Ann Marie Seward Barry on Visual Rhetoric

Barry, Ann Marie Seward. 1997. “Perception and Visual Common Sense.” Visual Intelligence. Albany: SUNY Press


Here is the Q&A for this Barry article on Perception and Visual Common Sense:

1.On p. 66, Barry notes that “it is not enough to be ‘visually literate.'” How does she contribute to that argument in this chapter? Would you agree or disagree with her? Provide examples to support whatever position you take.

Barry’s position that it is not enough to be visually literate refers, essentially, to the theory that even thought one can become visually literate and have a relatively solid understanding of what is being presented by the media, there are still reactions and emotions that occur on a sub-, un-, or pre-conscious level. Specifically, our perceptions can be altered by experience, physical abnormalities (such as color-blindness or near/far sightedness), memory, and emotion. (65).

Having read a bit about subliminal advertising (many years back), I do agree that there is a certain perception that occurs directly, but not necessarily consciously. Some of the most common examples I’ve seen consist of placing images within the ice cubes or condensation on a glass in men’s magazine advertisements for liquor. Two examples I recall were that of a woman’s breast and one of a volleyball player silhouette. So, whether the reader was somehow aroused by the image, thought it might make him more appealing to (or likely to connect with) women, be more athletic, be more playful, etc. is not known. If I recall correctly, none of the test participants saw the images until specifically pointed out (and even then some had difficulty seeing them), and when actually published sales did increase. Obviously, other external factors could have been in play. However, I do believe that some sort of memory, emotion, or other sensation can be sparked with such imagery.

2. Much of visual rhetorical theory covered in Barry focuses on the importance of the ‘whole effect’ produced by visual content rather than actual realism, i.e., partially constructed shapes we perceive as wholes, pointillism, etc. What are some contemporary applications of this in terms of designing visual content in digital or simulated environments?

One of the most prominent contemporary applications of the “whole” effect is in advertising. While several television commercials come to mind, a prime example is the long-running series of magazine (and billboard) advertisements for Absolut vodka in which the shape of the Absolut bottle is formed by (or formed by the white space surrounded by) any number of objects or substances. A simple Google search for Absolut Ads produces many examples.

The effectiveness of this advertising campaign is threefold. On the base level there is the shape of the bottle, not inordinately unique, but enough so that one can identify it as the Absolut bottle. The aspect is strengthened by the repetition of the various adds that serve to both bring familiarity of the bottle, the ad, and by extension the product to the user and also to entice the user to search out what the next installment of the ad campaign will be. Finally, each different instance of the ad seeks to align itself with a given individual. Examples I’ve seen include veiled or direct reference to a specific individual, such as Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollack; a social commentary on drunken driving, crime scenes, holidays, fashion trends; a specific culture or geographical area; or various topics. Whatever the ad theme, it establishes common ground with a set group. With so many different examples, Absolut gains potential interest and even loyalty from consumers.

3.On page 60, Barry focuses on two important, related ideas concerning visual perception and reality. The first paraphrases McLuhan: “Whenever a medium is relied on intently, becoming an integral part of the culture, the way people live and perceive their world…radically changes.” The second quotes Lanier: “With a virtual reality system, you don’t see the computer anymore—it’s gone. All that’s there is you.” In what ways has the digital medium changed our perceived reality and what role does the virtual have in our culture? What are some future possibilities? Reference some of our previous readings in your response.

Barry’s citation of McLuhan is not unlike ideas put forth in the Ong and Heim pieces we read on the topic of transformative technologies, specifically in regard to communication. The transitions from oral to writing to print culture were very large. However, we can look at an example that took place more at the dawn of the electronic age. We can look to how differently people viewed their world with the advent of the telephone and the ease with which one could communicate with someone many miles away and how communication became non-visual; or that of the television and how family entertainment time, formerly gathered around a radio become increasingly visual.

The digital medium has changed our perception of reality in the way we communicate, store and organize information, and also with the portability of it. For example, when doing research, it is no longer necessary, albeit still possible to sort through card catalogues and shelves of books to locate a title; we can find all that online. Similarly, it is not essential to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to conduct live interviews, when we can conduct and record interviews over the Web and simulate the two or more individuals sitting in a room. Essentially, the change in perception is, in part, a shift in perceiving distance, object (such as a text book vs. digital file), and simplicity.

I have just given merely one example among many. However, continuing this line of thought, the future could increase the simplicity of research by offering virtually all books digitally, browsable online, personal conversations could take place in a simulated setting even closer to actually being there – perhaps a life-size holographic Second Life.

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