Commentary 2: The Breakout of the Visual, Ocularcentrism and Multimodal Hypermediated Spaces of Knowledge

The sun, that all-seeing eye of the heavens associated with gods in the mythologies of the ancients, brought light to civilizations and thus was associated with knowledge.  As Icarus and Daedalus flew towards the sun, were they not seeking higher knowledge; knowledge that was beyond their ken and dangerous since it caused the fall of Icarus?

Biernoff (2005) states that sight is often a metaphor for human knowledge and is an intellectual act, as are visible in statements such as “I see what you mean”.  Plato connected sight to the creation of human intelligence and soul, both of which were linked to the sun (Kavanagh, 2004).  The visual spaces in communication filled with imagery and motion graphics today have become more influential in the presentation and interaction with knowledge in digital spaces.  Visual aspects of design and communication bring a new remediation with text providing a deeper level of communication.  Prior writes that words are: “finite, sequential, vague, conventional … images are infinite, spatial, specific, natural and transparent” (Pink, 2011, p268).  Images can impact our perspectives, our insights and our reaction more powerfully than text.  According to Heidegger and Benjamin, our visual culture and its influx of images refashion our self-understanding, self-perception as well as our relationship with self (Crockett, 2005).  As is evident in current design trends in various print media, website design, apps and hypermedia, the relationship between text and image is becoming increasingly unstable. Bolter (2001) points out that digital media remediate traditional print media, since images provide additional stories that go beyond text as well as connecting to cultural archetypes.  Kress (2005) connects the technologies of communication, representation and dissemination to the needs of the global community and its transformations caused by culture, ethnicity, economics and other global social needs.  When combined within a digital global culture of compressed time, visualizing technologies and a global one-time, the impact of images in the communication spaces of knowledge is powerful and destabilizing for text.

The visual embedded within text-based communication transforms the ways in which we read and perceive.  Since sight is the connection between the subjective and objective, writing is a visual exercise, in contrast to the aural/oral essence of speaking (Kavanagh, 2005).  The visual elements and their prominence in digital and printed mediums today impact our reading through framing and spatial elements.  Bolter (2001) writes that written text is more convincing when combined with a picture of the imagery suggested in the words.  When hypermedia is added, the reader takes on an additional role as visitor, and brings with her interests arising out of her lifeworlds, thus changing the position of the reader to the author (Kress, 2005).  A well-designed website thus becomes an open space that transforms reading into a multimodal activity.  Screen-based text combined with non-linear approaches based on hyperlinks and hypermedia enables powerful visual communication (Jewitt, 2005).  This new, open order designed for the reader and responsive to the device upon which it is displayed, reveals a great prominence of the graphics and motion graphics that dominate its space.  Text in such spaces is dominated by the flow of the interface, open navigation and multiple entry points combined with social media influence.  In this new digital space, the graphics and writing become co-equal (Kress, 2005), enabling the reader/visitor to interact with the knowledge in a multimodal manner.

This new mode of presentation brings a second challenge to the printed book, since animation and video can surpass text (Bolter, 2001).  Similar meanings can be displayed in different modalities calling upon powerful archetypes and transforming perception and understanding.  The narrated world is very different from the depicted world, yet similar communication can be achieved through both (Hull and Nelson, 2005).  However, proliferation of images in our digital spaces can cause what is referred to by Virilio as the breakdown of perception caused by the speed at which information moves, bypassing thought and reflection and resulting in blindness to time, space and depth of meaning (Crockett, 2005).  In our hypermedia spaces exists a hyper-visibility of objects that both distract and make it difficult to focus attention on one object.  Graphic user interfaces of our media devices and websites place pictures and verbal/written text within the same spaces enabling multilevel, multimodal interaction with a digital document.  While this enhances the ability to multitask, it can lead to a new mediation of devices with text wherein multi-device interaction now occurs when viewers or visitors tweet on cellphones while watching TV or reading websites.  This can bring another level of distraction.

Website design has also transformed with the integration of HTML5 and CSS3, enabling fluid, dynamic, device-responsive and highly graphical visual elements produced directly through coding.  While the need for text has not diminished in website design, the graphical elements have become more prominent in their visual gravity.  Infographics provide quick visual insight to statistical information, moving far beyond the traditional charts in their combination of text and graphics.  Icons, whether they are linked to social media or apps on a cellphone, have become a new mode of communication that are highly graphical and go far beyond the spaces of text, hearkening back to picture writing.  Bolter (2001) writes that since picture writing is constructed culturally, it is closer to the reader than text since it can reproduce events directly.  In web programming, icons become interactive objects connected to mouse, keyboard or finger actions, all resulting in a new navigation path and reaction.

Our communication spaces on digital screens have transformed not only the prominence of images over text, but also our perception of reality and even perhaps our methods of inquiry.  Merleau-Ponty writes that vision is the “intertwining of the perceiver and the perceived” (Biernoff, 2005), and when this is combined with the dromology of our new ocular reality, instantaneous visual technologies can replace the former prominence of text.  Yet, when the visual and textual are combined, as seen in website design and its replication in print design, a powerful multimodal space is created that transforms meaning and perception.  Digital communication and design is in further remediation with print, transforming vision and interaction with knowledge.  Vygotsky described vision as a dynamic system of meaning in which the “affective and the intellectual unite” (Hull & Neslon, 2005).  Perhaps the digital spaces of the blogosphere, websites and online digital texts are a response to this need and have transformed our perception of time, space, community and self.  Perhaps, like Icarus, we are flying too close to the sun of visualizing knowledge, and despite the multimodal possibilities of perception, are unaware of the results of destabilizing text.


Biernoff, S. (2005). Carnal Relations: Embodied Sight in Merleau-Ponty, Roger Bacon and St Francis. Journal Of Visual Culture, 4(1), 39-52.

Bolter, Jay D. (2001). Writing spaces; Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of print. Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, Mahwah, New Jersey, London.

Crockett, C. (2005). Technology and the Time-Image: Deleuze and Postmodern Subjectivity. South African Journal Of Philosophy, 24(3), 176-188.

Hull, G. A., & Nelson, M. (2005). Locating the Semiotic Power of Multimodality. Written Communication, 22(2), 224-261. doi:10.1177/0741088304274170

Jewitt, C. (2005). Multimodality, “Reading”, and “Writing” for the 21st Century. Discourse: Studies In The Cultural Politics Of Education, 26(3), 315-331. doi:10.1080/01596300500200011

Kavanagh, Donncha (2004). Ocularcentrism and its Others: A Framework for Metatheoretical Analysis Organization Studies 25: 445-464, doi:10.1177/0170840604040672

Kress, G. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning. Computers and Composition22(1), 5-22.

Pink, Sarah (2011). Multimodality, multisensoriality and ethnographic knowing: social semiotics and the phenomenology of perception. Qualitative Research June 2011 11: 261-276, doi:10.1177/1468794111399835



Kenneth Buis

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1 Response to Commentary 2: The Breakout of the Visual, Ocularcentrism and Multimodal Hypermediated Spaces of Knowledge

  1. ajevne says:

    This was a great commentary, Kenneth. I wrote my final project on this topic and I wish I had read yours first as your perspective was a little different and made me think about some of my points. Great references too.

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