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Eloquent Images: Word and Image in the Age of New Media

Editor: Mary E. Hocks, Michelle R. Kendrick
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003
Review Published: December 2006

 REVIEW 1: Vika Zafrin
 REVIEW 2: Alan Razee
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Mary Hocks

Written word has never been an entirely separate concept from image. How thick does a line have to be before it becomes a shape? The answer is highly context-dependent; the famous LOVE sculpture in New York City can be climbed upon, whereas Noah Wardrip-Fruin's flying word shapes in Screen are first and foremost text. A multitude of fonts is utilized to convey subtleties of meaning. Word and image, both at some point painted or rendered, are never far apart. In Eloquent Images: Word and Image in the Age of New Media, edited by Mary E. Hocks and Michelle R. Kendrick, twenty new media practitioners and theorists explore the relationship between the two in the virtual environment.

The book itself is a pleasing enough object, as most MIT Press releases are. Rotis Sans and Janson were superb and provocative fonts to choose. Well-designed and easy on the eyes, you would think that these fonts would make the printed words disappear behind the meaning they convey. However, the copy editors' canny practice of slipping in glaring misspellings and misplaced commas ensure that the reader remains conscious of the arguments' representation as symbolic glyphs.

And yet, the contributors' fascinating and diverse fields of expertise manage to eclipse these subtle editorial mind tricks. The contributors are doctoral students, professors of new media, English, film, and psychology, artists, writers -- and most of the time a combination of the above. Such a varied collection of perspectives will appeal to an equally wide audience of scholars, artists, and new media users.

The chapters differ significantly in their writing styles, and are relatively short: twenty pages or so per essay, including numerous illustrations. These are boons to the book – it is impossible to get bored. Whether a chapter describes a fascinating new media project or is (almost) entirely theoretical, it is over before you know it, and you are suddenly left with a flurry of questions to ponder and a desire to Photoshop some theory.

Eloquent Images is divided into four parts. In the first, "Visual and Verbal Practices in New Media," three chapters address what the editors refer to as "the hybridity of ... written and visual communication systems" (4) by discussing new media's history, precedents, and rhetoric. Jay David Bolter provides a solid theoretical primer to the other essays in "Critical Theory and the Challenge of New Media," where he stakes out a place for new media in cultural studies. That his discussion of academic web publishing is already somewhat out of date ("Critics can put their essays up on the Web, and they sometimes do ... But these are exceptions," p. 23) is a testament to how quickly the number of academic publications on the network has grown in the last few years. Bolter then points out the unevenness of its acceptance across the humanities, urging literary and cultural critics to incorporate electronic writing and theory into their practice, to "move easily back and forth between practice and critique," (27) and to embrace its interdisciplinary nature. The chapter ends with a call for a new critical theory, one "that can make us aware of the cultural and historical contexts (and ideologies) without dismissing or downplaying the formal characteristics of new media" (34).

Bolter's essay is followed by Anne Frances Wysocki's "Seriously Visible," which argues that visual texts -- those consisting partially or entirely of images -- bear more complexity than they are often credited with. She convincingly argues that "at least sometimes, visual texts can be as pleasurably challenging as some word-full texts" (56) by way of two case studies. The first, Scrutiny in the Great Round (1995), is a one-screen interactive "painting" that takes over all of the user's screen space, eliminating the distraction of menus. Throwing Apples at the Sun was released the same year but is Scrutiny's opposite in important ways. It puts windows, menus, and dialogue boxes to good use while retaining a mostly visual mode of communication. Helen Burgess, Jeanne Hamming, and Robert Markley then reverse Wysocki's argument construction. In "The Dialogics of New Media: Video, Visualization and Narrative in Red Planet: Scientific and Cultural Encounters with Mars," they provide a thorough description of the educational DVD they created together. From their experiences with it and its audiences the authors extrapolate theory that looks at "the ways in which 'text' and 'visual images' interact dialogically with the changing technologies -- sound, video, and dynamimc animation -- that are always in the process of redefining the conceptual frameworks and practices of multimedia" (62). An active user is emphasized as crucial in a successful interaction of educational resource and student.

