This week in class we were talking about what the Supreme Court actually does. And, not surprisingly, there were plenty of people who did not really understand it. And that’s okay. I think most Americans don’t. But we were talking about how the SCOTUS reviews laws and decides whether they are Constitutional or not and one student raised her hand and said, “What about ‘The Purge’ law?”
“What?” I said.
“I heard about this law in Illinois that is going to make ‘The Purge’ legal. Is that the kind of law that could go in front of the Supreme Court?”
Predictably the class broke out into a clamorous response.
One student in particular was demanding to know where she heard this and what her sources were. She pulled out her phone and showed him the multiple tweets that claimed this was happening. He said he had never heard of these people and was dubious about the whole thing.
Obviously, I recognized this as utter nonsense. But since I hadn’t heard anything about it and I didn’t have any information to back up any response I would have had all I said was, “Yes, if there were a law like that, it’s the kind of thing that would go before the Supreme Court.”
So the next morning I did a little digging. And it wasn’t hard at all to figure out what was going on.
The 2023 SAFE-T Act of Illinois is a law that is going to eliminate cash bail for a number of crimes, some of them surprisingly serious. It’s an attempt to address systemic racism. Not surprisingly, certain corners of society are flipping their lids that “criminals are going free” and “people are free to just commit whatever crime they want to.”
It is nothing like that. A judge has to decide whether the person can go free and this just means it isn’t a matter of payment. But a bunch of TikTokers flipped out at the idea of too many black and brown people walking the streets and here we are.
So I emailed my class and outlined what the law was in actuality and why it is important. And I concluded with this note:
So, when you hear something that sensational, it always pays to find out who is making the biggest fuss and why.
One lesson I try to hit home with my students across my classes is that you have to pay attention to and think about the messages that are being sent to you. We live in what Baudrillard called the “ecstasy of communication.” We are bombarded with images, words, sounds – it is constant. The messages we are receiving are near non-stop. And you’d think that would make us really good at understanding them, but actually the opposite is true. We are really bad. We are terrible at understanding the messages we receive. And it’s because they are so constant and overwhelming. These images and words and sounds are our lives. They are the water in which we swim. And you don’t think about that. You don’t think about the air you breathe. It just is. You just live in it. Because it is constant and real. We don’t think about the messages we are being sent all the time because we are being sent the messages all the time.
My students get really frustrated with me about this. They say, “it’s just a picture or a commercial or a movie or whatever! There’s no deeper meaning!” And I kind of agree. It’s not that the meaning is all that deep. The meaning is right there for anyone to see. We’re just trained not to see it.
One reason we don’t always understand a thing is because of a concept called “polysemous meaning.” Polysemy means an argument, or artifact, can have multiple meanings. The rhetor may not have control over what all of those meanings are because people bring their own experiences to the argument. This does not delegitimize the meanings – intent is not as important as interpretation because meaning is created in dialogue. Communication is a two, or multi, way street. Meaning may not be a matter of authorial intent as much as it is a matter of culture or context. Meaning is created by the relationship between message sender and sendee.
An important factor in this relationship is “hegemony.” Basically, the idea is that there are power structures. These may seem natural, but in reality, they are oppressive. These lead to polysemic meanings. Assumed meanings may be because of a privilege that the dominant power structures are unaware they possess.
For example, I may say something that I think is completely harmless but is taken as insensitive or even racist. I say, “Oh, but I didn’t mean it that way!” But the thing is, how I meant it doesn’t make it okay. If I said something racist, it is racist regardless of my intent. I didn’t understand its implication because I am protected by my privilege because of hegemonic structures. I am blind to the struggles of others, so I am prone to doing and saying harmful things. The fact that I don’t get that they are harmful doesn’t make them less harmful. This is an example of polysemy. I mean one thing, but it means another to a particular audience. The message has multiple meanings.
The reason it’s important to be aware of the phenomenon, even if you don’t have the vocabulary, is because you are a much more adept decoder of messages if you are aware there are multiple meanings.
For example, say you happen to have a lot in common with me. You may be protected by the same hegemonic structures that I am. But you hear what I have to say, and you recognize there are multiple meanings. You can pick up on the fact that other audiences have reason to find my message problematic. You are much more equipped to not only decode messages from multiple sources, but to be a voice for equity and justice.
An inability to understand messages leaves you civically inept. You can’t really be engaged if you can’t understand the meanings of the messages you are receiving. Being a passive recipient means you are not ready to be an active member of society. It also means you are much more likely to be a) taken advantage of, or b) more likely, recruited to enforce those hegemonic forces. If you are unaware of the hegemonic forces that are at the foundations of the messages being sent, you are very likely holding them up. Which makes you an oppressor.
And all of this is true whether the message is text, verbal, visual, or otherwise.
When talking about visual rhetoric we have to consider the pervasiveness of messages. The US and global culture are becoming a visual culture, which is a culture distinguished by the ubiquity of visual forms of communication that appear in multiple media outlets at the same time (such as television, the Internet, cell phones, and magazines). Think about how we spend our time – we watch movies, TV – even our text messages are embedded with images. We send gifs and memes all the time. The rhetoric of display, or the rhetoric that makes ideas present through visual display, has become the dominant mode of communication in visual culture. Even verbal speeches have become visual events with close attention paid to things like backdrops, attire, and filming.
