The Breakout of the Visual – Chapter 4


The following commentary focuses on Chapter 4: The Breakout of the Visual of Jay David Bolter’s book Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. In this chapter, Bolter (2001) examines the relationship between visual and text and what he describes as the breakout of the visual.

The Breakout

The breakout of the visual is poignantly illustrated by Bolter’s (2001) discussion of a USA Today Snapshot of men’s shaving habits, whereby there is a domination of the visual and subordination of the textual. Bolter (2001) notes that this trend is not only found in newspapers, but also in other mediums of communication such as magazines and the internet.

While the use of images for cultural communication is nothing new, what is new is the “sheer ubiquity of images today” (Bolter, 2001, p.54). All one has to do is look around to see the prevalence and dominance of images in our culture and society. Visuals are an integral part of our lives and permeate all aspects of it. One factor that has brought about the sheer ubiquity of images today is hypermedia. Bolter (2001) notes “hypermedia seldom exists as pure text without any graphics” (p. 47), while “digital media claim to achieve greater immediacy and authenticity by integrating images (and sound) with prose” (p. 47). However, the need for immediacy and authenticity are not examined further by Bolter.

While Bolter leaves this avenue unexamined, one must wonder whether the need for immediacy and authenticity has driven or promulgated the rise of the visual and a change in communication and representation. To address this, the work of Tapscott (1998, 2004) on the Net-Generation may offer insight.  According to Tapscott (1998), N-Geners are identified by ten cultural characteristics, two of which are immediacy and authentication/trust. The role and impact of N-Geners on a change in communication and representation is explored by Tapscott (2004) who notes “at this moment, tens of millions of N-Geners around the world are taking over of the steering wheel. This distinction is at the heart of the new generation. For the first time ever, children are taking control of critical elements of a communication revolution” (p. 4).

Choice and a Complementary Relationship

My thoughts are that technological advances in digital media and hypermedia have afforded us as with options or choices. Text is not dead and far from it. It is not a matter of text or visual and one breaking out to supplant the other, rather I see it as the two forms of representation allowing for different purposes. As Kress (2005) notes, new media makes it “possible to use the mode that seems most apt for the purposes of representation and communication: If I need to represent something best done by an image I can now do so, similarly with writing” (p. 19).  Thus, supporting the argument that the visual and textual hold a place of importance in our society and afford choice.

 Aside from allowing for choice, the visual and textual also complement one another. This complementing nature can be seen in the fact that text and visual on its own can result in subjectivity. To illustrate this, Kress (2005) notes

words are (relatively) empty entities – in a seminotic account they are signifiers to be filled with meaning rather than signs full of meaning, and the task of the reader is to fill these relatively vacant entities with her or his meaning. This task is the task we call interpretation, namely interpreting what sign the writer may have intended to make with the signifier” (p. 7).

As such, visuals and text can work together to aid in the delivery of messages and reduce the change of misinterpretation.


Whether the N-Geners with their need for immediacy will rely upon the adage of ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is uncertain and remains to be seen. However, as history has shown us, text while dominating in Western societies has always co-existed with the visual. This is illustrated by Murray (2000) who notes “scribal manuscripts were illustrated with elaborate illumination of letters; medieval churches told stories on stained glass…rebus books have been popular for centuries; science books have been illustrated with drawings.” Thus, I agree that what we are seeing is a breakout of the visual; however, this breakout will not supplant the textual, but rather is will coexist as it has throughout our history as an extension of our continuous efforts to communicate effectively by blending the visual with the textual.


Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kress, Gunther. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge and learning. Computers and Composition. 22(1), pp. 5-22.

Murray, D. E. (2000). Changing technologies, changing literacy communities? Language Learning & Technology. 4(2), September 2000. pp. 43-58 Retrieved on November 25, 2010 from

Tapscott, D. (1998). Growing up digital: The rise of the net generation. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tapscott, D. (2004). The net generation and the school. Milken Family Foundation. Retrieved on November 22, 2010 from

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