Is This The Secret To Making Sense Of Things?


Tuesday, 7.59pm

Sheffield, U.K

Ardhanarishvara represents the synthesis of masculine and feminine energies of the universe (Purusha and Prakriti) and illustrates how Shakti, the female principle of God, is inseparable from (or the same as, according to some interpretations) Shiva, the male principle of God, and vice versa. – Wikipedia

What comes to mind when I ask you to think of an agreement? Is it something like a contract, words on a piece of paper? A signature? Or do you think of a physical act, a handshake, an oath, a promise before a witness?

The reason I’m interested in this concept of an agreement is that it’s absolutely fundamental to doing anything with anyone else. When you get married you enter into a contract. When you start a business with someone else, you’re entering into a contract. This idea of an agreement underpins so many things that we do and so it makes sense to get better at coming to an agreement with someone else.

But the approach we take to do this seems out of step, strangely dissonant with how things should be. And that’s because there is always the possibility that the agreement has not been sufficiently well written. It’s not enough to trust someone, it turns out, you need the ink on the paper to say the right thing. For example, I recently agreed a contract with the small people in the house that said if we bought them a film they would, in exchange, come for a walk without complaining. Then we asked them to put on their clothes and they said, with glee, “That’s not in the contract!”

The contract. The words. Damn them.

Words, it turns out have a history, In Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance the Judeo-Christian culture holds the Word as sacred. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In these cultures people are willing to die for words – willing to fight each other over differences of interpretation. In other cultures where words are not held in the same kind of esteem you don’t have the same level of conflict over differences of interpretation.

This cultural baggage, this history of words, is all around us today but we don’t see it. Not really. Not until it’s pointed out to us. And that’s what Olga Michael’s paper did for me. In this paper Michael quotes Lorraine Jansen Kooistra writing that, ‘in Western culture, “the image is female, the word is male”’ There is a gender division between image and word and that leads to a stark realization. An image is silent and is only seen. Words have the freedom to speak. There is a sense of oppression here, a sense of powerlessness – which has also been experienced by women and children over the years – as they are instructed to stay quiet and out of sight. Only men have the power and permission to be seen and to speak. In this world the feminine “Image is perceived as the “other” of the text, colonized by the masculine, phallic logos.” In Pirsig’s book, logos wins over everything, logic and truth drive away myth and story – and we are left believing that only words matter, words are the way to get to an agreement. The manly way.

This idea of a gender difference between images and words may explain why we are so used to using tools that rely on words in the world of business. Think of the last meeting you were in – didn’t it end with some kind of request for meeting minutes, for a note of what went on, for a paper for discussion, for a plan on paper? No one said something like, “That was a fantastic meeting. I’d like you to pull the key concepts together using images in a collage and get it to me by Monday.” That’s not the male way of doing things. Collage, images, drawings – all that is women’s work – of little or no value, amateur stuff only fit to be “restricted within the domestic spaces”

I have been interested in visual thinking for a while and find it a useful way to explore a concept or facilitate a discussion. But I always assumed that the end result of such a discussion was to end up with a set of words that captured what needed to be done. The images are transitional objects that help us towards that goal. It bothered me that others spent a lot of time on the visual craft itself, creating beautiful images – but what was the point of that. You ended up with art but how useful is art after all?

What Michael’s paper is showing us is that when we work mainly with words we are using a purely masculine approach to business – and we know that’s not enough. We know we need diversity but we haven’t quite realized that we need diversity not just externally – with diverse people around us – but internally, by using the diversity of our minds. When we get better at using images and words we will be more in touch with the feminine and masculine sides of our selves and will make more balanced, more complete assessments and decisions than relying on just one of those ways of thinking.

This idea of gender imbalances built into the fabric of our culture is eye opening. It also leads you to wonder where else such imbalances are lurking. Take gendered languages, for example. Why did they emerge and does it have anything to do with this distinction between a mute, speechless image and a free, unfettered word? And is the answer a resolution, a joining together of the genders, half-man half-woman in your mind?

Now all this is a little theoretical so here’s what I think this means in practice. I was talking with a group today about branding – the idea of a brand holding some kind of emotional content about what you do. So, let’s say I wanted to ask you what you thought of me as a brand, of this blog – then what I should do is talk to you, ask you questions and get you to describe what you think. In words.

That would the traditional, the masculine approach. The feminine approach, following on from the argument above, is to disallow words. Instead of asking for words I should ask you to select images. Or music. Or pieces of art. The things that are not words – diverse things that usually capture emotion better than words. After all, we’re told to “show, not tell”. Images carry emotion and if brands are about emotion then maybe we should talk about them using the containers that carry meaning best.

It’s more than a little ironic that I’m using words to make sense of this concept – arguing vehemently for a diversity of thinking. But it needs arguing, because it’s not a concept that’s going to be easily accepted. It goes too far against the grain of what people believe unquestioningly. For example, usually when I show my drawings to my children they say it’s good. But when I showed them the one that starts this blog – you could see them getting confused, quizzical. This is not what they expected. And it was strange and they weren’t sure if this was something they could go along with.

Diversity is a bit like that, I think. It’s a good thing and it makes people scared. It’s fascinating or fearful, as Michael puts it.

So maybe when there is a lack of understanding between people there is a little bit of this gender imbalance going on – a clash between image and word, emotion and logic. And maybe that’s something we should look at in the next post.


Karthik Suresh


Michael, Olga ORCID: 0000-0003-0523-9929 (2017) “Scrapbooking Caravaggio’s Medusa, Reconfiguring Blake: What It Is, One! Hundred! Demons! and Lynda Barry’s Feminist Intervention in the (Male) Artistic Canon”. ImageText: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, 9 (3). ISSN 1549-6732

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