The Image Culture
November 19, 2005 7:39 AM   Subscribe

The Image Culture - a discussion of the history, manipulation, desensitization and supplanting of language skills by the ubiquity of images. And no, there are no pretty pictures.
posted by peacay (38 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The premise, that we are becoming an image culture, is flawed. We have always been an image culture. The Middle Ages were completely dominated by the image. We will always be an image culture. Cavemen drawing on walls were an image culture.

Good article. There are a number of other essays on the power of the image that are very good as well posted here in the past.
posted by stbalbach at 8:27 AM on November 19, 2005

Words, words, words...
posted by basicchannel at 8:38 AM on November 19, 2005

I haven't read the whole thing yet, but I searched through it for "McLuhan" and "Internet". The consideration given to each seems terribly inadequate for this subject. The basic thesis seems to be one straight from McLuhan, minus all the sophisticated complexities that he gave it. The only mention of the Internet is as a way of distributing "the image".

I've heard rumours that there are still some places on the Internet where people communicate using letters instead of embedded quicktime video.
posted by sfenders at 9:02 AM on November 19, 2005

I like to watch.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:09 AM on November 19, 2005

"We have always been an image culture."

Mostly, except for such times as that brief interlude somewhere between the invention of the printing press and the invention of MTV. Think of the media that would have dominated life in 19th century America; lots of writing, not so many images.

"Observing the products of the video culture you come to see why the Greeks insisted that actors wear masks, and that all violence take place behind the scenes."

This makes me think of South Park, which is at the moment one of my favourite TV shows. It even explains why I'm liking the earlier seasons more than the later ones in which the images have on average become more sophisticated and less subjugated to the dominance of what seems to be the text that makes it run. Mr. Garrison's sex change, for instance, is an episode I find weak. Too much reliance on visual depiction of weird stuff, not enough clever ironic commentary on the reality of it. One of my favourite episodes is the "Jew scouts" one, which despite some seriously freaky images, remains somehow appropriately infused with the spirit of the Word in a way Moses might well have approved of. Anyway, in defense of the proposition that South Park is more literary than anything else on TV, I just went and listened to an episode I haven't seen yet, without the picture. It works very well as radio, seems to lose much less of its entertainment value than anything else I've tried that with, which is admittedly not much, but somehow I'm certain that it would hold up to further experimentation. Verily, South Park is one of the last bastions of literary culture on television. Its popularity may be a sign of a coming resurgance of the word over the image, presumably to be fuelled by the persistently textual aspects of the Internet.
posted by sfenders at 10:08 AM on November 19, 2005

The author goes to some length to present herself as one of the writers "motivated largely by the hope of preserving what is left of their craft", yet her attitude towards "techno-enthusiasts" strikes me as vindictive ("nearly Panglossian in his hymns to his new world"). She claims to acknowledge the benefits of a world filled with easily-made images, but chooses to start with dictators, continue with brain damage, and finish with Agassi saying "Image is everything". Her discussion of the benefits of instant imagery are left to a creepy portrayal of Katrina and 9/11 news coverage and a short paragraph on people artistically editing pictures.

In other words, I see an author declaring the tragic death of words and the malevolent rise of a iconic society that "prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality". Images are taking over, she says, and our children will be dumber for it. Just look at those Matrix-crazed ferrets!

I don't see writing going the way of the dodo; instead, I think stbalbach is right- we've always been an image culture. It's not like everyone was wonderfully literate before the television came. I think we're reaching people who wouldn't have read Pride and Prejudice, who wouldn't have listened to classical music, who wouldn't have paid attention to world events without this image-laden society. Is it the best of worlds? Of course not; no one can deny the easily manipulative way an image grabs the emotional brain faster than the word. But was the previous world really as awesome as she's making it out to be? I don't want a world without words, but I don't think we're headed that way- I see a world where we reach more people in general, even if it isn't with the structured prose we hoped they'd read.
posted by Maxson at 10:09 AM on November 19, 2005

I see that Christine Rosen is also the author of My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood, 'a touching memoir of growing up in a household, school and town of flourishing Biblical literalism'. I think that may explain the position she takes in this essay. Having been brought up in a strongly Protestant culture where the Word was paramount, she can't rid herself of the suspicion that any reliance on images is going to undermine the authority of the written word.
posted by verstegan at 10:59 AM on November 19, 2005

It's not like everyone was wonderfully literate before the television came.

