Visual Literacy 101: Manipulation through Images


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 of content:

  1. Where the necessity begins: examples and contextualization 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

Manipulation through images

In her article "In Search of the Buy Button" (2003), Melanie Wells, contributor to Forbes magazine and founding director of the Wells Narrative Group in New York (2014), hypothesizes that public preferences can be accurately predicted and even controlled when designing products. Wells (2003) pointed out:

Neuroscientists say that by peering inside your head they can tell whether you identify more strongly with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, say, than with J.R.R. Tolkien's Frodo. A beverage company can choose one new juice or soda over another based on which flavor trips the brain's reward circuitry. It's conceivable that movies and TV programs will be vetted before their release by brain-imaging companies. (Wells, 2003)  

Indeed, it is impossible to know how far away the scenario Wells hypothesizes is, but what should be said is that the study of brain mechanisms and how they work is becoming increasingly important in a society that is overwhelmingly immersed in the development of new technologies. So much so that, today, the possibility of new gadgets or devices that can predict or even control our cognitive functions is not far from the imaginable. The science fiction series Black Mirror may be a good example to explain such propositions (Brooker, 2011). That being so, the aim is to establish the keys and manipulative characteristics of visual objects, for which an analysis of the brain processes involved in processing and interpreting them is carried out.

Figure 1: Black Mirror, Episode 2 – Season 3, “Playtest”

The human brain is plastic; in other words, it is formed throughout life. This is due to the fact that the individual is subject to a process of neurophysiological maturation that occurs in interaction with the socio-cultural environment and which is what will eventually give rise to knowledge (Vygotsky, 1987). It is in this variable environment of brain development where the experience of mass culture takes place and which is specific to each generation, as this will depend on the objects of consumption—and of knowledge—that are promoted and distributed to each generational stage. Rather than just being a concept, mass culture constitutes the reality that individuals are continuously immersed in. Throughout the history of thought, it has been characterized by different names (e.g. mass society, control society, disciplinary society, and a lot more) and described by different terminologies (e.g. capitalism, consumer economy, technological advances, and individualism). Most of them are connotative in their formulation, and those which are not, explicitly highlight the obvious.

According to Warren Neidich, an American neuroscientist who has worked as a visual artist since 1993, the brain develops depending on the stimuli it receives. This means that those impulses that are experienced more frequently will provoke the reaction and growth of the affected neurons. If this happens repeatedly, neuronal spaces reserved for other kinds of stimuli will undergo what is called apoptosis or cell death (as cited in Brea, 2005). Therefore, for practical purposes, it is deduced that the brain is shaped by the landscape of experiences it undergoes. And given that the experience of the individual in particular, is dominated by the informational content he or she experiences, this will be determined by mass culture in general. The theory proposed by Neidich, under the name of "Neuronal Group Selection Theory" (as cited in Brea, 2005), suggests the following:

  1. The human brain is shaped by the visual and cultural landscape.

  2. Neuronal groups affected by frequent stimuli suffer a significant increase in the efficiency of their functions.

  3. Those neurons that are not stimulated eventually disappear from the brain map.

Then if, as the author suggests, the idea of mass culture is taken into account in this system, it is easy to understand the manipulative dimensions that the latter exerts on the human brain (as cited in Brea, 2005).

Figure 2: Brain plasticity at stake

Therefore, it can be affirmed that mass culture not only orients individuals as to what they should be in the society, but that it also manages to construct their brains. This establishes what kind of neural circuits will be used and the kind of processing and interpretations that will be made out of the information presented. It is not that the subjects are subjugated by the hegemonic powers, but that part of their thoughts and opinions belong to them, since to a certain extent they were their creators.

