There Are No Visual Media


Remember the “there is no spoon” moment from The Matrix? My initial response years ago was outright confusion. What are you talking about kid!? You’re holding the spoon. What’s going on here...


After some sleuthing and forum searching, I arrived at the conclusion that the scene probably represents that perception of reality is altered only after altering oneself. “There is no spoon” implies that, despite all visual, physical, or mental evidence to the contrary, the thing in question does not exist --at least not as is currently perceived. Well this brings me to another question: How do we, as visual culture readers, perceive images? As discussed in W.J.T. Mitchell’s essay “There Are No Visual Media,” more than one sensory receptor is involved when considering visual media. As we’ll see, perception is everything.

Why does all this matter? Why quibble about an expression?
— W.J.T. Mitchell "There Are No Visual Media"

Mitchell argues that visual media is never “purely optical,” but rather, is made up of two different ratios. First he describes a “sensory ratio” inherent to all media. When one admires painting, they must be aware that the painting is a handmade object itself. “But what is the perception of the painting as handmade if not a recognition that a non-visual sense is encoded, manifested, and indicated in every detail of its material existence?” John Berger elucidates on the insinuation of touch and feel in his influential “Ways of Seeing.” But the theory applies to other media: photographs, radio, television/film. They all utilize, in some proportion, an amount of visual, aural, and tactile engagement. Consider that most modern films employ, not only cinematography, but also sound design, scoring, and editing. Click below for interesting examination of how two different filmmakers (Fincher and Nolan) take advantage of our sensory perceptions.


But there is also a semiotic ratio that Mitchell describes. Since any form of media exists within a historical, cultural, and social framework, it must contain icons, codes, symbols, and references of and to that framework. “We also need to be mindful that media are not only extensions of the senses, calibrations of sensory ratios, they are also symbolic or semiotic operators, complexes of sign-functions.” What are the archetypes in a story? What does the color red indicate? What does slow motion mean in a film? These are examples of semiotic elements.

The last thing to note is the effect of the senses and semiotic on emotion and interpretation. As Mitchell states, “The sensory ratio of vision as such becomes even more complicated when it enters into the region of emotion, affect, and inter-subjective encounters in the visual field...” Not only is our conception of “visual media” too broad, but the issue is even further complicated when we consider how an image effects others.

There are no purely visual media because there is no such thing as purely visual perception in the first place.
— W.J.T. Mitchell "There Are No Visual Media"

Ultimately, Mitchell argues for a nuanced taxonomy of visual media based on the sensory and semiotic ratios. We need to redefine our definition, and find something that better represents the deep and complicated issues inherent to media. Doing so encourages us to ask “how and why the visual became so potent as a reified concept. How did it acquire its status as the sovereign sense?” In other words, is what we see more important than how, when, and why we see it?

Furthermore, is seeing the only sense with which we should apply rigorous scholarship? What about sound, touch, and even more subjective: emotional impact? Once we redefine “visual media” and stop relying solely on the visual, perhaps we will realize that, in fact, there is no spoon.