Vision & Gaze

Par kaamna-patel - 28 September 2011 - 13:51 [English] [PDF] 

Intro to Visual Culture – Week 3

As we have seen previously, meaning can be derived from images through a number of processes. In ‘Mythologies’, Barthes tried to apply semiotics to images in an attempt to deconstruct the image as language by unraveling the cultural myths and codes embedded in them.  In his work ‘Death of an Author,’ Barthes questions the authority of the author in determining the singular meaning of a text, if such a thing exists, given that meaning belongs to both by the producer and the consumer and thereby applied this principal to visual culture.

In the image above, the line ‘Let’s stay human on public transport’ makes the producers meaning dominant in the image.

Considering the levels of denotation and connotation in an image, it is difficult to say that the author is the sole proprietor of meaning, even though (s)he may control it using language, thereby making his/her meaning the dominant one.

We all ‘see’ the image but in order to interpret it, we must actively ‘look’ at it.

Unlike the RATP Ad, The Economist leaves the image open to interpretation by the viewer but the image itself is laden with connotation. In both, the intended meaning of the producers is evident but here, we have the illusion that the meaning is created by us.

However, as Michel Foucault points out, an author is essential for legal purposes such as copyrights and therefore, an ‘owner’ of the image but that does not mean that he or she has the right to enforcing meaning but they do have the right to control how the image is created and thus, the associations made with it.

We instantaneously recognize the image of Tin Tin anywhere because the author has maintained consistency in the way the character has been represented.

We can thus say that there are three types of meanings –

  • Meaning intended by the producer
  • Meaning created by the viewer
  • Meaning depending of context

“Intervisuality” plays a large role in affecting the way meaning is constructed.  An ad viewed on a billboard will be perceived differently when viewed in a magazine or at Times Square in relation to other images or in a different cultural context.

Thus, meaning is not inherent in images but is the product of a complex social interaction depending on the context. This is why Art history is an insufficient too to study Visual culture as it only takes into account the author’s meaning.

If we look at film, there is always a dominant meaning intended for the viewer which is usually accepted without question. As Stuart Hall points out, there are 3 positions that a viewer takes when decoding meaning – The dominant meaning the negotiated reading (accepts both the dominant reading as well as another reading) and the oppositional reading (which rejects the dominant meaning entirely).

YouTube Preview Image

The film ‘Breathless’ by Jean Luc Godard is a good example of visual culture adapted from American ‘film noir’ mixed with French New Wave esthetics. The film can be read as a melodramatic love story on one level and as a tribute to Hollywood ‘film noir’ on another level.

It is our vision mixed with our cultural heritage that enable us to construct meaning. We have not always viewed things in the same way, however.

With nineteenth century Romanticism came a large shift in the way things were viewed and the ‘one point perspective’ of the camera obscura gave way to what Crary discusses based on Goethe’s idea of ‘subjective vision.’ Now, the actual image itself gives way to the persistence of image in the absensce of stimuli (afterimage). With the invention of machines and super human speed, optical illusions became more obvious and aroused the curiosity of people. The retina and time-space phenomenon of image perception was scrutinized and devices such as the stereoscope and kaleidoscope were created to make tangible these findings.

optical illusion

Vision is distinctly different from Gaze, not so much in general language as it is in Visual Culture. The gaze is relational and involves an interaction between people rather than objects.

Las Meninas, Velasquez

Las Meninas, Picasso

In Picasso’s version of ‘Las Meninas,’ the multiple gazes are still visible but we can also view it in terms of deriving meaning in association with Velazques’ ‘Las Meninas’ and it involves a more active reading.

The idea of the Gaze has been applied to spectatorship in film (Mulvey’s ‘Female Gaze’) and in psychoanalysis (self-perception through the gaze of others).

To summarize, we can say that the idea of vision involves seeing, which is a passive act, and looking which involves active interpretation of images. The idea of vision shifted drastically in the 19th century and continues to change today as the one point perspective gives way to a more complex, subjective vision.  Looking at images, especially those of people, involves one or more gazes and this interaction is key to decoding  ideological meaning in images.

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