There is an old logistic syllogism that states:
God is Love.
Love is blind.
Ray Charles is blind.
Ray Charles is God.
An interesting conclusion to be sure. But what about Stevie Wonder? Or George Shearing, for that matter?
An argument like the above can only work under the vaguest guidelines for definitions or categories. No one would ever attempt to convince anyone of anything – with any degree of seriousness – using such glaringly shabby reasoning.
Now imagine an advertisement for cigarettes featuring a famous actor.
Famous actor smokes Marlboros.
Famous actor is rich and sexually fulfilled and happy.
I smoke Marlboros.
Strangely, this kind of claim is much less absurd when expressed in visual terms. We see such things all the time, in any advertisement using a celebrity endorsement, to such a degree that we rarely pay attention to the implications.
Images can transfer something beyond themselves, beyond what it is they purport to represent, in the murky realm of visual rhetoric.
How do we speak to each other visually? Can we compose legible visual statements that articulate things more poetically, powerfully or playfully than the spoken word alone? It seems we can, if advertising and propaganda are anything to go by.
“Why must it be,” asks film theorist Christian Metz in Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, “that, by some strange correlation, two juxtaposed photographs must tell something? “ Metz asserts that going from one image to two images, “is to go from image to language.” Yet a grammar or syntax of images works differently from a verbal one, since the basic units are themselves inherently unstable. Images, even more than words, are subject to radically different interpretations depending on who sees them and in what context.
What sense would an image of Jade Goody, or Jedward, make to an Amazonian Indian who has had no contact with Western culture, and hence no notion whatever of the cultural context? Or to people in London a few years’ time, when such monstrosities will have disappeared form the collective consciousness?
As communications scholar Paul Messaris notes in Visual Persuasion, “what visual communication lacks most crucially is a so-called propositional syntax.”
But this is where the fun begins. Because if an image can be interpreted in such a wide range of ways to begin with, then many different aspects of it can it be referenced in interpretation.
In this excerpt from my video Hypno Project (2009), which looks at questions of relativity of perception and media influence through the prism of Cold War paranoia in the US, a spoken-word monologue is accompanied by a rapid series of images flashing before the viewer in a slide-show format, like a hyperactive visual stream of consciousness.
An image of a Soviet missile launcher, poised to fire, is followed by a still from the American slasher film Halloween. The killer is holding his knife at the exactly the same angle as that of the missile, creating a distinct visual rhyme to the image preceding it. Next, we see an image of a Soviet tank on parade, barrel pointing menacingly, again at that same angle. Without needing to verbalise it, a proposition can be articulated thanks to the formal similarities and connotations of each individual image: at the end of the day, was the fear of Communism merely something theatrical?
In another passage, a heroic painted portrait of Joseph Stalin in uniform is followed by an almost identical photographic image of Saddam Hussein, also in uniform. Both are traditional propaganda images. The formal similarities between them create another distinct visual rhyme that again offers a proposition rooted in inference and association – the Muslims have replaced the Communists as the bugaboo of the West.
Then, in rapid succession: Soviet troops marching; a swarm of killer bees on the poster of a paranoid American movie; a colony of fire ants; two images of Mexican immigrants jumping the border; a set of dominoes; and another movie poster, this time from the film Them, one of the classic paranoid sci-fi thrillers of the Cold War era. The proposition: Americans are a paranoid bunch given to manufactured enemies. More specifically, their fear of Communism is part of a broader phobic complex that can be linked psychologically – vermin, immigrants, invasion, threat.
An expressly visual argument is being presented, based on the ability of images to carry numerous meanings and connotations simultaneously, to resonate referentially. One could make the observations more clearly in a verbal statement, but the visual rhetoric allows for something interesting and more poetic to unfold – an attempt, perhaps, to reflect the thought process itself. It is a way to articulate how the mind works – blurring images and impressions, reflecting the imprecision of a mind that sees threats everywhere. Or on a broader level: a way to articulate how the mind draws connections in general – the process by which one thing reminds us of something else, or one thought leads to another.
Speaking of which, here’s a good joke.
Doug Fishbone is an American artist living and working in London.