Introspection # 34: “Images as Communication”

Communication comes in a wide variety of forms; there is verbal communication, such as the spoken or sung word, non-verbal communication, such as body language, and there is audial communication, in the form of music and melody. Yet, in our modern times, another form of communication has come to play a dominating and pervasive role, one that is perhaps often taken for granted or overlooked – visual communication. We are so inundated with photographs, images, and designs to such a consistent degree in our daily lives that, frequently, we fail to consciously recognize the powerful messages they convey to us. This, indeed, is one of the strengths of visual communication; we register it in both a conscious and subconscious manner, ingesting their messages in a way that extends beyond the typical scope of verbal communication. Such is why certain forms of imagery, such as propaganda or marketing, drive us to impulsively feel or behave in specific ways. Visual communication, utilizing the image as communication, not only delivers to us a set of ideas, it fundamentally shapes and connects to our perceptions of the world; that is to say, visual communication makes us look at the world in a certain way, which, we being creatures shaped by our interactions and perceptions of our environment, makes it perhaps the most powerful form of communication available.

It is hard to dispute that we live in a visual world; photographs accompany news stories, and often dominate the newspaper front page; ads and commercials are as much visual events as they are audial; the images on campaign posters, political cartoons, and propaganda flyers control political perceptions and beliefs. In a society where the visual medium is, through televisions, computers, phones, printed paper, and the mass media, becoming an increasingly effective way to communicate ideas to people, we are becoming more constantly and consistently bombarded by imagery. As such, it is increasingly important to recognize the power and pervasiveness of this form of communication. This is especially true in our own context, where, this inundation of imagery being a constant affair, we perhaps have grown complacent of the fact that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Images as communication, then, are relevant to us in that we should learn to more readily acknowledge and recognize them, so that we can both understand what messages are being told to us, and so that we may ourselves control discourses through the use of imagery.

In “Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication,” a primer on visual communication and intelligence, Ann Marie Barry concludes that visual imagery has come to dominate modern discourses. A particularly striking quote demonstrates her argument:

“In print, language is the primary element, while visual factors are secondary or supportive. In the modern media, just the reverse is true. The visual dominates; the verbal augments. Much of what we know and learn, what we buy and believe… is determined by the domination of the human psyche by the photograph.”

The root of the power of visual imagery, it is argued, is in it’s deep connection to the fundamental workings of our brain. We are visual creatures; we come to understand and interact with the world through our visual recognition and understanding of it. We are, for example, creatures who form ideas or draw conclusions based on patterns, patterns being distinctly discernible characteristics of our visual environment. Barry supports this idea by stating:

“Visual intelligence reflects a quality of creative problem-solving that originates in perceptual process and is characteristic of abstract thinking… this logic operates on every level of awareness from subliminal perceptual process to holistic creative thinking.”

Another highly significant point is raised in this statement. Visual intelligence, and, in turn, visual communication, can influence us not only in holistic and conscious thinking, but can influence us in subliminal manners. Images that connect or reinforce our already-existing view of the world are more readily ingested, as they already fit into our visual understanding of how the world works. In effect, we need not even pay close attention to the specifics of the image to accept it, for we have already concluded that it fits our visual registry of how the world exists. Such is, for example, why images of attractive women sell; it matters not what how or why the attractive woman is connected to the product being sold, but the image of an attractive woman itself is agreeable to our visual understanding, or visual desires, of the world, and thereby subconsciously compels us to ingest the message being delivered.

In Chris Jenk’s book on visual imagery as it relates to culture, a significant point is raised: our fundamental worldviews are shaped by the messages and discourses conveyed by images. He points to historical propaganda and feminist discourses to support this point. The anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, for example, was incited by visual imagery of Jews being disfigured, overweight, and greedy in appearance. Drawing a visual association between the concept of the Jew and such images created repulsion in the audience; the audience thus was able to visualize the Jew of reality as such a being, and from that was manifest hatred. Similar, too, are wartime propaganda posters, which regularly depict the “good guys” as strong individuals, performing heroic actions and brave deeds, while the “bad guys” are depicted as filthy and grim, committing acts of barbarity. Even without any written accompaniment, such images can bring us to visually register, and thereby accept, our side as superior, the other side as inferior. Such is the power of visual communication.

