A Commentary on Bolter’s Chapter ” The Breakout of the Visual”

In the chapter called “The Breakout of the Visual”, Bolter (2001) continues to speak about the process of remediation, specifically about the current power struggle between visual media and text. Bolter describes a battle between word and image over which one controls the transmission of information. Even though Bolter acknowledges that pictures have had a place in literacy in the past (as in rebus poetry or the illuminated manuscript), he suggests that text has always been more in control. For the past hundred years, he indicates that the power has been shifting in favour of graphics due to the rise of visual technologies. I prefer to think that text is not disappearing or losing power but maintaining its position as visual media becomes more prevalent in our society.

Over time, authors have altered the way they write in response to a visual culture inundated with film, TV, billboards, etc. Bolter states that authors have responded to the infiltration of visual media by including more “sensuous” detail like metaphors in their writing. He goes on to say that mediums like newspapers and magazines are becoming increasingly pictorial and beginning to look like web pages. However, he does acknowledge that certain mediums like scientific journals remain mainly text based. Bolter uses the example of the newspaper USA Today that uses images to represent what would be buttons on a web page. In one issue of USA Today, images of razors were used instead of bars on a graph to show how often the American man shaves over the weekend. Bolter suggests that the designers used the images of razors because they distrust “the viewer’s faith in numerical abstraction” (p. 52). I believe that authors and publishers, in general, are integrating more images into writing (or in this case, a graph) because modern technology affords it and because viewers enjoy it. For example, high school text books are more visual today than they were twenty years ago. This structure is more attractive to students who live in a visual culture. However, teachers still need to guide students through these texts just as they would with an older text book because students need to learn how to process visual information. This can be applied to learning how to navigate through the Internet as well. Hayles (2003) notes that “learning to speak digital, it calls forth from us new modes of attending — listening, seeing, moving, navigating — that transform what it means to experience literature (‘read’ is no longer an adequate term)”.

Bolter acknowledges that technology such as hypermedia allows the visual and textual to intertwine more effectively than print did because of the ability to use both in the same space whereas print kept images and text separate. He suggests that web designers use hypermedia to “provide a more authentic of immediate experience than words alone can offer” (p. 58). M. Kreiger (as cited by Bolter) describes man’s “desire for the natural sign” which means that we prefer pictures because they represent an idea right away (p. 57). In our increasingly fast paced world, I recognize that we prefer the instant gratification of an image. However, text is still commonly needed in order to adequately give meaning to the image. For example, Bolter recognizes the importance of the narrative to explain pictures in a “logical and chronological order” (p. 59). As hypermedia becomes more advanced and integrated into our lives, sound can be used as the necessary narrative that Bolter mentions but a picture alone cannot interpret all messages that need to be conveyed. Kress (2005) states that “speech and writing tell the world; depiction shows the world” (p. 16).

In this chapter, Bolter refers to examples of the visual remediation of text that are not yet commonly practised in an online environment. For example, he says that a web designer should use a “paragraph of prose as a last resort” only if a lack of time and resources don’t allow him/her to use pictures, audio or video (p. 72). Also, he describes using audio and video for email but we currently still rely heavily on text based email even with the introduction of Skype. I don’t believe visual media needs to completely replace text much like print didn’t need to replace oral communication. However, a web page will differ from print because it should provide different media and paths for the visitor to choose how he/she will access information. Kress (2005) mentions that in writing, “the order of the world is that given by the author; in the other (online environment), the order of the world is yet to be designed (fully and/or definitively) by the viewer” (p. 16). It is up to the designer to imagine a variety of ways their intended audience might approach the web page.

Text is going to be with us for a long time partly due to the fact that many people fear losing text from our society but also because text is very effective at articulating information. Kress (2005) posits that “the elites will continue to use writing as their preferred mode” (p. 18). Magazines, newspapers and web designers are leading the way in changing how we consume information. The technical affordances of the Internet and programs like Photoshop, Flash and Final Cut allow designers to effectively combine text and image that print alone couldn’t do before. Visual media will continue to change text based spaces as the public continues to demand for it. I believe that in the future, hypermedia will continue to integrate and complement text but not replace it.


Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing Space: Computers, hypertext, and the  remediation of print. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hayles, K. (2003). Deeper into the machine: The future of electronic literature. Culture Machine 5. Retrieved from: http://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/viewArticle/245/241

Kress, G. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning. Computers and Composition 22. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S8755461504000660

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