10 October 2005
The class discussion today revolved around the future of the English profession in the context of the increasing use of visual media as a form of communication and the potential proportional decrease in printed media. The article we read by Sven Birkerts (Into the Electronic Millennium) involved a great deal of unnecessary handwringing and hyperbole. Birkerts is certain that this whole electronic/visual thing is pretty much going to end civilization as we know it. However, the fact that his article was published in 1991 gives it a little less credence in view of the fact that civilization has not yet come to a grinding halt. Oddly enough, people seemed to have the same misgivings about the printing press, the telegraph, and the telephone as Birkerts does about video and the internet (see Mitchell Stevens, The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word). I'd like to think that the shift toward visual and electronic media will do for literature what photography did for painting. People didn't stop producing paintings when the camera came along; they found new ways to use their medium, which a camera could not imitate.
Nick showed us a clip from a video called The United States of Poetry, which was an award-winning PBS series about -- prepare to be astonished -- poetry in the United States. The opening sequence involved a short but intense MTV-esque barrage of imagery, which I think we're all kind of used to, so nobody had a seizure or anything. This was followed by Henry Real Bird reciting his "Driftwood Feelin'," which sounded like it might be kind of cool, except that he talked just fast enough for me to have a hard time understanding him. While he was talking they showed footage of him, and also of western landscapes ... that worked for me, since that seemed to be what he was talking about. But then we got George Ella Lyons' "I Am From," which was voiced over a bunch of imagery that seemed curiously disconnected from the words. There is a right way and a wrong way to make this kind of video, and with all due respect, whoever was in charge of this segment botched it. When the poem was talking about dirt under the porch, the video would show, say, a gate. Or a flower petal. Or a photo album. But not dirt, or a porch. There seemed to be a theme to the imagery, and the theme was not necessarily incompatible with the poem, but the disjunction between the specific images in the poem and the concurrent video images just made me irritable. My brain finally gave up on the poem and just watched the video. What a waste.