“The great virtue of vision is that it is not only a highly articulate medium, but that its universe offers inexhaustibly rich information about the objects and events of the outer world. Therefore, vision is the primary medium of thought.” (Arnheim 1997b: 18)
Most of our daily experiences occur visually. It is said that up to 80 % of the neurons in the human cortex respond to visual stimuli, which seems to mean that we are preordained to view the word visually. While visual monopoly can be a double-edged sword, where other senses can get overlooked, which may in fact lead to a poorer experience of being, I am focusing only on visual perception and its consequent literacy in this short discussion.
Now, to stress the visual aristocracy further, our eyes are capable of decoding more variables than our ears for example, since the sound vibrations are slower than the vibration of light. What is even more striking, however, is the fact that our visual system despite its multitude of light-sensitive cells depends heavily on inferences, making our involvement in the world quite literally a guessing, puzzle-making experience. In light of this, it is also important to note that both our brain structure and functions can change according to what we do and how we approach our subject matter. The process is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Our vital organ essentially becomes a muscle that can get strengthened through knowledge and experience or can deteriorate by lack of stimuli. The same way as we train our visual coherence, we train our brain according to our lives and undertaken actions. Thus, it would seem that greater comprehension of for example visual images that comes through learning, repetition and inherent interest, is not evident merely through philosophizing and interpreting prowess, but leaves a quite vivid neurological stamp as well.
In fact, our photoreceptors are relegated to noticing only a quite narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Not only is our vision subject to clear, relatively close imagery, but the vast majority of informational content of visual sensations can get lost from the eye to the brain. The rationale here is rooted in our evolution, in the so-called negativity bias, where we had to learn to distinguish between the imagery that indicated danger (a lion) as opposed to the more neutral shapes (a rock). Essentially, the negative stimuli are cognitively more powerful than the positive ones; perhaps the reason why a single negative occurrence overpowers the perception of the numerous positive ones. Although cognitive bias has a positive equivalent in for example the halo effect, we have evolved and essentially survived because of safety and caution, mistaking the rock numerous times for a lion, so we would never mistake the lion for the rock, since it is far better to process the visual information slowly that falsely … unless you’re completely selfless and feel pity for the poor lion, of course.
Our central (visual) means of experiencing the world is thus paradoxically extremely fragile. Despite the ability of immediate recognition of the focused elements, perception as such is generally actually fairly unreliable, easily succumbing to abnormalities and illusions. This may in fact reflect on the human state as a whole, our fragile nature and general capitulation in light of cognitive, hormonal and emotional stimuli that govern our daily lives.
Despite this seeming self-deconstruction of the visual dominance, the perception of visual imagery requires the understanding of various factors. This is the paradigm of visual literacy. We perceive literacy as the condition of being knowledgeable of a particular subject, this generally means the ability to read and write. Consequently, visual literacy is the ability to comprehend visual imagery, which in itself demands a appropriately equipped perceiver. While comics fall under this definition, we should note that imagery in this context applies to body movements and gestures in general just as much as it concerns pictorial representations. Strictly speaking, linguistic elements are visual imagery as well; however, there is a prevailing distinction that separates words from pictures, since the first are perceived more as sounds than imagery, while the latter are visual imagery par excellence. Further dichotomy between both visual components is evident through the fact that words can be rendered as images and pictures become textualized and read accordingly. A similar distinction can be made with the term art. Although in the broadest sense it refers to every human productive effort, it practically excludes language and writing. As such, an artist may be a painter or a sculptor, yet products of language are the works of writers. This may be an arbitrary distinction, but artistry nevertheless needs to be considered in its broadest sense as the creative force it is.
As defined here, visual literacy can be viewed as a form of fluency (of pictorial elements) and expertise on various structures. Such fluency is essential in understanding not only the visual interplay in comics, but the world around us. Our perception is heavily influenced by a wide number of stimuli, ranging from personal (in)abilities and expectations to social factors, stemming either directly from our environment or indirectly from the laws and regulations of the superorganism that is our society. Consequently, visual recognition may be hindered by the phenomenon called inattentional blindness. If your attention is fixated on a particular task or you are skimming through panels in any comic, you may overlook a specific detail. We may not perceive a particular visual image, despite looking at it (in)directly. Since our mind has been programmed to a particular undertaking, we do not bother with any other detail (or we are grouping together so many images our eyes and brain have to choose what to illuminate and what to skim over). While linguistically skimming through a text for a particular goal results in a similar lack of detail or other specifics, this issue is pictorially more shocking, as it results at looking at a picture, yet not really seeing it, while words nevertheless require more decoding. Unless we employ extremely close reading, we expect to miss a particular detain; as opposed to instantaneous recognition we have learned to expect of looking at pictures.
Consequently, this is why the hermeneutic circle works wonders and why rereading any type of work can literally reveal new worlds … We become better equipped in not only seeing the forest for the trees, but actually noticing how many branches a particular tree has and what type it is (this may be a stretch, but the hyperbole is clear). Needless to say, the focus on mythological imagery also falls under the dangers of such a lack of mindfulness, since it may result in looking for God within the panels and missing the divine in the characters or even the reader as the ultimate observer/participator. Because of this, the holistic approach to any type of research offers a very pragmatic net, with which to snare the most comprehensive analysis.
In either case, visual literacy is a prerequisite in the current multimodal, technical culture where imagery is semi-divine. Visual literacy serves as the beacon for the ensuing profundity of visual studies. Comics is a perfect form for expressing and becoming knowledgeable of imagery which is part of our daily lives, since all the elements integrate into a visual text that (like myth) requires a holistic approach, where one trains intricate visual reading and becomes more observant of details and the broader cultural context at hand. In other words, visual literacy is paramount in understanding especially allegory, metaphor, allusion and non-literal content, all of which reflect the complexities of our very being.
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For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …