Radical Pedagogy


Radical Pedagogy (2005)

ISSN: 1524-6345

Hegemonic Visualism

Louis Tietje
Associate Professor
Metropolitan College of New York

Steven Cresap
Assistant Professor
Metropolitan College of New York


Because of the widespread popularity of new technologies of image production and dissemination, such as PowerPoint, postmodern culture appears to be increasingly characterized by hegemonic visualism. While postmodernist commentators might be counted on to welcome this development, as evidence of the practical destruction of “logocentrism,” others of a more modernist bent tend to see negative consequences in the overthrow of the traditional hegemony of the word. In this article we use the controversy around PowerPoint to examine both postmodernist hopes and modernist qualms in the face of the increasing use of visual media in higher education. Specifically, we consider a central concern: when visualism becomes hegemonic, appearances obscure reality, which in turn threatens our ability to engage in social criticism.


Given the surprisingly shrill rash of anti-PowerPoint articles in the media recently—implicating it in the Columbia disaster (Thompson, 2003), associating it with Stalinist mind-control (Tufte, 2003b), attributing to it an apparently lethal ability to simplify complex arguments—it seems reasonable to assume that the attacks are not just about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of this specific image projection system. PowerPoint can be pedagogically effective for instruction involving simple lists and diagrams. So what is behind the controversy?

At first glance, PowerPoint—the digital slide show that allows for a rapid succession of bullet outlines, charts and diagrams—can seem no more than the obvious endpoint of the evolution of the blackboard through the greenboard to the whiteboard. Each of these had strengths and weaknesses. Blackboards allowed teachers to make mistakes. Erasing was easy. On the other hand, white marks on a black background were inherently abstract. There was only blackness overlaid with a few, all-too-material, crumbling and easily erasable chalk marks. Greenboards are certainly more attractive; even more so are whiteboards, using colored markers for visual appeal. But no one is criticizing PowerPoint because it is inefficient or unattractive. The problem lies elsewhere. Note the following passage from Tufte (2003a):

    The pushy PP style imposes itself on the audience and, at times, seeks to set up a dominance relationship

    between speaker and audience. The speaker, after all, is making power points with bullets to followers. Such

    aggressive, stereotyped, over-managed presentations—the Great Leader up on the pedestal— are

    characteristic of hegemonic systems. (p. 13)

While it is probably going too far to characterize PowerPoint as itself a social system, much less an hegemonic one, there do seem to be good reasons to think of visual media in general as constituting a cultural hegemon, in the sense that such media are the main means of communication and expression in postmodern culture. Image-producing industries have taken on an historically unprecedented autonomy and influence, and surprising cultural legitimacy. The dominant culture is itself dominated by visuals, such as cartoons, action movies, music videos, video games, and pornography. We find our way into non-visual media through visual media. We read the book because we liked the movie, buy the recording because we enjoy the video, and think we understand string theory by watching Nova animations. Entire subcultures define themselves and model their lives on images of performers and personalities.

The biggest business of our post-industrial economy, mass-media entertainment, is marketed overwhelmingly to the same demographic that supports higher education—young adults. Within this demographic, visual media dominate. As Stephen Greenwald and David Rosner note in their recent article on distance learning, any image-based medium, such as TV, “necessarily imposes an entertainment modality upon cultural institutions” because of its structure as “image-based technology” (2003). John McWhorter’s recent book, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, argues that images have crowded out eloquence (2003).

Of course, no amount of modality-imposition or genre-crowding should compel us to conclude, as some postmodernists have done, that reality does not exist on its own. Indeed, what inspires the critics of PowerPoint and other media innovations is typically a sense of reality. In the current cultural climate, it does seem to be the case that reality is, if anything, over-mediated by visualism. By controlling images, an actor can become president, an action-hero can become governor, and a president can become an action-hero.

In a discussion in Berkeley a couple of decades ago, the philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus, author of What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason (1972/1994), defended Martin Heidegger’s view of technology. Heidegger was notorious for gnomic formulations such as “the essence of technology is by no means anything technological” and that that essence “is never a human handiwork” (1954/1977, pp. 287, 300). Dreyfus explicated Heidegger with the admonition that, when it comes to interpreting technology, “It’s not about the things.” After all, specific media are often useful and sometimes interesting, and the ones that are not eventually disappear due to market forces. The progression of technological innovation itself, though often expensive and of variable utility, does not in itself pose a problem for higher education. Indeed, Dreyfus himself was often seen walking through campus intently listening to his Walkman—as rumor had it, to tapes of his own lectures.

