Language, power, humor and visual culture
From: Dr. Patty Bode
Inviting dialogue that analyzes the relationship of language to visual culture may stimulate student awareness of the power laden within spoken text and dialogue within the school and classroom, as well as in the broader social context of popular culture. In an earlier posting, I mentioned that youth literature resources about Islam and Muslim experiences may guide this effort to hear, see and understand this complexity through the voices of Muslim authors and characters.
Additionally, the power of language-in-use and the social construction of meaning are vividly illustrated through contemporary popular culture in which our students are deeply fluent. Analysis of popular culture through the lens of visual culture research can provide rich resources to bring contemporary social ideas such as countering Islamophobia into classroom curriculum. It is useful to recall that early art education research on visual culture was influenced by the assertions of sociologist Chris Jenks (1995), that visual culture as a postmodern construct be theorized and applied to understanding and questioning knowledge and truth.
[Visual culture] is rather intimately linked with the ways that our society has, over time, arranged its forms of knowledge, its strategies of power and its systems of desire. We can no longer be assured that what we see is what we should believe in. There is only a social not a formal relation between vision and truth (Jenks, 1995, p. i).
With a visual culture framework on lesson planning, art educators can screen feature films, TV shows, and advertisements in the art room for students to compare each viewer’s understandings and interpretations about ways in which “knowledge” and “truth” are conveyed. Generating lively art room dialogue whether viewing full films – or selected clips from media, will honor youth voice and introduce critical theory concepts with questions about whose voice is being amplified and whose voices are being silenced.
For example, comedian and actor, Maz Jobrani, who is known as founding member of the comedy troupe on Comedy Central, “Axis of Evil” and his solo stand-up acts gave a TED Talk in which he describes the role of humor in challenging stereotypes — with a focus on Middle Eastern Muslims in the United States. Art educators of middle school and high school students can highlight Jobrani’s viewpoints and the sociopolitical context of his statements about stereotypes of Muslims by viewing some clips from his movies such as Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero, and the recent TV series, Superior Donuts.
Invite students to facilitate discussions about how these media examples may be relevant to your classroom goals to combat Islamophobia with questions about who is wielding power through these media productions. There will undoubtedly be a wide range of perspectives and insights that student will bring to the common stereotypes on which Maz Jobrani is riffing through these characters. Ask students about the role of humor in art making and social justice work. Compare language, images, and implications from other sources, such as the popular press and political campaigns, before viewing Maz Jobrani’s Ted Talk in the art room.
An ensuing art project may engage students in producing video shorts, stand-up comic acts, poetry slams and other projects that integrate visual culture analysis with text, image, performance and digital visual media with big ideas around knowledge, truth, media and humor. Students’ voices will be made more audible as they widen one another’s perspectives about language and power.
Jenks, C. (1995). The Centrality of the eye in Western culture: An Introduction. In C.
Jenks (Ed.), Visual Culture (pp. i-25). New York: Routledge.