“New” Media

Literacy in the New Media Age

Gunther Kress’s latest book offers some appraisals regarding the landscape of multimodal discourse. I agree, but with historical reservations:

One might say the following with some confidence. Language-as-speech will remain the major mode of communication; language-as-writing will increasingly be displaced in many domains of public communication, though writing will remain the preferred mode of the political and cultural elites. The combined effects on writing of the dominance of the mode of image and of the medium of the screen will produce deep changes in the forms and functions of writing. This in turn will have profound effects on human, cognitive/affective, cultural, and bodily engagement with the world, and on the forms and shapes of knowledge. The world told is a different world to the world shown. (Kress, 2003, p1.).

Kress’s pronouncement of a shifting, increasingly image based media landscape is parallel to other observations regarding new media. Kathleen Welch observed, and I believe rightly so, that the landscape of television is based in aural communication. Few people can “make sense” from television without its accompanying soundtrack—while people frequently surf the Internet with the sound turned off, reliant on image-based or textual cues, rather than auditory ones. Though both media are “screen-based,” they are distinctly different in epistemic use. Television immerses us in a non-interactive spectatorship, while the computer is dependent on our interaction with it. The implications of both screen-based media among “political and cultural elites,” however, is often based in what W.J.T. Mitchell characterized as “iconophobia”—a fear of the effects of a reliance on images to transmit knowledge. To his credit, Kress characterizes this shift as a matter of “gains and losses” rather than an overwhelmingly negative cognitive impact.

What is overlooked in this insistence on the “newness” of the media landscape is the complexity of eighteenth and nineteenth print culture—our previous landscape, which is not so distant from this debate in many respects. Across new media scholarship, there is a tendency to discount the role of images in past epistemés, as if these questions had not been addressed before. Rather than acknowledge any continuity with past practices, the new landscape is characterized as a rupture from a stereotypical, recited by rote, history of print culture. Rhetoric is also often cast as a monomodal discipline, focused on text or speech alone—though rhetoric’s ties to writing are almost exclusively a twentieth century formulation.

The assumed ascendancy of monomodal discourse (the traditional codex book) which forms the point of departure (the old way) to be contrasted with the “new” forms of multimedia now proposed as dominant—the baseline of comparison between old and new media—is deeply flawed. Though written discourse is indeed now a “preferred” form, it is not now, nor has it ever been, the only form available for the generation of knowledge. It has merely been the most studied form of discourse—formed into canons, memorized by rote, until it is denied its complexity and richness. Against this, Michel Foucault’s focus on “discursive structures” suggests a broader means of comparison, where the interplay of such disparate modes as architecture, the construction of institutions and disciplines, etc., is not taken to be monomodal. However, even Foucault’s work suffers from the presumption of homogenous historical epistemés—of an overarching model of knowledge to which we either conform or resist.

To state that media have a profound impact on the way we think is merely to state the obvious. However, every new media carries, as McLuhan asserted, the seeds of its own reversal. The reversal, in the case of the traditionally stereotypical print book, is perhaps its uneasy relation with illustration. Illustration was, at least in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a separate economy from traditional written culture. Visual literacy was cultivated in ways seldom discussed, and the interaction between “print” culture (as in woodblock, steel or copper engraving, and lithography) and “print culture” (as in monomodal typset texts) is conspicuously absent from most discussions of “new literacies.” There is much work to be done in this area.

It should be asserted, with equal confidence, that the modes that Kress speaks of are not now, nor have they ever been—simple. Language as writing retains key feature of language as speech—poetry, in particular, focuses more on the aural character of words, even if they are printed on a page. Representation through images is capable of great depth and complexity, and invites us to read narratives into them, particularly when they represent humans. I disagree completely with Kress’s assertion that:

The two modes of writing and image are each governed by distinct logics and have distinctly different affordances. The organization of writing � still leaning on the logics of speech—is governed by the logic of time, and by the logic of the sequence of its elements in time, in temporally governed arrangements. The organization of the image, by contrast, is governed by the logic of space, and by the logic of simultaneity of its visual/depicted elements in spatially organized arrangements. (2003, p.1-2)

In short, I do not believe that “new media” are all that “new” and I do not believe that the “logics” of word and image are distinct at all. They overlap in the most incredible (and easily characterized) ways, and that is what I have been writing about in my master’s thesis (offline) for the last few days. Hopefully, it will be polished enough to put online in the next few weeks. It did not turn out to be the historical survey I dreamt of, but instead a rather complex theoretical exposition. That’s why it hasn’t been posted here so far. When I get it finished, I really want to post more about the nature of Kress’s last (in my opinion foolhardy) assertion, but for now I just wanted to stick my head out and keep my blog from shrinking too severely.