Sure, not everyone would read something like Pride and Prejudice every day. Think instead of newspapers, trashy novels, letters, private journals! All those things were, not long ago, a lot more popular and influential than they are today.

And of course images have become more ubiquitous, more powerful, more influential. That at least is clear. Meanwhile, written words hadn't really done anything new for hundreds of years, until this Internet thing came along. The way people think does in some ways depend strongly on the media environment they are immersed in, so if you accept that the distinction between word and image is basic and profound, then necessarily there is also a sort of competition between them for influence over the minds they serve. Thus it was reasonable to say that image-based media and the modes of thought and perception that it encourages were gaining influence at the expense of what had been a largely print-mediated society. It's just that the process hasn't yet gone as far as the article implies that it will, and which side will gain the most in the immediate future is a lot less clear than it used to seem.

It's quite possible that some kind of balance will be reached eventually. Some sort of new stable equilibrium between word and image, or whatever you want to call the two sides. I think that's still a long way off.
posted by sfenders at 11:01 AM on November 19, 2005

On the internet, images cannot exist without words to tell you where they are. Words still rule.
posted by gimonca at 11:20 AM on November 19, 2005

Words still rule? I wish. We can't answer the Word vs. the Image debate in a Metafilter Celebrity Death Thread.

But I find myself siding with the classical musician who is disturbed by people going to hear Stravinsky and watch the orchestra playing the music and then facing Jumbotron images of the bassoon player. That's just wrong. And it comes from the phenomenon the author alludes to: the near worship of image over everything else. I like to think of myself as a body existing in space and time, not an image consumer/processor.
posted by kozad at 12:40 PM on November 19, 2005

..........p'- ...........-:pppp
posted by xod at 12:49 PM on November 19, 2005

Can't we all just get along? Can't words explain a picture? Can't a picture embellish words? Why presume a dichotomy where one need not exist?
posted by Cranberry at 1:18 PM on November 19, 2005

No pictures? Lame.

Seriously, though. I don't see a dichotomy between language and image. It's not just that they can complement each other, it's that they're two sides of the same coin. Image-free language is not language. Seems to me this is simply fear of change (for the way we express ourselves and get information is most certainly changing), if not just plain luddism...

Maybe that's just the filmmaker in me talking, there.
posted by brundlefly at 2:06 PM on November 19, 2005

She's just as right when she rhetorically asks "Does every cultural trend make a culture genuinely better?" as she's wrong when she assumes the opposite to be the case.

"It is possible, in other words, to see too much, and in the seeing lose our grasp on what is real", she says. This could just as well be an argument against her medium of choice (or so it seems), words. Words can take you places just like images can, and words can just as easily be used for manipulation and deception. A sentence is a statement, but so is an image. If we don't like the symbols, blame the message and not the medium.
posted by hasund at 2:11 PM on November 19, 2005

An image is a statement? I am looking out the window now and see trees, sky and buildings. Is that a statement? Or do you mean it is a statement only when I take a picture of it...and presumably show it to another human?
posted by kozad at 2:24 PM on November 19, 2005

Good point, sfenders. Perhaps the word is merely giving ground on the instant emotional eyecatch it once controlled by sheer necessity- the New York Post seems to match its blaring headlines with blaring pictures whenever possible, anyway. (As an aside, without the Post, I would have never thought that a newspaper would consider "perv" an acceptable way to describe accused sex offenders.)

