Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Image Over Word?

Image of Baal 1700 BCE

Picking up where I left off on pictures and images from my last post. When did you last see a pic of a Canaanite idol on a blog? I've got the current cultural zeitgeist by the throat, no doubt.

C.S. Lewis thought that an honest word was worth a thousand pictures.

His perspective might seem nostalgic right now, but I think he might have been on to something.

We're swimming in images. I won't even bother to make that case because it's so obvious.

Old time religion--basically the Old and New Testaments as well as pretty much any other religion I can think of--always discouraged an emphasis on the visual because they thought that images highlighted the sensual and the trivial at the expense of wisdom and good judgement and happy living.

The apostles and prophets and gurus and monks and rabbis and ayatollahs never got with the Supremacy of the Image.

When that lineup agrees on anything beyond a stripped down basic moral code, it's worth taking note.

According to the majority of religious teaching over many millenia, "A picture may be worth a thousand words, but don't expect those thousand words to say much of value. Enjoy the important and immediate truth of the visual sensation but move on to reading if you're interested in meaning and understanding."

In putting things that way, I'm being pretty easy on images from an historical point of view.

The decisive majority of traditional religious teaching not only supports the supremacy of the word over the image, but even warns that images are inherently misleading and destructive. Some of those traditions considered an emphasis on images to be 'idolatrous.'

That whole spiritual and religious consensus strikes me as being so far out of the current cultural mainstream that I'm not sure how to think about it. I can't remember a single talk or discussion about this issue in almost 30 years of participating in serious communities of conscience.

I'd love to hear any thoughts or comments. I know this one is out there, but it seems pretty immediately relevant to anybody who's eyes are open and who has an interest in traditional religious teaching and current culture.


Anonymous Greg said...

I think I tend to agree with most of this, though I wish I had a picture to describe how I felt more accurately.

I am curious how iconography fits into this. I know that icons are actually "written" rather than "painted", and the icon tells the story of the particular saint.

This time is interesting because now everyone and their mom (and their grandparents) are able to take thousands of digital pictures to document their existence, as well as edit them with such realism that it can be very difficult to distinguish. But even without cameras, you can produce images and "cartoons" that are so realistic that film producers have to purposefully keep in elements of a "cartoon look".

You should snag the domain name: visualcy.com or visianity.com while you still can.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Great comments Greg. I grew up in the Eastern Orthodox Church and many generations of my family on my mom's side always had icons all over the walls of their homes. I love 'em personally. Seems like they were used in Orthodoxy and Catholicism as a way to tell the biblical stories to illiterate people who made up most of the congregations. The Spanish missionaries used "retablos" the same way in Latin America.

As more and more people learned to read in the west a big shift happened away from religious art and toward bible reading and the reading of religious literature. Protestantism was the main example of that, but that shift happened in Catholicism too though to a much smaller degree.

What's interesting now is we're moving toward what some might consider an extreme emphasis on the image at the same time that literacy is at its highest rates ever.

So there is something different about this than the original movement toward religious art. Then, it seems like the image was seen as a necessary substitute for the written word since people couldn't read, but now the image is overtaking the word (how many people really read books anymore?) at a time when everybody can read and the material available to read--including biblical translations and religious writing and literature--is better than ever.

It's curious to me. I guess I wonder if it only appears that imagery is overtaking the word. Or if it is, why is that happening now?

6:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Images (though usually accompanied by short texts or captions) have become a quicker and more efficient way of communicating (than writing alone) to the greatest number of people today, as they were before literacy was widespread in some contexts. It sounds even like the CS Lewis quote is written in a museum as he looks at a painting or image, and then at the information to the side of it. The background and analysis of the painting tells us things we would never know otherwise, but it is the image that really sparks our imagination and inspires us. There is so much that only words can communicate, but let us be careful not to confound literacy with the use of words versus images, because the spoken and audible word had great prominence in many pre-literate contexts as well. I think it is a more significant shift that the western world is being diverted from it's breakneck pace to commodify thought and creativity by packaging it into mass produced books and photographs, to an information world, in which you can have your life on a USB stick. There is hardly any need for physical images or words anymore, except temporarily to communicate the information. Perhaps this evinces a lessened value on the process and quality of communication - there is simply one idea to be communicated (in the case of advertising - buy me!). Decontextualized images (A Baal statue that is not in a Baal temple, for example) or printed words have a communicational potential for ambiguous (or nuanced, if you prefer) interpretation that they may not have within their original or spoken context, and in that isolation, shrouded in mystery, either one can evoke a thousand words of description without being fully understood.
-Anonymous again

5:36 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Good thoughts, Anonymous.

