October 19, 2007

Hi, all. Like my first blog entry should be about an article I read for a different class, but there you go. At least I’m making connections… ?

In Strat Comm, our readings for the coming week are on issues of collective memory. One article we read in particular is titled “Public Identity and Collective Memory in U.S. Iconic Photography: The Image of ‘Accidental Napalm’” by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites (2003). The authors look at a specific image from the coverage of the Vietnam War (“Accidental Napalm Attack,” 1972) and how it functioned and continues to function. I thought this was interesting particularly for this class, as this sort of image analysis really gives shape to some of the theory we’ve been reading. Hariman and Lucaites take these theories as their framework to examine the concept of collective memory as it is shaped by visual communication – how images work to construct collectivity.

To discuss the rhetoric of images, Hariman and Lucaites look at this image in particular. They take into account both the composition of the image and the context surrounding it to flesh out a fuller understanding of the different readings the image can provide. Specifically, the discussion is of how images become iconic, or when/how they gain the capacity to constitute a public out of a group of strangers via identification with some element of the image.

They also look at the production of images, particularly in terms of how images can be manipulated – the examples within the article are two specific intentional manipulations of this image and how they convey their own messages as extensions of the original. This example is an artist’s (Jeffrey Decoster’s) rendering of this photograph; the manipulations, however, were made with the intention of expanding on the messages within the photograph and of creating entirely new messages. The placement of the little girl in a bathing suit and on a suburban lawn, the addition of the ghostly-transparent veteran in a wheelchair next to her, and the composition of the elements to create a triangle (with the ball on the lawn) to drawn in the viewer all work to create a more insistent call to moral action in regards to the Vietnam War.

While the specifics are extremely interesting (and disturbing), the set-up of the framework for this discussion was what caught my eye in terms of this class. In the beginning of the article, the authors tackle some of the issues we’ve been discussing, specifically those from the week we spent on Semiology. They discuss the differences between visual media and discursive media – a question from the first class which we have yet to return to – and the suspicions of how visual media can function relative to discursive media. This leads into a brief discussion of the concept that all media is mixed media, that there is never any purely visual media. This reminded me of Barthes and his caveat for denotive messages; he says essentially the same thing when he posits that theoretically there can be a purely denotive message but that it is virtually impossible to ever encounter that message because of the cultural knowledge and perception we bring to the image.

Obviously, because the focus of the article is a photograph, the authors then go into a lengthier discussion of the pitfalls of reading photographs as texts – all of which are reminiscent of our readings from the week on Semiology. The authors talk explicitly about Barthes and Eco, specifically in terms of an acknowledgment of the “representational autonomy” of photographs – what Barthes discusses, when he mentions how photographs retain some elements of their object and thus can be confused as neutral representations. The discussion in this article, however, really leans more towards Hall’s conception of what goes on with photograph – the subtle difference of the degree, rather than the presence or absence, of ideology in a photographic image. For these authors, as for Hall, photos appear to be value-neutral representations of their object but always convey some value system; this appearance works to relay naturalizing concepts of ideology that aren’t natural at all.

This is a long and complicated dissection of a very complex image; because of that, and because not everyone else has read the article, I realize that this is probably a poor example for discussion. That said, I thought it was a really interesting – and helpful – application of the theoretical perspectives we’ve been discussing so far.

Hariman, R. & Lucaites, J.L. (2003). Public Identity and Collective Memory in U.S. Iconic Photography: The Image of "Accidental Napalm". Critical Studies in Media Communication, 20(1 - Mar 2003), 35-66.


George said...

I remember reading that article last year as well.
What is particularly interesting about the second photograph is how it uses shapes from the first one to draw a political message. However, that particular message is unavailable without the context of the first photograph, because nothing about the second photograph explicitly directs a person's attention to the issues of the Vietnam war. I see the two photographs working together, the first photograph acting as cultural grounding for the commentary in the second.

brett said...

I am interested in the movements of "anchoring." Referring back to Barthes, he stated the linguistic message "anchors" the interpretation of the photo - i guess in this case, the title "accidental napalm" provides some anchoring for the interpreation of this image. Napalm is identified with Vietnam warfare, and we see in this image what appears to be an explosion in the background, which is likely to have been caused by Napalm, for that very term is used in the title. (Question: in terms of Peirce, would the word "napalm" be and index?) "accidental napalm" is a title that provides anchoring to the interpretation insofar as it oreints us to the vietnam war and what is happening in the image - the girl in the middle of the photo likely was hurt by a napalm explosion.

