Say a 1000 Words About a Picture…What Will Your Words Say About You?

Anne Frances Wysocki’s, “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty” was a difficult read for me. Wysocki argues that the contemporary approach to helping students critique visual texts is incomplete and may prevent students from being able to thoroughly critique those visual texts. What is missing from our approach is the realization that we, us, as viewers are culturally accustomed to seeing form in particular ways, ways informed by Western conceptions of universal beauty, and because we don’t realize how our judgments are culturally informed, we divorce form from content. In divorcing form from content, we objectify whatever material/media makes up that content. In Wysocki’s argument, her example is the body of a women used in an advertisement. The woman’s body has been divorced from the content, and is used to enhance the form of the visual ad. The objectification of the woman’s body goes unnoticed because her body is presented in a visual form that is pleasing and in line with our cultural ideals of “universal beauty.”

Wysocki borrows this term of “universal beauty” from Kant’s Critiques. I admit I was lost in much of her explanation of Kant’s theories, especially when she notes that Kant states that our judgments of beauty “should be disinterested” and that Kant himself is always gendered. I thought maybe what she meant was that since we all partake in the judging of “universal beauty,” we are all like Kant and are all gendered in our judgments of beauty (and beauty could easily be replaced with the words “truth” or “goodness” here).

Wysocki proposes that we strive to present visions of beauty that highlight how parts of the everyday fit into a larger and more communal ideas and activities. She posits, “How then, might we learn to appreciate—see the beauty of, take rich pleasure in—the particularities of our experiences and those of others within this shared day-to-day?” (171) (My immediate response to this was, “Wow, that is a very intellectual form of beauty. Will the whole country get on board with that?” Images of Susan Boyle come to mind. People were so shocked that a woman who didn’t fit a visual ideal of “universal beauty” could produce something so “universally beautiful” She disrupted the whole process of objectification and people were shocked.)  ImageI think that Wysocki’s goals are ambitious, and I find myself a skeptic because of the sheer scope of the problem she presents. I want violence against women to be less reified by society, but I don’t see the presence of sex leaving advertising anytime soon. I was troubled by how hard it was for me to envision what she is talking about. What Wysocki proposes definitely falls into critical pedagogy (pedagogy that has an aim of social justice), and I have to remind myself that in discussing what art should do she is not expecting that a composition student would perform a visual rhetorical analysis and immediately be cured of biases, but its easy to get overwhelmed when reading this kind of scholarship.

The other reading this week, “Between Modes,” by Madeleine Sorapure, answers a very straightforward and prescient questions in the context of new media assignments like the ones that Wysocki would have her students participate in, and that question is how do we assess works in the composition classroom that contain visual imagery? What is a success and what is less effective? Sorapure presents the notions of the metaphor and the metonym, a metaphor being a substitution for an idea, and a metonym being a trope that evokes ideas that are in proximity to the image being used. I really appreciated the simplicity, and the practicality of her method of assessment. It’s not foolproof–teacher assessment can still be subjective when a student is assessed on their use of these tropes—for example, I didn’t think that world on a hook was so bad.

The Wysocki reading was REALLY difficult to read at times, but it did get me thinking about how I could perform similar analyses with students. I nominate this picture of Nancy Reagan sitting on Mr. T’s lap as a possible photo to analyze, but it might be too dated for my students.

This is a good example to me of a photo that has a lot going on in it, and the metonyms and the metaphors you could draw from it would be evocative even though they may not be intentional due to the context of this photo.

Photo Credits:

Susan Boyle:

Mr T and Nancy Reagan: