Another post about #clmooc. Last week, I followed other colleagues’ work with great interest but couldn’t create anything myself. But building on that spirit, I’d like to start this post by sharing my main idea through an illumination.
Images can be relatively universal, but because their imitation or representation of the world or ideas are mediated by selection, perspective, perception, and interpretation, even the seemingly most universal images create room for complex conversations.
For this week’s 5-image story, I describe my intellectual journey with images as rhetorical tools, highlighting the power of images as a medium of expression that have both the potential for communicating ideas effectively across contexts and their potential for reinforcing the illusion of universality, the prevailing geopolitical hegemony in the world that insidiously impoverishes knowledge and knowledge-making — even as scholars are becoming more connected by new technologies and their communities are becoming more diversified and inclusive.
Images Morphing in the Mind
Before I came to the US as a student of writing and rhetoric, when I was a student and then a teacher of English Studies, I used to understand images/imagery in art and literature to mean whatever the books written in Britain and North America said they meant. For instance, while very few people in Nepal would consider a woman’s naked body as “beautiful” (instead of simply obscene), students of literature like me accepted the meaning supplied by authors, critics, and theorists from somewhere else. In our teaching/learning and the conversations among the proud “English folks,” images were interpreted in universal terms, even when we didn’t know much about the objects in our real lives. This could be called the daffodil phenomenon: whether you’ve seen or know anything at all about the daffodil flower, if you’re a student of British literature, you were supposed to “appreciate” the wonders of a poem of this title by William Wordsworth.
I did study postcolonial theory–and did well in the exams summarizing it–but it was only when I came to the US that I first started really thinking about the theory in the context of education, knowledge-making, and knowledge-sharing in the world. For example, I had always wanted to gain weight (my mother constantly used to say “Come on. Eat more. Be fat.”) because being a little chubby meant being “healthy” in Nepal. This desire to look fatter–no, not to “gain weight” or to “be healthy,” because they weren’t a problem in themselves!–forced me to rethink about what I wanted to “look like” when my negative body image suddenly started becoming a positive one.
I knew that images “healthy” people differed across cultures and contexts, but when I first told an American friend that I wanted to be “fat,” I realized that desires and discourses about health are shaped by politics and ideology and that the meanings of body images thus shaped have implications far beyond personal: since the discourses about body images from more dominant societies are often viewed as neutral and apolitical, natural and universal, the social and political consequences of the dynamic cross national, cultural, and other boundaries. When I visit home in Nepal, I won’t be telling my mother that I have fulfilled her wish by being a little fat: I will be telling her that it’s not good to look fat and I don’t want to be–regardless of all the complexities of body mass index, nuances of what science says about weight, and so on.
A few more incidents related to image. When a friend and I went to a water park with short and tight swimming boxers (I still am not sure what they’re called), we drew the attention of hundreds of people (especially younger visitors)–until our wives noticed it and we cut short our fun. The first time my wife and I took our baby boy to the doctor, everyone praised “what a gorgeous little girl she is!” because he was wearing pink-ish outfit sent by grandma from Nepal. And one day, I had to tell a fellow Nepali student to please stop holding my hand while we were walking across campus– because that would seem very odd for straight adult men in this country! None of these “images” were universal, but if the people around us could imagine that they may mean different things for different people, those people wouldn’t be very surprised– and we wouldn’t be in some cases.
I now saw how ironic it was that art and literature is taught/learned around the world as a means for learning “about” different societies, cultures, and contexts–past and present–but the same mediums also serve to reinforce power structure and hegemony in the world when the universal significance of the powerful quickly trumps its localness but the universality of the powerless local is overshadowed by the value of its being different or exotic.
Images and Visual Literacy in a Globalized World
Since I started teaching writing–which involves reading and critical thinking, research and writing to present arguments and perspectives, using media to communicate, etc–I’ve always used images to create opportunities for students to discuss “global issues” from around the world. I’ve used them to help students explore complex issues of context, presentation, perception/interpretation, perspectives, and often political issues. But I also hesitate to introduce to complex or outside-the-box ideas into the classroom. Should I talk about the “gaze” created by the increasing dominance or adoption of certain cultural perspectives toward different people, objects, places, and realities? Should I alert students how “global” issues are highly filtered by the media, politics, national interests, and other stakes of their local societies? Should I bring up that we are limited by the selection, presentation, and circulation of certain images and not others–all of which are shaped by power and politics–and should I tell them that their perception and interpretation are limited by their own local lenses that they’ve learned to consider universal especially when it comes to images? I don’t want to overwhelm or discourage students, and even when I bring in these complexities, students often lose interest in them.
