The Word/Image Problem
David L. Miller
|This essay was first given as a presentation to a symposium on the works of Gaston Bachelard, "Matter, Dream, and Thought," sponsored by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, on November 3, 2002, in Dallas, Texas. In order to read the footnotes, click on the footnote number. In order to return to the text, use the web browser's "back" button.|
Not too long ago at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, a student sought my advice concerning a problem that she was having with an assignment. The assignment had asked that the members of a graduate seminar in the study of mythology experiment with writing their papers by following a particular method. The method was to explore the imagery in an idea of their own choosing, then to locate the mythological background of that imagery, and finally to probe the poetic or artistic variations that amplified that mythology in contemporary life. The student complained that she was unable to do the assignment because it involved a schema that called for rational and linear thinking, whereas she was by nature creative and non-linear. She told me that her femininely imaginative and artistic nature could not be forced into the patriarchal modality that my assignment dictated. She begged to be allowed to do something else for the course’s requirement.
There is an irony in the fact that the discourse in which the graduate student voiced her objection was itself participating in a logic and ideology of which she was claiming not to be capable. But it is more important to note that this anecdote is not merely anecdotal, i.e., it is not isolated or unique. It is actually an example of many other instances of a similar manner of split thinking, a binarism with a thousand American faces. I say "American" because it is particularly a case, not only of Southern California and the New Age, but of what Richard Hofstadter, now forty years ago, called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. (1) I fear that my student has been well schooled in her complaint, which is not hers alone, but is in the cultural air. Today’s version of this phenomenon—to list only a few permutations—pits …
One can, for example, see this current war being waged in circles of American depth psychology. On the one hand, post-Freudian Lacanians argue for a linguistic and semiotic ground to the logic of the psyche, the unconscious imagined as being structured like the grammar of a language, and there being nothing outside the text of self. On the other hand, post-Jungian Archetypalists posit an imaginal ground to the logic of the psyche, and claim a poetic basis for the theory and practice of analysis. Against this, the Lacanian move—grounded in Saussure and Heidegger—seems to Jungians to be wed to a rational ego consciousness. It therefore is hardly a return to Freud, as is imagined by Lacan, but is rather (or so Jungians think) a repudiation of the advances made a century ago with the discovery of the unconscious.
So it is that image is pitted against word in intellectual and therapeutic arenas and not only in a Southern California classroom. This problem proves so difficult to negotiate that when Wolfgang Giegerich accuses James Hillman of siding with image and poetry against word and logic in archetypal theory—in spite of the fact that Hillman has always had therapy of ideas at the forefront of his agenda (2)—Giegerich is himself imagined by his critics as being only on the side of word against image—and this in spite of the fact that Giegerich argues explicitly for imagination and image-work as being one form of logical thinking (3).
Long before the recent furor between Giegerich and Hillman in the latter- day Jungian camp, Paul Ricoeur had complained that the word/image split was the last frontier of philosophical puzzles in the realm of depth psychology. Ricoeur’s argument, which was published in 1978 in an essay entitled "Image and Language in Psychoanalysis," is worth attention and will demonstrate the relevance and importance of Gaston Bachelard to the enigma represented by my student’s complaint.
Ricoeur wants to insist that the contribution of semiotics and language-theory to psychoanalysis has been crucial and invaluable, but that it has often obscured the importance of fantasy and image for psychoanalytic theory and practice. He argues that "language [as well as image] is figurable" (320) and he also implies the reverse, that image is semiotic and linguistic, in the broadest sense of Heidegger and Lacan. So, Ricoeur writes:
It may not be so clear that we did not at the time Ricoeur was writing have at our disposal a theory of imagination that renders problematic the word/image dichotomy. Already in 1948, thirty years before Ricoeur penned his complaint, and fifty- four years before my student’s objection to my assignment, Gaston Bachelard pulled the rug out from under such split-thinking. Bachelard was musing on the Jonah complex in his book, La Terre et les rêveries du repos. Concerning the image of Jonah in the belly of the whale, Bachelard said, "we would like to call this an image conteuse, an image that automatically produces a story. It asks that one imagine a before and an after" (130). Contemplating this image, one immediately wonders how Jonah got in there. Will he be able to get out? And how? Then Bachelard turns the neologism around and image conteuse in his formulation becomes légende image, the story that is itself a whole image. The légende image makes possible the discovery of "the oneiric depths of clear images" (163). Bachelard seems to be saying that an image stories and that a story images, or that an image implies linguistic extension and that language with narrative extension can be interpreted as a focused image. (5) Language imagines and the imaginary speaks. The ramifications of this little insight are wide and deep for the problem that I am attempting to highlight.
