Seeing Is Believing: The Politics of the Visual
Rod Stoneman (London: Blackdog Publishing, 2013)
Barry Monahan is stirred and stimulated by Rod Stoneman‘s personal and analytical investigation into the politics of visual communication.
One might be led to believe, in the light of many recent public discussions on the development of the World Wide Web and its consequences for hard copy publishing, that the book as we know it is as dead now as was the author in 1967. Anecdotal evidence of young children (i-Kids?) dragging their fingers over glossy paper printed images, expecting them to respond to the touch, may reinforce the same thinking. A contemporary notion of “Western” literacy, it would seem, requires – or invites – more than an ability to recognise twenty-six letters and ten numerals, and to understand the syntactic rules by which they are arranged on a rectangular piece of paper, in order to be read from top-left to bottom-right. Even the most basic interaction with a page of material on the web can stimulate the eye and mind from regular two-dimensional linear reading, towards multi-layered, intertextual and inspirational digressions, diversions and distractions. It is not difficult to see why a certain pessimism about the fate of the traditional hard bound copy might emerge in the face of this new stimulating, multifaceted and almost synesthetic way of sharing knowledge. Traditional conceptualisations of reading and thinking may have now forever become just that: “traditional”.
It is fitting then, that a book whose very content asks probing questions about the construction of identity, our understanding of our planet and each other, and about what it means to be an observing individual in the 21st century, is as performative in its thematic observations as it is in its formal design. Rod Stoneman’s Seeing Is Believing: The Politics of the Visual is simultaneously a stirring assault on the mind and an invitation to engage with the flat page in a multi-directional, four-dimensional way. With a very non-traditional format, Stoneman’s text interacts with footnotes, referential comments and images with a wonderful dialectical layering that is both rich in information and creatively thought-provoking.
What’s more, the dialectical approach that Stoneman has used is not just superficial to the engaging design of the manuscript. Core arguments, propositions and polemical interventions that run through the book are interwoven with reflections that set personal memory in dialogue with the historical, the private biographical moment into conflict with the global political, and merge the mechanics of mediation with fields of ontological and ethical discourse.
Take, as two examples, Stoneman’s sections “Crying Wolf Too Late” (in the chapter Film/Television) and “Family Snaps” (in The Quotidian/The Strange). Stoneman begins the former with a personal recollection of a BBC Horizon documentary that, in the early 1970s, offered one of the most public declarations of the imminent destruction of the environment by mankind. He develops his thinking by making constant connections between his own personal experiences and the broader eco-political developments as they unfolded over three decades. A significant encounter in 2006 with a friend who worked in television news is used to bring his own involvement with the issues into contact with mediation of the same information, and the increasingly anxious contemporary political concerns on the matter. Having just met with “senior government scientists”, his contact expressed hopelessness at being unable to find a broadcast space of dissemination that could usefully relate the gravity of the situation to the public. Her feelings of concern and powerlessness to transmit the facts about the pressing issue leave Stoneman with similar exasperation and he concludes: “Whether it was the responsibility of a broadcaster or the worries of a mother, it was a serious epiphany, and by osmosis I felt the shock.” (119) At this poignant moment in the chapter, Stoneman juxtaposes his own feelings neatly with the words “broadcaster” and “mother” in a way that, so typically in the rest of the book, endows the individual with a responsibility that reaches beyond the immediate, private (domestic) and personal, towards processes of mediation, and the public and political spheres. “Family Snaps” also binds the private experience – as mediated – to the universal truth of mortality as inevitable confrontation. Although the section is no less politically probing its focus is more ontological. In this segment Stoneman questions the consequences for contemporary understanding about living and dying in a world of new digital technologies of communication. As polemical, and honest, as the preceding sections, he ends with a rhetorical suggestion: “We should repurpose pictures to develop more advantageous understandings of the world in our short life together before we cross the abyss.”
Stoneman’s preface is appropriately unapologetic when it comes to the polemical moral and ethical concerns at the heart of his thesis. The potency of the image – both beautiful in its transformative capability and perilous in its propagandist potential – is set out from the get-go. While he confesses to having had a position of privilege in relation to the management of certain aspects of visual culture, his implicit invitation is a call to responsibility to all of those who create, design, disseminate and consume images (a call to no less than every 21st century member of the human race). His critical influences are also foregrounded – Adorno, Barthes, Benjamin and Debord are all evoked – and their voices emerge periodically throughout the whole work. While there is no question that Stoneman rejects outright any pragmatic distinction held between active doing and dynamic thinking, and reflects affirmatively upon this epoch’s melting of “traditional distinctions between text and commentary, theory and practice” (10) – he calls these “advances” – his book engages the reader so intimately, and actively, that one can have faith in the sincerity of conviction held throughout.
Perhaps surprisingly, in the light of the analytical depth and empirical breadth which the reader is invited to explore peripatetically, the prose is always engaging, lucid and gently rich in the information offered. Note, as one example of this, how a single three-line sentence presents a wealth of evidence with prosaic simplicity: “Bataille was active in a tributary of French Surrealism and is directly connected with psychoanalyst and theorist, Jacques Lacan since they were both married to Sylvia Makles, the actress in Renoir’s Partie de Campagne, France, 1936.” (35) With a neat imbrication of historical account and personal reflection, Stoneman inserts the first person pronoun in ways that subtly transform ideologies into idealisms, and constantly reminds his readers of their role in moral issues that have often become in other writings too conceptual, remote and safely removed from individuals’ sense of responsibility.
Elsewhere, Stoneman removes himself from the commentary and lets the participating witnesses of history speak for themselves. On the infamous photograph of Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s street execution of a Viet Cong office, he notes: “Eddie Adams was haunted by the picture he had taken and its consequences: ‘The general [sic] killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths.’” (36) Then, with inconspicuous artistry, Stoneman immediately draws the reader directly back into the conversation, demanding reflection by presenting six hanging rhetorical questions, the penultimate one of which asks: “How is it possible to keep open a softness of response, a tenderness in relationship with as many aspects of the world as possible, when receptivity is hurt, shocked and hardened into something that is more able to deal with images like these?” (36)
Stoneman’s modulated personal interventions into his polemic – whether though direct personal reflection or opinion, autobiographical detail, or photographs or screen shots of himself or his family – are testimony to his deep-rooted conviction in the ideas that he presents. But they also invite implication of the reader into the political, historical, cultural and socio-economic realities that continue to perpetrate – increasingly potently, through images – numerous global social inequities in the 21st century experience. In spite of manifestly expressed disappointment, Stoneman ultimately offers hope, as individuals’ access to the technologies of production and dissemination of visual culture increases year by year and, even progressively, month by month.
This personal and political treatise offers from its core a reconsideration of the need to connect – and remind ourselves of the necessity to connect – the personal with the political. It enacts, in content and design, what it challenges its readers to do. It will stimulate thinking for anyone who loves to think: students (amateur and “professional”) of visual culture and of the contemporary global situation will find this publication stimulating, demanding and, ultimately, a thoroughly enriching experience. With the first modern technological intervention into the world of publication – “making public” – circa 1439, Guttenberg facilitated a connection between the individual and the masses; and the first web of ideas took shape. That it is now a worldwide phenomenon and mediation has become almost “immediate” is not evidence of the death of the book, a fact to which this innovative and avant garde work amply attests.
Dr Barry Monahan is a College Lecturer in Film Studies in the School of English at University College Cork. His main teaching and research interests are: the history and aesthetics of Irish and other national cinemas and film theory.