We live in a visual culture as distinct from a literate culture. Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, Hollywood, you name it, the visual component is the higher value. The theory is instant information; the practice is a maze of visual stimuli and evading those stimuli.
Literature, if worth reading, is a logical process, allowing self-generated visualization. You can read a book and instantly create your own scenes, etc. It’s actually a pretty healthy exercise, despite the bestseller list.
Visual content as visual literature
I don’t want to totally devalue visual content in comparison with literature. There is such a thing as “visual literature”. It would be inaccurate as well as unfair to dismiss visual media as superficial, because a lot of it isn’t. The point is that these two cultures are poles apart in terms of mental applications. The mental processes for visual information are different.
When you see a picture, you take in a lot of information. You do not take in “1000 words”, which would be bordering on irrationality. At that rate, you’d be overloaded with descriptors and information after reading a catalog. You may actually need therapy before being allowed to look at another picture.
You certainly don’t take in 1000 words consciously, although if sufficiently stimulated, you might get a decent essay or more.
You do take in:
- Image structure
- Image composition values
- Context (standalone images are particularly strong)
- According to theory, you also retain a subliminal memory, of whatever strength. (The mere fact that you’ve created a subliminal image is neither mystical nor particularly informative. Memories have different values. You get a sort of lottery ticket in the process in terms of memory.)
This is part of the theory of brief attention spans. The eye/brain relationship is highly efficient, unless you’re seriously distracted. Therefore, the logic of visual culture is that you’ll respond better to a visual signal than a text signal.
Fair enough, but only to a point. On that basis, you should fully understand a particle accelerator from a picture. You don’t. You can’t. Even physicists are more likely to pick out familiar features than achieve total comprehension in one picture.
Pictures, by definition, do not tell the whole story. A story, yes. The entire story is beyond them in most cases. The Scream tells an entire story, Van Gogh’s self-portraits relate to a story. Associative logic is often a bit less than cooperative (or helpful) when it has only so much to work with.
My father was a professional artist. I grew up surrounded with Da Vinci, various artists, and a sort of potted version of artistic theory. I can appreciate visual media on multiple levels quite easily.
What I can’t do is go along with the theory that nothing else qualifies as information. While visual media can be very insightful, I can’t say I believe in it as the sole source of human information. The culture it serves is virtually lobotomized. Half a story, a few images, move on. Not exactly a guide to comprehension of anything.
I’m not about to do the “writer thinks literature is more important than pictures” thing. That’s just disingenuous. I’m not even sure why writers bother to take that position. It’s a transparent whine against another art form. It’s also quite useless as a form of argument in favor of literature.
For the record, I needed the direct experience of visual arts to understand the visual media, a point some “literati” might like to note. Some literature isn’t literature, to start with. It’s easily as superficial as an ad picture and equally banal. The amount of associative logic and information is perhaps even less, in real terms, after 200 pages than the picture. This isn’t about “superior” media.
The point here is that literature, assuming it is literature, provides more mental process capacity. There are more ideas. A single word can be more efficient in generating thinking and information than any other method.
Consider the word “art”. It means a lot. You can read it and get information and insights even faster than a picture. This word is a working tool for handling information, with a wide range of uses across a gigantic spectrum. A picture can’t do that, unless it’s an incredibly effective picture. It’s art, but it can’t really translate into the same meaning as the word “art”.
The expression “art of dissembling” includes these working operations- Principle, practice, vocabulary, usage, logical associations, expression, judgment, irritation, considered response, definition and more. When you refer to the art of dissembling, you’re doing a lot of things in three words.
Yes, you can do that with a picture, but it requires processing and, well, a picture. How often do you see a picture which defines exactly what you think? How often do you see an expression which covers your thinking?
Simplicity, visual media and literature
There’s another, deadly, issue- Simplicity. The theory that everything is simple is the other working tenet of brief attention span ideology. Wrong. A lot of things aren’t simple. There’s no “For Dummies” about how to use your own brain.
Check out the actual applications of “simplicity” to some of the world’s best known sources of images and textual information:
- Audrey Hepburn
- Marilyn Monroe
- Wall Street
- World War Two
- The Middle East
- Other cultures
Simple, huh? Which is more likely to provide information, a series of pictures or some explanations? Do you “understand” Audrey Hepburn as well as you “understand” health issues?
Simplicity only exists at very simple levels. Like oxygen and carbon, it combines with other things to form new compounds. The absurdity of assuming simplicity is like assuming you’ll win the lottery every day for the next 50 years. Some things may start simple, but they don’t stay simple.
(A fact for which fans of Ms Hepburn and Ms Monroe may be truly grateful. If they’d remained as eggs, the world would have been an infinitely poorer place. The complexity of the other subjects isn’t grounds for gratitude, for some reason.)
So, the visual/brief attention span endless spawning season isn’t very realistic, even in theory. The endless discontinuity of purely visual stimuli actually devalues real visual art, while spewing out the tedious relics of someone’s media workshop knowledge. It even interferes with the serious elements of visual information.
When LIFE Magazine started, the original Tumblr, full of pictures of exotic places, it was a revelation. The painstaking quality controls in the content were real information. The pictures of dead Marines on Tarawa caused a huge backlash against the US military, for example.
LIFE Magazine was originally positioned as a “picture book for adults”. It grew so fast into something so much more. That’s the real power of imagery. It did achieve very effective portrayals of real situations. Ironically, it also stimulated much more interest in the textual information, rather defusing the theory that visual media is for idiots only.
We are now in a different culture. The theory of visual stimuli is becoming self-defeating. Saturation levels of visual media are becoming an own goal. Users turn off. Good values are interposed with a lot of non-values.
You could do a very good visual history of World War Two with pictures only, no text. You could tell the story. You would also miss most of the relevant information, which was never visual. It was ideological, logical, illogical and outside the frames of reference of available materials. The rest of history would be similar.
Without adequate expression of ideas, you can’t understand anything. The saving grace of literature, such as it is, is that literature contributes directly to the evolution of ideas. That’s arguably its greatest role.
Literature has been devalued by media looking for cheap expression, not qualitative expression. Books now seem to contain about 200 pages of small talk/melodrama/scene setting and about 3 pages of actual storyline. That may be an overstatement, but only by degree, not by percentages.
Do you understand the psychology of a divorce or an affair after reading something called “Judy’s affair” or not? Do you receive value, understanding or more semi-digested crap in your head? No more than you understand the cultures of sex after looking at Gray’s Anatomy.
If modern media wants to be a form of communication, which is highly debatable given its content, expression needs to relate to information, not the other way round.
Visual media vs. literature is an own goal. The need is for people to understand information, not simply be given more junk food for the brain.