We have entered an age where the visual has become seemingly omnipresent and omnipotent. We have begun to think and argue primarily visually.*
Those with cinema and television believed that they had entered the era of common degeneracy with the victory of the image over the word in the fight for the masses. But they could not imagine the power image may hold now. For them it was a one-way communication. The visual communiqué was barred by wealth and privilege to the studios and corporations. The one-way transfer and the profit-driven motives of the creators bred distrust and the fatalist prediction of a “simplified” public. The television-walls of Harrison Bergeron keeping their viewers enthralled at the whim of the authorities was the ultimate doom for mankind. So too was the opposite and slightly more prescient prediction of the surveillance of mankind by the authorities à la 1984, which, though theoretically two-way in communication—the surveillance mirrors complemented by the propaganda films—but still monopolized by a precious few.
Today however, we have two novelties: one, two-way visual communication—the camera and the screen; and two, the readily available and newly populist nature of these technologies—the webcam and YouTube via PC. These technologies of recording and transmitting are after all quite old: what Friedrich Kittler calls the paradigm of 1900. However, real access has not come about until now and in that it is only beginning. Only now can the visual truly become a language. No real language can come about when it can only be artificially imposed from above. The cinema and the studios were in their own way like priests and Latin throughout the centuries. Or perhaps more apt, but more historically specific, is the analogy to high literature and high language in relation to the masses. There was no literature without correct grammar, vocabulary, and usage. Commoners digested said literature, but through their lack of education could not reproduce it.
Visual language is similarly governed by the influence of literacy and education, not only technology. People must be taught how to properly understand and communicate visually. For the most part people are still limited by these obstacles. YouTube has spawned a few new genres and methods of communication like Vlogging and candid true-to-life videos, as well as neo-dada curiosities, but for the most part people have not had the courage to treat the medium seriously. Obsession with production values and standards established by over sixty years of popular television and to a lesser extent the century of cinema has retarded the progress of visual language. Nevertheless, progress is evident.
Observe, for instance, the relationship we now have towards the comic medium. It is entirely visual in terms of language and has been hampered by technology in only a limited way over the past century. In fact, one can say a great deal as to why it took so long for the technology of printing to engender the creation of the medium of comics. Nevertheless, it was a popular and accepted form by the turn of the twentieth century. In contrast to film, the creative end of creation can be limited to one person. Publication provides some complication, but those efforts are nothing compared to film production and distribution. Furthermore, comics offer much greater creative freedom than the photographic limits of film. Animation, which is the truly analogous medium, is even more expensive and requires an even greater collaborative and hence compromised and artificial process of communication.
Up until the 1950’s comics, the cheaper visual medium, held a great variety of genres and modes of expression, albeit often exaggerated. Sales was very much a driving motive, but some like Will Eisner soon got it into their head to expand the medium’s potential for communication (though he called it a call to art—the birth of the graphic novel). After the censorship of the fifties, the comic industry succumbed to the post-war temptation to top-down “popular” (vs. populist) cultural product. Soon enough genres dwindled to an almost singular attention to the superhero. This was not only the product of the large comics companies themselves, but also a lack of public imagination, which drove the original push towards censorship itself.
For the past thirty years or so, comics have regained steadily their right as a medium and their potential of language through diversity. The zine trend of the 80’s and 90’s established the ability of common people to publish and market for themselves and primarily for the sake of expression over profit. Importantly, this preceded the contemporary intensification of self-expression through webcomics, which has only further broken down obstacles for creation and access. Not unrelated, genres have expanded into autobiography, philosophy, surreal narrative, historical fiction, etc. Though still picking up steam, these advancements show us how visual language is evolving and coming into its own. Unlike film, its proliferation and diversification is independent of major technological advancement (for now). The most vibrant and interesting graphic novels or comics still debut in print.
My point here is that we can and should develop visual language to the point that it could become a common form of expression in terms of production and digestion. Whether it is for good or bad, visual communication has thoroughly transplanted the written and spoken word in terms of dominating the public sphere. We cannot and should not accept that that new public sphere can only be an authoritative, top-down discussion. Instead we have the opportunity afforded by technology and a new growing understanding for the common production and utilization of visual communication, whether through film or comics. In that way, the language itself will be fully developed. It will take off and become able to communicate as much as the written word, if not more. At least I hope so.
*I will be considering only narrative here, and hence painting and other fine visual arts are left out.