Visual Culture

Most of have heard lots about how Native American culture (or whatever) was an oral culture. The West has placed itself in a position of contrast, identifying as a written-culture. But, as much as I hate to admit it as a professor of literature, I think that's coming to a fast end. It may be that we're on our way back to an oral culture, but I think there's a chance that we're on the verge of synthesizing the old-fashioned oral culture with a new-fangled visual culture.

After I read something masterful like Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" with my students and observe, by watching their faces, that they'd rather watch a re-run of The Simpsons, I ask them: "How'd you like this story?" They say, "It was okay." But then I say, "Is it 'okay'--or 'okay for a story?' " That's when they all light up and admit that no story can ever compare to a funny YouTube clip.

I disagree with them, of course. I genuinely do like reading Nathaniel Hawthorne more than I like watching LOST... but I see now that I'm swimming upstream. They say "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," but I've never been much of a joiner. I wonder how this'll turn out.


Insignificant Wrangler said...

We'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog...er book... too.

I think we can position the graphic novel in a weird quasi-space between these two cultural sensibilities.

And, of course, the book [let's be specific, the novel] has influenced the development of quality television in powerful ways. We're not watching quiz show anymore. Well, some people are, but we would all agree that Lost is as far from Quiz Show as Scarlet Letter is from Pilgrim's Progress.

As the television developed, novels tended to specialize in forms of engagement that the television could not [internal monologue, stream of consciousness]. Had I stayed in literature, that's likely where my research would have gone. That's also why I enjoyed reading Ong, McLuhan, and other media critics for my diss. I find that stuff fascinating, even if I often waver between exhilaration and trepidation.

Casey said...

Yeah but I'm not limiting it to the novel. Indeed, pick your favorite academic theory book and it's far less influential than many novels 150 years old, The Scarlet Letter for example. And BOTH are far less influential than Madonna. But you and I know the value of these almost-antiquated forms... will we be asked to participate in making the new digital-half-literate-billboard-world that arrives to replace the old?

I guess my question is, is there any book that can meet the challenge of competing with an episode of HOUSE? Sure, there'll remain an esoteric-underclass of readers for a while... maybe two centuries. But mostly culture is going to be distributed in other ways, and I won't have much of a say in it... will I? Do I? Who does? Can I still trust that the best of the best is making its way to me? Is LOST the Moby-Dick of 2009, or is it only the Uncle Tom's Cabin, while the REAL best-TV remains unproduced and unwatched?