The Medium Has No Message
“I shall look away, that will henceforth be my sole negation.” — Friedrich Nietzsche (appropriated by Roland Barthes)
Text and image cannot be disentangled. We learn to read with picture books; we learn to look with captions. But such a tidy parallel construction does little to explain how our culture’s two primary modes of communication—language and pictures—actually relate to one another. And as all media is increasingly delivered by a single medium—the Internet—this relationship becomes even more difficult to parse. Here, the respective roles played by text and image often become confused and the related actions of reading and looking are frequently conflated.
The value of the written and the visual are almost always conceived of in relative terms. The two modes of expression could not be more different, yet the one cannot be thought without the other. The platitude “a picture is worth a thousand words” gives us some sense of this: language aspires to the concision of images, and images to the precision of language. If writing is successful it will conjure an image. If an image is successful it will contain something that could be spoken. A picture, no matter how abstract, is language in compressed form.
In the essay “Against Interpretation” Susan Sontag argues that we are still laboring under the demands of mimesis as conceived by the Greek philosophers. It was with this first articulation of what art is that art was “challenged to justify itself.” Acts of interpretation are therefore necessarily defensive and it is through a “defense of art” that “the odd vision by which something we have learned to call ‘form’ is separated off from something we have learned to call ‘content’ and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory.” Sontag argues that radical formal changes in visual art have not altered these expectations. “It may now be less figurative, less lucidly realistic. But it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something.” [Emphasis mine].
Which is to say that content is linguistic. As Sontag points out, “the task of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says...X is really—or, really means—A.” With the advent of visual forms that are not explicitly mimetic—or realist—the distance between form and content is exaggerated. The ascendance of art criticism as a specialized field both results from and exacerbates this difference. That art under capitalism has moved away from realism is perhaps not an accident. It is partly through the rise of abstraction that art and the discourse surrounding it has been subjected to a sort of intellectual Taylorization—one person makes a form; another gives it content through writing and so on down the assembly line until we have a complete and useful commodity. “Interpretation,” writes Sontag, “makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.”
If language is indeed the content of art, then we may very well be living in an aesthetic vacuum. Language—at least complex, thoughtful language—does not thrive in a digital environment, and this has drastically altered our discursive landscape.
Our networked culture, despite misleading euphemisms like “information society,” is largely image-based. Even reading devices such as the Kindle Fire include the ability to watch videos. On the Internet text becomes increasingly short and fragmented. There might be more writing in circulation, but it arrives in excerpts, Tweets, and instant messages. Print publications are shrinking; articles are getting shorter; images pack the margins; links interrupt the sentence. That we have invented, and actually use, an abbreviation for “too long; didn’t read” (tl;dr) is almost poetic proof of the internal corrosion of language in cyber-space.
Brevity is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it a new aesthetic aspiration. The 15th century philosopher Blaise Pascal has famously written “I have made this letter longer than usual because I did not have time to make it short.” But short is relative, and tl;dr is not a writerly aspiration to elegance. It is a disciplinary apparatus meant to contain and control language—which is to say thought. And it is now, also, a computer application that summarizes news stories for those who do not have the attention span to read an entire article in the New York Times, or the initiative and intelligence to aggressively skim it. This application isn’t just a pathetic, silly toy; it is indicative of a larger pattern of reading on line—one that expects summaries, simplicity, and a lack of engagement.
Nearly 50 years after “Against Interpretation” was first published, we have failed to answer its call for an “erotics of art” that would enable us to “make works of art—and, by analogy, our own experience—more, rather than less real to us.”
Instead, our digital environment—whose effects on the “real” world are by no means negligible—has accomplished a frightening extension of the mimetic division of form and content that Sontag so lamented. Except here, content does not overwhelm us—only the skeletal, now meaningless forms, that once contained it.