NEW WORD ALERT:
Combining "explosion" (a rapid
release of energy) with the Latin
prefix "trans" which means "across" or "beyond" to refer to a sudden change that alters the familiar world.
ALTERNATE REALITY FILMS
The Thirteenth Floor
The Truman Show
INTRODUCTION: The Study of Visuality
“Just as fish are not aware that the water is wet,
we live in a sea of images and barely know it.”
The Image Transplosion
The world we live in is morphing right before our eyes. This transformation began, as far as we know at the moment, about 70,000 years ago. That was when our ancestors first created marks and markings on stones that represent the first human-made images in the world. It has continued at a blinding pace through all the various image-making innovations and technologies since then. And, of course, it is in full swing today now that digital technology has given us a vast new imaging capability.
Turn on the TV, go on the Web, open any publication, visit any public institution, or even step out into a busy street in any major city, and it is easy to see that images are becoming more and more prominent. By some estimates each of us sees thousands of images every single day on screens, paper, buildings, and so on. In fact this number is growing so quickly that it cannot even be calculated.
The word evolution refers to change, a slow change brought about by tiny alterations that remain in a system over a long period of time. The word revolution points to a more sudden shift in direction, when a system stagnates and must suddenly adapt to new circumstances. But the growth of images in our world is a different kind of change…more like an explosion that transforms the environment. We might even use a unique word – transplosion – to refer to it. In this sense, we are in the midst of a transplosion of images that is altering the way in which we see the world, think about ourselves, and even communicate and understand.
But it is more than just the sheer number of images, that is changing the world. We are not just surrounded by images but immersed in them. We live inside the reality that they create. We admire the portrait as though a person were there before us, we laugh at the TV as though real life were unfolding in it, we cry at the movies even though we know we are just watching flickering lights, we trust that the product in the ad will serve our needs and is not just dots of ink. In other words, we put our faith, our hopes, our desires into our encounter with images. In this way, from the earliest cave paintings to the latest blockbuster movie, images are among the most important objects that we make. The newest imaging techniques in entertainment, communication, astronomy, medicine, microscopy, and physics have only upped the ante, as we come to rely more and more on images to tell us what our world is like, and even what we are like.
The Study of Visuality
Because they are so common, we think that we know images. We feel familiar with them and talk casually about images as though we know just what they mean. We say things like…a picture is worth a thousand words, photographs don’t lie, seeing is believing, you can trust your own eyes. We say these things because we consider the act of understanding images to be a fairly mindless, simple activity. Look, see, notice, move on…an uncomplicated series of actions.
But as you think more about it, you begin to see that this view is too simple to be true. In fact, evidence suggests that the opposite is the case. The act of seeing is complicated and far from mindless. Our brains are constantly working, whether we are aware of it or not, to make sense of what we see. This is the case for all seeing and especially when what we are seeing is a picture in front of us. Understanding images is really a complex process because brains are complex, images are complex, and understanding itself is complex.
There are a number of different fields of study that focus on this complexity…art theory, design criticism, the psychology of perception, the philosophy of mind. But the idea that images in and of themselves – in any form and any medium – and the ways in which we understand them can be the subject of a focused study is a newer field. The term Visual Studies is often used to refer to this field, as is the name Visual Literacy. But in this course we will use the term Visuality to refer to the same field of study…understanding images of all kinds on every level.
Visuality is interdisciplinary; it draws on ideas from the philosophy of art, cognitive psychology, communications theory, art and design theory, linguistics, and semiotics. It is ahistorical; it concentrates on the experience of the image right there before you rather than on chronological themes or historical patterns. It is personal; the ultimate question in Visuality is what your response to the image is, but always trying to keep wider influences in mind.
The broadest definition of this approach to understanding images is this: Visuality is the study of the use and impact of images in culture, communication and cognition. The narrowest definition is: Visuality addresses the question of what happens when you look at an image.
The Matrix of the Image
The word matrix originally came from the word for womb. It was used to refer to a source or an origin. That use has changed in modern times with the advent of computers and has come to refer to a complex, constructed system. The wildly popular sci-fi movie The Matrix changed the meaning of the word again. Based on the story in that movie, we casually use the word matrix now to refer to an artificial system so complex that it competes with reality itself.
The premise of the movie is that is that the world we live in, our familiar day-to-day reality, is just such a matrix…a complex artificial world created by computers and pumped into our brains in order to control us.
This is a fascinating idea, that the world we think we know so well is not the truth but instead is some kind of trick or illusion. In fact, this is a very old idea that has been repeated throughout history. The philosopher Plato wrote about a related concept 3,500 years ago in a work called the Allegory of the Cave. In this story, Plato suggests that the world we take to be real one is only a dim, imperfect copy – a shadow play – of a real and more perfect world that can only be understood through rationality and clear thought. Take a look at this video version of Plato's Allegory and notice the connections to the film The Matrix.
The movie is science fiction and a warning about technology. The Allegory of the Cave is philosophy and a warning about accepting our perceptions as the whole truth. Yet both of these ideas are related to the way in which we use the word matrix now…as an alternative world that we live in and take to be real.
By referring to the matrix of the image, we can draw both of these ideas into our study of Visuality, our understanding of images. The matrix of the image suggests that we too are living in a kind of cave or dream world but this time it is one of our own devising. The immersive, expanding world of images is one that we are carefully constructing and building…on purpose and with full speed. No tricky computers, no ironies of philosophy. We are doing it to ourselves. That is, we are constructing a matrix – an artificial world of images – and living in it as a kind of new reality.
This matrix is becoming so total and so complete that we live much of our conscious lives in it, perhaps even more than in the natural world. Just think of how much of your time is spent looking at images. Think of how much of your understanding of life – how it works, what it looks like, what matters, who’s who and what’s what – comes from images in the media, in the news, on the web.
This is why it is important that we study this process and understand its impact on us psychologically, emotionally, socially. We ought to understand the influences on our lives. And there is another reason understanding images is so important. There will be moments – as there was for Neo in The Matrix and for the searcher in the Allegory of the Cave – when it will be critical for us to understand what is happening, to step outside the matrix and see the truth. Only in this way can we make sure that we will be intelligent users and not simply victims in the world of the image. Only then can we know when we are being manipulated and how and why.
“You’ve been living in a dream world, Neo,” Morpheus says in the movie as he drags the hero out of his reverie and forces him to see the world as it really is. To the extent that we have been doing this too in connection with the matrix of the image, this course is designed to wake us up.
From the earliest markings on stone, to the latest high-tech screens, the images we make fill up the world and become a primary source of our experiences.
We increasingly rely on images of all kinds to tell us
about ourselves and the world we live in. News, entertainment, science, communication are all now mediated by images.
The movie The Matrix visualized a popular and ancient idea that the world we know is not the real reality. Images are now forming a kind of matrix that we live in and think of as real.
To understand any image at all we need to see it as a kind of reality we can relate to rather than simply the splatter of colors any image is, like shadows on Plato's cave wall.