Feminist discourses on imagery outline how visual communication has fundamentally shaped our perceptions of gender roles and gender norms, a point which Jenks spends effort addressing. Consider, for example, how unrealistic expectations of body weight, and the body image issues which result, are a result of magazine advertisements featuring individuals of the “ideal” physique. Consider, too, how advertisements which feature attractive women as a selling point create a norm of objectification, in which the woman’s body is perceived by a man as an object for his visual pleasure. From this, as feminist writers such as Simone de Beauvoir argue, is created a culture where sexual aggressiveness and assault can not only exist, but thrive off of normative understandings.  Jenks rightfully uses these points to address the fact that our visual perceptions of the world shape discourses, which in turn reinforce the prevalence of the images we are displayed.

It is when we begin recognizing the power of the images which we are constantly surrounded by can we begin to understand how and why we see the world as we do. Again, we constantly take the norms we live in, the discourses which surround them, and the images from and by which they are manifest and reinforced, for granted, acknowledging them as part of our daily environment and routine but failing to see the manner by which they shape our worldviews. Such is why propaganda can be, and has been, effective for spreading hate; such is why images scantily clad women can sell cans of soda and body spray.

To be a good communicator, one must not only be talented at conveying, but also talented at ingesting; one cannot be only a good speaker, but must also be a good listener. Accordingly, to become better students of communication, we must focus our energies on ingesting, registering, and, most importantly, understanding, the messages that images are conveying to us. For everything from television advertisements, to newspaper photos, to propaganda posters, we should ask ourselves not only how the images are making us feel, but why. For such is the choice of the critically thinking, skeptical, broad-picture individual, who not only challenges the status quo, who not only questions norms and discourses, but who understands why the status quo and those norms and discourses have come to be accepted.

Works Cited:

Barry, Ann Marie. (1997). Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication. New York: SUNY Press.

Jenks, Chris. (1995). Visual Culture. Kentucky: Psychology Press

“Moscow and Chinese Communists,” A Review

Moscow and Chinese Communists. Robert C. North. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1963. 310 pp.

The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 represented the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the Kuomintang in the struggle for power in and control over China and culminated decades of civil war and revolutionary intrigue. Western scholarship on the Chinese Revolution has paid particular focus to the leading actors and key events within the Chinese Communist Party during the crucial years between its founding in 1921 and its ultimate ascendency in 1949. So, too, does the contemporary Chinese revolutionary narrative pay reverence to the mythos of Mao, the “Long March,” and the triumph of the Chinese communists against seemingly impossible odds. Yet lost in this narrative is the reality that no revolution exists in a vacuum; indeed,  external actors, events, and circumstances have the potential to fundamentally shape the characteristics of a revolutionary moment along with the character, organization, strategy, and tactics of a revolutionary movement. Such is particularly the case for revolutions framed around Marxist ideology, which is global and transnational in both theory and practice.

In Moscow and Chinese Communists, Robert North explores the external actors and events which came to dramatically shape the origins and character of China’s Communist Party and revolution by detailing the intricate linkages between the Soviet Union and China’s communists. The book progresses through a tracing of the history of Soviet influence on China’s communist party, beginning with the origins of Communist thought in China, the formation of the CCP, and the Kuomintang-Communist alliance, through the Kuomintang-Communist split, Mao’s ascendancy to power, the experiment of the Kiangsi Soviet, and the Sino-Japanese war. Throughout this progression, North breaks from the conventional analysis of the Chinese Revolution as a product of Maoist theory, strategy, and practice, proposing instead that the Soviet Union’s strategy for international communist revolution, along with the individual characters of Soviet leaders, the dynamics of Soviet politics, and the prejudices and perceptions of the advisors sent by the Soviet Union to advise the CCP, shaped the ultimate direction the Chinese revolution would take.

