To speak about “things ‘inside’, or ‘intrinsic’ to, the pieces of visual culture”, Malcolm Barnard in Approaches to Understanding Visual Culture uses an extract from Thomas Hine’s book The Total Package: The Evolution and Secret Meanings of Boxes, Bottles, Cans, and Tubes (Hine 1995:215-16; Barnard 2001: 13-17). The excerpt in question addresses “the presence and impact generated by the graphic design employed in the packaging of V-8 vegetable juice.” in the following way:

“The general arrangement, a horizontal array of tomatoes…punctuated by vertical celery and carrots, has stayed more or less the same…The colors…are surely more vivid than they would be in conventional four-color reproduction, which has become a sort of standard for reality. Thus, there is something mysteriously compelling in this representation…Even though the label is in large part a collection of required and regulated words and images, color breaks through these restrictions and makes a very powerful statement of its own on the shelf…Color is the fundamental language of packaging, and this label tries to use it powerfully…” (Hine 1995:215-16; Barnard 2001: 13)

Barnard characterizes this excerpt as attempting an understanding “in terms of ‘formal’ characteristics, things like layout…the way in which the shapes, colours, lines and textures of the works relate to one another. They are also concerned with colour, shape, and the use of texture in themselves. Their understanding of these pieces of visual culture is based on the formal properties and characteristics of the works.” (ibid: 17)

While reading Barnard’s presentation of Hine’s critique I was reminded of the following passage from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise:

“We ran into Murray Jay Siskind at the supermarket. His basket held generic food and drink, nonbrand items in plain white packages with simple labeling. There was a white can labeled CANNED PEACHES. There was a white package of bacon without a plastic window for viewing a representative slice. A jar of roasted nuts had a white wrapper bearing the words IRREGULAR PEANUTS. Murray kept nodding to Babette as I introduced them.
“This is the new austerity ,” he said. “Flavorless packaging. It appeals to me. I feel I’m not only saving money but contributing to some kind of spiritual consensus. It’s like World War III. Everything is white. They’ll take our bright colors away and use them in the war effort.”
He was staring into Babette’s eyes, picking up items from our cart and smelling them.
“I’ve bought these peanuts before. They’re round, cubical, pockmarked, seamed. Broken peanuts. A lot of dust at the bottom of the jar. But they taste good. Most of all I like the packages themselves. You were right, Jack. This is the last avant-garde. Bold new forms. The power to shock.”” (DeLillo 1986: Ch. 5)

Most of all I appreciate the way DeLillo explores the appeal of things ‘generic’ especially when juxtaposed with Hine’s critique of the V-8 label. Furthermore, DeLillo engages in a approach to understanding visual culture that highlights both the formal and affective qualities of food packaging. I haven’t read White Noise for awhile, but one of the major themes is the pervasiveness of technology, and how invisible our creations become to us once normalized.

In a follow up post I plan to discuss more about the appeal of generic products and product labels, but for now I think it is enough to say that Barnard’s distinction between hermeneutic/phenomenological and structural approaches to understanding visual culture offers more of a framework for understanding these different approaches (as opposed to a strict classification system), which supports his claim in the conclusion to chapter one, “If all these different approaches lead to an understanding of visual culture, then understanding cannot be one single thing, or activity.” (Barnard 2001: 18)

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