Tuesday, February 22, 2011

We Are Never “Just There”: Reading History and Culture Through Graphic Design (or Bodies as Billboards)

This blog entry a response to an assignment in my ENG 6801: Texts and Technology in History course at UCF and part of a larger project which will eventually be my dissertation. The base of this paper is Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish's Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide. I was torn between focusing on the history of Photoshop or the history of plastic surgery but since I am interested in how digital technologies such as Photoshop lead to biotechnologies like Botox and breast augmentation, I decided to include a little of both. I also include a brief discussion about the history of fashion (including corsets and other brutal technologies) in a footnote, as this is an area I will explore in the future related to my larger project. I am left to decide how to approach my final paper for this course, which I hope to revise as a chapter for my dissertation. I might continue focusing on how images have been manipulated throughout history to achieve particular social means or on the history of body technologies related to fashion such as the corset or track how plastic surgery was used in various historical contexts. I see this paper as a start, as well as a cry for help organizing and focusing my ideas. 

Google Docs Version (header formatting was lost and footnotes are "pop ups"; 

I am happy to provide an MLA proper .doc version if desired)

"Graphic design is never just there. Graphic artifacts always serve a purpose and contain an agenda, no matter how neutral or natural they appear to be. Someone is addressing someone else, for some reason, through every object of designed communication. The graphic forms of design are expressions of the forces that shape our lives." (Drucker & McVarish xiii-xix)

From its opening, Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide relates to my work in media representations of gender and the implications of media technologies such as Photoshop. In my dissertation, I plan to argue that digital editing and imagery technologies normalize and even compel more advanced biotechnological interventions like cosmetic surgery (I will develop a more specific, nuanced argument but this is a rough beginning). Drucker and McVarish establish a foundation for my argument by demonstrating the very loaded nature of texts, design, and visual representations throughout history. All texts are embedded with meaning, histories, and cultural implications. As a socially constructed yet biologically-based text, the body is also a site of embedded meanings deployed by cultural values transmitted through media images.

Graphic design is never just there
The opening page of Graphic Design History reads, “Graphic design is never just there” (xiii). As the only text on a large white page, strategically positioned to connect to similar text on the following few pages, it is immediately evident that the authors utilize format to reinforce their key point–that graphic design and its accompanying choices are never neutral, free from context, or “just there.” The formatting of the text makes explicit connections between design, technology, and meaning, calling attention to itself as the authors ask the reader questions like, “Why does this page look the way it does?” (xxii). 

Drucker and McVarish clearly state their purpose for the book in its opening, calling for a “critical history of graphic design” and outlining “some basic principles for thinking about the way historical origins inform contemporary practice” (xxii). The authors trace contemporary practices to the development of language in the earliest evolving societies, providing distinct examples such as the development of “distinctions of figure and ground” and aesthetic properties such as composition and color, integral concepts to graphic design (7). The early evolution of language and visual imagery established “crucial foundations” for future developments in the “design of all material objects” (7).

Cover of McVarish / Was Here
In a project statement for another McVarish book, Was Here, Drucker writes that McVarish “is always engaged with the book as a space, or e-space, that constitutes its own field of meaning production through the design and use of pages, sequence, and organization” (Drucker). As a graphic designer, a book artist, and a writer, McVarish is acutely aware of the possibilities the interplay between text and image allow. Drucker is a theorist and an academic but she is also a book artist and a cultural critic. Both Drucker and McVarish bring their own contexts to bear on the text in quite explicit ways, making form and content equal players, reflecting their claims in their own relationships to the work itself.

Theoretically, Graphic Design History provides a useful set of critical lenses through which to think about the social, cultural, political, and historical influences on and implications of graphic design and media. Examining historical contexts in tandem with technologies developed from antiquity to the present illuminates the relationship between history, culture, and production. Drucker and McVarish write, “Social institutions and cultural attitudes situate designed artifacts within specific networks of use and circulation. In turn, these institutions themselves are constantly modified by cultural changes in technology, work settings, and labor configurations, economic viability, and political factors” (xxvii). Technological developments and their resulting productions shape culture as much as they are shaped by culture. Culture includes not only attitudes but how access to or absence of resources affect the overall structures of a community or context.

MacArthur's Map of the World
upside down...or rightside up? 

Perhaps most useful to my work, Drucker and McVarish illuminate the highly political nature of images, graphics, and texts such as maps: “Graphic forms carry their history encoded as conventions, charged with cultural values–and loaded with social implications” (xxii). Media imagery in popular mainstream culture.[1] generally reflects what Jean-Francois Lyotard refers to as a “metanarrative” constructed by patriarchy to create, reinforce, and maintain specific ideas about gender, appearance, and power in our culture (Lyotard 37). Drucker and McVarish argue that graphic designers play a significant role in directing or disrupting larger cultural narratives, pointing to postmodernism as a time when interpretation and “play” with meaning-making began to subvert universal truths and “transcendent meaning” (315). The power of the media (or in Drucker and McVarish’s consideration, “graphic design”) can be employed for good or bad–to maintain dominant cultural ideals or to disrupt them. Graphic conventions transmit ideology (Drucker &McVarish 87).

Disruption of “master narratives” specifically related to gender and sexuality is a central goal of feminists. Feminists challenge false and/or damaging ideas about “women” and “men” perpetuated by media and visual culture and establish links between media representations and social issues such as eating disorders, violence against women, male-on-male violence, and the overwhelming boom of dieting and cosmetic surgery industries.[2]  Our shifting perception of ourselves and our bodies is at least partially a result of immersion in media imagery which represents unrealistic ideals. As Ong argues, “technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness...” (82). Being inundated by images of “perfection” inevitably shifts our notions of what we (and others) should look like. The graphic design that surrounds us transmits clear but limited ideas about who we should be.

Like Ong, Drucker and McVarish emphasize the role of history on contemporary practices, demonstrating the continuity of oral, written, printed, textual, hypertextual, electronic, visual, and other forms of communication. Regarding the shift from oral to written culture, he writes, “We can never forget enough of our familiar present to reconstitute our minds any past in its full integrity. Such reconstruction can bring a better understanding of what literacy itself has meant in shaping [our] consciousness toward and in high-technology cultures” (15). Connecting this to representations of the body in a digital (Photoshopped) culture, one might argue that what constitutes beauty, especially beauty as a highly gendered construct, cannot be “undone” in our minds and that such imagery permanently changes the way we think about ourselves–or as Ong might argue, irreversibly changes our consciousness (82).[3] We can challenge but not undo what media imagery tells us about gender, beauty, and the value of appearance to a conception of self, particularly as it has been constructed (and revised) over thousands of years.

beauty icon
Viewing representations of gendered bodies diachronically in relation to particular historical contexts (the Renaissance, Victorian era, World War II, protest in the sixties, today) reveals the very connections between culture and form Drucker and McVarish emphasize in their work. The body is a text on which shifting cultural values are inscribed and carried out. In Technologies of the Gendered Body, Anne Balsamo writes, "The body becomes the vehicle of confession; it is the site at which women, consciously or not, accept the meanings that circulate in popular culture about ideal beauty and, in comparison, devalue the material body. In other words, the female body comes to serve as a site of inscription, a billboard for [...] dominant cultural meanings ... “(79). The body is a text which iterates and reflects historical events and dominant cultural values.

camera obscura
When it was first developed in the early to mid-1800s, photography’s promise seemed to be in its ability to represent reality. Joseph Nicephore Niepce made the first photographic image in 1827 with a camera obscura, producing heliographs or sun prints by letting light draw the image being reflected. In 1829, Louis Daguerre, who had been simultaneously developing his own techniques, formed a partnership with Niepce to improve the process Niepce developed. Over ten years later, Daguerre developed a faster and longer-lasting approach to exposing images to light, making photography more practical and accessible to the public, giving the photograph its original name, the daguerreotype (Bellis). Early on, photography focused on replication but it didn’t take long for the prospect of manipulation to become a reality. The jump from representing reality to manipulating reality was more like a step, as the potential to exploit reality was rich (and apparently tempting) with photographic technology.

one of the earliest "photoshopped" images
Images were manipulated almost as early as the development of the photograph itself. One of first cited examples of photo tampering was in the early 1860s, when an image of President Abraham Lincoln was edited to feature Lincoln’s head and Southern politician John Calhoun’s body. This image was created to make Lincoln look more “statelyand is one of the earliest documented examples of “doctoring” a famous photograph for affect (Farid). In 1942, Mussolini had his horse handler edited out of a photograph to appear more heroic (Marsh). Since the availability of Photoshop and related programs, even well-established, respected magazines such as National Geographic, Time, and Newsweek have been notoriously accused of (and fined for) manipulating a myriad of cover images.[4] Famous designers such as Ralph Lauren have been criticized for “photo fails” promoting abnormally thin and even distorted bodies. [5] Critics have referred to the Ralph Lauren images as "shocking," "bizarre," and "unnatural," but Kathy Davis writes, "whether a practice is labeled mutilation or decoration, bizarre or normal depends more upon the discourses of beauty in a particular culture than any innate quality of the practice itself” (41). Davis speaks to what Drucker and McVarish refer to as “never just there,” as each of these examples feature images manipulated to achieve particular social means.

