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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

There appears to be little consensus about how to spell "dot com." While reading Eloquent Images: Word and Image in the Age of New Media, edited by Mary E. Hocks and Michelle R. Kendrick, I observed three different authors write it three different ways: "dotcom," "dot.com," and ".com." This lack of consensus produces a diversity of thought that is echoed throughout the book.

Eloquent Images challenges the notion that there is an inherent conflict between word and image -- especially in new media forms. Each of the essays presents an argument against this claim by demonstrating the dynamic interplay between visual and verbal texts. According to Hocks and Kendrick in their introductory essay, "the relationships among word and image, verbal texts and visual texts, 'visual culture' and 'print culture' are interpenetrating, dialogic relationships" (1). As a result, Eloquent Images does not deny that words and images are distinctive, but instead advocates a less binary perspective of the relationship between words and images and seeks to find continuity and hybridization between the two.

For decades, both advocates and detractors have presented the case that new media represents a revolution in human communication and consciousness. This has become conventional wisdom. Eloquent Images presents a response to this conventional wisdom -- not always a refutation of it but at least some qualifications, reservations, and complications. By the end of the book, it is clear that the fundamental premises of the debate over the impact of new media are still at issue.

The introductory chapter by Hocks and Kendrick presents these claims and explains the human need for creating binaries using Bruno Latour's concepts of modernist thinking. That introduction leads to "Critical Theory and the Challenge of New Media," by Jay David Bolter. Bolter introduces us to many of the tensions and arguments that characterize new media studies, and he makes arguments that explicitly support the thesis of the entire book: word and image interpenetrate through praxis (i.e., through an interpenetration of theory and practice), remediation (i.e., new forms borrowing from older forms), and performance (as opposed to discourse).

The next chapters examine specific texts in order to support their conclusions. In "Seriously Visible," Anne Frances Wysocki refutes, via counterexample, two of the assumptions of new media scholarship: first, that hypertext is more engaging and more "democratic" than text because hypertext requires audiences and readers to interpret more than the text does; and second, that verbal forms of communication are more significant than visual forms of communication. Helen Burgess, Jeanne Hamming, and Robert Markley are the authors of the next chapter, "The Dialogics of New Media: Video, Visualization, and Narrative in Red Planet: Scientific and Cultural Encounters with Mars." This chapter is a case study of a new media text produced by the authors. It describes their assumptions, intentions, and challenges in producing their text. The primary challenge for the producers was to employ a medium, typically used to create reference works, in order to create a text that would argue for and support a specific thesis.

Turning to historical texts, Carol S. Lipson, in "Recovering the Multimedia History of Writing in the Public Texts of Ancient Egypt," illustrates the multimodality (blending of text and image) characteristic of epideictic texts from ancient Egypt. She argues that the multimodal aspect of the history of writing has been silenced. Kevin LaGrandeur, in "Digital Images and Classical Persuasion," argues that classical rhetorical theory -- especially the rhetorical and poetic ideas espoused by Aristotle, Gorgias, and Horace -- can demonstrate the integrative, intertextual, and complex nature of new media texts. In this respect, LaGrandeur seeks to refute the conventional notion of new media as fragmented and chaotic.

In the sixth chapter, "The Word as Image in an Age of Digital Reproduction," Matthew G. Kirschenbaum praises the changes that new media is bringing to communication, but plays devil's advocate by pointing out that in scholarship words are still used more than images because words are rule-governed in a way that images are not: language can be broken up into smaller and smaller units of meaning in ways that are difficult to do with images.

Nancy Barta-Smith and Danette DiMarco conduct a meta-communicative assessment of the revolutionary quality of new media in their chapter, "Same Difference: Evolving Conclusions about Textuality and New Media." They argue that the way we talk about the new media revolution overlooks continuities as we change from old to new, and that those changes are not necessarily revolutionary: there are parts of the old media in the new media and the claims of huge cognitive shifts from oral media to print media and on to visual media are overstated. They do not argue that the changes are not occurring but rather that the change that is occurring has been misrepresented.

In "Illustrations, Images, and Anti-illustrations," Jan Baetens argues that the transition to visual communication is not a new way of communicating but rather is a rediscovery of an older way of communicating. Baetens then critiques Marshall McLuhan's work by pointing out the difficulty McLuhan had reconciling the apparent shift in culture from written words to images (both of which are visual technologies) with his conceptualization of a cultural shift from written words (a visual technology) to oral words (an aural technology). Finally, Baetens asserts that we should stop thinking of words and images in terms of representations of a sign and instead start thinking of words and images as manifestations on a screen.

Jennifer Wiley's chapter, "Cognitive and Educational Implications of Visually Rich Media: Images and Imagination," examines the research on the benefits and detriments of using visually intensive media in communication. The primary detriment of visually rich media, she states, is that they tend to seduce audiences away from constructing their own understandings of the material presented. This claim runs counter to the prevailing notion that images allow audiences to construct their own understandings.

