Cultures of the image and cultures of the word

Steven Weinberg's 2002 review of Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science contains the following:

In this, Wolfram is allying himself with one side in the ancient struggle between what (with much oversimplification) one might call cultures of the image and cultures of the word. In our own time it has surfaced in the competition between television and newspapers and between graphical user interfaces and command line interfaces in computer operating systems.

The culture of images has had the better of it lately. For a while the culture of the word had seemed to have scored a victory with the introduction of sound into motion pictures. In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond recalls that in silent films, “We didn't need dialogue. We had faces.” But now movies can go on for long stretches with no words, only the thunk of cars running into each other and the sizzle of light sabers. The ascendancy of the culture of the image has been abetted by computers and the study of complexity, which have made possible the simulation of complex visual images.

I am an unreconstructed believer in the importance of the word, or its mathematical analogue, the equation.

The crucial phrase here is "with much oversimplification". I am wondering what could be the larger trend manifesting in the history of ideas that Weinberg is referring to: his observation of "the ascendancy of the culture of the image" seems obvious enough in our time, and one could conjecture that the culture of the word had scored an earlier victory with the invention of the printing press, say. The dichotomy also seems to relate to a contrast between exact/more intuitive modes of thinking and expression that is sometimes attributed to West/East (or modernism/postmodernism, or even Wittgenstein I/II :).

If the trend has been observed (and named) by historians of ideas, do they describe it as a back-and-forth between (suitable generalizations of) the cultures of the image and the word respectively across times and cultures, or is it more of a uniform ascendancy of the culture of images perhaps facilitated by progress in technology and the factoid that everything might have been said (but not by everyone) in certain areas? Or is there no larger trend in history and these are just sentimental words from an elder (and wise) individual of a kind that is perhaps constant across generations?

I think Weinberg is wrong when asserting the struggle between the word and the image. I thin this paper by Atiyah may be informative regarding image-word interplay. Here's a relevant quote from it:

"Let me try to explain my own view of the difference between geometry and algebra. Geometry is, of course, about space, of that there is no question. If I look out at the audience in this room I can see a lot; in one single second or microsecond I can take in a vast amount of information, and that is of course not an accident.

Our brains have been constructed in such a way that they are extremely concerned with vision. Vision, I understand from friends who work in neurophysiology, uses up something like 80 or 90 percent of the cortex of the brain. There are about 17 different centres in the brain, each of which is specialised in a different part of the process of vision: some parts are concerned with vertical, some parts with horizontal, some parts with colour, or perspective, and finally some parts are concerned with meaning and interpretation. Understanding, and making sense of, the world that we see is a very important part of our evolution. Therefore, spatial intuition or spatial perception is an enormously powerful tool, and that is why geometry is actually such a powerful part of mathematics-not only for things that are obviously geometrical, but even for things that are not. We try to put them into geometrical form because that enables us to use our intuition.

[… ]

Algebra, on the other hand (and you may not have thought about it like this), is concerned essentially with time. Whatever kind of algebra you are doing, a sequence of operations is performed one after the other and 'one after the other' means you have got to have time. In a static universe you cannot imagine algebra, but geometry is essentially static. I can just sit here and see, and nothing may change, but I can still see. Algebra, however, is concerned with time, because you have operations which are performed sequentially and, when I say 'algebra', I do not just mean modern algebra. Any algorithm, any process for calculation, is a sequence of steps performed one after the other; the modern computer makes that quite clear. The modern computer takes its information in a stream of zeros and ones, and it gives the answer.

Algebra is concerned with manipulation in time and geometry is concerned with space. These are two orthogonal aspects of the world, and they represent two different points of view in mathematics. Thus the argument or dialogue between mathematicians in the past about the relative importance of geometry and algebra represents something very, very fundamental.

Of course it does not pay to think of this as an argument in which one side loses and the other side wins. I like to think of this in the form of an analogy: 'Should you just be an algebraist or a geometer?' is like saying 'Would you rather be deaf or blind?' If you are blind, you do not see space: if you are deaf, you do not hear, and hearing takes place in time. On the whole, we prefer to have both faculties."

I would like to add to the above quote that IMO there's a certain amount on interplay between the word (which is similar to time-bound algebra because it describes the World as a sequence of words), and the image (which is similar to space-bound geometry for obvious reasons). Following Atiyah's analogy, taking a side in the alleged struggle between them is like making a choice between being deaf and being blind; most people, as he put it, would "prefer to have both faculties."

The Image Culture

W hen Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana in late August, images of the immense devastation were immediately available to anyone with a television set or an Internet connection. Although images of both natural and man-made disasters have long been displayed in newspapers and on television, the number and variety of images in the aftermath of Katrina reveals the sophistication, speed, and power of images in contemporary American culture. Satellite photographs from space offered us miniature before and after images of downtown New Orleans and the damaged coast of Biloxi video footage from an array of news outlets tracked rescue operations and recorded the thoughts of survivors wire photos captured the grief of victims amateur pictures, taken with camera-enabled cell phones or digital cameras and posted to personal blogs, tracked the disaster&rsquos toll on countless individuals. The world was offered, in a negligible space of time, both God&rsquos-eye and man&rsquos-eye views of a devastated region. Within days, as pictures of the squalor at the Louisiana Superdome and photographs of dead bodies abandoned in downtown streets emerged, we confronted our inability to cope with the immediate chaos, destruction, and desperation the storm had caused. These images brutally drove home the realization of just how unprepared the U.S. was to cope with such a disaster.

But how did this saturation of images influence our understanding of what happened in New Orleans and elsewhere? How did the speed with which the images were disseminated alter the humanitarian and political response to the disaster? And how, in time, will these images influence our cultural memory of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina?

Such questions could be asked of any contemporary disaster &mdash and often have been, especially in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., which forever etched in public memory the image of the burning Twin Towers. But the average person sees tens of thousands of images in the course of a day. One sees images on television, in newspapers and magazines, on websites, and on the sides of buses. Images grace soda cans and t-shirts and billboards. &ldquoIn our world we sleep and eat the image and pray to it and wear it too,&rdquo novelist Don DeLillo observed. Internet search engines can instantly procure images for practically any word you type. On, a photo-sharing website, you can type in a word such as &ldquolove&rdquo and find amateur digital photos of couples in steamy embrace or parents hugging their children. Type in &ldquoterror&rdquo and among the results is a photograph of the World Trade Center towers burning. &ldquoRemember when this was a shocking image?&rdquo asks the person who posted the picture.

The question is not merely rhetorical. It points to something important about images in our culture: They have, by their sheer number and ease of replication, become less magical and less shocking &mdash a situation unknown until fairly recently in human history. Until the development of mass reproduction, images carried more power and evoked more fear. The second of the Ten Commandments listed in Exodus 20 warns against idolizing, or even making, graven images: &ldquoThou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.&rdquo During the English Reformation, Henry VIII&rsquos advisor Thomas Cromwell led the effort to destroy religious images and icons in the country&rsquos churches and monasteries, and was successful enough that few survive to this day. The 2001 decision by the Taliban government in Afghanistan to destroy images throughout the country &mdash including the two towering stone Buddhas carved into the cliffs of Bamiyan &mdash is only the most recent example of this impulse. Political leaders have long feared images and taken extreme measures to control and manipulate them. The anonymous minions of manipulators who sanitized photographs at the behest of Stalin (a man who seemingly never met an enemy he didn&rsquot murder and then airbrush from history) are perhaps the best known example. Control of images has long been a preoccupation of the powerful.

It is understandable why so many have been so jealous of the image&rsquos influence. Sight is our most powerful sense, much more dominant in translating experience than taste, touch, or hearing. And images appeal to emotion &mdash often viscerally so. They claim our attention without uttering a word. They can persuade, repel, or charm us. They can be absorbed instantly and easily by anyone who can see. They seem to speak for themselves.

Today, anyone with a digital camera and a personal computer can produce and alter an image. As a result, the power of the image has been diluted in one sense, but strengthened in another. It has been diluted by the ubiquity of images and the many populist technologies (like inexpensive cameras and picture-editing software) that give almost everyone the power to create, distort, and transmit images. But it has been strengthened by the gradual capitulation of the printed word to pictures, particularly moving pictures &mdash the ceding of text to image, which might be likened not to a defeated political candidate ceding to his opponent, but to an articulate person being rendered mute, forced to communicate via gesture and expression rather than language.

Americans love images. We love the democratizing power of technologies &mdash such as digital cameras, video cameras, Photoshop, and PowerPoint &mdash that give us the capability to make and manipulate images. What we are less eager to consider are the broader cultural effects of a society devoted to the image. Historians and anthropologists have explored the story of mankind&rsquos movement from an oral-based culture to a written culture, and later to a printed one. But it is only in the past several decades that we have begun to assimilate the effects of the move from a culture based on the printed word to one based largely on images. In making images rather than texts our guide, are we opening up new vistas for understanding and expression, creating a form of communication that is &ldquobetter than print,&rdquo as New York University communications professor Mitchell Stephens has argued? Or are we merely making a peculiar and unwelcome return to forms of communication once ascendant in preliterate societies &mdash perhaps creating a world of hieroglyphics and ideograms (albeit technologically sophisticated ones) &mdash and in the process becoming, as the late Daniel Boorstin argued, slavishly devoted to the enchanting and superficial image at the expense of the deeper truths that the written word alone can convey?

