Tuesday, August 30, 2011


This is a detail of an earlier image that changes the emphasis.

Picture Power

The old adage “One picture is worth a thousand words,” understates the case. There are so many levels of information conveyed by an image that the linear trickle of words can’t begin to approach. Not just the facts of what’s there, but the relations between them, the state of balance that leads us to expect motion or stillness, the feeling tone our processing of the image creates within us. We are always in a picture complete with weather and the psychology of other people; a complexity that no theory created with labels can touch. Looking at the videogame “Halo” with my nephew, I felt I was seeing the future that young people fear, the dramatic scenery of a long gone technological civilization that left behind demons for the survivors. The training of visual responsiveness offered by games and the “look and choose” nature of the Internet are leading us away from verbal dominance. Just in time. Power uses labels to create enmity, divisions that can be exploited and strengthened by repetition and careful choices of inflammatory pictures. The big world of cyber connectivity, and interactive challenge, could neutralize old word-based power because future generations will simply stop paying attention. The practical ways that images contribute to understanding is leading the growth of infographics with sites like EnvisionFinancials.com showing budgets and financial relationships as a 3D nested pie chart. I expect a cascade of innovative applications coming as the visual thinkers raised on sophisticated video games come of age.
Recently, I participated in an “English as Second Language” class at MICA. The discussion of self-portraits they had done clearly showed how much meaning was communicated by each image. They suggested stories, worlds changing, the passage from childhood to this transitional state of independence, attitudes, feelings, so much that is truly beyond the power of words to show so specifically. They may not have felt confident with the language, but because they were being asked to say what the picture did for them individually, it offered the opportunity to use the language creatively and find words that could reflect their own take on each image. With a range of different life experiences there was a rich variety of associations to each, and different sensibilities picked up on different qualities. The structure of the image resonates with similar structures within each of us and we were free to use the words that best show where the image took us. Jung’s statement “Image is psyche,” emphasized the correspondence between archetypes and visual structure. We can see stability or upheaval, dominance or submission. Images convey the depth of us. When we talk about them we discover how the differences in the specifics of our lives connect in the pattern beneath the surface. This particular discussion was a clear illustration of how the communication that happens in pictures transcends words and connects people around the shared understanding of it. When someone made an observation the rest of us hadn’t seen, the reaction was usually pleasure. We saw it once it was pointed out and the comment enlarged our understanding. Offering the aspects of a picture that we respond to enlarges the perspective for everyone. It’s this unifying aspect to visual communication that is most needed now and in the future. People are unnecessarily divided by labels. Our natural state is embedded in our environment and the flow of events around us.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Ongoing Change

“The Book of Changes” was the translated title of the ancient Chinese book “I Ching” that first attracted me. In my twenties at the time, it seemed like the scale of uncontrollable factors in the churning world around me overwhelmed the strategies for living surrounding me in the culture. Taoism and I clicked instantly around the foundation understanding that movement and change and adapting to shifting circumstances while in motion myself was the only useful image for balance. Being aware of patterns of movement is far more helpful than the names and definitions of things. Labeling and weighing numbers of things, though useful in certain spheres of life, can’t be an image of life itself. Every category and box one is sorted into comes with an attached judgment that, if one is dependent on thinking with labels, takes the place of the actual, in-front-of-your face reality. Naming something is a way of controlling it and creates an illusion of knowing that can be highly destructive to making real contact with the world. One of the benefits of video games is the degree to which it uses sophisticated instinctual visual assessment and banishes verbal thought. And because it depends upon complete attention, all the time, it can be an exhilarating involvement we have lost the art of in the real world. Because we’ve substituted labels and judgments and the spill of theories that grow from them we’ve built walls of ideation that limit our capacity to pay attention to the movements of life. When walking becomes fitness, a treadmill and set of numbers, we miss the relation to outdoors, the fact that every day is different, that we are always responding to the wind and temperatures, a bird or squirrel. The automatic part is there, but the narration of life in our head, the piles of verbal thought all around us keep us from seeing the life in which our body participates. Make a game of the walk, note how many changes you see in the same neighborhood every day. Our bodies are always doing this. We just aren’t paying attention. Our response to the world is a dance, a natural adjustment to the movement around us that makes us part of it. Paying attention is the key to enjoying it.
A book that gives advice about how to handle the different states of change is better than a list of unchanging rules. It helps us see the overall dynamic in which we’re embedded and see realistically what can be done in such a state. Handling the situation well always emphasized cultivating character and virtue. Today’s research shows that the reason it feels so good is because we stimulate endorphins when we are virtuous. It’s good for our survival because it harmonizes us as a collaborator with the moving world.
Looking back on my recent posts I realize to what degree the philosophy in the “I Ching” pervades my thinking. Seeing the world as a dynamic whole, it uses the imagery of nature to express the cosmic intelligence that underlies all phenomena.
A mechanical view of the world leaves out contextual pattern. We don’t learn that much more about life by stripping away all the variables that make it life. A world of multiple variables needs a philosophy based on adjustment, metaphysical homeostasis based in the understanding that the metaphors of striving for balance can apply to any living system. In the midst of so many uncontrollable changes it makes sense to “not be led by hopes and fears”. Like the yang-yin symbol, each contains a bit of the other. Our ideas about them are what make us suffer.
More than thirty years of regular reading in the “I Ching” has created an underlying approach to life that invigorates each moment of being. Names and labels reduce the richness of continuous being to desired points along the way, where we can only enjoy results and not the pleasure of doing. Erich Fromm wrote about the many ways that an attitude toward life based on having- possessions, accomplishments, problems, a body, a life, a goal, was less satisfying than an attitude based on being- living, doing, feeling- participating in an unfolding process. We are what we do. We do it better when we’re paying attention.