Lecture 6: Visual Communication, Culture, and "Seeing"

Class Discussion: Historical seeing today vs. Historical connotation

Kim Kardashian (today) and Saartjie Baartman (history)

Brief history of "seeing"

  • Photographic truth
  • Historically constructed belief that reproductions copy reality
  • Positivism: early 19th century belief that empirical truths can be established through visual evidence
  • Machines came to be viewed as more reliable (no subjectivity)
  • Cameras were seen as a scientific tool of capturing reality


Two types of Pseudo-sciences -

  1. Phrenology
  2. Eugenics

Phrenology - cataloguing body parts, more specifically the brain and measuring parts to determine different traits, e,g, psychological

Physiognomy - interpreting the outward appearance and configuration of the body and the fact that in particular

  • Reading people by looking at their face features
  • Finding a criminal by defining certain facial features (eg narrow nose bridge)

Eugenics - practice of studying and controlling human reproduction as a means of improving the human race.

  • Founded by Sir Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius (1869)
  • Linked to race, later used by Nazis and Hitler in WWII
  • find German people and families who can birds with twins
  • women were mutilated

What we are "seeing" today

How we visually communicate is always changing. It's impacted by our culture

Photographic truth today -

Social Media example

  • What we see in the social media is visually skewed, which means that we see only what we've been given to see (only positivity).
  • Visually skewed example - someone was cut off from the group photo or the background of the photo has been faked.

Note the difference of our representation on photos on -

  • .Family Albums
  • Passport
  • Evidence in court

Points to consider -

  1. . The subjectivity of the picture.
  • What about the person taking the picture?
  • How she/he chooses to shoot the image?
  • Who/what is in/out of the image?

2. Ideologies inform our images.

Ideology - the shared set of values and beliefs that exist within a given society and through which we live our lives.

e.g. gay couple

  • How our values as a societies change.

3. Ideologies change over time.

  • How our beliefs impact how we see images.


Q: What is culture?

A: Culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts.

Q: Why is it important? Provide an example.

A: It's a way of living, it tells us what to do without us even realizing. It's part of identity that creates a mental association particular noticeable while traveling around the world.

Example - Food, weddings, holidays, cultural practices

Cultural Codes

We rely on cultural codes in life to make judgments of aesthetics.

  • This is how you know what to wear today and how to look.
  • Our taste is informed by experiences relating to one's class, cultural background, education, etc.
  • What "codes" are at work here to help us distinguish beauty from ugliness? We make visual distinctions between what is wrong and what is right.

What we see involves culture

Culture originally denoted the cultivation of nature, which was a process. e.g. cultivating of plants, animals. It comes to be seen in as a spiritual and intellectual cultivation of an individual or social groups -

  1. Material - the outcome of this cultivation (artwork, poem, philosophical texts, literature).
  2. Mental - The idea of culture as a process of cultivation.
  3. Evaluative concept - what is acceptable and what is now? how to make judgments.

The Myth of Photographic Truth

Example - "Migrant Mother" Florence Owens Thompson taken by Dorothea Lange, 1939 the pictures become iconic, because these images defined what the depression was all about, but the story behind it was different.

How we are "seeing" today

Example - Rodney Kind Beating Video

  • The man in this video, Rodney King, was speeding. Police tried to pull him over, but he wouldn't stop.
  • He had been drinking and was afraid of an impaired driving charge and that his license would be suspended.
  • L.A. police officers here were charged with brutality. Sometimes in a court room science is used to convince viewers of the "accuracy" of the imaging system.
  • It was used by King's lawyer to show irrefutable evidence of the events of that evening (that the police used excessive force on King"), but then it was used by the defense show that the police acted properly, In the end, the policy were found not guilty of excessive force.
  • By slowing down or stopping a moving image, we can see things we might have missed at regular speed. It also has the reverse effect, however, of eliminating time-dependent aspects of the event and thereby constructing some meaning while blocking others.
  • So when this was done in the King video, it make King's individual defensive moments appear aggressive. The jury ended up seeing "King" as being in "total control."
  • Other "scientific" techniques used w/videos is freeze framing, slowed projection, blowups of portions of the full frame, digitized markings on the frame. This was done with the King video.

