Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Language of Images

Mitchell, W.J.T. ed. The Language of Images. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

The Mitchell edited anthology The Language of Images collects a series of essays that examine the “symbiotic relationship between verbal and pictorial modes in modern art and literature” (1), wherein the “language of images,” in the most general sense, refers to “language about images,...images regarded as a language,...[and] verbal language as a system informed by images” (3). Moreover, the essays that Mitchell gathers together in this volume intentionally problematize our notions of the verbal-pictorial binary by “discriminating the various ways in which the barriers are erected and transgressed and determining whether these activities have a history” (3). The anthology's opening piece, “On Poetry and Painting, With a Thought of Music,” explores the “affinities between poetry and painting,” to the extent that practitioners working within both genres “want to reach the silence behind [their respective] languages, the silence within the languages” (9), to say nothing of the fact that “both painter and poet are makers of images” (11). Elizabeth Abel's essay “Redefining the Sister Arts: Baudelaire's Response to the Art of Delacroix” provides a thorough review of both the historical relationship between poetry and painting, as well as Baudelaire's essays on the paintings of Delacroix; but more importantly, Abel demonstrates the manner in which the former co-opted pictorial concepts of the latter and incorporated them into his poems. As the author clearly states, the artists shared neither similar contents nor stylistic elements (42-3); instead, their works function as “interconnected systems” (43) that “balance form and movement in an interrelated whole” (52). Delacroix achieved this “harmony” by “breaking up masses of color into separate brush strokes of different tones which fuse in the spectator's eye, creating a more luminous impression than that of uniform color blocks” (48); Baudelaire, meanwhile, achieved a similar effect when he “repeats certain sounds to sustain a particular tone,” with an “adherence to regular and intricate rhyme schemes” (52), and suggesting movement through the use of deliberate syntax that modulates a reader's pacing (57). Ernest B. Gilman's essay “Word and Image in Quarles' Emblemes,” on the other hand, focuses on a literary work that employs both image and text in the form of the emblem. More specifically, Gilman’s argument is that the “energy of [Quarles'] book flow less from the plates or the poems taken separately, or from the harmony of their cooperation, than from the discord of the confrontation between them” (61). By generating a zone of contention between image and text, Quarles conceived differently the relationship between the two, in that “traditional descriptions of emblematic art assume the image and the word...join together to create a total effect richer than that of either component alone, that the two parts are commensurate and reinforcing” (61). By undermining pre-established correspondences, Quarles' book can be read less as a faulty or aberrant, and more as an important moment in the history of emblematic discourse. In his short polemic, “A Plea for Visual Thinking,” Rudolf Arnheim goes to great lengths to debunk the claim that “perception offers nothing better than the fairly mechanical recording of the stimuli arriving at the sensory receptors” (172), whereas “thinking...process[es] that information” and thus “emerges...as the 'higher,' more respectable function” (171). To wit, Arnheim posits that “thinking is impossible without recourse to perceptual images” (176) and, in fact, “the intimate interaction between intuitive and intellectual functioning” (179), or perception and thought, account for the manner in which humans solve high-level problems and interact with the world. The final essay of the collection, titled “Spatial Form in Literature: Toward a General Theory,” was penned by Mitchell himself. At its broadest, Mitchell's contribution “concentrates on the problem of spatial in literature and the languages of criticism with the aim of clarifying its role in reading and literary analysis and with the hope of relating the notion of literary verbal space to the general problem of epistemological structures” (273). The foundation of the author's argument resides in Leibniz's conception of space as “an order of coexistent data” that allows for a “relational and kinematic” understandings (275), which leads into a discussion of how humans spatialize time so as to make it less abstract. As reading and literature tend to be considered temporally based, this is of utmost importance. While Mitchell creates a rather nuanced argument, it can be, essentially, divided into four layers. First, literature is spatial in a material sense: as a physical object that contains a “style of type, size of page, locations of glosses, presence of absence of illustrations, even texture of paper” (282). Second, literature as a mode of representation is spatial in that a “realm...has to be constructed mentally during or after the temporal experience of reading a text” so as to visualize an image (283). The third level of spatial orientation occurs “in the problematics of 'structure' and 'form'” (283). Mitchell's fourth and final layer occurs at the level of “meaning” and the manner in which readers metaphorically stratify types of “meaning” as surface-level understanding or deep-meaning. While Mitchell bases some of his argumentation upon structuralist precepts (particularly those of Northrop Frye), there are some marked differences. First, he does not conceptualize “temporal form” as “the antithesis of spatial form” (284); instead, he conceptualizes the two modes as an interrelated pair that work in conjunction with one another. Additionally, Mitchell does not contend that spatial form has “any fixed map,” nor will it “account for all the details of the text” (284). In the end, Mitchell spatial turn in language serves “to put the form back into fiction and see the way it moves and submerges in the texture of the work” (298), as well as to see literature “as an ecosystem, an organism, a human form” (299).

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