Part II, "Historical Relationships between Word and Image," brings us descriptions of ancient Egyptian artifacts and their high degree of control over the viewer, discussion of classical rhetoric in the networked electronic context, and an article on the digital word as pixellated image. In her discussion of deliberately telling "different stories" (110) about the same thing with images and text, an ancient Egyptian practice designed to keep illiterate commoners from rebelling against a female pharaoh, Carol S. Lipson provides a vivid reminder that the contention between word and image is not a phenomenon native to the computer age. Kevin LaGrandeur follows up on the theme of the manipulative image in "Digital Images and Classical Persuasion," pinpointing "the source of the image's power ... in its emotional appeal" (120). At the same time, LaGrandeur shows, images can appeal as well to the other two components of the Aristotelian holy trinity by being tools of logical persuasion and lending their creator credibility. The chapter concludes with a few electronic case studies and the synthesizing proposition that "the integration of electronic media into the persuasive endavor has made a virtue of digital facility by drawing attention to the material effects of graphical style and structure" (133). That is, the manipulability of the digital image is making us more aware of its ability to manipulate us.

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum's "The Word as Image in an Age of Digital Reproduction" plays, by his own admission, "devil's advocate in the face of widespread testimonials to the eloquence of the image" (139). As usual, Kirschenbaum's writing packs an informational punch while managing to be clear, concise, and friendly to a wide audience. He highlights "what constitutes useful data" as an "underlying issue" in the humanities (146), and traces his experiences in working on automatic searchability (and thus reproducibility) of images. Ultimately, Kirschenbaum acknowledges, unlike alphabetic text, images have "no reusable parts" (153). He is right: there are currently no widespread technologies that allow users search, copy-and-paste, and perform other manipulations on sections of images that they can perform on sections of text. In this resides a fundamental difference between the electronic word and images, but it is also a similarity between electronic and print images. And yet, electronic image will always be finite, computable: "The notion that digital texts and images are infinitely fluid and malleable is an aesthetic conceit divorced from technical practice, a consensual hallucination in the same way that William Gibson's neuromantic 'lines of light' delineate an imaginative ideal rather than any actual cyberspaces" (154). Perhaps technically true, but couldn't we acknowledge this and still act as if they were infinitely malleable? Is it possible to retain an unclouded mind and allow the Muse free passage at the same time?

Part III, "Perception and Knowledge in Visual and Verbal Texts," begins with an eye opener. In their section opener titled "Evolving Conclusions about Textuality and New Media," Nancy Barta-Smith and Danette DiMarco argue that the concept of "revolution" is misapplied in cultural studies, that there is no such thing but rather a continuous evolution of thought and practice. Piggy-backing on that argument is an indirect but heartening call for a softening of academic disciplinary boundaries, which "may have created a rhetoric of revolution regarding new visual media that is unwarranted if close cousins are recognized" (173). Jan Baetens' chapter addresses "the difficulty of using images as illustrations in written nonfiction texts" (179), seemingly in response to the previous chapter's emphasis of the visual as the primary mode of thought and perception. Through close readings of Marie-Françoise Pissart's Droit de regards (Right of Insight) and Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore's The Medium Is the Massage, Baetens arrives at a picture of contemporary academic writing as a set of practices more conscious of the image's primacy than its predecessors might have been. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is ambiguous, but in the next chapter Jennifer Wiley makes it clear that, from a design and communication perspective, there already exist cases in which images detract from the didactic or communicative purpose of a text. Despite the caution that "students need structure and emphasis on important elements to develop understanding, whether they are learning from text or images," at the conclusion of her well-balanced "Cognitive and Educational Implications of Visually Rich Media," Wiley sees both as permanently installed tools of the educational process that can be used well "as long as something is still left to the imagination" (213).

Part IV is "Identities and Cultures in Digital Designs," and as often happens these days, starts off with a chapter about feminism on the Web. Gail E. Hawisher and Patricia Sullivan take on the topic from both sides, asserting that "online Web contexts can provide an opportunity for feminist cyborgs to 'act potently' ... to claim this medium as their own" (220) and that without women's participation, this opportunity matters not at all. This point is reiterated when the authors bring the discussion around to academe, where women must also exercise their power of participation, and are also often disembodied: "Their bodies are convetionally thought to be extraneous and, some would argue, potentially damaging to their success in a university setting" (224). The argument is clouded only by its terrible copyediting (women@waytoofast becomes woman@waytoofast and the village of Vaskovo becomes Vaskova in the very next paragraph) and perhaps the odd construction "babushka'ed," both of which are unpleasantly distracting.

