Thursday, July 26, 2012

Visual Communication Reflection: The Power of the Gaze

With a brief intermission in honor of the Dark Knight Rises, the past three blog posts have focused on nudity, tattoos, and eyewitness testimony and their relationship with the visual communication topic of "the body".

The connection I found between all of these pieces was the idea of power transferred and disciplined through the gaze, specifically, a masculine, powerful gaze. The male gaze is the primary consumer of the ESPN magazine and the differences in framing the masculine and feminine bodies draw the male gaze to the female form. The gaze on the masculine bodies is one of camaraderie, but the gaze on the feminine bodies implies sexuality, ownership, and conquest. The tattoo as a public display directs one's gaze to certain locations on the body, hides other parts, and draws attention to one's narrative and modifications. Victims of and eye-witnesses to crime are robbed of well-being, safety, and peace of mind. Their gaze in identifying the suspect (whether innocent or guilty) reclaims some of that uncertainty and paranoia with power, retribution, and relief. The gaze, then, that tracks the faces and makes the ultimate decision is a tool of power and control reclaimed and operated by the victim.
Gaze and power are two powerful concepts that have importance implications for communication scholars, especially those interested in feminist, cultural, and rhetorical studies. Those in power use different methods of oppression and discipline others, one of those ways in through the gaze. I have had experience with this power at a bar on New Year's Eve two years ago. After dancing and having fun with my friends, a man approached me and told me that his friend wanted to meet me. Unsure why, but optimistic that my single friend might be entertained by the current man while I spoke with his friend, I followed him back to the bar. After awkward introductions and seeing my friend be abandoned at the bar, I tried to break off the conversation with the friend. Upon leaving, he grabbed my arm tightly and said a few words that I can hear clearly even today: "I've been looking at you all night. You will dance with me." The idea that his gaze somehow controlled me or that his gaze provided him power over me was simultaneously ridiculous and terrifying. Was my body not my own? Did simply being out in public make me vulnerable and even complicit in the gaze of others? This particular person seemed to think that the very act of looking, gazing, staring was a service, labor, and favor to me that I was obligated to return or compensate him in some way. This is an event, unfortunately, not unique to me and is the result of a patriarchal society that objectifies and sexualizes the feminine.

Rihanna's "Man Down" Video

But one's gaze should not provide undue or unwanted power over another. The women in the ESPN magazine should be given the same emphasis on skills and abilities instead of their naked form. Those who chose to get ink on their skin to tell stories, personal or public, should not be denigrated or ridiculed for their decisions. Criminal investigations should not rely on the unreliable, reclaim to power that is the eye-witness testimony. No one should be controlled simply because another's gaze is directed towards another person. The power in the gaze is well-documented and remains an important idea for communication scholars as the heteronormative, male hegemony of the gaze has important implications for relationships, argumentation, and power.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Batman and Rhetoric: Transforming Human to Legend

The trilogy finale of the Batman series from Christopher Nolan finishes July 20th (or for the avid fans, midnight tomorrow night). The finality of the trilogy has been confirmed with Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale abandoning the project after this film. Though I was more than a little upset when rumors of Johnny Depp as the Riddler were squashed, I appreciate the finality of the series. I respect the ability of both actors and directors to sacrifice profit for the sake of a coherent and meaningful story line.

After re-watching the first two in preparation for the midnight premiere, I was struck by the iconic Liam Neeson line from Batman Begins: "If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can't stop you, then you become something else entirely...a legend, Mr. Wayne." The line is meant to encourage Bruce Wayne to abandon his mortality and chase immortality as a symbol, a legend. Many people around the world have devoted themselves to causes and emerged as icons for movements, causes, goals, and values. Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, and Harvey Milk were just people, but through their actions and values, they have become legends, eternal, immortal symbols of equal rights, charity, and acceptance. The narratives of their lives have transcended the normal good and evil, the trials and tribulations of being human, and the faults, flaws, and sins inherent in all humans. These people, and many others are, in a way, superheros, super-people, because they have become more than just people. Their stories and actions become symbolic representations of events more significant than can be contained within one human life, body, and narrative.
Similarly, Batman is the comic representation of everyday heroes, who has transcended his Bruce Wayne, human persona for Batman, a superhero, legendary symbol of justice. By abandoning his humanity and replacing it with a mysterious persona, people in the comics turn to Batman as a savior, not as a person. Though Bruce Wayne has money and with that money comes power and the ability to transform into Batman, Bruce Wayne cannot fight crime, be an ally to the police force, and terrorize Gotham's criminals. Every person, though, has the power to become that better, idealized version of ourselves, immortal in our story and legacy. This occurs through committing oneself to a cause, extending oneself past human constraints, and becoming more than just a person. We can all leave legacies, whether positive or negative, and its corresponding strength and staying power is only restricted by our actions.

