Thursday, June 04, 2009

How Can We Read in an Age of Images? [proto-remix]

The following are the opening paragraphs of an essay I wrote a couple of years ago for The Quarterly Conversation. I'm posting it now partly because I have been meaning to re-work some of its ideas and not getting around to the task, and therefore am hoping to prompt myself to do so. I'm also posting it because I think its arguments remain timely, if, admittedly, in need of refinement.


How Can We Read in an Age of Images?

The Quarterly Conversation, Fall 2006

Typically, a litblog’s traffic pales in comparison to image-based sites. For example, I recently came across one called The Sartorialist. It’s based on a grabby idea: just a series of snapshots of people who are in some way well-dressed, with commentary underneath. And then when I looked at the number of profile views the site had received, I—well, I blanched with envy.

Even more heavily visited, of course, are the big name sites with enough corporate dough behind them to generate high-octane buzz. Otherwise sensible newspapers such as The Washington PostThe Guardian have blogs that deal with literary subjects. But while these latch onto the cool of the blogosphere, they do not partake of its democratic nature. Therefore, you, dear reader, are supposed to visit these sites, but they will not visit you.

And then there are the “bloggish” big-money sites. These are not even blogs at all—they are homepages attempting to manufacture their own street cred. An example of this is a site I recently saw put together by the BBC for a white hip-hopper. Grabby, for sure. But its grabbiness proceeded precisely from its use of image, and its images were effective because they were assembled by well-paid designers.

In any case, the question of the power of the image—the great seduction of looking—is one that litbloggers have to wrestle with. Some dispense with images altogether. Some use them tastefully. Neither approach is better than another, since it’s important to remember litblogging is time consuming and almost always a labor of love. No point criticizing blogs for not doing things they’re not intended to do.

But here’s the thing: litblogging, like literature itself, is currently caught in a death struggle with the powerful draw of the what-can-be-seen. Simply put, images pull away readers. They seduce them. We know this. There is an entire body of theoretical work devoted to the subject. But literary fiction tends to shy away from the trend of image-based culture, which not only venerates the image, but venerates the attractive image.

And this is what it comes down to: the power of the image to attract. The power of the image to override all common sense and—oh! it’s embarrassing to even admit one aspires to this!—seriousness. And these images do not even have to pretend to have any high-brow value. They are just there . . . an addictive click away: the Victoria Secret homepages, the bikini thumbnails, the travel ads (more bikinis)—all the images that really aren’t interested in the attitude or education of those who view them, because they know that in the end none of these things matter. Only desire does. Desire is the great emotion of our time. It is more powerful than thought. And all we can do, then, is think about it; try to make some sense of a feeling that is inescapable but not unmanageable.



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