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Reading The Visual: Language, Body, & Space

Mark Andrew Thorsby

To speak of visual literacies is to invoke an analogy between the signs of a
language and the domain of the visual. And while a close parallel between
these two fields of perceptive activity is certainly comprehensible, there are
peculiar logical differences between linguistic and visual literacies that must
be conceptually delineated prior to the task of ‘reading’ the visual. This
paper examines and articulates the limits of the analog between these two
modes of perception and interpretation by drawing from the work of both
Ludwig Wittgenstein and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. By activating an
investigation into the phenomenological differences between seeing and
speaking, it becomes apparent that the body itself plays a crucial role in the
former that is not readily transmitted in a comparison with the later. Namely,
the interpretation of the visual is not simply a matter of ‘reading’ signs, but
also fundamentally evokes, involves, and references the activity of the body.
As such, sound interpretation requires more than just the recognition,
negotiation, or juxtaposition of cultural symbols; an acute awareness of the
bodily relation between the perceiver and ‘text’ is critical. Once this
conceptual differentiation is made, I then turn to and conclude with a
discussion on spatiality and its relation to visuacy in architecture. Every
architectural space contextualizes the body; thus adding, reorganizing, or
possibly transforming the texture, perception, and meaning of any visual
media. The museum, as an architectural motif, perfectly embodies the bodily
relation to the visual, although we might as easily speak of the hospital, the
cinema, the highway, or the garden. In essence, to be visually literate is to be
spatially aware.

Key Words: Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ludwig Wittgenstein, visuacy, space,

language, phenomenology, interpretation, architecture, the body.


1. Introduction
At its core, philosophy can be understood as a worry and
puzzlement over the basic problems, possibilities, and manifestations of
meaning. The question I would like to entertain today, however related, is
to ask how exactly things that are perceived visually are meaningful. It is
2 Reading The Visual: Language, Body, & Space
actually quite peculiar, for meaning and visual perception seem to occur
simultaneously. When one looks out over a landscape and sees a house in the
distance, they do not interpret what they see in a procedure of input-output
and, as it were, calculate that due to a certain pattern of sense datum that an
object called a house stands before them. No, not at all – one simply sees the
house; and this is to already understand a particular visual field. In a reverse
sense, we could consider the fact that art professors constantly must counsel
their novice students to paint what they see and not what they think they see.
What this reveals is that meaning and visual acuity are delivered together. So
if we are to ask what it means to be visually literate, then we will need to
offer an explanation that can make phenomenological sense of the fact that
meaning and visuacy are integrally interwoven.
To speak of visual literacy is to evoke an analogy between the signs
of a language and the domain of the visual. In A Primer of Visual Literacy,
Donis Dondis writes that “language is a means of expression and
communication and, therefore, is a parallel system to visual
communication.”1 But there are limitations to the parallel between visuacy
and the hermeneutics of a language. Certainly we might speak of the visual
field as a text to be read, but this sort of analog, taken alone, does not fully
encapsulate the phenomenology of visual understanding and could lead to a
false view about how meaning manifests itself in perception. What is at issue
here in the limit of the analog is the role of the body. As Gary Madison has
argued, “We must recognize the existence of a body-subject: we must view
the body as our living bond with the world and as the umbilical cord which
attaches us to it.”2 If we are to gain a fully satisfactory picture as to how
meaning and visual perceptions are integrally interwoven we will need to
supplement our account with a meditation on the role and centrality of the
body within visual perception. I argue that because the body is the locus of
spatial horizons for any thinking and perceiving human being upon which
visual perception is a priori dependant, we can say that to be visually literate
is to be spatially and bodily aware.
French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty stands as the most
outstanding philosopher who has gone further than any other in situating the
centrality of the body within visual perception. By pulling from his
philosophical vernacular and phenomenological inquiry in his
Phenomenology of Perception we discover the enormous importance that the
body has for the very possibility of visual meaningfulness. At one section of
that text he writes:

Thus the connecting link between the parts of our body

and that between our visual and tactile experience are not
forged gradually and cumulatively. I do not translate the
'data of touch' into the language of seeing' or vice versa –
Mark Andrew Thorsby 3
I do not bring together one by one the parts of my body;
this translation and this unification are performed once
and for all within me: they are my body, itself.3

What we read here is a pronouncement of the unravelling of just that

mystery we set out to solve at the beginning - and it is concerned with the
phenomenological primacy of the body for visual understanding. As such, by
extrapolating the basic moves of his argument we can augment our
understanding of visual literacy into a fuller picture that will allow for a
greater illumination as to the operation of visual meaning.
Accordingly then, in the following paper I will begin with a
discussion of the analogy between the signs of a language and the idea of a
visual text. Subsequently, I move to an examination of Merleau-Ponty's
argument for the primacy of the body for understanding spatiality and its role
in 'reading' the visual. I conclude with a brief discussion on the role of
visuacy and architecture that exemplifies how the body ought to figure into
the thematic conception of visual literacy.

