This is a response to Nicole Sanford's blog entry, “Reading the Visual and Preserving the Individual." I cannot, for some reason, post a comment.
When we say “good reading,” we almost have to qualify how we are using the term. Good reading might refer to the content and subject matter we choose, physicality of the medium, or how we go about taking on a reading project, such as through a critical lens. Lately, it seems that how we read is more important than what we read or through which means we read it. So it isn’t a question of whether reading images is less valuable to us than reading texts, or if it’s potentially harmful to literacy when the literate are to be faced with more images than texts. It’s a question of whether or not the act of reading images lends itself to challenges, questions, dialectic engagement, and any other activity that good readers of the world already participate in. I say images do lend themselves to such curiosities.
Sometimes I feel we are holding onto relics as if this isn’t an exciting time to witness things unfold. And it may be as Jay David Bolter says: “the relationship between image and text is unstable” (48). But “unstable” may have unnecessarily bad connotations. As long as there are decoders of information, i.e. consumers, there will be those of us who encode. And until this ceases to be, the human race will write. Perhaps we will not “write” as we do now, which of course is not how we have always written, but we will write. To say that “writing itself is threatened” by a reemergence of communication through images is premature at the very least (48). We’ll still encode meaning and transmit meaning, and as natural processors of the raw data we find within the world, we’ll try to decode meaning. And maybe we find ourselves encoding and reciprocally decoding just as many--if not more for some of us--images than texts these days, and increasingly so as we become more receptive to these new options of making sense of things. But is this in itself bad?
It’s ironic that we developed alphabets from images we once used to represent what we knew of the world, and at our apex of literacy we can see reversion back to the image. Who are we to say we are not achieving the highest level of literacy, to eventually make sense of things through just image alone. We fill in ellipses from what we know of the world whether the holes are found in texts or graphics. And isn’t this the type of work, the type of dialectic ability we are worried about loosing? This type of work will continue for those of us who challenge the world--which is not now, nor has it been a hobby of the masses. And if this is a digression, let’s take a moment to let it bridge us with the realities of how literacy works. Literacy does not sit still: it cannot be contained in rule books, and held captive on the page as if it were ink. Literacy is not the medium, it’s the process. So I must ask, has the process really changed?
What’s important now is how we consumers of mass media choose to take in the deluge of data we are faced with. What we need to worry about in this age of the fragment, while navigating through a world of interruptions and distractions, is how we stay active participants in experiencing our world. Nicole, you ask if “the visual...mak[es] [us] less likely to analyze the printed word,” and I want to answer with a humbly-affirmed “maybe.” But I want to follow up this maybe with another hypothetical: maybe this doesn’t mean we are collectively heading towards illiteracy, but rather we are absorbing new literacies because of the options technology affords us. And luckily for us, we have all these options when setting out to unearth new things. Not only do we have more options of what we read--and I mean not only genre and form but wether we want to read words or images or both--but the mediums through which we read it. It’s all becoming physically and intellectually accessible. Beyond conjecture, this is what we know has truly changed, our options. Perhaps neurologists can pinpoint how new media “re-wires” our brain, but has it changed the type of work we do when we manipulate meaning from images and texts and between images and texts? Do we not still compare and analogize, sort and categorize, and reflect and relate what we know of the world to new information we come across? This is the type of intellectual work that’s important for the future of literacy, and fortunately enough, it’s what we naturally do.