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More than Meets the Eye
By Harry Jamieson
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2007 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
The Perceptual Connection
Of the many facets that bear upon the study of visual communication, that of perception carries significant relevance. This is the inter-face where the individual makes contact with the world via the senses, and it is here that we can speak about connection or communication between events or things exterior to the person, and their interior representation in the form of mental images. In visual perception the exterior is made manifest through light, without which we would quite literally be blind. Light then is the first stage in the whole process of visual communication, spanning the distance between eye and object; an inaugural carrier system of information 'about' something rather than its 'physical being'. Light falling upon the eye activates the next stage in the process of visual knowing, its energy being transformed into neural energy, thus involving a change of state in an ongoing process which ultimately produces a mental image. But during this process other factors, psychological and cultural, help to shape the resulting image. Moreover, although our interest here is centred upon visual communication, we need to bear in mind that the act of interpretation may involve input from a combination of other sensory channels.
Here at the outset, it is necessary to be reminded that at this primary level of communication, modification and distortion can take place, leading to visual illusion. The issue of illusion is central to much of visual representation, it plays a part in, for example, perspective, photography, film, and computer-generated imagery. In fact, in describing the era of image-making 'from motion pictures to navigable interactive environments' as 'Architectures of Illusion' (Thomas & Penz, 2003), the whole enterprise is seen in terms of illusion. Through illusion a world of make-believe or of pseudo-reality is open to manipulation when the media is one that centres upon vision. Moreover, apart from engagement with visually manipulated images, vision, in its natural engagement with the world, carries the potential of illusion. The common notion of the 'innocent eye' representing the world in pristine faithfulness, can be seen more as a figment of imagination than of reality.
We need to challenge the concept of reality both in terms of direct perception, i.e. stimuli given to the senses without any form of human mediation, and indirect perception, i.e. through artificial modes, commonly known as media; and hence we will see that the question of reality becomes more one of definition. As it will become clear later, the symbolic transformations that occur in both direct and indirect perception always place reality at a distance, the things or objects being observed themselves becoming re-presentations. It appears that we should focus more upon the process of visual perception rather than engaging in polemics about reality; and in following this route we place the individual at the centre of our enquiry, and thus allow for the idiosyncrasies that surround the act of interpretation. The process of visual communication is always one of transformation; at the retinal level an analogue input is transformed into a digital output for transmission by electrical impulses to the brain; and at the cultural level, symbolic images require to be transposed, via metaphor, in order for their meaning to be understood. Both processes bear the mark of coding, of change, where one thing is represented by something else. And thus we find ourselves in the field of symbolism.
We have set a broad scene for considering the place of the visual in communication, and now we must take upon ourselves a deeper and more thorough analysis. The essential starting point is that concerning man's engagement with the world through the senses, the world of phenomena, and it is here that students of the visual may obtain gratification in finding that visual words such as 'light' and 'showing' are central concepts in the study of phenomenology. For example, Heidegger traced the etymology of phenomenology to its Greek and Indo-European roots, showing that the word is connected with ideas of light and clarity, and that which shows itself. But, as reported by Macquarrie (1973), Heidegger was cautious to explain, as the subsidiary title of this book proclaims, that there is more to things than meets the eye. He went on to advocate that the 'truth' has to be 'wrested' from the shown phenomena, and that this wresting is made via a second level of 'showing'; by this he meant articulation by speech which allows structures and interconnections to be, as he would say, brought into the light. This second level was referred to by Derrida (1978) as the agency within us which always keeps watch over perception. Here we are in the territory of language, speech in Heidegger's case, and written in Derrida's.
This linguistic interaction with the world of the senses, with phenomena, has ramifications both psychological and cultural, and it draws attention to the fact that perception is multi-faceted. However, the starting point in our journey begins with things in themselves, or as the existentialist would say, with beings-in-themselves, things that show themselves in isolation from codes, existing here and now, in space and in time, the ultimate 'a priori' conditions set by Kant in his theory of knowledge. Thus presence can be seen to hold a privileged position along the two fundamental parameters of space and time. And it is in space and time that visual perception always has its being, a being that only knows itself as presence. In stressing the primacy of perception, Merleau-Ponty (1964) laid special emphasis upon the fact that it is contained in the present, but its roots, as he suggested, are primordial.