Today’s world is a visual one, whose imagination is full of optical metaphors. Since the expansion of the media took place with the development of cinema and television, a change in the conception of space and time has taken place—a dimension that comes together and appears "folded, intensive, and rhizomatic" (Neidich in Brea, 2005: 235), recalling the proposals of fragmentation and rhizome put forward by authors Deleuze and Guattari. This is to say that contemporaneity is experienced in a hurried way, through the multiplicity of experiences offered by the different technological media—resulting in culturalization being a heterogeneous process, that is to say, without content or defined meaning. Neidich affirms that the community that was previously explained on the basis of the presence and place in which it existed, now occurs on the basis of interests, and this happens because culture itself is an allegory of the visual panorama, which is controlled by the system (Neidich in Brea, 2005). Juan Martín Prada also offers the idea of the "war of visual documents" in which collectives are immersed, because for the author, the world today is composed—and overcrowded—with images (Martín Prada, 2018). Culture is therefore subject to the collective imaginary and determined by mass culture, which ends up modelling the plural brain, and manipulation through the image takes place.

Figure 3: Installation fragment of My feet (Erik Kessels, 2014)

Deleuze and Guattari explain this phenomenon with the term "visibilities," which refers to that kind of visual information that is not codified, and remains irreducible to spoken or textual meaning. The authors propose that if the eye is accustomed to experiencing these "visibilities" it will be exempted from the "dialectical relève of the visible in knowledge" (Armstrong in Brea, 2005: 124). Therefore, the idea that the simple processing of visual content deprived of interpretation results in the loss of cognitive capacities and causes ignorance, although once a mere philosophical hypothesis, is today ratified by the neurologist Warren Neidich.

It is this environment of mass culturalization in which people are educated that ultimately determines their development as individuals. Therefore, the formation of subjects in the system, this modelling mechanism, constitutes one of the fundamental pieces within the social apparatuses of domination and capitalist exploitation today (Martín Prada, 2018). Furthermore, it finds in the manipulation of the sensible (referring to the term coined by Jacques Rancière, French aesthete philosopher and emeritus professor at the University of Paris VIII and the European Graduate School, in his book The Distribution of the Sensitive (2009)) one of its main assets of control and authority. Sanford Kwinter, architectural theorist and co-founder of Zone Books Publishers, of Canadian origin, states: "A regime can be said to impose a configuration on such a field insofar as it organizes, allies, and distributes bodies, materials, movements, and techniques in space while simultaneously controlling and developing the temporal relations between them (Kwinter, 2002)." This means that, effectively, for a system to function correctly, it must take control over the individuals who inhabit it and the interactions that take place between them, control over the culture, after all. One could therefore say that mass culture becomes a necessary tool for capitalist systems of hegemonic power, since it is through this tool that these systems find their meaning and correct functioning. They are provided with the instruments that allow them to set the machinery in motion, always through the control, manipulation, and modelling of the collective mind.

Figure 4: Pop Culture poster

Thus, so far it has been established that: 1) the development of the brain is related to the stimuli it receives, 2) these stimuli are mostly given through visuals and mass culture and 3) the system intervenes in these processes to perpetuate itself and find its own functioning there. In addition to the fact of this plasticity that converts the brain into a modellable object, the factor of the information through which this action is carried out must be added. Although human beings are neurophysiologically predisposed to be manipulated (insofar as their brain processes are configured based on the stimuli they receive), this does not mean that manipulation occurs in a categorical way. For this to happen, there must be a manipulative intention, as all manipulation requires a subject who promotes it. Given the object of study of the present project in terms of mass culture, the succeeding articles of this 101 series will analyze the case of manipulation at the hands of capitalist systemic apparatuses through the visual objects that make up the former. Therefore, defining the executor of the manipulative action will be examined further.

Image references

  • Figure 1: Black Mirror, episode 2 – season 3, “Playtest”. Available on:

  • Figure 2: Brain plasticity at stake. Available on:

  • Figure 3: Installation fragment of My feet (Erik Kessels, 2014). Available on:

  • Figure 4: Pop culture poster criticising mass consumption. Available on:

Bibliographic references

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

  • Brooker, Charlie (2011). Black Mirror [television series]. London, United Kingdom: Zeppotron.

  • Kwinter, Sanford (2002). Architectures of time. Cambridge, United Kingdom: The MIT Press.

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

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

  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Collected Works. Cognition and Language: A Series in Psycholinguistics. Editors: Rieber, Robert W., Aaron S. (Eds.).

  • Wells, Melanie (2003). In Search of the Buy Botton. Forbes Magazine, pp. 62-70.

Author Photo

Alicia Macías Recio

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