Visual Learning Handicap

Everyone believes, it seems, in auditory learners, kinæsthetic learners and visual learners. From these categories people postulate all manner of excuses for their ‘individuality’.

Demosthenes Practicing Oratory (Démosthène s’exerçant à la parole)Visual learners, who often have trouble remembering what people have told them orally, often presume themselves unable to learn something without a visual component. Hearing this, I sometimes wonder why I should bother talking with them, since my voice is clearly irrelevant to any relationship we might otherwise have. What our society doesn’t realize, since late modernity’s anti-oral – just think how much people think about spelling, as opposed to sound – is that this inability is a handicap, not a mere preference.

Impotence and masturbation

When supposed visual learners have become unable to learn by means of spoken words – or signed words, for many deaf people – it’s a real disability, a disability caused by the abuse of technology. Few people think of silent reading as a technology, but it’s a technique enabled in Western writing by spaces between words (see Paul Saenger, Spaces Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading). What silent reading can do is take reading out of the realm of public discourse and into the realm of unbridled subjectivity, a development we often support in the name of ‘the individual’.

It may not seem this way. These supposed visual learners may actually prefer cogitating on an object to speaking with someone about those objects, because they think (their own thoughts on) the object will be closer to reality without the interference of spoken words. But again, this works only if we assume that the individual is sovereign because he alone – read my disgust – is entitled to his own opinion of the Platonic forms the Truth™. Let him masturbate (see Plato, Phaedrus, 276e–277a). No, are you kidding? don’t let him masturbate. Have him talk and listen and reëvaluate and talk again! (The irony’s that this is just me monologuing. Talk in the comments, then.)


This applies to worship. When the Scripture is read, people often follow trail along with their eyes upon their own copy of the static text. I’ll pass over the fact that this is redundant intake and even that psychological studies show that reading and listening to the same thing interferes with comprehension. Whatever we say, this is what many people do: they pass their eyes over the thing being read.

‘Where does God come into this (mind)?’

But tell me, where do we meet God? To the atomic individualists who seem to live in the realm of absence, of isolation, of alienation, God resides in the mind, in the realm of pure idea. Give me a break: we expect God’s infinity to fit into our dinky little minds? He who is external to us, exists outside of us, will meet us outside as well, in the physical realm. Something about the Incarnation of the Christ, if you ask me. He who isn’t God can’t directly have this little mind connexion going on, you know? – otherwise, you don’t even need a Bible. So let’s forget about meeting God inside ourselves: the Holy Spirit dwells in us by the Word’s pronouncement, but we don’t meet him through any amount of private navel-gazing.

I’m a figment of your imagination.Reliance on writing, divorced from reality orality, takes us away from voice and gesture. It gives us the lie that words can present information neutrally, without commitment or attitude or emotion, and that matter exists independently of form. Try writing 2 + 2 = 4 without form, ok? If form doesn’t matter, then of course we’re just trying to extract whatever abstract truths are convenient to us: that’s all we can do, because the dead text won’t respond, and no one will defend it. And God doesn’t leave the realm of nebulous truths that never come to realization. Grand.

And, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Let the word of God be read aloud and heard and heeded. Hearing matters:

Christianity is a religion of Word and hearing; ‘hear’ is virtually equivalent to ‘obey’ throughout the Scripture. And listening to someone is phenomenologically different from reading a book. When we listen, we are in a position of passivity, and cede authority to the reader. We can tune out someone reading, but often reading confronts us with things that we had not noticed in our own private reading. We need to receive the word through every gateway that we have – the eye, the ear, the mouth, the nostrils, touch. Liturgy receives the Word made audible, edible, tangible.

If we’re to interact with a living God who speaks from outside of us, we must develop listening, even against the powerful tide of forces in motion in a writing-dominant society – and yes, I say this as one who talks too much and doesn’t listen long enough without extrapolating what the speaker will say and what he really means.

Visual presence

But visual learners still have a problem, even if they do develop their ability to work with orality: surely there’s also something for the eyes. The reader! If the Holy Spirit lives in Christians’ human bodies, behold, the Word of God speaks through the reader as if the reader were the presence of Christ himself.

Maybe it seems that visual learners are shortchanged here in terms of information. But no one complains on behalf of auditory learners that a painting can’t be heard. And hey, no one’s stopping anyone from reading the Bible at home. I also suspect there’s a reason for visual representation in stained-glass windows and mosaics and sculptures, as well as in the liturgy itself and the mystery plays derived from it.


In the beginning is the Word, but then there’s light (and firmament, and dry ground and vegetation, and sun and moon and stars, and animals, and men). Spoken words may be the fountainhead, but from them flow many other things. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.

[Related Posts: ‘Publicly Proclaimed and Heard’; ‘Canonicity and Churchly Reading’.]


One response to “Visual Learning Handicap

  1. Pingback: Following Along in the Seventeenth Century « Cogito, Credo, Petam

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