Visual Illiteracy. The Paradox of Today's Media Culture and the Reformulation of Yesterday's Concept of an écriture filmique

Autor: Axel Roderich Werner
[erschienen in: IMAGE 22 (Ausgabe Juli 2015)]

According to art historian James Elkins, the very term of ›visual literacy‹ is to be assessed as an at least »slightly dubious expression« (ELKINS 2008: 8) if not, in its linking of the scriptural to the pictorial or the discoursive to the non-discoursive, as an outright »self-defeating paradox« (ELKINS 2008: 5). In much of the same sense, William Mitchell views this arguably problematic though historically quite successful term as »a strong and seemingly unavoidable metaphor« (MITCHELL 2008a: 11) in which, though not mutually exclusive, the term of ›reading‹ serving as the vehicle and the term of ›vision‹ as the tenor thus are establishing a kind of hierarchy by apparently privileging the former over the latter in a kind of catachresis (in which the metaphor fills the gap of the lack of a literal or ›proper‹ designation)—literacy explains visuality just as texts explain pictures. At the same time, however, this relation might as well be reversed (so that Mitchell in fact wonders if one should speak of ›visual literacy‹ or ›literary visualcy‹): even verbal literacy does in fact rely on vision as, most evidently, for example, »the skill of reading is already a visual skill« (MITCHELL 2008a: 11), just as even face-to-face communication is governed by the recognition of facial expression, gestures, posture etc. (or ›body language‹, to use another metaphor of that kind). Neither, then, is literacy ever thoroughly independent of vision (or, more generally, communication of perception) nor is vision itself ever ›purely optical‹ regarding its physiological predispositions—let alone a ›natural‹ capacity exempt from learning and training (cf. MITCHELL 2008b: 13, 15).
The same metaphorical, paradoxical, or oxymoronic combination of this seeming contradictio in adjecto, I would like to argue, can be found in the concept of an écriture filmique, or ›filmic writing‹, which in the following I will discuss with special regard to recent changes in the wider scope of today’s media culture: just as film, according to intermediality scholar Joachim Paech, has ultimately become a mere metaphor for virtually »every kind of moving picture« (PAECH 2011: 8), writing correspondingly may as yet be nothing more than a metaphor for its own remediation in a postmedial era (cf. BOLTER/GRUSIN 2000; WEIBEL 2005), along with ›literacy‹ as a metaphor or synecdoche for several kinds of ›new literacies‹ (cf. BUCKINGHAM 1993; LANKSHEAR/KNOBEL 2006; LEU/KINZER/COIRO/CAMMACK 2004)— ›computer‹,› digital‹, ›information‹, ›media literacy‹ etc. as certain particularly mediatized ›cultural techniques‹ considered elementary for current quotidian communicative competence—in short, to quote Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel, the general and extensive »semiotic competence« necessary to cope with today’s multimodal »post-typographic texts and technologies« (LANKSHEAR/KNOBEL 2006: 3, 5).
The comparative linking of both concepts characterized in this way, then, hopefully still will not result in an explanation metaphoram per metaphoram, that is, rather tautologically, idem per idem, or even obscurum per obscurius and ignotum per ignotius, but rather aims to contrast two particular reflections on visual literacy by their respective depictions of the lack of it; one philosophical-textual as a general diagnosis of today’s media culture and one artistic-filmic as a specific case in point. In a very cursory way, then, I will discuss

• firstly Vilém Flusser’s concept of the ›techno-image‹ as the latest and, implicitly, also the last ›symbolic form‹ of cultural history, and
• secondly a film by Peter Greenaway centrally addressing the problem of the ›reading‹ of an image—The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)—in order to
• thirdly and conclusively address the concept of an écriture filmique as founded in Alexandre Astruc’s seminal essay The Birth of a New Avantgarde and its possible uses for the situation of today’s media culture.

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