2. The Signs of Seeing

There is a reductive temptation to think of the signs of language as
something like names that either ostensibly or in some other manner signify
or represent items and situations in the world. Here one might be inclined to
think of reading as something like the ability to coordinate signs semiotically
with their referential pairs. Frege's distinction between sense and reference,
for instance, follows this vein of thought. Both Merleau-Ponty and Ludwig
Wittgenstein have famously combated this alluring view of language.
Understanding a language, they contend, is not simply a matter of reading
signs according to a correspondence set. In this section I recount both
Wittgenstein's and Merleau-Ponty's view of language to give the argument its
full density that understanding a language is first and foremost a matter of
living in the world. Wittgenstein stresses the sheer multiplicity and
contingency of language and the grammatical forms that manifest themselves
therein. Language, as an activity, is a mode of living in the world. The
conceptual upshot of this view is that understanding a language is not
dependant on an ability to correlate signs with referents, but rather on
whether or not a speaker (or reader) is familiar with the type of life that is
home to a linguistic utterance. Hence, the meaning of a visual sign is neither
something that exists beneath the sign, as it were, nor is the meaning a mental
image conjured forth by a symbolism. A crude view of reading in which the
signs and symbols of a text are mechanically correlated to specific referents
makes the mistake of “looking for the use of a sign... as though it were an
object co-existing with the sign.”4 There is a deep philosophical temptation
to say that our signs mean for metaphysical reasons. At one point
4 Reading The Visual: Language, Body, & Space
Wittgenstein adds that one “is tempted to imagine that which gives the
sentence life as something in an occult sphere, accompanying the sentence.
But whatever accompanied it would for us just be another sign.”5
I have recounted Wittgenstein's views here in order to stress the idea
that reading must not be understood as a semiotic correspondence process
which is both alluring and all too common; so that when we evoke the
analogy of reading the visual we are not speaking about a process of
communication in which reading means something like looking up the signs
of seeing in a conceptual lexicon. To speak about reading is to speak about
the adherence of a particular form of life. Reading is always already an
embodied activity. Visual symbols are meaningful not because they
represent, but because they contextually relate to a form of lived activity.
While there are certainly distinctive features that separate
Wittgenstein's view of language here and Merleau-Ponty's, there is, I think,
enough similarity to adopt Wittgenstein's vocabulary of Lebensform from a
phenomenological perspective. Merleau-Ponty's view of language by
contrast is highly influenced by the French anthropologist Ferdinand de
Saussure. The central claim made by Saussure is that the meaning of a
language is a systemic operation where the parts or units of a language are
meaningful only in accordance with the whole. As George Free recently put
it, “individual units of language are constituted not by their material
properties but only by their relation to other units of the system.”6 Saussure
likened language to the playing of a chess game. The material properties of a
bishop, for instance, are immaterial regarding the play of the game. The fact
that the bishop has such and such a shape, can move in such and such a way,
will never clarify how the game as a whole is played. Indeed, one can know
the bishop's meaning only from the perspective of knowing how the game as
a whole is played. The units do not reveal the language; rather, the language
reveals the units. “The signifier is not an image but an identity constituted
on the basis of a formal organization… [that] is not itself an object of
perception.”7 The ability to 'read' and 'understand' signs is not a matter of
calculating the symbols but of knowing the language as a whole.
The other key insight is a distinction between language (langue) and
speech (parole). Language conceived as a system of signs arises from out of
the activity actual speaking so that it is speech which has claim to logical
priority and not the signs themselves. Parole precedes langue such that the
signs of a language are meaningful because linguistic use is the source for
meaningful expression. The view of Merleau-Ponty here bears a remarkably
strong affinity with Wittgenstein's notion of Lebensform. Both an analytic
and continental perspective deliver over the same basic idea of what 'reading'
a text might possibly mean. That is, in order to be able to read a text one
must, as it were, already be acquainted with how to use the language of the
text; or in other words, one must already have an appropriate form of life.
Mark Andrew Thorsby 5
Reading is henceforth to be understood as a process based upon lived
experience and not simply the juxtapositioning and negotiation of the signs
It is imperative, henceforth, to understand that reading the signs of
the visual requires the embodiment of a lived activity. The visual 'text' is not
foreign or absolutely separate from its readers, the lives they live, or the
activity of speaking itself. Conversely, texts that are too opaque to be read
are likely ones that exist outside an active life form. For example, consider
the inability of most people to recognize the shape of their own country if it
is portrayed upside down from its normal orientation on a typical map. This
inability corresponds to the absence of a life form. But the idea of a life form
is not enough to fully situate what visual literacy might actually mean, for
that we turn to Merlea-Ponty's discussion of the body. It is the explicit factor
of the body to which we now turn.

