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From Peter Galison’s essay “Images scatter into data, data gather into images”:

“Pictures, sometimes alone, often in sequences, are stepping stones along the path towards the real knowledge that intuition supports”.

He goes on to back this up with a quote from Plato:

“First, we grasp the triangle in the sand, then draw the triangle more finely, then triangles in general, then the idea of triangles behind all particulars of individual triangles”.

The link between images and intuition and the implied link between textual or numeric information and knowledge seems like a really good place to begin to construct what I can call an acceptable definition for “visual literacy”.   Can images or pictures themselves be more than just stepping stones along the path to real knowledge?  Can pictures directly facilitate knowledge without an intermediary format between their transference and perception?

I say YES they can, but the correct interpretation of imagery is embedded within its cultural context.  This makes it easy to dismiss an image if you lack the cultural vocabulary to understand it. Imagery does initially appeal to one’s intuitive sense.  It has its own grammar and punctuation, and is equally apt to communicate both fact and opinion. This is also the case with textual media, but because imagery appeals first to one’s intuitive reaction, the need for cultural comprehension is magnified.

As a librarian, I’ve had many foreigners approach me with questions about idioms.  “Break a leg? What?”  Subtle linguistic devices and culturally specific lore can be the hardest things to grasp in another language.  The success of the initial communication lies in the fact that these questions were asked of me and I was able to assist the patron in gaining understanding.  The patron identified that something was up, that “break a leg” sounded weird, so they sought clarification.

Now, consider how a visual idiom or metaphor on a billboard or flyer would go completely unnoticed by a viewer lacking the cultural knowledge to interpret it.  Because a visual message appeals first to your intuition, it is exceptionally easy to ignore that which you do not understand.  Intuition is fleeting in this way; one tends to notice when they have intuited something but cannot even begin to consider all of the things they may not have had opportunity to intuit.  The patron who noticed that something was difficult to understand about “break a leg” textually might never even notice the clever “break a leg” reference in an image promoting a local play.

What does all this mean?  Sure, knowledge can be conveyed through an image.  Just look at a diagram in any 7th grade science textbook if you disagree.  Images convey fact and meaning as well as text, but because the cognitive process begins with intuition rather than reason, they are easier to dismiss if you lack the tools to interpret them.

Consider the impact of this easily ignorable, ambient visual information and our ability (or inability) to distinguish that which is important from that which isn’t….  in the meanwhile, we become accustomed to reading less and less…. hmmm….


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