Two things in particular are at stake in our contemporary confrontation with an image-based culture: First, technology has considerably undermined our ability to trust what we see, yet we have not adequately grappled with the effects of this on our notions of truth. Second, if we are indeed moving from the era of the printed word to an era dominated by the image, what impact will this have on culture, broadly speaking, and its institutions? What will art, literature, and music look like in the age of the image? And will we, in the age of the image, become too easily accustomed to verisimilar rather than true things, preferring appearance to reality and in the process rejecting the demands of discipline and patience that true things often require of us if we are to understand their meaning and describe it with precision? The potential costs of moving from the printed word to the image are immense. We may find ourselves in a world where our ability to communicate is stunted, our understanding and acceptance of what we see questionable, and our desire to transmit culture from one generation to the next seriously compromised.

The Mirror With a Memory

T he creator of one of the earliest technologies of the image named his invention, appropriately enough, for himself. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, a Frenchman known for his elaborate and whimsical stage design in the Paris theater, began building on the work of Joseph Nicéphore Niepce to try to produce a fixed image. Daguerre called the image he created in 1837 the &ldquodaguerreotype&rdquo (acquiring a patent from the French government for the process in 1839). He made extravagant claims for his device. It is &ldquonot merely an instrument which serves to draw nature,&rdquo he wrote in 1838, it &ldquogives her the power to reproduce herself.&rdquo

Despite its technological crudeness and often-spectral images, the daguerreotype was eerily effective at capturing glimmers of personality in its fixed portraits. The extant daguerreotypes of well-known Americans in the nineteenth century include: a young and serious Abraham Lincoln, sans beard an affable Horace Greeley in stovepipe hat and a dour picture of the suffragist Lucy Stone. A daguerreotype of Edgar Allen Poe, taken in 1848, depicts the writer with a baleful expression and crossed arms, and was taken not long before Poe was found delirious and near death on the streets of Baltimore.

But the daguerreotype did more than capture the posture of a poised citizenry. It also changed artists&rsquo perceptions of human nature. Nathaniel Hawthorne&rsquos 1851 Gothic romance, The House of the Seven Gables, has an ancient moral (&ldquothe wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones&rdquo) but made use of a modern technology, daguerreotyping, to unspool its story about the unmasking of festering, latent evil. In the story, Holgrave, the strange lodger living in the gabled house, is a daguerreotypist (as well as a political radical) who says of his art: &ldquoWhile we give it credit only for depicting the merest surface, it actually brings out the secret character with a truth no painter would ever venture upon, even could he detect it.&rdquo It is Holgrave&rsquos silvery daguerreotypes that eventually reveal the nefarious motives of Judge Pyncheon &mdash and in so doing suggest that the camera could expose human character more acutely than the eye.

Oliver Wendell Holmes called the photo the &ldquomirror with a memory,&rdquo and in 1859 predicted that the &ldquoimage would become more important than the object itself and would in fact make the object disposable.&rdquo But praise for the photograph was not universal. &ldquoA revengeful God has given ear to the prayers of this multitude. Daguerre was his Messiah,&rdquo said the French poet Charles Baudelaire in an essay written in 1859. &ldquoOur squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal.&rdquo As a result, Baudelaire worried, &ldquoartistic genius&rdquo was being impoverished.

Contemporary critiques of photography have at times echoed Baudelaire&rsquos fear. In her elegant extended essay, On Photography, the late Susan Sontag argues that images &mdash particularly photographs &mdash carry the risk of undermining true things and genuine experiences, as well as the danger of upending our understanding of art. &ldquoKnowing a great deal about what is in the world (art, catastrophe, the beauties of nature) through photographic images,&rdquo Sontag notes, &ldquopeople are frequently disappointed, surprised, unmoved when they see the real thing.&rdquo This is not a new problem, of course it plagued the art world when the printing process allowed the mass reproduction of great works of art, and its effects can still be seen whenever one overhears a museum-goer express disappointment that the Van Gogh he sees hanging on the wall is nowhere near as vibrant as the one on his coffee mug.

But Sontag&rsquos point is broader, and suggests that photography has forced us to consider that exposure to images does not necessarily create understanding of the things themselves. Images do not necessarily lead to meaning the information they convey does not always lead to knowledge. This is due in part to the fact that photographic images must constantly be refreshed if one&rsquos attention is to continue to be drawn to them. &ldquoPhotographs shock insofar as they show something novel,&rdquo Sontag argues. &ldquoUnfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised &mdash partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror.&rdquo Images, Sontag concludes, have turned the world &ldquointo a department store or museum-without-walls,&rdquo a place where people &ldquobecome customers or tourists of reality.&rdquo

Other contemporary critics, such as Roger Scruton, have also lamented this diversionary danger and worried about our potential dependence on images. &ldquoPhotographic images, with their capacity for realization of fantasies, have a distracting character which requires masterly control if it is not to get out of hand,&rdquo Scruton writes. &ldquoPeople raised on such images … inevitably require a need for them.&rdquo Marshall McLuhan, the Sixties media guru, offered perhaps the most blunt and apt metaphor for photography: he called it &ldquothe brothel-without-walls.&rdquo After all, he noted, the images of celebrities whose behavior we so avidly track &ldquocan be bought and hugged and thumbed more easily than public prostitutes&rdquo &mdash and all for a greatly reduced price.

Nevertheless, photographs still retain some of the magical allure that the earliest daguerreotypes inspired. As W. J. T. Mitchell observes in What Do Pictures Want?, &ldquoWhen students scoff at the idea of a magical relation between a picture and what it represents, ask them to take a photograph of their mother and cut out the eyes.&rdquo As objects, our photographs have changed they have become physically flimsier as they have become more technologically sophisticated. Daguerre produced pictures on copper plates today many of our photographs never become tangible things, but instead remain filed away on computers and cameras, part of the digital ether that envelops the modern world. At the same time, our patience for the creation of images has also eroded. Children today are used to being tracked from birth by digital cameras and video recorders and they expect to see the results of their poses and performances instantly. &ldquoLet me see,&rdquo a child says, when you take her picture with a digital camera. And she does, immediately. The space between life as it is being lived and life as it is being displayed shrinks to a mere second. Yet, despite these technical developments, photographs remain powerful because they are reminders of the people and things we care about. They are surrogates carried into battle by a soldier or by a traveler on holiday. They exist to remind us of the absent, the beloved, and the dead. But in the new era of the digital image, they also have a greater potential for fostering falsehood and trickery, perpetuating fictions that seem so real we cannot tell the difference.

Vanishing Commissars and Bloodthirsty Presidents

H uman nature being what it is, little time passed after photography&rsquos invention before a means for altering and falsifying photographs was developed. A German photographer in the 1840s discovered a way to retouch negatives, Susan Sontag recounts, and, perversely if not unpredictably, &ldquothe news that the camera could lie made getting photographed much more popular.&rdquo

One of the most successful mass manipulators of the photographic image was Stalin. As David King recounts in his riveting book, The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin&rsquos Russia, image manipulation was the extension of Stalin&rsquos paranoiac megalomania. &ldquoThe physical eradication of Stalin&rsquos political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence,&rdquo King writes. Airbrush, India ink, and scalpel were all marshaled to remove enemies such as Trotsky from photographs. &ldquoThere is hardly a publication from the Stalinist period that does not bear the scars of this political vandalism,&rdquo King concludes.