I have to disagree, though, with your comment
that "there is hardly any need for physical images or words anymore, except temporarily to communicate the message." Maybe you meant to say "there is hardly any need for books or literature in the form they've taken for the past 400 years."

If you did mean to say words have become obsolete, what do you suggest has or will replace words to convey meaning?

In my own thinking, and in listening to some others who are thinking about this stuff, most are predicting that written and spoken words (and other symbolic linguistic and mathematical abstractions) will become more significant than ever as life becomes even more abstract. Words are one of the ultimate abstractions, after all. Some even predict a divide between an "information elite" who will still rely primarily on words while having great skill and comfort with visual and multi-media approaches on the one hand and non-elites who rely primarily on visual and immediate sensory ways of knowing. That seems too much like an Orwellian vision of the future, but I think it's interesting that some thoughtful folks consider that a possibility.

I also wonder about your confidence in context to clarify meaning. There is no question that encountering symbols like words or even physical objects like statues "in a particular context" make understanding meaning easier.

But without words even immediate physical events and experiences can be highly ambiguous. Perhaps that's why it was necessary for an oral tradition and eventually written texts to develop that explained the meaning of Jesus' resurrection. That event could not "interpret" itself even to the people who experienced and witnessed it directly, and I'm not sure many events, even if we experience them directly, can. Hence the need for words in some form or other. The more intricate the interpretation, the more extensive and complicated the words.

To move into the realm of science, the observed behavior of a plantery system won't interpret itself. Interpretation has to be imposed on it and communicated somehow to others. Without words and mathematical symbols, how do you do that?

I agree though, that some of the functions of words, like descriptions of a particular physical environment, are a lot less necessary at this point. Who needs to labor to describe a mountain when you can show somebody what it looked like at the moment in question. So I think there can be great gains in efficiency of communication by limiting the use of words in situations like that.

But if we move past simple physical description, and we want to understand a person's subjective experience of the mountain in question, how do we do that without words? Seems to me most of what is interesting in human communication falls in this subjective category.

11:09 AM  
Anonymous Greg said...

Hmm…Anonymous made me think of this as I read his/her comment:

In the last 3 years, it has never been easier to "publish" text. The weblog came before the photoblog and the podcast and the vblog. My generation came through high school right when Instant Messenger was getting mainstream, so when I chatted online, I still used complete words and thoughts (not so far as sentences unfortunately). Only the ultra nerdy people had their own websites. But the young people I know now, besides IM, are able to sign up online to publish the entire lives to the public, and as broadband has exploded as well, it comes with a flood of images and videos and music.

To the point: I wonder if there is a shift in thinking about the value of publishing something "statically". Most websites now are created dynamically to change content quickly to keep up with interest. But that means that your "published" content only really matters for a short time. So whatever effort is put forth to reflect and write about our times will only become obsolete in the near future. In the engineering world, the best resources are not found on the internet, but in time-tested, empirically based books that were written before I was born. Google does not allow me to do my job well, but guys with a lot of experience who decided to write down all that they have learned…in a thick hardbound book rather than a dynamic webpage.

Another point: In terms of learning and knowing, is there a case for people learning better and faster because of images over words? Does Powerpoint actually help people take in the material in a presentation or during a church sermon? Do Lake Ave's video production announcements help people remember the information they need to know? I would say no, though they probably add a level of entertainment and keep their attention. Words without images require engagement and imagination on the hearers. Hmm…does this have something to do with the secret of the kingdom of God?

4:49 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Great stuff folks. This is pretty fascinating.

I think your insight, Greg, about "static" versus "dynamic" use of words is really important and something I hadn't thought of. Seems like words are being used like crazy right now, but probably very differently than they once were, at least among people 35 and younger.

Maybe blogging in its various forms is creating a kind of
"disposable word" ethos where words are very important but understood to be highly transient and temporary. That's the exact opposite of the religious ethos of words I started the post with, which is all about words that matter for a long time (perhaps, in some cases, for eternity....).

No doubt the old religious way of thinking about words affected whole cultures with a more permanent sense of words which was underscored and supported by the ways books were published and even the apparently more permanent physical nature of books.

So maybe it's that sense of permanency that's being overthrown. People still recognize that some words and concepts are more permanent (like your engineering concepts, and other scientific concepts, and many religious ideas and values), but they may just be spending a whole lot more of their time attending to highly transient words and concepts. Maybe that accounts for the shift from reading books to reading internet content and blogs. Perhaps images aren't the issue at all. Hmmm....

I do think images are a great supplement to words and ideas and can enhance learning for people who are visual learners. My own guess is we'll see really powerful combo approaches like we're beginning to see now.

I just don't think images alone can do as much as many folks now seem to think they can in mediating unambiguous information or in communicating intuitive information and meaning.

5:12 PM  

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