language is defined by a unique grammar, every culture and society is also defined by a unique visual grammar. This latter is usually much less obvious even to the “natives” of a culture. One reason for this lack of transparency of visual grammar is that it is not explicitly taught in the same way that linguistic grammar is. Another reason that the visual grammar of any society is less obvious to its members is that there is not necessarily a single correct reading. Linguistic grammar is a cultural phenomenon that exhibits a high level of consensus. As such, it serves as a model for those aspects of culture over which the individual has very little control and yet are individually highly significant.
Individuals may vary in their choice of vocabulary; however, they rarely disagree fundamentally on how a sentence should be constructed. Another way of expressing this idea is that individuals (such as the designer of a specific advertisement or an individual consumer who is affected by that ad) will always bring a measure of individuality to every act of sign-making and the interpretation of any sign or symbol. However, their ability and inclination to alter or adapt the entire symbolic and semiotic system of their culture is far less possible. Indeed, it is arguably impossible: Those who try to bring about systematic changes tend to be seen as tyrants and dictators in retrospect. The grammar of a culture is remarkably resistant to change within a single generation.
However, different groups within a culture are more likely than not to “read” the visual aspects of their culture differently. Women will see different aspects of their culture and lives reflected in certain aspects of a culture’s visual expression than will men, for example, and other demographic categories will also produce different experiences and different readings. These points of difference can be the birthplace of conflict or of growth.
This chapter explores the visual grammar of contemporary Korean culture as it is evidenced through a series of advertisements. There are a number of possible images that could have been selected for this analysis from political events to sports rallies to fashion to the ways in which food is presented. Each of these cultural categories is guided by an underlying grammar of images that is relevant and revelatory of underlying social dynamics.
However, advertisements are arguably an ideal set of images to be put to such an analysis. Ads are intentionally constructed to refer to and appeal to different cultural grammars. They are — to borrow a useful term from postmodernism — over-determined. It is true (or at least arguable) that every piece of material culture from baby clothes to desserts can be read by a researcher to learn about the underlying rules of that culture. However, ads, because of the ways in which they are created, are the distillation of the visual culture of a specific time and place. Advertisements can be seen as distinct from the authentic culture of a place given that they are the expressions of capitalist enterprises. But they can also tell genuine stories in the grammar of the culture in a particular time.
Kress and van Leeuwen make a number of key points in both the work cited here as well as in their opus as a whole. These points will be used throughout the analyses of advertisements that comprise the bulk of this chapter.
All human societies create a range of representations to express what is complex and ambivalent.
Each different type of representation has unique properties that limit it as well as create unique opportunities.
Each individual combines different forms of representation to create a sense of meaning of their own world and the larger communities in which they live and participate.
Each person uses different modes of representation (including speech, visual symbols, art, music, etc.) in unique combinations. No individual has exactly the same mixture of visual, linguistic, corporal, etc. ways of representing and interacting with the world.
Every form of human communication shifts over time, both in the lifetime of any individual and over the course of history.
The authors summarize the above: “as modes of representation are made and remade, they contribute to the making and remaking of human societies and the subjectivities of their members.”footnoteRef:1 1: Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen — Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 40.
Every advertisement tells a story, a requirement of the function of ads to sell a company’s product or service. The art of advertising is based on the fact that an entire story has to be told by a single image. No ad could accomplish such a complicated feat if it could not draw on a vast range of cultural and social codes and conventions, if it could not utilize with consummate skill the visual grammar of a culture.
No successful advertisement can work with an entirely new story or even a new way to tell an old story. An ad has to link a collection of images (clustered around a product or service) to an established story using an established visual grammar. Effective advertisements use the traditional visual and linguistic grammars of a culture but not necessarily in un-ironic ways.
Each person in a culture, and each group in a community, is susceptible to certain stories. Much of the skill in defining the most effective ads is based on the ability to know which specific stories will help a target population feel connected to a specific product. That feeling of connectedness is based on the fact that an advertisement utilizes a cultural visual grammar.
It is imperative at this point to clarify what is meant in this section by the word “story.” It might refer to stories in the more ordinary sense of the word — such as a traditional fairy tale, or the plot of a popular television show or movie; however within the context of the type of the analysis of visual grammar employed in this thesis, the idea of “story” in this paper is the one established within postmodern and deconstructionist criticism. A synonym for story in this sense might be narrative. Visual grammar provides a tool for interpreting the narratives of culture.
Kress and Van Leewen are among the most important scholars in terms of defining and implementing the concept of visual grammar. While their work has been on the grammar of Western imagery, it is entirely possible to transfer their ideas to Korea and other Asian cultures. Their concept of visual grammar comprises, first, creating an inventory of the semiotics of a culture. That is, to create an inventory of the significant signs and symbols of a culture. Having established what the most important symbols of a culture are, Kress and van Leewen then advocate an analysis of the ways in which these symbols have gained significance within the culture.
After a researcher analyzes why certain symbols have gained such cultural and psychological weight, s/he should analyze the ways in which these symbols interact with each other. In the same way that no one can learn to speak or understand a language if one knows only individual words, one cannot understand the visual grammar of a culture without understanding the semiotics, or connections, between and among the different symbols.
Although it is certainly possible to extend the analogy of linguistic grammar too far, it is nevertheless useful to consider the ways in which visual grammars and linguistic grammars can be used in the same way. Individual symbols — such as the woman in the Korean Air advertisement that is analyzed in the next section — can be seen as being analogous in function to the individual word in a sentence.
The relationship between and among different symbols can be seen to function like the grammatical rules that govern sentences and paragraphs. Analyzing the visual grammar of a culture is not unlike the practice (now practically moribund) of diagramming sentences.
Kress and van Leeuwen summarize this key point as follows:
Our insistence on drawing comparisons between language and visual communication stems from this objective. We seek to break down the disciplinary boundaries between the study of language and the study of images, and we seek, as much as possible, to use compatible language, and compatible terminology in speaking about both, for in actual communication the two and indeed many others come together to form integrated texts.footnoteRef:2 2: Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen — Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 183.
The way in which postmodernists such as Kress and van Leeuwen use the word “text” is synonymous with the way in which I have previously used the terms “narrative” and “story.” They are responding in many ways to earlier research in postmodernism (and certainly the body of deconstructionist writing) that views semiotics as a non-systematic study of symbols.
Western hegemony and the possibility of multivalent visual grammars
One of the…