Television, Photography, Susan Sontag, and the Mind

"Non-stop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) surround us, but, when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image. In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form of memorizing it. The photograph is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."

So here's an interesting nugget from Susan Sontag's theory of visual media in a 2002 New Yorker article "Looking at War." It doesn't exist in the digital world so I can't link you to it. I find it interesting that she employs the language of orality to describe the way images operate within and influence our modes of understanding. What are the paralells between the progression from oral to written and the one from still imagery to non-stop imagery?

Also, if you are a Sebastiáo Salgado fan there is some really incisive criticism of him in there too.

Sorry if this second image is a little disturbing. Just because the propoganda machine won't let us see the body bags doesn't mean there aren't powerful images of the sacrifices Americans are making in the war.

The power of the single image even hold its own within non-stop media like movies and TV because the most memorable scenes are always just that--still scenes--that perhaps have a more powerful effect than the rest of the movie. I think it does work in the same way that the power of orality comes through in written media, as a phrase in a text I am reading becomes truly memorable or appealing to me because it has a powerful effect when I'm "speaking" it in my head. Perhaps the best written arguments still acquire strength from constructs of orality, as Ong points out that writing is representative of the utterance, not the physical content.

hmm that makes me wonder... do you all "think out loud" when you read something, or only when it's hard to concentrate? I find it easier to comprehend things when I'm sort of "speaking" them in my head, but I'm not sure if it always works that way...

i can't really tell whether i speak the words in my head when i read. i have trouble thinking about it without doing it.

well, after more practice, i think i usually don't speak the words in my head. sometimes, if i'm having a lot of trouble getting through something, i'll actually speak it out loud to help me concentrate. it's weird to think that people used to read only out loud, even by themselves. people didn't generally start reading silently until the tenth century, according to this website.

I didn't read much of it, but what I did looked interesting. Here's a tidbit:

But silent reading brought with it another danger the Christian fathers had not foreseen. A book that can be read privately, reflected upon as the eye unravels the sense of the words, is no longer subject to immediate clarification or guidance, condemnation or censorship by a listener. Silent reading allows unwitnessed communication between the book and the reader, and the singular a refreshing of the mind", in Augustine's happy phrase.

I wonder whether the fact that the way writing has been read seems to have changed somewhat dramatically over time causes any problems for the strict technological determinists. Would they concede that we do have some control over how media affect our lives? More likely, they would argue that it simply took a long time for the traditions of orality to melt away. Once writing was invented, though, it was bound to happen. This too, presents interesting ideas. Will we, in a similar way, hold on the traditions of old media long after they have been eclipsed by the new?

I am one of those weird people who actually sees the words when people speak. Whole sentences spell themselves out across a screen in my head. In fact, as I am writing this, it is playing dooubly on the computer screen and inside my head. I am very aware of this because when someone says something that I cannot spell, I have to form my own phonetic possibility for it to keep the organization in my head. When someone says the word "trees" I see the whole word, but my thoughts visually put emphasis on the double e. Is it weird that my entire comphrehension is based upon phonetic speech which is essentially arbitrary?

Wow I've never heard that before. I know I have a hard time remembering phrases that someone is speaking unless I immediately write them down (that's why I'm constantly scribbling notes) but I don't think I "think" in writing. interesting...

Poetry, obviously, is a place where spoken vs. written is incredibly important. Garrison Keillor's whole schtick is that a basic tenet good poetry is that can it be understood aurally: no text, just NPR (if you don't already do the Writer's Almanac podcast I give it my heartiest recommendation.) The value here isn't all in the spokeness though, he also values poems that tell a story : "What makes a poem memorable is its narrative line. A story is easier to remember than a puzzle.”

I always read poems 3 times. First time in my head, no stopping. Then out loud. Then in my head making notes on the page.

And it is clear poets understand that their poems are being processed on both oral and written levels. Take these lines from Michael Palmer:

But what does the whit- the wer- what does the word

need—world need to be gone—to perform—what
does the world

He wants you to mess that up. He's counting on our tongues to fail. Say whit- wer what word world what world 5 times fast. It isn't obvious from this little snippet, but the oral confusion here feeds right into his greater poetic of the fallibility of language and productive misunderstanding/mistatement. He doesn't write orally/aurally comprehensible poems, you need the physical thing, but you still have to read this poem out loud or you'd miss the tongue trap. It may not always be as gimmicky, but I think most poetry has an oral component that plays a critical role, that is to say, a much more critical role than the oral in prose. And when it doesn't, like a Milton poem that is never, ever read aloud and only really exists in people's domes, well, that's really interesting too.

Why isn't Milton read out loud? That's strange considering most of Paradise Lost was (I thought) composed orally in his blindness.