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Responding to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

I found it interesting that the TV series came first, then the book. It is usually the other way around, possible due to the fact that the written text predates the moving image. At some points, it felt as though the book came first because of the amount of background information in the book that the TV show does not have. Berger talks in length in Episode 1 about the reproduction of images, and the images on the screen, then, which were reproduced from a tangible, material thing, is then reproduced back onto a tangible page.

Obviously, one of the huge differences between the book and the TV show is the fact that the TV series is temporally bound. I must sit thru all three or so hours of the series in order to experience the entire narrative, the boundaries. Moreover, again, player controller notwithstanding, the video strictly controls how long we are able to look at each image. The TV series has no text. The text is given to us in audio form. The book, on the other hand, can be read leisurely, or skimmed. The length of time it takes for one to read the book is variable, and our eyes can linger on any picture as long or as short as we wish. The television series provides movement and music. The scene in which Berger juxtaposes edits of the Caravaggio and puts it to first an opera and then a chorale exemplifies the ways in which music plays a major role in exemplifying the power of editing and the subjectivity of media. The book, on the other hand, offers a very different experience of that scene. In the book, we cannot experience the emotions evoked by the rise and fall, the ebb and flow of music. The book does not allow the aural signal to tug and pull at the subconscious, at the heartstrings. It does not use aural signals to demonstrate the power of music and sound to influence a message as much as the TV series does.

The book, however, uses words in order to delve deeper into an explanation, a reading of a work of art, or the history of a movement or time period. This reminds me of what many scholars from Agger to Postman have explored (and I believe Plato also talks about this in Phaedrus) – that the moving image with audio caters to the emotional, while the written word begs attention to the rational. The arguments in the written are more complex, more theoretically-based. This makes me wonder, then, about Eric Faden’s push for information in a multimedia setting. I suppose that there will always be tension between keeping legitimate stuff as text, as a rational, yet closed, form of information, and disseminating information through new media, which, because of information explosion and the speeds at which that information is created and consumed, lends to a superficial reading.

The movement in the video furthermore directs our gaze and forces us to see what Berger wants us to see. The multimedia effect of video (image moving and still, audio, music) forces our brains to simultaneously process many signals. The book, on the other hand, allows the narrative to remain linear, static. It allows more time for contemplation, for pausing. Yes, YouTube allows for the pauses as well (but only if we manually stop the video), but we have less control over the rate at which Berger speaks, and the rate at which the video plods along. Berger often talks over images, so our brain needs to process both the image and the content of his speech simultaneously – something that we do not need to do in the book. Does this mean that the book allows us to concentrate on the content more? Do we get more out of the book because we don’t have ADD and are able to really focus on one thing at a time?

I actually have a very basic question about reading images, which has less to do with comparing the book and the TV series, because both does this, but is something that I have always wondered and would like to use this space to bring up. In interpreting a image, as for example, the ways in which we visualize women (and hence objectify them), how much of it is actually objective, and how much of it is merely a subjective interpretation, or personal opinion of some authoritative (whose authority is constructed through the art world, or through society or whatnot) Power That Be? This part reminds me of Sut Jhally’s The Codes of Gender documentary, in which he examines visual images in advertising, especially the ways in which women’s bodies are posed as opposed to men’s bodies. I feel as though I’m of two minds when it comes to analyzing images of women. I can see, from a critical theory perspective, taking into consideration traditional roles of power, how paintings can be interpreted in the way that Berger presents (which I do agree with, given this framework). However, I would have liked to see more theoretical basis (or, rather, I wonder if there CAN be more) for the claims both in the book and in the film on how women see themselves and “in each glance, there is a judgment, and sometimes their own,” as Berger says in the second episode. In the film, Berger tends to make a lot of statements in a way that connotes a certain “truth,” with his tone, with his rhythm. However, many of these claims are not really substantiated, both in the book and in the film, and can merely be seen as opinion. What if someone from a different culture, who has different codes of interpreting body posture and such (think Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding), saw a painting of a nude? What would he or she think? Then again, I suppose the artist painted the nude with a specific audience in mind, so this point is probably moot…

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