questions on the loo, issue #3: Visual culture


(image via my professor’s powerpoint)

I was reading about the advent of electricity, when i came across an interesting idea:  that lighting is a “powerful symbolic medium”.  It never ceases to amaze me how powerful lighting is in the media and art.  Lighting is the lifeline of everything from store signs to the interior and exterior of any kind of venue.  The backbone of photography is the use of light, both natural and artificial.  Light pervades the media, art, technology.  Light allows us to see.  But why is sight so valued?  Why aren’t we equally preoccupied with sound or smell or anything else we can sense?  For some reason, we focus so much on visuals and not enough on everything else.  You say “art,” and the first thing that comes to most people’s minds is some kind of visual art, most likely a painting, but that’s certainly not the only type of art there is.  Although a lot of recent technology and art has been pushing the limits of our senses, especially sight, we’re still very much a visual culture.  The question is, why?  Here are some of my thoughts:

One reason could be that we absorb visual information fastest.  We can also take it in any rate we wish–as fast as we physically can–as opposed to sound, over which we have no control of rate of consumption.  Images are also more conspicuous than sounds.  They are easier to distinguish (images and parts of images can be observed separately, whereas sound is indivisible, blending with all other sounds), there is much less room for ambivalence (an image of a face will and can only be an image of a face and nothing else for every sighted individual, whereas sounds can easily be misheard), and images are permanent (all parts of images will stay, whereas sound is evanescent; as Walter Ong says, when you say the word “permanence,” by the time you get to the ‘-nence,’ the ‘perma-’ is gone, and has to be gone).  Another possible reason:  we don’t like distractions.  We value silence.  We are living in a world where distractions are all around us, and some people even need distractions (white noise, for example), but generally, we don’t like distractions.  This goes back to my point about how images are readily distinguishable.  We can choose to ignore visuals; it’s easy to close our eyes or turn our heads, but we can’t block out sound without artificial aid, such as earplugs.  Before, that’s precisely why I thought that sound was the great element, but I guess humans like to have control over things. Then again, the prevalence of a thing does not necessarily indicate its power. 

The prevalence of visuals is something i think about nearly everyday, but i’m unaware of some of the philosophy that could explain it.  Descartes said, “All the management of our lives depends on the senses, and since that of sight is the most comprehensive and noblest of these, there is no doubt that the inventions which serve to augment its power are among the most useful that there can be,” but he does not seem to explain why sight is the most comprehensive and noblest sense.

As always, if you have any ideas, please contribute them in the comments.


1 Comment

Filed under culture, perception, philosophy, questions on the loo, technology

One response to “questions on the loo, issue #3: Visual culture

  1. Pingback: questions on the loo, issue #6: Which of your senses would you lose if you had to lose one? « thoughts on the loo

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