But are more people in general reachable now that imagery is all over the place? I think we have greater overall mindshare with an image culture, and not just because we have more minds to go around- people just like pictures. Regardless, the author's willingness to make any loss of readership a death knell for literacy- something that'll make all readers a tiny elite- remains too alarmist for me to accept. Maybe fewer people will read trashy novels, but maybe the golden prose she exalts doesn't need those clay feet anyway.

On preview: I'd say it's inherently a statement. Depending on how you frame it, it could mean "This is the view outside my window", "this is a rural/suburban/urban landscape, in stark contrast with other landscapes", "this is different from the view fifty years ago", or "Commando Cody is no longer on Mars". "How you frame it" could change depending on your mood or whatever you were doing beforehand. It doesn't have to be handed to another person- it's a little like talking to yourself.
posted by Maxson at 2:40 PM on November 19, 2005

Text is a good way to lie. Images tell the truth, or at least provide much more 'truthyness'
posted by Paris Hilton at 3:05 PM on November 19, 2005

On the internet, images cannot exist without words to tell you where they are. Words still rule.

Yes, if by word you mean "two bytes". Otherwise, what you said just makes no sense.
posted by Paris Hilton at 3:06 PM on November 19, 2005

"We will become a society of a million pictures without much memory, (...) one that does not sustain the difficult labor of transmitting culture from one generation to the next."

I am always shocked when I discover that people don't see the world that is just there: we have never had so much memory, and it's expanding faster that we can use it; and we never had so many tools to search this memory, and these tools themselves evolve at an astounding pace.

Never before in the whole history of mankind so much memory has been transmitted to so many people from one generation to the next. These are hard facts. So, what is she talking about? A fantasy of doom?

I would be the first interested to read something about the present and future use of images in communications, but I'll wait for somebody willing to use data and facts.
posted by bru at 3:21 PM on November 19, 2005

"Can't we all just get along? Can't words explain a picture? Can't a picture embellish words?"

Dude! I think you've got it! We can call it "multi-media".

"words can just as easily be used for manipulation and deception."

That seems as good a point as any to take to illustrate the different extremes you have between printed words and television. Think of advertising (the currently prevalent form of manipulation and deception) on television versus text ads. Or, more literally, classified ads in the newspaper. They are intended to accomplish basically the same thing, but the mechanisms involved are not the same. Accomplishing in print the same kinds of semiotic mind-control tricks you can do on television is impossible. You can certainly accomplish some other kinds of trickery, perhaps to similar effect. Like Maxson points out, you can even tweak the format of a newspaper so it's as much like television as possible. Still, it's not quite like the real thing. The television trance is very different from this one. The Internet, of course, is about the most malleable medium around.

"I think we have greater overall mindshare with an image culture, and not just because we have more minds to go around- people just like pictures."

Yeah, it takes up a great share of your mind to watch television. When you say image culture there I can't help but think primarily of television. It's not like fark photoshop contests are really taking over just yet. It's still the biggest "mass media" thing the world has ever known, so of course it's more inclusive than anything that preceded it. You still have hundreds of millions of people all watching the same nightly news broadcast. All those people, separated by thousands of miles, sitting there dreaming in unison. It's awesome. It looked for a while like the audience was going to get a little more fragmented, divided between hundreds of channels. But it turns out all those channels are showing pretty much the same thing most of the time. Or at least, most people are watching the ones that are.

Anyway, yeah, it's not really sensible to simplify it into "images" being generally bad or good.
posted by sfenders at 3:24 PM on November 19, 2005

For "nightly news broadcast" there, of course I was actually thinking of things like "Survivor: Guatemala", which seems remarkably popular.
posted by sfenders at 3:52 PM on November 19, 2005

Images are usually used for vapid entertainment, just like words and music were (and still are). However, I think more people overall view images, lowbrow or not, than words, lowbrow or not, so more people are on the receiving end of this culture, even if they're just getting bad TV shows.

I think that reaching more people in general is inherently a good thing. Others may understandably disagree, but there are other benefits to exposing people to all these images: people are losing the "omg" factor images create. We aren't amazed/scared by scenes that dazzled/frightened us years ago. The author laments the loss of wonder; I see it as a loss of gullibility. If everyone's seen a Worth1000 photoshop contest, fewer people will blindly believe the next photo they see.