North particularly emphasizes the fluidity and pragmatism of Leninist and Bolshevik revolutionary strategy, directed by the Soviet Union through the Comintern, in the context of the Chinese Revolution, along with the impact they had. The main recurring point in this analysis explains Soviet support for the Kuomintang, which set in motion the circumstance which would eventually lead to an independent, and ultimately victorious, Chinese Communist Party, as a method to influence key political actors in China and undermine anti-revolutionary currents; supporting the Kuomintang was, as North puts it, a supposed “Trojan horse for gaining control of China” for Bolshevik leaders (pg. 66). Crucial to this is North’s other key point, that political events and actors outside of China ultimately played the key role in determining the strategy and direction the CCP would take. He details how the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin for leadership in the Soviet Union manifested itself in China’s revolution, with Stalin’s push for CCP-Kuomintang cooperation, developed to oppose Trotsky’s calls for an autonomous communist movement in China, emerging triumphant with Stalin’s consolidation of power. This point plays into North’s broader conclusion, that the strategies imposed by the Soviet Union on China’s communists were borne not only, and perhaps not even so much, out of a desire to see Communism in China, but as “weapons in personal drives for power” (pg. 30). The challenge of democratic centralism and the dictatorial Leninist system for global Marxist revolution, then, is perhaps most clearly demonstrated through North’s claims that Stalin’s carefully laid plains, and the manifesting Bolshevik influence on the CCP, “had precipitated nothing but near-disaster for the Chinese Communists” through successive failures, setbacks, and deceits (pg. 97).

The analysis North provides of the Chinese Communist Party, and the influence had on it by the Soviet Union, puts into global perspective the narrative told about the Chinese Revolution, one which often overlooks or undervalues such key linkages. His detailing of the personalities, prejudices, and perceptions of the numerous actors who took part in the connections between the Soviet Union and the CCP reveals political action and intrigue far broader and more complex than what is usually given by simply analyzing Mao and his key lieutenants. Indeed, for this, North’s book sheds much needed light and insight into the formation and character of the Chinese Communist Party, insight which is lost when credence isn’t paid to the multitude of individuals who helped shape its direction.

Regarding Mao as the sole face, character, and strategist of China’s Communists removes from consideration the significant roles played by others, especially Soviets, in defining Chinese communist strategy and organization. Similarly, regarding China’s Communist Revolution as an isolated, insular event neglects the global political and broader communist context in which it existed. Doing such provides an incomplete, and even incorrect, understanding of not only China’s revolution, but the contemporary characteristics of China’s Communist Party. North’s work represents an admirable attempt at combating such simplistic explanations.

Though North focuses his analysis on the Soviet Union’s influence on China’s communists, emergent from his work is an equally valid and intuitive critique of the strategies of Bolshevism and the role played by the Comintern in inciting global communist revolution. By demonstrating the role played by the Soviet Union in structuring, and sometimes dictating, the organization and revolutionary strategies of the CCP, he reveals how the Comintern was, far from being only a tool used to further the revolutionary current, a tool used to secure Soviet leadership and hegemony in the communist world. His critique of the pitfalls in the role played by the Soviet Union in the communist world, such as Stalin’s utilization of the Comintern and shaping of Bolshevik strategy for his furthering of personal power and the inefficiencies and challenges facing a centralized yet transnational communist organization, readily support the historical reality of the Comintern’s failure to develop a unified, cohesive communist bloc. His analysis can thus be used to effectively and insightfully analyze communist movements and their relations to the Soviet Union in countries other than China.

However, despite the attention North dedicates to the often overlooked actors crucial to China’s Communist Revolution and the insights gained from such, North neglects to spend focus on what are conventionally considered the key actors. He dedicates only a brief chapter to Mao’s life, rise, and influence on Chinese Communism. Focusing his attention on the Soviet influence on the characteristics of Chinese communism, he further fails to consider deeply the origins of, and significance of, Maoist thought and theory. By doing so, North commits an error equally dangerous to overlooking less significant actors in the CCP; without providing ample consideration of Mao or Maoism, North is unable to provide a rounded, complete analysis and understanding of the Chinese Communist Revolution and all the sources of influence which brought about its ultimate success. Attention could have been directed toward the influence of Bolshevism and Bolshevik theory on the formation of Maoist thought, or the interplay between the development of Maoism and the application of Leninist strategy in the context of the CCP’s strategy; North, however, does not attempt such an analysis, narrowing his focus instead largely on the application of Soviet practices in the CCP’s strategy.