Space and time provide the foundations for the reality principle; the reality of one's existence in the world here and now. The reality 'out there' is, however, modified by the very system that is viewing it, and as we shall come to see in more detail later, this reality principle can be subjected to a variety of distortions when the source of the visual stimuli is that of artefactual images, for example, film or other images, static or moving. Gibson (1966) suggested that "a distinction is possible between what is commonly called experience at first-hand and experience at second-hand. In the former one becomes aware of something. In the latter one is made aware of something. The process by which an individual becomes aware of something is called perception ... The process by which an individual is made aware of something, however, is a stage higher in complexity ...
It involves the action of another individual besides the perceiver ... we speak of being informed, being told, being taught, being shown ... The principle vehicle for this kind of indirect perception, is of course language. There is another vehicle for obtaining experience at second-hand, however, and this is by way of pictures or models. Although much has been written about language, there is no coherent theory of pictures." In these terms, indirect perception refers to any mediated form of communication, and it is our task to help shed some light on visual communication which of necessity is bound up with a theory of pictures.
The Primary Stage: the optics of viewing
Whatever the source of information, whether it is unmediated/natural, or mediated/cultural, the visual processes for dealing with the input of light are identical. This is the primary stage of visual perception in which a changing array of light energy impinges upon the receptor cells in the eye. The source of the light may be direct, as for example from the sun, or from other artefactual means such as an electric light, or it may be reflected, bouncing from the objects or scenes which it illuminates; this, of course, is the normal way we become visually aware of things in our surroundings. The light energy reaching the eye is converted into electrical discharges which are transmitted as impulses along the nervous pathways to the brain. The process is one of transduction and encoding; thus mediation is under way at this very early stage and reality is therefore placed at a distance. Something begins to stand for something else; so we can now, even at this primary stage of visual perception, consider awareness as being in part a symbolic activity; thus we can embrace within the term symbolism the neural processes which communicate information about exterior events, in addition to the cultural symbolism found in mediated communication, which we have defined as indirect perception.
Visual communication in all its manifestations incorporates a symbolic framework, a framework which is sufficiently flexible as to offer scope for varying degrees of realism. And it is in visual media that we find the greatest span of degrees of realism, from the ultra realism of trompe l'oeil to the near abstraction of schematic diagrams. It is this degree of flexibility, allied to the perceptual component, that gives visual communication its powerful place in the general scheme of human communication.
The eye is literally in the forefront of this process, filtering stimuli through rods and cones with varying degrees of specialisation before transmitting electrical impulses to the brain. However, although we have designated the term primary process to the retinal phase of visual perception, we may observe that psychological and cultural factors exert preliminary influences upon the direction and focus of attention. This is an inevitable fact of life, the eye is not multi-directional, which means that choice has to be made from a range of directional options which are available to the forward-looking eye. Thus bias, which is not intended here to be understood in a pejorative sense, will be seen to be a natural corollary to visual perception. Bias implies desire, and here we move to consideration of the viewer's personal motivation in the act of noticing, and hence we may observe that motivation is at work before vision is engaged, e.g., a tendency to focus on 'this' rather than 'that'. Such motivation may, for example, be the continuing influence of man's instinct for survival, noticing visual signs of danger; or it may stem from cultural influences which dispose individuals to orientate themselves in particular directions, noticing specific visual cues at the expense of others. When we talk about education of the visual sense, it means none other than this, making a conscious selection from the visual field, noticing particular relationships, and in the case of paintings and other visual images, sharing to some extent the bias imported by their creators.
So although we gave pride of place to the eye in our scheme of things in visual perception, we are forced to conclude that there exists a precursor. From the rear a guiding hand reaches forth directing attention in a selective fashion; the glove on the hand, still speaking metaphorically, being that of desire or motivation stemming from natural or cultural origins. Here of course we are in the territory of the brain, and it is to the brain that we need to direct our attention for further insights into the complexities of visual perception. Here we enter a world of symbolism where the initial presentation to the eye has been transformed; we are now in the realm of re-presentation which by further elision becomes representation. Reality is lost and the innocence that goes with it; realism takes over and with it arises the possibility of deception through natural or cultural causes, such is the path of the visual in communication.