Of course, we'll always have more gullible people than we'd like. But more people will begin to say "that's just a picture, prove it actually happened." A higher standard of proof would change a lot of things for society.
posted by Maxson at 5:11 PM on November 19, 2005

A well-written, competently defended article -- though I must admit I'm enjoying the discussion here more. Maybe it's because I'm an old-fashioned academic shitkicker, and can't stand swallowing intellectual propaganda (call off the dogs -- all critical theory is propaganda of one kind or another) outside of a seminar-like environment.

Now, here comes the complaint. As I said, it was a well-written article: but far, far, FAR from original. Adorno. Barthes. McLuhan. Hell, I'll chuck in some Derrida, 'cos all the kids seem to love him so much. Another postmodern critique of a postmodern phenomena that means very little to those us -- no, I won't say that. The truth is, to me: a good ol' fashioned materialist who doesn't have much time for debating Katrina's meaning re: "The Image Culture" when, really, we should STILL be debating Katrina's meaning re: race and class in our country.

Appropriation of tragedy for academic exercises is a well-worn technique. Elicit strong emotions, put the reader in a doubting state of mind, and use this state of mind to plant the seed of your thesis. I find it distasteful.

I'll go out on a limb, dip my toes in that big chilly pool o' hyperbole, and say that this article -- in its modus operandi -- is no different than intellectual garbage like "War Porn War Punk!" The only difference is that Ms. Rosen's intellectual and critical chops are much more well-developed than Mr. Pasquinelli's.

posted by ford and the prefects at 6:08 PM on November 19, 2005

Well, to me the most obvious way of dividing up the media is not by the amount and type of visual content, but by the type of motion. There's the stuff that comes at you, and then there's the stuff you have to go out and get. Television as it's normally done sort of washes over the mind, doesn't leave any time for critical thinking or whatever. The photoshop contest, you can scroll through at your own pace. Not for critical thinking necessarily, but it doesn't constantly flicker and change like television does. You can look away, and it won't have moved on when you look back. Each image has time to register independently with the mind of the viewer. It can be transformed into a real-time experience by holding down the space bar for a big web page, I guess. Just like television can be transformed in the other direction by using a DVR to pause after every shot. So, I think that difference is one reason why the photoshop contest might more often serve to expose people to genuine novelty in a beneficial way, while television is usually better at doing just the opposite.

Anyway, we aren't amazed by *television programs* that would have frightened people years ago, but I'm not sure how much that contributes to life outside of watching TV. Having seen both, I'm thinking that people who have seen an avalanche on television are not going to be any less amazed by seeing one in real life. On the other hand, people who have seen, say, a gay bar on TV might be better prepared for visiting one in real life. That's a matter of the transmission of cultural ideas and ideals, which video does do well. To the extent that our culture depends on mass media, it does often seem to be ground down into bland uniformity. So I guess 'mass media' is the second important distinction for media. If everyone sees exactly the same photoshopped images, then we become used to everyone having seen all the same images we have, which even if the images themselves are diverse and interesting, strikes me as something less than genuinely interesting diversity. Maybe it's not even the kind of diversity that would be genuinely resistant to deception and manipulation, since it is predictable.

I have seen a few things on television that were so good that it would be great if everyone could see them, so certainly that has its place.
posted by sfenders at 6:10 PM on November 19, 2005

Text is a good way to lie. Images tell the truth, or at least provide much more 'truthyness' Piffle. Exhibit A: Photoshop. Exhibit B: Fox News (you can lie through the images you select, as with the tearing down of Saddam's statue in the news videos).
posted by QuietDesperation at 6:44 PM on November 19, 2005

The potential costs of moving from the printed word to the image are immense. We may find ourselves in a world where our ability to communicate is stunted, our understanding and acceptance of what we see questionable, and our desire to transmit culture from one generation to the next seriously compromised.