Another issue, though one not necessarily emergent as a result of North’s work, is when his book was published; in 1963, the year of publishing, the Sino-Soviet split was only just beginning, and little access to documents detailing the intricacies of Soviet-CCP cooperation was available. Accordingly, North, as an American living in the height of the Cold War, laces his analysis with a detectable concern about the prospects of a Sino-Soviet bloc; indeed, he frames his analysis of international communist cooperation as enabling Western audiences to “perhaps be less inclined to behave precisely as the Bolshevik strategists and tacticians expect – and, for Communist purposes – want them to behave” (pg. 8). This prejudice undermines his analysis of the Chinese Communist Party, which should otherwise be an objective analysis of a case study in political developments and international cooperation, by framing it as a global conspiracy rather than as a product of historical circumstances. As such, the reader is left wondering whether the characteristics and perceptions ascribed by North to the Soviet Union’s various advisers and China’s developing communist thinkers are indeed borne from reality, or if they have been construed to convey to the reader a fear of a growing and perhaps impending global communist victory. Meanwhile, without access to a breadth of documentation on the topic of his analysis, North falls short of providing a full and complete, and likely even substantial, understanding of the true depth of the cooperation between the Soviet Union and China’s communists. Further work is left to be done by other researchers and authors to expand and refine upon the analytical framework North has provided.

Robert North’s Moscow and Chinese Communists provides a reader with a fuller picture of the development of China’s Communist Party and the eventual Communist Revolution, one that would otherwise be impossible if focus was only paid to Mao and the elements of communist theory indigenous in China. Despite the issues raised by this review, he admirably sets forward to depict China’s Revolution as an event created by, and often directly influenced by, outside forces and outside actors. Developing a true understanding of the Chinese Revolution, or any revolution influenced by Marxist ideology, necessitates knowledge of the various international forces and actors in play and the influence they had. The reader will finish this book feeling more confident in that knowledge, and therefore have a more nuanced and rounded understanding of how and why the Chinese Communist Party took and used the character, organization, and strategies that came to define it.

Is China the World’s Next “Superpower?”

Is China going to be the world’s next superpower?

The way that this question is framed, in my opinion, fits neatly into the typical American conceptualization of what global influence and hegemony entails, and accordingly reflects the American fear of the “fall of the West.” The term “superpower” is generally reserved for the United States in its period of post-Cold War, unipolar hegemony; as such, for China to become the world’s “next superpower,” it will need to displace the United States as the unrivaled global hegemon. While China is undoubtedly the most rapidly rising power in the world today, and indeed may soon come to pose a distinct challenge to American hegemony in the Asia-Pacific, it is far from becoming the world’s next “superpower” as defined by the American construction of the term. Far from the “fall of the West” that American policymakers so fear, China’s rise is rather indicative of the phenomena of the “rise of the rest,” in which the United States’ waning global hegemony is gradually replaced by a multi-polar environment of competing regional powers. At the forefront of these powers will, of course, be China, which has, in a number of metrics, surpassed the rate of rise of other emerging states. Yet, at the same time, a number of factors constrain, contain, and curtail the Chinese rise to unrivaled hegemony and “superpower.” The metrics which indicate China’s rapid rise, along with those factors which contain it, will be explored in this essay