The Secondary Stage: brain processing of visual information
Having discussed the primary stage where information in the form of light impinges upon the eye, and having introduced a detour to include reference to motivation, we follow the energy from the eye in its transformed state as neural energy. In this transformed, symbolic state, energy traverses neural pathways to the brain, the seat of processing and interpretation. It is here that neurological processes can be measured and psychological processes inferred. The physical characteristic that attracts our interest for the purpose of visual communication is that of brain lateralisation. And it is to this area of enquiry that we now turn before analysing the wider range of psychological issues which bear upon visual understanding and interpretation.
The brain, for descriptive purposes, can be classified into two distinct regions, a division commonly known as brain lateralisation. From this division we go on to speak about right and left cerebral hemispheres. These spatial terms are often used as nomenclature to describe types of people; for example, we may hear people being described as right or left thinkers. The right mode is employed to describe so-called visualisers, people strong on spatial, non-verbal modes of thought; the left mode is reserved as a category to describe verbalisers, people whose thought is considered to be mainly linear, sequential and analytical. Such definitions are of special interest for our concern with the visual, as it will be seen that the right mode is central to processing information which is presented holistically, for example, in pictures or illustrations where the eye is given a simultaneous display of information. This is in contrast to the verbal, whether in print or in sound, where words are received successively.
While such neat binary categories offer attractive definitions, we need to guard against making too simplistic assumptions about right and left thought processes. We know, for example, that total simultaneity in viewing is not always operative, that the eye makes linear movements in its search across pictorial presentations; and we know that succession is involved when viewing moving images, for example film and television. We also know that pictorial images may possess literary connotations which call upon verbal processing. Therefore, it is necessary to be reminded that while at the surface level we may emphasise right and left modes of cerebral processing, and that we may classify people into personality types bearing these labels, there are no absolute personality distinctions of these kinds. In fact it may be more appropriate to define people as having left or right preferences for thinking as a result of social or educational experiences. What is essential is to note that there exists a communication structure, technically known as the corpus callosum, between both hemispheres, and that metaphorically speaking one side talks to the other. Thus, with this rejoinder, we go forward to a more detailed explanation of the right and left hemispheres.
Pioneering work in this field was first carried out in the second half of the nineteenth century by the French neurologist, Paul Broca, who was the first person to locate speech activity in a specific side of the brain. Subsequently his work led to interest in the contrasting specialisations carried out in both the right and left hemispheres. More specifically, it is to the work of Roger W. Sperry (1968) in the late 1950's and early 1960's, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1982, that we may turn for further insights in our quest for understanding of the visual. Sperry's work on brain lateralisation highlights the idea of two contrasting modes of information processing; the left hemisphere being engaged with categories and analytical thought; and the right with perception and things non-verbal. So, in view of our concern with things visual and spatial, it is the right hemisphere that becomes the focus of our attention, but naivety should not prevent us from considering the contributions that both hemispheres make to the unity found in conscious awareness.
The later work by McCarthy and Warrington (1988) who carried out research into what they termed 'the modality-specific meaning systems in the brain', provides useful supportive evidence for differences in processing in the brain's two hemispheres. Although their work was oriented towards semantic knowledge, we can note, as they did, the contrast between semantic and visual knowledge. A summary of the paper which they presented at Cambridge University gives the full flavour of the distinction: "knowledge of letters, colours, objects or people may be lost as a consequence of damage to the left hemisphere of the brain. Recently there has been quantitative evidence for even more specific impairment and preservation of particular classes of knowledge. More recently the evidence of knowledge of living things as compared with inanimate objects is particularly striking. Such observations suggested that our semantic knowledge base is categorical in its organization. In this preliminary report, we describe a patient whose semantic knowledge deficit was not only category specific, but also modality specific. Although his knowledge of the visual world was almost entirely normal his knowledge of living things, but not objects, was gravely impaired when assessed in the verbal domain."
Excerpted from Visual Communication by Harry Jamieson. Copyright © 2007 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
Chapter One: The Perceptual Connection,
Chapter Two: The Semiotic Connection,
Chapter Three: 'In-Forming' and Meaning,
Chapter Four: The Tacit Dimension,
Chapter Five: The Aesthetic Dimension,
Chapter Six: Frames and Framing,
Chapter Seven: Language or System,