How Images Think
Author: Ron Burnett
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004
Review Published: December 2006
Before even opening How Images Think, I am admiring the book's burnished silver jacket as a metallic nod to photography and the technology theme. I hardly want to touch the book, worried my fingerprints will scar the jacket. Three-quarters of the way through reading the book, I become aware of an image in the silver. A sky grounded by a stark landscape. I hold the book up and turn it this way and that to catch the light from many different angles. Is that round element the sun? Is it rising or setting? Are the subtle light streaks clouds? Rather, are the dark ones? There's a leafless tree. Is that a building? A church? Wait. Maybe that's the moon. Or, considering its perfect shape, maybe it's mechanical addition to a natural image. Is it just playing with me?
First I had to notice. Then I had to interpret. Then I had to wonder. Can images think?
While theorizing that images can think might be a prerequisite for analyzing how such thinking occurs, in How Images Think, Ron Burnett makes a case for how images think to arrive at the answer to whether or not they can. Burnett weaves together strands of potential from his expertise in the conversations of cinema studies and art with those from areas such as engineering and electronics, genetics and medical technology, to support his argument that images, specifically digital images, can and do think. While I'm not yet convinced, Burnett has sampled diverse intellectual cuisines to provide a smorgasbord for mulling over. He explores "that middle ground or mediated space where images become more than just vehicles of communication: images turn into intelligent arbiters of the relationships humans have with their mechanical creations and with each other" (221).
How Images Think examines the opportunities and challenges of speaking about the way images work in relation to human subjectivity by using metaphors that emerge from competing conversations or discourses. The book in part explores a question Burnett posed in Cultures of Vision: Images, Media and the Imaginary (1995): "Do we need an ecology of the image?" Burnett builds toward an ecology of "imagescapes" by layering interpretations, understandings, applications, and production techniques like a computer game-master generating scoring opportunities to allow players to move onto successive levels of his game. If I found the scoring logic of this particular game somewhat hard to follow (topics seem to bounce around the text like that serendipitous blip in the archaic game of pong), I think I made it at least to the final level.
In 1995, Burnett ended Cultures of Vision by interrogating the vantage point of the audience; fittingly, he begins How Images Think in the same way. But rather than relying on a close-up from the audience's point of view, he pulls back to discuss a variety of vantage points on his way to illuminating a key concept of the book, visualization. Concerned with the fear of information separated from context, he identifies the concept of visualization as an important way that information is transformed into knowledge. He notes, "Visualization is a central characteristic of human interaction with digital technologies. Visualization is very much about embodiment and the transformation of information into knowledge and understanding through human activity and the conversion of information and knowledge by humans into material and aesthetic forms" (202).
So, while he begins How Images Think by discussing an image-viewer's point of view, Burnett's film-maker's sensibility provides a meta-vantage point that moves the reader from recognizing his or her own experience as a viewer toward empathy for the image's position. In the beginning, navigating the contexts of personal and cultural histories and memory, Burnett locates the "creativity of viewing" images of all kinds in "the tension and contradiction between what is said and what is experiences with images" (37), that is "between the virtual status of the image and knowledge of events, history and language" (38). He proceeds to provide readers with opportunities to make connections among such issues as human consciousness, subjectivity, medical imaging, time, space, and virtual environments. In constructing his argument, he pans slowly from a familiar focus on human understanding, interpretation, and behavior to the increasingly harder-sell of focusing on message designers to focusing on the digital technologies themselves as their images "view" the audience.
The shift from the vantage point of the image-viewer to that of the image itself "viewing" occurs in the middle of the book in the chapter "Simulation/Immersion/Viewing." Here Burnett traces the development of technologies for presenting visual information. As he explained in 1995, "Reality and illusion are no longer useful terms for understanding the links between the computer screen, the act of writing, processes of viewing, images and virtual and so on" (334). So, his mission in How Images Think is to find a new set of terms. He insists "there is a need to find new discourses to understand these transformative forces and their effect" (200). He acknowledges that "for the time being, it is engineering and computer science metaphors that hold sway" (164), but ultimately, he finds a contender for a new discourse in using animation "as a guiding metaphor for new ways of visualizing the world and dealing with its material characteristics" (206).