in more ways than one
The ubiquitous deployment of digital technologies such as Photoshop normalize unrealistic bodies, promoting individual dissatisfaction and fueling billion dollar industries built on women’s low self-esteem. The invention of efficient, accessible, affordable technologies has made freckles, wrinkles, cellulite, and other discernable imperfections invisible in mainstream media. Virtually every photograph featured in a mainstream fashion magazine has been digitally retouched. The proliferation of such images reflects longstanding attempts by dominant culture to control and suppress women. Susan Bordo argues that "[n]ormalization central to notions of body image is central to the workings of power" (199). Various components of (any) culture converge to normalize particular behaviors and appearances and, as Drucker and McVarish point out, “The more ‘natural’ something appears, the more culturally indicative it is” (xxix). 

as if she doesn't look good enough
Photo manipulation plays a key role in promoting extreme beauty ideals, increasing demand for cosmetic procedures, including Botox and breast augmentation. Cosmetic surgery is the biotechnological response to a socially constructed desire to embody a narrow version of perfection. In short, we are raised in a culture that tells us “ideal” looks one way and that we can attain all the benefits of perfection with a few bucks and the flick of a scalpel-holding wrist. Identity is complex–a patchwork informed by the various stories our culture tells us about ourselves and the world around us. Like Ferrier’s Signifying Quilt, our identity is created through patches of experience (Ferrier). In a context where cultural norms are shaped by mass media, the fabric is visual. Drucker and McVarish demonstrate how graphic design conventions have been shaped by and shape culture and history, resulting in problematic outcomes such as eating disorders and the growing demand for plastic surgery.

Photoshop’s history is relatively short considering its sweeping impact on the world of media production. Development of the software began in 1987 with the first version, Photoshop 1.0, shipped in 1990. Founded by Thomas and John Knoll, brothers interested in both photography and computers, Photoshop was not immediately well-received. John persisted in attempting to sell the program until Adobe team struck a deal in 1988 (Story). Photoshop is such a part of our visual culture that most of us could not imagine a media world without it. Like contemporary resistance to e-readers (or “vooks”) in defense of traditional paper books, attitudes change with the proliferation of technologies (Picot). Now Nook and Kindle are vying with the iPad for title of the most coveted e-reader and just last week, Borders, a chain of bookstores filed for bankruptcy (Rosenwald). With time and exposure, products become absorbed into a culture and become the norm (think laptops and cell phones). The same happens to “ideal bodies.” Today, magazines could not sustain credibility without Photoshop.

homogenized beauty
While Photoshop is an application of computer technology to photographic images, its impact is an extension of the more dramatic impact of the printing press and mass production of images. “The invention of the printing press and movable type had an enormous cultural impact” (Drucker & McVarish 69). Unfortunately, the proliferation of mass media meant homogenization more than diversification and as Drucker & McVarish iterate, “The tremendous increase in the volume of printed matter in the late nineteenth century was part of larger industrial changes. [...] These networks of production and distribution had unprecedented geographic reach and both diversifying and homogenizing effects. Not only did mass production mean more, but also it meant more of the same” (142). Viewing images of fashion models in magazines, one might notice a pattern of appearance. What is considered attractive in our culture is reiterated through various forms of media until we internalize “the ideal.” [6]

Long before Photoshop, humans constructed and sought to achieve beauty ideals (whatever they may look like in a particular space and time). Ancient Egyptians’ utilization of kohl as eyeliner and henna to dye hair and nails were some of the earliest documented applications of makeup. Such adornment was linked to social status and those of higher stature wore more makeup (“Egyptian Makeup”). However, plastic surgery was primarily utilized to help the dead maintain an acceptable appearance in the afterlife. Rhinoplasty was the most common form of plastic surgery in ancient Egypt and was performed almost exclusively on the dead. Charting the development and use of plastic surgery procedures along historical lines reveals interesting relationships between form and context. While ancient Egyptians were more concerned with the appearance of the dead because of an emphasis on the afterlife, contemporary Americans are interested in preserving the here and now through breast augmentation and Botox. Technological developments meet cultural values to dictate the availability and popularity of particular procedures in any given time period.

