the rise of the image the fall of the word

Mitchell Stephens

Oxford University Press (to learn more about this book)


[Please note: This chapter was selected from a draft produced on an older word processor. Footnotes and formatting information have been lost, and this version does not reflect later editing and fact checking.]

"A Transitional Period"

"Many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born." -- Vaclav Havel, 1994

In much of the developed world the last third of the twentieth century has been characterized by relative peace and prosperity; yet it has been filled with a kind of despair. There is a sense of exhaustion in philosophy, politics and the arts. We worry that vanity, materialism and cynicism reign unchecked; that our civic life has eroded; that that we have lost touch with basic values, with what is real.

This book will argue that these phenomena are connected to the transition from a culture dominated by the printed word to one dominated by moving images. However it is also the thesis of this book, a more controversial thesis, that the moving image has the potential to help resolve this crisis of the spirit. Not by taking us back to neighborhoods filled with good conversation, bustling libraries and old-fashioned sincerity. That world is disappearing; it will not return. But by providing the tools -- intellectual and artistic tools -- needed to construct new, more resilient understandings.

This will take time. Television has been stuck at an early stage of development, condemned mostly to imitating other forms of communication. Film has not advanced much further. We are just beginning to develop the original techniques that will exploit the full potential of moving images, of video.

But that potential is large. Moving images use our senses more effectively than do black lines of type, stacked on white pages. In a video there is so much more to see, not to mention hear. Moving images can cut in, cut away, dance around, superimpose, switch tone or change perspective -- without losing their audience's attention. They can encompass computerized graphics, even words. When video is cut fast, it allows not just actions within a scene, not just angles upon a scene, but entire scenes themselves -- dozens of them -- to be interchanged and juxtaposed. Printed words risk their believability and entertainment value when they attempt such maneuvers.

Video, I will argue, is the medium of which the twentieth century's avant garde has dreamed: It can follow the meanderings of a skittish consciousness; it can grow surreal, even abstract; and all the while still engage. It moves easily, ineluctably to an ironic distance and might, therefore, lead us to whatever truths lie beyond ironic distance. It has the potential to open new perspectives on the world -- as writing once did, as printing once did.

This book, I should make clear, is the work of an inveterate reader and writer -- someone who is unable to enter a bookstore or library without a sense of excitement but who contemplates racks of videos with nary a smile. The book uses an established, wonderfully proficient medium -- printed words -- to proclaim the potential of video, an immature, still awkward medium. The book attempts, in other words, to look without prejudice beyond its author's inclinations, beyond its own form.

In the sixteenth century, the French writer Rabelais exclaimed, " now in use, so elegant and so correct, that better cannot be imagined." Almost half a millennium has passed. My contention, simply stated, is that we are finally ready to imagine better, that once again we have come upon a form of communication powerful enough to help us fashion new understandings, stronger understandings.

This argument on behalf of video may discomfit my fellow print lovers. I have tried, however, to write with an appreciation for the grand accomplishments of the written and printed word and, therefore, for what it means to state that the moving image will surpass those accomplishments.