Thursday, October 18, 2007

Computers & Writing: The Cyborg Age

James Inman defines a cyborg history as one considering alternate histories of the computers and writing community, in addition to exploring the following questions: "What about technologies other than the computer? What about resistance to technologies? What about the influence of women? What about the influence of minorities?" (60). A traditional history would probably just be a list of dates, like when word processors entered classrooms and such, but Inman's cyborg history is at the margins related to such entries.

I suppose I was most intrigued by Inman's declaration that we should look at technologies beyond the computer. I have become interested lately in the varying literacies that many young people have, esp. w/r/t text messaging acronyms and the issues these students have in writing for the classroom. In chapter 4, 'Integrated Meaning-Making Systems,' Inman uses three case studies to illustrate the need for us to look at this in a broader way.

Detailing the writing process of one of his students, named here Jose, Inman demonstrates why such broad definitions are important. Rather than just sitting in front of the computer and typing away, Jose also listens to music over headphones, sits in an uncomfortable chair, and often IMs his friends while composing. The point is that computers aren't the only technologies that matter in constructing meaning, which is why constructions like "computer literacy that reference a specific technology or family of technologies fall short [of an accurate definition]" (168).

Jose's classroom is then studied, both with an extensive description of the physical classroom, and then with discussion about various group activities the class participated in. Inman concludes this section by saying that we learned through this classroom study that hierarchies will emerge in any system, and that "any histories a system has will continue to exert influence on that system, even if changes are made" (170).

I do not fault Inman's conclusions (far from it, I agree with him completely), but I wonder if we really needed these case studies to come to these conclusions. Weren't we already aware that hierarchies emerge in every system? And that the context in which meaning is constructed influences that meaning? These ideas are completely relevant, as I found all of
Computers and Writing: The Cyborg Age to be, it just doesn't seem thought provoking or original to me, neither in content or presentation.

But maybe that's not so bad.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Gunther Kress & Literacy in the New Media Age

Don't They Have Comic Books in Europe?

As a student of how image and (alphabetic) text work together to form meaning in narrative, much of Kress's work was interesting for me. However, interesting does not mean that I agreed with him all that often. Towards the end of the book, he discusses that we need to change or definition of reading from solely alphabetic text to reading image, sound, etc. to form a coherent, complete text. I couldn't agree more; the way graphic novelists have combined image and words to convey greater meaning is something I have relished my entire life.

But Kress claims that writing should be used for what it does best, "to provide, in fact, an account of events," while image "is used for what image does best, to depict the world that is at issue, in terms of significant elements and their (spatially represented) relations to each other" (155-6). I wanted to disagree with him, seeing as I do that comic pages do both of these things with their text and with their images. I'm of course aware that Kress wasn't envisioning comics when writing his book, yet I still feel that his rules her are applicable.

Early comic pages definitely fit the criteria Kress lays out here. Take for instance this page from
Superman #292, where we finally discover just why Lex Luthor hates Superman so much. Art by Curt Swan.

Click on the image to see detail. Here all exposition and action is given through text, with each action being telegraphed through words, e.g. Superboy saying that he'll "extinguish the blaze with a mighty super-puff of breath," rather than just letting the image inform the reader. The images really are here just to orient the characters in the space. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, and pretty much exactly what Kress is talking about.

However, looking at a more recent example from Chris Ware's
Jimmy Corrigan, we see images depicting not just events happening in sequence, but providing the only narrative on the page.

While it is hard to provide context of the story's greater tone by only showing this one page, this is a good example of Ware's referred style. Works such as these make me doubt that Kress is entirely correct when he asserts that what image does best is merely show the world at issue.

Kress also raises questions about directionality, the way that reading patterns are determined by the layout of a document, saying that what is most important is identifying document characteristics that promote certain paths. He also asserts that users of web documents "interact with [them] in novel ways that have no precedents in paper design" (17).

Okay, this I must disagree with. No precedent? Comics have been doing this for years. Let's take a quick look at Ware's
Jimmy Corrigan again.
Ware uses several things to cue the reader on how to read the page. The reader is led throughout the age by connecting panels, yet is forced to read the timeline of events at the bottom both from right to left, as indicated, and then again from left to right as would be normal. Both ways give added meaning to the narrative as a whole. Ware is promoting both paths here, something Kress says either cannot or is not done in paper media.

What I would advise Kress and others looking at the future of multimodal literacy is simple. The answer to many of your questions likely lie in comic books, not only in building pages with preferred reading paths apparent to the reader, but also in the way that images can be used to convey more than just space and information, but also depict narrative (an accounting of events) as well.