Reviewing the Reviewer:
A Response to Susan Lang's Critique of
Cultures of Vision: Images, Media and the Imaginary

Most authors appreciate having their books reviewed and given the profusion of publications in the areas of Cultural Studies and Media criticism and analysis, Susan Lang's review of my book, Cultures of Vision: Images, Media and the Imaginary  is welcome. Unfortunately, Lang's review makes a series of claims which need to be answered and in some instances critiqued.

One of her primary claims is that Cultures of Vision  has no pictures or illustrations and in a book about images that is not only a contradiction, but a serious failure. If Lang had examined the market for media, film, or photography books she would have realised that my choice not to include illustrations was partially based on the poor use of the pictorial as a replacement for rigourous argument.

In the book, I also question the idea that frames from a film, for example, can provide readers with any genuinely useful information about images from a movie. The analytic tradition (semiotics) which informs "illustration" as a concept has dominated film criticism, the assumption being that a picture tells us more than a text ever could. My argument is that pictures and language, illustrations and text are never separate. Together, text and image make a constellation of meanings possible, but what we say about our experiences of images and films and the media, what we write and what we discuss with friends and family, is the locus for a fascinating and discursively rich environment. I am not, as Lang suggests, "against" illustration. Illustrations just didn't serve any purpose in my text given its orientation.

Lang misses the point when she uses the absence of the pictorial to claim that I privilege language and textuality over the image. My central concern was to critique efforts to create a grammar for images, to transform images into language-like vehicles for vision and experience. Language and image are inextricably bound together, but we neither analyse nor experience images "as if" they are linguistic units.

So much of Cultures of Vision  argues for the place of the imaginary in viewing, the way we as spectators joyously recreate the narratives we watch and listen to, that Lang's summary dismissal of the third chapter of the book is disturbing. She misunderstands my efforts to discuss "projection" as a concept. It may well be the case that viewing images is about a middle ground "between" the experiences of viewing and our analysis of what we have seen. This in-between allows us to create a personal and often private sense of images and what they mean. Projection allows us to make a variety of claims and to justify a mixture of intuitions about images. In this model, the responsibility for viewing is thrust back upon the spectator.

This is why so much of the book is concerned with a critique of the gatekeeping model of communications. The gatekeeping model makes it seem as if message and experience are one and the same. Of course, gatekeeping is a metaphor for the conferral of control to someone else, to an image or a story or a document. I criticize the simplicity of gatekeeping because it cannot account for the complexity and sheer wonder and joy which we experience through images and the media. This in no way lays to the side the need to critique what the media say, how they are controlled and so on, but it does try and move us away from the simplicity and linearity of message-spectator relations. In fact, I argue against present models for the analysis of media and visual literacy for similar reasons.

Lang makes another claim which needs to be corrected. She says the book reveals that I have very little experience with the Internet and the World Wide Web and virtually no understanding of hypertext. I have been using electronic mail since the late 80's and am also the creator of one of McGill University's most popular web sites Critical Approaches to Culture, Communications and Hypermedia. Lang may wish to check out the Web pages for a good example of hypertext, the presence of course syllabi and student zines.

I mention this not to advertise the page, but because so much of Cultures of Vision  represents the results of my experience with electronic networking and new technologies. I am presently completing a new book on Freenets and Telecommunities. This is why Chapter Six is entitled, "Postmodern Media Communities." I am interested in the extraordinary heterogeneity of grassroots activities in the 1990's. I examine the community video movement, zines, electronic networking, art centres and so on. I talk about the communities of people who follow rock bands, the impact of popular music and alternative forms of cinematic expression. It is puzzling to say the least that Lang has nothing to say about all this and instead chooses to highlight a quote which she decontextualizes to the point where it sounds ridiculous. Although for their own purposes and to gain some credibility if not authority, reviewers often do this, I think it is an unnecessary tactic in trying to prove an argument.

Finally, Lang herself asks some pertinent questions about images including the relationship between photographs in print form and what happens when they are digitized. Had she read Cultures of Vision  in greater depth she would have realised that I mention this argument and discuss its ramifications throughout the book. (See pp. 43, 45, 52, 59, 65, 129, 130, 138, 156, 206, 220, 258). I also discuss the pedagogical ramifications of using images for teaching and learning. One of the central theses of the book is that information doesn't simply lead to learning and that there are fundamental differences between learning, information and knowledge. I hope that the readers of Kairos  will take the opportunity to examine these arguments in their original form and I would welcome further feedback:

Dr. Ron Burnett is President, Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, Vancouver, British Columbia.