Archive for the ‘Barthes’ Category

What the New Yorker teaches us about visual literacy

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Richard Adams on the New Yorker cover ‘scandal’ makes a valid point:

John McCain can say that he doesn’t know much about economics and later deny it flatly, then have one of his top economic advisors say it will take one term for a McCain presidency to balance the budget, only to turn on a dime and say it will take two term, and almost nothing of it gets reported in the media. But hey, Jesse Jackson gets overheard using the word ‘nuts’ and it’s time to break out the ink.

If that’s what the ‘mainstream’ news media can do when left to their own devices, a cartoon is nothing.

Seems to me, as one of the commenters on this article says, this is another example (like the ‘nuts’ episode) of the media reporting on itself rather than on the stories.

But it also suggests something else: when we start summing up complex issues in illustrated form the scope for misunderstanding is huge.
At the New Views conference it was asked why critiques of design have to rely on words, why can’t we use design? (Similar arguments are made in favour of letting students create ‘visual dissertations’) Because writing depends on redundancy – it contains clauses, clarifications, opportunities to go off on tangents or rehearse devil’s advocate positions. Create a design to critique a design and you can’t guarantee that the message will be decoded correctly. The irony here is that I’ve just read several thousand words explaining what the New Yorker cartoon is supposed to be saying.

I think the New Yorker cover is a brave attempt to highlight the way the media and others pick apart minutae like the Obamas’ fist bump, unpicking images (often because there’s not really enough real news to fill a 24 hour news ‘culture’) but falls foul of precisely the same problems: images have no redundancy. The article that accompanies the cartoon is a few thousand words long and makes it clear what it is saying. The cartoon has no words and is consequently translated differently depending on who reads it, or (importantly in this case) reads about it. If the cover had instead been a cartoon alongside the article it might have made sense. As a cover, it doesn’t and simply exacerbates the problem it seeks to analyse.

Barthes famously said that images are polysemous, they have multiple meanings. Text, he said, fixes meaning.
I don’t think we’ve yet reached a level of visual literacy (or ever will?) where images like this can be divorced from the textual context.

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