Conclusion: Short Histories of the Present

Viewed over the course of time ("diachronically"), all semiotic systems change; viewed at one moment in time ("synchronically"), such as "the present," we see a mixture of old and new principles and practices. The new are never absolutely new (or they would be unintelligible for many) and the old can often adapt and merge with the new. The preceding chapters provide many examples of these changes as new technologies have developed. In recent decades, most of the new practices of making images, imagetexts, and other multimedia can be directly linked to innovations in computer software--with HTML and Cascading Style Sheets, JavaScript, Java, Photoshop, and Flash. I will gather various threads from the preceding chapters under these heads.

There is no doubt that the last decade has been an extraordinarily fertile period in the development of software to make and disseminate imagetexts. HTML and CSS afford us control of the layout of images and text on the scrolling page. Javascript lets us move things around and make changes on the displayed page according to viewer input. Java greatly increases our ability to do many things, including spatializing and manipulating words. Photoshop (from version 3 on) has given users great powers over images to enhance and transform them, to layer in words and other images, and to sculpt their opacity. It can also "paste" fragments selected from other texts and images into a good imitation of a scissors-and-paste collage. And finally Macromedia Flash has been attractive for several years as a way of animating the contents of pages. Christy Sheffield Sanford, one of the pioneers of the new medium, says,

I've often been inspired by Java scripts and new conventions. For about five years, I tackled every new convention I thought had a wide range of possibilities: tables, frames, animation, popouts, rollovers, layers, timelines, various Java scripts. 4

Powers and abilities beyond those of ordinary mortals—yes, it's SuperWriter! But what exactly is one supposed to do with these powers? More particularly, what do the new devices afford for making and conveying meaning? The discoveries of these affordances are not so dramatic or datable; they do not bear version numbers. Looking back, we can see numerous instances. Let us suppose that a certain version of Flash lets you slide rectangular sections of the screen up and down or sideways and to script such movements. What can you do with that? Shirin Kouladjie saw a link to the displacement collages of Hannah Höch and others, making the "When No One Was Looking" Flash animation we examined in 3.4. That resonates, partly because it fractures and displaces one of the best "good forms"--a woman's face--and partly because we have all been to collage-school, as it were. Indeed, Shirin seems to have decided to write the book on Flash affordances, or at least several chapters of it.

Another couple of scattered examples: If you are reading this on line in Internet Explorer, the images in the margin of Chapter Four (an occasionally elsewhere) will appear very faint unless you mouse over them, in which case they will grow in a few seconds to full opacity. This is accomplished by an "image-fader" piece of Javascript. It serves my purposes in several ways. When the image is fully visible next to the text, it competes with it for the eye. With the fader, the reader/viewer decides when to make the image visible, and this seeking to see is thematic for Viewing Viewing (as is the SpotLight Java applet in "Voyeur Viewer") and for gazing upon Courbet's Origin of the World in Chapter Five. In addition it performs a little magic utterly beyond what is possible on the printed page. The effect is like the thrilling moment of watching a print "come in" in the developer. The fader also plays with varying opacity, recapitulating the bodies without edges of Chapter Two (Photomontage) and its gradual transformation contrasts with the jagged, abrupt edges of collage and hypertext jumps. That is a lot to come out of a Javascript gizmo using IE nonstandard markup, but those connotations one would hope have become activated in this work. Changing opacity is also the basis for the Java enabled display of Nancy Goldring's "At Work: Re Building".

Another example here is a passing and general reference to Photoshop's masks and layers as a technology for stacking images in photomontage that would be incredibly difficult to do by hand and in color. Some of the early uses pushed the number of layers to the point of challenging our abilities to see and sort out the component images--where they are viewable, it is because we can work out some rationale for the stack.

Several of the affordances of various programs can be grouped together as tactics under the general strategy of spatializing words. Using frames to divide the screen into a grid of cells each of which can be addressed and can load content means that text can be targeted to particular locations in space--locations where images can also occur. (Works by Carol Flax, Shu Lea Cheang, Olia Lialina, and Vivian Selbo come to mind.) And again, the abilities to fade text, to whirl it in letter by letter, to overlap it with images or other text, and to drag it around on transparent panels--each of these makes us see text as a visual element rather than read it.

There does of course need to be a reason to make text visual, or else that making will come off as clever and not much more. It is not inherently meaningful to do so, except in the limited sense that it breaks down the superiority of text as a meta-language. To dredge up words and phrases, sounds and images, from one's hard drive and send them spinning and drifting out into other computers [collection], however, is to tear them from the contexts that give them meaning and send them into a Hades of dissolved identities. It is the dissolution of semiotics into chaos, though it is a chaos which is shared with other computers that happen to be connected, and so is a spatiality beyond space. It is at such a destructive/recreative moment that we are now poised.