Sometimes a graphic is just a graphic

Elton Wong

I was sitting in an Iowa City coffee shop with my girlfriend one evening when a woman sitting on a couch across from us asked, “What do you think of the picture behind me?” Behind the couch was a large blue-tinged photograph, a picture of a man and a woman partially undressed. I remember my girlfriend Aprille saying something like “I like the colors, it reminds me of cobalt glass.” The woman said “I think it’s offensive.” I took a closer look at the picture, and nothing seemed offensive to me. There was nothing violent or forceful about the photograph, and I thought the expressions on the faces of the subjects were ambiguous. The woman on the couch went on to explain that she had just come from a lecture on the role of women in the pornography industry, and that she associated the images in the photograph with pornography. I didn’t share that woman’s interpretation, but I left with an appreciation of where she was coming from. A bit of visual art is now a source of controversy at Iowa State. Last Thursday, the Iowa State Daily ran a story previewing the performance of “The Vagina Monologues,” a theatrical production put on by ISU faculty and students. Included in the story was a graphic, drawn by Carmen Cerra, of the female symbol with a microphone in front of it. Some members of the production were offended by this graphic, which they said resembled a sperm or a penis entering the symbol. Shirley Dunlap, the director of the play, even considered canceling the performance until the newspaper apologized for the graphic.In light of this situation, one might ask “what is the correct interpretation of the photograph, or of the graphic in the newspaper? Was it actually offensive, or did people overreact to it? Who was right?” Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, there are no easy answers to these questions.A French philosopher by the name of Derrida did some important work on the meaning and interpretation of texts. In spite of the postmodern excesses and exaggerations in his work, there are some lessons to be learned.Basically, any word, sentence, book, picture, sculpture, or musical work has meaning only because people interpret it. There is no such thing as the “right,” “unbiased” or “real” interpretation of anything. In order for a text (Derrida uses “text” to apply to lots of things) to have meaning, you must associate and relate it to all other meaningful things you know of. Any sentence you read or picture you see is automatically related to other words, pictures and meanings. The thing doesn’t have any meaning in and of itself. Derrida called this the “play of signifiers.” A copy of “Hamlet” floating in an empty universe would certainly be devoid of meaning, because no one would be there to associate it with anything else.This process of interpretation becomes more interesting when you consider that no two people have the same signifiers floating around in their head. This is the cause for that everyday occurrence where the same thing can mean different things to different people.Obviously, differences must be dealt with if we are to get along and communicate with each other; otherwise, we’d all be in our own little worlds all the time. With this in mind, there are two simple rules that make communication much easier. First, be sensitive of how your words will be interpreted. Secondly, do not take offense when none is intended. It is possible to be callous. But it is also possible to be oversensitive. In the case of the controversy surrounding the Vagina Monologues, there is more of the latter to be found than the former.”The Vagina Monologues” are supposed to be all about communication, but it is extremely difficult to communicate with people who are offended by little things that aren’t even intentional. If someone is offended by the word “tree,” you can’t say that they’re wrong, but you can say they’re being unreasonable and making things unnecessarily difficult. Could the graphic that ran in the Daily be considered offensive? Yes, but so can anything. The point is that no offense was intended, and the story and graphic were run in good faith. It doesn’t help anything or anyone to throw a fit over this, it just hurts your credibility with the very people you’re trying to say something to. Sine Anahita, another performer in the monologues said “I didn’t see a sperm … I actually thought it was empowering. A microphone in front of a woman symbol is actually quite empowering.”The point is not that Anahita’s interpretation is correct and Dunlap’s is wrong. The point is that one attitude furthers the goals of the Vagina Monologues and one does not. The empowering thing about interpretation is that no one can control meaning for you; you can control your own meaning and make something positive and creative out of it. Ultimately, it would have been counterproductive and a shame to cancel such an important production over a few people’s interpretation of a cartoon.After all, even Freud once said “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”Elton Wong is a senior in genetics and philosophy from Ames.