“Ways of Seeing” Final Blawg

March 25, 2010

Seeing how “Ways of Seeing” was the topic of one of my earlier posts this quarter, it seems a fitting bookend with which to wrap up Design Theory.  I say this partially out of a sense of finality, but also partially in relation to the contents of the book.  It gave me a sense of mental completion to start with some of Berger’s concepts, look at a number of other design theories, and come back to the book at the end of the class.  Re-examining Berger’s theories after having looked at the likes of Gestalt and visual design principles gave me a slightly more refreshing spin on my views towards design.

As I mentioned in my “‘Ways of Seeing’ First Blawg,” Mr. John Berger writes of how we humans see the world in his book, and not just how we literally see with our eyes.  He talks primarily about how we perceive the world, and how what we see affects what we think.  Every even chapter is actually a “visual essay,” using images to steer the reader to think about the surrounding text chapters’ content.  The odd chapters discuss Berger’s theories.  Chapter 1 talks about how images throughout history have subliminally caused viewers to see things from the image’s perspective; chapter 3 discusses gender viewpoints, with men surveying and women being surveyed; chapter 5 goes on at length about oil paintings, photographs, and how we aim to possess what is contained in the image; and chapter 7 discusses modern publicity and how it causes us to think in terms of our future selves, spurring envy and dissatisfaction.

Though some others who have read this book disagree with what Berger has to say, I found myself continually trying on his theories as if they were different hats.  I didn’t disagree with most of it, but I also didn’t fully agree either.  I simply found them intriguing.  One chapter in particular which stuck out in my mind was chapter 3, which pertains to gender concepts and views on female sexuality.  The main idea of the chapter is that men and women have fundamentally different ways of seeing and being seen – men survey, while women are surveyed.  Berger asserts that a man’s social presence and the way people view him are dictated by external factors, such as what he can do for you and to you.  A woman, on the other hand, is viewed both by others and herself as someone to be viewed, and how she is viewed determines how she is perceived.

I can see why some people, especially women, may think this is sexist.  It could be argued that he is saying women are objects.  But I don’t think so – it seems to me that his postulations are strictly intellectual and come from analysis of a long history of gender portrayal in visual media.  Maybe those portrayals were sexist, maybe they weren’t, but his conclusions are just an attempt at understanding how people have viewed women throughout history, in paintings and photography.  I have the deepest respect for all people, especially women, but what he says makes sense to me.   A lot of women I’ve seen do behave like that, like how they are viewed dictates who they are.  Again, I’m not saying all women are like this, but a good deal of them in my experience are.  It just seems to be how they’re wired.  The unfortunate downside of this is the continued inaccurate portrayal of women in media, since most people take academic observations like Berger’s and interpret them to mean that women are meant to be sexualized.  Of course, this is a wrong interpretation, both demeaning and unfair to women.  Chapters 2 and 4 are both chock full of images of partially or completely naked women, but Berger is simply trying to get the reader to understand how society has been looking at women, whether it’s sexist or not.

Chapter 7 also stood out to me, but to a slightly more minor extent.  In it, Berger discusses publicity (or advertising), and how it, along with capitalism, is an obstacle to complete democracy since it causes everyday people to be unhappy and wanting.  My first reaction is that I like that idea, since I share similar sentiments.  My second reaction was that a lot of other people would get angry at such a statement, since, in their minds, anything that says capitalism is bad must, ipso facto, be bad and anti-American or whatever other bullshit they think.  Man, Mr. Berger sure causes a lot of misconceptions with his work, that’s for sure.  Let’s listen to what he had to say.

What Berger said exactly was that since advertising causes us to want something, our current self which lacks the thing envies our future self, which may have the thing and is thus glamorous.  Unhappiness results because we are in a continual state of envy and mental desire for something we don’t have.  Thus, we also exist in a more narrow mindset since our lives become dominated by this artificial desire.  Capitalism, which is based entirely on us buying each others’ things, is therefore completely reliant on advertising and the effects thereof.  Since Capitalism relies on something which keeps us in a state of mental unrest and limitation, it is inherently an obstacle towards complete democracy.  I’m going to have to agree with Berger there.  Capitalism has its upsides, like increased innovation from competition for one, but that fact itself also overlooks the underlying principle that this very competition is driven by the need for buying, and the need for buying keeps people in a mental rut which prevents them from being happy.  Perhaps this is a bit of a melodramatic conclusion on my part, but that’s what I’m getting at.  What I don’t understand is how people invariably link Capitalism with being a crucial part of what makes America so great, for this blind connection makes it hard to see the kind of things I and others like Berger are trying to say.  Ugh.

So, after reading this book and internalizing such concepts as are outlined above, I must say that any design I do in the future will be made with extra awareness in mind.  I may not even realize it when I’m doing it.  Yet when I make something in 3D for a game, or whatever kind of art I make, I’ll think “How does someone feel when they see this?  How does it change their perceptions, and how does it fit in with their preconceptions?”  This could very well affect my design, especially if the audience is female.  Many characters (again, especially female characters) in the world of gaming are designed by men for men, and this leads to an overabundance of virtual worlds populated with characters female gamers can’t necessarily relate to.  Maybe that’s one reason why most gamers are still male (though that percentage is not as large as it used to be).

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