Not only do people become legacies, but the words that we use leave sometimes unforgettable impressions on the world. The power of the spoken word is why I wanted to pursue communication in an advance degree, so I could explore language as symbolic. Kenneth Burke famously described humans as symbol-using animals and rhetoric as the study of those symbols that create meaning (Grammar of Motives, 1970). Words are merely words, tools with different definitions, interpretations, and meanings. But when used with a purpose, for a cause, words can become infamous, last beyond the life of a person, and serve as everlasting symbols. 

Think of the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln: "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Or the words of Ghandi, "you must be the change you wish to see in the world" or Martin Luther King Jr., "when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" These words have transcended each person and left a rhetorical legacy of the unity of the United States, the importance of peace, and the eternal struggle for equality.

One's legacy is thus a combination of actions and words (or just actions if we consider physical action and symbolic action) that is for the most part under each of our control. We can devote ourselves to a cause, use our language symbolically for a cause, and transcend mere mortality to leave a permanent mark on the world.

I am looking forward to the midnight premiere, in part for the transportation power of film and also to imagine for a few hours, that I can also reach immortality through my words and actions.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Visual Communication Reflection 3: Testimony

The panel concluded with an evaluation of two types of eyewitness testimony: serial and sequential. Although the presentation looked at media representations of suspect identification and the preliminary results of an ongoing experiment, the researcher (and apparently the scholarly community) are inconclusive about which is best.

When selecting an image of a potential suspect, eye-witnesses are either shown images one after the other in separate pages or screens, or are presented as a part of a line-up with multiple faces present simultaneously. The issues surrounding these two methods is which is the most accurate for selecting a suspect. Each method has its own positives and negatives. The serial method allows for comparison of faces and features, but also forces the witness into a choice to select someone on the page when the suspect may not be present. The sequential method allows for less distractions and full recognition of a face or person, but also makes witnesses hesitate to pick someone if they are not completely certain. The first makes it more likely for an innocent man to be convicted, the second more likely to release a suspect. The researcher hopes to continue experimentation with eye-gaze tracking software to see how serial and sequential identification methods change the participant's gaze, speed, and accuracy.

The media representation that came to my mind first was the debate over testimony accuracy in 12 Angry Men. The eyewitness testimony claims to have seen the act of murder occur through a passing train car. This testimony is severely discredited, however, when a juror notices her eye glasses marks, indicating that her eyesight and its quality was in question. One could have 20/20 vision, however, and still provide inaccurate testimony. The jurors, especially #2 and #3, make the case that the shaky memory of the boy on trial is evidence on his inability to recall the movie he'd seen the previous day. Unfortunately, these lapses in memory are common for humans, even in immediate short term tasks. Remembering something from a previous day, especially under duress and extreme emotion, can be exponentially difficult. It was for the boy in 12 Angry Men and it is also the case for many who identify suspects after a crime. They are under pressure to select a suspect, are emotionally stressed, and may still be coping with the trauma of the crime. Under such circumstances, how could anyone expect accuracy? Yet, some court rooms and convictions still rely on it.

This movie originally came out in 1957, so the accuracy of such visual memory has been contested for many years. In many ways the eyes are the most easily deceived, yet are considered the best representations of truth. For example, even the hand is faster than the eye, making slight of hand and trivial magic appear miraculous to the naked eye. Yet, there is also the axiom, "seeing is believing." So how does one vision, eyes, sight become a dichotomous reality and deception? The key here is in negotiating the history of communication. All communication between people is a dilution of the subject being discussed. I may tell you about an elephant, but until you see one, the word does not have the proper referent. Seeing, thus, creates the connection between a word, symbol, icon, and the reality. Because of this connection, people often stop analyzing, critiquing, and evaluating once sight is confirmed. This leaves an opening for manipulation and deceit that can be left unchecked.