Drucker, McVarish, and Ong explore how culture influences language (whether oral, written, print, etcetera) and how language influences culture. Our bodies are texts written by histories and cutures and their stories are complex. An elderly woman with “young” breasts is at once disconcerting and revered. A tattoo may disrupt or uphold gender norms depending on its recipient. Botox is as taboo as wrinkles so women “never tell.” We are torn between a quest for eternal youth and a disdain for attempts to attain it. We must unpack the underlying function of images (cultural signs), which are typically not simply to sell a product but to sell an idea, an ideology, a representation of “x,” “y,” or “z.” The idea or ideology for sale typically functions to uphold a dominant discourse or dominant values promoted by (at least a powerful faction of) culture, whether articulated through graphic design or plastic surgery.    



[1] The term “culture” is used broadly in this paper and refers to Western, mainstream, connected, digitally-literate, highly-visual, patriarchal culture.

[2] Research around links between media images and such issues as eating disorders, self-mutilation, sexual and other violence, and body dysmorphia have been well-established. I rely most heavily on the work of Anne Balsamo, Susan Bordo, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Michel Foucault, and Kristen Harrison to inform and support my claims.

[3] Jean Baudrillard’s “hyperreality” relates to this idea in that we identify with and even internalize the signs that create meaning in our world, For Baudrillard, postmodern societies are organized around simulation (simulacra) and the play of images and signs, “denoting a situation in which codes, models, and signs are the organizing forms of a new social order where simulation rules. In the society of simulation, identities are constructed by the appropriation of images, and codes and models determine how individuals perceive themselves and relate to other people” (Kellner). Entertainment, information, and communication technologies provide experiences more intense and involving than the scenes of banal everyday life, as well as the codes and models that structure everyday life, resulting in a hyperreality which trumps simple reality. “The realm of the hyperreal is more real than real, whereby the models, images, and codes of the hyperreal come to control thought and behavior” (Kellner).

[4] A notable case of a controversial photo manipulation was a February 1982 National Geographic cover in which editors photographically moved two Egyptian pyramids to make them closer together so they would fit on a vertical cover. This case triggered a debate about the appropriateness of photo manipulation in journalism; the argument against editing was that the magazine depicted something that did not exist, and presented it as fact. In 1994, Time Magazine was fined for making O.J. Simpson appear darker than he was for a cover story during his murder trial.

[5] 'Classic' American designer Ralph Lauren was at the center of one of the more public outcries around Photoshop when the company fired model Filippa Hamilton-Palmstiema, 5' 10" and 120 pounds, for being "too fat" (Melago). Prior to being fired, Hamilton-Palmstiema was featured in a poorly Photoshopped advertisement for Ralph Lauren (RL) as a distorted figure whose head was wider than her hips. Bloggers, fashion writers, and even fashion models themselves responded to the advertisement, acknowledging that the standards represented on runways and magazines are too extreme. Shortly after the Hamilton-Palmstiema flap, another RL "Photoshop fail" made an appearance. The public outcry that followed is a hopeful sign in a culture within which images of anorexic women are not only normalized, but idealized.

[6] (a brief overview of fashion/beauty ideal shifts from the eighteenth century to present) In the eighteenth century valued, women’s beauty ideals reflected “simplicity and naturalness,” influenced by republican idealism (Sullivan 6). In the nineteenth century, the beauty ideal shifted to ethereal; pale women dressed in multiple layers of fabric, including corsets. The ideal waist was eighteen inches, small enough for a man to wrap his hands around. Weakness and dependence were valued feminine characteristics and women’s clothing reinforced these values. After the middle-of-the-century, breasts and hips were padded to exaggerate feminine contours, which led to bustles and heavier, more extravagant fabrics. Despite the health hazards posed by corsets, including depression, constipation, fainting caused by an inability to breathe properly and misplaced internal organs, corsets were the norm for middle and upper class women (Summers 116). Victorian excess (but not corseted suffering) came to an end as the Industrial Revolution influenced cultural values. The roaring twenties saw idealized women’s bodies shift toward boyish proportions and short hair but the Great Depression brought another turn. Post World War II, with women pushed back into the home, feminized beauty returned, and women’s natural curves and “soft” features were emphasized. The sixties and seventies saw a rise in resistance to gender roles and women returned to a more natural aesthetic with sexualized overtones. The sexual revolution and feminist movements played an important role in women’s beauty ideal. Thinness, however, still reigned (Sullivan 8). The eighties pushed us back into excess but with restraint, as exercise and plastic surgery gained popularity. Large natural breasts and small waists with curvy but thin legs were ideal, with the all-American Christy Brinkley (blonde and blue-eyed) giving way to Cindy Crawford (dark and sexy). Unfortunately, Cindy Crawford has given way to Kate Moss and a return to the Twiggy-like waif look featured in the late sixties.

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