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Visual Rhetoric

Inese Heinzel's crusade to reunite words with images

By Jordan E. Rosenfeld

Words and images have been duking it out for dominance in human social interaction since the first cave-painting pictographs. Even in its "primitive" days, beneath the images of early man hunting buffalo or the Egyptian symbols engraved on sandstone, the abstraction known as language has been fighting to emerge from a sensory cocoon of images--those representations of the world that our eyes assure us are real, and therefore, safe.

Once the word broke free, it began carving out social classes and creating a hierarchy in academics where it assumed a higher status and banished the image to a baser form of existence.

Now, in an increasingly visual culture where reports show that reading is on the decline, Sonoma State University extended education teacher Inese Heinzel would like to change the way images are treated in academia. In our bustling information age, Heinzel feels that trying to ignore the upsurge of the visual world is "like rejecting half of one's brain."

She stumbled across the concept she terms "visual rhetoric" as she was teaching English to undergraduate students. Heinzel's line of inquiry into the rhetoric of images began as a way to answer the question of why her students were less interested in reading, and whether or not images--and particularly the offspring of the digital age (she cites the Internet, photo-cell phones and interactive home-video software)--were really the culprits.

"We need to learn to read visual texts the way we read verbal texts," Heinzel says, seated in the University's Media Center Library. "Visuals have a grammar; they communicate through perspective, color, arrangement, etc. We have to treat the pervasiveness of images as an invitation for critical reflection, not an invitation for hypnosis."

To illuminate what she means, she describes her own "seminal moment" of understanding that visuals, when paired with text in particular, have a different impact than either medium on its own.

"I had read an article in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristoff," Heinzel explains. "A few days later, I stumbled across the same article, though I didn't know it at first because it was laid out differently and was accompanied by a photograph. It seemed familiar to me, but I realized that the picture set me up to expect something else than the text alone. I read it differently.

"Images have been marginalized, and yet in so many ways they're much more democratic than language," she continues. "Pictures have some sort of relation to the physical world; they're our first cognition, and in that sense, images are easier than words. But even when you read a book, you're looking at images of lines and squiggles. The brain has to take what are completely arbitrary referents--letters, which are just sounds, represented by a certain shape--and reconfigure them and relate them to something in the real world.

"On the other hand, a reader has to become very intimate with a book, because it's a more challenging process."

Heinzel is interested in promoting the pairing of visuals and words together in a classroom setting, which she feels is more likely to increase a student's potential to truly learn something as opposed to merely memorizing it. Of course, that depends on coaxing students into reading in the first place.

"Statistics show that more than 50 percent of all adults have not read a book in the last year. Among them were teachers," she says. "That is just frightening to me."

The answer, Heinzel believes, is not simply to ram more reading down the throats of an unwilling audience, but to better understand visual imagery and to engage more reading by supporting it with visuals.

"Is it wrong if someone sees the movie first and then reads the book? I don't think so," she says.

In her view, the idea that the word and the image must forever be foreigners standing on opposite sides of a fence is a part of the problem. She calls for a reintegration of words and images beginning in the world of academia, the very place that has rejected their joining for so long. And she is of course practicing what she preaches.

"Both [words and images] are forms of self-expression," she asserts. "The problem is that too much of anything becomes background."

To counteract the numbing affect of too many visuals, she suggests, we must learn to distinguish when it's time to "turn it off" and when we need to become more involved with the medium we're viewing.

"Passive viewing needs to be altered. The key to literacy of any kind is engagement. Neuroscientists have started to believe that the eye and the brain work together."

Whether this means peppering in foreign films with subtitles among regular cinema viewing, discussing the art, magazines and other images which compose a person's visual diet, or simply turning off the television, Heinzel believes that visual literacy is possible and necessary.

"What I'm advocating is that we take the same care looking at images that one would with news information. You don't rely on one source, ever!"

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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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