With Jay Ruby
Within the last several hundred years, our search for understanding of the context and environment in which we live has moved from studies of our physical world to studies of the biological and social contexts within which we function. It has now become apparent that we live and function within the context of a fourth major environment--the symbolic. This environment is composed of the symbolic modes, media, codes, and structures within which we communicate, create cultures, and become socialized. The most pervasive of these modes, and the one least understood, is the visual-pictorial.
The visual symbolic environment--our vidistic universe--can be thought of as encompassing three possibly related domains. First is the world of "popular culture"--the mass media and mass pictorial communication in general. Here we include such things as movies, television, advertising photography and television commercials, comic books, snapshots, home movies, graduation portraits, and even the new home erotica TV tape machines that are supplied by a growing number of "honeymoon hotels."
Second is the world of "high culture" and "art." Here we include paintings, sculpture and graphics in museums, as well as the works in galleries and lobbies of public buildings; art education, from nursery school to the Ph.D., available from universities, civic organizations, and on television. We include under this "art" label some of the works that in other contexts are called "movies" and "TV." When
included in this second category, "movies" become "the cinema" or "the art of the film," "television" becomes "video art," and "snapshots" become "photographs."
The third domain of our visual environment takes in our personal use of visual-symbolic forms: our clothes, house furnishings, and the various ways we use the visual mode in our personal or professional presentation of self. This includes how we dress to teach, to sell, and to buy, as well as to marry or divorce. It includes our private as well as our public ways of decorating and presenting ourselves. It includes the look of our houses, offices, and workshops, as well as our gardens and our walls--the "urban design" or "public design" of our cities and roadways.
We suggested earlier that these three domains of our vidistic universe might possibly be related. There is, however, very little evidence to support this view. In fact, although the vidistic world is becoming more and more pervasive and influential in the formation and stabilization of culture--the dire predictions about the television generation that won't be able to read are only one exampl--our knowledge of the visual domains around us is sparse indeed.
For most of Western history, and most specifically for the past several hundred years, our visual world has been examined largely by looking at only one of the domains we have outlined--that of "high culture" and "art." Not only have we concentrated on examining the "masterpieces" of art, but these have been analyzed and interpreted through the eyes and minds of the critic, the professor, and the connoisseur. The world of the arts has in general been a world of elite artifacts studied by elites.
It is the purpose of this project to begin a study of our vidistic universe from a broader, and, as we shall try to show, more fruitful perspective, using a variety of methods coming from both the humanities and the social sciences heretofore not applied to the world of culture and its art contexts and products. We are arguing that before one can understand "painting" one must understand "pictures," before one can understand "architecture" and "sculpture" one must understand "houses" and "statues." Questions about cinema, the art of the film and video, need prior understanding of movies and the tube. In a similar manner, past studies of the visual mode tended to concentrate upon interpretations advanced by critics and specialists, rather than on studies describing the methods and strategies by which the "ordinary person," the user or spectator, learned how to make and actually made meaning out of his visual environment.
What we therefore propose is a study of a vidistic environment
as it occurs in a small American community in central Pennsylvania. We have chosen this particular community because it appears to be culturally homogeneous and stable. Such homogeneity and stability allow us to deal with the relation of their culture to their vidistic environment in a straightforward manner. The method we wish to employ in this study is one we have termed ethnographic semiotics: the study of how real people make meaning of specific aspects of their vidistic environment. Up to the present proposed research, studies of the visual-symbolic aspects of American or Western urban cultures have used as their units of analysis the content of specific symbolic forms, either of specific programs, films, graphic arts, urban design, or the content of specific time segments or taxonomic groupings--Saturday morning children's programs, situation comedies, documentary films, exploration films, and so on. What we are proposing is to use as our unit of analysis not the product but the context--the community and the community members' interaction with visual-symbolic events. It is our contention that the three domains of vidistic life must be studied as one unit within the context not only of each other but of the community in which they function.
Step 1 in our research will be the development of a macro-descriptive ethnographic account of the community, starting with standard demographic descriptions but developing and concentrating on specific descriptions of television viewing and movie use in schools, theaters, and libraries, as well as the new TV "home box office" recently available to this community. We will survey the uses of snapshots and home movies, as well as portrait and wedding photographs made by professionals and amateurs. As part of this macro-description, we will survey the "art activities" of the county's schools and art teachers, including the arts and crafts stores and craft activities in the community, as well as the work of local artists and craftsmen. As a final stage of step 1, we will produce a visual inventory, using a variety of visual media, which will record the look of the community, its houses, people, store windows, and home interiors. This visual inventory will be used as an elicitation device for further studies related to how vidistic meaning is learned and understood in this community.
Step 2 will concentrate on an intensive qualitative participant observation effort in three institutions. We will examine a sample of (1) families, (2) schools, and (3) commercial establishments within the contexts of our three domains: popular culture, art, and visual presentation of self. In this in-depth study of three institutions across three domains, we are concerned to find out how, for example, the uses of snapshots articulate with attitudes and uses of "art," and how
studying art in school relates to the kind of movies one looks at or the way one talks about film and TV. The school will be examined as a system of socialization toward symbolic use in general, fostering certain attitudes toward art, television, advertising, and so on.
Step 3 will introduce participant intervention and community participation. From preliminary work in the county, we have discovered that the second most desired change (after "more jobs") was for more adult education. We plan, with the cooperation of community agencies, to set up two classes in visual communication--one for teenagers and one for retired individuals. We will teach them how to use a visual medium through which they can present their pictures and their structuring of their world to their peers, or to whomever they choose. The choice of medium--from closed-circuit TV to still photographs--will be left to the community group. The method of teaching and observation will be similar to that used by Worth and Adair in their research with the Navajo, with black and white teenagers, and with adults (Worth and Adair 1972). The purpose of step 3 is to see if teaching the use of a visual symbolic mode and medium to members of a community will have observable consequences in how they deal with other aspects of their visual environment in the future. Will they interpret movies and TV differently? Will they demand different portraits or different decorations for themselves or their homes? Will they allow or suggest different values about their vidistic world to their friends or their children?
Step 4 will be an analysis and synthesis of the picture of an American community's picturing. By comparing the quantitative and qualitative data in steps 1, 2, and 3, it will be possible to generate an in-depth description of this community in terms of its various visual codes. We will attempt during the analysis period to learn whether the various domains and institutions of the vidistic universe under study relate to each other. We will attempt to articulate the ways in which human beings create, manipulate, and assign meaning to and through visual modes, media, and codes. The final project of the research will be to correlate and integrate the nine cells of our vidistic network of visual domains and institutions in a qualitative and quantitative description of how the various visual aspects of our environment relate to, and form a structural context for, each other.
©1996 Tobia Worth and Jay Ruby. All Rights Reserved.