For the insight to function iconoclastically over against the cultural habit exemplified by my student and argued by Ricoeur, a crucial step in the theory of imagination must be taken, a step indeed taken by Bachelard: namely, one must stop thinking of image as belonging to the realm of perception and sensation. The images of image conteuse and of légende image are not pictures seen by the eyes or by the eyes of the mind. They are not products of sensation. Such images are not images of perception any more than they are images of thought. Bachelard is clear about this in the opening of Air and Dreams, where he says:
It would seem that many who aspire to the life of imagination have not attended to this notion of Bachelard’s. Many, even in the name of Bachelard, have become attached precisely to unimaginative images of perception, pictures that depict modes of ego’s sensation, rather than imagination that de-pictures depictions. When the eye/I sees pictures of perception, the theory of imagination is in the domain of ego-psychology rather than that of depth-psychology. Bachelard’s radical notion of imagination makes possible a thinking and experiencing of image conteuse and légende image in such a fashion as to overcome the distinction between image and word.
Bachelard is by no means alone in attempting a theory of imagination that looks upon the idea of image as not defined by perceptual imagery. C. G. Jung once attempted to correct a misunderstanding of his use of the word "image" (das Bild) by saying: "When I speak of ‘image’ … I do not mean the psychic reflection of an external object, but a concept derived from poetic usage, namely, a figure of fancy or fantasy image, which is related only indirectly to the perception of an external object" (CW 6.743ff) (7). Similarly, and in a more elaborate philosophical amplification, Edward Casey has observed the same nature of a radical imagination. Casey says that "imagining cannot be reduced to imaging" (42), and he devotes an entire chapter of his book, Imagining, to the discontinuities of imagining and perceiving (146ff).
For example, Casey notes that in Sartre's psychology of imagination "an image gives itself as an image, and thus any comparison between it and a perception in terms of intensity is impossible" (149). To this point, Casey cites Wittgenstein, who said: "While I am looking at an object I cannot imagine it" (146). Furthermore, Casey observed that non-sensory imagination is difficult to distinguish from thinking (43n), as for instance in Descartes' example of trying to conceive a chiliagon, a figure with a thousand sides. One is not imagining the figure (unless she or he has a truly extraordinary imaginative power!); but one can understand that there could be such a figure. In so imagining, one is also thinking (43n). Thought and image are not separate, oppositional, and distinct. The split between mind and creativity may be dialectical, but it cannot—at least in this case—be thought of as being dualistic and oppositional.
This is a conclusion reached more generally in the fine work of W. J. T. Mitchell on image and word in the two books Iconology and Picture Theory. Mitchell notes that the "very idea of an ‘idea’ is bound up with the notion of imagery" (Iconology 5), and he implies that the reverse is also the case: namely, that the idea of "image" is bound up with the notion of idea. (8) This is like Henry Corbin’s notion of "idea images" in the book that is translated as Alone with the Alone (182). It is also the point of Toshio Kawai’s fascinating discussion of die Sprache im Bild und das Bild in der Sprache (the language in image and the image in language), to which he gives an entire chapter while observing the undoing of the oppositionalism between word and image in the works of Heidegger and Jung. Most recently, Debra Knowles has contributed an exceptionally strong argument to this discussion. Her work, Along a Path Apart: Conflict and Concordance in C. G. Jung and Martin Heidegger, is in its entirety important to the issue of split-thinking, but it is especially relevant to the argument of this essay in its sections, “Excursus on Word and Image” (347-350) and “Thinking and Imagination” (351-357).
