Category Archives: Responses

A Better Picture: The Use of Images in Writing

During his discussion of his writing class’s clay assignment, Dennis Baron tells us that his students’ pickiness over clay color is a reminder of the fact that “given the chance, writers will focus on the artistic elements of writing as much as on the content” (74). Baron then goes on to add that “many writers like to experiment with the aesthetic variables of whatever they are using” (83).

Yet, as academics, this desire for aesthetic appeal is one that we are usually denied in our professional lives—we are not “given the chance.” The vast majority of the work we do is formatted, standardized, and imageless.

One of the few opportunities that academics have to break out of the confines double-spaced text only documents is when they make the transition into writing a book. Suddenly, images are not only allowed, but encouraged. It seems to me there are various reasons for this shift in aesthetic appeal, including a change in the formality of the work, an appeal to a wider audience, and to provide some distractions lest the written material become monotonous or dull.

Images have the ability to add things to a text that would be otherwise impossible—or at least extremely difficult—to convey, but this ability does not mean that they should be added simply for the sake of adding them. Rather, authors have a responsibility to use images in a way that builds upon or enhances the written component of the work. We can see distinction between these two types of image use in some of the many images that Baron includes in A Better Pencil.

Images that do not add to a work are those that are not fully discussed within the text or those that do not add to the purpose of the text. In Baron’s text, an example of this type of image is his inclusion of a picture of Ted Kaczynski (20). This picture—which the vast majority of readers would already be familiar with anyway—is included because Baron is discussing Kaczynski, not because the picture itself adds any value. There is nothing about Kaczynski’s image that builds upon Baron’s discussion of his anti-technology terrorism.

Nothing to see here.

But there are other moments in the text when Baron uses images to enhance and clarify his writing. Later in the text, he includes pictures of a photoshopped Abraham Lincoln and Marilyn Monroe (117) and an early portable dumb terminal (97). Both of these images help the reader follow along with Baron’s argument and provide clarity about the claims that he is making. Importantly—and unlike the Kaczynski image—they are also both fully discussed within the text itself.

While academics of the past have primarily only incorporated images into their writing through books, the increasing popularity of digital writing stands to change that completely. Like books, digital writing provides a perfect opportunity for the inclusion of images, and, also like books, demands that digital authors use images in a way that engages readers and enhances the text.

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Tracing Fingertips

My mother yelled down that all four of us kids were to come upstairs immediately. Her face, normally placid and loving, showed signs of irritation and anger. As we gathered in the kids’ shared bathroom, she leaned forward, directing our attention to the mirror over the sink. Someone had made, in the shower steam, a drippy print: “Clean Me Off.” Mom wanted to know who had authored the bathroom command.

Since the advent of writing, readers have sought assurance of the identity of the person who is “speaking” to them. In moving from receiving news and information through oration to getting it through written language, readers lost the physical assurance of the speaker as originator (or at least replicator) of the words being communicated.  Readers who lay their own hands (or eyes) on a text have a strong drive to know whose fingers carved, scripted, painted, typed, or handwrote the words. “Whose words do I read?” we ask. 

In A Better Pencil, Baron shows how each step forward in technological innovation brought with it unsettling anxieties. The process of authenticating texts—confirming and assuring readers of the author’s identity—lagged behind each new innovation in composition. As the users of new writing technologies increased, the rogue quality of possible anonymity was eventually mitigated as each era found its own ways of determining authorship. 

As anyone who has ever lost control of an email or social media account or caught a computer virus knows, it can be highly embarrassing to have your byline attached to a fraudulent email or link. Baron’s assertion that “all new writing technologies bring with them the potential for fraud” (120) is certainly true, but the probability of encountering fraud and untrustworthy content is the necessary flip side of increasingly democratized access to composition and publishing.

It seems that charges of fraud (may frequently, though not always) disguise an unwillingness to relinquish control of content and publication now made more democratic than any other time in history. In the cases of unlicensed printing presses up through unsigned blogs, new writing technologies enable people to “bypass many of the long-established winnowing and qualifying procedures that we have come to associate with writing” (Baron 163). In other words, a widely (though far from universally) available means of writing and reaching an audience reroutes texts past traditional monitors/arbiters of taste, quality, and accuracy. We now have a “cyberworld of writers without borders” (163). To the masses for whom publishing through traditional avenues isn’t possible, the internet offers a free–both monetarily and ideologically–place to share ideas and respond to the ideas of others.

Graffiti on mirrors in NYC. (Flikr through Creative Commons)
Graffiti on mirrors in NYC. (by Joff Hopkins on Flickr through Creative Commons)

While celebrating this in the abstract, those who previously controlled the means of publishing (if not producing content in private) now face a digital world in which anyone who wants to can find a platform to speak/write. As Baron puts it, new technologies help “upstarts” “take advantage of the destabilization produced by new communication machines in order to take text and talk in new directions” (162). Those previously in positions of power have the most to lose when so-called “upstarts” challenge the status quo, and so critiques of new writing and printing technologies as fraught with fraud danger may hold both truth and occlusion.

After all, part of the compulsion to know who wrote something is to understand their ethos as well as to judge their work. Readers mete out punishment or heap reward on the writer based on what we think he or she deserves, and online anonymity creates a readerly/writerly breech.

Back to the bathroom mirror writer, who created his or her own huge and highly visible paper: I understand my mom’s irritation about the writing on the mirror. The writer left an unsigned mess(age), in smudges and markings. But I also must point out that my mom’s encouragement to express ourselves through writing implicitly carried with it very specific (and themselves unwritten) rules about where, how, and what to write. And ultimately, when it came to reading the writing on the mirror, the message itself mattered to her much less than the author’s identity. (And I swear, it wasn’t me.)