Burnett confronts and deflects Baudrillard's conflation of virtual/illusion with a celebration of the virtual imageís potential as a form of reality. He states that the "slippages" between artifice and the real "make it possible for the real to be enhanced with the result that viewers, users, and audiences are constantly shifting their roles and in the process redefining what it means to engage with their identities and the social context of which they are a part" (94).
For Burnett, the dialogue between human and machine becomes an important point to make to be able to arrive at the conclusion that images can think. Since dialogue can occur only between equal interlocutors, and our experience makes us somewhat familiar with the way human beings think and communicate, Burnett must make the case for the machine. Less familiar, at least in terms of the ability to think, the machine generates the digital images that enact visualization on the many levels he identifies. Thus, the second half of the book leaves humans as interpreters behind as he builds his case for machines as equally powerful and intelligent interlocutors.
Perhaps even less familiar than the idea of thinking images is the requirement that understanding how images think requires the kind of transdisciplinarity that academic architecture makes so darn hard; he notes, "Ultimately, it will be necessary to bring engineers, computer scientists, cultural practitioners, and cultural analysts together if only to make sense of the relationship between information and meaning in digital environments" (164). Drawing especially on art, he discusses the complexity of human-machine interfaces with care and arrives at the conclusion that far from isolating viewers or users, digital images unite them: "Interfaces are about visualizing use and learning from communities of interactors" (164). His analysis of peer-to-peer communications supports this claim: "P2P communications is a crucial example of the harmony that can develop between machines and humans where each augments the intelligence of the other until a symbiotic balance is found. The technology that permits all of this simply becomes part of the overall ecology of communications" (166). Welcome to the global village.
Gaming, with its reliance on animation, serves the role of providing the moment at which "thinking" images reveal themselves. Notably, having brought readers to this point, he does not let our gaze linger too long on the technology, but quickly cuts back to the human subject. He notes, "There is intelligence in games, but the question is does the game know? The answer clearly is that the game cannot know anything, and so once again it is the vantage point of the player that is at the heart of any assumptions about the location and effectiveness of intelligence within the game" (169-70); ultimately, the book's reader must make the most of this intellectual experience. The reader scores in the final chapter, in which Burnett focuses his argument with lively authority.
Burnett's vehicle for his argument, his writing, seems vague in the first half of the book; however, the second half benefits from more concrete and lively language. Happily, at the end of each chapter Burnett summarizes his argument so far and previews his direction, propelling the reader on to the next level of his argument. He provides epigrams for each new chapter to orient readers to each new theoretical/virtual environment.
Burnett's work is served well by the smart art of the cover design, which is effectively subtle and successful at evoking the book's message. Unfortunately, the book's design loses its punch on the inside. Designer Patrick Ciano uses an ephemeral sans-serif Gotham font for the body text that seems more tentative than the ideas require. Quotations and asides in bold punctuate the body text, often disconnected and distracting in their McLuhanesque demand of the reader to fill in the missing conceptual links. Further, perhaps ironically, MIT Press chips away at its own authorís credibility through the uneven execution of the text editing. The book is filled with typographic errors, including errors in the references, enough to jar a close reader out of Burnett's intensity. The imperfection reminds me that success or failure of thinking, like it or not, ultimately rests in the flesh and blood of human practice and interpretation.
Can images think? While Ron Burnett has not persuaded me yet, he has argued a good game. Now that the jacket is suitably fingerprinted and scratched, I think I'll play How Images Think again.
Burnett, Ron (1995). Cultures of Vision: Images, Media and the Imaginary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press
Leanne Stuart Pupchek:
Leanne Stuart Pupchek, Ph.D. is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina. She is interested in the roles visual rhetoric play in constructing individual and group identities. <email@example.com>
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