VISUAL MEDIA: AN OIKOPOETIC PERSPECTIVE
— Presented in the I International Conference of Osle-India (organization for Studies in Literature and Environment-India) & Enviro Club of Loyola College, Chennai, September 18 & 19, 2006. First published in Essays In Ecocriticism (edited by Nirmal Selvamony, Nirmaldasan & Rayson K. Alex), 2007 —
The concept of the oikos, as developed by W.J. Everett in his essay ‘Work, Family And Faith: Reweaving Our Values’ (Value Education Today 35-44), is a useful tool for analyzing our society and its culture. The oikos, which means household/habitat in Greek, had been the basis of a holistic society in which the human, the nature and the sacred were close-knit. Everett identifies five types of oikos: fused, tight, open, split and fragmented. The fused oikos, in which work and family and faith were integrated, is the oikos in its pristine form. The tight oikos marks the separation of religion from the household. The open oikos, in which work and family and faith maintain separate identities, creates ‘rich and often frightening variety of ways’ for people to link together. The split oikos ‘divides women between the public and private spheres’, as embodied in Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘The Princess’: “Man for the field and woman for the hearth; / Man for the sword and for the needle she.” The fragmented/anarchic oikos well describes the society of today; ‘the parts are so separated that people can no longer link them together in a meaningful way’.
Technology has made it possible to advance what may be called visual culture. Right from the hoardings that dot public places to the television sets in private homes, it is the visual media that call the shots. The power of the visual is increasingly seen in the ways content is packaged in the print media as well as the electronic media. It is the attractive wrapper that really sells the chocolate more than its taste. Paul Martin Lester’s book Visual Communication offers six perspectives of visual media: personal, historical, technical, ethical, cultural and critical. The oikopoetic perspective is a convergence of all these perspectives and something more.
The oikos language found its application in literary criticism. In one essay, Nirmal Selvamony identifies three phases of Tamil poetry (Oikopoetics And Tamil Poetry 1-14): integrative, hierarchic and anarchic. In another essay, he presents a comprehensive technique for literary criticism (Oikopoetic Method 44-56). We shall extend his ideas to the visual field.
Illusions of reality
How do we make sense of the images that dominate the visual field in an oikos that is fragmented? It is fragmentation that has made the visual media possible. In a fused/integrative oikos, it was an unmediated celebration of life in which the human, the nature and the sacred played their seamless parts. The agent and the recipient were one. Art must have had its origins in a tight/hierarchic oikos. Actors imitated life in all its phases; and painters attempted to represent nature as it was. It was only in a fragmented/anarchic oikos that representation yielded to expression. Cubism could not have been possible in any oikos other than the anarchic oikos we inhabit. “The true miracle of the language of art,” according to E.H. Gombrich, “is not that it enables the artist to create the illusion of reality. It is that under the hands of a great master the image becomes translucent. In teaching us to see the visible world afresh, he gives us the illusion of looking into the invisible realms of the mind — if only we know, as Philostratus says, how to use our eyes.” (Art And Illusion 329)
Selvamony relies on the ancient Tamil text tolkaappiyam (III.3.2:1-2) to assert that the oikos ontologically consists of the triad: self (onru), other (veeru) and the emergent (onri uyarnta paal). In the domain of language, he says, the oikic members are tanmai, munnilai and patarkkai (Oikopoetic Method 44). But when the language is mediated, say by print, we need to distinguish two contexts – the internal or the virtual oikos and the external or the real oikos. So, Selvamony says, it is the context that should be the first principle of literary criticism. He terms action in the real oikos as personic; and that in the virtual oikos as personaic (Towards An Alternative … 1-14). An understanding of this difference between person and persona is essential for a critique of the visual media.
There is a mistaken view that the difference between a painter’s portrait and a photographic image is the difference between resemblance and identity. Noel Carroll admirably argues that even a photographic image bears only a resemblance to reality (Towards An Ontology … 69-72). Here are two anecdotes that reveal the perplexities of each medium. E.H. Gombrich quotes Max Libermann’s retort to a dissatisfied sitter: “This painting, my dear sir, resembles you more than you do yourself.” (Image And The Eye 136). And Marshall McLuhan writes: “A lady was sitting in a park with her baby when another woman passed by and commented: ‘Oh, what a lovely baby.’ ‘Yes,’ replied the lady, ‘but you should see his pictures.’” (Understanding Media 188). So photography, as well as painting, fails to represent identity. The persona in the photograph is different from the person in the real oikos.
