Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Are pictures worth a thousand words?

 The statement "a picture is worth a thousand words" has an obscure derivation, but people have pinpointed a moment when the phrase saw print; Wikipedia offers a similar derivation to the early 1910s and an association with advertising.

I like the idea that a character created by Ivan Turgenev germinated the idea of images having more content than words, as found in the 1862 novel Fathers and Sons. Turgenev and Henry James were good friends.

Pint glass inverted (from stock.xchng)
Inverted pint glass (from stock.xchng)
I disagree with the idea that images have more content, because the specificity of the picture and the words are what is at issue. I have had some film and literature students argue that film is superior to printed text because a film image contains more information than words can represent.

I think that people are comforted by film images because people tend to absorb visual information faster than written words. Visual images don't have to be symbolic, whereas writing requires decoding (the ability to read a specific language through symbols).

Yet some images are not easy to interpret, even the nonsymbolic kind. (See the caption on the image to the right.)

Besides, a film image is not the same as an image that people normally see during the day just by walking around and living. Film images are stylized (even for those films that claim to be documentary in approach). Cameras give the illusion of objectivity because they mimic human sight, but mimicry is still a form of mimesis (representation or imitation).

from stock.xchng
Security camera footage might be closest to a kind of pure objectivity, but even then, security cameras are positioned in specific places rather than randomly. Their location is selected. As well, note that security cameras will often not record much new information at all (the same unused doorway may well have the same image for days at a time). Security camera footage only becomes interesting when something happens that catches security personnel's attention.

 Human attention (even if programmed into a computerized alarm system) is what makes that footage significant--what human attention considers worthy of being recorded and reviewed. That judgment of significance is what makes any particular sequence of footage (or even of a single still) worthwhile of being described in words. Once an image requires judgment, the possibility of mimesis arises.

So--I like pictures and words: together, alone, whatever.

Friday, 24 August 2012


I have just subscribed to Narrative, a web magazine that claims to be "the PBS of literature." The subscription is free. I joined so I could read in full Cynthia Ozick's piece on Henry James's story "The Lesson of the Master."

Narrative seems to like stories, so Narrative is good by me.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Banished Words

Cliches (familiar phrases that have been emptied of originality due to overuse) may be easier to pick up and harder to drop because of the Internet. But the Internet can be a good source of information on new cliches. Lake Superior State University has been running a cliche contest in which people vote for their least favorite word or term of the year. (I am happy to see "amazing" on this list. I have seen this word in much student writing in the last few months.) See the 2012 List of Banished Words. For more fun, look at past years' lists.Writers should beware of using words that people are tired of seeing and hearing.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Black Mountain College

I have just finished reading Martin Duberman's Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, a history of Black Mountain, an experimental college in North Carolina that ran from the 1930s to the 1950s. 

Charles Olson, who was a significant force during Black Mountain's last years, said something that warrants notice here: "good expression is not a quality of language but of the experience that initiates it....Banality is a lack of profound emotion before the object. The problem is how to restore yourself into a state of clean experience, how to open the latch unto the outside world which makes feeling and involvement possible" (qtd. in Duberman 398).

I often tell my students to avoid verbal cliches (a kind of banality), but quite possibly the problem lies not in the language but in the writer's attitude towards the event being described (whether a fictional event or a historical event). The act that leads to the "opening the latch" doesn't have to be extreme, I don't think: for some people freewriting or meditation may be enough. Physical isolation in a cash-poor college among productive artists--what the Black Mountain College offered in later years especially--may be what people need. Cliches may be a sign of some writers' inability or unwillingness to figure out their actual emotional or intellectual responses to characters and events. ISuch writers have shallow responses to their own writing and represent those responses in shallow terms (namely, what other people--nonwriters--tend to say about such experiences).