Thursday, September 07, 2006


"The word, although prevalent in our day, has lost its reasoning value, and has value only as an accessory to images. In turn, the word actually evokes images."
—Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word

For all my time spent in a visual culture, I know that I am not very adept at using the vocabulary. This became very apparent to me on my recent visit to Seattle Public Library's Central Library. I see things and I react to them. I see things and I feel particular ways about them, have an emotional reaction, "feel" them in my gut. But, I find it difficult to express what that is; find it difficult to talk about the things, the objects; find it difficult to describe how they make me feel.

Fortunately, I have help. I have been rummaging through the home library again and have found help in three very different books. They are: (1) Visual Grammar by Christian Leborg; (2) The Humiliation of the Word by Jacques Ellul; and (3) Ways of Seeing by John Berger.

Visual Grammar is a wonderful slim volume from Princeton Architectural Press. Christian Leborg has produced a primer on how to "read" visual objects and elements, especially as they appear in graphic design. The book is broken into four main categories: (1) abstract objects and structures, such as volume and radiation; (2) concrete objects and structures, such as form and texture; (3) activities, such as repetition and direction; and (4) relations, such as symmetry/asymmetry and distance. The book simply explains each of the sixty-one visual "words" and defines each with a brief description, sometimes a slightly longer and more detailed description, and engaging illustrations. This is a book for everyone. It is helpful when thinking about the images that surround us and that we are immersed in every moment, everywhere. It helps us to better understand our relationships to images and objects and to therefore better explain them or describe them. It has helped me to better understand the visual culture I move within.

Ways of Seeing by John Berger and The Humiliation of the Word by Jacques Ellul then pose questions about the visual information that we absorb and digest.

John Berger questions how we relate to images we view, especially as seen through the medium of oil painting. His book examines the ways that we view and contextualize images in four essays consisting of words and images and three essays consisting of images alone. These essays look at the way that we view, consume, and objectify other people, especially women; how our desires are manifested in the images that we create and consume; how these desires and images help to prop up and support our capitalistic worldview; and how we use the media of painting, photography, and advertising to control our environment, our selves, and others. I was first introduced to this book in a college art class and find myself returning to it over and over again on a regular basis.

Jacques Ellul is concerned with how truth is lost in visual images and how they undermine the truth that is spoken in words—both human words and the divine Word, specifically the Word manifested in Jesus Christ. The section I was most interested for this conversation, however, was a section toward the back of the book on "The Image-Oriented Person." He looks at how we are born into a culture of images that we cannot escape and at the gap that exists between what we see, and subsequently feel, and the words we use to describe what we see and feel. The section was perfect for me since it helped to elucidate some of what I myself was feeling. Just as Visual Grammar was able to help define "words" of the visual vocabulary for me, and Ways of Seeing laid some long-forgotten foundation regarding images once again, The Humiliation of the Word helped speak the problem I was experiencing to me. It was how I believe a good sermon functions: it spoke to me, individually, about my problems, my concerns, in a context that is universal, collective, social.

Which brings me to another section of a book that I have recently read again, that being Carl Jung's "The Concept of the Collective Unconscious" from his The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Jung writes that "from these references it should be clear enough that my idea of the archetype—literally a pre-existent form—does not stand alone but is something that is recognized and named in other fields of knowledge." I wonder if one of those other fields of knowledge is the visual realm in which we wander. There are images that seem to be primal, that strike deep chords within me when I view them. As John Berger writes: "Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak."

Berger's observation is true for the child. Her toddler mind can recognize not only Mickey Mouse but the Rorschach inkblot formed by his head and ears. Last week, the child became excited and agitated by the Target bullseye, with which she has had limited contact, although it is out in the visual ether flitting about, presenting its image in all of its finery and plumage. And, Berger's statement is true for me as well. I can recognize more than I can speak. I just hope that somehow, somewhere, sometime I will find the words to speak the truth about all that I see.

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