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Category: Introspections Page 2 of 15

Introspection # 42: “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

Introspection # 41: “Music as Communication”

History has proven our predilection for the delivered word, especially in the form of the speech. When employed by orators with talent, the spoken word is an immensely powerful and moving tool. A strong, well-delivered speech can motivate, can convince, can inform, and can compel. It can instill in an audience a panoply of powerful emotions or provide them with unanticipated and unrecognized perspectives. The power of speech is evident in the reverence and respect given to some of history’s greatest speakers, the likes of John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yet the vocal word is not the only tool that can be employed to such an end. Speeches do not stand alone as the medium through which emotion, ideas, and perspectives can be conveyed.

Music and melody are too capable of accomplishing what speeches often achieve. Who doesn’t feel moved or feel a strong emotional response to a sad or happy song? Who doesn’t feel compelled to action or motivated after listening to a “pump-up” song? Similar to how we seek out specific speeches on certain subjects when the circumstances call for it, we seek out certain songs and sounds. Similar to how we respect and revere the great speakers of history for the powers of their rhetorical talent, a manifestation of what their speeches do to us the listeners, we too respect and revere our most talented musicians and singers. Music is, like the speech, a powerful tool of communication. Music, like the speech, can inform, can motivate, can convince, can inform, and compel.

The connections between music and speech, between melody and the delivered word, are numerous and deep. We process and understand the two in similar manners; it is no wonder, then, that they are capable of similar powers. Music is socially consumed and interpreted as being meaningfully structured, produced, performed, and displayed; that is, rather than being a collection of patterns of sounds, music has meaning. Music is thereby the conveyance of ideas, a form of communication. Significant in the application of music as communication, the concept of communication does not need be an idea or action in and of itself, but rather the process where ideas are rendered meaningfully. In other words, music can be a powerful tool for communication not through the specific sounds themselves, but rather through our understanding and application of those sounds; “pump-up music” is not inherently motivational, but our understanding of what a heavy beat means is manifest in our excitement derived from it. Similar, words are consumed and interpreted with meaningful structure, yet too are simply patterns of sounds. Still, from the meaning we derive from our understanding of words, an understanding developed in the similar process of socialization and education that we come to understand music, we are conveyed ideas. Music and speech are thus intricately in the way we process and understand them.

As stated before, and manifest from the connection between music and speech, melody can elicit from us intense emotional responses. A happy song, like an upbeat speech, can make us feel happy. A sad song, like a sad speech, can make us feel sad. Similar to there being speeches appropriate for weddings or funerals, there are songs appropriate to weddings or funerals. Emotions are one of our main, and perhaps our most important, driving impulse. They are the context in which our thoughts, perspectives, and decisions are made. When we listen to a powerful speech, or a powerful song, we are emotionally manipulated; in effect, we are having our emotions changed by an intentional effort. From this manipulation, we are in a more capable position of making certain choices or seeing certain perspectives. Such, for example, is why we listen to a “pump-up” song, or an inspirational speech, before playing in a big game. We emotionally brace ourselves for the situations that we are encountering or about to encounter. Such is the approach we take to these equally powerful forms of communication.

One would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t enjoy music. It is a pervasive element of our society; indeed, of societies and civilizations spanning the globe and throughout history. Yet, while music surrounds us constantly in our daily lives, its power as a tool of communication, and our application of it as such, is perhaps under recognized and undervalued. Just as we are not all talented speakers or speechwriters, we are not all musicians and singers. Though we appreciate both speech and music, we do not all endeavor to develop the skills needed for them in ourselves. Yet, just like speaking, musical skill is not an innate and immutable talent. It is something that, through practice and study, can be developed and improved. Perhaps, then, in order to become more convincing and more capable individuals, we should also focus some of our energies on developing our musical talents. It need not be a neglected tool of communication which we constantly indulge in without understanding or readily acknowledging its capabilities.

Introspection # 40: “Being Snowed-In At Boston: A Reflection”

Most students would probably be enthused over missing half a week of class due to snow. Yet, after day seven of being stuck in an odd-smelling, increasingly cramped hotel room in Boston, I was looking forward toward nothing less than being back. By Tuesday the 17th of February, I, along with 14 other McDaniel students, had been in Boston for over a week. At first we had been participating in the 2015 Harvard Model United Nations simulation; later in our trip, we had become stranded student survivors of a super-sized snowstorm. Our flight back to Maryland was scheduled for a Sunday. Mother Nature had decided to drop more than 8 inches on Boston that Saturday. We wouldn’t be sleeping in the comfort of our own beds until the early morning of Wednesday.

Money had quickly run out. Boston is by no means a cheap city. Think 4 dollars for a piece of toast expensive. I’m speaking from experience here (avoid the sports bars). I watched, hopelessly, as the savings in my bank account were cut clearly in half over the span of my stay. The wi-fi in the hotel was limited, so limited that many of us couldn’t complete or access our school assignments. And streaming Netflix during those long, boring days in the hotel? Don’t even think about it. Laundry was out of the question, for the hotel wasn’t providing laundry services, and there was no way we could make a 7-block trek to the nearest Laundromat in blizzard conditions. Perhaps Junior Bilal Ali, a student on the trip, best summed up not only the laundry, but the entire experience, when he said, to a reporter at the Boston Globe, that “it stinks.”

However, to say all of this perhaps makes us seem like entitled twerps. That’s how some Boston residents felt about our story, which they made clear in the Boston Globe article’s comments section. To be fair, our struggle was, in the grand scheme of things, a minimal affair. Boston residents have been suffering through relentless snow for over a month. We’re lucky here in Maryland that 3 inches of snow constitute a freak-out response. Yet, for those of us in Boston, our struggle was real enough. Nobody expects to be stuck in a hotel room past their expected date of departure. Nobody wants to deal with a lack of money, inability to access homework, distance from friends and family, smelly clothes, or the cabin fever (hotel fever?) that eventually settles in.

Of course, in some ways, being snowed in at Boston was a blessing in disguise. It gave us the opportunity to explore an incredible city, an opportunity we would have otherwise missed. It provided us the time to connect with students from all over the globe, to make foreign connections, and to learn a little bit more about the world in which we live. Most importantly to me, it gave us the chance to get closer with each other, to develop stronger friendships, and to laugh by blowing the significance of an inconvenient trip delay wildly out of proportion. Perhaps Bilal was right in that our being snowed in “stinks.” But, Bilal, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

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