What is the future of eyewitness testimony? The researcher at the conference discussed the hundreds of scholars currently working on the issue and how it is unlikely to be solved soon. Some states are beginning to legislate eyewitness testimony and it has even been mentioned in Supreme Court cases, but until overarching research, data, and conclusions are achieved, there may continue to be mis-identifications and innocent people behind bars.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Visual Communication Reflection 2: Tattoos

As a continuation of last week's post, I'd like to discuss the second paper on the Body and Visuals Panel at the Visual Communication conference I attended at the end of June.

The second paper was interested in collecting narratives of tattoos based on the history and evolution of the tattoo. Although tattoos can be used for a variety of purposes such as branding (e.g., Holocaust survivors), identification (e.g., gang or group loyalties), and memorials (e.g., dates of a loved one's death), the underlying link between them all is the narrative behind its acquisition and personal importance as permanent (mostly, at least) body art. The presentation mostly focused on the functions of tattoos, types of tattoos, and the basic storytelling design of tattoos.

Although the paper was in its beginning stages, the most interesting part for me was the overarching idea of "modification" and changing the body from its "original" form in order to tell a story. In ways that remind me of the transgender body, the "original" form is, for whatever reason, not the correct form, so modifications are undergone to make an outer body reflective of an inner soul. Additionally, the researchers discussed the personal vs public nature of tattoos in terms of placement, size, and color. A small black outlined tattoo on the hip bone has a different meaning than a colorful, bright, large face or neck tattoo. Prominence can change the significance of the tattoo and reflect the private vs public nature of the tattoo's narrative. From the heavily tattooed to the minimalists, from the professional to the amateur, tattoos all tell stories.
I would like to expand upon the idea of storytelling by expanding the narrative beyond just the physical tattoo. Not only can a tattoo be a narrative, representative of past events, victories, losses, membership, and loyalty, but it can also be the narrative in and of itself. Consider, for example, tribal cultures that use tattoos as markings for the transition from childhood to adulthood, where the very act of getting the tattoo is the transition. Enduring the pain for long hours symbolizes manhood to the tribe. The design and pattern of the tattoo is thus trivial; it is the act of being tattooed that truly holds narrative importance.

A modern example that comes to mind is the show Ink Master. Jumping on the skill-based competition reality show craze, Ink Master is a competition for tattoo artists. The trailer is below, but don't be fooled by the pig carcasses and painting challenges. During every episode they tattoo real people, whom they called the "human canvasses". Completing the metaphor of tattoo as an art, the humans serve as the canvass and location for the design. Perhaps the most painful part of the episode is the critique section, where the tattoos are described and critiqued in vivid detail by the judges. The person who just got the tattoo can watch and learn everything wrong with the permanent image now engraved on their skin, for the purpose of deciding who is eliminated from the contest. Who would do such a thing? Well, apparently at least 52 (ten contestants, one eliminated each round, finale is the final 3) or
To be a "human canvass", you apply through the Ink Master website, where you describe your tattoo of interest and "the full story of why you want to get the tattoo". Because part of the episode shows the interaction between artist and canvass, the story behind their tattoo is important for the appeal and entertainment value of the show. The most interesting episode, however, was the finale, where human canvasses signed up and volunteered to get any tattoo. I repeat, they came on the show and allowed the three finalists to mark them with any tattoo the artist wanted. Although these were the final three and arguably the best of the contest, they were still deciding the location, design, color, and style of a permanent mark for someone who had no say in the matter.

Surprisingly enough, the calculation above reflects only a fraction of the applications received to be a human canvass. The important part is the last sentence on the screenshot says "due to the high volume of applicants, ink master is unable to respond to everyone". In other words, so many people are willing to get tattoos on the show, for which they receive no monetary compensation or even travel reimbursement, that they cannot even send a rejection email.

The narratives of the tattoo, especially those in the finale episode, is not the tattoo, but the experience of getting the tattoo. The design matters not at all, could be anything from Japanese lotus flowers to a pin-up girl to a tribal arm band. When someone asks about the tattoo, the story will not be about its design, but a narrative of being on TV, the anxiety about its quality, and the ignorance as to its design.

The narrative power of tattoos, therefore, is not limited to the story in the ink, but is truly the story of the person who decided to get a tattoo, their reasons, experience, and story.