The Age of the Image

What we know as the movies began with people ogling private little screens, and with the imperative of attracting eyeballs, not making high art. That was just over a century ago, and now here we are again. Now we are poised at last to fulfill Thomas Edison’s potentially worrisome proclamation that motion pictures eventually would obviate textbooks. Someone really should be asking what this means in a world where eight years worth of new content gets put on YouTube every day.

Stephen Apkon, who runs the nonprofit Jacob Burns Film Center and Media Arts Lab in upstate New York, tackles this and related questions in his new book, The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens. For starters, Apkon believes educators should “do more than just show films and sit back.” He thinks they should rewrite curricula, such that high school graduation would require, among other things, a demonstrated proficiency with scripting, shooting, cutting, online-distributing, and critically understanding visual media. How else will future generations find meaning in all of our imagistic abundance? How will they reconcile all the talking dogs and Nyan cats and Dancing Guys and Wii Fit Girls and war horrors and whatever and however many revolutions will by then have been YouTube-ized?

On the page, Apkon comes across as a curious and generous spirit. In order to advocate for the literacy he believes our civilization needs, he’s done some useful and rigorous research on how our brains process visual information, on the politics of advertising and vice versa, and on why, especially where negligent cops or corporations are concerned, a shaming viral video is worth a thousand complaint letters. Apparently, even with imagery as a longstanding lingua franca, we still have much to learn.

From cave paintings to YouTube ephemera, Apkon is a keen surveyor. His appreciations are succinctly academic, his wisdom warm and teacherly. It should be noted, though, that his subject is literacy in the most basic sense: something rudimentary and foundational for but not necessarily predictive of literary intelligence. Accordingly, Apkon’s broad-strokes approach will likely leave some readers yearning for more discernment, or a deeper level of inquisitiveness. In many ways the 2013 media landscape still feels like a new frontier, and maybe it’s too soon to expect a writer to cover this ground with the laserlike consideration and lapidary style of, say, Roland Barthes or Susan Sontag or Rebecca Solnit. That is, unless we’re missing the point by expecting such profundity from a work of prose at all anymore.

In a characteristically enthusiastic foreword to Apkon’s treatise, Martin Scorsese recalls an earlier generation of “sad” and “pedantic” books about cinema culture, whose theories gave off the whiff of “a strange antagonism between literature and film.” Apkon at least wins Scorsese’s approval for moving beyond those musty old philosophies. He seems forward-thinking and optimistic. “The new visual literacy is going to change the social boundaries,” Apkon writes. “Films are always fun to watch, and when the rewards go to the kids who show the most flair and creativity (and technical savvy) with the medium, there’s going to be a shift in the standards of what makes a kid socially accepted.” Well, bless his heart for hoping so.

Meanwhile anyone who’s made or evaluated student media projects in recent years will be right to worry that rewards for flair and creativity and technical savvy tend perilously to de-emphasize good storytelling. It’s not reactionary or missing the point to say so. Apkon correctly stresses the importance of story to human communication. But like many nonfiction books that strive to balance practicality with prognostication, his only really manages an assembly of story-ish traits. Regarding technique, there’s some boilerplate stuff in here, like the innocuous but ultimately superfluous scene-setting whereby some interviewees have their expressions or their attire described—not because the overall narrative demanded it, but perhaps because the author felt vaguely pressured to emphasize visuality. “The Pepsi can on the desk is not going to be effective unless Matt Damon doesn’t just drink it but makes it a part of an ongoing plot,” Apkon writes, so he of all people ought to know that a similar principle applies to the leafiness of the Princeton campus, or the fact that a psychology professor there wears jeans and black-frame glasses, or what have you.

This nitpicking is just to reiterate that there’s a vital difference between literate and literary, and however important it becomes to redefine the former, what our world of screens really needs is never to lose sight of the latter.