Tag Archives: images

The Dominance of Light and Vision Imagery

Metaphors and analogies are always interesting to consider because they function as rails guiding the engine of thought.

Here is a thought experiment.  Why are there so many more metaphors and analogies built from visual terms than terms used to talk about what we hear? One slightly disconcerting thing about writing a book on sound is how often I must reach for descriptive terminology using metaphors based on sight. It undermines my key argument that sound is the true “first sense.”

Metaphors and analogies are always interesting to consider because they function as rails guiding the engine of thought. “Life as a game” or “Organizations are like badly made machines” are consequential in suggesting what to look for, what to fear or what to ignore. If organizations are “like machines,” they ought to be pretty easy to disrupt. Machines require all parts to work together. If an organization is like an “organism,” no such tinkering will make much difference. Plants like bamboo are nearly indestructible. But I digress. Back to descriptions based on sight.

They are everywhere in our narratives of the world. Hence, we have “soundscapes,” and audio engineers construct a “soundstage.” Both terms are derived from words describing what we see. I’ve found myself as depicting tubas as producing “fogs” of sound, or high frequency noise as being like “looking into bright sunlight.” A recording is said to by “dry”—not improved by signal processing—or “wet:” a track that has been put through any number of fillers and filters. Moisture or the absence of it is something we see or feel. We also seem to talk a lot more about sound “reflections” than “echoes,” especially when considering acoustical problems. The first is more visual; “echoes” are clearly aural. One more example: the gap that separates the arrival of a sound  coming from the right side to the left ear creates a “sound shadow.” That microsecond delay between the arrival of sound between our two ears is partly how we locate a source in three-dimensional space. Again, the visual reference dominates the explanation.

Communication owes a great deal to the aural. But the conversion of  perception from one sense to another requires the new terms to survive on foreign soil. That can sometimes help us think more creatively. But the seeming dominance of visual imagery even to describe sounds represents a kind of rhetorical synesthesia. This condition applied here means that someone will experience one sense via the language of another sense. It’s not a cognitive feature most people seek. We generally like our senses to stay in their lanes. To be sure, Italian words commonly used in musical expression are helpful, at least to Italians and musicians. But they haven’t caught on. Descriptive terms for sound still seem limited.

This quandary isn’t keeping me up at night. But thoughts are made available to us by the words we have for them. What might we be missing because we don’t have names for sonic effects? Then, too, perhaps that part of sound that is music needs no help for language. We sense it when an a musician caught in the web of a long interview seems relieved to quit talking and actually start singing or playing.

A Picture is Sometimes Worth Very Little

The toughest challenges any nation faces are usually systemic. And most are out of reach of  filmmakers or photographers.

The familiar saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is one of those aphorisms that is so self-satisfying that we know we are never going to be challenged when we say it.  But its not only wrong, its inverted.  In fact, a picture is sometimes worth very little, and—at times—a distraction that costs us dearly.

Nearly a century ago the philosopher Susanne Langer made the obvious but profound observation that images are presentational; they easily reflect a piece of the material world back to us. Presentational media allow immediate and nearly universal access to all that can be seen, aided by the fact that–unlike texts–we don’t have to learn how to “read” images. To be sure, we can become visually more astute. But some visual content like the human face is instantly ‘readable.’  Even infants have this capability.

To be sure we need images: perhaps to inspire us, or maybe to simply figure out which slot of an electrical outlet is the “hot” side. But as Langer pointed out, language goes where visual artists can’t.  It’s often the only suitable vehicle for expressing ideas, beliefs and values.  And though we may doubt it, all of these are generative: they are among the first causes of why we think as we do:  what we cherish, and what first principles we value.

Imagine you are putting together the 6:00 o’clock edition of a local television news show. In the competitive world of commercial television the last story you want to cover is one that needs an extensive verbal explanation.  Your survival depends on showing rather than telling.  In most cases news-gatherers are going to prefer blood on the pavement to sociological explanations that account for an increase in a city’s crime rate.  Similarly, the same preference for the visual will devalue a story with an advocate explaining, say, the advantages of a single-payer medical system.  The subject would make most video producers blanch. Other than a “talking head,” there’s nothing to show other than old “B” roll footage of patents sitting in medical offices, or perhaps a doctor taking someone’s pulse. A problem with television news is that its disparate and continuous search for interesting pictures distorts our attention.   First causes are hard to show.  So we may see patients describing the hardship of paying for out-of-pocket medicines.  Their fears and anxieties work well in presentational media.  But we are less likely to see a video analysis of American healthcare, or the parity-violating idea of rationing it. The uneven denial of some coverage—our de-facto system for all but the very rich—needs a rhetorically adept explanation. And if an expert goes before a the camera, they will be asked to keep their explanations very short. Think seconds rather than minutes.

Systems of belief can hide from the camera.  Hence we may never give them the scrutiny they deserve.

Here’s the problem, and its a huge one: the toughest challenges any nation or community face are usually systemic.  That is, deeply embedded problems arise from old and rarely examined attitudes, ideologies, procedural traditions or group fantasies that must be described rather than shown.  They are beyond the reach of even a talented video producer.  In our ocular-centric world we can indeed see the effects of our worst problems: for example, urban poverty, poor schools, serious crime, industrial pollution, and so on.  What can’t be reached with a camera are the fixed ideas–our ideological roots–that perpetuate them.

Consider a final brief example. Industrial pollution sometimes happens because industry lobbyists sometimes provide the legislative language for lax government regulations. But we don’t see that. There’s really nothing to show.  The real action is in the almost invisible transfer of regulatory power from elected officials who are too close to the regulated, a significant slight-of-hand that does not make very interesting pictures.  A competent political journalist or academician can explain these suspicious legislative alliances.  But a reporter doing this kind of story will have to beg for screen time.

The effects of news driven by the need for interesting pictures is that we are often only moved by portrayals of feelings.  That’s fine, but it often comes because we have a enfeebled tolerance for the discursive detail of print on the page or screen. Images are emotionally involving.  But ideas require literacy and our willingness to use its tools.