Right, because it's so much harder to lie in words.

Images if anything help us communicate. I love these leftist academics who see any change to established methods of thought as some kind of heresy or apocalypse.

For some people, of course, offering Photoshop as a tool is akin to giving a stick of dynamite to a toddler.

Does anyone really take this BS seriously?
posted by aerify at 7:00 PM on November 19, 2005

Try using Flickr without tags, then come back.
posted by gimonca at 7:26 PM on November 19, 2005

How many images have been necessary in this thread so far?
posted by gimonca at 7:29 PM on November 19, 2005

Reminds me of Stephenson's (Diamond Age) Mediaglyphs. (here's a project based on the idea)
posted by shoepal at 7:55 PM on November 19, 2005

The question isn't whether it's easier to lie in words -- that's tangential to her argument -- but whether one can convey the depth of information necessary to sustain our culture only through images. This tendency was noted long ago by Gore Vidal, who stated that Americans learn their history through the movies.
posted by QuietDesperation at 7:56 PM on November 19, 2005

Imagery is fundamental to the human existence. We call upon images in our natural language all the time. By the way, check out Dick Hardt's "Identity 2.0"-presentation or Ralph Koster's "The Destiny of Online Games" for examples of powerful interplay between words and images.

Words will still prevail. Apart from Koyaanisqatsi I can't think of that many culture-threatening wordless movies and TV-shows.

People learn history through movies, so what. Me and my fellow classmates rarely got closer to the terror of nazi Germany than when we were shown Schindler's List. It wasn't the same as actually travelling to a concentration camp, but surely better than dry numbers on a blackboard. When augmented reality breaks through "going there" will be even easier. Powerful tools - for better or worse.
posted by hasund at 7:08 AM on November 20, 2005

My favourite educational video: "Before the Dinosaurs". Very much based on eye-candy. Maybe nothing like the kind of detailed knowledge you could get from a book, but now at least I know the Carboniferous from the Silurian.

People learn history through movies, so what.

People learn about the war of 1812 through listening to Tchaikovsky's famous overture, so what.
posted by sfenders at 9:13 AM on November 20, 2005

....the Napoleonic Wars of 1812, that is, I guess. uh, yeah, I dunno. I haven't listened to it for a while, you know.
posted by sfenders at 9:14 AM on November 20, 2005

The Napoleonic Wars of 1812, that is, I guess.
posted by QuietDesperation at 9:32 AM on November 20, 2005

Scott McCloud's book Understanding Comics has a lot of interesting material on words vs. images. I think comics are fascinating in the way the words interplay with the images - when done skillfully, each helps compensate for the limitations of the other.
posted by beth at 11:57 AM on November 20, 2005

i think people are getting tripped up on terminology. words != language. visual stimuli != images. words are technically pictures themselves, of course.

the real issue is one of abstraction, and to what extent a medium can be used to distort its subject and change the behavioural patterns of its consumers simply through the means by which it demands their attention. verbal language and spectacular imagery can both do this... but imagery is certainly proving itself to be much more useful to those with vested interests, ie the rich dudes holding the most strings.

in other words, yes, i agree, you could really get a better version of same just by reading mcluhan. probably some debord too, if you can stand it.
posted by poweredbybeard at 5:28 PM on November 21, 2005

nonetheless, fascinating thread.
posted by poweredbybeard at 5:29 PM on November 21, 2005

"For some people, of course, offering Photoshop as a tool is akin to giving a stick of dynamite to a toddler."

Does anyone really take this BS seriously?

Yes, potentially. How many genuine visual representations do you think you see in one day, vs those which are engineered to evoke a certain reaction?

Now ask yourself how many of those doing the engineering have anything resembling common cause with you. How many do you suppose may not even be personally invested in the engineering themselves, but doing so at the behest of people who have even less common cause with either of you?

If we actually lived in a free and equal society, the image society wouldn't be an issue. but we don't, so it is.
posted by poweredbybeard at 5:33 PM on November 21, 2005

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