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Current Issue: Volume 23, No. 8. Week of March 13, 2005

We See . . .
jeanne's version of a photo by Jeffrey Barbee for The New York Times of Workers at the Everunison clothing factory in Maputsoe, Lesotho, sort[ing] out bulk cloth that has just arrived from China.
What Our Mind Prepares Us to See
The Dance of Cultures and Nation-States

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: March 17, 2005
Latest Update: March 17, 2005

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Topic of the Week:

We See What Our Mind Prepares Us to See

Jeffrey Barbee's picture for the The New York Times (one day earlier this week) of Workers at the Everunison clothing factory in Maputsoe, Lesotho, sort[ing] out bulk cloth that has just arrived from China had nothing to do with the hot seductive colors of Africa and the movement of supple athletic bodies. It was about trade deficits and their destructive weakening of our dollar and the destruction of large chunks of African economies. And Barbee's photo wasn't really abstract. It showed piles of clothing, not rhythmical dancing and music.

Photo by Jeffrey Barbee for The New York Times
Jeffrey Barbee for The New York Times
"Workers at the Everunison clothing factory in Maputsoe, Lesotho,
sort out bulk cloth that has just arrived from China."
The date was Sunday, March 13 or Monday, March 14 - someone threw the paper out before I recorded it. Sorry, jeanne

But it was on the front page, and I saw the colors and shapes and forms before I read the headlines. What I saw is what I painted for this week's visual moment in sociology.I saw the rhythm of bodies and the beauty of colors of the South (as in North/South around the equator). And then I thought of what a wonderful illustration this would make of how our psychological life spaces (Kurt Lewin) shape to a large extent what we see. Dark bodies juxtaposed in shapes like these suggest to me the dancing and joy of Africa. The strong colors and unusual shapes accent the infrastructure I expect. And so I see one person playing a drum or instrument and one dancing, all in glorious color. This is the power of imagery.

Now think of how most of us get our principle shot of news each day from hasty radio blurbs or television sound bites. And most of us watch television. The imagery that flows across the screen continuously conveys the iconology and ideology of dominant discourse. If we see a beautiful purring car, that is a good feeling, and we want our car to purr so beautifully in such lovely scenery. Which of us drives through the mountains on the way to work? Which of us drives in traffic that allows our car to purr?

Once you have created the kind of reaction I had to this week's painting, I'm purring. My mind is still operative, I understand about the trade deficit. But I'm still purring in response to the beauty I've seen and the memories that have been evoked. Does that effect make the fear of the weakened dollar easier to take? Does it dull my reaction in a world so fast-paced I sometimes can't catch my breath?

Did anybody, the New York Times, or the photographer, Jeffrey Barbee, mean to have that effect of summoning joy to mind to balance the fear of the weakened dollar in global trade? One could almost certainly say no in this instance. The photograph accurately portrayed the pile up of clothes imported to Africa from China for further processing. But communication is complex. I chose this example precisely because it seemed so gratuitous. So many factors enter into our expectations, and our expectations so color our perceptions. We need to be aware of this complexity in messaging. So often what you say doesn't get through until my own expectations have colored the message.

And in this case, I couldn't resist heightening my own vision and holding onto it. How could Jeffrey Barbee have known what that photograph would say to me? This is what we mean when we talk of the author being dead. Once the author or the artist's message is out there, my own life space merges with the photo and turns it into a completely different message. The author isn't really dead; he's just said his piece, and now I, the reader or viewer, incorporate the message as it translates into my world and add my own experience to it. And when I launch my own version, some of you will take off from there and see very different things.

In this same way all messages are subject to interpretation, and the interpretation for each of us is very, very personal, stemming from our own life experiences. That's not a bad thing. It does, however, rather upset those who are sure there must be one right answer. When you look at messaging and communication in this context it becomes clear that the rational is but one factor in communication, for how could we rationally predict when a photo of a warehouse would translate for at least one viewer into rhythm and color instead of into pile upon pile of clothes from China?

Messages require interpretation. Interpretation is based on individual experience. Interpretation introduces the ambiguity of "one plausible explanation is . . . " And hopefully that will make us humble enough to recognize that communication is messy and open to persuasion, confusion, misunderstanding. A good sign of our need for illocutionary discourse.

Questions I'd like you to consider: How do our expectations shape our perceptions? Why would that mean that sociologists today speak of reflexive methodology? Consider this example of my seeing what I expected to see when I saw what I presumed to be an African body shape familiar to me. Consider how these expectations color what I see by popping up in my apperceptive mass along with whatever the photographer meant for me to see. Consider that because I have these other expectations, once I see the devastation being caused in Africa by the trading deficit, I may feel a greater urge to prevent that harm. So expectations make us receptive as well as allow us denial. And then consider the term "reflexive methodology" which means that the researcher or scientist must consider his/her own expectations and how they affect what might otherwise be an objective methodology.

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    Flying Good Dogs: Whenever something happens in class that works out well, that inspires you, that helps in studying, whatever, take a few minutes to send us an e-mail. We'll post it where all of us can learn from it, including other teachers.

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