Seen through a number of measurements and lenses, the People’s Republic of China is quickly emerging as one of the world’s top powers. Buoyed by remarkable rates of growth, the Chinese economy has recently surpassed the United States’ to become the most powerful in the world. Millions of Chinese are moving into urban areas, an indicator of development, and the quality of life for the average Chinese citizen continues to improve markedly. Increased levels of Chinese investment and economic development in foreign countries are posing China to become one of, if not the, key players in the 21st century economy. As indicated by an increasingly aggressive foreign policy and prestigious demonstrations on the global stage, such as the near-flawless 2008 Beijing Olympics, China is beginning to assert itself more readily and more forcefully in the international arena. Increasing military budgets and a major military modernization campaign is transforming the Chinese military into a first-rate, formidable 21st century force. China’s longstanding nuclear arsenal and UN Security Council seat already places it into the club of top powers, while China’s increasingly sophisticated space program, which is only the 3rd to place humans into Earth orbit, places it alongside history’s most recent “superpowers,” the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. Additionally, China’s involvement and leadership in international and intergovernmental organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, demonstrates that China wishes to legitimize itself as a capable, responsible international leader. Outside of these tangible measurements of “power” and “hegemony,” the Chinese themselves are seeing China as an emerging top power. Again, China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and China’s rhetorical foreign policy position of non-interference and peaceful cooperation, which seeks to redefine the norms for and codes of conduct of the international community, are indicators of the Chinese not only seeking to play a crucial and defining role in the 21st international community, but believing that they can.

Yet while these metrics might point to a meteoric rise to global eminence for China, a number of internal factors present distinct challenges to China’s future stability, and thereby curtail China’s ability to sustain its ascent. Though China’s economy has experienced unprecedented rates of growth over the last decade, this growth cannot continue indefinitely, and is already beginning to show signs of waning. Not only does this present a political issue to the Chinese Communist Party, which has premised much of its legitimacy upon producing economic results, but could also forestall the internal and external development which powers China’s rise. There was, to draw a parallel, much talk of Japan becoming the world’s next “superpower” during its period of intense economic growth, talk which promptly ended once Japan’s economy began to stabilize. China today also faces issues of political instability and uncertainty, as demonstrated by the growth of rural protest and opposition movements and the recent Hong Kong protests. While these movements are today largely contained and undermined by China’s continued economic prosperity, they represent a distinct future challenge to the Communist Party should things go unchanged. Dealing with political reforms, or facing the consequences emergent from a lack of reforms, will present the Communist Party with a challenge the significance of which it has perhaps not faced before, and the manner by which the Chinese government handles future political issues could significantly hamper China’s position and prestige on the global stage.

Externally, as well, China faces a number of containing factors in its rise to “superpower” status. For one, the world’s current “superpower,” the United States, is far from waning in hegemony to such a degree that it will be “replaced” by China; through decades of eminence and leadership in international political, economic, and military organizations, the United States has entrenched itself as a global power and hegemon for at least decades to come. Even if the United States continues its “decline,” the predictions of which I myself take issue with, it will still be among the world’s top powers, and will still exert considerable enough influence in the Asia-Pacific to challenge China in its own region. Indeed, not only does China face challenges and unfavorable balances of power globally, it must contend with states balancing against it in its own “backyard.” Outside of the American alliance system, which incorporates Australia, South Korea, and Japan and which seeks to balance against and contain Chinese regional assertiveness, a number of states in the Asia-Pacific are “hedging” against China, in that they are seeking to develop a diversity of security and economic arrangements that limit the overall influence China has on their strategic and foreign policy calculations. As such, in order to rise to global hegemony, China will not only have to develop a favorable balance of power, but will first come to dominate a region in which it is already being balanced against. Coming up against the American Asia-Pacific alliance system and other states’ “hedging” behaviors, China is likely still decades away, if not longer, from dominating its own region, let alone the international environment.

Thus, though China’s rise is undeniable, and while that rise continues strong for the time being, there are a number of future and contemporary factors which are bound to limit the ultimate extent to which China becomes a global hegemon. Rather than becoming the next “superpower,” China is most likely to become the most significant state actor in the Asia-Pacific, and, to an extent, will likely represent the most significant balance of power challenge to the United States and other emerging regional powers in the coming multi-polar environment. It is difficult in our current context to envision China’s role and position in an international environment outside of the present unipolar one; such is why, I am sure, the question is framed in such a way as to suggest that China could supplant the United States as the world’s next “superpower.” Yet, as political scientists and policymakers, I think it is important for us to see China’s rise not as an indicator of declining American hegemony, but as a manifestation of a fundamentally changing international environment. Only through that lens can foreign policy be made that would preserve America’s global influence through engagement with rising powers, while limiting the consequences of competition, conflict, and war which dramatic changes to the global balance of power often bring.