A Science of Image

This theory describes the way human communication is saturated with action. In each case, the communicators may be only dimly aware of the forces that shape their work and the complex actions they are engaged in. Fortunately, information about all this leaks out of every communication in disguised form, giving us news stories, for example, that are full of hints and traces of the truth, waiting to be revealed, just like the associations of patients in psychoanalysis, which constantly circle around themes that patients can’t express directly and can’t ignore. Without this disguise, analysis of any of these communications would be unnecessary. Without the leakage and the hints, it would be impossible. But since the truth is neither sealed tight in the unconscious, nor all out there, open to view, it requires interpretation.

To one degree or another, those who engage in these communications already know all this. Tacitly, in ways they don’t put into words or consciously focus on, they know about all the kinds of actions they and others are engaged in. They have to have this knowledge in order to communicate and act, and in order to understand the meaning of other people’s communications and actions.

But most of this knowledge remains outside of consciousness awareness or isn’t clearly symbolized in words. This theory takes what we all know implicitly, about action and image, makes it explicit and tries to show its underlying organization, in an effort to create a science of action and interaction. It seeks to make an aspect of the unconscious conscious and open to investigation.

The theory is based on the idea that such a science of action and interaction will need three things. First, it will need available data to analyze. That exists in incredible profusion, in the form of the news stories referred to above, as well as speeches, debates, press conferences, talk shows, web sites, and, indeed, the entire public realm, revealed on television and radio and in books, magazines and films. It also exists in the manifold of other interactions between people, which can be recorded (with their consent) and studied.

Second, it will need a preliminary model, with precise definitions and categories, to give some order to what has been observed. This should include a table of elements, listing all the possible ways that action and image make up interactions. This theory provides part of one such table. Like the table of chemical elements, it begins with a small number of patterns. Unlike the table of chemical elements, as we apply it, we will soon discover that it soon develops a frightening number of possibilities, mitigated perhaps by the fact that a small set of patterns do much of the work.

Such a theory will also need a third element, in addition to data and a model. It will need some kind of empirical tests that can allow parts of the model to be falsified. One, inadequate, way to do that - the way much theoretical social science has proceeded up to the present - is simply to analyze the data using the model, and submit the results to a community of observers, who can decide if it makes sense and subject it to criticism, alteration and amplification, in a process of "negotiation" that is intended to lead to a consensus . That is also the method employed here. But there is a more rigorous method that is be available, as well. It should be possible to teach a group of people the model, present them with the same data in the form of the same news stories or other communications, and then see if, without interaction between them, they are able to come up with the same or similar descriptions of what is going on, the way scientists observing the same chemical reactions will come up with the same formulas to describe events. At least, we should be able to come up with enough similarity in the conclusions, once the inevitable subjectivity of judging human actions is taken into account, to satisfy the demands of science. Of course, there is no guarantee that such observers aren't all making the same mistakes, having been indoctrinated into the same faulty model or sharing the same errors in mind or perception, the way two astrologers who have the same information on your birth date and the same "training", may come up with the same predictions. But, than, such a danger afflicts all efforts at verifying observations through consensus, especially in the social sciences, which require observers to interpret the meaning of behavior, and not just observe changes in the physical world.

It may even be possible to quantify some of these patterns, studying, say, ten influential newspapers and determining how often specific patterns arise and in what relation to each other.

Frankly, I’m not certain whether comparing the judgments of separate observers will prove useful or not, not because I fear their findings will fail to agree, but because I believe these patterns (at least the more basic patterns described) are so obvious, anyone can see them once they understand the basic principles. Nevertheless, it remains an avenue for investigation and one worth pursuing.

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