The next two chapters address issues of identity and identity construction in new media environments. In "Feminist Cyborgs Live on the World Wide Web: International and Not So International Contexts," Gail E. Hawisher and Patricia Sullivan investigate the "geography of identity" (220) by exploring how women claim "authentic" identities on the Web. Alice Crawford then takes a more theoretical approach to identity construction by asking how identity might be constructed in virtual reality environments. She points out that conventional positions assert virtual reality is either positive (by allowing new identities to be constructed), negative (by destroyed identities already established), or neither (by creating cyborg identities that will blend the self with others). Crawford takes a fourth position, arguing that virtual reality allows us to momentarily estrange ourselves from our usual identities in order to experience something wholly different.

Ellen Strain and Gregory VanHoosier-Carey, in "Eloquent Interfaces: Humanities-Based Analysis in the Age of Hypermedia," articulate a distinction between representational images and functional interfaces. The design of media interfaces, they argue, is a form of argument and, to be successful, must be rhetorically sensitive. The implication of this distinction is that humanities scholars can and should design new media interfaces rather than merely "tame" new media in traditional humanities scholarship.

The final chapter in this volume is another study of a new media text produced by the essay author. Josephine Anstey, in "Writing a Story in Virtual Reality," explains how she and a group of designers produced a narrative experience in an immersive virtual reality environment. She explains many of the intentions, challenges, and opportunities this project presented. She asserts that conventional media already have conventions of story and structure built into them; the virtual reality medium (and other new media) do not. Hence, those conventions are yet to be determined and accepted by the users of virtual reality.

Eloquent Images is not about new media but is, rather, about the dialectical tension between words and images. New media forms raise questions about this dialectical tension, such as: How do/should we render images as words and words as images? How do/should we define images? How do/should we theorize images in the form of words, and vice versa? Other dialectical tensions associated with the word vs. image tension also appear in various essays: theory vs. practice; formal analysis vs. ideological analysis; discourse vs. performance; informing (reference) vs. persuading (argumentation); text vs. context; and denotation vs. connotation.

Likewise, the support for the thesis of Eloquent Images is myriad and multifaceted. Many of the essays support the book's thesis via theoretical perspectives. Others use psychological approaches, interpretive analyses of historical texts, and case studies of contemporary texts. As a way of responding to conventional ideas about the relationship between words and images, this multifaceted approach to supporting the thesis is persuasive and compelling.

Some of the most thought-provoking essays, especially for me as a relatively new reader to the literature on new media studies, were the reports of media texts by the producers themselves. Most notable were "The Dialogics of New Media" by Burgess, Hamming, and Markley, and "Eloquent Interfaces" by Strain and VanHoosier-Carey. These contributors describe the design challenges and rhetorical problems they faced in developing new media texts, as well as the implications of their designs. Their essays are compelling because they manifest, in concrete terms, the questions, arguments, and tensions inherent in new media, and because their projects seem to capture the optimistic potential of these new media forms.

The diversity of thought and approach in Eloquent Images also has a downside. Some of the chapters assume premises that are actively critiqued (or at least questioned) by other chapters. For example, the conventional notion that new media forms such as images are more audience-interactive than written forms of communication is an ideological assumption. While the suitability of this assumption is questioned by some of the contributors (e.g., "Seriously Visible" by Wysocki), it is uncritically assumed by others (e.g., "Eloquent Interfaces" by Strain and VanHoosier-Carey). Clearly, the presuppositions of this debate are still in flux.

Furthermore, while Eloquent Images explores the impact of new media forms on the word/image binary, it does not take long before one realizes that there is a great deal of variation in the meaning of the word "image." After finishing Eloquent Images, I assembled the following list of the different meanings of "image" that I recalled being articulated or implied in the book: (1) it is equated with the artistic rhetorical proofs of ethos and pathos; (2) it can be a visualization of something which cannot be seen, such as a forecast of the future; (3) it can be the visual experience of something, such as the act of seeing, or the emphasis we give to the visual experience of things to the exclusion of the other means of experience; (4) it can be a visual representation of an object or event, such as a drawing, painting, or photograph; (5) it can be a mental impression of something, such as a mental image of a place we have never been to; (6) it can be a stylistic or non-literal use of language, such as a metaphor; (6) it can be a graphical representation of words, such as the letters and words that you are reading right now; (7) it can be a graphical representation of numerical, temporal, and spatial data, such as diagrams, graphs, or maps; (8) it can be the stylistic elements of text, such as the colors and font styles of a web page; and (9) it can be an interface between a person and the communication technology they use, such as a computer screen. Throughout Eloquent Images, the word "image" is used both literally and metaphorically, and the distinctions between the different uses of the word are sometimes acknowledged but often simply conflated or equivocated.

On the one hand, the various meanings of the word "image" support the thesis of Eloquent Images: one reason there is little inherent conflict between images and words is that "images" is a category too ambiguous to oppose to a more definitive category like "words." The interpenetration, hybridization, and continuity between words and images is all but assured when "image" is such an inclusive category. On the other hand, reading Eloquent Images can be challenging (and perhaps even frustrating) when "image" refers to so many different things. In the last analysis it becomes evident that inclusiveness is probably the essence of the image, eloquent or not.

Alan Razee:
Alan Razee teaches courses in Communication at California State University Fresno and at Fresno City College. Alan's teaching and interests are in argumentation, the geographic construction of rhetoric and vice versa, and the rhetorical and cultural dynamics inherent in controversy -- especially environmental controversies.  <alanrazee@yahoo.com>

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