Visual Media, Allegorical Consciousness, and Postmodern Culture
Robert Hariman Drake University
I think many of us would agree that we are living in an era of transition: generally, from one phase of modernity to another; more specifically, it is harder to say. Let's ask ourselves for a moment how this sense of change might guide the rhetorical study of visual media. Of the many possible answers to this question, there are two I want to put on the table.
The first consideration is that the study of visual media is likely to be occurring at all, or in a particular form, because our society now is moving beyond those media to other communication technologies. Here I am applying an observation from the history of communication: We know that the study of the forms and functions of oral speech emerged in antiquity just as literacy was being disseminated widely across and within the societies of the time. Although speech was featured, the formalization of speech became possible through writing. More important, perhaps, the knowledge produced was easily applied to both media. Indeed, there probably was a hidden bias toward what would work that way, and certainly the lore that proved most transmissible was that which was not limited to oral speech alone. Likewise, the next major transformation in communicative technologies--printing--was accompanied by the rise of the modern linguistic sciences. As writing became printing, language itself became an object of study. As printing became industrialized, the sciences of philology, hermeneutics, and linguistics flowered. In the twentieth century, philosophy and then all the human sciences took the linguistic turn, and natural languages became less interesting while meaning became the object of study (as in The Meaning of Meaning . . . ). Could it be that meaning could become an object of study because photography and film were now augmenting and displacing print technologies? Not surprisingly, the study of meaning quickly became articulated through terms such as "symbol" that could work in both verbal and visual media, while subsequently verbal and visual terms have become interchangeable as we referr to all manner of practices as "discourses" and "read" a limitless range of artifacts, or at least "gesture" in that direction.
And now we find ourselves amidst the study of visual media, visual cultures, visual literacy, etc.--which is more, by the way, than previous investigations of the individual visual arts, which always arise soon after their moment of origin. I can't help but wonder if, once again, the study of communication is caught in a slightly retrograde enterprise. Are we focusing on the visual because we are already under the influence of a successor technology? If so, isn't it likely that our account of visual rhetorics is itself already bearing the stamp of a post-visual mode of perception or cognitive style, or that if it is not, it won't last once such an account emerges? One more time: could it be the "successful" account of visual media is likely to be the one that also works with its successor medium? If so, then we need only specify that successor. To suggest how this logic might play out, if the successor medium is interactive computing generally and the internet/web practices currently, then our account of visual rhetorics will be likely to feature interaction of visual and verbal media in a third space, indifference to specific optical production values such as high resolution, attention to public use, inattention to political economy, etc. Ironically, while we debate whether we can "read" images, we probably are processing (scanning, editing, forwarding, and deleting or storing) them.
To summarize and conclude this point: There is no direct, unmediated engagement with the phenomena, and I am suggesting that our study of communication is mediated not only by those communicative technologies and practices that we are most familiar with, but also by those we are acquiring. The communicative medium that is coming into being has considerable though largely unexamined influence over the study of communication. We are disposed to focus on the medium that is in the process of being displaced, while we come to understand it in terms that can also be applied to that which displaces it. It may be that we habituate ourselves to the new by making the old an object of study.
My second point, which I'd like to develop for the moment without direct connection to the first, is an attempt to say something about how intensive image production is driving the transformation from modern to postmodern culture. My basic argument is that this transformation involves a tectonic shift from representational to allegorical consciousness. As Benjamin prophesied, and as Lyotard, Baudrillard, Jameson, and many others have demonstrated, modernity's powerful development of technologies for recording and communicating reality has caused modern norms of representation to buckle under the pressure of the endless reproduction of signs. In order to manage this semiotic excess, high, middle, and low forms of cultural production alike are turning to allegorical devices of composition, while all of us are becoming habituated to the corresponding mode of consciousness in which modern conventions of reference, temporality, logic, and interpretation give way to more artificial, plastic, associational, and pluralistic norms of artistic design. (I realize this is a big bite. For the full argument, you'll have to see my paper for the 1996 public address conference at the U. of Illinois, which will be in a forthcoming volume edited by James Jasinski.)
This allegorical coding is most evident in visual media, and allegorical interpretation is the most functional response to those media and particularly to television advertising. For example, the syntax of the allegorical text is radically paratactic--that is, it associates signs without tying them together in a grammatical or narrative sequence that would imply a single order of things--and that is precisely what we experience as the logic of advertising associates products, lifestyles, and other social goods with the audience in essentially arbitrary combinations. Other techniques include the diverse appropriation of cultural forms (classical music used to sell toilet paper), encyclopedic contexts (500 video channels), non-linear temporality (mixing of period styles), heightened use of both irony and cliché, and a general orientation toward a plurality of interpretations. Lesser devices include personification (Mr. Goodwrench), symbols of world order (global communication networks), fetishized details of typification (the Nike swoosh), exaggerated landscapes (those gigantic obstacles that have to be scaled by middle managers in business machine ads), and magical powers (eat or drink the product and leap to the front of the pack). The list goes on and on. As these and other devices accumulate, they create possibilities for activating a mode of consciousness that is at once artificial and comprehensive.
This consciousness is itself embodied in a recurrent figure of allegorical composition, the cosmic ornament. Such ornaments might present a small object enlarged to dominate pictorial space, or a large object shrunken to fit into that space, or the repetition or fragmentation or transformation of an object to the same effect. Typically, the design activates a series of part-for-whole and micro-macroscopic relationships that simultaneously mystify social relations and motivate active use of the pictorial medium. So, for example, a recent IBM software ad shows a dial switch in modernist design that dominates the bare visual frame, surrounded by icons representing the applications that the program can manage. Before we can see what the options are, however, the switch becomes an eyeball, then a slightly retro thermostat, then the planet earth as seen in space. This rapid succession of images organizes additional information on both visual and vocal tracks, but always maintaining the circular image at the center of screen until it is replaced with a cut to the product name. Obviously, these images provide no literal representation of the product, technology, or company, while they involve dizzying shifts in scale, setting, point of view, time, and other perceptual variables that culminate in an image of cosmic order. Not bad for 15 seconds of viewing time. And how else can we understand the proposal by Vice-President Al Gore to spend between 20 and 50 million dollars to put a satellite in space that will broadcast live images of a sunlit Earth 24 hours a day for the internet and television? Wherever you are, however you feel, as long as you are connected to the electronic media you will be able to see this image of serene, sunlight, harmonious global order. Have a nice day.
For better or worse, people have to use whatever means of persuasion their culture provides. At present, the resources of allegory are being employed in powerful array, particularly in the advertisements for communications and computing companies, to provide a vision of global community. It is a vision that displaces democratic politics, sanitizes difference, and collapses all history into the syntax of an omnipresent present. But it succeeds, and does so in no small part because it activates a mode of consciousness that is ideally suited to managing paradoxes of cultural transformation. I happen to believe that allegory can be a powerful resource for the articulation of a postmodern culture worth having--and that would have to be a culture sustaining democratic polity. In any case, allegory seems to be a preferred mode of coding when living amidst a cultural sea change.
To summarize this last point: If we are to understand visual rhetorics, we need to situate them in respect to processes of cultural transformation, and consider how they operate as part of larger patterns for coding reality that are not themselves inherently visual (or verbal), and recognize how they may reflect fundamental changes in consciousness (that are more than a shift from verbal to visual cognitive operations, etc.). As I ask each of these questions, I get the same answer: visual communication is becoming increasingly allegorical. This answer may also reflect the bias I suggested in the first part of this paper, but we shouldn't assume that is the most interesting part of the story.