I find it necessary to cast doubts upon the generally accepted theories of man’s basic nature which have been implicit during the past century in our constant overrating of the role of tools and machines in the human economy. I shall suggest that not only was Karl Marx in error in giving the instruments of production a central place and a directive function in human development, but that even the seemingly benign interpretation by Teilhard de Chardin reads back into the whole story of man the narrow technological rationalism of our own age, and projects into the future a final state in which all further possibilities of development would come to an end, because nothing would be left of man’s original nature, which had not been absorbed into, if not suppressed by, the technical organization of intelligence into a universal and omnipotent layer of mind.

. . . I am aware that the following summary must, by its brevity, seem superficial and unconvincing. At best I can only hope to show there are serious reasons for reconsidering the whole picture of human and technical development upon which the present organization of Western society is based.

Lewis Mumford, “Technics and the Nature of Man” (1966)

I was glad to go to a presentation yesterday by Michelle Kendrick which focused on Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. I suppose I have to actually buy the book. Like Roxanne, I just don’t get comics (or graphic novels, or theoretical exposition for that matter told in panel-by-panel form). Evidently, McCloud traces the history of comics back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia—I don’t buy that at all. I think they are pretty much a twentieth century thing, and don’t see them as the great media revolution which will reshape our consciousness as implied in the title of McCloud’s sequel, Reinventing Comics : How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form. Sometimes, history reads more like fiction.

Kendrick’s point, however, was not that McCloud was right about any of this, but rather that his model of approaching visual literacy had merit because it placed word and image on a level playing field. I agree to a certain extent—the divide between these modes of technology seems grossly overstated in most approaches. However, it seems to me that the devices employed by comics are primarily those modes of “visual literacy” already placed in the mainstream through motion pictures. I’ve ordered the books, since everyone in visual rhetoric (among compositionists at least) seems to be talking about them. This was hard. I didn’t even buy comic books as a kid.

I like Mumford’s alternative explanation regarding the proliferation of tools and media forms better than most of the “technological determinism” that is bandied about:

In this revision of the accepted technical stereotypes, I would go even further: For I suggest that at every stage, man’s technological expansions and transformations were less for the purpose of directly increasing the food supply or controlling nature than for utilizing his own immense internal resources, and expressing his potentialities. When not threatened by a hostile environment, man’s lavish, hyperactive nervous organization—still often irrational and unmanageable—was possibly an embarrassment rather than an aid to survival.

The idea that writing teachers should “teach comics” because they are a nexus of issues in visual literacy seems pretty embarrassing to me.