Text of Session 10 Words, Images, Materiality. ï‚¨ Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his...
Session 10 Words, Images, Materiality
Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife by Johannes de Eyck (1434) Semantic enclave: Johannes de eyck fuit hic/1434
Semantic enclaves Inscriptions are autonomous entities within the paintings in which they occur they have a different semantic structure (Wallis 1973)
Semiology of textualization Text, image and object cannot be divorced from each other. The communicational proficiency which textualization demands goes far beyond the mere ability to read and write. The study of textualization requires methods enabling us to analyse the complex and varied relations between text, image and object.
Factors of three different kinds constrain the communicational possibilities of individuals in relation to textualized artefacts: What the human being is physiologically equipped to do (biomechanical factors) What the human being is collectively conditioned to do (macrosocial factors) What the human being is individually aiming to do in given circumstances (circumstantial factors)
WORD & IMAGE Harris, Roy. 2005. Visual and verbal ambiguity, or why ceci was never a pipe. Word and Image 21(2): 182-187.
Ceci was never a pipe!
Ren Magritte (1898-1967) La Trahison des Images (1929) La Clef des Songes (1930)
Ceci nest pas une pipe
La Clef des Songes
La Trahison des Images: the critics stance Magrittes main concern is with language J. Harkness: A visual critique of language R. Hughes: A condensed manifesto about language Language betrays the image
The doctrine of literal meaning What the words ceci nest pas une pipe affirm is either true or false. The statement in the picture is literally true. The answer to the question whether the statement is true or false depends on ceci. WHAT is it that is not a pipe? Is it the picture? Or the real pipe? Or the sentence? Or something else? The referent is undecidable. W.J.T. Mitchell Michel Foucault (1926-84)
Lexical/visual ambiguity 1. Could the title La Trahison des Images be ambiguous itself? That is, could it also be interpreted as images betray? Yes, because the picture only looks as if it provides a visual disambiguation of a verbal ambiguity, but in fact it fails so. The image of the pipe is misleading. Magrittes work is about verbal and visual ambiguity (or betrayal). 2. Dear Michel, in the Western tradition, there is an asymmetry between the ways in which pictures and words generate uncertainties and ambiguities. Pictorial communication has no semiological equivalent to deixis. 3. Indeed. So the problems of interpretation regarding Magrittes painting are generated by the verbal component, not by the image 4. Perhaps, then, Magritte should have called his work La Trahison des Mots ? But he didnt
This is a(n) X Which statement is literally true? These are two horses. This is a horse. Which verbal component generates the ambiguity? Two possibilities of disambiguation. 1. The verb to be: to be versus to represent. 2. the noun horse: horse versus horse-picture.
Our linguistic habit allows us to talk about representations of things as if we were talking about the things themselves. My feeling is that Magritte doesnt want us to see any contradiction between the words Ceci nest pas une pipe and the picture of the pipe. There can be no question of a contradiction because contradictions have to be articulated linguistically. A picture of a pipe is not a linguistic form. Pictures have no subject- predicate structure, and thus pictures can assert nothing. If there is an ambiguity, then it has to do with the fact that the picture of the pipe is neutral with respect to the referential interpretation of ceci. I think Magritte is offering a critique of a certain (Western) theory of representation here.
The work of a mad nomenclaturist? The perplexities conjured up by Magrittes juxtapositions of words and pictures might both allude to and have their source in a certain fallacy about how language works. Foucault doesnt seem to see this. The fallacy in question was explicitly condemned by Saussure: the fallacy of nomenclaturism. Magritte: no object is so attached to its name that another cannot be found that suits it better (in Words and Images, 1929)
La Clef des Songes is thematically prior to La Trahison des Images: La Clef tackles the doctrine of literal meaning at a more basic level (word) than La Trahison (sentence)
Pictures of the kind found in childrens books are just a useful visual aid to the matching of the right thing to the right name. The pictures are neither part of language nor an essential part of the external world. They are dispensable. The idea underlying this theory of representation is that if we can match name and thing correctly, then we have grasped the essence of language and we can proceed to communicate with anyone else who has learned the same matching patterns. What Magritte wants us to realize is that we are indeed linguistic dupes if we subscribe to a nomenclaturist view of language, because the hold this fallacy has on our minds is based on nothing more solid than a certain set of expected correlations between words and images. Words come to stand for ideas in our minds which are supposed to be identical and thus shared among individuals.
Magrittes Personnage marchant vers lHorizon is the visual counterpart of Saussures doctrine of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. But the doctrine has a long pre- Saussurean history. It is one of the foundations of the traditional Western account of the difference between verbal and pictorial signs: pictures represent in virtue of resemblance, words represent independentl;y of resemblance.
Ceci est une pipe would be taken to state the obvious. But the negation plunges us into perplexity. Yet in neither case do the words in question unambiguously identify the proposition. (Harris, 2005: 186)
Why is this so? Try to apply Harris three constraints on communication to an anlysis of the painting La trahison des Images. Careful: the painting is an object, i.e. a textualized object that is geosemiotically defined (by its position, its materiality, its particular viewer, etc.) Harris: the crux is the surrogational assumption that verbal and visual messages operate on the basis of fixed codes. However, meaning depends on contextualization.