English Concept Research Project – an insight (Part 1)

A welcome addition to the ETA (English Teachers Association) regular plenary was the PD event delivered by Professor Theo van Leeuwen and Dr Mary Macken-Horarik to directors, committee members and regional delegates.

Point of view was the English Textual Concept discussed, in conjunction with character – indeed, it is difficult to separate the fundamental concepts of the English discipline – with others mentioned as the afternoon progressed.

Leeuwen provided this definition of POV (point of view):

POV makes us hear and see something or someone from a particular subject position. It can help us understand and evaluate different subject positions and the attitudes that go with it. It can be expressed in different modes of communication (image, text, music, sound) and different genres of communication (eg. factual and fictional).

Before discussing several texts, Leeuwen offered these ideas and strategies:

POV: multimodality, intertextuality, meaning

Making connections leads to understanding.

Can we see similarities and differences between:

  • the way POV is expressed in different modes of communication (multimodality)
  • the way point of view is expressed in different types of texts (intertextuality)
  • between all this and our own experience (meaning)

What to look for in images

In images we look at what we see from a certain position (often camera position)

  • from a certain distance
  • at a certain horizontal and vertical angle
  • and people in images may look at us or not, and if they do, do so in certain wasy

But with some exceptions (self portraits, selfies) we do not see who does the looking, we only see what is being looked at. To understand the meaning of visual PsOV, we must ask: who would we have to be to see this from this angle? And, what do we learn from this?

1. Analysis

How is POV created in images?

  • distance (who or what is close to the viewer and who or what is not
  • horizontal and vertical angle – who or what directly ‘confronts’ us and who or what are we observing ‘from the sidelines’
  • whether or not people look at us from the image, and if so, how – invitation? confrontation? command? flirtation?

How is POV created in writing?

  • first person v third person
  • naming people or leaving them anonymous
  • referring to them as individuals or as (stereo)types
  • the absence or presence of a description of their appearance
  • the absence or presence of characters’ mental processes (and if they are present, what kinds of mental processes)

We considered the subjects in Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews (1750). Even though they look directly at us, they are not smiling. This may tell us something of the genre and contextual conventions, as much as is revealed through their garments and landscape.

If we compare two similar styled images – Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1534) and Manet’s Olympia (1863) 

we know we see this image through a male painter’s POV and can suggest themes of power, privilege and gender. We can also consider who’s looking and how do we look. Leeuwen referred to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and it is well worth becoming familiar with this text or watch the original 1972 BBC program Ways of Seeing. Why not collect and compare other images with students?

What can we see in Robert Frank’s Yom Kippur (1955)?

Why this angle? Why this distance? We are not involved in this religious festival – it is the woman’s view following behind. The background images are in black suggesting a traditional observance, while the foreground figures are in grey seem younger and less connected; the child looks away. What would this image have been like if the camera was in front of these men?

In film and video, though

we do get to see who is doing the looking. The angles of the shot of the looker and what he or she looks at have to ‘match’.

In fiction, POV can be obvious or surprising. Read this extract from Timbuktu by Paul Auster (1999)

Mr Bones saw it happen with his own eyes, standing by the edge of the road between Washington and Baltimore as Willy hawked up a few miserable clots of red matter into his handkerchief, and right then and there he knew that all hope was gone. The smell of death had settled upon Willy, and as sure as the sun was a lamp in the clouds that went off and on every day, the end was drawing near.

What was a poor dog to do? Mr Bones had been with Willy since his earliest days as a pup, and by now it was next to impossible for  him to imagine a world that did not have his master in it. It was more than just love or devotion that caused Mr Bones to dread what was coming. It was pure ontological terror. Subtract Willy from the world and the odds were that the world itself would cease to exist.

Such was the quandary Mr Bones faced that August morning as he shuffled through the streets of Baltimore with his ailing master.

Point of view in music

What makes a sound (musical or otherwise) distant or close?

  • level in the mix (foreground and background) or level of different sounds in a live environment or performance
  • absence or presence of close-making
  • the degree to which space is represented (acoustics)

To explore this idea of levels in the mix, Leeuwen offered this explanation from A.G. Beeby:

The three-stage plan divides the whole sound scene (called ‘Scenic’) into three main parts. these are the ‘Immediate’, the ‘Support’ and the ‘Background’. The main thing to bear in mind is that the Immediate effect is to be listened to, while the Support and the Background effects are merely to be heard … The Support effect refers to sounds taking place in the immediate vicinity which have a direct bearing on the subject in hand, leaving the Background effect to tis normal job of setting the scene. Take the recording of a commentary at a fun fair. The Immediate effect would be the commentator’s voice. Directly Behind this would come the Support effect of whichever item of fairground amusement he happened to be talking about, backed, to a slightly lesser degree, by the background effect of crowd noises.

We listened to Charles Ives’ The Housatonic at Stockbridge(1911) and considered this reflection:

A Sunday morning walk that Mrs Ives and I took near Stockbridge the summer after we were married. We walked in the meadows along the river and heard the distant singing from the church across the river. The mist had entirely left the river bed and the colours, the running water, the banks and the trees were something we would always remember.

We also considered the opening of Love Corporation’s Give Me Some Love (One True Parker Mix) (1991). It begins with tolling bells, a slowly layered melody, then a female voice states: give me some love, followed quickly with a synthesized beat and dance music continues. We have no distance from the beat – it drowns out other forms of communication.


  • how is POV created in film and video?
  • what are the similarities and differences between filmic and literary PsOV?




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