Faigley, “Material Literacy & Visual Design”

Faigley, Lester “Material Literacy and Visual Design.” Rhetorical Bodies. Ed. Jack Selzer and Sharon Crowley. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1999. 171-201. (31 pages)

Faigley considers the materiality of literacy, charting out an alternative history that does not conflate literacy with alphabetic literacy. His argument, then, “is that literacy has always been a material, multimedia construct” (175). He confronts the presupposition that “subordinates syllabic and logographic writing systems and banishes pictograms and images to the status of illiteracy” (174). Similar to Selfe, Faigley notes how, historically, oral and visual literacy have held a dichotomous relationship. Namely, he alludes to certain paradigmatic shifts toward democracy, individualism, codification of Law, Protestantism, and spread of capitalism as contributing factors in the shift toward a written bias—characterized by visually conveying information and ideas—and away from oral abstractions. Writing, then, became a marker of civilized society.

However, as he moves through historical narratives that describe the emergence of writing, namely of alphabetic literacy, he challenges the notion that writing began from pictures. Rather, “two-dimensial writing began…by representing in two dimensions the previous recording system” of three-dimensional tokens, a remediation of a 3-dimensional system. This narrative appears notable to consider that pictographic systems of writing/recording evolved alongside alphabetic systems. The divide between image and word does not hold, and likewise, he also disrupts the cognitive divides between oral and visual. He writes, “cultures freely borrow and adapt systems of information storage when the need arises. Thus, in its claims for the primacy of the visual, the narrative of alphabetic literacy effaces not only the material tools used in writing, but also the elements of visual cognition” (180). Faigley appears to chart out an understanding of literacy rooted in material and visual elements rather than focus on the alphabetic literacy that obscures our historical understanding of literacy. Faigley also confronts the assumption that the printing press—namely, the mass production of books—radically changed practices of literacy. Rather, he points to the influence of accurate printing of images that fueled certain sciences that depended on the visual reproduction of images for information (botany, zoology, anatomy).

Faigley also interrogates the idea of literacy as design. He looks specifically at advertisements and the ways that groups like Adbusters disrupts these adverts in visual ways. For traditional advertisements, Faigley notes that the oversaturation of visual advertisements prompted an emphasis toward style, “increasingly self-referential, recirculating images drawn from the cultural landscape, most often from media representations” (189). This means of design is similar to those described by Johnson-Eilola and Selber: “this mode of advertising—lifting images and meaning from one context and placing them in another—resists the simple analysis of attaching a product to an object of desire. Instead, advertisers enact a conversation of images with their audiences” (191). This process of composing relies upon cultural associations.

Finally, Faigley looks at the materiality of the Internet (194). Namely, he looks at the Zaptistas, a group of Mexican dissidents, who shrewdly used networked communication to disseminate and circulate images, engaging in cross-marketing through their understanding of the material effects of visual literacy (198).


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