I might as well talk in 🔺▪️🔶🔳⬛️◽️🔸🔻because
the rest just doesn’t really get through*
A new medium
It is near impossible to explain the significance of language since we are simply unable to comprehend the vast pool of purposes that it is used for by people, a pool that is only expanding throughout the course of time. Unfortunately, the structural and systematic approach that we are traditionally taught to perceive and use language with is, at times, unable to fully reflect all of the psychological and sociological needs we have in the process of our communication (ed. Lyons, 1971).
It is for these reasons, that many people throughout history (such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Stephane Mallarme, William S. Burroughs, John Cage to name a few) had sought to challenge the traditional notion and understanding of language because they could not be content with the thought that the current mode of communication is all there is and there is nothing that could be done to expand it. They realized, that their inner worlds, as well as the ever-changing outside world, are simply too complex to be translated into such a “primitive” structure as the conventional form of our languages. The experiments undertaken by these numerous writers and poets included bending and breaking grammatical and semantical rules in an effort to reinvent literature and change the way we perceive information. The increasingly progressive treatment of text gave birth to many new literary movements, which undoubtedly left impacts on the way we share things with each other (eds. Dworkin & Goldsmith, 2011). However, it seems that despite all of these extensive changes, people were still left craving for a way to expand their set of communication skills. To find another medium that would perhaps be able to embrace the more ambiguous and murky parts of our communication or be able to transcend all language barriers and allow us to clearer shape our messages. The medium that they turned to were images.
It is important to mention, that the desire to communicate through images and visuals appeared at a very pivotal moment in human history, as we were going through rapid industrial and technological changes. Images stopped being singular paintings hung in museums and rich peoples homes and became easily reproduced and shared, with any person being able to not only access but also produce any kind of image they desired. The invention of photography, mass printing, televisions, computers and etc had rapidly developed this process starting from the beginning of the 20th century and onwards, with it now reaching its zenith in the digital age, where image accessibility is at an all time high (Goldsmith, 2011).
Words as images
In order to examine this shift in communication it would be useful to take a look at the concrete poetry movement. It is perhaps the most peculiar representation of a persons desire to expand our way of communicating between each other by paying attention to and introducing elements that we had previously neglected. Concrete poets were not only interested in manip- ulating pre-existing constructs of linguistic rules, but they were also intent on finding entirely new linguistic material. They explored the physicality and materiality of words, looking at sep- arate letters and formations as nothing more than visual structures. It is almost as though they believed that if we are unable to understand each other through what we write then we might be able to reach more clarity from the way that something is written and the visual aspects of the writing itself. This can be seen in many of Aram Saroyan’s works for instance, specifically in his poem m, which has been praised as heavily as it was criticized. There is no singular meaning that can be assigned to this poem, it can be read as a pun on the phrase “I am”, or regarded as a connection of the letter m and n, it is a manifestation of the malleability of the English language. In it, we are looking at something so familiar to us, yet are forced to perceive it as nothing more but a visual structure, a picture.
Concrete poets believed, that by freeing words from their stuffy preconceived purposes, they will be able to achieve a new method of self expression that is closest to what true human com- munication is. They were fixated on the idea of making the way we communicate more contemporary, by recognizing the materiality in which we reside in our daily lives. They were intent on creating their own language, which would be, as they titled it, verbivocovisual and panlin- guistic. Some of them, went as far as dismissing the semantic aspect of language whatsoever, focusing instead on transmitting an absolutely new kind of information. Their main goal was to create visuals that could transmit messages to everyone that saw them, regardless of their personal background or what language they spoke (Solt,1971). Mary Ellen Solt’s Flowers in concrete series is an attempt at reaching this transient space between visual and written communication. Take her poem Lilac, for example. Each letter of the word Lilac is transformed into a circular shape by method of repetition and script writing. These circles are then arranged together into a representation of the lilac flowers from Solt’s garden. The connection between the poem and its meaning here is very straightforward, with little doubt about what the poet is trying to convey. Yet again we are invited to deal with this work either from an entirely visual perspective (admire the picture itself), or seek out the letters and read in a way that we are traditionally used to.
It is then interesting to note, how an entire branch of poetry that boggled the minds of many, who were perhaps not ready to receive and understand the bogus propositions that the concrete poets were making, is completely mirrored in the results of the digital revolution. Something that was before reserved for writers, poets, and artists has become the mundane day-to-day of any person with access to electronic tools, television, and the media.
