Sunday, May 24, 2009

What mouse?

Media literacy teachers have promulgated various lists of “principles.” The lists always overlap to some extent, and without fail they include some variation on “no two people see the same image (or message) in exactly the same way.”

That seems as obvious as it is profound. We all bring our own unique associations and experiences to what we see. Accordingly, it is important to check perceptions, which is why after seeing a film we often ask, “Did you like it? What did you think of it?”

Recently I’ve wanted to add another dimension to the principle.

Each of us as individuals never sees the same image or message the same way twice. That’s because individually we change over time and location.

How would you perceive a glass of water if you were swimming in a fresh water lake? How would you perceive the very same image if you were in the middle of the desert?

How do you view a picture of Mickey Mouse as child? How do you see the same picture as an adult?

So in addition to checking perceptions with others, we need to check them internally, with ourselves. We need to repeatedly revisit what we have seen and what we think we know.

There’s much more to the principle beyond how each viewer perceives an image or a message.

The maker of the image or message must ponder the work from an unknowable multitude of perspectives of individuals in the audience. And not just how the audience members might perceive it today or tomorrow but in the unending (and unknowable) future.

And not just here but elsewhere, in radically different climates and cultures.

Attention Disney: As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya in the mid-Sixties, I occasionally showed Mickey Mouse cartoons to my students. Afterwards I'd check perceptions of the famous mouse. To which many in the audience looked perplexed and responded, "What mouse?" Ever see a mouse wearing shoes, pants, gloves?

It’s a wonder we can communicate at all.

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