unlike the Gombrich extract where external images seem to actively impress their meaning on a passive receiver; their description acknowledges the visualising capacity of the subject. Here we have who as they respond to style and design are making visual judgements. These judgements range over recognition regarding how issues of power and status are built into our visual world, an awareness of the symbolic qualities of objects and how our mood and feelings are influenced by the visuals that surround us. The human eye as it makes these visual judgements is an “intelligent eye” actively constructing meaning. Gombrich then, presents our visual experiences as a central and pervasive part of everyday life, while Emmison and Smith suggest that cultural knowledge is a key element in shaping what we see and how we see. Even a toaster can be seen as an aesthetic object with a history of design if you have the “eyes” to see it as such. Their account also emphasizes our own practices of visualization, that is, how we ourselves engage with the visual. This focus in turn has raised concerns about how these practices can best be described and analysed:

Spectatorship (the look, the gaze, the glance, the practices of observation, surveillance, and visual pleasure) may be as deep a problem as various forms of reading (decipherment, decoding, interpretation, etc) and that ‘visual experience’ or ‘visual literacy’ might not be fully explicable in the model of textuality (Mitchell, 1994, as cited in Mirzoeff, 1999, p. 7).

A third notion of the visual is Mirzoeff’s view that what we experience on a screen through technology is a qualitatively different form of engagement with the visual. In this view we now spend a considerable amount of time interacting with various screens, whether they are video surveillance cameras, camcorders, webcams, mobile phones, television or the computer. This has led him to state, “Modern life takes place onscreen.” (Mirzoeff, 1999, p.1) Life is increasingly experienced on the screen and these representations show, interpret, and point us to particular aspects of life. Mirzoeff concludes that

In this swirl of imagery, seeing is much more than believing. It is not just part of everyday life, it is everyday life.” (Mirzoeff, 1999, p.1)

His description gives the impression that our interactions with the screen are ones where we give ourselves up to the whirl of giddy sensations which are random and disconnected but ultimately enticing. It is this quality of life that is “increasingly lived” and the visual stimulation brought about by the various technologies of visual production satisfy and draws us in. But at the same time we aren’t able to recognize within this imagery any pattern or meaning. Consequently, we don’t arrive at belief or the truth.

A more extreme version of this association of the visual with pleasure is Frederic Jameson’s claim that

The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination… (Jameson, 1990, as cited in Mirzoeff, 1999, p. 10)

Where Gombrich saw the visual as intruding into our world because of its emotional power, Jameson sees our situation as one where we actively seek the visual because of the pleasures that they afford us. By characterizing the visual as “essentially pornographic” he suggests that their seductive power lures us into a state where we abandon thinking and give ourselves over to the pleasure, intensity, excitement and rapture afforded by the visual This attitude reflects a widespread suspicion of the visual, and assumes that a culture dominated by the visual must be an inferior one. One reason for this hostility is that the visual has been closely identified with popular culture. Reading and writing are disciplines that need to be mastered, whereas the visual is there to provide instant and mindless enjoyment. From this viewpoint, education is a journey where, in time, the “simple” pleasures of the visual, will eventually give way to the more “complex” pleasures of the written word. Furthermore, in western culture, writing has tended to be associated with reason and so the textual has been well suited to providing a written restraint to the undisciplined pleasures of the visual.

Nick Sidoryn
Marden Senior College

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