Even in non-authoritarian societies, early photo falsification was commonly used to dupe the masses. A new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, &ldquoThe Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult,&rdquo displays a range of photographs from the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century United States and Europe that purport to show ghosts, levitating mediums, and a motley array of other emanations that were proffered as evidence of the spirit world by devotees of the spiritualism movement popular at the time. The pictures, which include images of tiny heads shrouded in smoke and hovering over the furrowed brows of mediums, and ghosts in diaphanous robes walking through gardens, are &ldquoby turns spooky, beautiful, disturbing, and hilarious,&rdquo notes the New York Times. They create &ldquovisual records of decades of fraud, cons, flimflams and gullibility.&rdquo

Stalin and the spiritualists were not the only people to manipulate images in the service of reconstructing the past &mdash many an angry ex-lover has taken shears to photos of a once-beloved in the hope that excising the images might also excise the bad memories the images prompt. But it was the debut of a computer program called Photoshop in 1990 that allowed the masses, inexpensively and easily, to begin rewriting visual history. Photoshop and the many copycat programs that have followed in its wake allow users to manipulate digital images with great ease &mdash resizing, changing scale, and airbrushing flaws, among other things &mdash and they have been both denounced for facilitating the death of the old-fashioned darkroom and hailed as democratic tools for free expression. &ldquoIt&rsquos the inevitable consequence of the democratization of technology,&rdquo John Knoll, the inventor of Photoshop, told &ldquoYou give people a tool, but you can&rsquot really control what they do with it.&rdquo

For some people, of course, offering Photoshop as a tool is akin to giving a stick of dynamite to a toddler. Last year, The Nation published an advertisement that used Photoshop to superimpose President Bush&rsquos head over the image of a brutal and disturbing Richard Serra sculpture (which itself borrows from Goya&rsquos painting, &ldquoSaturn Devouring One of His Children&rdquo) so that Bush appeared to be enthusiastically devouring a naked human torso. In contrast to the sickening image, the accompanying text appears prim: As this and other images suggest, Photoshop has introduced a new fecklessness into our relationship with the image. We tend to lose respect for things we can manipulate. And when we can so readily manipulate images &mdash even images of presidents or loved ones &mdash we contribute to the decline of respect for what the image represents.

Photoshop is popular not only because it allows us visually to settle scores, but also because it appeals to our desire for the incongruous (and the ribald). &ldquoPhotoshop contests&rdquo such as those found on the website offer people the opportunity to create wacky and fantastic images that are then judged by others in cyberspace. This is an impulse that predates software and whose most enthusiastic American purveyor was, perhaps, P. T. Barnum. In the nineteenth century, Barnum barkered an infamous &ldquomermaid woman&rdquo that was actually the moldering head of a monkey stitched onto the body of a fish. Photoshop allows us to employ pixels rather than taxidermy to achieve such fantasies, but the motivation for creating them is the same &mdash they are a form of wish fulfillment and, at times, a vehicle for reinforcing our existing prejudices.

Of course, Photoshop meddling is not the only tactic available for producing misleading images. Magazines routinely airbrushed and retouched photographs long before picture-editing software was invented. And of course even &ldquoauthentic&rdquo pictures can be staged, like the 1960s Life magazine pictures of Muhammad Ali that showed him training underwater in fact, Ali couldn&rsquot even swim, and he hadn&rsquot done any underwater training for his prizefights before stepping into the pool for that photo opportunity. More recently, in July 2005, the New York Times Magazine raised eyebrows when it failed to disclose that the Andres Serrano photographs accompanying a cover story about prisoner interrogation were in fact staged images rather than straightforward photojournalism. (Serrano was already infamous for his controversial 1989 photograph, &ldquoPiss Christ.&rdquo) The Times public editor chastised the magazine for violating the paper&rsquos guidelines that &ldquoimages in our pages that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way.&rdquo

But while Photoshop did not invent image fraud, it has made us all potential practitioners. It enables the average computer user to become a digital prankster whose merrymaking with photographs can create more than silly images &mdash it can spawn political and social controversy. In a well-reported article published in in 2004, Farhad Manjoo explored in depth one such controversy: an image that purportedly showed an American Marine reservist in Iraq standing next to two young boys. One boy held a cardboard sign that read, &ldquoLcpl Boudreaux killed my Dad then he knocked up my sister!&rdquo When the image found its way to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Manjoo reports, it seemed to prove the group&rsquos worst fears about the behavior of American soldiers in Iraq. An angry press release soon followed. But then another image surfaced on various websites, identical to the first except for the text written on the cardboard sign, which now read, &ldquoLcpl Boudreaux saved my Dad then he rescued my sister!&rdquo The authenticity of both photos was never satisfactorily proven, and, as Manjoo notes, the episode serves as a reminder that in today&rsquos Photoshop world, &ldquopictures are endlessly pliable.&rdquo (Interestingly, CAIR found itself at the center of a recent Photoshop scandal, the Weekly Standard reported, when it was shown that the organization had Photoshopped a hijab, or headscarf, onto several women in a picture taken at a CAIR event and then posted the doctored image on the organization&rsquos website.)

Just as political campaigns in the past produced vituperative pamphlets and slogans, today Photoshop helps produce misleading images. The Bush-Cheney campaign was pilloried for using a Photoshopped image of a crowd of soldiers in the recent presidential election the photo duplicated groups of soldiers to make the crowd appear larger than it actually was. The replicated faces of the soldiers recalled an earlier and cruder montaged crowd scene, &ldquoStalin and the Masses,&rdquo produced in 1930, which purported to show the glowering dictator, in overcoat and cap, standing before a throng of loyal communists. (Other political campaigns &mdash and university publicity departments &mdash have also reportedly resorted to using Photoshop on pictures to make them seem more racially diverse.) Similarly, a Seventies-era image of Jane Fonda addressing an anti-war crowd with a young and raptly admiring John Kerry looking on was also created with Photoshop sorcery but circulated widely on the Internet during the last presidential election as evidence of Kerry&rsquos extreme views. The doctored image fooled several news outlets before its questionable provenance was revealed. (Another image of Kerry and Fonda, showing them both sitting in the audience in a 1970 anti-war rally, was authentic.)

Photoshop, in effect, democratizes the ability to commit fraud. As a result, a few computer programmers are creating new digital detection techniques to uncover forgeries and manipulations. The Inspector Javert of digital fraud is Dartmouth computer science professor Hany Farid, who developed a software program that analyzes the pattern of pixels in digital images. Since all digital pictures are, in essence, a collection of codes, Farid&rsquos program ferrets out &ldquoabnormal patterns of information that, while invisible to the eye, are detectable by computer&rdquo and that represent possible tampering, according to the New York Times. &ldquoIt used to be that you had a photograph, and that was the end of it &mdash that was truth,&rdquo Farid said last July. &ldquoWe&rsquore trying to bring some of that back. To put some measure of guarantee back in photography.&rdquo

But the digital manipulation of images can also be employed for far more enlightened purposes than removing models&rsquo blemishes and attacking political opponents. Some artists use Photoshop merely to enhance photographs they take others have made digital editing a central part of their art. The expansive images of the German photographer Andreas Gursky, whose photos of Montparnasse, the Tokyo Stock Exchange, and a 99-cent store make use of digital alteration, prompt us to look at familiar spaces in unfamiliar ways. The portraits taken and Photoshopped by artist Loretta Lux are &ldquomesmerizing images of children who seem trapped between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, who don&rsquot exist except in the magical realm of art,&rdquo according to a New York Times critic. Here the manipulation of the image does not intrude. It illuminates. In these pictures, the manipulation of the image at least serves an authentic artistic vision, a vision that relies on genuine aesthetic and critical standards. Ironically, it is these very standards that a culture devoted to the image risks compromising.

The MTV Effect

T he still images of daguerreotyping and photography laid the groundwork for the moving image in film and video as photography did before them, these technologies prompted wonder and sweeping claims about the merits of this new way of seeing. In 1915, after a screening of filmmaker D. W. Griffith&rsquos The Birth of a Nation, Woodrow Wilson declared that it was &ldquolike writing history with lightning&rdquo (a judgment Griffith promptly began using in his promotional efforts for the film). Moving images are as powerful as photos, if not more so. Like photographs, they appeal to emotion and can be read in competing ways. Yet moving images change so rapidly and so often that they arrest our attention and task the brain&rsquos ability to absorb what we are seeing. They are becoming a ubiquitous presence in public and private life &mdash so much so that Camille Paglia, an astute critic of images, has called our world &ldquoa media starscape of explosive but evanescent images.&rdquo

The moving image, like the photograph, can also be marshaled to prove or disprove competing claims. During the legal and political debate surrounding the case of Terri Schiavo, for example, videotape of her movements and apparent responsiveness to loved ones became central in this family dispute-turned-national drama. Those who argued for keeping Schiavo alive used the footage as evidence that she did indeed have feelings and thoughts that rendered attempts to remove her feeding tube barbaric and immoral. Those who believed that she should be left to die (including her husband) thought the tape &ldquogrossly deceptive,&rdquo because it represented a misleading portrait of Schiavo&rsquos real condition. Most of the time, her husband and others argued, Terri did not demonstrate awareness she was &ldquoimmobile, expressionless.&rdquo In the Schiavo case, the moving image was both alibi and accuser.

Most Americans consume moving images through the media of television and movies (and, to a lesser degree, through the Internet and video games). In recent years, in what many observers have called &ldquothe MTV effect,&rdquo those moving images have become more nimble and less demanding of our attention. Jumping quickly from image to image in hastily edited segments (in some cases as quickly as one image every one-thirtieth of a second), television and, to a lesser extent, movies offer us a constant stream of visual candy. Former Vice President Al Gore&rsquos new for-profit public access television channel, Current TV, is the latest expression of this trend. The network&rsquos website lists its upcoming programming in tiny time increments: &ldquoIn 1 min,&rdquo &ldquoIn 3 min,&rdquo &ldquoIn 10 min,&rdquo and so on. Reviewing the channel&rsquos first few broadcasts, New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley noted the many techniques &ldquodesigned to hold short attention spans,&rdquo including a &ldquoprogress bar&rdquo at the bottom of the screen that counts down how much time is left for each of the segments &mdash some of which last as little as 15 seconds.