In the second of Part IV's four chapters, "Unheimlich Maneuver: Self-Image and Identificatory Practice in Virtual Reality Environments," Alice Crawford starts off by identifying you, the reader, with Duke Nukem, "Alien Pig-Cop killer and anti-porn crusader" in a video game, and proceeds to examine the question of just how far we can push such identification with virtual characters. Crawford
engages this idenfication process with how we present ourselves in cyberspace as well as with how it affects our [self-]image and worldview off-screen. She steers us away from using VR self-identification as an idealizing tool and explains how, "under the right circumstances, visual practices in the medium of VR might enable new ways of seeing and being seen that could have a salubrious impact on our lives both on and off the screen" (242). Crawford's article aims to bring a deeper discussion of "the psychic processes involved in visual identification" (252) into VR criticism, and in that it succeeds with grace.

Humanities scholars are likely to find the penultimate chapter in the collection, "Humanities-Based Analysis in the Age of Hypermedia" by Ellen Strain and Gregory VanHoosier-Carey, most interesting. In its conclusion, they write: "Humanities scholars' present lack of awareness concerning design is evident in the limited integration of hypermedia into current scholarly work" (277). On its face, this statement is, of course, true. But our failure to use multimedia design more extensively in research and teaching has other origins elided by the authors. Even scholars who are aware of design's crucial role in the humanities often lack the training and resources to effectively incorporate multimedia into the curriculum. The learning curve is a formidable entry barrier: like it or not, most humanities scholars teach in an environment that already overburdens them, cutting into their research time with administrative tasks, high teaching loads, and relentless cognitive strain. Plus, as Strain and VanHoosier-Carey rightly mention, the use of multimedia is not widespread enough to avoid knee-jerk scepticism "about the scholar's virtuosity in regard to his or her subject" (277). All of this bodes poorly for the likelihood that a humanist will learn an extensive set of new skills in order to hyper-[re]mediate their work.

The authors advocate a practice of scholarly expression that aims at imperfection. Exploring Griffith in Context, a multimedia presentation of parts of Birth of a Nation together with scholarly commentary on the film, Strain and VanHoosier-Carey note that "the [scholarly voice-overs] are not overly polished narrations, but rather scholars' talking through their thoughts in a dynamic style that captures the excitement of fashioning new conclusions as they use their established research to view Birth in innovative ways" (270). Coupled with a reminder that humanities scholarship is a collaborative venture, this may make humanities scholars uncomfortable -- we are not generally used to formally collaborating, or to writing anything publically that might be viewed as poorly researched. "Humanities-Based Analysis" helps make the subject less threatening by describing an instance where the latter practice is actualized and finds success.

Reversing the mood entirely, in "Writing a Story in Virtual Reality," artist Josephine Anstey acquaints us with The Thing. Not, in fact, the protagonist of a 1980s sci-fi/horror film, but a cute little mostly abstract creature made of pyramids, co-protagonist (with the user) of The Thing Growing. Anstey's VR piece is intended to push the boundaries of a user's comfort zone by confronting her with a creature that invades her personal space and seems to emotionally manipulate her. The article's tone is light-hearted and perfect for this dense book's last chapter, but its uneasy subject matter of the incursion of virtual reality into our self-image as users leaves the reader to ponder sobering questions of morality, ethics, and power in VR.

Best of all, though, is Anstey's closing sentence: "It is my firm belief that we need creative teams that include not only artists, writers, programmers, and artificial intelligence programmers but also people with multiple skill sets in these areas, to push this new medium toward its creative potential" (303). It serves as a poignant summary of Eloquent Images, which had set out to "see complex, interpenetrating relationships between words and images" (5). Both forms of expression carry the potential of tremendous power. In order to use that potential, presumably to good ends, scholars and artists with different areas of expertise must communicate -- and teach each other -- using, again, words and images. This collection of essays provides many starting points of view for such discussion, and fills the reader in on much of the relevant history. Poor copyediting aside, Eloquent Images is highly recommended.

Vika Zafrin:
Vika Zafrin is a PhD candidate in Special Studies (Humanities Computing) at Brown University. She was project director for the NEH-funded Virtual Humanities Lab in 2004-06. Her interest in images as venues for intercultural transmission spans most of Europe and North America during the past thousand years.  <vika@wordsend.org>

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