Posted by: soniahs | August 22, 2010

Exam reading: “How images think”

“How Images Think,” by Ron Burnett, explores whether/how images help us think. Nope, they don’t actually think on their own- in fact, they have no meaning outside of what we interpret them to be.

Summary: Burnett argues that images are central to how humans conceptualize the world. In modern society, our (physical) experience is so mediated by human-created technologies that the distinction between nature and artifice is blurred; we also make sense of the world through “image-worlds” (psychological image-based constructs that mediate our experience with reality). These image-worlds make images intertextual- interpretation is dependent on our experience with other images. Our vantage point with respect to images is crucial for how we interpret them, and vantage point is largely culturally determined. Although images mediate our relationships with the world (including those with machines and other people), our interpretation of the images is more important to the images themselves. With respect to virtual worlds and simulation, Burnett believes that they are useful for overcoming distances between observer and subject, or tangible experience and the event (or object) being pictured. Simulations are “enhanced” reality, rather than illusions. Burnett also discusses the interactions between humans and machines, and how these affect our definitions of consciousness, humanity, etc. He argues that modeling communication as a sender-receiver model (or the brain as an input-output device) is too reductive, omitting context (materiality) while focusing on content.

Comments: While Burnett’s main focus seems to be on how images mediate our experience, in several chapters, the link between images and his subject is fairly tenuous. He seems to be trying to throw a little bit of everything into his book, e.g., embodiment, consciousness, online networked communities, gaming culture, models of communication. While these examples fit into his thesis that we live in intensively technologically-mediated communities, his emphasis on the overarching importance of images in each of these examples is not clear. One useful point for me is his contention that images of “unseeable” scientific concepts, while “virtual,” are what make these ideas “real” to people (i.e., “virtual” here =/= “fake”).

Links to: Haraway (cyborgs, embodiment); Hayles (HCI, consciousness); Tufte (images for communication); McLuhan (importance of medium); Baudrillard (Bur. disagrees with Bau.’s equation of virtual with fake/illusory)



  1. […] of having external & internal representations converge, but not explicitly distributed cog.); Burnett (core list; cognition & image-worlds) GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); […]


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