According to enthusiasts of television, the speed and sophistication of moving images allows new and improved forms of oral storytelling that can and should replace staler vehicles like the novel. Video game and television apologist Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You, dreams of a world of &ldquoDVD cases lining living room shelves like so many triple-decker novels.&rdquo If television is our new form of narrative, then our storytelling skills have declined, as anyone who has watched the new raft of sitcoms and dramas that premiere (and then quickly disappear) each fall on the major networks can attest. (Shows like The Sopranos are perhaps the rare exception.) In fact, television doesn&rsquot really &ldquotell stories.&rdquo It constructs fantasy worlds through a combination of images and words, relying more on our visual and aural senses and leaving less to the imagination than oral storytelling does. Writing some years ago in the journal Media & Values, J. Francis Davis noted that although television is in one sense a form of storytelling, the most important messages that emanate from the screen &ldquoare those not verbalized &mdash the stories and myths hidden in its constant flow of images.&rdquo

It is precisely those hidden stories in the moving image that excite critics like NYU professor Mitchell Stephens. In The Rise of the Image, The Fall of the Word, Stephens argues that the moving image offers a potential cure for the &ldquocrisis of the spirit&rdquo that afflicts our society, and he is enthusiastic about the fact that &ldquothe image is replacing the word as the predominant means of mental transport.&rdquo Stephens envisions a future of learning through synecdoche, using vivid and condensed images: &ldquoA half second of the Capitol may be enough to indicate the federal government, a quick shot of a white-haired woman may represent age. The part, in other words, will be substituted for the whole so that in a given period of time it will be possible to consider a larger number of wholes.&rdquo He quotes approvingly the prediction of movie director Ridley Scott, who declares: &ldquoFilm is twentieth-century theater, and it will become twenty-first-century writing.&rdquo

Perhaps it will. But Stephens, like other boosters of the image, fails to acknowledge what we will lose as well as gain if this revolution succeeds. He says, for example, &ldquoour descendants undoubtedly will still learn to read and write, but they undoubtedly will read and write less often and, therefore, less well.&rdquo Language, too, will be &ldquoless precise, less subtle,&rdquo and books &ldquowill maintain a small, elite audience.&rdquo This, then, is the future that prompts celebration: a world where, after a century&rsquos effort to make literacy as broadly accessible as possible &mdash to make it a tool for the masses &mdash the ability to read and write is once again returned to the elite. Reading and writing either become what they were before widespread education &mdash a mark of privilege &mdash or else antiquarian preoccupations or mere hobbies, like coin collecting.

Stephens also assumes that the people who will be absorbing these images will have a store of knowledge at their disposal with which to interpret them. A quick shot of a white-haired woman might effectively be absorbed as symbolizing &ldquoage&rdquo to one person, as Stephens says, but it could also reasonably prompt ideas such as &ldquohair dye,&rdquo &ldquofeebleness,&rdquo or &ldquoSocial Security&rdquo to another. As Camille Paglia observes of her own students, &ldquoyoung people today are flooded with disconnected images but lack a sympathetic instrument to analyze them as well as a historical frame of reference in which to situate them.&rdquo They lack, in other words, a shared language or lexicon that would allow them to interpret images and then communicate an understanding of what they are seeing.

Such a deficit will pose a unique challenge for cultural transmission from one generation to the next. How, in Stephens&rsquos future world of the moving image, will history, literature, and art be passed down to the next generation? He might envision classrooms where children watch the History Channel rather than pore over dull textbooks. But no matter how much one might enjoy the BBC&rsquos televised version of Pride and Prejudice, it is no substitute for actually reading Austen&rsquos prose, nor is a documentary about the American Constitutional Convention as effective at distilling the political ideals of the early American republic as reading The Federalist Papers. Moving images are a rich aide to learning and understanding but their victory as the best means of forming rigorous habits of mind is by no means assured.

In addition, Stephens accepts uncritically the claim that the &ldquoold days&rdquo of written and printed culture are gone (or nearly so) and assumes that video is the language that has emerged, like some species evolving through a process of natural selection, to take its place in the culture. He does not entertain the possibility that the reason the moving image is replacing the written word is not because it is, in fact, a superior form for the communication of ideas, but because the moving image &mdash more so than the written word &mdash crudely but intoxicatingly satisfies our desire for stimulation and immediate gratification.

Like any good techno-enthusiast, Stephens takes the choices that we have made en masse as a culture (such as watching television rather than reading), accepts them without challenge, and then declares them inevitable. This is a form of reasoning that techno-enthusiasts often employ when they attempt to engage the concerns of skeptics. Although rhetorically useful in the short-term, this strategy avoids the real questions: Did things have to happen this way rather than that way? Does every cultural trend make a culture genuinely better? By neglecting to ask these questions, the enthusiast becomes nearly Panglossian in his hymns to his new world.

There is, of course, a long and thorough literature critical of television and the moving image, most notably the work of Neil Postman, Jerry Mander, and Marie Winn. And as with photography, from its earliest days there have been those who worried that television might undermine our appreciation for true things. &ldquoTelevision hangs on the questionable theory that whatever happens anywhere should be sensed everywhere,&rdquo E. B. White wrote in The New Yorker in 1948. &ldquoIf everyone is going to be able to see everything, in the long run all sights may lose whatever rarity value they once possessed, and it may well turn out that people, being able to see and hear practically everything, will be specially interested in almost nothing.&rdquo Others are even blunter. As Roger Scruton writes, &ldquoObserving the products of the video culture you come to see why the Greeks insisted that actors wear masks, and that all violence take place behind the scenes.&rdquo It is possible, in other words, to see too much, and in the seeing lose our grasp on what is real. Television is the perfect vehicle for this experience, since it bombards us with shocking, stimulating, and pleasant images, all the while keeping us at a safe remove from what we are seeing.

But the power the moving image now exercises over modern American life has grown considerably in recent years. It is as if the Jumbotron television screen that looms over Times Square in New York has replicated and installed itself permanently in public space. Large screens broadcasting any number of images and advertisements can be found in most sports arenas, restaurants, and shopping malls they even appear in a growing number of larger churches. The dentist&rsquos and doctor&rsquos office are no longer safe havens from a barrage of images and sounds. A walk through an airport terminal is now a gauntlet of moving images, as televisions bolted into ceilings or walls blare vacuous segments from CNN&rsquos dedicated &ldquoairport programming&rdquo once on board a plane, we&rsquore treated to nonstop displays of movies and TV options like &ldquoNBC In Flight.&rdquo The ubiquity of television sets in public space is often explained as an attempt to entertain and distract, but in fact it seems more successful at annoyance or anesthetization. For people who wish to travel, eat, or pray in silence, there are few options beyond the deliciously subversive &ldquoTV-B-Gone&rdquo device, a universal remote control the size of a key chain that allows users to turn off televisions in public places. Considering the number of televisions currently in use, however, it would take an army of TV-B-Gone users to restore peace and quiet in public space.

One of the more startling developments in recent years is the moving image&rsquos interjection into the classical concert hall. In 2004, the New York Philharmonic experimented with a 15-by-20-foot screen that projected enormous images of the musicians and conductor to the audience during performances of Wagner and Brahms. The orchestra trustee who encouraged the project was blunt about his motivation: &ldquoWe want to increase attendance at concerts, change the demographics,&rdquo he told the New York Times. &ldquoAnd the younger generation is more responsive to visual stimuli.&rdquo A classical music industry consultant echoed the sentiment. &ldquoWe have to recognize that this is a visual generation,&rdquo he said. &ldquoThey are used to seeing things more than they are used to hearing things.&rdquo Symphonies in Vancouver, San Diego, Omaha, Atlanta, and Philadelphia have all tried using moving images during concerts, and some orchestras are resorting to gimmicks such as projecting works of art during performances of Mussorgsky&rsquos &ldquoPictures at an Exhibition,&rdquo or broadcasting images of space during Holst&rsquos &ldquoThe Planets.&rdquo

Among those less than pleased with the triumph of the moving image in the concert hall are the musicians themselves, who are haplessly being transformed into video stars. &ldquoI found it very distracting,&rdquo a violinist with the New York Philharmonic said. &ldquoPeople might as well stay home with their big-screen TVs,&rdquo said another resignedly. &ldquoIt&rsquos going the route of MTV, and I&rsquom not sure it&rsquos the way to go.&rdquo What these musicians are expressing is a concern for the eclipse of their music, which often requires discipline and concentration to appreciate, by imagery. The images, flashing across a large screen above their heads, demand far less of their audience&rsquos active attention than the complicated notes and chords, rhythms and patterns, coming from their instruments. The capitulation of the concert hall to the moving image suggests that in an image-based culture, art will only be valuable insofar as it can be marketed as entertainment. The moving image redefines all other forms of expression in its image, often leaving us impoverished in the process.

