Response to Chapter 2 of Practices of Looking

The idea that images can have many meanings is not a new one, and I was a little surprised that Sturken and Cartwright spent so long elaborating a point that seemed fairly obvious in Chapter 2. Of course the subjective nature of the world will mean that different audiences interpret different messages in different ways. Of course some images will be created with one meaning in mind and consumed with a different result. I was intrigued by Sturken and Cartwright’s treatment of the challenges to the traditional Marxist definition of ideology. Althusser’s suggestion that imagination plays a part in the creation of reality is a simple-sounding but extremely complex observation that is central to many fields of study today. It applies not only to the perspective one might use in examining visible rhetoric, but also to one’s very self-image. We all see ourselves in terms of our place within society, and as such our self-images are – increasingly, in modern society – socially constructed. The second challenge to Marxism, Gramsci’s introduction of the idea of hegemony, is a necessary complication in the attempt to understand how reality is formed. It stands to reason that not every dominant culture will always succeed in silencing every voice. (For that matter, I would argue that not every dominant culture wants to silence every voice.) Our social realities are constructed through a process of give and take, balance and counterbalance. In short, rhetoric – be it visible or oral – is a vital tool in sorting through the stakes various subcultures have in the creation of reality. Rhetoric can, in fact, define and shape reality for precisely this reason.

I also want to speak briefly on Sturken and Cartwright’s presentation (on page 57) of the various types of reading. I think this strikes a particular chord when considered in light of the ongoing campaigns for president. When we consume campaign literature, we may be predisposed to the dominant-hegemonic reading or the oppositional reading. Others, though I believe (sadly) not as many, may even use the negotiated reading. For example, let’s say Tom Smith is a lifelong Republican. When he sees a campaign commercial featuring Barack Obama talking about the need for healthcare for all Americans, Tom Smith is likely to engage in oppositional reading. When he sees an ad for John McCain that appeals to his sense of patriotism, Tom Smith will likely identify with the hegemonic position. Related to this is the fact that some studies have shown that attack ads tend to evoke the tendency in consumers to do oppositional readings. Chang, Park and Shim discuss the possibility that “attack politics evoke a boomerang effect.” This phenomenon, which is easily observed, may be a result of the socially-constructed cynicism regarding politics in general. It certainly reinforces Sturken and Cartwright’s point that rhetoric is interpreted by the viewer independently of the intended meaning of the creator.

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