Instead of words
One of such pictorial tools of the digital revolution that have become truly ubiquitous at this point in time are emojis. Nowadays, it is hard to imagine any kind of textual communication between people to be devoid of a visual element to it. We utilize emojis and online “stickers” to convey the fleeting feelings and emotions that we think we are unable to correctly translate without some kind of visual representation. It is quite peculiar how quickly people had adapted to this new language, considering that emojis had been invented in 1999 and writing letters
and exchanging texts between each other has been something that human beings were doing since the beginning of time. Why did communicating via simple text suddenly become something that appears so dry and lifeless, when just adding an emoji to it or, at times, responding only with an emoji, becomes a better descriptor of the way a particular person is thinking? If concrete poets were trying to make words look like images, emojis stepped in and eradicated words entirely, embracing that same materiality that the concrete poets tried so hard to grasp, as the amount of emojis used to represent real tangible objects continues to expand as we speak. The system of symbols grows and changes with us, as we continuously contribute new elements to our collective digital language. Certain emojis grow out of their direct clear representation entirely, as they are used to mask or stand in for other things that are not directly rep- resented, in the mean time turning into their own little agents of ambiguity. In this way, cer- tain images end up acquiring multiple meanings and at times become misleading. This can be visible in Natalie Czech’s work, titled Icons. Natalie scoured the Internet in search of icons that are used across different platforms to signify and indicate already known objects. Yet, despite the icon remaining visually the same, the interpretation consistently changes.
This is something that has proved to be inevitable in the world of still images and icons. Despite the efforts of many, even Ancient Egyptians, visual language cannot free itself of the shackles of spoken language and remains limited in its expression. The hieroglyphs of the Ancient Egyptians often had symbols standing in for their specific phonetic indicators and homonyms. The little pictures which appear to be simplistic and straightforward cannot escape the native spoken languages of its creators and therefore cannot transmit the same messages in a “panlinguistic” manner. The languages of emojis and digital icons experience the exact same issues. Alan Kay had initially developed icons as a way of transmitting abstract thought, yet even he conceded that his effort was unsuccessful. As there is no way to systemize and arrange such still visuals in a way that would aid in their understanding.
Images tend to say too much, no matter how visually “simplistic” or “minimal” they look. Just as with regular, text based language, we are unable to predict how a specific picture will be perceived by the end user, and therefore we once again plunge into a sea of ambiguity.
In his book, The Rise of the Image the Fall of the Word American journalist Mitchell Stephens manages to present his own solution to this particular limitation that still images experience. He states that the only successful way to unambiguously transmit information through images is for them to become moving images, i.e. television and film, put more concisely — video. Stephens particularly focuses on a future phenomenon that he calls the “new video”, which arises from all of the mistakes and triumphs of cinema history. He argues that cinematic methods will elevate the still image and allow it to get rid of its obscurity through montage, juxtapositions, sound, and other editing elements. “New video” will be able to create links between objects faster and more efficiently, it will be able to captivate the attention of its audience in a way that text never could. Scenes will become the new words, yet richer and more powerful, as they will allow the viewer to engage in something that Stephens calls “complex seeing”. Stephens hopes that through this process we will be able to come up with a new kind of symbolism that will be used by video to transmit messages. Here he also refers to weather icons on television, a nod back to the origin of emojis, and expresses hope that if we are able to create such icons for simple concepts such as weather conditions, we will soon be able to do the same for more complex structures such as the word “democracy”, “truth”, and “irony”. I suppose that Stephens imagines such symbols to be constructed out of quick paced shots or “scenes” that depict situations in which these abstract notions take place, yet even then there is no guarantee of clarity. This is where we gradually understand, that although his proposition for video as a new visual language is at times very convincing and alluring, the perpetual problems of per- ception do not appear to be solved. He later goes on to say that words will exist to fend off the ambiguity of video, which automatically devalues his statements thus far and brings us back to our starting point. That despite the impressive scope of video, it still relies on language and at times cannot succinctly transmit information without it.
We unavoidably reach the incredible paradox of visual language. We are forced to realize that both text based language and visual language cannot provide the security and clarity that we seek. The end users ability to perceive and misinterpret the intended message consistently gets in the way and hinders our ability to successfully use one form or the other. The introduc- tion of visuals to our primarily spoken and written communication has undoubtedly widened the extent to which we are able to process the world around us. We are able to say more and show more, yet it seems that us being able to do this has not simultaneously guaranteed that the messages will become clearer or more universal. Perhaps, through trial and error, we will some day find a more efficient way to use these new mediums that are available to us. But in this particular moment, it seems that the only way of achieving this clarity can be done by em- bracing the symbiosis of image and word.