3. Bodily Spatiality

In order to fully understand and appreciate Merleau-Ponty's

phenomenology of visual perception, it is important to understand whom he
is arguing against. On the one hand, his intellectual crosshairs are aimed at a
version of empiricism in which perception is conceived as nothing more than
a flooding of sense data upon the mind's eye. His contention against this
view is that it does not sufficiently locate the role of subjectivity or give
weight to our experience. A proper phenomenology must be able to explain
the manifestation of our actual lived experience and the empiricist seemingly
trades in the motifs of lived experience in favour of a mechanistic
explanation that reductively wipes away the factor of living intentionality.
Perception is more than simply the movement of sense organs; it is itself an
active engagement. Accordingly, visual literacy should not be conceived on
this model.
The other primary target the philosopher sets his aim against is a
version of intellectualism akin to Cartesian intellectualism that places the
subject outside and separate from the world. “The mistake of intellectualism
is to make [consciousness] self-subsistent, to remove it from the stuff in
which it is realised...”8 Intellectualism is akin to the idealist tendency to
deflate the role that the world has on subjective experience and to assume a
stance of transcendental objectivity. These twin tendencies, an empiricism
that deflates the subject or an intellectualism that deflates the world, have a
common theme in that both move toward a reduction that fails to recognise
the ambiguous relationship between subjectivity and the worldliness wherein
we move, perceive, and think. As Samuel Mollin has written, “There is,
then, dialectic between the two sides of a situation.”9
6 Reading The Visual: Language, Body, & Space
Indeed, central to a phenomenology of perception is ontology of the
situation. Every phenomenological field is given according to an existing
situation in the world. The situation is essentially an ambiguous state of
affairs in which the separation of consciousness from the objective features
of the world cannot be neatly broken apart. The actions and attitudes of
consciousness help organise perception on the one hand, while the constancy
of those articles in the world is due to a feature or set of features independent
of my perceiving such and so. Another way of thinking about the objective
constancy of the articles in the world is to note the degree to which they go
beyond a given situation. In like manner, my own subjectivity is given to me
insofar as it stretches past a given situation. Both an intellectualist and an
empiricist schema ignore the ontology of situations, adopting reductive
models that trade in experience for the expediency of explanation. As
Madison has noted, the empiricist takes consciousness as passivity while the
intellectualist adopts a schema in which consciousness dominates the world.
What links the two is they both take the universe as utterly explicit in itself.10
Consequently, an adequate explanation of visual literacy should not fail to
give account of the notion of the situation. Reading a visual 'text' always
already occurs within a given situation where both lived intentionality and
the objects of the world ambiguously co-mingle.
The very capacity to see and make sense of visual perception can be
phenomenologically traced to two key concepts: (1) the motor intentionality
of the body, and (2) the temporal synthesis of perception in which particular
patterns of perception harmonize together over time. Consider the tourist at
the Tate Modern Museum who walks around a sculpture by Auguste Rodin
for instance. At no particular point will the whole shape come into view
despite the fact that consciousness can and does become aware of its entire
form. At each point in the prospectively concatenated visual field, only
particular finite forms become apparent against a background which recedes
away from the intentionality of consciousness. As one moves around the
object, new perspectives are gained while others are lost; never does
consciousness perceive the whole. Within the visual field, perception of the
sculpture is made known through what seem to be a concomitant
manifestation of presences. The unity of the object in perception depends
upon this motor intentionality as a temporal synthesis. Bodily motility
proves to be the key feature through which the varieties of visual horizons are
integrated into a unity. “The unity and identity of the tactile phenomenon do
not come about through any synthesis of recognition in the concept, they are
founded upon the unity and identity of the body as a synergic totality.11
Additionally, bodily motility reveals both the inner and outer
horizons of an object within a perceptive visual field. A horizon generally
conceived can be defined as that which “guarantees the identity of the object
throughout the exploration”12 of consciousness. The inner horizon refers to
Mark Andrew Thorsby 7
the identity of detail that reveals the plenitude or richness of an object. When
I look closely at Rodin's “The Kiss,” I am amazed at the detail in which the
two marble bodies fall into and envelop one another. The closer I look, the
more I see the rich movement of their embrace, for instance. By contrast, the
outer horizon refers to a determinacy of form. The farther an observer stands
from the statue, the greater the determination of form that is revealed to
consciousness; or in other words, the greater the distance my body is from the
statue the less I see two bodies in favour of one embrace. What is key to see
here is that the position of the body plays the mediating role within the
situation. The gross motility of the body is inherent in every perception and
one's epistemic proximity can occur only through a balance of all the body's
regions. Accordingly, every epistemic situation directly equates with a
particular bodily stance. It is for these reasons that we can speak of the body
as the umbilical cord which links the perceptive activity of consciousness to
the constancy of the objective world.
The body is thus the locus for the spatiality of my experience. There
is a tendency to view space as a three-dimensional geometrically organized
set of planes which extend into the vast reaches of infinitude; but this
“objective” space is never one I experience. The mathematical models that
represent the entire topology of an object are as foreign to perceptive
consciousness as the string theorist's modelling of eleven space-time
dimensions. The spatiality of perception corresponds to the directions of
intentional comportment. There is that which is near, that which is far, high,
low, behind, beneath, or above. The dimensions of perspective intentionality
conform to the body's involvement in lived experience. Objective space is
founded upon this primordial notion of spatiality as involvement.

