Visual Literacy 101: How Is This Manoeuvre Orchestrated?


Visual Literacy 101 articles serve as one of the academic courses in this precise field. The main aim of this research is to focus attention on the analysis of the topic of “mass culture”, its visual representations and the ways it takes action through imagery and its components. The theoretical framework will be covered from a “counter hegemonic” stance and, essentially, the project involves the attempt to create a diagonal discourse that promotes visual literacy through the idea of art as a pedagogical and revolutionary act, since it moves collective subjectivities.

Visual Literacy 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters:

  1. Where the Necessity Begins: Examples and Contextualisation of Control.

  2. A Background to Mass Culture.

  3. Cultural Industry and What it Implies.

  4. Manipulation through Images.

  5. How is this Manoeuvre Orchestrated?

  6. Learning to Identify Manipulation: Conditioning Factors.

  7. A Critical Eye to the Situation: Visual Literacy.

How is this Manoeuvre Orchestrated?

It is well known that information is never a spontaneous circumstance, but rather a conception, i.e., a certain amount of data that is associated to give rise to a communicative construction. Therefore, the treatment of information can be different "both in its iconic and verbal aspects or both together" (Aparici et al., 2009, p.49) depending on the ideology on which it is constructed. Roberto Aparici, together with Agustín García Matilla, Jenaro Fernández Baena and Sara Osuna Acedo, PhD experts in educommunication and full professors at the UNED; urges the individual to look for the resident ideology in each piece of visual information. According to these authors: "we should not think that the declarations of the President of the Government, for example, are more ideological than those offered by an advertisement, a television series or a video game" (Aparici et al., 2009, p.234). It should be kept in mind that ideology is not a kind of individual or concrete political characteristic or orientation, but a norm. A norm of social order that is exhibited through behaviour, which ends up constituting a representation of the hegemonic powers: the privileged classes, and given that it is not expressed directly but subliminally in actions, conceal the intention of social domination. Nicholas Maquiavelo, the Italian philosopher and writer, said in his book The Prince (1513) that the city is nothing more than the scenography of power; a phrase in which he gave a visual value to the city, giving it the dramatic character of a stage for governmental theatre.

Figure 1: It is not the same to persuade, as it is to manipulate.

The real function of visual messages occurs when they fulfil the manipulative intentions with which they were emitted, that is to say, when they are received into the brain and the consequent modelling of the brain around the information takes place. According to Neidich's proposal (Neidich in Brea, 2005), this image processing, which leads to the flourishing of some neuronal centres to the detriment of others, takes place when the individual interprets the information received as correct, and therefore internalises it and assimilates it as the truth. Thus, authors such as Juan Martín Prada or Roberto Aparici warn about how contemporary media visuality tends to be considered as "pure acts of information" (Martín Prada, 2018, p.28), loaded with a false reality that induce the spectator into an empty act of interpretation, transparent and simple. Regarding this same issue, Len Masterman, professor of education at the University of Nottingham in England, asserts:

It can be said that the ideological power of the media is, in a certain way, proportional to the apparent naturality of its representations. Since the ideological power of a media product lies mainly in the capacity of those who control and elaborate it to pass off as real, true, universal and necessary what are inevitably selective and value-laden constructions, in which particular interests, ideologies and ways of understanding are inscribed. (Masterman, 1993, p.36)

That being said, it is suggested that an attempt is being made to impose a series of hegemonic political-social ideals through the apparatuses of the media. The media shapes the plural imagination, composes mass culture and information which they provide is presented as the only truth. Juan Martín Prada makes a comparison in this regard with Foucault's surveillance society, where the spectrum of the visible is submerged under the control of observation systems. All these warn against the submissive society. The information that is promoted and disseminated among its individuals and the flow of data that circulates tirelessly is "permanently filtered by large corporations and the intelligence agencies of military powers", which he calls the "post-truth society" (Martín Prada, 2018). Thus, the author defines contemporary idiosyncrasy as being watched and controlled by the hegemonic powers, which will determine what direction the world moves, or if it moves at all.

Figure 2: The era of post-truth.

Throughout this series of articles, it has already been deduced that: 1.) The development of the brain has to do with the stimuli it receives, 2.) These stimuli are mostly received by visuality, mass culture, 3.) The system intervenes in these processes to perpetuate itself and to aid its functionality 4.) Manipulative actions are carried out through the visual, establishing fictitious truths.

