Spool Five

Gemtext and Image

Author: Eoin Carney Published: Apr, 2022

One of the most noticeable things about Gemini is that it is text-based. Sure, it can support images but, depending on the client, these are mostly left hidden. Gemini gains a lot of its identity from this emphasis on text. One of the first things you’ll notice if you compare an average web page and a page on Gemini is that one is filled with images and highly visual, while the other is just a wall of text.

Does this mean, then, that gemtext is somehow anti-image? That it is some new, iconoclastic medium which attempts to break free from the seduction of images on the web? In some ways, yes, but in my experience browsing Gemini, it’s not as simple as that.

The Photograph - A Message Without a Code

Roland Barthes proposes a way to think about the difference between text and images in his essay “The Photographic Message”. Here, Barthes considers the interplay between the two in news publications. He suggests that both represent different structures of communication, so it is not the case that something like, say, the front page of a newspaper, is a homogeneous surface, but is rather comprised of different communications “channels” - a linguistic channel (the text) and an analogical/photographic channel (the images).

The text channel is structured according to the common semiological codes of languages. The photographic channel differs due to the nature of photographs - they posses an analogical relation to the object they represent. In other words, we have something like the old digital-analogue dichotomy; text is symbolic, images are analogical.

The word “tree” is entirely different from an actual tree, it becomes a signifier of the tree-object only through its relation to other linguistic signs within a structure. A photograph of a tree, however, can be mapped, to an extent, onto a real tree. For example, an alien society would be able to reconstruct an actual tree using a photograph, but not with the letters ‘t-r-e-e’ and the sounds they produce.

Barthes calls the press photograph a “message without a code.”1 Whereas linguistic codes accompany a text, press photographs demand we take them as literal, or purely denotative, representations of the objects they depict:

Of all the structures of information, the photograph appears as the only one that is exclusively constituted and occupied by a “denoted” message, a message which totally exhausts its mode of existence. 2

However, the photographic channel is also paradoxical. It is not wholly different from a tree, like text, but it is not wholly similar to a tree either. There are still connotative procedures in place - trick effects, pose, choice of objects, photogenia, aestheticism, syntax (Barthes’ list). These we are all pretty familiar with and, given that the world is vastly more image-saturated than it was in the 60s, most audiences would be able to recognise the ways in which, even press images, are highly constructed and ‘coded’. The combination of these connotation processes, and the “analogical plentitude” of the photograph produce the paradoxical effect. It’s as if two channels are overlaid on one another, the ‘pure’ analogical channel of the image, and the coded, sign-based channel of the connotation effects.

Again, nothing new here. We all know how photographs can be manipulated and ‘encoded’ in various ways. Barthes’ most significant contribution to the discussion, though, comes in his claim that it is the text accompanying a press photo which contributes much of the connotation effect. Barthes even goes so far as to describe the text as “parastic” upon the image.

Firstly, the text constitutes a parasitic message designed to connote the image, to “quicken” it with one or more second-order signifieds. In other words, and this is an important historical reversal, the image no longer illustrates the words; it is now the word which, structurally, are parasitic on the image. The reversal is at a cost: in the traditional modes of illustration the image functioned as an episodic return to denotation from a principal message (the text) which was experienced as connoted since, precisely, it needed an illustration; in the relationship that now holds, it is not the image which comes to elucidate or “realize” the text, but the latter which comes to sublimate, patheticize, or rationalize the image. 3

In what Barthes calls “traditional” modes of illustration, the image acts as an “episodic return” to an alternative mode of communication (the denotative). In the case of a newspaper or magazine cover, for example, the situation is inverted. Here, the image - analogical - channel is subsumed under the rationalising effect of the text. As I mentioned above, Barthes identifies a newspaper/magazine cover as a non-homogenous surface, comprised of different communication channels. In effect, however, the governing codes and structures of a language and culture work to produce a homogenized, rationalised surface. Barthes describes the ways various pieces of text work to frame and sublimate the image-channel, most notably the headline, the article itself and the caption.

Barthes broader point is a sociological/philosophical one. If we want to learn about a society, simply looking at its artefacts or images isn’t enough. We also have to look at how these objects are integrated into social structures and communication media. Or, as Barthes ends the essay, we need to examine the procedures that “transform the unculture of a ‘mechanical’ art into the most social of institutions.”

