Tag Archives: New York Times

Knowing by Seeing

             White House Meeting of the “Freedom Caucus”                     

The eye has now fully extended its dominance over the ear, occasionally with interesting results.

The idea that some people are “visual learners” is an old one.  But it has special relevance in our age where more media content comes to us in packages meant to be seen as much as read.  What this means in its simplest form is that to see is to know.  We  understand something as meaningful if it comes to us as an image or in a visual frame.  For example, there is new research that indicates that anti-smoking warnings on cigarette packages that include graphic pictures slightly increases the willingness of smokers to quit.

There are obvious and sometimes crippling disadvantages to the idea visual knowledge. Pictures are usually poor at capturing ideas: one reason that local television news often lives up to the dismissive phrase of a “vast wasteland.”  “If it bleeds it leads” is the old phrase that suggests the narrow focus. But for the moment let’s be more positive.

Appropriation of a visual meme can equal stealing and co-opting a sacred text.

Television as a pervasive daily presence has certainly played its part in making us ocular-centric. This shift dates from the 1950s, when it became a household necessity.  The new screen in the living room meant that family life would be changed forever. A second milestone in moving toward the visual was the consequential decision by Apple’s Steve Jobs to borrow (steal?) a Xerox research lab’s idea to use graphical interfaces for computers:  what we know as the colorful icons and “windows” that present web content with store-window vividness.   Add in video recording, DVD’s and easy-to-use cameras, and the transition to visual formatting of content was complete.  Especially for younger Americans the eye has fully extended its dominance over the ear, to the extent that people will sometimes accept bad sound even while they watch super high definition video images.  It’s no surprise that the recent Pepsi ad campaign trading on the images of protest looked bad to so many people.  Appropriation of a visual meme can equal stealing and co-opting a sacred text.

The best that can be said for visual acuity is that the person with it is sometimes able to see what others of us might miss. That is surely the case with many readers of a recent New York Times column where Jill Filipovic (age 33) asked us to take a closer look at a recent White House photo of a meeting of the “Freedom Caucus” members of the House of Representatives.  Vice President Pence posted the photo (above), proudly noting that deliberations were underway to replace the Affordable Care Act. What Pence saw as a fitting representation of orderly deliberation Filipovic understood as a representation of unabashed sexism.

For liberals, the photo seemed like an inadvertent insight into the current Republican psyche: Powerful men plotting to leave vulnerable women up a creek, so ensconced in their misogynistic world that they don't even notice the bad optics (not to mention the irony of the "pro-life" party making it harder for women to afford to have babies).

Filipovic went on to argue that that this male power play and its image were intentional, and evidence of a powerful misogynistic streak.  She’s right about the first point; I’m not so sure about the second.  It credits the White House with more strategic thinking than they are probably due. But either way we can only applaud her ability to see what some of us otherwise might not have noticed.  White and well-heeled men  have been occupying dominant decision-making roles for so long, we may miss how unrepresentative they now seem in comparison to our much more diverse nation. That the decision-makers might not have noticed makes their hypocrisy even worse.

 

The Eyes Have It

       Caravaggio                                        Wikipedia.org

It’s easy to forget how much we give up when we send words in place of ourselves.  The inability to make eye contact begins to starve communication of its hold on us.

A recent New York Times report describes managers at “fast casual” restaurants assigning staffers to greet new customers with a reassuring and direct “welcome.”  Apparently businesses found too many first-timers leaving if no one in charge acknowledged them.  It’s a specific application of the more general principle of a direct gaze as the near-certain requirement of  interpersonal engagement.  Child development specialists remind us that an infant’s search for its parent’s eyes is not only a joy, but an early sign of a child’s readiness to become a social being.  Only weeks after birth infants begin to seek out the eyes of their parents. It’s nature’s way of cementing the bond that assures that the many needs of a relatively helpless newborn will be met.

It’s also a given in the business and academic worlds that connecting effectively with another person means returning their eye contact.  This can vary from culture to culture.  But it’s own norm. Even experts offering advice for choosing a new pet from the pound note that a good bet is usually an animal that gazes on our face.  And it’s clearly true that  our pets are veterans at the game of shamelessly using those looks of expectation to get us on our feet to provide some useful service.

It seems that the poets were right.  We look into the eyes of others as if they were “windows of the soul.”

Try a simple experiment to test the essential nature of direct eye contact. Talk to a friend or relative face to face, but look at one of their ears rather than their eyes.  The poor victim will often move to try to adjust to your off-kilter stare.  They want to be at the center glidepath of your eyes to find signals of your engagement.  Looking away suggests you want to break off the exchange. It seems that the poets were right.  We look into the eyes of others as if they were “windows of the soul.”

Of course what is going on is more than reciprocal staring.  We have an entire lexicon of signals that are modulated through the eyes and the facial muscles that surround them.  Ask an actor to perform the emotions of surprise, concern, fear, or joy.  Most of the work of suggesting these inner states is going to happen within the pupils of the eye and the muscles of the eye-lids brows immediately above them.  Often these are the only tools a film or television actor has, since they are usually shot in tight closeups.  Witness the last half hour of Damien Chazelle’s much-praised La La Land (2016). The final scenes of the former couple are predicated on our noticing eyes that lock as if they still had a shared future.

What is obvious here still needs to be said.  The more we shift to mediated forms of personal communication—texting,  phoning, e-mail and their equivalents—the more we explicitly violate this fundamental norm of communication.  Like most, I delete some unread e-mails with the gusto of a chef cleaning up the debris on a cutting table.  It’s easy to forget how much we give up when we send words in place of ourselves.  Indifference to the channels we use and an unwillingness to make eye contact with our circle can starve communication of its hold on us.