Brain Candy

C oncern about the long-term effects of being saturated by moving images is not merely the expression of quasi-Luddite angst or cultural conservatism. It has a basis in what the neurosciences are teaching us about the brain and how it processes images. Images can have a profound physiological impact on those who view them. Dr. Steven Most, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, recently found that graphic images can &ldquoblind&rdquo us by briefly impairing the brain, often for as long as one-fifth of a second. As his fellow researcher explained to Discovery News: &ldquoBrain mechanisms that help us to attend to things become tied up by the provocative image, unable to orient to other stimuli.&rdquo

Another study by researchers at the Center for Cognitive Science at Ohio State University found that, for young children, sound was actually more riveting than images &mdash overwhelmingly so, in some cases. The research findings, which were published in Child Development, showed that &ldquochildren seem to be able to process only one type of stimuli at a time&rdquo and that &ldquofor infants, sounds are preferred almost exclusively,&rdquo a preference that continues up until at least age four. In their book Imagination and Play in the Electronic Age, Dorothy and Jerome Singer argue that &ldquothe electronic media of television, film and video games now may contribute to the child&rsquos development of an autonomous ongoing consciousness but with particular constraints. Looking and listening alone without other sensory inducements,&rdquo they write, &ldquocan be misleading guides to action.&rdquo

Research into the function of the primary visual cortex region of the brain suggests that it is not alarmist to assume that constant visual stimulation of the sort broadcast on television might have profound effects on the brains of children, whose neurological function continues to develop throughout childhood and adolescence. One study conducted at the University of Rochester and published in the journal Nature in 2004, involved, weirdly enough, tracking the visual processing patterns of ferrets that were forced to watch the movie The Matrix. The researchers found some surprising things: The adult ferrets &ldquohad neural patterns in their visual cortex that correlated very well with images they viewed,&rdquo according to a summary of the research, &ldquobut that correlation didn&rsquot exist at all in very young ferrets, suggesting the very basis of comprehending vision may be a very different task for young brains versus old brains.&rdquo The younger ferrets were &ldquotaking in and processing visual stimuli&rdquo just like the adult ferrets, but they were &ldquonot processing the stimuli in a way that reflects reality.&rdquo

These kinds of findings have led to warnings about the long-term negative impact of moving images on young minds. A study published in 2004 in the journal Pediatrics, for example, found a clear link between early television viewing and later problems such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and recent research has suggested troubling, near-term effects on behavior for young players of violent video games. In short: Moving images &mdash ubiquitous in homes and public spaces &mdash pose challenges to healthy development when they become the primary object of children&rsquos attention. Inculcating the young into the image culture may be bad for their brains.

The Closing of the PowerPoint Mind

A culture that raises its children on the milk of the moving image should not be surprised when they prove unwilling to wean themselves from it as adults. Nowhere is the evidence of this more apparent than in the business world, which has become enamored of and obedient to a particular image technology: the computer software program PowerPoint.

PowerPoint, a program included in the popular &ldquoMicrosoft Office&rdquo suite of software, allows users to create visual presentations using slide templates and graphics that can be projected from a computer onto a larger screen for an audience&rsquos benefit. The addition of an &ldquoAutoContent Wizard,&rdquo which is less a magician than an electronic duenna, helpfully ushers the user through an array of existing templates, suggesting bullet points and summaries and images. Its ease of use has made PowerPoint a reliable and ubiquitous presence at board meetings and conferences worldwide.

In recent years, however, PowerPoint&rsquos reach has extended beyond the business office. People have used PowerPoint slides at their wedding receptions to depict their courtship as a series of &ldquopriority points&rdquo and pictures. Elementary-school children are using the software to craft bullet-point-riddled book reports and class presentations. As a 2001 story in the New York Times reported, &ldquo69 percent of teachers who use Microsoft software use PowerPoint in their classrooms.&rdquo

Despite its widespread use, PowerPoint has spawned criticism almost from its inception, and has been called everything from a disaster to a virus. Some claim the program aids sophistry. As a chief scientist at Sun Microsystems put it: &ldquoIt gives you a persuasive sheen of authenticity that can cover a complete lack of honesty.&rdquo Others have argued that it deadens discussion and allows presenters with little to say to cover up their ignorance with constantly flashing images and bullet points. Frustration with PowerPoint has grown so widespread that in 2003, the New Yorker published a cartoon that illustrated a typical job interview in hell. In it, the devil asks his applicant: &ldquoI need someone well versed in the art of torture &mdash do you know PowerPoint?&rdquo

People subjected endlessly to PowerPoint presentations complain about its oddly chilling effect on thought and discussion and the way the constantly changing slides easily distract attention from the substance of a speaker&rsquos presentation. These concerns prompted Scott McNealy, the chairman of Sun Microsystems, to forbid his employees from using PowerPoint in the late 1990s. But it was the exegesis of the PowerPoint mindset published by Yale emeritus professor Edward Tufte in 2003 that remains the most thorough challenge to this image-heavy, analytically weak technology. In a slim pamphlet titled The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, Tufte argued that PowerPoint&rsquos dizzying array of templates and slides &ldquoweaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis.&rdquo Because PowerPoint is &ldquopresenter-oriented&rdquo rather than content or audience-oriented, Tufte wrote, it fosters a &ldquocognitive style&rdquo characterized by &ldquoforeshortening of evidence and thought, low spatial reasoning … rapid temporal sequencing of thin information … conspicuous decoration … a preoccupation with format not content, [and] an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.&rdquo PowerPoint, Tufte concluded, is &ldquofaux-analytical.&rdquo

Tufte&rsquos criticism of PowerPoint made use of a tragic but effective example: the space shuttle Columbia disaster. When NASA engineers evaluated the safety of the shuttle, which had reached orbit but faced risks upon reentry due to tiles that had been damaged by loose foam during launch, they used PowerPoint slides to illustrate their reasoning &mdash an unfortunate decision that led to very poor technical communication. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board later cited &ldquothe endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.&rdquo Rather than simply a tool that aids thought, PowerPoint changes the way we think, forcing us to express ourselves in terms of its own functionalities and protocols. As a result, only that which can be said using PowerPoint is worth saying at all.

Pseudo-Events and Pseudo-Culture

A lthough PowerPoint had not yet been created when he published his book, The Image, in 1961, historian Daniel Boorstin was nevertheless prescient in his warnings about the dangers of a culture that entrusted its rational decision-making to the image. By elevating image over substance and form over content, Boorstin argued that society was at risk of substituting &ldquopseudo-events&rdquo for real life and personal image-making for real virtue. (He described in detail new efforts to create public images for the famous and not-so-famous, a process well illustrated by a Canon Camera commercial of several years ago that featured tennis star Andre Agassi insouciantly stating, &ldquoImage is everything.&rdquo)

&ldquoThe pseudo-events which flood our consciousness are neither true nor false in the old familiar senses,&rdquo Boorstin wrote, but they have created a world &ldquowhere fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original.&rdquo The result was a culture of &ldquosynthetic heroes, prefabricated tourist attractions, [and] homogenized interchangeable forms of art and literature.&rdquo Images were wildly popular, Boorstin conceded, but they were, in fact, little different from illusions. &ldquoWe risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so &lsquorealistic&rsquo that they can live in them,&rdquo he wrote.

Other critics followed Boorstin. In The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman wrote about the way the &ldquoelectronic and graphic revolutions&rdquo launched an &ldquouncoordinated but powerful assault on language and literacy, a recasting of the world of ideas into speed-of-light icons and images.&rdquo Images, Postman worried, &ldquoask us to feel, not to think.&rdquo French critic Roland Barthes fretted that &ldquothe image no longer illustrates the words it is now the words which, structurally, are parasitic on the image.&rdquo In a more recent iteration of the same idea, technology critic Paul Virilio identified a &ldquogreat threat to the word&rdquo in the &ldquoevocative power of the screen.&rdquo &ldquoIt is real time that threatens writing,&rdquo he noted, &ldquoonce the image is live, there is a conflict between deferred time and real time, and in this there is a serious threat to writing and to the author.&rdquo

Real events are now compared to those of sitcom characters real tragedies or accidents are described as being &ldquojust like a movie&rdquo (a practice Susan Sontag first noticed in the 1970s). Even the imagination is often crippled by our image-based culture. For every creative artist (like Gursky) using Photoshop there is a plethora of posturing and shallow artists like Damien Hirst, who once proudly told an interviewer that he spent more time &ldquowatching TV than ever I did in the galleries.&rdquo

