Book Corner: The Age of the Image, by Stephen Apkon

by Diana Miller

Welcome to a new and irregularly scheduled feature on the CSA Culture Cluster blog: Book Corner, where I (and any other cluster members who would like to share what they’ve been reading) will highlight interesting and sociologically insightful books that are relevant to a cultural sociology audience, but that we might not be aware of for various reasons; perhaps because they’re primarily marketed to other fields or disciplines, or written by authors outside the academy.

The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens, by Stephen Apkon (2013, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is one such book. Apkon is a filmmaker, educator, and founder and former director of the Jacob Burns Film Center. Apkon’s purpose in The Age of the Image is to expand our understanding of the concept of “literacy.” He argues that literacy is not only the ability to read; it’s overall fluency in communication. This certainly requires skills that we already recognize as literacy, such as knowledge of language, grammar, and syntax. But, it also includes much more, specifically an understanding of genre and conventions; that is, what forms of language, tones, and other stylistic elements of communication are appropriate for which contexts. This, of course, is a fundamentally sociological insight: that fluency is genre is part of overall fluency.

But, it’s Apkon’s concept of visual literacy and his discussion of the language of film that cultural sociologists will find most compelling. He argues that film has a grammar and syntax in which most Westerners are literate, despite the fact that most of us don’t recognize film as a form of language. For example, when we see interspersed shots of two people who appear to be speaking into (or looking past) the camera, we “see” a conversation even if the camera angles show no actual interaction. When we see a lingering shot of a landscape that segues into an indoor action sequence, we understand that the landscape is the setting where that action takes place. These interpretations are obvious to us, but that’s precisely the point; they are obvious because they are socially learned, just like any other language.

Apkon illustrates this view of visual literacy by referencing research on “video virgins,” or people who had seen photographs, but never film, as well as a number of studies on social psychology and cognition to highlight differences in how we process words and images. Overall, Apkon makes a compelling case for viewing visual cognition as, first, more social than we realize and, second, subtly different from verbal cognition.

The Age of the Image isn’t directed at sociologists – or at least, it’s not directed at only sociologists. Apkon makes it clear that he wants readers to understand visual literacy so they will become better visual communicators. He dedicates an entire chapter to discussing different types of camera shots, what they communicate, and when filmmakers might want to use them. His purpose is obviously to inspire us all to pick up our own cameras and start uploading Youtube videos.

That’s a noble goal, but it also suggests the book’s biggest weakness. Apkon veers into overly optimistic territory, implicitly proclaiming that anyone can produce a viral video if only they’re literate in visual grammar. By focusing only on production and ignoring distribution (i.e. how films, Youtube videos, TV news, and other forms of visual communication get to audiences), Apkon elides an important point: in theory any video can go viral, but in practice only a tiny percentage do. He analyzes a number of viral videos, highlighting particularly ‘literate’ moments that contributed to their success, but ends up sampling on the dependent variable; he says little, for example, about similarly literate videos that didn’t go viral.

Still, this book (or at least, the first half of it) delves into key sociological questions about what it means to be visually and culturally literate in the modern world, and is well worth a read.

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