Example - Gucci "blackface" sweater

  • "blackface" - a connotation what white people think black people look like

Theoretical frameworks from which to consider visual communication.

3 approaches to become literate in media -

Michel Foucault

Theory -

  • Power/Knowledge - "knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of 'the truth' but has the power to make itself true.
  • Knowledge put into use through specific technologies and strategies, within particular institutions
  • Produces Regime of truth where a particular interpretation is held to be standard
  • Power is productive (it's everywhere, in our discourses, it produces, good & bad)- Power does not have to be violent or coercive
  • Sees power as a strategy, a set or relations, rather than simply locating power in a centralized impersonal institution, such as the army or the police, as earlier Marxist theorists had done, he is interested in local forms of power and the way they are negotiated with individuals or other agencies (Mills, 2003)

Panoptic Prison

Idea: We regulate our behavior on the fact that we're being watched.

Jen Boudrillard

  • Believes the mass media, particularly advertising, television and cinema, have allowed for constructions of a simulated world that hears almost no resemblance or relation to lived experience ("simulacra")
  • These simulations are so wide spread and pervasive that the distance between reality and the realm of simulations and simulcra implodes and the experience of the real world disappears.
  • He cites the Gulf War as an example: for viewers watching the conflict on television, all they witnessed were flashy computer graphics, sanitized combat reports, commentaries i.e. a simulated version of the war and this became dominant version for many of us.
  • Bottom-line - We're not living in reality anymore. Why? It's so widespread - we see reproductions "simulcra," the realities have imploded.

Roland Barthes

  • Denotation & Connotation Myth
  • Denotation - explicit or referential meaning of a sign.
  • Connotation - various social overtones, cultural implications, or emotional meanings associated with a sign.
  • When we look at the images, we bring up our culture.

Deciding what we're seeing

Making meaning of images - Meanings are produced through a complex social relationship involving -

a) How viewer interpret or experience the image

b) The context in which an image is seen

This affects how you decode the message.

Example - an artwork in an art gallery vs by your child on your fridge

Class Discussion - Dexter and 9/11 and "visual" impact on media

  • What can you tell visually is happening?
  • People jumping out of the building, inhaling chemicals from the fallen building
  • What is Dexter?
  • TV series about a criminal who tracks other rapists, criminals
  • Why do we see a lot of "checks and balances" post 9/11?
  • This was the first time that war came to America
  • Expulsion of alien bodies
  • Suspicion: Who belongs to this country and who doesn't
  • Building border walls
  • Emergence of visual media (television, film, video fames (that tries to map bodies)
  • Consider Miami that is on the border between US and Columbia - a lot of suspicion

Another example - Cold War

Historically we see the emergency of monster movies as a result of issues of race in 1920 (arrival of Southern Europeans) - > vampire, Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.

Stuart Hall says that producers of images have intended meanings that they prefer, but images are not always interpreted the way the producer wants.

  • Meanings are not inherent in images, but are the product of complex social interaction among the images, the viewer and the context
  • Dominant meanings, meanings that predominate the culture, come from this.
  • Stuart Hall talks about options: accepting dominant meanings, negotiating them and rejecting them.

Pathos - appeal to emotion

Logos - appeal to logic

Ethos - ethical appeal/reputation


Key ideas:

  • Brief History of "seeing"
  • Pseudo - sciences
  • Phrenology
  • Eugenics
  • Physiognomy
  • What are we seeing today
  • Photographic Truth
  • Ideology
  • Culture
  • Cultural Codes
  • How we are seeing today
  • Theoretical Frameworks
  • 3 approaches to become literate in media:
  • Marxist
  • Louis Althusser
  • Antonio Gramasci
  • Michelle Foucault
  • Knowledge is power
  • Jen Baudrillard
  • "Simulcra"
  • Roland Barthes
  • Denotation & Connotation Myth
  • Deciding what we're seeing
  • Making the meaning of what we see
  • Positive & negative aspect of it
  • Dexter and post 9/11
  • Stuart Hall's hypothesis on how the meaning is decoded
  • Pathos, Logos, Ethos

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