Images have the potential to communicate slightly to highly universal messages across contexts. For instance, the picture of a sad or happy, injured or healthy child can tell the story more effectively than words. But sad or injured children from certain backgrounds tend to be selected and presented as such and not from others, and that typically reinforces already prevalent understanding of that group. The effective communication then quickly translates into effective misrepresentation and stereotyping. For instance, when I think about Nepal, I think about people in a politically broken society struggling and succeeding in a variety of areas such as education, technology, media/journalism, and business; I think about Mahabir Pun, the US-educated Nepali entrepreneur who is working to provide free wifi to people across the country by using methods that even the “advanced” societies could be using but won’t because they don’t believe that “the means of information should be a basic right” in a democracy. But when I Google the term “Nepal,” results range from mountains, monkeys, poor people, and hungry-looking children. Even in the age of the internet, certain images do not circulate or do not circulate as well as others. Images are shaped by discourses: they are picked up and presented in certain lights, perceived and interpreted in certain ways, and circulated at certain speed and scope by what people think about them, or how they understand the underlying issues.
Of course, images can also convey general and relatively universal ideas. But when that potential is taken for granted, it is harder to see the complexity and political shaping of the meanings of images. I believe that this is why the scholarship on media and multimodality doesn’t focus much on their political shaping of the meaning. I have come across some scholarship about the cultural influence on how people interpret images in the field of marketing, sociology, and even cognitive and behavioral science; but other than some work in related fields like education (also see this), I haven’t seen this issue foregrounded in my discipline.
Consequently, I have realized that in spite of the challenges–in spite of the potential of being a killjoy on the subject–I find it necessary to foreground both potentials of images, the ability to convey meanings universally and that of turning the local into global. Especially in a world where “globalization” is understood by too many people as the spreading of dominant cultures at the cost of cultural, epistemological, political, and ideological diversity, I find it very important that I learn and teach inclusiveness and diversity by exploring the ability of images to convey ideas, as well as foregrounding the risk of the same images further spreading or reinforcing monolithic local-as-universal worldviews.
As a practical illustration of the thoughts above, and of where I am in my own thinking about images and their potential for universality versus political contingency, let me conclude with an interesting exercise that I give to students in most of my classes. I ask students to go to Google search and enter what they believe is an absolutely universal concept/entity (such as “beauty”), then click on “image” search. Then I ask students to describe what they see. They start answering: young, women, fair skin, skinny, make up, scantily dressed, and so on. Then I ask students if they think those images represent beauty universally. Their opinions vary. So, I ask them to add the name of a place or country/culture to the word “beauty.” This brings up significantly varying results, with some students producing shocking outcomes. For instance, one student who had entered “beauty” and “Taiwan” came up with a lot of pictures of snakes (I think that there is a certain type of snake that is considered beautiful in Taiwan). Adding “men” creates a whole new conversation. [Here’s a project named Image Atlas, which indexes image search from different parts of the world. I just found this and think there are huge scholarly implications of this project.]
In most of my undergraduate writing courses, I require or encourage students to research and write about “global issues,” but I am fascinated by how they (and often I) define what global issues are. I am intrigued by how we tend to select images of poverty and misery, corruption and conflict in such ways that essentially put certain people and societies in certain set places on the scale of progress, for instance, with the “developing” societies out there being behind and the “developed” ones ahead–not realizing how the underlying discourses are largely geopolitical constructs that fail to recognize many other types of indexes and perspectives. Sometimes, I succeed in conveying to students that sympathy, empathy, and a willingness to understand can easily reinforce rather than help solve problems in the world. Sometimes, I am afraid that I simply sound cynical and pessimistic.
And yet, especially after I joined a network of educators from around the world recently, when it comes to images, I increasingly realize (often after being naive) that they don’t come from, travel through, or arrive at any context- and discourse-free spaces–and I try to teach what I’ve learned to my students. I tell my students that we create images, select them, share them, pick them, re-present them, contextualize them, and interpret them. We use our varying experiences, knowledge, perceptions, biases, and so on to make sense of images that may be universal in themselves but are rarely just that in the real world of teaching, learning, and knowledge-making/sharing. As an educator, I find this reminder–however obvious it might seem–extremely useful for myself and for my students.