My body teaches me what space is, because it is itself the

author of space... The perceived world is structured
according to the hold that the body has or can have on it.
The spatiality of the perceived world is thus a reply to the
body's dimensions and its possibilities for action.13

When we take the phenomenology of the body seriously we discover that not
only is the body central to an understanding of visual literacy but that the
body itself is the criterion for spatiality. To be visually literate is to be at
home in a form of life in which the body's role is familiar within a series of
spatial involvements. In essence, to be visually literate is to be spatially

4. Visuacy in Practice: The Museum

8 Reading The Visual: Language, Body, & Space
In recalling the phenomenological insights of Merleau-Ponty on the
role and primacy of the body, we have adopted a paradigm of understanding
in which the very notion of the visual literacy functions according to a bodily
form of life that structures our experience of spatiality. The signs of the
visual are neither to be conceived as empirical sense datum nor as idealistic
conceptualizations, but rather as an embodied relation the perceiver's stance
takes. The relation one takes to the visual text is therefore richly ambiguous
and reductive explanations to the contrary lead to abstract conclusions that
gain no ground in teasing out the structure of meaning. Architecture, as a
medium of creative involvement, is thus a splendid index for thinking and
speaking about how the meaning of a visual text is structured according to
the body's involvement in space. Architecture, as a mode of spatial
awareness, should always be understood as the contextual catalyst for the
body's awareness of visual meaning. The museum, as an architectural motif,
perfectly captures the bodily relation to the visual.
First and foremost, the museum as a space is designed for no other
purpose than to facilitate the reading of visual texts. And while a crude
understanding of spatiality leads to the view that the optimal museum allows
for an objective viewing of the artwork, we can see now that there is no such
thing as an objective space. Every space is mediated by the play and
involvement of the subject's body. The very kernel of post-modernist critique
is to view objectivity with suspicion; yet, the temptation to return to a view of
objectivity remains. Theorist Josie Appleton gives voice to this temptation:

The enduring legacy of the cultural left has been its

hostility to the idea of objectivity itself... Collections were
deemed no longer to have meaning distinct from the
subjective interpretations imposed on them by scholars
and curators... Freed from the discipline of objective
knowledge, those in museums now had unprecedented
scope for the exercise of whim and fancy.14