Descartes’s chiliagon is not the only concrete example that can be given to begin the deconstruction of the binarisms haunting my student and a postmodern American cultural prejudice. Let me give three particular instances that show the need for something like Bachelard’s theory.
The first instance is the matter of allography. Allography is a term used by James Elkins in his book, The Domain of Images, to encompass the arts of calligraphy, typography, paleography, hieroglyphic, and layout design. It refers to the changes that can be made to letters and words that make them into images without at the same time altering their alphabetic identity. In a sub-section of his chapter on allography, which is called "the page as a picture," Elkins mentions Hrabanus Maurus’ De laudibus sanctae crucis. This document was written sometime before 814 CE. The "text"—if one may call it that—is composed of poems written on square grids with large shapes superimposed on them. The figures are in the poems, which are themselves arranged in rectangular, i.e., pictorial, formats. The figures, in turn, enclose poems, words or sayings. In one instance a cross contains a palindrome that reads the same left to right as it does right to left, and top to bottom as bottom to top. As the reader reads the palindrome, she or he makes with bodily gesture and eyes the sign of the cross (103).
A second instance of word/image dialectic is cited by Patricia Cox Miller in an article entitled "Differential Networks." (9) In this essay on the genre of ekphrasis, the writing of a visual scene in poetic form, Miller attends to a particular case of technopaegnia, which involves poems by Optatian Porfyry (10) that read forward and backward. Furthermore, the poems have certain letters in red done in such a fashion that a picture is presented. The red inked letters of the figural verses make syntactical and semantic sense when read as a sequence. But in one poem the colored letters form the shape of an oared ship whose mast is the Chi Rho, the symbolic Christogram that in this poem signifies Constantine as victor. The letters forming the Christogram begin an elegiac couplet in Greek that moves down the mast to encompass part of the ship, at which point a series of Latin hexameters takes over. (Miller 122, 124) (11). Froma Zeitlin also writes about modes of ekphrasis, which she calls "hyperviewing," those moments that join word and image in pictorial language (145). Her essay, "The Artful Eye," is in the work by Goldhill and Osborne, Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture.
A third example that implies a deconstruction of the word/image binarism is given by Barbara Kellum in her article "Spectacle of the Street." Kellum is writing about graffiti in Pompeii and she gives examples of words becoming pictures and pictures becoming language. She says:
Italo Calvino makes a similar point in Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Calvino’s text was to have been the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University in the Fall of 1985, but he died just as he was on the way to the United States. Calvino had proposed to begin the lecture on "Quickness" with a story, a sort of parable that makes his point and the point that I am here trying to make. The story is a legend about Charlemagne.
In this abyss, a picture is worth a thousand words, because a picture is always and already a thousand words, just as a word is a thousand pictures. André Agassi was wrong in that old commercial. Image is not everything. As Bachelard demonstrated, there is more to "thinking" than thought and there is a more to "imagination" than image.
1. It may be argued that the split is an American version of Descartes’s fundamental distinction between res cogitans (“thinking substance”) and res extensa (“extended substance”), which is indeed a spirit/matter or thinking/sensing dichtomoy. (See Tom Cheetham, The World Turned Inside Out [Putnam: Spring Publications, 2002].) But I wonder about a hidden Christian theologism in this anti-intellectualism, something that seems suspicioiusly Puritan and uniquely American. Not only was the Puritan theology iconoclastic with regard to imagery, but it also participated in a Pietistic distrust of reason born out of the mysticism of the left wing of the Reformation. It may be worth noting here that the so-called “iconoclasm” of the Hebrew Bible is actually a taboo against language rather than a taboo against images. The prohibition is against “graven images,” i.e., images that have interpretation engraved on them, names given to them. So, the taboo is against word, not picture. When someone today says, “Images are more powerful than words,” the sentiment continues the misology; it continues the split-thinking of word against image.