The Photograph Today

Arguably, the photographic paradox has only become more pronounced today. For example, how else can we explain things like constant photographs and videos of humans suffering and dying at U.S. or European borders, while anti-immigration sentiment rises? 4 Text and ideology sublimate these horrific images and direct them towards ‘rationalised’ and ideological ends.

Furthermore, the difference in communication channels is even more pronounced in a modern web page. The text elements of the page are stored as one filetype (typically html), while the image-elements have their own separate filetypes (jpg, png, etc.). Beyond this we also have movie files, scripts, and so on. The end result, though, is not wholly different from the layout of a newspaper or magazine page, in that it is presented as a seamless, homogeneous surface. The only difference is that the rationalization and sublimation tools are even more powerful thanks to the modern web’s capacity for handling and manipulating information. Once multiple modes of communication - text, images, voices - can be reduced to ones and zeros, anything is possible in terms of combining and structuring them to serve particular ends.

As a side note, perhaps the main difference between today and Barthes’ time is that the medium of ‘propaganda’ or the ‘rationalizing effect’ is not simply the text elements of the page. For Barthes the text was ‘parasitic’, but this was probably because it was the most efficient way of expressing discourse and ideology at the time. With the modern web page, there are a host of other tools to help with this. The web page is infinitely more dynamic than the magazine cover or newspaper page. It will literally change itself in real-time, based on your browsing habits and other things you’ve visited. Furthermore, visiting a web page itself impacts the other pages you visit. This helps ensure that we stay, for the most part, within a network which reflects particular ideologies and tastes. A frame or context is created around all communication that is filtered through the page, be that a photograph or a blog post. In this sense, was can say that, today, the modern web is parasitic even upon the text, in the same way the text in Barthes’ time was parasitic on the image.

This is where gemtext comes in. It might, at first sight, appear that gemtext is even more ‘parastic’ upon the image. After all, it reduces the image to a link, which may or may not be displayed and/or opened. It goes even further than the ‘caption’ which Barthes’ talks about as having the most rationalising effect - it translates the image into a string of characters that is primarily intended to be read by software. What could be more ‘rationalizing’ and ‘parasitic’ than this?

However, this is where we arrive at a kind of counter-intuitive conclusion. When we write in gemtext we substitute visual pleasure for textual fidelity. Yes, our files are populated with language that is in-human (#, =>, /directory/structures/, *, etc.) and, yet, in this way it is more reflective of the structural reality that we largely operate in as a society (machine-mediated information). Of course, it is still far removed from the underlying symbols and machinary which will reduce these texts to something transmissible over copper, but it is probably as close as we can get to engaging with that reality in a functional and truthful way. In a kind of twist, gemtext becomes almost like how Barth saw the photograph - it possess an analogical relation to the underlying communication structures, and in this sense is more ‘plentiful’ than, say, the interface of Microsoft Word, which rationalizes and conceals the reality of the medium.

Furthermore, although gemtext represents the image as a symbol (a hyperlink or directory path), it does so in an upfront and transparent way that actually ends up presenting images more accurately than the web. This is true both in a technical and an experiential sense. The times when I do come across Gemini articles with illustrations or someone’s photo gallery, there is something significant about the act of opening the image in a new window and considering it as an image, apart from the text. It’s almost as if the image has once again become an “episodic” movement away from the text, just as it was in old storybooks and illustrations. You can even think of gemtext’s approach to images as following a Brechtian mode of thinking - it lays bare the various contradictions and ideologies of the modern web by separating out and simplifying its component parts.

Gemini and the Press Image

So, is Gemini ‘iconoclastic’, then? Does it fetishize text over images? Well, as I mentioned above, even if it did fetishize the text, it would only be to ‘reclaim’ the text from the filtering and contextualising effects of the modern web page. I think most browsers of Gemspace will agree that it does a very good job in that regard. The question of images remains more difficult, however. There is something very ‘comfortable’ and nostalgic about Gemini’s treatment of text. A familiar remark on Gemini is that it feels like the early days of blogging, or the even earlier days of the internet (Gopher, BBSs, etc.). Its choice to handle text the way it does is nothing particularly revolutionary. It’s also clear that text-based communication is, for now at least, the central focus of much of Gemini. In this sense, it does seem to push images aside and even to become, once again, ‘parasitic’ on the role that images play in discourse.

