Where is visuality taking us?

April 23, 2010

We once looked to storytellers — our poets and bards — for the wisdom of the age and insight into the past (memory). These were oral traditions and a time of no mass media (except perhaps church bells and smoke signals). Think of Homer (The Odyssey), the old Irish bards and mummers, and Jesus (parables). But these were stories that were passed from generation to generation, to village to village. Think of what memory — both individual and societal — was like in this time period.

We then turned to priests, the clergy. We were still largely an oral culture, but these priests were the keepers, interpreters, communicators of the sacred texts.

With Galileo, Brahe and enlightenment, we turned from the  clergy to science. Our new sages were those with the instruments, the data, the theories, the observable ‘truth’. This was an age of text. Logos. Evidence. Reading. And an age of mass media — the newspaper.

Today, we look to celebrities. God help us. In this age of visuality, as we mass produce viewing screens at a rate of about 4 billion per year, or one for nearly everyone on earth each and every year. As you all testified, we are seeing these screens on buses, in cars, on shopping carts at Wal-Mart, on our phones, throughout airports, at the gas pump — EVERYWHERE. From textual literacy to visual ubiquity. How does the role and even idea of memory change in this culture of visual saturation and immediacy?

Your questions for Monday (deadline is 1 pm):

  • Given this timeline, these changes, where are we going?
  • Who are we becoming?
  • What is memory, and what is it becoming? (Remember Chris Marker’s haunting thought: Memory not as something we have, but as something we are.)

The book is here!

April 9, 2010

After months of gestation, proofing, image capturing, indexing and blah blah blah, the book is finally out! A textbook for journalism writing classes aimed at preparing journos for writing for digital environments, media and devices, Writing for Digital Media was created for UNC’s JoMC 711, also called Writing for Digital Media.

So many made this book possible: Dean emeritus Richard Cole of UNC’s J School, Paul Jones, Louise Spieler, Rachel Lillis and Deb Aikat, all also of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication; John Conway at WRAL.com in Raleigh, N.C.; Ryan Tuck at the New York Times; Matt Byrnie at Routledge; former students Danny Lineberry and Marcie Barnes; Bob Frank, Diane Land and Nicole NeSmith at Berry; and of course the many students of JoMC 711, whose collective intelligence and wisdom of the crowds heavily influenced this work.

Freedom of Expression® update

April 6, 2010

First, for 60 Minutes of Freedom, the release is good to go. Emily will take it to PR, Kyler to the Carrier and Lindsay to Fusion. Kaitlin will drum up interest at the Rome N-T. And I’ll get it to SOA and KCAB. If you need an electronic copy of the release, let me know.

You all should send me three presentation titles by 6 p.m. today. We will do a dry run of all presentations on Tuesday a week in Laughlin 113.

For your next (and last) case briefs, I’m moving the deadline to Tuesday because of email issues. For this assignment, choose from the following intellectual property cases:

  • Reno v. ACLU (1997)
  • MGM v. Grokster (2005)
  • or the Supreme Court case that was the failed challenge of the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, Eldred v. Ashcroft (2003)

For Thursday, read McLeod, chapters 2 & 3, my column on orphan works, and Lessig’s article (download) on criminalizing piracy. You will have a reading quiz.

So far, some presentation titles (I’ve boldfaced my choices):

From Cait —

  • Healthcare: What’s the big deal for college students?
  • Healthcare: Why college students should care
  • Healthcare: How it affects college students

From Ben —

  • The tyranny of partisanship
  • Evidence for the tyranny of partisanship
  • Why partisanship is a problem

Photography is like . . .

April 2, 2010

To continue and extend our conversation (and to make sure I get to hear from everyone in COM 300), this blog entry asks you to finish the sentence in the headline, with elaboration and explanation. I’ll go first, to get us thinking and to model the kinds of thoughts and posts I’m looking for.

As I mentioned in class, to me photography is like poetry. I love poetry; I love playing with words, and poetry is wordplay if it is nothing else. When writing students expressed to the Walt Whitman that they wanted to become poets because they “have so much to say,” Whitman wasn’t interested. When writing students said they wanted to become poets because they “love playing with language, with words,” Whitman suddenly became interested in teaching them.

Similarly, photography is imageplay. Both poetry and photography “intensively see,” as Susan Sontag put it in her seminal work, On Photography. Much of poetry is concerned with the visual, getting us to “see” a flower, a tree, pain, loss, love, the wrinkles in a woman’s face, and to see these otherwise ordinary artifacts as we have never seen them before. To truly see. Seeing is believing? No, believing is seeing.

  • Think of a photograph of a degraded, wrinkled, old pumpkin? A poem about aging and decomposition, and an eloquent poem at that.
  • A water buffalo with a degenerate eye (vision, seeing, window to the soul)? Ah, a poem about the suffering and hopelessness in Zimbabwe, perhaps?
  • A stuffed freezer with hyper-packaged, processed American foods a poem about the excesses of American culture, in contrast with need in most of the rest of the world?

Think about how photography turns living beings — like a water buffalo or a pumpkin — into a thing, a thing to look at. (Is the photo a record of that water buffalo or leaf, or a record of how the photographer saw that water buffalo or leaf?)

And how photography turns things into living beings — again, David’s dying pumpkin-become-old woman, or the leaf with veins running through it. (Sontag talks about this photographic strategy on page 111, where she discusses photography’s ability to disclose “the thingness of human beings, the humanness of things.”)

Think of how many poems dignify the mundane — a flower, a tree, an acorn, a sunset, a pretty girl, a rainy day. By calling attention to it, and describing it in such detail, the poem dignifies that object and makes a virtue of it. The mundane becomes — if for only the contemplated moment — something beautiful. This is true also in photography.

Can you think a poem that is “ugly”? A bad poem, sure, just like bad photography, but a poem or photo of something universally ugly? Nope. Photography, like poetry, beautifies, dignifies, exalts, celebrates . . . even the ugly and the mundane.

The poem cannot explain that object, but it can acknowledge it. Photography does precisely the same thing. A photo of the WTC towers cannot explain the devastation of 9-1-1, but it can and does acknowledge it. A photo of the sun deck and boat dock behind your grandmother’s house cannot explain the meaning of that place, but it can acknowledge it (and all of its sun-splashed beauty). Again, as Susan Sontag puts it, “photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire” (p. 4).

Ah, this is another possible answer: Photography is like beauty. Fleeting. Subjective. To quote Aquinas, beauty is “wholeness, harmony, radiance.” To quote James Joyce on Aquinas, “wholeness” is apprehending the object as separate from all else — as in apprehending a pair of shoes as separate from all else (editing, choosing, isolating). “Radiance” is the “whatness” of the object, the essence of that object that makes it distinctly what it is and nothing else — like the pumpkin-ness of the “ugly” pumpkins we viewed, or the “water buffalo-ness” of the water buffalo.

Oh, this is fun. And I could write like this all day long. But now it’s your turn. Photography is like . . . what?