So the title serves a more or less explicit anchoring function. But are there other moments of anchoring involving this photo that are not so explicit?

The photo itself provides an anchoring of a discourse, an ongoing conversation within at least the U.S. during the time of the vietnam war. This photo anchors a certain narrative, a particualr worldview held concerning the Vietnam War.

Discourse by its very nature is constantly changing, evolving, moving; it is a temporal process. Certainly we notice that what we talk about and how we talk about it changes over time. Nationally, our discourse regarding national concerns changes over time: obviously over half of congress is speaking differently about Iraq now than they were five yars ago.

Photos and images can serve to provide discourse and narratives stability. Photos have a material reality that are direct indexes of actual material conditons at a particular location at a particular time, which cannot be denied. What is shown is what really happened.

Photos and images have duration in ways that discourse can rarely achieve. Images don't change. In terms of Barthes, i would say that what is denoted never changes.

Photos and Images serve to anchor a discourse or particular narrative when they are "iconic" of them: displaying the same formal arrangement of elements within the photo as the formal elements within a discourse or narrative itself. Peirce here, again. "Accidental Napalm" is iconic because elements within the dominant narrative for the Vietnam War were similar to those shown in the photo - similar elements, in similar arrangement: the horror of the War, the pain caused to innocent civilians, the destruction, the normalization of all this craziness by even American soldiers there, and most importantly the need to give voice to those whom even though may be screaming out, remain silent.

In a sense, there is a dual anchoring with such iconic images. The photo anchors a discourse, gives a particular narrative duration and stability. But also, the discourse anchors the photo, lending it intelligability. But this linguistic anchoring is not the linguistinc anchoring that Barthes mentions - rather this linguistic mesage is a precondition even for the selection of the photo in the first place - or even more - for even taking the photograph. This linguistinc message is that of ideology.

Jaya said...

I don't know that I completely agree with what you're saying about the anchoring of the image by the linguistic message -- at least, not in this case. Maybe this is simplistic, but it's not that this "appears" to be a napalm attack; it was a napalm attack, and that child was suffering from burns. If anything, it seems that the anchoring would occur through the use of the word "accidental," rather than the words "napalm attack." That directs the interpretation of the photo much more directly by making a comment on the nature of the object (the napalm attack), especially since that kind of attitude toward the conflict in Vietnam (never even given the distinction of being called a war) was extremely prevalent -- that we did not cause that much damage on purpose.

Meg said...
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Meg said...

This image came to my mind as well, (George and I were in Strat Comm with Dr. Morus)in the beginning of the semester and I thought it related to what we were discussing. Your comment about "made with the intention of expanding on the messages with the photograph amd creating entirely new messages" reminded me of another topic we studied in strat comm...post colonial theory..in simplistic terms..you take on culture and you take another culture to make a third..a hybrid of sorts..I agree with George on his comment about how the two photographs "work together, the first photograph acting as cultural grounding for the commentary in the second" and I agree with Brett "The photo itself provides an anchoring of a discourse, an ongoing conversation within at least the U.S. during the time of the vietnam war." ...and when reading this another image that came to my mind the Falling Man...

Medea said...

When I was reading the same material for Dr. Morus' class, I was struck by how the authors explain that the photograph moves beyond its topicality and attains universality. Anchoring the photograph with the words "Accidental Napalm", I think goes beyond its relevance to the Vietnam War. It is interesting to note how it avoids mention of any particular place where the incident might have occured. The phrase attempts to give a sort of generality to the photograph. It appeals to our moral sense- we view it more for the trauma it portrays rather than just for the traumatic aftermath that that particular attack produced.

Meg said...

I agree with Medea, good point about the trauma

Juli said...

I think part of the reason why we can even discuss somethign of this nature is because it is attempting to provoke a reaction from our moral emotion (a term I borrow from Bourriaud in Relational Aesthetics)

Emotionally, traumatically, etc, we are drawn and even repulsed by such an image. Perhaps even simultaneously. This is possible because we are all humans with some sort of feeling one way or another. Much of this is more than likely because our moral emotion can boil down to our lived experience. If we have been through something similar we can understand. If we hate the politics that have possibly contributed to this scene, we can feel enraged. There are contextual clues and events that allow for us to see an image like this and respond to it accordingly. That is what makes it problematic, especially when you see the manipulations behind the photo. That was another person's moral emotion attempting to provoke others. His/her lived experience compelled them to capture the image in this way, sparking a new conversation, provoking our moral emotion in a different way.