The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

The rising influence of the visual over the purely written word.

The rising influence of the visual over the purely written word.
Third Formal Commentary

Richard Biel
University of British Columbia
Etec 540

Professors Jeff Miller and Brian Lamb

Many have claimed the death of the author is nigh (Barthes, 1968).  One of Michel Foucault’s most pivotal works “What is an author?” may have even started the dirge.   Kress (2005) and Bolter (2001) do not go as far as that but they do both argue that there is an incredible change that is presently occurring.  Information and knowledge are moving from the long standing dominance of writing to a multi-modal form of communication best exemplified by the Internet and the webpage however extending far past this to more common forms of text.  This “remediation” as Bolter (2001) phrases it, is causing a shift in power from the author to the reader.  The reason for this shift is the limitations of text and the development of technology that allows this change to occur.  Both authors are wary of being labelled technological determinists and distance themselves from this position citing the complexity of human/societal/technological relationships.  One thing is for certain whether the advent of the Internet and hypertext is the executor of the author is questionable however they most certainly have mutagenic capabilities.

In the natural sciences there are a number of species that have, despite all odds, hung on for a “unnaturally” long period of time.  Kress (2005) contends that this is certainly the case for writing.  Writing has had and continues to have a very prominent place in the dissemination of information, knowledge and entertainment.  However this dominant role of writing is changing.  “In particular, it seems evident to many commentators that writing is giving way, is being displaced by image in many instances of communication where previously it had held sway.” (Kress, 2005).  Bolter (2001) contends that text and writing actually, “contained and constrained the images on the printed page.”  The rise of the image in dominance is demonstrated on an almost daily basis by newspapers, textbooks and magazines that are resembling more and more like webpages and hypertext.  I doubt very much that writing not supported by other multi-modal forms of communication will be completely supplanted however there is no doubt that a change is occurring towards a more visually dominant age.

Traditionally the author of the written word has taken a far more prominent role when it came to the author/reader power differential.  This relationship is changing.  The author traditionally had control over syntax, grammar, word order, word choice and a myriad of other conventions that allowed the author to dictate how information and knowledge was metered out.  Readers traditionally took more passive roles in their interaction with the written word but with the ever growing prominence of the visual image “ we get a reverse ekphrasis in which images are given the task of explaining words.” (Bolter, 2001).   This is best exemplified by the “novelization” of films.  Where films are first released and then the novel is written almost as a second thought.  “In a multimodal text, writing may be central, or it may not; on screens writing may not feature in mulimodal texts that use sound-effect and the soundtrack of a musical score, use speech, moving and still images of various kinds.” (Kress, 2005).  Both Kress (2005) and Bolter (2001) recognize that we are currently living in the age of the visual and the written word, although still highly regarded, is slowly taking a backseat to the visual.

So why has the written word been bumped out of the drivers seat?  This can best be explained by outlining the limitations of the written word.  Kress (2005) contends that individual words are vague and rely to heavily upon the interpretation of the reader.  An image, on the other hand, is far less open to interpretation by the viewer.  However, I would argue that images can be manipulated to highlight different aspects of the images and downplay others and thus lead viewers to interpret the images in particular ways.  Images, Kress(2005) contends have a much greater capacity and diversity of meaning.   “Hypermedia can be regarded as a kind of picture writing, which refashions the qualities of both traditional picture writing and phonetic writing.” (Botler, 2001).  Although a purely written text is being relegated to the halls of academia and higher thought it still has a place in supporting the successful transmission of information and knowledge.

Multi-modal representations have become common place in the visually rich culture of the western world.  Traditional forms of concept transmission such as the written word are being re-tooled and enhanced with sound, video and images.  Kress (2005) and Bolter (2001) both contend that this is to the betterment of the media as a far richer and more diverse form of communication is evolving.  The purely written word that is supported with few if any images is being pushed to the margins of higher learning and thought.  With the advent of digital media we will continue to be offered a greater diversity and more individualistic experience when it comes to information, knowledge and communication.


Barthes, Roland (1968).  The death of the author.  Downloaded on November 28th, 2009. From

Bolter, Jay D. (2001).  Writing Spaces:  Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, Mahwah, New Jersey, London.

Foucault, Michel (1977).  What is an author? In Language, counter-memory, practice:  Selected essays and interviews (pp.113-138). (D. F. Bouchard & S. Simon, Trans. ).  Ithaca, N.Y.:Cornell University

Kress, Gunther (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning.  Computers and Compostion 22, pp.5-22.


There are no comments yet...

Kick things off by filling out the form below.

You must log in to post a comment.