Intriguingly, we should first notice that the brand of subjectivity that is

implied here falls in line with a form of intellectualism we meant to combat
above where the meaning of a text is mistakenly seen as falling solely on the
side of consciousness. Appleton is wise to be wary of that sort of subjectivity
but is mistaken if the implication is that we should view the situation solely
along the lines of this crude dichotomy between an absolute objectivity and a
relativistic subjectivity. Both sides of this dichotomy are a mythology of
reductive explanation. The museum, as space, manipulates the involvement
of the body, structuring the possibilities for reading the visual 'text'. The
echo for a return to objectivity in which texts 'speak for themselves' simply
ignores the role of the body within the system and production of meaning.
Mark Andrew Thorsby 9
The meaning of a visual text arises from the co-mingling between a
perceiver's stance and the object in question. If this brand of spatial
ignorance persists, a clear view of the museum's role in the production of
meaning for visual literacy will remain obscure and opaque.
In order to speak about the possibility of visual literacy, we must
remember that in order for a space to enable the meaningfulness of a text the
museum must allow for a spatial involvement in which the forms of life
[Lebensform] indicative of that text can arise. In a slightly different context,
Merleau-Ponty criticizes the typical museum for precisely the removal of the
artwork from the form of life out of which it came to exist in the hands of the
artist. He writes, “The Museum adds a false prestige to the true value of the
works by detaching them from the chance circumstances they arose from...” 15
The structure of this detachment, of course, concerns the ways in which the
movement of the body effect, or rather infect, visual perception. The task of
the architecture of the Museum must be to facilitate the movement of a body
that is at home with the work of art. 16 The architect, by contrast, ought to be
acutely aware of the systemic role that bodily motility plays in visuacy.
Although we can speak about the museum, we might as easily speak of the
hospital, the cinema, the highway, or the garden's role in organizing the
meaning of visual 'texts'.
To conclude, we ought not to divorce the role the body plays in the
perceptual organization from the conceptual appropriation of a visual text.
The upshot is that we should be highly suspicious of explanations of meaning
that see the body as peripheral to the ideas, themes, or concepts that visual
media gesture towards. Every discussion of visual literacy must come to see
that “Bodily spatiality, inherently dynamic, is the very condition for the
coming into being of a meaningful world.”17

DA Dondis, A Primer of Visual Literacy, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1973, p. 182.
G Madison, The Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, Ohio University Press, Athens, 1973, p.21.
Ibid. p. 172.
L Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, Harper & Row, New York, 1958. p. 5.
G Free, “Language, Speech and Writing: Merleau-Ponty and Derrida on Saussure,” Human Studies, Vol. 13, No. 4,
Springer, Netherlands, 1990 p. 293.
Ibid. 297.
Ibid. p. 14.
S. Mollin, Merleau-Ponty's Philosophy, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1979. p. 12.
Madison, p. 21-22.
Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception. p. 369.
Ibid, p. 78.
Madison, p. 23, p. 29.
J Appleton, “Museums for 'The People'?” Museums and their Communities, Ed. Sheila Watson, Routledge, New York,
1997, p. 115-116.
Merleau-Ponty, “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence.” p. 62.
An interesting example would be to think about The Museum of Natural History in New York, which houses
Peloponnesian totem poles. The totem pole in its home space would not have been housed at all and would likely imply an
idea of moving up into the heavens. But when the same artefact is enclosed in a space with a ceiling, the resonance of
meaning is likely to be lost for the thousands of visitors who visit the museum each month. The space of the museum
impacts and contextualizes the litany of ways in which one might be able to read that text.
M Lange, Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception. Florida State UP, Tallahassee,1989. p. 47.

Appleton, J., “Museums for ‘The People’?” Museums and their Communities. Ed. Sheila Watson. Routledge, New York,
1997. pp. 114-126.

Cavel, S., “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy.” The Philosphical Review. Vol. 71, No. 2. Duke
University Press, Durham, 1962. pp. 69-93.

Dondis, D. A., A Primer of Visual Literacy. MIT Press, Cambridge, 1973.

Free, G. “Language, Speech and Writing: Merleau-Ponty and Derrida on Saussure.” Human Studies. Vol. 13, No. 4.
Springer, Netherlands, 2004. pp. 293-301.

Heidegger, M., Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson. Blackwell, New York, 1962.

Lang, M., Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. Florida State UP, Tallahassee, 1989.

Madison, G., The Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. Ohio University Press, Athens, 1973.

Merleau-Ponty, M., “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence.” Signs. Trans. Richard McCleary. Northwestern UP,
Chicago, 1964. pp. 39-83.

---, The Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. Routledge, London, 2005.

Mollin, S., Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy. Yale UP, New Haven, 1979.

Wittgenstein, L., The Blue and Brown Books. Harper & Row, New York, 1958.

---, Philosophical Investigations. Trans. GEM Anscombe. Macmillan Company, New York, 1953.