By Thomas Burkdall, Occidental College
Katherine Mavridou-Hernandez’s Adobe Spark project, “The Commercialization of Emotions: An Iconographic Tracking Report” represents a fine response to Professor Crider’s assignment and the author deserves praise for her effective use of the media and her careful deployment of Laurie E. Gries’ process as presented in “Iconographic Tracking: A Digital Research Method for Visual Rhetoric and Circulation Studies.” Spark allows for an elegant melding of image and text; illustrations and commentary appear together for a seamless presentation. Indeed, it seems an ideal program for those who wish to incorporate multimedia in courses and assignments without requiring instruction in coding. The use of a digital research procedure from a professional journal also introduces students to inquiry in this developing field. Yet both the method and the project lead me to ask some fundamental questions.
Mavridou-Hernandez’s choice of images—”V-J Day Celebration in New York”—is certainly iconic and her process adheres to the three scales which Gries recommends: “Iconographic tracking begins by taking a macro-scaled digital approach to collect a large data set using basic search engines with image search capabilities” (339). Then the meso-scaled “phase simply entails taking a narrower, controlled approach to diversify and expand the data collection by using new search terms to follow both visual and verbal threads in relation to each transformation and rhetorical consequence [of the icon] identified during” the tagging applied to the remediations found in the first phase (340). Finally, the items gathered—videos, photos, memes, illustrations—are “investigate[d] on a micro-level scale” (340). This close analysis and more extensive research, as Gries maintains, “entails attending to seven interrelated processes—composition, production, transformation, distribution, circulation, assemblage, and consequentiality” (343). Adhering to this methodology—albeit without discussing the tags used and exploring all of the processes—Mavridou-Hernandez collects and offers commentary on a wide variety of images and products which remake, remediate, and refer to Eisenstaedt’s photo of “The Kiss.”
But is the “methodology” proposed a significant improvement over other processes? While Gries compellingly argues for its theoretical basis and offers a system by which to analyze the objects, does it have notable advantages over other means of collecting this kind of material? Methodology implies, in part, the rigors of the scientific method and the reproducibility of results. How much of a benefit is accrued by this procedure? The analysis of the original image and the collection of allusions and advertisements that Hariman and Lucaites offer in their study of Eisenstaedt’s photo in No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy seems as valid as that generated by iconographic tracking. Granted, Gries and Mavridou-Hernandez cast a wider net and include those objects which Henry Jenkins would describe as produced by a “participatory culture,” but does that depend on the method practiced?
With Gries’s original study examining Obama Hope over five years, she has a substantial examination of the image remediated. However, for both her project and that of Mavridou-Hernandez, do the biases that attend the opaque algorithms of search engines and social media make for a better survey? In each case we may inquire whether the research has been steered significantly by the selection process through electronic means devised by multinational corporations. In other words, is there an electronic thumb on the scale affecting the “chance and unpredictability” for which Gries encourages scholars to be open? (339)
Finally, of paramount importance to any method is its results. I believe digital humanities must address both elements of its nomenclature. How scholars analyze objects as well as how they gather collections (or “collectives,” as Gries, following Bruno Latour, labels the results of her process) should concern us. An iconographic tracking report needs to explain how we find objects and then lead us to understand our cultures or, with apologies to Robert Browning, what’s a study for?