Is it possible to find a balance between naïve techno-enthusiasm for the image culture and the &ldquospirit of bulldog opacity,&rdquo as McLuhan described it, which fueled undue skepticism about new technologies in the past? Perhaps devotees of the written word will eventually form a dwindling guild, pensioned off by universities and governments and think tanks to live out their days in quiet obscurity as the purveyors of the image culture expand their reach. But concern about a culture of the image has a rich history, and neither side can yet claim victory. In the preface to his book, The Essence of Christianity, published in 1843, Feuerbach complained that his own era &ldquoprefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality, appearance to being.&rdquo

Techno-enthusiasts are fond of reminding us, as if relating a quaint tale of reason&rsquos triumph over superstition, that new technologies have always stirred controversy. The printing press unnerved the scholastic philosophers and religious scribes whose lives were paced to the tempo of the manuscript later, the telephone was indicted by a cadre fearful of its threat to conviviality and face-to-face communication, and so on. The laborious copiers of manuscripts did indeed fear the printing press, and some traditionalists did vigorously resist the intrusions of the telephone. But at a time of great social hierarchy, much of this was driven by an elite disdain for the democratizing influence of these technologies and their potential for overturning social conventions (which indeed many of them did). Contemporary criticism of our image-saturated culture is not criticism of the means by which we create images (cameras, television, video). No one would seriously argue for the elimination of such technologies, as those who feared Gutenberg&rsquos invention did when they destroyed printing presses. The critique is an expression of concern about the ends of an image-based culture, and our unwillingness as yet to consider whether those ends might be what we truly want for our society.

Nor is concern about the image culture merely a fear of losing our grip on what is familiar &mdash that known world with its long history of reliance on the printed word. Those copyists who feared the printing press were not wrong to believe that it would render them obsolete. It did. But contemporary critics who question the proliferation of images in culture and who fear that the sheer number of images will undermine the sensibility that creates readers of the written word (replacing them with clever but shallow interpreters of the image) aren&rsquot worried about being usurped by image-makers. They are motivated largely by the hope of preserving what is left of their craft. They are more like the conservationist who has made the forest his home only to discover, to his surprise, that the animals with which he shares it are rapidly dwindling in number. What he wants to know, in his perplexed state, is not &ldquohow do I retreat deeper into the forest?&rdquo but &ldquohow might I preserve the few survivors before all record of them is lost?&rdquo

So it is with those who resist an image-based culture. As its boosters suggest, it is here to stay, and likely to grow more powerful as time goes on, making all of us virtual flâneurs strolling down boulevards filled with digital images and moving pictures. We will, of course, be enormously entertained by these images, and many of them will tell us stories in new and exciting ways. At the same time, however, we will have lost something profound: the ability to marshal words to describe the ambiguities of life and the sources of our ideas the possibility of conveying to others, with the subtlety, precision, and poetry of the written word, why particular events or people affect us as they do and the capacity, through language, to distill the deeper meaning of common experience. We will become a society of a million pictures without much memory, a society that looks forward every second to an immediate replication of what it has just done, but one that does not sustain the difficult labor of transmitting culture from one generation to the next.

Storytelling and Cultural Traditions

Storytelling is as old as culture. Many societies have long-established storytelling traditions. The stories, and performances thereof, function to entertain as well as educate.

Anthropology, Sociology, Geography, Human Geography, Religion, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations, Storytelling

Passover Seder

The Jewish Passover celebration includes a storytelling ritual known as the seder, or order. While eating a meal, the story of the exodus of Jews out of Egypt is told.

Photograph by B. Anthony Stewart

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Storytelling is universal and is as ancient as humankind. Before there was writing, there was storytelling. It occurs in every culture and from every age. It exists (and existed) to entertain, to inform, and to promulgate cultural traditions and values.

Oral storytelling is telling a story through voice and gestures. The oral tradition can take many forms, including epic poems, chants, rhymes, songs, and more. Not all of these stories are historically accurate or even true. Truth is less important than providing cultural cohesion. It can encompass myths, legends, fables, religion, prayers, proverbs, and instructions.

Here are some examples of storytelling as a method of passing down cultural traditions.

Choctaw Storytelling

Like all Native American tribes, the Choctaw have an oral storytelling tradition going back generations. Their stories were intended to preserve the tribe&rsquos history and educate the young. For example, the Choctaw oral tradition includes two creation stories: One relates to migration from the west and another to creation from a mound. In addition, the oral tradition includes history as well as life lessons or moral teachings. Many of the Choctaw traditional tales employ animal characters to teach such lessons in a humorous vein.

Native Hawaiian Storytelling

The Native Hawaiian word for story is &ldquomoʻolelo,&rdquo but it can also mean history, legend, tradition, and the like. It comes from two words, mo&rsquoo, meaning succession, and olelo, meaning language or speaking. Thus, story is the &ldquosuccession of language,&rdquo since all stories were oral. Native Hawaiian stories included the tale of the first Hawaiian, who was born from a taro root. Other stories tell of navigation across the seas.

Traditionally, Native Hawaiian storytellers, who knew history and genealogy, were honored members of society. Hawaiian storytelling was not limited to words alone&mdashit included talking but also encompassed mele (song), oli (chant), and hula (dance).

Hawaiians valued the stories because they were not only entertaining, but they also taught the next generation about behavior, values, and traditions.

Western African Storytelling

The peoples of sub-Saharan Africa have strong storytelling traditions. In many parts of Africa, after dinner, the village congregates around a central fire to listen to the storyteller. As in other cultures, the role of the storyteller is to entertain and educate.

Long part of western African culture are the griots: storytellers, troubadours, and counsellors to kings. They performed the functions of storyteller, genealogist, historian, ambassador, and more. Some of the most famous stories from western Africa are those of Anansi, the trickster spider.

The griots were traditionally hereditary, a profession or office passed from one generation to the next. There were also griot schools, where more formal training could be had. Both men and women can take up the profession (women are called griottes), although women have a somewhat lesser status.

The Jewish People and the Passover Seder

On Passover, families of Jewish faith celebrate the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. The Passover celebration includes a storytelling ritual known as the seder, or order. During a meal, the story of the Exodus is told, an oral tradition passed down through generations to educate the young. An important part of the ceremony is &ldquofour questions&rdquo asked by the youngest children present, which are the impetus for telling the story.

Irish Storytelling

The seanchai were the traditional Irish keepers of story. They would travel from village to village, reciting ancient lore and tales of wisdom. They told the old myths as well as local news and happenings. Prominent in the Irish oral tradition are tales of kings and heroes.

Today, storytelling and interest in storytelling appears to be making a comeback. As one Irish storyteller put it: &ldquoIt&rsquos a need for connection &hellip I think storytelling nurtures connections with people in real life.&rdquo

The Jewish Passover celebration includes a storytelling ritual known as the seder, or order. While eating a meal, the story of the exodus of Jews out of Egypt is told.

What is cultural heritage?

We often hear about the importance of cultural heritage. But what is cultural heritage? And whose heritage is it? Whose national heritage, for example, does the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci belong to? Is it French or Italian?

First of all, let’s have a look at the meaning of the words. “Heritage” is a property, something that is inherited, passed down from previous generations. In the case of “cultural heritage,” the heritage doesn’t consist of money or property, but of culture, values and traditions. Cultural heritage implies a shared bond, our belonging to a community. It represents our history and our identity our bond to the past, to our present, and the future.

Tangible and intangible cultural heritage

Cultural heritage often brings to mind artifacts (paintings, drawings, prints, mosaics, sculptures), historical monuments and buildings, as well as archaeological sites. But the concept of cultural heritage is even wider than that, and has gradually grown to include all evidence of human creativity and expression: photographs, documents, books and manuscripts, and instruments, etc. either as individual objects or as collections. Today, towns, underwater heritage, and the natural environment are also considered part of cultural heritage since communities identify themselves with the natural landscape.

Moreover, cultural heritage is not only limited to material objects that we can see and touch. It also consists of immaterial elements: traditions, oral history, performing arts, social practices, traditional craftsmanship, representations, rituals, knowledge and skills transmitted from generation to generation within a community.

Intangible heritage therefore includes a dizzying array of traditions, music and dances such as tango and flamenco, holy processions, carnivals, falconry, Viennese coffee house culture, the Azerbaijani carpet and its weaving traditions, Chinese shadow puppetry, the Mediterranean diet, Vedic Chanting, Kabuki theatre, the polyphonic singing of the Aka of Central Africa (to name a few examples).

The importance of protecting cultural heritage

But cultural heritage is not just a set of cultural objects or traditions from the past. It is also the result of a selection process: a process of memory and oblivion that characterizes every human society constantly engaged in choosing—for both cultural and political reasons—what is worthy of being preserved for future generations and what is not.

All peoples make their contribution to the culture of the world. That’s why it’s important to respect and safeguard all cultural heritage, through national laws and international treaties. Illicit trafficking of artifacts and cultural objects, pillaging of archaeological sites, and destruction of historical buildings and monuments cause irreparable damage to the cultural heritage of a country. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), founded in 1954, has adopted international conventions on the protection of cultural heritage, to foster intercultural understanding while stressing the importance of international cooperation.

