Monday, September 12, 2016

Dealing with the Image/Word Dialectic



The Web of Image


For several days now, I’ve been trying to pull together my reflections on our second week of Good Stories. I’ve missed my self-imposed deadlines for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Now it’s Monday midmorning and I’m reconciled to this phenomenon: these words are just not going to compose nicely! In a somewhat perverse manner, that’s the theme. Words and images make for a dialogue, maybe an unresolved dialectic, in which neither really “gets” the other. It may even be that each is trying for dominance, or maybe even for separation from each other.
          Yet it seems that this very word/image engagement constellates the very purpose and opportunity in good work with stories. And results happen mostly with surprise, but it's the kind of surprise that comes from disciplined labor. If there were an emergent word for this phenomenon, it might be Creativity—a happening not to be defined, but to be danced. In Good Stories, our reach is for the light to come through, the in-sight that illuminates unique gift or destiny or identity, that sense of alignment with reason-for-being. That’s the buried treasure.
It’s a treasure buried both inside and outside, and we need good stories to build the way. Our ancestors knew they couldn’t write a prescription for getting there, not even for a beloved grandchild, but they put the best they could into stories. And stories are much more than words because the good ones conjure images and derive from images, from the archetypal kind of image that translates into unimagined meanings as time moves on and as our consciousness and conscience develop.
          If we are going to participate in the dance with good stories, the play between word and image must be supported. For example, one kind of image-making that I love comes through photography, especially when a digital image appears on my computer screen more beautiful than what I’d seen through the lens of the camera. In this way, the art of Good Stories depends on grace and hard work. The image on my computer screen results from a gift of nature’s beauty and my chance of seeing it results in part from dedicated hours of looking, camera in hand. Similarly, our satisfaction with digital media production builds from attending actively to good stories, looking for insight and direction with intention of advancing peace and justice. The point is that connecting the story words with our own images into a meaning-making production depends on dedicated practice that attends to the dynamic between word and image.
          Our first week set the foundation with recognizing resonance. That’s the essential starting point: an unarticulated buzz, a spark of electricity. We paraphrase the hit in the story in words and make an image to represent it. Going further, we begin to theorize resonance by translating the universal/archetypal level into individual/local applications.
For week two, our next priority emphasized developing technical capacity to represent these “hits” and to compose them into digital media productions. While this might look like a simple bridge to cross, there’s a terrible troll hiding in the shadow that often sabotages the crossing and hoards the treasure. Many textbooks state that the script should be written before entering the production program. The implied assumption, the troll, is that one can split the conceptual (the word-script) from the technical (the image track and other aspects of production). Instead of following this prescription we should be the flashing sign: Danger Ahead!
We best proceed with a continuing awareness that on a special level the conceptual/technical are indivisible. In his Clark Lectures of 1963, poet-philosopher Louis MacNeice put it strongly:
“I doubt whether one can draw a clear distinction . . . between a mode of expression and a mode of thought. As every poet knows, one cannot draw any clear line between form and content. Yet, as every critic knows, without drawing such a line a criticism is impossible. So, just as with any other kind of writing, in order to discuss parable writing at all one has to use what Aristotle would call a ‘bastard reasoning’ and pretend that form and content can be separated” (Varieties of Parable, p. 5).
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Another way to convey this struggle involving words and image comes in my personal experience when our class moved into the second week. Because the experience of story is so crucial to the design of Good Stories, I fully expected us to be engaging in oral narrative, even as the demand for attending to the technical was strong. So I was driving to campus still waiting for the right story to settle in my mind. As I listened for the fit of a story that would segue effectively from our first week, the Grimms’ Twelve Brothers came to mind. I was drawn to the sister’s pronouncement of her identity. When asked, “Who are you?” she speaks for any of us: “I’m the child of the king and I’ll search for my brothers until the sun . . .” This story and theme could extend the seam we’re weaving between authentic character and fate/destiny. It also carries the divine tone still humming from week one—like Luis’ mantra and the parrot as spirit-symbol. Yet as I tried to rehearse Twelve Brothers, the flow just wasn’t coming. I scanned in my mind for another story. Water of Life similarly ought to fit in but it also didn’t have the feel. Timing wasn’t right. So what’s going on?
Reluctantly, I stopped trying to push a story into the day’s plan. I still believed including a story is the right way to go, especially early in the course. Why isn’t it fitting? Holding that question, I shifted focus to work on the technical area. I made another demo, using Adobe Premiere Pro on the Dell computer (instead of the Mac) in order to get more familiar with equipment that many of the students use and to have a sample for them to see.
Then in class I elaborated the process they would use in preparing their productions. I made directions much more prescriptive than I prefer but that serve for persons without production experience. As I showed my demo, I noted the way we start by selecting images from sketches made the first week out of the points of resonance. Then we draft our voice-over script.  I commented on how this sequence of image before word contrasts with directions given in most manuals for digital media production. Instead of writing the script first like the manuals say, I talked about the need for a dialog between image and word.
          Later, while driving home, insight came in about the reason why the technical needed the full attention of our class session instead of sharing time with a story. I was thinking that the first production should function primarily to discover the questions that wanted our focus. What ideas were being opened? For example, when I watched my draft, I felt that certain segments needed additional images. For example, at one point the visual flow was not sustaining attention when a simple image was on-screen too long. Also, a few times something was said that was not visually reinforced: 1) add a visual for Epaminondas & maybe for Lazy Jack, 2) add another visual for the Individual Level when I talk about riding Leg’cy,  and 3) add text-on-screen where a phrase might not be clear, “faith statement” not “bank statement.” What if we really looked to our technical production for guidance instead of relying so strongly on another story?
