Monday, January 16, 2006

Gnosis and the Image

The Assistant Village Idiot had an excellent link to a piece on the cultural differences of thought and perception between East (especially Chinese) and West. This is of course the piece referenced below that I so botched in terms of commenting. By way of intellectual apology, (and a way to distract you all from my blushing) here is a link to another aspect of cultural perception from the New Atlantis by Christine Rosen titled The Image Culture.

This piece was originally published last fall, but I just came across it today. It covers a lot of ground I’ve been thinking about over the last few years. Ms. Rosen talks about how the ubiquity and shear mass of images in modern culture, both static pictures and video/movies, have begun to erode the primacy of the written word as the our chief means of communication.

She writes:

“Historians and anthropologists have explored the story of mankind’s movement from an oral-based culture to a written culture, and later to a printed one. But it is only in the past several decades that we have begun to assimilate the effects of the move from a culture based on the printed word to one based largely on images. In making images rather than texts our guide, are we opening up new vistas for understanding and expression, creating a form of communication that is “better than print,” as New York University communications professor Mitchell Stephens has argued? Or are we merely making a peculiar and unwelcome return to forms of communication once ascendant in preliterate societies—perhaps creating a world of hieroglyphics and ideograms (albeit technologically sophisticated ones)—and in the process becoming, as the late Daniel Boorstin argued, slavishly devoted to the enchanting and superficial image at the expense of the deeper truths that the written word alone can convey?”

I’ve previously written about Postmodernist Gnosis here and Ms. Rosen brings new insight to the issues involved with the degeneration of quality in discourse in our culture.

We have a historically rare intellectual climate in the modern West, and the blogosphere is an excellent example of this. For most of history, a very few had the keys to information, and controlled it as a method of controlling their societies. Gnosis, or special elite knowledge reserved for the highest rank has always been a hallmark and a tool of repressive societies. A free society depends on the ability to freely exchange, explain and understand information. A two tier society, where the masses only understand visual images and are taught by pictures, and where only ivory tower people have command of the written word is the type of dystopia illustrated by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell’s 1984. Ms. Rosen writes of how digital image technology undermines our trust in the veracity of images. In the early 80s, no less than the National Geographic got flak for having a digitally manipulated image on one of its covers. One of the big three weekly news magazines suffered backlash in manipulating a photo of OJ Simpson to make him darker and strengthen the contrast between his skin and stubble (accusers claiming this showed racial stereotyping). The technologies for this type of image handling are now in the hands of many ‘regular’ people, and numerous magazines provide tips and techniques monthly. Very, very few instances of photo manipulation are meant for anything other than purely innocent purposes, but it’s easy to project a time when every court case using photographic evidence will need an “Image Scientist” to explain why the evidence is trustworthy for a jury who know how to press a button on their home computers to remove “red-eye” from Christmas photos.

As an artist, I know how images are subject to personal interpretation, and are incapable of pure clarity. A replacement of literacy for the instantaneous gratification of an info-image would be a great blow to our society. As Christine Rosen asks, “Does every cultural trend make a culture genuinely better?”

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home