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Kelly on Visual Literacy

Last Sunday’s NYTimes allegedy devoted its whole magazine to the notion of “screens” everywhere.  I write “allegedly,” because the cover featured an odd photo of Jennifer Aniston, and the accompanying interview seemed to have little to do with the theme.  I would write here about Tony Scott’s “The Screening of America,” which takes up a question that has long intrigued me:  If it isn’t made for the big screen, is it really a motion picture?  Scott says, in effect, “two thumbs up” to the pluralistic future of cinema, but I suspect that the question is more complicated; in a nearby Q & A, David Lynch is characteristically retro on the subject.  There is more to be said, but some other time.

Instead, the most provocative piece is Kevin Kelly’s “Becoming Screen Literate,” which talks in breathless terms about the explosion in user-generated video content and the demand for visual literacy in the era of the remix.  More below the jump.

Rebecca Tushnet critiques the essay for Kelly’s inattention to copyright concerns; understanding remix is considerably more challenging when both creators and consumers (who are, after all, often one and the same) have to look over their shoulders constantly for DMCA takedown notices.

Rebecca’s post prompts me to offer my own reaction while it is still gestating.  Here it is, not completely formed:  Kelly is on to something, but his headlong pace causes him not only to ignore some important legal detail, but also to confuse where culture is coming from and where culture may be going.  Kelly’s vision, for all of its futurism, is ambivalent about letting go of the past.

His points, as I read them, are these:  (1) Human culture has moved past the written word, which itself helped us moved beyond orality.  We now inhabit an era of “visuality.”  (2)  The sources of “visuality” are plural; firm-originated content is increasingly complemented and supplanted by user-generated and often remixed content — what Kelly calls “rewriting video.”  (Note the metaphor.)  (3) Technological tools are emerging that will allow consumers, viewers, and “readers” of the visual to selectively capture and recombine elements of what they see in their own new narratives and other forms.  (4) And this is a great thing.

Is this really such a breakthrough, a new Gutenberg moment for the 21st century?  On the one hand, it seems that the answer is really no.  The essay is at times quite explicit that remixing video is a discipline that borrows heavily from “textualism.”  Kelly’s visual literacy is a “holy grail” that depends heavily on access to extensive databases of pre-existing material modeled after text — encyclopedias and dictionaries of visual form, and especially long-form visual narratives, which we know as movies: 

You cut and paste words on a page. You quote verbatim from an expert. You paraphrase a lovely expression. You add a layer of detail found elsewhere. You borrow the structure from one work to use as your own. You move frames around as if they were phrases. . . .

With powerful search and specification tools, high-resolution clips of any bridge in the world can be circulated into the common visual dictionary for reuse. Out of these ready-made “words,” a film can be assembled, mashed up from readily available parts. The rich databases of component images form a new grammar for moving images.

After all, this is how authors work. We dip into a finite set of established words, called a dictionary, and reassemble these found words into articles, novels and poems that no one has ever seen before. The joy is recombining them. Indeed it is a rare author who is forced to invent new words. Even the greatest writers do their magic primarily by rearranging formerly used, commonly shared ones. What we do now with words, we’ll soon do with images. . . .

With full-blown visuality, I should be able to annotate any object, frame or scene in a motion picture with any other object, frame or motion-picture clip. I should be able to search the visual index of a film, or peruse a visual table of contents, or scan a visual abstract of its full length. But how do you do all these things? How can we browse a film the way we browse a book?

That’s a suggestive argument, but it strikes me as hardly revolutionary or, to adapt Kelly’s own personage, mavericky. 

Toward the end of the piece, though, Kelly seems more willing to let go of the old forms and let new forms emerge.  In an interesting twist, he is letting his inner Tony Scott emerge:

With our fingers we will drag objects out of films and cast them in our own movies. A click of our phone camera will capture a landscape, then display its history, which we can use to annotate the image. Text, sound, motion will continue to merge into a single intermedia as they flow through the always-on network. With the assistance of screen fluency tools we might even be able to summon up realistic fantasies spontaneously. Standing before a screen, we could create the visual image of a turquoise rose, glistening with dew, poised in a trim ruby vase, as fast as we could write these words. If we were truly screen literate, maybe even faster. And that is just the opening scene.

Now he’s getting somewhere, I think, that is, really trying to imagine a post-textual world.  But there is a frustrating lack of detail in the vision.  That’s the last paragraph of the essay, and to me it reads as if it should be the first.