The draft of our production rides at the edge of the ocean where the unconscious laps up against the shore. When images arise before words articulate, they potentially bring the “water of life,” like life-energy that emerges from the oceanic unconscious. But this potential vitality will rush back if we do not hold it while it shifts shape the way the Ancient does with Menelaus (Odyssey, Book 4, lines 487-489). The power of archetypal images in terms of restoring vitality and meaning to life has been elaborated most fully in psychoanalytic work that requires considerable experience and study to penetrate, but a few passages will suggest key themes.
1. The unconscious is the great source of human creativity.
Both [Nietzsche & Jung]—though neither would have put it this way—were in the existentialist tradition of belief that without conflict and suffering, consciousness is doomed to stagnation and regression. Both sought, instead, for a philosophy and psychology (if they would admit a difference between the two) whose test is simply but richly this: does it conduce to a life rich in fulfilment, attainment, even transcendence to a realm of integration beyond what is reachable from the comfortable couches of everydayness. Theirs, alike, was a philosophy of darkness, no less than light, a celebration of the Dionysian spirit wherein is found the scariness of the unconscious with its alarming dreams which are yet the great source of human creativity. . . They agreed that no one’s intellectual or artistic achievement can be understood or fairly assessed without regard for the whole self of the creator. . . Jung would have rejoiced in Nietzsche’s equating greatness in a man with his ‘comprehensiveness, and multiplicity, his wholeness in manifoldness—how much and how many things a person could bear and take upon himself, how far a person could extend his responsibility.’*. . . Thus [to Jung], to neglect the profound questions of the origins and destinies of human consciousness is as self-defeating as neglecting dream and myth. (James L. Jarrett, “Introduction,” Jung’s Seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, pp xx-xxi)
2. Images reflect multiplicity.
“Images by their very structure are multivalent. If the mind makes use of images to grasp the ultimate reality of things, it is just because reality manifests itself in contradictory ways and therefore cannot be expressed in concepts. . . It is therefore the image as such, as a whole bundle of meanings, that is true, and not any one of its meanings. . .” .Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols, p. 15.
3. Archetypal images can be misused but not lost. “today we are well on the way to an understanding of one thing of which the nineteenth century had not even a presentiment—that the symbol, the myth and the image are of the very substance of the spiritual, that they may become disguised, mutilated or degraded, but are never extirpated. . . The “origin” of the Images, also, is a problem that is beside the point. . .” Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols, pp. 11, 15.
4. When image-making (digital media production, for example) imitates exemplary models (good stories, for example) and not arbitrary invention, the treasure is opened of psychological reality and spiritual truth.
“It depends, as we said, upon modern man—to ‘reawaken’ the inestimable treasure of images that he bears within him; and to reawaken the images so as to contemplate them in their pristine purity and assimilate their message. Popular wisdom has many a time given expression to the importance of imagination for the very health of the individual and for the balance and richness of his inner life. . . To ‘have imagination’ is to enjoy a richness of interior life, an uninterrupted and spontaneous flow of images. But spontaneity does not mean arbitrary invention. Etymologically, ‘imagination’ is related to both imago—a representation or imitation—and imitor, to imitate or reproduce. And for once, etymology is in accord with both psychological realities and spiritual truth. The imagination imitates the exemplary models—the Images—reproduces, reactualises and repeats them without end. To have imagination is to be able to see the world in its totality, for the power and the mission of the Images is to show all that remains refractory to the concept: hence the disfavor and failure of the man ‘without imagination’; he is cut off from the deeper reality of life and from his own soul.” Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols, pp. 19-20.
This point is also asserted by Jane Hirshfield in Ten Windows where she quotes Basho who says, “Do not follow the ancient masters, seek what they sought” (p. 82).
5. While the unconscious remains rather inaccessible, the adaptive unconscious as an “informed gut feeling” can be developed for a guidance system.
In Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious (2002, p. 23), Timothy D. Wilson defines the unconscious as the part of the mind that “I cannot access even when I try. A better working definition of the unconscious is mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgments, feelings, or behavior.. . [including] the way I select, interpret, and evaluate incoming information and set goals in motion.”  He elaborates: “The term ‘adaptive unconscious’ is meant to convey that nonconscious thinking is an evolutionary adaptation. The ability to size up our environments, disambiguate them, interpret them, and initiate behavior quickly and nonconsciously confers a survival advantage and thus was selected for. Without these nonconscious processes, we would have a very difficult time navigating through the world…” Wilson illustrates with pattern detection studies (e.g., Pawel, et.al. using computer screen, 4 quadrants, choosing the one where X would appear, and learning ‘nonconsciously’ the complex rule but not being able to tell what it is); interpretation/translator; feeling & emotion to evaluate; goal setting.
Wilson summarizes the significance of the adaptive unconscious: “As we have seen what is typically thought of as the “proper work” of consciousness—goal setting, interpretation, evaluation—can be performed nonconsciously” (p. 43). Wilson adds guidance on the application of the adaptive unconscious: “The trick is to gather enough information to develop an informed gut feeling and then not analyze that feeling too much. . . The point is that we should not analyze the information in an overly deliberate, conscious manner, constantly making explicit lists of pluses and minuses. We should let our adaptive unconscious do the job of forming reliable feelings and then trust those feelings, even if we cannot explain them entirely” (p. 172).

     Our work/play with digital media production aims at connecting us with this dynamic between word and image through our engagement with good stories as we draw upon our resources of creativity and the adaptive unconscious.