To go further into the research, the peculiarities that characterise the current imagination and how these manipulative possibilities are established from them need to be analysed. It was pointed out earlier that the contemporary visual experience has become rhizomatic, in that it is multiplied and overwhelming, a fact to which must also be added the factor of "mutability" that the image possesses today (Martín Prada, 2018). This means that, in the age of digital retouching, any situation, however improbable it may be, becomes presumably feasible if software is involved. This being so, the spectator, or more specifically the user, finds in the media the possibility of experimenting or interacting with the visual objects he or she wants, since the informational range is as wide as ideas exist in society, but always under the corporate and political filter that controls the dissemination of the content. Therefore, the viewer, who is now called "emirec" (formed from the terms emitter and receiver) as proposed by Jean Cloutier, Canadian educommunicator and journalist; emits and receives audiovisual content that he or she takes as truth even though it is not, in an informational avalanche with which the system largely demands the reproduction of the patterns that are implanted in the citizenry as desirable. Thus, constituting a "self-absorbed visuality" in which we are imprisoned and which gives no room for interpretation (Martín Prada, 2018). The international 'godfather' of mass media par excellence, Mark Zuckerberg, once acknowledged that Facebook's social platform makes "a squirrel dying outside your door more relevant to you than the fact that people are still dying in Africa" (Kirkpatrick, 2011, p.181). It is here, beneath this simple statement, that lies the great trick of seduction. Individuals are being deprived of digesting culture, causing a misalignment of ethical and intellectual priorities and turning the average citizen into a puppet ready to deliver the blows of capitalism in their place, thus enabling the system to function properly and de-individualise the subject within mass culture. Dziga Vertov, Soviet avant-garde film director, already foresaw the advent of invention and manipulation through the media in his Manifesto of the Cinema-Eye (1924):

I am an eye. A mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you a world in the only way I can see it.I free myself today, and forever, from human immobility. I am in constant movement.I approach objects and I move away from them. I crawl under them. I keep myself at the height of a running horse's mouth. I fall and rise with the bodies that fall and rise. This is me, the machine that manoeuvres with chaotic movements, that registers one movement after another in the most complex combinations... Free from the boundaries of time and space I coordinate any and all points of the universe, wherever I want them to be. My path leads to the creation of a new perception of the world. That is why I explain the world unknown to us in a 
new way. (Acervoaudiovisual, 2012)

Figure 3: Dziga Vertov’s picture of his Man with a Movie Camera.

In line with these arguments, Aparici and his collaborators explain how the term "surfing the net" has mutated to become closer to "wrecking on the net", arguing that the constant noise of visual information leads, paradoxically, to "disinformation", or more specifically, to infoxication (Aparici et al., 2009, p.43). This, according to Rosalba Mancinas-Chávez and Luis M. Romero Rodríguez (Mancinas-Chávez and Romero Rodríguez, 2016), doctors in Communication and researchers in Information Science, is the digital disease of the 21st century. Jacques Rancière reflects on these events and puts forward the idea that this space of disinformation occupies a common place of the sensible in which inequality is overcome - what for us would be mass culture -. He also states that there is a necessity to remove ourselves from it, in order to enter an emancipatory spiral of equality where the autonomy of thought and individual action take precedence over the hegemonic interests of the state (Rancière, 2009).

Overall, these lines of research lead many to think that the visual landscape is developing in terms of futility and political invention, to an environment in which big business, the mistresses of the capitalist machine, possess a dominant power over the mechanisms of dissemination of visual objects of information. Furthermore, relentlessly distributing mass culture that is firmly and resolutely implanted as the truth in the brains of individuals determines their mental growth and subsequent activity, and could lead to the loss of judgement and reasoning.

In order to face this situation, it is worth asking whether one of the viable ways to do so would be to develop new reading skills for the audiovisual content that surrounds every individual. As the representations of images cease to conform to "linear paradigms and conventional sequential canons" (Aparici et al., 2009), they will require new forms and paths that allow them to be digested: to improve their interpretation.

Figure 4: An escape door for manipulation, Sabbir Hasan (2019).

Image references

Bibliographic references

  • Acervoaudiovisual (2012). Principios del cine experimental: Manifiesto de Dziga Vertov. Recuperado de: vertov/

  • Aparici, Roberto; García Matilla, Agustín; Fernández Baena, Jenaro and Osuna Acedo, Sara (2009). The image: analysis and representation of reality. Barcelona, Spain: Gedisa.

  • Brea, José Luis (Ed.) (2005). Visual Studies: The Epistemology of Visuality in the Age of globalization. Madrid, Spain: AKAL.

  • Kirkpatrick, David (2011). The Facebook Effect. The inside story of the Company that is connecting the world. America: Simon & Schuster.

  • Mancinas-Chávez, Rosalba and Romero Rodríguez, Luis M. (Eds.) (2016). Comunicación institucional y cambio social: Claves para la comprensión de los factores relacionales de la comunicación estratégica y el nuevo ecosistema comunicacional. Seville, Spain: Ediciones Egregius.

  • Maquiavelo, Nicholas (2010). The Prince. Madrid, Spain: Alianza Editorial. [1st: 1513]

  • Martín Prada, Juan (2018). El ver y las imágenes en el tiempo de Internet (Estudios visuales). Madrid, Spain: AKAL.

  • Masterman, Len (1985). Teaching the Media. England, London: Routledge.

  • Rancière, Jacques (2009). The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London, United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. [1st. ed. 2000]

Author Photo

Alicia Macías Recio

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