The protection of cultural property is an old problem. One of the most frequently recurring issues in protecting cultural heritage is the difficult relationship between the interests of the individual and the community, the balance between private and public rights.

Ancient Romans established that a work of art could be considered part of the patrimony of the whole community, even if privately owned. For example, sculptures decorating the façade of a private building were recognized as having a common value and couldn’t be removed, since they stood in a public site, where they could be seen by all citizens.

Lysippos of Sikyon, Apoxyomenos (Scraper), Hellenistic or Roman copy after 4th c. Greek original, c. 390-306 B.C.E. (Museo Pio-Clementino, Vaticana)

In his Naturalis Historia the Roman author Pliny the Elder (23-79 C.E.) reported that the statesman and general Agrippa placed the Apoxyomenos, a masterpiece by the very famous Greek sculptor Lysippos, in front of his thermal baths. The statue represented an athlete scraping dust, sweat and oil from his body with a particular instrument called a “strigil.” Emperor Tiberius deeply admired the sculpture and ordered it be removed from public view and placed in his private palace. The Roman people rose up and obliged him to return the Apoxyomenos to its previous location, where everyone could admire it.

Our right to enjoy the arts, and to participate in the cultural life of the community is included in the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Whose cultural heritage?

The term “cultural heritage” typically conjures up the idea of a single society and the communication between its members. But cultural boundaries are not necessarily well-defined. Artists, writers, scientists, craftsmen and musicians learn from each other, even if they belong to different cultures, far removed in space or time. Just think about the influence of Japanese prints on Paul Gauguin’s paintings or of African masks on Pablo Picasso’s works. Or you could also think of western architecture in Liberian homes in Africa. When the freed African-American slaves went back to their homeland, they built homes inspired by the neoclassical style of mansions on American plantations. American neoclassical style was in turn influenced by the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, who had been influenced by Roman and Greek architecture.

Let’s take another example, that of the Mona Lisa painted in the early sixteenth century by Leonardo da Vinci, and displayed at the Musée du Louvre in Paris. From a modern point of view, whose national heritage does the Mona Lisa belong to?

People taking photos of the Mona Lisa, photo: Heather Anne Campbell (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Leonardo was a very famous Italian painter, that’s why the Mona Lisa is obviously part of the Italian cultural heritage. When Leonardo went to France, to work at King Francis I’s court, he probably brought the Mona Lisa with him. It seems that in 1518 King Francis I acquired the Mona Lisa, which therefore ended up in the royal collections: that’s why it is obviously part of the French national heritage, too. This painting has been defined as the best known, the most visited, the most written about and the most parodied work of art in the world: as such, it belongs to the cultural heritage of all mankind.

Cultural heritage passed down to us from our parents must be preserved for the benefit of all. In an era of globalization, cultural heritage helps us to remember our cultural diversity, and its understanding develops mutual respect and renewed dialogue amongst different cultures.


In North America, where the oldest bead ever found dates to 11,000 B.C., beading history runs deep with the nomadic Native American tribes that peopled the plains west of the Mississippi River. Needing to be able to move quickly across the vast swath of the American West—driven by drought, lack of bison, or war with other tribes—Native Americans concentrated artistic effort on items easily carried.

In the East, some tribes used marine shells to create beads called wampum, which were valued as currency, served as a historical record, and worn as jewelry. When strung together as belts, wampum served as a symbol of agreement—in effect, a signed document.

Your best bet for buying authentic Native American beadwork is at an official powwow, which serves as both social glue and tribal spectacle. Such gatherings generally involve multiple tribes and performers in energetic feats of spinning and twirling: arms pumping, knees lifting, and beads mightily rattling.

The progression of office culture from the 50s to today

Office culture has changed quite a bit over the years.

Some of those shifts were actually reflected in workplace design trends.

Corner offices were meant to convey hierarchical prestige and status. The cubicle was intended to improve employees' lives, but ultimately became a symbol of corporate drudgery. And the currently-popular open office layout was introduced as a more egalitarian approach, but has received quite a backlash, as well.

In his 2014 book "The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace," Ron Friedman concludes that the jury's still out on which style is the least terrible option.

"Cubicles are depressing. Private offices are isolating. Open spaces are distracting," he writes.

But the big changes to US work culture haven't just been all about appearances.

Teamwork is ostensibly in, while hierarchy is out. Typewriters got the boot with the advent of faster, user-friendly computers. Corporate jargon and ideas about job security have gone through major fluxes, as well.

Racial diversity in the workforce has increased over time — although many fields still have quite a way to go.

And workplace sexual harassment has gone from being a pervasive and widely-accepted phenomenon to a pervasive but somewhat less widely-accepted phenomenon.

Let's take a look back in time at how office culture has changed over the years:

Political Life

Government. Nigeria is a republic, with the president acting as both head of state and head of government. Nigeria has had a long history of coups d'états, military rule, and dictatorship. However, this pattern was broken on 29 May 1999 as Nigeria's current president, Olusegun Obasanjo, took office following popular elections. Under the current constitution, presidential elections are to be held every four years, with no president serving more than two terms in office. The Nigerian legislature consists of two houses: a Senate and a House of Representatives. All legislators are elected to four-year terms. Nigeria's judicial branch is headed by a Supreme Court, whose members were appointed by the Provisional Ruling Council, which ruled Nigeria during its recent transition to democracy. All Nigerians over age eighteen are eligible to vote.

Leadership and Political Officials. A wealthy political elite dominates political life in Nigeria. The relationship between the political elite and ordinary Nigerians is not unlike that between nobles and commoners. Nigerian leaders, whether as members of a military regime or one of Nigeria's short-lived civilian governments, have a history of doing whatever it takes to stay in power and to hold on to the wealth that this power has given them.

Rural Nigerians tend to accept this noble-peasant system of politics. Low levels of education and literacy mean that many people in rural areas are not fully aware of the political process or how to affect it. Their relative isolation from the rest of the country means that many do not even think of politics. There is a common feeling in many rural areas that the average person cannot affect the politics of the country, so there is no reason to try.

Urban Nigerians tend to be much more vocal in their support of or opposition to their leaders. Urban problems of housing, unemployment, health care, sanitation, and traffic tend to mobilize people into political action and public displays of dissatisfaction.

Political parties were outlawed under the Abacha regime, and only came back into being after his death. As of the 1999 presidential elections, there were three main political parties in Nigeria: the People's Democratic Party (PDP), the All Peoples Party (APP), and the Alliance for Democracy (AD). The PDP is the party of President Obasanjo. It grew out of support for opposition leaders who were imprisoned by the military government in the early 1990s. The PDP is widely believed to have received heavy financial assistance from the military during the 1999 elections. The APP is led by politicians who had close ties to the Abacha regime. The AD is a party led by followers of the late Moshood Abiola, the Yoruba politician who won the general election in 1993, only to be sent to prison by the military regime.

Social Problems and Control. Perhaps Nigeria's greatest social problem is the internal violence plaguing the nation. Interethnic fighting throughout the country, religious rioting between Muslims and non-Muslims over the creation of Shari'a law (strict Islamic law) in the northern states, and political confrontations between ethnic minorities and backers of oil companies often spark bloody confrontations that can last days or even months. When violence of this type breaks out, national and state police try to control it. However, the police themselves are often accused of some of the worst violence. In some instances, curfews and martial law have been imposed in specific areas to try to stem outbreaks of unrest.

Poverty and lack of opportunity for many young people, especially in urban areas, have led to major crime. Lagos is considered one of the most dangerous cities in West Africa due to its incredibly high crime rate. The police are charged with controlling crime, but their lack of success often leads to vigilante justice.

In some rural areas there are some more traditional ways of addressing social problems. In many ethnic groups, such as the Igbo and the Yoruba, men are organized into secret societies. Initiated members of these societies often dress in masks and palm leaves to masquerade as the physical embodiment of traditional spirits to help maintain social order. Through ritual dance, these men will give warnings about problems with an individual's or community's morality in a given situation. Because belief in witchcraft and evil spirits is high throughout Nigeria, this kind of public accusation can instill fear in people and cause them to mend their ways. Members of secret societies also can act as judges or intermediaries in disputes.

Military Activity. Nigeria's military consists of an army, a navy, an air force, and a police force. The minimum age for military service is eighteen.

The Nigerian military is the largest and best-equipped military in West Africa. As a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Nigeria is the major contributor to the organization's military branch, known as ECOMOG. Nigerian troops made up the vast majority of the ECOMOG forces deployed to restore peace following civil wars in Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra Leone. Public dissatisfaction with Nigeria's participation in the Sierra Leonean crisis was extremely high due to high casualty rates among the Nigerian soldiers. Nigeria pledged to pull out of Sierra Leone in 1999, prompting the United Nations to send in peacekeepers in an attempt stem the violence. While the foreign forces in Sierra Leone are now under the mandate of the United Nations, Nigerian troops still make up the majority of the peacekeepers.

