Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Treading on toes

So when you get to visualizing history, you are treading on my toes--because that is something I like to think I know a few things about. Please forgive the lateness of this post, but I am still struggling with a broken computer and no web access at home, so all my posting time has to be taken from my lunch hour at Research 1. I found this week's readings to be both satisfying and maddening. At last, a few names I'm familiar with-Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault- inserted exactly where they would be most at home--in a discussion of the use and structure of language. It is such a great pity they are not here to sort out our digital age. The discussions on hypertext got my brain working. And to think Barthes had presaged it--of course he did. The drift away from the strictly Manechean bilateral structure of the world was started in those countries who had been crushed in two consecutive wars and had been frozen out of their assumed places in the world heirarchy by the Cold War. While Americans stayed with the us/them mentality, the French were constructing elegant multilayered multiuniverses in the form of literary critique. So plod along all you want with linear narrative--the future belongs to those who can navigate in more than two dimensions. Hypertext offers a great way to structure story, but the audience will have to catch up. Janet Murray's chapters gave a glimpse at how that new audience is being trained. The end of the passive observer, the beginning of the active prowler. Will Narrative dry up? Experience shows old technologies stick around for as long as they have a use--I still keep paper and pen handy because it is faster and more convinient to jot down ideas on the bus than to pull out the laptop. And nothing beats written narrative for forming an argument-I will discuss this more below. But to free up the audience to move between ideas as their interests carry them-this presents a magnificent new way to teach. Actually, medieval scholars were very well aquainted with a sort of hypertextual system. The document in question, usually scripture, would be inscribed on the center one-third of the page, while surrounding the text in the very wide margins would be commentary from previous luminaries--St. Augustine, etc. The problems for modern readers with this format is that the scribes frequently failed to properly cite the commentary. They knew many of these arguments from memory, and expected those who later learned the text to memorize it too. One also frequently sees representation of medieval scholars with multiple books open on large desks or special revolving book holders. Hey, when you can't get your hands on a Dell, you do what you must.
Instead, we get computer heads. OK, I want to master my computer, but those who have control of computers currently simply refuse to see that some of the applications they are trying to use the computer for already exist in our world. For example, working with images and video. Early attempts to create computer-based video editing systems frustrated those already working in the broadcast and film fields, because the computer heads who created the software came up with entirely new lexicons and systems while ignoring existing systems that were already in place and worked well! It wasn't until the programmers were forced to admit they didn't know everything and learned from real experts about helpful concepts like trim bins. I realize Guttenberg went broke trying to replicate what the scribes were already doing. However, the early and more successful printers didn't throw out the baby with the bath water--they figured out how to warm the water and get the baby clean. Enter my frustration with Staley. I have yet to find a book I dissagree with more than this one--from the first sentence of the introduction, I was on the defensive. Honestly, I have not finished the book-I will before class. Perhaps he gets better later on in the book. But I find his wholesale trashing of narrative a bit disturbing. How does one create an argument with pictures? Also, from what I have read, he denies that the meaning of images changes over time. With words, we can look them up in a dictionary for definitive meanings, or even use aides like the Oxford Dictionary of Old English to see how writers in the past used words. Hey, we can even form definitions of words from their context. But with pictures-anything goes. Images can be subjective and can change over time and differ between groups. For example, the greek masks of tragedy and comedy. Ask an older adult, and you may get some answer that deals with the theatre. But usually not the original symbol of the duality of the god Dionysius, or that they were part of an ancient religious observation. Ask a person under thirty, and they will immediately give you the answer "laugh now, cry later" which is gang slang for revenge. So how do I ensure my audience understands what I mean when I use a symbol? For that, I need context. And that takes narrative-even in a short form of label. Images are tools, and very helpful ones. But don't tell me I can tell the story I need to tell with just images.

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