Criticism of specific technologies, insofar as it goes beyond consumer reportage, is always about how the things are used and thought about by people. What lies behind the attack on PowerPoint seems to be the recognition that the increasing use of visual media in higher education represents a cultural shift that casts doubt on the traditional role of the university. This cultural shift—marked by the expanding role of entertainment in people’s lives, the growing economic and ideological power of the youth market, and, given the conservative ascendancy, a renewed push toward conformity and careerism, among other things—seems to be eroding the authority of the Platonic hierarchy which has until recently been the foundational orientation governing all aspects of higher education, from curriculum to pedagogy to the very legitimacy of professors and learning institutions themselves.

Appearances Obscure Reality

What makes visual media a problem? All societies are saturated in images: forests of symbols, spheres within spheres, scenes of life, imaginary others, dreams, hallucinations, illusions. Social life is dependent on people communicating all sorts of images, visual, aural and literary, in stories, pictures, sounds, songs, dances, myths, prayers and so on, usually while in a state of dreaming semi-consciousness. Of all ways to communicate images, the visual media are certainly effective. The messages they send are undeniably impressive, often pleasurable, and widely understood. Preference for the visual probably has a good evolutionary rationale, given how handy sight is for survival.

So what makes visual media a problem? It is not so much the power of images as their communication that gives them their cultural significance. How they are communicated—their media—and who is communicating to whom in what social and political contexts are what can make them troublesome. This is why embattled monotheists have had a big problem with visual media, forbidding graven images and smashing icons. This was partly because they were worried about idol-worship and partly because of the power of images to concretize, hence to demean and seduce. But it was also because their enemies’ solidarity and motivation depended on communicating the images of the idols, via the medium of mass assembly, or idol knock-offs like amulets and fetishes. Insofar as monotheists allowed them, visual media had to be severely reigned in by ritual and what we might call zoning in space and time.

Not too long ago something similar was true of most educators. Whether as academy or university, the point of higher education was to understand and/or construct realities behind appearances, namely, the mathematical, systemic and unconscious structures underlying the overt behavior of human beings and the natural universe. Higher education had a philosophical vocation to stand aside from culture and the desire for pleasure in order to better grasp the essentials.

When the Greek philosophers founded their schools, they were well aware that they were living in societies saturated with images—and that this could be a problem because of their vocation. Ancient skepticism expresses a general anxiety about deceptive perceptions. From our point of view, there seems to have been an exorbitant attention paid to reflections, illusions, mirages, and the like. The existential postures adopted by some skeptics—muteness, hand signals, isolation—strike us as quaint overreactions. Only in such a concrete world could the desire for a defense against perceptual deceptions inspire a quest for theory, the search for a reality behind or above or beyond appearances.

Still, certain schools were able to accommodate themselves to the risks of deception, and find room for images, even as they tried to imagine the unimaginable. Perhaps this is because they faced fewer true idols, material divinities as in Egypt and the East, communicated through priests and cults. After all, Alcibiades could not have knocked over the herms if he truly thought they were divine and alive. Images could be signposts to reason or faith, symbols of nature or supernature, appearances of reality beyond appearances. Theory and theater, after all, are both ways of seeing. Pythagoras acknowledges as much in his Parable of the Festival: “Life is like a festival; just as some come to the festival to compete, some to ply their trade, but the best come as spectators, so in life the slavish men go hunting for fame or gain, the philosophers for the truth” (Diog. L. viii, 8, Kirk & Raven, 1957, p. 228).

The point is that truth can be found through visual media—if you can avoid getting caught up in them. Plato’s cave, of the famous allegory, is a kind of theater. The main thing that happens inside it is a shadow-show with puppets enjoyed by a captive, but apparently amused, audience. Only by exiting the theater can we gain knowledge of reality. So the paradigmatic move in the Western philosophical tradition is an act of withdrawal from mass entertainment. But it is expressed as a vivid visual image, with special attention to lights and darks. Another visual image, Plato’s line (in Republic 509d), would place visual media relatively low on the scale of reality:

For Plato, from A to D, the lowest kind of reality, represents the mental process of eikasia, image-making or imagination; next is D to C, pistis or opinion, sense perception of ordinary objects; leaving the visible world, we have C to E, dianoia or mathematical reasoning; and finally noesis or understanding, culminating at B or the Good (see translator’s note 25, Republic 509d). For Plato and his followers, even eikasia or image-making can contain some truth. In spite of his reputation as chief censor of the Western tradition, Plato did not ban all image-makers from his ideal city. He let the ones stay whose images imitated positive character traits. But this was because for him images referred. Their referential function was built-in and understood as normal. This was what made them useful tools.