Nigeria has a long-running border dispute with Cameroon over the mineral-rich Bakasi Peninsula, and the two nations have engaged in a series of cross-boarder skirmishes. Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad also have a long-running border dispute over territory in the Lake Chad region, which also has led to some fighting across the borders.

Constant change

No matter what culture a people are a part of, one thing is for certain, it will change. "Culture appears to have become key in our interconnected world, which is made up of so many ethnically diverse societies, but also riddled by conflicts associated with religion, ethnicity, ethical beliefs, and, essentially, the elements which make up culture," De Rossi said. "But culture is no longer fixed, if it ever was. It is essentially fluid and constantly in motion." This makes it so that it is difficult to define any culture in only one way.

While change is inevitable, the past should also be respected and preserved. The United Nations has created a group called The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to identify cultural and natural heritage and to conserve and protect it. Monuments, building and sites are covered by the group's protection, according to the international treaty, the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. This treaty was adopted by UNESCO in 1972.

Additional reporting by Alina Bradford, Live Science Contributor

Rather than a derogatory synonym for ‘preposterous’, ‘surreal’ was intended to signify our secret access to universal truths

Writing in a letter dated March 1917, the playwright and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire attempted to capture the essence of a new ballet by Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau. “All things considered”, Apollinaire said of the production of Parade, in which performers pranced around in bizarre, boxy costumes designed by the pioneering Cubist painter Pablo Picasso, “I think in fact it is better to adopt surrealism than supernaturalism, which I first used.”

Apollinaire would promote his minting of the word ‘surrealism’ (by which he hoped to capture the ballet’s ‘visionary’ quality) by enshrining it in the programme notes, which he was invited to write. Now floating in the air of avant-garde Paris, the term was eventually picked up by artists (such as Salvador Dalí and René Magritte) fascinated by the power of the unconscious mind to produce images, symbols, and statements that supersede the realities of ordinary reason and experience. Rather than a derogatory synonym for ‘preposterous’, ‘surreal’ was intended to signify our secret access to universal truths.

French artist Marcel Duchamp applied the word ‘mobile’ to a kinetic work by Alexander Calder in 1931 (Credit: BBC)

Few words are as mobile in their meaning as ‘mobile’. Handy shorthand today for ‘mobile telephone’, the word was also an abbreviation in the 17th Century for the insulting phrase ‘mobile vulgus’, used condescendingly to describe the hoi polloi. Eventually ‘mobile’, as a stand-in for riffraff and rabble, was compressed further still to the slur we still use today: ‘mob’.

In 1931, the US sculptor Alexander Calder and the French avant-garde pioneer Marcel Duchamp added another twist to the word’s meaning. Not knowing what to call his new kinetic works, comprised of abstract shapes bobbing with perfect balance from string and wires, Calder asked Duchamp for his advice. Duchamp, who’d already shocked the world 14 years earlier by declaring a urinal a work of art, did what Duchamp did best, and re-appropriated a readymade construction by giving it a new spin. Voila: ‘mobile’.

The word ‘dude’ originally applied to American dandies – such as Evander Berry Wall, pictured – in the 19th Century (Credit: Alamy)

Before there was ‘bro’, there was ‘dude’: that informal address that slaps you on the back with one hand, gives you a White Russian with the other, and says, ‘hey, I woke up at noon too, man’. For the past 20 years, Jeff Bridge’s portrayal of The Dude in the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski (1998) has epitomised the seductive spirit of dudeness. Dishevelled, stoned and disorientated, The Dude’s laid-back attitude is difficult to square with the artsy origin of the word itself, which seems to have entered popular discourse in the early 1880s as shorthand for foppishly turned-out male followers of the Aesthetic Movement – a short-lived artistic vogue that championed superficial fashion and decadent beauty (‘art for art’s sake’) and was associated with ostentatiously-attired artists such as James McNeill Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

It’s thought that ‘dude’ is an abbreviation of ‘Doodle’ in ‘Yankee Doodle’, and probably refers to the new-fangled ‘dandy’ that the song describes. Originally sung in the late 18th Century by British soldiers keen to lampoon the American colonists with whom they were at war, the ditty, by the end of the 19th Century, had been embraced in the US as a patriotic anthem.

By then, an indigenous species of fastidiously over-styled popinjays had emerged in America to rival the British dandy, and it is to this new breed of primly dressed aesthetes that the term ‘dude’ was attached. Over time, the silk cravats and tapered trousers, varnished shoes and stripy vests worn by such proponents of the trend as Evander Berry Wall (the New York City socialite who was dubbed ‘King of the Dudes’) would be stripped away, leaving little more than a countercultural attitude to define what it means to be a Dude (or an El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing).

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Separation Anxiety in Pets

Separation anxiety in pets is a real thing and recognizing the warning signs is important.

Since March, Covid-19 required most of the world to quarantine in their homes. Majority of people ended up working from home for nearly five months. This meant pet owners were constantly with their pets giving them attention, playing with them, letting them out etc. Therefore, when the world slowly started to open up again and pet owners began returning to normal life work schedules away from the home, pet owners noticed a difference in the way their pet acted. Many pets develop separation anxiety especially during this crazy time when majority people were stuck inside barely leaving the house.

Separation Anxiety in Pets Can Lead to:

Chewing, Digging and Destruction

What Causes Separation Anxiety:

A number of things can cause separation anxiety in pets. A clear reason right now is due to covid-19 requiring individuals to stay home for extended periods of time. Then these individuals were able to return to their daily lives leaving pets along for extended periods of time. Another reason is some adoptable dogs may have separation anxiety when first adopted because they fear their guardian may leave. Another cause is if a pet experiences a sudden change in its normal routine for example covid-19 it can in return cause separation anxiety in them. Be aware that also moving can cause separation anxiety so if your dog and you move around a lot it can trigger separation anxiety in your pet.

How to Maintain Separation Anxiety:

If your pet has a mild case of separation anxiety try turning when you leave into something exciting for your pet. This can mean offering them treats before you leave so they start to associate you leaving with getting a treat. It can also be helpful to leave them puzzle like toys like the brand KONG offers toys that you can put treats into or put food like peanut butter, or cheese in. This toy will distract your pet for a while, and they get a reward when they play with the toy. These toys try to offer only to your pet when you leave the house. This will train your pet to start to enjoy the time when you leave because they know they will be given a reward.

If you pet has a moderate case of separation anxiety it can take more time to get them accustomed to you leaving. This means taking the process of leaving them way slower. Start only leaving your pet for short periods at a time and continue to reward them. As they begin to get used to it increase the period of which you are gone. Over time your pet will start to recognize that it is oaky you are gone because they receive rewards. For dogs who have severe anxiety especially when they notice you put on shoes or grab your keys. For these pets try to associate these items with you not always leaving. Try to use these items but not leave to show your pet they are not to be feared of these items. If you have a pet who typically follows you around try to do things like telling your dog to sit and stay outside a bathroom door while you enter that room. Gradually increase the time you leave your pet on the other side of the door. This trains a pet that they can be by themselves and will be okay. This process will take a while so remain calm and patient with your pet. This process should start out in a room but should overtime get up to you being able to leave your house and go outside without your pet following. Continue to watch for signs of stress in your pet like pacing, trembling, panting etc. If any of these signs and others appear take a step back and move slower. During this overall process it is important you take it slowly so try to not really leave your pet at all which can be very difficult. Try to arrange if you do need to leave that someone like a friend can stop by and be with your pet or try using a doggy daycare service just so your pet is not totally alone.

Some Other Tips:

When greeting your pet after being gone say hello in a calm manner and then ignore them until they begin to remain calm. Same thing with saying goodbye remain calm and do not give into them being wild and crazy. To calm them try having them perform a task they know like sit or down. Another tip is to possible crate train your pet. If your pet associates their crate with being a safe place this can ease their anxiety when you do go to leave. It can also be helpful if you do not crate your pet to provide a safe room that your pet typically fees the most comfortable in. Another tip is to provide plenty of mental stimulation for your pet like treats and toys. Also try giving your dog some sort of exercise before you leave every day. Leaving hidden treats and food for your pet to find throughout the day will also keep them busy and entertained. If none of the above tips help, try seeking help from a professional in pet behaviors. They will be able to determine a regimen to help you and your pet get better. Medication may also be necessary for severe cases so to speak to a veterinarian about the different options for your pet.

Separation anxiety can be common in pets especially after the year everyone has had. Look for signs of separation anxiety in your pets and notice the different ways you can assist your pet in getting better. Also remember to never punish your pet for any anxious behaviors. Do your best to not discipline and instead use these tips to avoid future behaviors. Separation anxiety can be maintained with patience.

Watch the video: 25. Understanding ones culture - Educational video for Kids - Role-play conversation (January 2022).