I don’t even think it’s possible to understand contemporary culture without analyzing visuals. A study of any contemporary media product would be incomplete if you just analyzed the words. If you move through the world and interact with other people, you impart meaning to the world and to your relationships; you also interpret the world and your relationships through the symbols you use. So, things like TV, movies, memes, etc., are more than just entertainment. They make sense of the world around us.
Visual communication is not new. It goes back as far as cave paintings. But the prominence of visuals in public discourse has increased – these days they are omnipresent. Photographs are everywhere in mediated spaces now.
The more skilled an audience is at analyzing images and mediated messages the better they are at resisting hegemonic forces. People today, however, are not good at interpreting mediated messages. Studies show that digital natives are not good at sussing out messages. As I noted, the more immersed you are in the media, the worse you are at interpreting it.
For any given text there are three possible readings:
There is the dominant reading, or the preferred, hegemonic reading. This is a reading in which a reader of viewer takes the “connoted meaning…full and straight…the viewer is operating inside the dominant code.” The viewer does not challenge the ideology behind the message.
There is the negotiated reading, which is a reading in which the viewer accepts some of the hegemonic meanings, but also recognizes some exceptions. In such a reading, the denoted meanings are understood, but some of the connotational meanings are challenged.
And there is the oppositional reading, which is a reading in which the viewer correctly decodes the denotational and connotations meanings of a text but challenges it from an oppositional perspective.
To be quite honest, most of us stop at the dominant reading. It’s the easiest and most comfortable. And I know this because hegemonic structures remain hegemonic structures. If we all considered the negotiated reading then we would be having widespread, serious conversations about the forces that oppress people. And if we all considered the oppositional readings then we’d all be a part of the resistance.
But we aren’t. And people who point out the oppositional readings are shunted to the side and told, “Oh, come on, it’s just a movie” or “it’s just a commercial” or “why do you have to ruin my favorite song like that?” Those who engage in oppositional readings are seen as great big spoilsports who are just out to ruin it for the rest of us.
But maybe that’s kind of the point. Maybe some things SHOULD be ruined. Hegemony SHOULD be upset. It SHOULD be ruined. But the fact that it is ingrained and powerful means that the people who question it are seen as problems, not liberators. That’s the very essence of hegemony.
A big question that often goes unasked is who is sending the message and who benefits from how it is understood?
Now, if you’re a regular listener, you know that I like superheroes. I like the characters we create and admire, if not idolize say a lot about who we are, or who we hope to be, and our general cultural psyche. I did a whole podcast on what our heroes say about us.
But we can’t ignore that there are some powerful people invested in our heroes that may not have our individual best interests at heart.
According to Gavia Baker-Whitelaw,
It’s not unusual for Hollywood action movies to focus on military heroes and many receive direct input from the Pentagon. Between 1911 and 2017, more than 800 movies and 1,100 TV shows were supported by the Department of Defense, including Iron Man and Transformers. The CIA famously had a hand in making Zero Dark Thirty, encouraging the idea that torture is an effective intelligence-gathering tool. Top Gun is the quintessential example, though.
As the ultimate daredevil pilot movie, Top Gun benefited from extensive Pentagon input (including what the Washington Post described as “meticulous line edits”) to portray Navy pilots in a positive light, boosting Naval Aviator recruitment by 500 percent. In fact, the Navy actually set up recruitment stalls in movie theaters.
But more recently, Captain Marvel took up the mantle. Baker-Whitelaw continues,
Military news blog Task & Purpose compared Captain Marvel trailers to recruitment ads, linking Carol Danvers’ empowerment with her military service. And while the Air Force can’t openly say the movie is a recruitment tool, an Air Force representative told Task & Purpose that they had a “partnership” with the filmmakers to make sure Danvers was “accurate and authentic,” with the aim of creating an Air Force heroine who would be positively received. With enlistment numbers dwindling, the armed services need new ways to attract young recruits.
The Air Force took a major hand in developing Captain Marvel for the silver screen, according to Todd Fleming, chief of the Community and Public Outreach Division at Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, in an email to Task & Purpose.
According to Jared Keller,
Indeed, the Air Force is working hand-in-hand with Marvel as it has since the production of Iron Man in 2008 to help ensure that Larson’s Danvers reflects the life of an Air Force pilot through and through, including access to “Airmen, installations, and capabilities to ensure the depiction is as accurate as possible,” Fleming told Task & Purpose.
“When the Air Force and OSD reviews a script and elects to support a project, we have determined that the movie portrays the Air Force and military in an accurate way and that is in the service’s interest to partner on the project,” he added.
The Captain America movies, and most of the MCU movies have had a close relationship with the military and the DOD, to be honest. And why? Who benefits from this?
The military, obviously. If we associate heroism with patriotism, and patriotism with militarism, the benefits for the military are two-fold. People may be more likely to sign up for service, and, perhaps more importantly, we are less likely to balk when the government ponies up $750 billion dollars a year or more in military spending.
If we cut back even a fraction in military spending, we could afford to make college free, provide school lunches and breakfasts at no costs to families, fund universal pre-k, and forgive student loans without even blinking. But that’s not where our priorities are. And the military invests some serious effort in things like Iron Man to make sure the American public is more excited about weaponized gadgets than the education budget.
But bring that up at a party and you’re a real downer.
All of this is to say, if you want to be a force for good in the world, you have to be a decoder of sorts. We live in a world in which we are inundated with messages. It’s constant. And it is real. It’s up to you to figure out what is being said.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.