Visual/Verbal Integration #1:
Webtext as Visual Text

The journal Kairos is truly a web publication; it has no print counterpart, and it is self-aware in its exploration of the web as a forum for academic writing. The journal, for example, calls its feature pieces "webtexts," not articles. Kairos is more web savvy ­and, not surprisingly, more visually savvy­than any other journal I looked at. One recent article­"Not a Cosmic Convergence: Rhetoric, Poetics, Performance, and the Web"­ is particularly rich in visual design. Published in November 1998 as a selected proceeding from the Computers and Writing Conference, it is an unusual text in that it is a web version of a performance at the conference. The author is indicated as Myka Vielstimmig, but as you enter the webtext you find out that the name is invented; the authors are mainly Kathleen Blake Yancey and Michael Spooner, with assistance from several other people who participated in the performance. Vielstimmig means "many voiced" in German.
"Not a Cosmic Convergence" is at once a reflection on the possibilities for reconstructing the academic essay to be multi-vocal, visual, and non-linear, and an enactment of those possibilities. One of the voices says in the piece: "Writing this way in academic texts is a stylistic choice to represent synthesis and process. As such, it jars the reader away from the analytical habit." Another voice asks: "What about essays that invoke this sensibility, that abandon the extended period for jump cuts, flashbacks, and collages of heretofore incompatible genres?" The question is one we might ask of pop-up video, a collage of genres that traditionally do not inhabit the same space.

One feature of the visual design in the Vielstimmig piece is the use of different color type to capture different voices. There are two strands that run throughout the whole piece, a teal voice and a magenta voice, although we never learn whose voices these are. Other voices, in blue, black, and orange, occasionally interrupt the dialogue between the teal and magenta voices.

Figure 1: from "Not a Cosmic Convergence"

The other major visual component is reproductions of famous paintings and installations by Leger, Matisse, Picasso, DuChamp, Cornell, Pollack and other artists. The authors/producers make analogies throughout between the ethos of certain movements within the history of art­particularly Cubism­and the ethos of a reconstructed essay, or what they call, the "new essay, netessay, or digital essay."

There is very little that is transparent about this piece. It is deliberately opaque, it deliberately invites us to look AT it rather than simply THROUGH it. As a postmodern foray into the discussion of experimental genres, it vigorously resists what Lanham calls CBS style: a style characterized by clarity, brevity, and sincerity. The disjointed prose and the collage of images for one thing strongly discourage an easy equation of the text and some definitive meaning "behind," "underneath" or "inside" the text. There are also a number of self-conscious winks that the article gives the reader throughout to indicate a movement away from sincerity. Finally, I find the visual presentation of the webtext to be quite seductive; the soft colors and the relatively high quality reproductions of familiar artwork create a sensually rich viewing experience. The piece quite successfully fulfills its purpose: to resist the ideology of transparent text that persistently dogs traditional academic writing.
Looking AT and looking THROUGH
The Visual as Invisible in Online Journals
Visual/Verbal Integration #1: Webtext as Visual Text
Visual/Verbal Integration #2: Academic Writing as Grunge
Visual/Verbal Integration #3: Visual Structure and the Online Journal
  Works Cited