The Return of Imagery: Mixpression

I’ve been puzzling over what I was getting at last year when I was writing aboutflourishing.” And for a while I’ve been more clear about what I was getting at… and realized it wasn’t the right term. Now I’m trying “mixpression” on for size.

What I meant by “flourishing” is the act of extemporaneously mixing other media besides verbal or written-text language in our communication. That is: people using things like video clips or still images with the same facility and immediacy that they now use verbal/written vocabulary. “Mixpression” is an ungainly portmanteau, I’ll admit. But it’s more accurate.

(Earlier, I think I had this concept overlapping too much with something called “taste performance” — more about which, see bottom of the post.)

Victor Lombardi quotes an insightful bit from Adam Gopnik on his blog today: Noise Between Stations » Images That Sum Up Our Desires.

We are, by turn — and a writer says it with sadness — essentially a society of images: a viral YouTube video, an advertising image, proliferates and sums up our desires; anyone who can’t play the image game has a hard time playing any game at all.
– Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, p 33

When I heard Michael Wesch (whom I’ve written about before) at IA Summit earlier this month, he explained how his ethnographic work with YouTube showed people having whole conversations with video clips — either ones they made themselves, or clips from mainstream media, or remixes of them. Conversations, where imagery was the primary currency and text or talk were more like supporting players.

Here’s the thing — I’ve been hearing people bemoan this development for a while now. How people are becoming less literate, or less “literary” anyway, and how humanity is somehow regressing. I felt that way for a bit too. But I’m not so sure now.

If you think about it, this is something we’ve always had the natural propensity to do. Even written language evolved from pictographic expression. We just didn’t have the technology to immediately, cheaply reproduce media and distribute it within our conversations (or to create that media to begin with in such a way that we could then share it so immediately).

The means of production and distribution simply haven’t allowed most regular people to mix imagery into their communication with any ease. We resort to “remember that scene in that movie?” and we describe it with words. But when we have A/V equipment and the media in reach (for something like a class or presentation), we don’t hesitate to just show the clip — this was true even when all we had was VHS. What we’re seeing is just more of the same — but much much more, because the media is so much easier to grab and display in the midst of our communication.

The difference, then, is ease of access and distribution, which always results in dramatic increases in something that we were naturally doing anyway, just with more inertia. It’s the same dynamic behind the explosion of blogs (the Web) and self-published magazines and newsletters (desktop publishing software + photocopiers).

People have always grabbed whatever was available to them to help them express themselves to one another. But for the first time in human history, we have an explosion of available chunks of expression to choose from, and a communication platform on which to use those media chunks.

So I think we can maybe think of this as a Return of Imagery — using literal images in ways that we haven’t been able to do “on the street” since we first started abstracting written language from literal pictures.

It’s interesting that Gopnik, in the quote above, uses the word “game.” I haven’t read the quote in context, but it sounds like he means it with a slightly disparaging tone. Yet I’m also sure Gopnik is familiar with Wittgenstein’s concept of “language game” — and I kind of hope that’s what he means. Language has always been, in a sense, a “played” activity. It’s just that now many of us have more game pieces to play with.

I realize, too, that this is a phenomenon limited to those of us with access to such technology. But that’s increasingly becoming a commodity. Today’s cutting-edge video-phones are the every-day technology of developing societies within a couple of years. We didn’t think, a few years ago, that we’d see blogs, digital photography or video coming out of less developed areas, and yet they’re increasingly apparent. I have to wonder what my kid’s conversation with her global peers will look like 10 years from now, when she’s 23?


Footnote: About “taste performance,” which is related but not quite what I was getting at. (Thanks to Austin for sending me that article a while back.) Taste Performance is about ornamentation & accessorizing. Just as we might now wear clothes or carry bags with particular logos, messages, brands or attitudes represented (everything from Threadless T-Shirts, Louis Vuitton handbags), we can imagine a near future when activated fabrics allow us to have clips from favorite movies or music videos, or a series of images by favorite artists, playing in a loop on our garments & the things we carry.

Of course, taste-performance is communication as well — everything we do in public involves some kind of communication, whether conscious or not, including body language, tone of voice, even pheromones. And that fits better with the term “flourishing,” which sounds like what a peacock does with its feathers. What I had in mind was more what a magician does with her cards. It’s a visual, supportive expression, adding meaning to what’s already being said (so that it changes the meaning in some way — shapes it explicitly or obliquely).

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  • Michael

    I think you are describing the emergence of synesthesia being expressed through new media tools.

    For me synethesia is the definition of what Art is.

    I believe synesthesia is an important topic to understand to create effective user experience design.

    Vilayanur Ramachandran: A journey to the center of your mind

    Synesthesia Topic Start


    Hover over the timeline to see the topics listed in the timeline.

    Timecode 18:00
    Synesthesia by Vilayanur Ramachandran

    Timecode 21:20
    We are all synesthedes but are in denial about it.
    We are all doing a cross modal synthesthetic abstraction
    In metaphorical thinking our brain is able to extract the common denominators from different sensory inputs.