Visual Literacy and Social Imaginaries

In: Creating a Visual World: From Concepts to Classrooms

The central question in this article is how visual literacy relates to capacities people need to participate in ‘modern social imaginaries’. According to James Elkins an important field visual literacy addresses is that of politics, social construction and identity. Elkins assumes that our sense of self, both individually and collectively, is made and remade in and through the visual, and he stresses that people need visual literacy to think and act responsibly in contemporary late capitalist culture. This view makes visual literacy of crucial importance in thinking about late modern social imaginaries. To elaborate this line of thought, I focus on the work of three important thinkers: Charles Taylor’s view on social imaginaries, John Dewey’s view on (moral) imagination and Arjun Appadurai’s view on the imagination as a social practice. I will shortly discuss these views before relating them to visual literacy in the face of global challenges. It will be argued that Taylor leaves little room for critical awareness of social imaginaries, whereas Dewey points to the possibility of appraisal and change through the imagination. To evaluate the capacities people need to participate in modern social imaginaries, it is fruitful to think of the imagination in terms of a space of contestation, strongly influenced by ‘mediascapes’ (Appadurai). The impact of modern media on our culture is evaluated in both positive and negative ways. What seems to be needed to participate in modern social imaginaries is visual literacy, seen as the capacity to navigate and negotiate a social sphere or even arena where images have their hold on us both on conscious and unconscious levels. Relating visual literacy to the field of social imaginaries gives it a critical role in being able to participate responsibly in the face of global challenges.