Socrates drew a diagram in the dirt to give Meno’s slave a geometry lesson (Meno 82b – 85c):

Socrates was trying to demonstrate that the slave boy had innate ideas, but the boy also shows he was bringing something else to the dirtboard: first, as he admits, knowing what a square is, and second, a certain cultural attitude toward visual media. He was, after all, a smart urban kid with an educated master, so he had already been prepared to accept the diagram in a certain way, as an instruction device, rather than, say, going into a trace state or cowering in fear. And remember that the diagram was just part of a primarily oral communication, complete with Socrates’ leading questions and, of course, his intimidating personal presence. Meno’s insulting comparison of Socrates to a torpedo fish giving electric shocks reminds us that not only was Socrates ugly. He was “hot,” to use McLuhan’s term, in that he dominated every conversation he was in.

“Hot” and “cool” are defined by how much is given, how much has to be filled in by the audience, and the degree of participation.

    A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in “high definition.” High definition is the state of being

    well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, “high definition.” A cartoon is “low definition,” simply

    because very little visual information is provided. Telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition,

    because the ear is given a meager amount of information. And speech is a cool medium of low definition,

    because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand, hot media do not

    leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation,

    and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience. (McLuhan, 1964/1994, pp. 22-23)

In the case of Socrates’ geometry lesson, the diagram on the dirtboard is cool, cartoon-like, because it has to be filled in by the boy. Even the framing medium, the dialogue format itself, is cool and participatory, predicated as it is on Socrates’ claim that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing. And yet the outcome of the dialogue, the conclusion reached by Socrates’ skillful use of leading questions and the force of his personality, was a very hot message, perhaps the hottest message in Western history: that virtue is abstract knowledge and is a kind of immortality.

So the use of cool media for a hot message became the paradigm for traditional educators’ attitude toward visual media. In this paradigm, visuals are useful for novices and underlings, but of no particular value in themselves. The most useful ones were the most transparent, such as oral communication. The medium was certainly not taken to be the message, to adopt McLuhan’s notorious formulation (McLuhan, 1964/1994, p. 7). In the early modern period there was considerable interest in hot hermetic emblems, allegories and signs, but gradually the academic mainstream pushed these forms of knowing aside, preferring neutral media with which they were much more comfortable. Note the common attitude since the nineteenth century toward academic images: large assemblies, medieval gowns, odd headgear, Elgarian music, logos, displays. All these are largely inoffensive because they are merely ceremonial, like the deism implied on coins and courtroom walls.

By contrast, recent technological innovations in higher education have tended to be hot, reducing how much has to be filled in by learners. Recall the degree of participation Socrates asked of the boy: not unconstrained, but, given his status as a slave, substantial. Even in the traditional classroom, there was some scope for learner activity. It was possible for anyone in the class to use the blackboard. Indeed, students’ use of the blackboard was a significant expression of rebelliousness. The first act against authority in the film, Blackboard Jungle, is a baseball hitting the blackboard. The move from Socrates’ dirtboard to the blackboard to PowerPoint is analogous in the realm of reading to the move from pencils to pens to markers. Pencils are like chalk. They are material, active. You can easily erase what you have written. Underlining and writing in the margins give a reader a sense of ownership. You have a dialogue with the author. Pens are less precise, and indelible. Markers are not exact enough for grammatical awareness. Underlining or circling a word is more detailed than highlighting a paragraph.

There has also been an analogous development in the technology of overhead projection. Consider the fast-disappearing use of transparencies: the sheets themselves were objects that had to be manipulated by the presenter, and it was possible to mark them up even during the presentation. With PowerPoint, the presenter is at a distance, often behind the audience, connected with the visuals only through electronic circuits in a large machine. While couched in terms of clarifying information and facilitating decision-making, PowerPoint removes the opportunity for collaboration; it is a top-down technology, and once the presentation is set up, it cannot be changed without recourse to additional technology. PowerPoint looks like a cool medium but has a hot inner dynamic.

