In response to John Walter's response on Machina Memorialis, I've been exploring a little more my own ambivalences about the use of images in FYC. (It's relevant, I suppose, that although several of the blogs I regularly read beautifully use photographs--bgblogging and writing as jo(e) come to mind--this blog of mine is resolutely image-free.) I'll stick, first, fairly close to his points, trying on some contrary positions just for fun, then wander further afield...
I'm interested in John's point that images were historically tied to words in meaning-making and that "composition sans image is deeply roots in and tied to print culture [...] and this move to banish the image from serious texts in fairly new." I'm interested as well in the neat sort of turn by which digital media have brought the image back into play (I hope I'm not mis-stating his point...) But I don't quite understand how images played such a role pre-Gutenberg, when virtually all of the poetry-drama-fiction- philosophy-history -whatever texts I've read and that we ask high school and college students to read are indeed exclusively word-based. Were images stripped away from these texts at some point in the modern typesetting process? These early texts were distributed and preserved via recitation (aural memory) and manuscript. Were the images in illustrated manuscripts produced by the authors of the texts or the manuscript-copiers, or doesn't that matter? What do we know about the actual composition of these early works? To be flippant, is there evidence that Plato sketched out a floorplan to think his way through to Allegory of the Cave? (To anticipate my next point, I'm taking "image" here in the above to mean graphic image, that is, picture, since I don't see how aural/manuscript/print/digital culture issue affects either mental or verbal images.)
I'm bothered by the commingling of mental, verbal, and graphic images. They seem qualitatively different to me in the processes of thinking and writing and reading. I am reminded of a post I wrote a few years ago on Words and thoughts, and I'll repeat the quote from Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct:
That is, it seems to me that thought can take place pre-verbally, in the form of mental images, or even more amorphously, something like sensations, hints, intimations. My sense of my own thoughts is not I am producing and listening to a constantly streaming inner monologue, but that "things" flicker past without my having the chance or wanting to take the time to verbalize them. But to capture these images (for my own examination or to communicate them to others) I have to attach words to them (or make them manifest in some other medium, oil paint, say). This is a necessary (I think) part of the critical thinking process and largely what we mean by the process of composition, to grab hold of these mental images and embody them in words.
Verbal images, associated with the poetic, seem to me something like what I'd call concrete details (words that refer to and create sensory images) and figurative language. The split that John identifies between poetic and rational discourses is tragic, in my view, resulting in the depersonalized, hyper-abstract, jargon-ridden forms of academic discourse that make my skin crawl. There are people I guess who aspire to write this way, but I'm not one of them (hence no Ph.D for me) and I don't take it as my mission in FYC to create such writers. I concede that for certain technical writing aimed at a specialized audience the poetic may be appropriately "purged" from the rational; for my money, though, in general terms, for a general audience "good writing" requires these verbal images, not merely as stylistic flourishes but for clarity's sake as well.
So we have mental images integral really to the process of thought and verbal images a requirement for effective writing. For me, graphic images are a different sort of creature. Helpful in some contexts (maps of troop movements in Civil War battles--that is, for showing spatial relationships; bar graphs, pie charts, and other mathematico-statistical representations--that is, for summarizing data and depicting quantitative and qualitative relationships; photographs of people, places, things--that is, for presenting a version of apparently unmediated reality and thus short-cutting the need for physical description) but--here's the important thing--these graphic images are basically optional conveniences. Maybe. (I'm talking here about the use of graphic images within a text; as an aid to invention they seem potentially more useful. A side note: I am not a fan of the graphic novel, though perhaps I should give them more of a chance...)
