Commentary on "Visual Literacy"

Commentary on "Visual Literacy" by Olin Bjork

  1. Katherine Seiffert's claim, through Stafford via Bollag, that "visual literacy is so vital a form that 'computer-based communication,' which includes visual elements, 'has been called the fourth cognitive revolution after speaking, writing, and printing'" (Bollag A-17, qtd. in Stafford 92) reflects the conflation in academic discourse of a variety of phenomena. First, modes of communication, such as speaking, writing, and displaying, should be distinguished from media of communication, such as voice, page, and screen. Second, there are not one but two cognitive revolutions ongoing: a shift from the mode of writing words to the mode of displaying images and from the medium of the page to the medium of the screen. The latter change, which began with film, accelerated with TV, and reached apotheosis in the computer, precipitated the former (Stephens). Since the 1970s, newspapers and textbooks have responded to the success of TV by using images to convey information formerly carried by words—multimodal discourse—to the extent that the pages of many newspapers and textbooks now devote more space to images than to words (Kress and van Leeuwen). With the rise of "computer-based communication," newspapers and textbooks are now being "remediated" on the screen (Bolter and Grusin).

  2. Early efforts to establish an effective critical discourse for analyzing visual literacy and new media reveal the inadequacy of terminologies adapted from linguistic methodologies and theories. In a 1999 article, Gunther Kress argues that, "[a]s a noun, the word "literacy" presents the most diverse range of phenomena as one reified thing. The possibilities offered by electronic technologies of communication raise the question of the constant metaphoric extension of the term literacy sharply" ("English" 68). Just four years later, in Literacy in the New Media Age, Kress extends the term literacy sharply. He justifies this decision by attempting to unhinge literacy from its association with verbal language; i.e., language as speaking and writing words (35). Other theorists have tried to unhinge language from verbal literacy; i.e., literacy as reading and writing words (e.g., Mitchell, Language; Manovich). When Seiffert follows Platt and Joyce in claiming that "visual literacy extends verbal literacy to include perceptions of visual experiences" and "images can be 'read as texts' just as, through the imagination, texts can be read as images" she falls in line with the mainstream of composition theorists. Moments such as these in her essay directly or indirectly (knowingly or unknowingly) assert that texts and reading are the proper metaphors for visuals and the manner in which students should engage them.  This is not an unusual move—it is an accommodation that the new visual rhetoric textbooks, such as Lester Faigley's Picturing Texts, also tend to make for their audiences, audiences whose pedagogy has been primarily text-based. But such accommodations submit to "the grip of the linguistic on the present intellectual scene," a stranglehold that is hotly contested by critics such as Stafford , whom I here quote (46). Are images "read" or "viewed"? No matter what their rhetorical situation, scholars have an obligation to defend the nouns and verbs they use to describe visual communication.

  3. Seiffert's neoclassical notion that "the imagination deciphers textual meaning by creating pictures in the mind," has been increasingly challenged by scholars such as W.J.T. Mitchell who hold that, if mental imagery exists at all, it does not correspond to pictures or any other kind of material sign (Picture Theory 95-96).

  4. "Text-based imagination" is an ambiguous phrase. Is it meant to denote a writing activity or merely a textualization in the mind that may or may not be externalized in some way? Some teachers do ekphrasis exercises with painting and other images, the translation of images into words. Others do the opposite: "visual paraphrasing." These activities promote a phenomenon known as synesthesia, multimodal sensory experience resulting from stimulus by a single mode.

Works Cited

Bollag, Burton. "The 'Great Equalizer.'" Chronicle of Higher Education. 29 June 1994. A17-A19.

Bolter, J. David, and Richard A. Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.

Faigley, Lester et al. Picturing Texts. New York: Norton, 2004.

Kress, Gunther. "English at the Crossroads: Rethinking Curricula of Communication in the Context of the Turn to the Visual." Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Technologies. Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe, eds. Logan, Utah: Utah State UP and National Council of Teachers of English, 1999.

---. Literacy in the New Media Age. Literacies. London: Routledge, 2003.

Kress, Gunther, and Theo van Leeuwen. Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Arnold, 2001.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001.

Mitchell, W. J. Thomas, ed. The Language of Images. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

---. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

Stephens, Mitchell. The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.