The personic oikos of photographers or videographers may throw much light on the personaic oikos of the images they produce. One of the chief arguments for the visual media is that visual consumers get a first rate, if not first hand, experience of the world they live in. In what is called visual ethnography, researchers spend months and even years with ethnic tribes of an integrative oikos, and record on tape their findings for an urban audience of the anarchic oikos. Some television channels also bring wildlife into our homes. Such programmes may be commended for showing the world the value of an integrative oikos. But, we need to remember, that such wisdom is truly incommunicable. Interestingly, even Henry David Thoreau returned to the anarchic oikos after enjoying a few years in an ‘integrative’ oikos that is Walden.
Selvamony again relies on Tolkaappiyar’s tolkaappiyam (II.3.29) to establish the context of a human act. According to this text, an act (say filming) has eight factors: act itself (filming), agent (filmmaker), object (film), place, time, medium (camera), recipient (audience) and end (entertainment). The personic oikos of visual ethnographers may be of the integrative type; but what is that of the television viewers? Anarchic oikos, of course. The gap between the two oikoses is not easy to bridge. However, it is some consolation, that even if the personic oikos is anarchic, it is possible to create a personaic oikos that may bear a strong resemblance to an integrative oikos.
The visual ethnographer, though he belongs to an anarchic oikos, likes to foray into an integrative oikos and return with exotic footage for television channels. A private channel ‘illegally’ photographed the near-extinct and naked Sentinelese aborigines, according to a Press Trust of India report published by The New Indian Express on February 10, 2006 under the title ‘Aborigines photographed a year after tsunami’. The Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology had protested the commodification of the tribals by the television channel. A visual medium cannot promote an integrative oikos without annihilating itself. If it shows a personaic oikos of the integrative type, it is only because the viewers look at it from an aesthetic distance with a willing suspension of belief, not disbelief. Seldom do the visual media focus on the integrative oikos. The National Geographic Channel and the Discovery Channel may be exceptions. Even they cannot be said to operate with holistic intentions and their personic oikos is undoubtedly anarchic. But these channels are certainly better than those which telecast an anarchic oikos.
Selvamony’s oikopoetic method primarily deals with the personaic oikos of literary texts. He identifies four types of personaic oikos: the phonic, the syntactic, the tropic and the agentive. All these types may be easily adapted for the visual media. However, if we deal with pure visual media, then the phonic may be replaced with the graphic.
The graphic consists of the building blocks of visual texts; namely, point, line, shape, texture and tone. Each of these is explained in The Graphics of Communication, authored by Russell N. Baird, Arthur T. Turnbull and Duncan McDonald. In the movies, the basic building block is the shot. The shot is composed of five fundamental and contextual image elements: light and colour, two-dimensional space, three-dimensional space, time/motion and sound (Herbert Zettl 13).
The syntactic deals with picture composition. A photograph may be divided into three zones: the foreground, the midground and the background. But these are not clearly demarcated areas. There are plenty of examples for visual ambiguities. The Dutch artist Maurits C. Escher composed many mathematical mosaics in which the background and the foreground compete with each other as they both share the same basic shape. In one mosaic, you see knights on horses moving towards the right; you look again and you find knights on horses moving towards the left (Martin Gardner 203). We may also identify the various graphic elements that make the picture and how shots are arranged in a sequence to ensure continuity. The various camera angles help define the syntax of a shot.
The tropic consists of visual metaphor, metonymy, personification, apostrophe, contrast and a host of other figures drawn from rhetoric. Herbert Zettl, in his book on applied media aesthetics ‘Sight Sound and Motion’, discusses among other things the different types of montage that serve as filmic shorthand — a vertical vector field for the clarification and intensification of emotions. The idea-associative montage does the work of a trope. This montage is of two types: comparison montage and collision montage. The comparison montage does the work of a simile; and the collision montage, that of contrast. About the comparison montage, Zettl refers to the Russian filmmaker Lev Vladimirovich Kuleshov’s experiments on the aesthetic effects of montage. He writes: “To demonstrate the power of juxtaposition and context, Kuleshov interspersed the unchanging and expressionless face of the great Russian actor Ivan Mosjukhin with unrelated shots of different emotional values: a child playing, a plate of soup, a dead woman. Through the power of montage, the audience thought they saw Mosjukhin change his facial expression according to the juxtaposed event.” (Sight Sound and Motion 318).
The agentive deals with the plot, which is of two types: conflictual and non-conflictual. Moving images, as in the movies, are mostly conflict-oriented; but static images, as in print advertising, are usually of the other type. Short ecological films, however, are non-conflictual. Personaic action, as Selvamony points out, may be put in two categories: game and play. A conflictual plot is a sort of game between the protagonist and the antagonist. A non-conflictual plot is just a play. The difference between game and play is that the game is end-oriented and the play is an end in itself.
