The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word

Preface and Introduction

Stephens takes a more optimistic look at television and the shift to image-based media than many. In his view these phenomena are both a contributing cause and a potential resolution to the associated pains. Part of this seems connected to his orientation to the “offspring” of TV, which implies a sense that its current form (written in the 1990s) is not mature enough.

When I talk of the video revolution, I mean video as content, not any particular size screen or variety of box.

Some measures indicate that books are doing better today than in years past. Sales are up, for example. The concern, though, is that, “books now are often purchased to be consulted, not read.” Time-use studies show that time spent reading (combination of books and newspapers) dropped by 30% between 1965 and 1985. And yet that happened alongside an increase in education.

These Traditional Splendors of Letters

Archaeological evidence shows that humans first began working with markings and carvings around 75,000 years ago. To reach a written word, though, required speaking to already be present.

The ability to record language in inscribed symbols is not, like speech, a part of our genetic inheritance. Writing is a technology, a human invention.

Writing is the painting of the voice; the closer the resemblance, the better it is.


The spread and maturation of writing as a technology took thousands of years to develop. When there’s a shift in our underlying communication technology it can take a while for its impact to be fully felt and understood.

Walter Ong, a student of Marshall McLuhan, argued that a certain kind of abstract thinking is a product of literacy. Writing enables us to hold abstract categories and associations in our mind. There’s some sociological research with pre-literate societies that supports this. Stephens holds that the way we communicate has an effect on the way we think, that the two are intertwined.

Ignorance’s Weapon

Paper and printing were both originally developed in China, though its lack of an alphabet and reliance upon thousands of characters limited their prevalence. Prior to the spread of printing in Europe books, their knowledge, and the alphabet were already present. They just weren’t as available and things like perfect reproductions, alphabetical order, and standardized rules of punctuation had not developed.

Upon introduction, though, printing itself received criticism. This came from religious authorities, of course, but also from writers! (Many of whom, naturally, expressed their critique through…printed books).

We rarely trust the imposition of a new magic on our lives, and we rarely fail to work up nostalgia for the older magic it replaces.

Shrouded in the Traditional Form

It can take a while for a new form of communication to settle into an improved state. Often the first iterations are rough and poor.

The best of the past is set against the worst of the present. — Elizabeth Eisenstein

Stephens is skeptical that the pace of technological development (at least when it comes to the maturation of new communication) is really speeding up.

Men discover new instruments. Often, however, it is a long time before the innovation is properly utilized; it is hampered by the old; the new function is shrouded in the traditional form. — Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

What media critics will end up praising most is that which mimics what came before. The “golden age” of television was when it most closely met expectations of plays, operas, and more.

By Means of the Visible

Books and the written word lack some natural forms of information. What remains invisible are the gestures, intonation, and other visual aspects of speech. However, visual language is just as (if not more) constrained. It can be near-impossible to relate abstract concepts with only gestures or pictorial markings.

still images operate under severe handicaps when attempting to embody ideas. For certain important purposes, a picture may actually be worth less than a single, relatively narrow, well-placed word.

Fast Seeing

Photography can be exceptional at capturing those traits that lie on the surface but it can also miss the concepts that lie at the core. These deeper traits are what help sustain literature; they’re what develop a character and help convince us it’s real. Photography has no need for this as the visual nature of the medium immediately convinces us the person is real.

Free…from Human Immobility

He suggests that the pace of innovation at the time of writing may not be as unique as people claim. He contrasts 1975-1995 with the late 1800s, which say the first demonstration of the telephone, production of the first microphones, invention of the Linotype and internal-combustion engine, and the development of wireless telegraphy (radio). He closes the chapter by observing that how a video is edited has as much to do with its impact and potential as the raw technology.

Multiple Fragments…Assembled Under a New Law

The point of what became known as the “Kuleshov effect” is that the meaning of a shot is dependent upon the shots that surround it. The point of montage, the Russians realized, is that new meanings can be created through the juxtaposition of different shots.

He disagrees with the complaint that images (and video in particular) are inferior due to how they don’t leave the same space for our imagination as writing.

Isn’t the true test of the moving image not how much space it allows our own imaginations but whether it provides a means by which artistic imaginations can effectively communicate with us?

Gifts of Paralysis

Nevertheless, in 1930, when the population of the United States was a little less than 123 million, 80 million people went to the movies each week.

Nothing is as ruinous to the character as sitting away one’s time at a show for it is then, through the medium of entertainment, that vices creep into one with more than usual ease.


He suggests that film spent much of the 20th century stuck in convention. It worked to model itself on the formats that came before (e.g. theatre) and did not do enough to take advantage of the medium’s inherent opportunity.

He’s pessimistic about the status quo impact of video but optimistic for its potential and future development.

Video must…dare to reimagine life…It must reclaim some of the avant-grade impulses it released into other art forms.

A Forced Condensation of Energy

The speed previously characteristic of commercials is now prevalent.

In its immense fear that we might grow bored, TV has not yet acquired the courage necessary to show an unmoving picture for very long.

Ultimately speed takes advantage of the medium of film and makes it more effective.

Is it more “unprincipled,” as Sontag charged, overtly to “manipulate” images like this than it is overtly to “manipulate” words, as all writers do? Is it more “unprincipled” to try to achieve, through clever editing, “attention-grabbing” arrangements of images than it is to achieve “attention-grabbing” sentences?

We frequently bemoan the shrinking of attention spans; we almost never celebrate its corollary, which is the expansion in the amount of information or impressions that can be taken in in a short span of time.

Increasingly Complex Media

This entire chapter is prescient given its publication date. It reads like a window into the present day, especially when it comes to the melding of the web and video. A few selections:

Anyone who has been following the business or entertainment news lately knows that television, the computer and even the telephone are increasingly becoming the same thing.

Producing video is no longer going to be a skill mastered only on the job. It should become an art form kids learn at about the age they learn how to draw a face, play the guitar or navigate the Internet. Video should no longer be the private tool of professionals in the employ of advertising agencies and media conglomerates or of well-funded artists. Teenagers should be playing with it; friends should be staying in touch on it; radicals may challenge the status quo through it; academics should eventually be warned to product it or perish.