Friday, February 18, 2011

The Images We See, and their cultural messages

After my post Wednesday about the study on male and female reactions to seeing nudes, I got to thinking about the idea of the images we see. One of the points in that article was that there is not only a quantitative, but a qualitative difference between the presentation of male and female nudes, and that there is also a distinct difference in the way males and females react to them.

We're constantly surrounded by images and messages. I remember when I had serious eye strain and was trying not to read or look at things close by me - it was nigh unto impossible! In our society, these images and messages come from various sources, but many of them are advertising related and financially motivated. They are a product of what the culture (or a dominant subculture) is perceived to want, and their presence not only caters to this culture, but reinforces and re-enacts it.

The supermarket, for example, is a barrage.

This isn't necessarily the case in all cultures, however. Some products are sold visually and some are sold auditorily, as were the roasted sweet potatoes that a man sold in my neighborhood in southern Kyoto. He used to stroll through the street with his cart singing, "Yaaaaaki-imooooo!" through a loudspeaker (it drove me bonkers). It hasn't been true in all time periods, either. People used to hawk their wares with their own voices much more than they do now.

Most of the time we're able to move through our familiar environments without noticing all of the images or their messages. At other times we spend more attention questioning them.

When we're writing and creating worlds, it strikes me that there's some value in considering what kind of images our fictional people create. What do they see in their familiar environments? Who is responsible for disseminating those images? What kind of messages do they send about the culture that created them?

I remember being quite struck by a system of political radio advertising that Ursula K. LeGuin wrote into her book, The Telling. It wasn't something I'd seen done for an entirely alien society before.

I want to see more of this sort of thing, because every society has its way of sending messages, both economic and social. Fashion is one major way that people send their own messages about their wealth and place in society. And if print is available and easy, and people can advertise, what would they advertise? What would they consider art, what commercial, what inappropriate?

When I designed Varin I wanted it to have high technology but not to be like our own society. One of the parameters I changed was that of image-acceptance. The Varini believe that art is a perfectly acceptable form of visual expression, but that photography is too disconcertingly realistic (for underlying religious reasons). As a result, their highest forms of technology haven't gone the direction that photography started. The images they create are painted or lettered, and they don't have live action movies or sophisticated graphic computer monitors.

What cultural messages do your people want to convey? What methods do they use to convey them? What images will your readers see when they enter your world?

It's something to think about.


  1. Makes me think of Minority Repot, the way the ads followed people - cool post

  2. Thanks for commenting! I hadn't remembered that film when I wrote the post, but it is definitely related. :)