What Kind of Medium Is This Anyway?

Ever since I read Susan Sontag’s New York Times Magazine article, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” on the picture-taking scandal in Iraq, I have found myself thinking about much of what she had to say, especially this excerpt: “a shift in the use made of pictures–less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated.”

And I can see how that’s true–in as shocking a reality as soldiers photographing and sending pictures of torture that they themselves were committing, and as benign a reality as my daughters snapping photos with their camphones and sending them off to friends via email. I’m not sure that photos mean the same thing to them as they do to me just as I’m pretty sure I respond to pictures differently from the way my 86-year-old father does. I still don’t send a lot of pictures; I’m just thinking about getting a digital camera, and I consider the extra cost of sending images from my phone. To my children, images are a part of the natural flow of communication. As are sound files. And text. It’s all part of the conversation. But a separate part of the conversation–a quick, visceral part often.

Sound, text and image are still kept pretty separate from one another here on the Web except for illustration purposes on many blogs and websites, for instance. What’s taking us so long to figure out how to incorporate mapping or audio into our blogs, not to repeat the words but to provide a different experience, to tell a different story altogether? I think it’s something more than the clumsiness of the interfaces.

Artists have long inhabited these spaces: Stacie Cassarino, a young poet friend and colleague, has a painter friend who just finished a series of paintings in which she incorporated and responded to some of Stacie’s poems. I haven’t seen the paintings, but Stacie says they do something quite different from the poems themselves–they are not an echo.

Paul Matteson in his dance improv last week (see yesterday’s posting) danced while he read a short personal narrative from a piece of paper held in his hand and then had the audience shout out parts of the body for him to accentuate in his movement. And he had us sitting on the floor in a semi-circle hemming him in a very small space–he practically touched us as he danced. It worked. But what was it? Sound/movement/text/interaction :some kind of integrated performance art.

I’m scattered here, which brings me to the real reason I’m mulling over the question of images vs. text, what this medium is and does and what that has to do with communication and what I’m up to in my classes with blogs and multimedia narrative:

Héctor over on his blog, in email and in person has scolded me ( albeit good naturedly) during the past 48 hours for my narrow, misguided understanding of this medium–we cannot, he says, use the same terms or even make comparisons to writing, when we talk about what we’re doing on the Web. I’ve got to re-envision the whole deal.

Of course I resist that notion on some level, but I do know that all the thinking and hanging about in this cyberworld I’m doing, and these bits that Susan Sontag writes, and the experiments on here at such places as The Familiar Strangers Project and the accompanying Jabberwocky“mobile phone application for visualizing our urban Familiar Strangers” are leading me down the road towards what I am just beginning to grasp–what Paul Virilio in his essay “Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm” (Reading Digital Culture, p. 24) writes:

Cyberspace is a new form of perspective. It does not coincide with the audio-visual perspective which we already know. It is a fully new perspective, free of any previous reference: it is a tactile perspective. To see at a distance, to hear at a distance: that was the essence of the audio-visual perspective of old. But to reach at a distance, to feel at a distance, that amounts to shifting the perspective towards a domain it did not yet encompass: that of contact, of contact-at-a-distance: tele-contact.

But look at me, I’m still blathering on in writing instead of exploring the rich potential of the borders between word/image/sound. I’m still writing the old way for the new medium. It’s what Jay D. Bolter’s getting at, I think, when he says humanists have yet to take full advantage of multilinear narrative. We’re slow. I’m slow. I’m still not there yet. Not anywhere close. In understanding or practice. But I’m working on it.


One Response

  1. yeah, yeah, yeah…dats it….dat it is…now your cookin’, now your groovin’…that’s it…You’re great “bg”..I love your resistance–one ear turned away, the other forward.

    This is a complete and total first step in working together in trying to re-define our old ways. Fantastic.

    Play this back to the previous posting, play them side-by-side and you’ll hear a great, great difference. This is a slam dunk…

    And, yes, I though about this too!


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