Blog Post #5 Prompt–Word and Image

Even more generally, “word and image” is a kind of shorthand name for a basic division in the human experience of representations, presentations, and symbols. We might call this division the relation between the seeable and the sayable, display and discourse, showing and telling (Foucault 1982; Deleuze 1988; Mitchell 1994).

Consider, for instance, the words you are reading at this moment. They are (one hopes) intelligible verbal signs. You can read them aloud, translate them into other languages, interpret or paraphrase them. They are also visible marks on the page, or (if read aloud) audible sounds in the air. You can see them as black marks on a white background, with specific shapes, sizes, and locations; you can hear them as sounds against a background of relative silence. In short, they present a double face to both the eye and the ear: one face is that of the articulate sign in a language; the other is that of a formal visual or aural gestalt, an optical or acoustical image. Normally we look only at one face and ignore the other: we don’t pay much attention to the typography or graphic look of a text; we don’t listen to the sounds of words, preferring to concentrate on the meaning they convey. But it is always possible to shift our attention, to let those

black marks on a white background

become objects of visual or aural attention, as in this self-referential example. We are encouraged to do this by poetic or rhetorical uses of language that foreground the sounds of words, or artistic, ornamental uses of writing (e.g., illuminated manuscripts, calligraphy) that foreground the visual appearance of letters. But the potential for the shift “from word to image” is always there, even in the most spare, unadorned forms of writing and speech.

A similar potential resides in visual images. In the act of interpreting or describing pictures, even in the fundamental process of recognizing what they represent, language enters into the visual field. Indeed, so-called “natural” visual experience of the world, quite apart from the viewing of images, may be much like a language. The philosopher George Berkeley (1709) argued that eyesight is a “visual language,” a complex, learned technique that involves the coordination of visual and tactile sensations. Modern neuropsychologists like Oliver Sacks (1993) have confirmed Berkeley’s theory, showing that people who have been blinded for an extended period of time have to relearn the cognitive techniques of seeing, even when the physical structure of the eye has been fully repaired. As a practical matter, the recognition of what visual images represent, even the recognition that something is an image, seems possible only for language-using animals. The famous image game of the duck-rabbit illustrates the intimate and intricate interplay of words and images in the perception of a visual image.

Being able to see both the duck and the rabbit, to see them shift back and forth, is possible only for a creature that is able to coordinate pictures and words, visual experience and language (Wittgenstein 1953).

Based upon Foucault and other scholar’s thoughts (above) on word and image, please choose your own word-image phenomena and discuss it in the terms laid out above. You are encouraged also to look to Magritte and McCloud_Show_and_Tell for language and terms to analyze and discuss whichever phenemona you’ve chosen. You might consider human perception and representation, word-image relationality in your chosen phenomena, what is an image(?), etc.   Please post your phenomena here, along with your thoughtful thoughts. To get full credit, I’d like to see you use some of the terms above, as well as a quote or concept from McCloud or Magritte, or both if you’re feeling lucky. 

(by Robert Nelson and Richard Shiff, Critical Terms for Art History. U of Chicago Press 1996)

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