Zsolt Bátori: Speech Acts, Picture Acts and Object Acts: Towards a Philosophy of Visual Communication
4th European Communication Conference of The European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA), Philosophy of Communication Section, Istanbul, Turkey, October 27, 2012.
ABSTRACT. The theory of speech acts has been one of the successful philosophical theories of verbal communication in terms of providing an adequate theoretical framework for investigating the various aspects and levels of communicating with words. The theory has been refined and extended over the past decades, and has been widely used and referred to when explaining the production and interpretation of linguistic utterances. In the meantime the philosophical analysis of visual communication has staggered behind, for the nature of communicating with pictures and other visual phenomena has suffered from unsuccessful and inadequate analogies with verbal communication. Most notably, the widespread literal use of the pre-theoretical concept of a “visual language” has encouraged misleading analogies, such as the search for “visual grammar”. Apart from the mistaken turns in accounting for the nature and the working of visual communication, little attention was paid to results that may provide useful and philosophically defendable ways of analysing communication with pictures and other visual phenomena.
In my talk I give a brief summary of the criticism that has been provided against the literal understanding of “visual language”, that is, I summarize the main arguments against taking such an analogy with language seriously (for example, in terms of “visual grammar”). I also show how attempting to explain visual communication in that framework prevents us from recognizing more adequate theoretical tools for understanding pictures and other visual phenomena.
Then I turn to the some early attempts of extending the theory of speech acts to pictorial communication, discussing the advantages of and some possible problems with developing a detailed theory of pictures acts. Relying on examples from various uses of pictures I discuss the questions such a theory must answer, the possible methodologies to be used, and also the possible practical applications of a well-developed theory of picture acts in the fields of visual communication. For instance, I investigate how we may understand and apply the categories of speech act theory in case of images, and how successful explanations of picture acts may increase our understanding of the production and interpretation of images.
In the last part of my talk I discuss the applicability of the theory to yet another field of visual communication. Designers have long understood how powerful tools objects are in visual communication, as the goals of product design (including fashion, everyday objects we use, brand design, etc.) have been clearly extended from usability to communicating complex ideas with objects. We can be influenced by words, pictures, and objects as well, and once we understand pictorial communication better, we are also better off understanding objects as part of visual communication. In this part of my talk I demonstrate with examples how the theory of picture acts may be extended to explain communicating (visually) with objects, and I make suggestions for how a theory of object acts may be further developed.