However, to return to the Brechtian point, by separating out and deconstructing the familiar elements of networked communication 5, Gemini takes an important step in at least freeing up the image again for new, unexpected uses. One nice example I can think of are the ‘plants’ in astrobotany. Personally, I find the ascii-art representations of plants (especially the ‘animation’ when harvesting a plant), far more compelling than the graphics you might find in a hundred farming-sim games. Maybe that is just a question of personal taste.

Images are certainly more visible and ubiquitous on web pages, but their significance remains obscured by the various modes of coding and rationalising them. Sometimes, as Barthes writes, in order to ‘see’ a photograph well, we need to ‘look away’ from it. Isn’t that what gemtext allows us to do?

Ultimately — or at the limit — in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes. ‘The necessary condition for an image is sight,’ Janouch told Kafka; and Kafka smiled and replied: ’We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes. 6

Regarding the use of ‘press images’ in Gemini (one of the main subjects of Barthes’ discussion), well the jury is still out on that front. But, it’s not hard to imagine, sometime in the future, Gemini becoming more useful in the dissemination of news (perhaps some people already use it in this way). In this case, the images accompanying news articles might indeed take on more significance than they do on web pages. From the creator/journalist perspective, it’s certainly seems much easier to upload images with Gemini (and not have to worry about things like aligning/resizing it for example).

From Smolnet to MinorNet

I haven’t come to much of a conclusion yet, and I don’t think there is one for now. I’ve tried to write something about the role of images on Gemini, but it’s hard to write something concrete when images are still so sparse here. Perhaps that’s the point, they are like little treasures, burrowed away behind links.

There is a famous concept by Deleuze and Guattari of “minor literature/philosophy”. The prime example of ‘minor’ literature for them is Kafka. It’s a comprehensive concept, which I won’t go into much here, only to say that some of the defining features of a minor literature is that it is a subjectless, deterritorialisation process which precedes by way of things like burrows, holes, side-streets, a multiplicity of doorways, and so on.

“The Castle has many entrances…The hotel in America has too many doors for us to count.” Among these entrances, none seems privileged; no sign over the entrance announces that this is the way in. The reader of Kafka’s work will choose an opening and map the passage he finds himself following. The map will change if a different entrance is chosen. 7

It is political by nature, since it takes place in cramped spaces where politics is unavoidable (not unlike the Gemini mailing list!).

The second characteristic of minor literatures is that everything in them is political … its cramped space forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics. 8

In Kafka’s terms, the goal of a minor literature/philosophy isn’t “liberty”, but “escape”. In this sense, Gemini (and Gopher, etc.) aren’t ways of freeing ourselves from the web, they are more like little, cramped burrows on the underside of the web which may, or may not, offer opportunities for escape. Using this metaphor, it seems appropriate that images are also stuffed into little drawers and cabinets - out of sight - not because they are not deserving of eyes, but because a ‘minor’ space doesn’t have the same ‘real estate’ as a major one. If viewing images on the web is like visiting some gigantic, constantly shifting, postmodern gallery, viewing images on Gemini is like visiting a friend’s cramped apartment in secret, down some strange route in the city, and sitting in silence together, while looking at their holiday pictures.

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  1. Roland Barthes, The Photographic Message, in A Barthes Reader, p. 196.↩︎

  2. Barthes, The Photographic Message, p. 197.↩︎

  3. Barthes, The Photographic Message, p.204.↩︎

  4. I started writing this before the current crisis in Ukraine. I think the current reception of the horrific images underlines Barthe’s point - images of Ukrainian cities in ruin are received differently than images of Syrian cities in ruin. I’m not making a judgement on that either way, only pointing out how much a role the ideological context plays in transforming the raw, analogue images of a camera into processed/contextualised. There is nothing new in this point, it goes all the way back to the “medium is the message”. I think Barthes’ main contribution here is to link structuralism (language) to the analysis of the ‘medium’ and how it differentiates the ‘message’.↩︎

  5. The most obvious things it separates are text and other media (images, music, etc.), but another point here that I only thought about when watching Tomasino’s great video about CGI applications on Gemini, is that ‘applications’ are also deconstructed on Gemini. Each application ‘exchange’ has simple, human-understandable response codes, and from the user-perspective, they have to manually manage (to an extent) things like certificates (which are handled behind the scenes on the web).↩︎

  6. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucidia - Reflections on Photography.↩︎

  7. Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, What is a Minor Literature, Editor’s Note.↩︎

  8. Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, p. 17.↩︎