Review of Mitchell Stephens, The Rise of the Image; the Fall of the Word, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0195098293.
Other Voices, v.2, n.2 (March 2002)
Text copyright © 2002, Robert Walker, all rights reserved.
There is no doubting the fascination one feels upon reading this book. Its detailed references to various modes of communication utilized in a variety of cultural and historical contexts ranging back several thousand years and the many comments of historical and contemporary thinkers together form a rich tapestry of information, critical comment and insights into the complexity of thinking about the dissemination of information, especially concerning the role of the word. From that important and tragic debate 2,500 years ago in ancient Athens where the written word was pitted against the spoken one as a purveyor of the essence of meaning (and in which Socrates faced death), Mitchell Stevens ranges widely over many such debates of which we have written records from the last two thousand years. And this is the point which makes one consider the merits of Stevens' argument and clear conviction: that the image will eventually supplant the printed word, presumably as the major means of communication between humans at some point in the future. Stevens argues that the rocky rise of the image to prominence in some ways echoes that of the printed word before it became established as the major conveyor of information as well as reasoned argument. His case is that just as there was opposition initially to written and printed words as compared with spoken discourse, so inevitably there is resistance among some to the growing accessibility and popularity—many would say intrusion—of broadcast visual images. Opposition on its own, of course, is no predictor of future success. What matters is how effective communications are in their particular medium and to their particular recipients.
If there is a weakness in Stevens' argument, it is surely that words in either spoken or printed form have been the only comprehensive and efficient means of communication used by humans ever since we could actually speak. So for many thousands or perhaps millions of years humans have been using words—first spoken, then written, and in more recent times printed. This in itself speaks volumes for the power of the word, however it is conveyed. And coexistent with spoken words, humans have long used visual representations, first in cave and rock paintings, in statues and buildings, and latterly in images conveyed electronically. So has anything basic really changed, apart from technology and our modern proclivity for plenitude? Stevens, citing Marshall McLuhan's argument that the medium becomes the message, claims that basic modes of communication will change, and he provides powerful argument on what the new visual mode of communication might look like.
Exciting and intriguing though Stephens' prognosis is, I find the evidence unconvincing that much has changed except technology and mass dissemination on an unprecedented scale. One problem is that the USA alone provides the parameters of what one might describe as the experimental laboratory where, Stephens claims, all this taking place. This is, I think a major flaw. Considering that China—where paper and printing were invented, as Stephens reminds us—is also the most populous country on earth, and that India, another cradle of a great ancient civilization, is also extremely populous, it is surely presumptuous to imagine that what is happening with the comparatively small population of the USA is indicative and predictive of what will happen to the human race. Stephens does not overtly refer to culture and the issues of difference involved, but indirectly he relies on cultural norms to make his case. He explains that the highly authoritarian political culture of China prevented that country 2000 years ago from exploiting its inventions of paper and printing, whereas the "fractious" people of the early European Renaissance had no such constraints and consequently took the inventions and ran with them, as it were.
But isn't this really the issue—the matter of culture? The fact that the image and its immensely creative uses now being observed in the USA are all products of the culture of the USA, with its own special social, political and economic structures is not brought into the argument by Stephens. Why should another culture, and one as different and as powerful as that of China or India, do the same things as the USA in this regard? History has shown that this does not usually happen except by conquest or some form of cultural and economic warfare, as happened during the Cold War. But the effects of conquest or warfare are not complete and irreversible. The colonial domination of India and parts of China and South Asia by Great Britain and many other European countries, respectively, had little impact on the deep cultural subconscious on the people who reverted to their own culture when colonization ended. And the terrible events in the Balkans during the late 1980s and 1990s, when the thin veils covering deep division and angry resentment among the various groups of people which had simmered there for many centuries were removed, demonstrate that we ignore the power of cultural memory at our peril. No, isn't the real issue simply that the USA is more infatuated with technology and the plenitude of visual image in entertainment than most other countries?
There is, however, another problem with Stephens' fascinating thesis, and this concerns the power of the image to convey meaning. Ignoring for the moment that Stephens argues for the eventual rise of the image to supremacy and that it has not yet reached that stage, I am little bothered by the fact that the examples of what this future power might look like still need verbal explanations. On page 121, for example, we are provided with a verbal explanation of how much a particular image from the Renoir film Madame Bovary conveys. Renoir's friend, Professor Alexander Sesonike, provides a wonderfully sensitive explanation of what the images are actually conveying. Will it be any different in the future? Won't we still need a Sesonike to tell us what is in the new images which will be developed? Will they ever be able to simply speak for themselves? The most powerful visual image I can remember—and will probably ever see—is that of the naked little girl enveloped in flames as she ran from the incendiary bombs which had demolished her village in Vietnam. This image shook the world, not by virtue solely of its own content, but rather by the power of its message within the context of all the debate about the war in Vietnam. Without all the words which had preceded it and which followed it, this image would still have been shocking and horrible, but it certainly would not have achieved the immense rhetorical and political power it exercised on minds across the world. The image had such immense power of communication precisely because of its context within lengthy verbal explanations in the printed word and the spoken word of reporters and other commentators about the Vietnam War.
Stephens' argument is rather reminiscent of those who maintained that music speaks for itself, those nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century essentialists who argued that the essence of meaning in music is contained in its structures and therefore needs no verbal explanation. Not that Stephens comes off at all as an essentialist; clearly he is not. But his argument is similar in that the essence of his case is that the structure of the visual image—in using whatever structural techniques of montage or very short clips, moving images, or superimposed images which have immediate meanings, such as shots of the White House, etc.—all provide meaning and insights which words alone cannot convey. I would counter that such images certainly provide information which words alone could not convey, but this information only has validity because of the context of words which give the images a platform for and of meaning, enabling the images to take further and to amplify or reinforce the message of words.
We could not have a world with just images and no words. It wouldn't work. Everyday life would grind to a halt. But an additional problem concerns the use of sound. Most of the images Stephens cites are accompanied by sounds, and these are sounds which enhance further the meaning and impact of the image. Stephens mentions little or nothing about the importance of the sonic context within which the images from entertainment operate, for example.
My final question is to ask whether or not we have really moved on from the type of complex drama practiced by the ancient Greeks, mousike, where all the art forms in combination provided the most complex form of communication that we know. It is where social and political commentary and investigation into human frailty and strength reaches its zenith. It was recreated in the history of western opera, especially by Wagner, and perfected in the cinema during the twentieth-century. Isn't this what it is all about really? The way the technological improvements in producing visual images have substantially enhanced the power of the image as part of a multi-media form of communication and discourse which has been around since humans existed? Each single medium is the poorer without the others, and the richest experience of all is where all auditory and visual media combine in a wonderfully contrived symbiosis to present a depth of experience and meaning of which no single medium is capable. Opera, the movie, ballet, and many wonderful documentaries have displayed such power, and doubtless the continual improvements in technology will contribute more to the display, but not to the essential nature of the communication. The medium is not so much message, but the means by which the potency of the message can be ensured.