Selvamony identifies three chief tasks and several sub-tasks for the literary critic. The first task is to identify the oikos; the second, to establish relationships between the oikoses; and the third, to compare the oikos(es) of the text under study with the oikos(es) of other comparable texts.
In Robert Browning’s Andrea Del Sarto, the eponymous and faultless painter’s monologue to his wife, reveals to us his oikos:
I do what many dream of all their lives
— Dream? Strive to do, and agonise to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave the town,
Who strive — you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat
The personic oikos may not be more easily available to us as that of the personaic oikos. We are interested in what the artist says, especially if we like the personaic oikos that he has expressed in his art. A photographer may give us interesting information about how he shot a picture and under what conditions. Photographer Arko Datta’s picture of a grieving woman (in the wake of the tsunami) won the World Press Photo Award 2004. Without any information of the personic oikos of the woman, the picture may have been ignored as just another picture, though well taken. And Dorothea Lange’s photograph of Florence Thompson referred to as ‘The Migrant Mother’ portrays a personaic oikos that is enriched by the personic oikos. Writes Paul Martin Lester: “A painting of Florence Thompson could never have the same effect as that close-up photograph of a real mother suffering with her children.” (Visual Communication 229). This is not to say that the personic oikos is all important. As already noted, it may not be readily available.
Critics such as the formalists mostly concern themselves with the personaic oikos. Leonardo Vinci’s The Last Supper contains many personae. His Mona Lisa contains only one. The Last Supper has a conflictual plot; and Mona Lisa, a non-conflictual plot. With reference to these paintings, the critic has to deal with the four types of personaic oikos. The constituents of the act and the type of act (game/play) must also be discussed.
The second task of establishing the relationships between the oikoses, especially if the plot is conflictual, is of much interest. A picture within a picture opens up interesting possibilities. The first- and second-order space on the television screen sometimes makes the persona in the first-order space a person itself. Writes Zettl: “A strong possibility exists that, under certain circumstances, we may even extend first-order space into our own living space and share our environment and time. At the very least, events in first-order space seem to attain a certain degree of verisimilitude and believability.” (Sight Sound and Motion 188).
The third task of comparing one text with another comparable text frequently occurs when genre is discussed. Alan Jay Lerner’s My Fair Lady is based on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Lerner says in a note: “For the published version of Pygmalion, Shaw wrote a preface and an epilogue which he called a sequel. I have omitted the preface because the information contained therein is less pertinent to My Fair Lady than it is to Pygmalion. I have omitted the sequel because in it Shaw explains how Eliza ends not with Higgins but with Freddy and — Shaw and Heaven forgive me! — I am not certain he is right.”
The oikopoetic method is an invaluable tool for a critical and comprehensive analysis of the visual media and its contents. It helps us understand the relationships between reality and appearance, person and persona, representation and expression. The oikopoetic perspective also helps define an alternative visual media that, by shaping an integrative personaic oikos, may hope to bring about a corresponding change in the anarchic personic oikos. You change and you change the world.
Browning, Robert. Poems And Plays, London: Everyman’s Library, 1968
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Gardner, Martin. New Mathematical Diversions From Scientific American. New York: Simon And Schuster, 1966.
Gombrich, E.H. Art And Illusion, Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited, 5th edition, 1977.
-------------------- Image And The Eye, Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited, 1982.
Lerner, Alan Jay. My Fair Lady, England: Penguin Books, 1956 (rpt 1983).
Lester, Paul Martin. Visual Communication, US: Thomson Learning, 3rd edition, 2003.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media, London: MIT Press, 3rd edition, 1995.
Selvamony, Nirmal. ‘Oikopoetics And Tamil Poetry’, tinai 1, Persons For Alternative Social Order, Chennai, July 2001.
-----------------------‘Oikopoetic Method’, tinai 3, Persons For Alternative Social Order, Chennai, November 2003-July 2004.
----------------------- ‘Towards An Alternative Critical Theory: Context As First Principle Of Criticism’, tinai 1, Persons For Alternative Social Order, Chennai, July 2001.
Tennyson, Alfred. Poems of Tennyson (1830-1870), London: Oxford University Press, 1943.
Tolkaappiyar. tolkappiya mulam. Eds. ke. em. venkataramaiya, ca. ve. cuppiramaniyan, pa.ve. nakaracan. Tiruvanantapuram: International School of Dravidian Linguistics, 1996.
Zettl, Herbert. Sight Sound Motion, Belmont: Thomson Learning, 4th edition, 2005.
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