Gronbeck, Bruce E. "The Gnarly Problematics of Vision and the Visual." Proceedings of the Media Ecology Association 10, 2009. 19-33.
In his 2009 plenary address for the Media Ecology Association, Bruce Gronbeck provides a wealth of theoretical perspectives circulating around the central “gnarly problematic” of eye-information (vision) versus social information (the visual). Gronbeck deftly positions for us three aspects of visual communication studies (20):
To lay out the first aspect, he draws on Stuart Hall’s concept of vision (where sight gives privilege to observation = seeing is knowing) and pits it against Anthony Woodiwiss’ idea of privileging the visual (“socially and politically constructed ways of seeing and being seen”) (21). All that we live in and see around us are formations of discursive optics and condensed semiotic systems. For this Gronbeck proposes a new critical theory - hermeneutic-phenomenological inquiry. As an example, he gives us photographer Jacob Riis, who used his visual work in the late 1800s to argue for reform of the slums. With this inquiry, Gronbeck argues that photos are never documentary and cannot be decontextualized, stating that “a hermeneutic-phenomenological approach to pictures produces not an analysis of signs but an analysis of consciousness and subjectivity, where the perceiver and not the visual object is the text to be understood, rationalized, and interpreted. The materia of that-which-is-seen is not the focus of analysis; the seers are (23).” It is with the person doing the looking to whom our research must turn. He then brings the cultural aspect into play, wherein we are born into a world of pre-coded optics mediated by our immediate and societal surroundings. A problematic occurs also when culture itself become a text in which “human actions and products ripped from their original contexts and then placed into an interpretive, remanufactured perspective on events, one with personal and collective motives and viewpoints rearticulated in the writing of an enlightened, storied cultural history (24).”
Gronbeck also provides three theories of visual rhetoric (24):
Gronbeck vaguely touches on “the difference between spectacle and specularity, that is, between approaching a visual experience from the point of view of that which is seen versus from the ways in which an audience is conditioned to watch it (28)” as well as subject-object relationship, leaving us wanting to hear more. He does, however, delve into multimediation, wherein what we see is never actually solely that thing; it is constantly contextualized: within multimediation, “we must recognize that most texts are multisensual and composed of several semiological systems…that work in consort (30).” Gronbeck concludes by asserting that the problematics he posits do not regard the visual as much as how we engage with the visual. Ultimately, visual rhetoric will live in a space of gnarly problematics because “our interest as visual scholars is not in essence but in use, not in material but in how it works (31).” The theories that he provides should not be used as concepts to be applied or as a way to figure out the mechanics of the visual, “but as decision points for how you want to engage the visual world (31).”