Our images, because of their cultural role, have been liberated from their traditional metaphysical burdens. They are not icons. They are more like idols, or fetishes, except without magic power. It is a commonplace, although a somewhat incoherent one, that typically postmodern images, such as the freeze-frame or the sound bite, either do not refer, or if they do refer, refer only to themselves, or, if not just to themselves, then only to other images. Certainly they are understood to be primarily for aesthetic and/or sensual pleasure. The media purveying the images, especially visual media, reinforce this effect. Because postmodern media are increasingly beautiful, efficient, ergonomic, and often pleasurable, they provide immediate gratification, aural, tactile, aesthetic and sensual, on their own. To paraphrase McLuhan, the medium is the message and the message is massage.

For traditional modernists such as Tufte, these developments pose a problem for higher education insofar as they challenge its traditional vocation. Today, hegemonic visualism has helped to overturn the traditional emancipation myths, the meta-narratives with which academics used to justify themselves (Lyotard, 1985). This is the sort of self-justification Socrates gave at the end of his geometry lesson, when he tells Meno “we will be better men” if we inquire into things. Whether in the form of philosophy-as-therapy, the Platonic hierarchy, Hegelian dialectics, revolutionary theory, critical thinking, or even personal mental hygiene, higher education has traditionally justified its role in the larger culture by invoking one or another of these hot, because data-rich, emancipation myths, and the traditional media for communicating them have been cool media such as dialogue, classroom discussion, and critical reading.

For traditional modernists, visual media subordinate reality to appearances, with the result that painful truths tend to be neglected. Because visual media are normally used in our culture to provide aesthetic and sensual pleasure, most notably to children and young adults, using visual media to teach young adults creates the expectation that the point of learning is pleasure, that pleasure is aesthetic and sensual rather than intellectual, and that that is the only kind of gratification there is. And it makes it harder to take a critical attitude toward the culture. Even educators now routinely doubt that it is even possible to stand aside from their culture and their own desire for pleasure. The very idea that there are invisible essentials out there somewhere which we should try to grasp seems ridiculous.

We lose a sense of the strangeness, and the difficulty, of the reality behind appearances. And with PowerPoint’s “poverty of content” (Tufte, 2003a, p. 12), the need to uncover the reality behind appearances is not recognized. PowerPoint is almost all form—or form with a minimum of often unarticulated content.

Authority Without Recourse

As we can see from Pythagoras’ Parable of the Festival, in the case of entertainment the concept of agency fails to apply in the ordinary sense. Consumers of entertainment are not mere passive victims of the mass media market. Especially with cool messages in cool media, audiences actively fill in much of the meaning of entertainment events, just as the philosophers at the festival restricted themselves to spectatorship in order to actively search for the truth. Nevertheless, there is no further outcome to be gained from being a member of an audience. Although one can expect some mimetic or cathartic effects, one does not routinely become more creative or more active as a result of consuming entertainment. And this is the most significant way in which education differs from entertainment: education is unthinkable without its routinely expected outcome, which is, in short, increased learner agency.

Of course, traditional higher education was for the most part highly authoritarian. This can be attributed in part to what Deconstructionists have labeled “logocentrism,” the dominance of abstract thinking and its historical medium, the word. It also had to do with the hotness of the emancipatory meta-narratives. We’ve already considered Socrates’ method, in which a conversation among apparent equals was the cool medium for a hot message, the existence of the Platonic hierarchy. There were also hot media for the hot message. The typical setting for epic poetry before the modern period, as described by C. S. Lewis in . Preface to Paradise Lost, provided a hot medium for the poet, whether he was positioned in the center of a troupe of dancers for his comic material or was sitting in a chair beside a table set with wine, for his tragic poetry (1961, p. 14). The atmosphere was pompous and solemn. The poet was divinely inspired. The traditional lecture format was likewise hot, with a gray-bearded professor behind a podium dictating to his students. To postmodernists, visual media offer hope that the traditional hegemony of the word can be overthrown, making way for new ways of thinking, communicating and even being emancipated.

