Semiotics and Visual Literacy

Semiotics. A subject that I am not very well read in but am trying to learn more about in my spare time. Why do I bring it up? Because I found it useful to think about in our first reading of Morrison’s A Mercy, and it connects to the Davis/Morrison video that Dr. McCoy posted. In the video (which, if I’m being honest, I have only watched the first twenty minutes of) Morrison discusses the “power of reading and of course understanding the meaning of what one reads and what I like to think of as visual literacy.” This “power of reading” and “visual literacy” can be understood as another phrasing, or maybe a more specific type of Semiotics. The O.E.D defines Semiotics as “The study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation.”  The ability to read text falls under semiotics because letters and words can be understood as signs or symbols (I forget which one exactly. Again, not an expert on the topic…yet). However, it is important to note that the definition does not limit the field of Semiotics to only literary signs, and this is why it can also encompass what Morrison calls “visual literacy.”

The idea of empowerment through Literacy (a term which can be thought of as the ability to interpret signs or symbols not only in text but in the physical world around you: i.e. “visual literacy”) is further discussed when Morrison asks how this “visual literacy” relates to a person’s ability to negotiate, “How do you negotiate and what are the visual signs that you need to travel?” This aspect of “visual literacy” and the ability to read signs is often examined in A Mercy, through the character of Jacob Vaark. Jacob’s keen ability to read signs allows him to negotiate with Senhor D’Ortega. When Jacob is initially invited to D’Ortega’s estate he reads this as a sign of caution, “A trader asked to dine with a gentleman? On a Sunday? So there must be trouble, he thought.” (16) We get more of an insight to Jacob’s visual literacy at the dinner table, “Why such a show on a sleepy afternoon for a single guest way below their station? Intentional, he decided; a stage performance to humiliate him into a groveling acceptance of D’Ortega’s wishes.” (19/20) Morrison also examines how people negotiate differently based on their individual skills of interpretation. She does so by displaying Jacob’s ability to read gestures and actions as signs revealing D’Ortega’s motives, and then juxtaposing this with D’Ortega’s ability to read the physical signs of the slaves, “D’Ortega identifying talents weaknesses and possibilities…”, Morrison also takes this scene as an opportunity to demonstrate how the interpretation of signs can be manipulated to one’s own advantage if the person they are negotiating with is inept at interpreting the signs or is, in other words, Illiterate, “…weaknesses and possibilities, but silent about the scars, the wounds like misplaced veins tracing their skin.” (25.)

One Reply to “Semiotics and Visual Literacy”

  1. I am unfamiliar with the term “semiotics”. I like how you connect this study of signs and one’s interpretation of them with what Morrison calls “visual literacy” (O.E.D.). It is expansive when one thinks about reading as not limited to written texts but rather something many people engage in. As I was writing that, I almost wrote “all people” but wondered what “visual literacy” means for people with visual impairments. I wonder if a more inclusive way of referring to this could be “experiential literacy”. Anyways, when reading your blog post and during class discussion over the past two weeks I was reminded of an exercise Dr. McCoy had a 203 class I took my first semester as a freshmen. She asked us to leave the classroom and practice reading our surrounding. I remember her asking something like, “Pretend you are aliens, how would you read this space?” I don’t think I’d ever been asked to read something that wasn’t a text. It made me realize that much of what I do is in response to some sort of reading. I read a staircase and step up it. I read that there aren’t any computers available in the library and I kvetch.

    As Dr. McCoy pointed out early on in “A Mercy” Florens reads. Right from the reader’s introduction to Florens we learn this: “If a pea hen refuses to brood I read it quickly, and sure enough, that night I see a minha mãe standing hand in hand with her little boy, my shoes jamming the pocket of her apron. Other signs need more time to understand. Often there are too many sins, or a bright omen clouds up too fast. I sort them and try to recall, yet I know I am missing much, like not reading the garden snake crawling up to the door saddle to die” (4). Here Florens experiences and sees things and interprets them to have meaning. She reads the pea hen’s refusal to brood as negative thing and associates it with her mother asking Jacob to take her. She notes that her readings can take time to understand, can be difficult to make sense of, and sometimes missed. Floren’s ability to read, written word or world around her empowers her.

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