On a practical level, John notes that "If the goal is to write a coherent paragraph or a correct sentence then the importance of engaging imagery would be much less than in a course in which the goals are to prepare students for the rhetorical acts they'll engage in their personal, academic, and professional lives." I don't know about their personal lives (designing their facebook pages or their family-reunion video blogs) but I have to believe that the audiences in their professional and , especially, academic lives most likely expect coherent paragraphs (logos) and correct sentences (ethos). Of course, the lucky writing teacher whose students have already mastered these skills may choose to set her sights "higher"; teaching in an open-admissions community college, where essay tests and research papers are still contraptions rigged largely out of words not pictures, I do not have that luxury. And although I do think multimedia presentations mostly likely will be an increasing requirement in some professions, I'm not sure that FYC has room to add that to the already long list of its course objectives. (Another issue relevant at the community college, in terms of the use of digital media, is the surprising lack of computer access and experience for some of my students.)
In defense of the image (in its several senses).
- I am a diehard fan of metaphor particularly as an aid to invention. My excitement is in the connective spark between the two elements, in testing its validity and puzzling out its implications. However, these activities do not necessarily require--and in fact, for me, seldom use--actual graphic images.
- I think that developing sensitivity to language and style is, mistakenly, minimized or ignored as a FYC objective and, more generally, as a component of "good writing."
On the impossibility of choosing. Even if we wanted to, we could not separate word from image, the sequence of letters from the collage of associations our memory cradles within each word (for me, within peach the smell of the barn at the orchard we visited when I was a child, the flimsy slats of the bushel baskets and later dusty canning jars on the shelves in the basement, the juice dripping down my chin at a London restaurant when I was nearly sixteen, Prufrock's question). Beyond memory, there's the musicality of each word, even unspoken the ghostly sensation on our tongue, down our throat (the fricative heartbreak of touch); in combination with other words, there's the physical rhythm of phrases, sentences (the murmuring pines and the hemlock). It's that old wave-particle duality, the light in the garden at dusk and the lightning bug.
So what's the matter with the graphic image (or picture, shall we say)?
- Pictures seem to have a limited potential for conveying ideas. I may be partial, but it seems that words contain images in way that images don't contain words. Or a clearer way to say this: words can both show and tell while pictures can only show. That's, no doubt, a simplification. What can one say with pictures? That the world is surprising or beautiful or beautiful in its ugliness? How do we interpret the photographed face of poverty? As social statement, personal memory, or beautifully balanced composition of light and shade, angles and planes? Words, on the other hand, can provide description, set contexts, offer explanations, tell stories.
- Pictures foreground pathos at the expense of ethos and logos..
- I'm squeamish about those visual analysis assignments (just as I'm squeamish about much cultural studies) because it seems too often driven by some sort of agenda fueled by a teacher's hubris: to bring students to an enlightened realization that American society is sexist, racist, consumer-driven. We open their eyes to the quackery of Madison Avenue, then invite them to harness those techniques in their own compositions; to me this seems to breed a certain sort of cynicism.
- Most of us writing teachers have no training for mucking about in visual arts (that's what we have fine arts and communication departments for). Beyond that, in practical terms what do we ask students to do to get these pictures: raid their parent's stack of magazines (I'd be curious to find out how many of my students subscribe to magazines); send them out to wander the streets with digital cameras (which not all students will own--cell phones might work though); surf the Internet for graphics that can be legally appropriated?
- For most people, I think that words demand a more active involvement than pictures, for both the composer/artist and the audience. (I'm thinking primarily of digital photography here, I need to add quickly.) Photographs are too easily snapped; the viewer's eye passes over them too casually. With a camera in hand it's too easy not to really look at what you see through the viewfinder (cf. Walker Percy's essay "The Loss of the Creature" plus the moral qualms of Susan Sontag). I've always been a little skeptical of the educational value of the increasingly popular visual aids many teachers now require (posters, dioramas, Egyptian pyramids, and such), often as a substitute for book reports and research papers.
- Words are the writer's chosen medium, just as clay is the sculptor's. (The painter conveys depth, the illusion of three dimensions, through shading and perspective, not by slapping clay gizmos into his oil on his canvas.)