But what is most worrying about Tufte’s criticism is the possibility that the new media are being used to establish a new hegemony in the absence of emancipatory meta-narratives. In the past, even in the most obviously authoritarian settings, the emancipation narrative itself acted both to legitimize the authority’s power and to limit it. There were limits beyond which even the most authoritarian teachers could not go: propagandizing, proselytizing, seduction, lying—all were widely seen as violations of academic ethics, even long before Max Weber’s neo-Kantian bar against mixing science and politics as vocations. The traditional professor had authority because he knew how to discern and access the truth, not simply because he had the power to enforce conformity with his will or interests, regardless of the truth.

At least the authoritarianism was up front, and the message, the meta-narrative, was empowering insofar as it indicated a way to go up the hierarchy. One needed an authority in order to learn how to think critically, to access the message embedded in the medium. And there were always a variety of cool media to turn down the heat. There were back-and-forth classroom discussions, visual demonstrations and critical reading.

For traditional modernists, media today have become one-dimensional because there is no longer anything beyond the media universe to limit their influence. In the absence of a meta-narrative, media no longer need to be legitimized as tools to facilitate the emancipation process. Because visual media are normally used in our culture to provide aesthetic pleasure, in the form of entertainment, the use of visual media in education tends to break down the distinction between education and entertainment. The result is that all kinds of media, hot, cool, or lukewarm, can be used for all kinds of purposes. They can be used without qualm to foster the interests of those who are in a position to use them, which is to say, as instruments of social power. And social power itself no longer appears to require legitimation, as God-ordained, useful, or whatever. In academia in the postmodern period, the presentation of personal expertise has become the main certification of authority. Insofar as this is so, then logically there should be no reason not to employ any medium in any way that enhances the presentation.

As is happening in the entertainment industry, visual media encourage a star system. The most mediagenic and media-savvy public intellectuals, those who put on the best shows, become the model for all academics. Teaching styles, hiring decisions, and research projects are pressured to come into line with this new standard of academic success. Professors have become just one among a variety of visual media that are only self-referential. They are motivated to focus on their looks and theactrics, because they are rewarded for their appearance, not for what they know or how they think. The institution of higher education seems to be abandoning the traditional attempt to get beyond the persona to the intellect.


Perhaps it is possible to imagine an emancipatory PowerPoint presentation, along the lines of other critical and liberation movements in the postmodern period. Indeed, the period has seen an amazing efflorescence of dissenting postures, dialogic challenges, conspiracy theories, hermeneutics of suspicion, and contesting voices. All sorts of media have been used in a variety of ways to challenge cultural assumptions and political regimes. The question is whether such stances are sustainable in the face of hegemonic visualism. Without institutional and ideological support, such as were provided historically by the academy with its meta-narratives, social criticism is of necessity ad hoc and local, the preoccupation of specific constituencies.

Postmodernists say that this is all to the good, because the old narratives were founded on the false assumption that true emancipation required total solutions to global problems. If the new dissent is not profound, it is because there are no depths to plumb, only the ceaseless play of what Foucault called power/knowledge. Realizing this saves us from the sort of totalitarian dreams that supported Stalin and the other hegemonies of the modern period.

But how do we know that our problems are not profound? Such a revelation should be the result of a sustained process of inquiry, not a preliminary desideratum. And such inquiry requires an ideology and an institution to sustain it. It may turn out that there is no metaphysical link between abstract thinking and the word and emancipation. What we can say for certain is that, historically, the traditional media and settings for working out the emancipation meta-narratives were the classroom and the book, both of which afforded a kind of guided participation in learning. It may be that hot narratives about reality behind appearances have to be learned by means of oral communication, or oral communication as mediated through writing and reading. These have been the media and settings people have relied on to help them engage, in sustainable ways, in abstract thinking and social criticism.

So to be concerned about the hegemonic potential of PowerPoint is not simply an exercise in nostalgia for an earlier hegemon. It is not just that visual media are dominant in our culture. The problem is that they are one-dimensional, and that we do not truly believe that there is anything else—things to be known behind or beyond them. Why should we be concerned? The greatest danger is that we will lose the ability to engage in social criticism. We will not be able to propose any “should be” if we are prisoners of the “is.” So there are good reasons to maintain a separation between higher education and other cultural sectors, even if the traditional justifications for such a separation turn out to be over-laden with metaphysical assumptions no longer viable. Such a separation, in itself, helps to cultivate the critical faculties that allow us to say what is wrong with our society and how it might be improved.


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