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VisualText – fragments of a project

The anthropologist Jack Goody has argued that fonetic alphabets have greater civilizational potential than Egyptian hieroglyphs or Chinese characters. I disagree with this strongly. It is not merely the play of ideas that gives poetry force, nor the play of sound in spoken words, but also the play of images – letters, words, lines and paragraphs – over the page. I am convinced, and visual artists would no doubt support me in this, that there exists a language of colors and lines and surfaces that is just as rich and complex as the language of spoken and written words. Indeed, text is itself a part of this visuality – as muslim calligraphers and Irish monks perfectly well understood. I have approached this aspect of text in various ways:

Homepage and video

In a sense, this entire homepage is a sample of VisualText. True, the effects are not strong, at least in this part of the homepage, but it is still a matter of visualized text. The links that bind the homepage togeter are also parts of a visual image, and their placement and rendering reflects a visual credo. As you get further into the homepage you will find more or less experimental (and more or less successful) attempts at turning the visual volume up.

In San Francisco I put together an abstract video of second-length cuts from life in the city and out on nearlying Point Reyes, accompanied by a soundtrack produced by some sensationally talented musicians I just happened to know. Here there are no words, but the images, short as they are, resemble words or even letters, image sequences resemble sentences. I tried to reproduce the natural rhythms of spoken language in the play of image sequences. In a somewhat similar genre, I once made a slideshow of pictures from the 9/11 catastrophe, with a soundtrack by the Russian girl-group Tatu. Since both the images and the music are copyrighted, this production can unfortunately not be made accessible here.

Visualized text

In some of the more textually oriented parts of this homepage, the visual has almost taken center stage. This is true of my (not yet quite finished) photo-essay about the Norwegian mountains in summer, where stories about the mountains and pictures of the mountains alternate and complement each other. Another example is a Maze of Texts, which was in fact one of the first things to be published on this homepage, where you click from quote to quote via keywords that tie the quotes together. The quotes are often illustrated or set in a graphic context. The Maze of Texts is old, it has been altered and added to many times. It should be modernized, adapted for mobile phones, and also expanded considerably... and maybe some day this will happen. Finally, I have published a handful of my own poems, which also, to a varying extent, have been illustrated or set in graphics..

More generally, I have in several of my publications tried to illustrate aspects of my arguments with pictures. My monograph from Russia is a particularly good example. The illustrations I use there were carefully chosen, and are several times utilized explicitly as a running visual commentary to the main text. A good example is to be found some pages into this subchapter.


In my teaching, visualization has always had a central place. Not in the form of static visualizations, as in PowerPoint presentations, but as dynamic sketches on a blackboard that morph and evolve along with the thoughts they illustrate. I have later edited some of these sketches and made them accessible online or in books. In the Norwegian edition of our History of Anthropology I made use of detailed timelines, and for my teaching based on this book, I constructed a number of other graphics. I have collected much of this material on a separate page. In some cases, graphical diagrams of this kind have found their way into more analytically minded texts.

In my attempts to teach students how to write, I have discovered two important pedagogical principles. First, one must emphasize that writing is a physical activity. You can demonstrate this indirectly, when you talk about writing, by using body language actively – thus showing that talk is also a physical activity. In this respect you must force a rapprochement of image and text. But simultaneously you must emphasize that text and image are worlds apart. An image is two- or three-dimensional; text is always one-dimensional, it moves linearly: word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. There is no simultaneity or overlap. Hypertext and visualization can to some extent modify this, but the basic principle remains unaltered. Aspects of this learning process are touched on in a rather well-documented writing course for graduate students that I taught with Henrik Sinding-Larsen back in 1989, and also in an online lecture on the basic elements of good writing technique (accessible for a fee).