In Defense of Verbosity

When thinking about the changes brought about by Web 2.0, the first thing that sprang to mind was identity, but a close second was aesthetics. Perhaps this is more reflective of my own personal priorities (and research interests) than anything more truly comprehensive, but I think that the two always go hand in hand in person so it follows that they do in our digital manifestations too. Carefully curated, these identities become abstract portraits of the people we imagine ourselves to be—or wish we were—partly through the faces (metaphorical and literal) we choose to present, and partly in the genre of writing that we choose to narrate ourselves. For instance, as anyone who interacts with my Facebook presence knows, I delight in posting extended reflections, excerpts from what I am reading, and entertaining anecdotes; for me, this type of longer writing feels natural and meets with my own standard of written aesthetics. And what is so wrong about meandering in text or occasionally deploying purple prose to make a tongue-in-cheek point?

Perhaps for these reasons, I have (so far) avoided more streamlined and pithy social media platforms. I appreciate that the greater concision demanded by Twitter is in part an exercise in precise writing, but I don’t like the constraint. I understand that the purpose of hashtags is to link conversations and weave connections between post(er)s, but too often they just seem banal. Can the aesthetics of digital writing encompass both short forms that reach out to other writers by means as simple as #sunnyday, as well as longer, less digitally-native genres that fail to link in the same way because they require a different approach? Can’t so many short snippets be just as visually (un)appealing as a block of text?

Embarassing Email Addresses and The New Person

The most interesting difference since 2007 is a strange one, since it’s conventional to imagine that the relationships between people have changed. What this doesn’t do is acknowledge that the actual definition of what a person is has changed. Prior to the really big expansion of the use of the internet (when I started undergrad), when you talked about a person on the internet, you were talking about a person *using* the internet, a USER, who could just as easily drop the little bits of themselves they’d put out there and disappear. You had a friend from high school, their MySpace page gets deleted, and they’re gone until you go find them in “real life”. But at some point, after we begin to depend on this technology enough, it becomes inseparable from us–you cannot, after all, ever really delete a Facebook page, or stop using an email address, because the information is not wholly private, and thus not wholly containable. A part of you is in here.

Think, for instance, about how email use has changed. The embarrassingly verbose, ridiculously fetishistic email addresses of the early century are nearly gone (except for socially awkward moments of realization, when they pop back up), and people tend to centralize around one or two or three addresses, instead of just getting a new one and naming it something silly. It went from being a screenname to an address, that you have to give out to other people.

There’s also the moment of absolute panic the moment something is accidentally shared or deleted–it’s mourning and self-panic now, instead of the same phenomenon as misplacing car keys. It’s the idea of the person that’s been redefined.

Anonymity and Projected Identity

The primary concept that jumps out at me as being changed is the idea of identity.   With technology as widely-available and accessible as it is today, anyone can use the internet in any place at any time.  At a universal level of user identity, this technology is no longer solely for tech nerds, people who are literate in code, or computer scientists.  At a more personal level, anybody can create an identity for his or her self in the virtual world.  Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can be used to project a specific sort of identity for the user, one which may or may not be true to life.  Additionally, people often have multiple social media accounts, multiple blogs, or multiple email addresses that they can use as a way to compartmentalize different elements of their identity.  Other platforms, such as reddit, are designed so that the user can be, if they choose, completely anonymous.  Platforms  such as these require us to re-think the meaning of a full, comprehensive identity on digital platforms, as well as what it means to be anonymous.

Public Privacy

Privacy; it might not be the meaning but the notion of privacy that is being altered or redefined through the magical capacities of digital age. Private diaries that were used to be kept in the locked closets are being replaced by constant messages trying to share the most private moments of each individual’s existence with a group of known or unknown audience around the world. 

Tomorrow, everybody should know what gift you receive today for Valentine’s, if not, you might not enjoy the gift at all. Moments are being shared before being lived. Feelings are being thrown away at the nearest or the farthest available distance before having being digested inside , to be liked, ignored or shared immediately. A collective public privacy is being created out of the collage that we are all making by contributing few seconds of our everyday lives. Right now, I might be thinking about the photo that I will share of my Valentine’s dinner, though I’m not feeling hungry yet. 

tumblr rhetoric – all about BREAKING the rules

As I’m interested in how things are rewritten, I am naturally interested in how rhetoric has changed in a digital format. What immediately comes to my mind is Tumblr. On Tumblr, people (of nearly any background you can think of) will often post a mix of written thoughts. They are often personal, but they are also often academic, political (based on reactions to legal changes, scientific discoveries, any and all pursuits). While some of these posts put forth the academic style I am most familiar with when I read about, say, a recent Shakespeare adaptation, more posts employ vastly different rhetorical strategies, born from the web and raised on tumblr. A piece in Shakespeare Quarterly will likely employ a highly formal, academic tone. It will generally be free of charged emotions. You know the deal.

A Tumblr post is different. On Tumblr, you might get the same or nearly equivalent message (thesis – argument – project). What you will also get, however, is maybe an embedded video clip, more often a gifset, or a captioned photoset. Spelling is unimportant. Capitalization is even less important. In fact, a post with proper spelling, grammar, and capitalization looks suspicious on the site. It’s much more common to see (in all caps) “OMFG LET ME TELL U ABOUT THIS FILM. so it starts off….” The tags will take the emotions to the next level. The nuanced analysis stays the same. There is the same focused attention to detail based on argument, but these are personal blogs. And the personal elements remain.