By Axel Roderich Werner
According to art historian James Elkins, the very term of ›visual literacy‹ is to be assessed as an at least »slightly dubious expression« (ELKINS 2008: 8) if not, in its linking of the scriptural to the pictorial or the discoursive to the non-discoursive, as an outright »self-defeating paradox« (ELKINS 2008: 5). In much of the same sense, William Mitchell views this arguably problematic though historically quite successful term as »a strong and seemingly unavoidable metaphor« (MITCHELL 2008a: 11) in which, though not mutually exclusive, the term of ›reading‹ serving as the vehicle and the term of ›vision‹ as the tenor thus are establishing a kind of hierarchy by apparently privileging the former over the latter in a kind of catachresis (in which the metaphor fills the gap of the lack of a literal or ›proper‹ designation)—literacy explains visuality just as texts explain pictures. At the same time, however, this relation might as well be reversed (so that Mitchell in fact wonders if one should speak of ›visual literacy‹ or ›literary visualcy‹): even verbal literacy does in fact rely on vision as, most evidently, for example, »the skill of reading is already a visual skill« (MITCHELL 2008a: 11), just as even face-to-face communication is governed by the recognition of facial expression, gestures, posture etc. (or ›body language‹, to use another metaphor of that kind). Neither, then, is literacy ever thoroughly independent of vision (or, more generally, communication of perception) nor is vision itself ever ›purely optical‹ regarding its physiological predispositions—let alone a ›natural‹ capacity exempt from learning and training (cf. MITCHELL 2008b: 13, 15).