Monday, 9 July 2007

The limits of images

Marie-Laure Ryan claims: "the narrative limitation of pure pictures stems from their inability to makes propositions. As Sol Worth has argued, visual media lack the code, the grammar, and the syntactic rules necessary to articulate specific meanings. A propositional act consists of picking a referent from a certain background and of attributing to it a property also selected from a horizon of possibilities. Whereas language can easily zero in on object and properties, pictures can only frame a general area that contains many shapes and features...Pictures may admittedly find ways around their lack of propositional ability to suggest specific properties (for instance, through caricature), but there are certain types of statements that seem totally beyond their reach. As Worth argues, pictures cannot say 'ain't'. Nor, as Rimmon-Kenan observes, can they convey possibility, conditionality, or counterfactuality." Narrative Across Media, University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
I'm not looking at 'pure pictures' – within my area of study, the visual always exists within the context of a written text (otherwise it wouldn't be fictional prose) – and I'm also not looking at the 'narrative' potentials of image ... I'm defining the typo/graphic elements in these novels as rhetorical (evocative, persuasive) rather than narrative (driving the plot) devices but the quote above is an interesting start at defining the limitations of images.

The ability for images to narrate (to tell: narrativity) is different than their ability to evoke (to affect: rhetoric)? I'm not suggesting that typo/graphic elements are always narrating (although they do in sequential art, but the narrative drive is to do with cognitive leaps the reader makes across the gutter ... see notes from comics lecture). Not about articulating specific meaning but about creating tone or evoking, the devices are affecting rather than narrating? To use design words, the visual devices are less about communication and more about engagement.

A picture cannot say ain't ... but through tone, texture, size, colour, composition, etc, it can imply a voice or a 'dialect'. Different typefaces, for example, can 'speak' in different voices: the manner in which a graphic mark is made has a language of its own - if I render a phrase delicately in calligraphic script or scratch it across a surface with a rough charcoal, it 'sounds' different to the reader. Using the media I have in my desk draw right now:

Design writer/educator Johanna Drucker sets her students an exercise in which they transpose the headlines of the Wall Street Journal and the National Enquirer in "a kind of design transvestism–so that the banner headline 'Bond Markets See Rates Drop By Slight Margin' took on a screaming impact, while 'Two-Headed Boy Gives Birth to Alien Savior with Telepathic Knowledge of Biblical Past-Lives' was modestly set in the grayest and least exclamatory of formats." (Text 16, 2006)

These examples illustrate the communicative power of typography – where the mode of expression impacts on the communication of the content. This seems blatantly obvious to a practicing designer, and I would think many contemporary readers, but this assumption is hasty. In a recent list-serve conversation, a design academic (I believe from engineering design) commented that he didn't understand how 'page layout' could be considered design. I'm not even going to grace that with a response.

In a recent Book Show interview with Canadian Arts&Culture Journalist Jeet Heer, Ramona Koval asked him what comics can do that literary fiction cannot. He gave an example from Spielgelman's Maus, where the characters are visualised as animals: Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs, etc. He points out that this technique is goes back to Aesop's Fables, but here it's so effective because Spiegelman shows, rather than stating it: "gives you a sense of what it's like to be in a culture where these two groups view each other, or are viewed, as totally different races and difference species even ... so as a visual metaphor, and precisely because it wasn't articulated in words ... it's all the more powerful ... a picture is direct, it goes straight to the brain whereas a word always has to be deciphered - the word 'read' comes from riddle, you have to riddle out words." What's important to note is that the visual description evokes a visual experience.

He also discusses the recent controversy around the Danish cartoon mocking Mohammad: it created massive immediate controversy because it was so easily distributable (no need to translate from Danish) and re-printable. "A visual language transcends barriers of dialect or of history even." So an image may not be able to say "ain't", but it may be able to speak immediately beyond dialect? An international dialect? Obviously there are huge holes in this claim: there's a great Mad Magazine cartoon where a man in a kilt and a woman in jeans are standing in front of two doors with the 'universal' man and woman icons scratching their heads. But perhaps images can EVOKE a visual experience more effectively than words?

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