A few weeks ago, I was looking through our library for my favorite childhood books when I came across a veritable tome that caught my eye. Quips, idioms, truisms, and queries cover all sides of this book in black. The book’s a workout—to lift and to read, and I’ve been casually flipping through it for days now. This book is Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways (Phaidon Press 2001).
It’s a tremendous book for casually browsing as every page is chock full of anecdotes, oddities, illusions, illustrations, photographs, excepts from essays, and trivia–all haphazardly organized into some 72 chapters with such intriguing titles as “Space-Time,” “Perfection,” “Perspective,” “Paradox,” and “Stereotypes.” In some ways, it reminds me of Adult-Swim bumps without the music, and any fan of that programming block could easily see the similarities between their favorite programs and Fletcher’s imaginative and absurd collages.
However, give the pages the more critical look they deserve, and you’ll be justly rewarded with a highly-referential media consumption experience that challenges, educates, and demands a reader’s total attention.
Since I graduated with a degree in Film and Media Culture, I have had difficulty absorbing any media without thoughts of encoding/decoding, semiotics, meta-narratives, psychological and anthropomorphic needs, and culturalism racing through my head. Usually, any such remark or pontification expressed in a social situation is immediately shot-down or disregarded as rapidly as was my first foray into more experimental media interpretation, back in 11th grade (slightly paraphrased):
Mr. Shelton: The element water is often used in classical literature in order to thematically represent cleansing or renewal. Baptism or submersion imagery, in particular, are literary devices that represent a renewal or transformation. Characters may plunge into total immersion, only to find themselves emerge anew, transformed, or changed.
11th grade Andrew (dying to raise hand): So, like in the film Predator, the plunge into water reverses the tide of battle?
Mr. Shelton (raising an eyebrow): Andrew, this is an English literature class, we’re not talking abo…
Andrew (cont’d): …the previously-invisible Predator’s cloak malfunctions in the water, rendering him visible to Arnold, whereas his means of thermally seeing Arnold is also foiled because Arnold is able to disguise his heat emanations by covering himself in wet mud, thus rendering him invisible. It’s a role reversal and turning point in the film caused by immersion in water!
Mr. Shelton: Sure, and then John the Baptist grabs a Gatling gun and mows down bunch of orcs?
Andrew: No…it makes a lot of…
Mr. Shelton (interrupting): Moving on…
An entire class of sophomoric boys laughs uproariously, and Andrew is left red-faced, silent, but determined to apply traditional academics to the movies and video games he loves. His next comment citing the Classical unities of place, time, and action for the success of Die Hard met slightly less resistance and he moved on from there.
(I should note that the diminutive, chain-smoking Mr. Shelton was also one of my most influential teachers in high-school. His no-nonsense grading, resigned (yet tailored to perfection) method of teaching adolescent boys, and cynical attitude ending up teaching the lot of us to roll with the punches, to respect oneself regardless of the derision of an authority figure, and to perform one’s best when met with an extremely challenging situation).
However, back in the 21st century, I’m happy to say my education in media studies is totally applicable to this particular book.
The author, Alan Fletcher, has compiled an expansive compendium of word and image designed to tackle discrepancies between signifier and signified, find the bizarre and amazing in the routine, attack the passive acceptance of cultural consensuses, and reveal the contextual and arbitrary nature of any form of communication. A reader is forced to flex, challenge, and strengthen his visual and communicative intelligence as he finds himself making perceptual and mental jumps that defy convention.
Thanks to its referential and combinatorial aesthetic, The Art of Looking Sideways, ventures into the realm of postmodern collage, shattering conventions of high culture and combining them with science, popular culture, and non sequiter connections…but after reading this book for a few weeks, a reader might venture that after careful study, nothing is a non sequiter…
A reader fully commited to understanding this book must struggle to make meaning of the overwhelming amount of sometimes loosely-related stimuli presented to him. A single page might have an optical illusion, a clever turn of phrase, a hand-drawn nestled figure, detailed architectural blueprints, and a brief timeline of life on earth.
The reader finds himself shedding rigid perspectives in making links between different symbols and ideologies in the context of the overarching chapter..asking himself did Alan Fletcher deliberately design the theme of the page, or is “Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign,” and as such, my decoding is as valid as any authorial input?
Besides being both an enjoyable read for a casual consumer, a study of cultural and social origins, norms, and iconoclasm for a psychologist, and an exercise in media studies for the media-culture scholar, The Art of Looking Sideways could also be a useful go-to for graphic designers or advertisers looking for inspiration. It’s a complex snapshot of our culture and aesthetic today, with insight of its origins, and perhaps its future. I definitely recommend it.