2. See my essay, “Animadversions,” for instances of Hillman’s attention to thinking and the therapy of ideas.
3. See Giegerich, The Soul’s Logical Life. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1998. Soul has, as Jung put it, two sides: anima and animus. It may be that one reason that we have had a hundred and three years of psychoanalysis and the world is getting worse is because psychoanalytic practice has focused on the analysis and therapy of the anima and the patients leave the consulting room with the same ideas they had when they came in.
4. Cf. the work by Stanley Leavy, “The Image and the Word: Further Reflections on Jacques Lacan,” Psychiatry and the Humanities, 6: 3-20.
5. In spite of the fact that James Hillman often participates in the split thinking that this essay is calling into question (e.g., “the image is more inclusive than the concept,” Interviews, p. 54), at least at one place recently he insists, like Bachelard, on the mutuality of image and narrative. “Suppose or imagine [that] each image floating by contains … its story and its values” (“Hermes Inflation” 12).
6. Similarly, in La Terre et les rêveries de la volonté, Bachelard writes: “Il nous faudra donc redoubler d’attention si nous voulons découvrir l’activité prospective des images, si nous voulons placer l’image en avant même de la perception, comme une aventure de la perception” (4). He is speaking about la fonction de l’irréel of images. James Hillman has also argued against the confusion of “image” and optical “picture” (“Further Notes” 158-160). Cf. Hillman, “Image-Sense,” p. 130: “We can’t get at an image at all by sense-perception taken in the usual Aristotelian or empirical view of it. For images are not the same as optical pictures, even if they are like pictures.” A similar point was made by Ludwig Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations, paragraph 301: “An image is not a picture, but a picture can correspond to it.” For a valuable explication of Wittgenstein’s thought on this issue, see the book, Ethics without Philosophy, by James C. Edwards, especially pp. 116-125. In am indebted to Dirk Felleman for bringing this work to my attention.
7. Cf. the comment by Jung when speaking about the “images” that came to him during his so-called confrontation with the unconscious: “What the anima said to me seemed full of a deep cunning. If I had taken these fantasies of the unconscious as art, they would have carried no more conviction than visual perceptions, as if I were watching a movie…. The anima might then have easily seduced me into believing that I was a misunderstood artist, and that my so-called artistic nature gave me the right to neglect reality” (Memories 187). We have all been seduced by the deep cunning of an unconcscious theory in regard to image, i.e., that it is an image of perception. It would seem Jung did not avoid “seduction” in his view of images, especially in relation to ideas, and he may not have been as post-Kantian as he liked to think. See Paul Bishop’s section on Jung’s notion of “idea and archetype,” in: Synchronicity and Intellectual Intuition in Kant, Swedenborg, and Jung (Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000), 158-171.
8. Mitchell is playing with the etymology of the word “idea,” which comes from the Greek word oida, meaning “I know,” but being formed on a form of the verb that means “I see,” as in the English phrase, “Oh, I see,” meaning “I know.”
9. I am indebted to Patricia Cox Miller for this and for the next example.
10. W. Levitan, “Dancing at the End of the Rope: Optatian Porfyry and the Field of Roman Verse,” Transactions of the American Philological Association, 115 (1985).
11. See also the additional work by Miller on ekphrasis, “The Little Blue Flower is Red.”
12. More exemplary material can be found in the work by Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm, and, of course, the Japanese have for many centuries painted images of calligraphic letters, utilizing word as art in the art of letters and words. Also, see the remarkable work edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weible, Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion, and Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), as well as the recent work by Ron Burnett, How Images Think (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004). A recent example of this con-fusion of image and word is displayed in the exhibit, “Between Word and Image: Modern Iranian Visual Culture,” at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 18 September – 7 December, 2002. See: Shiva Balaghi and Lynn Gumpert, eds., Picturing Iran: Art, Society and Revolution (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002). (How different is the insight of this exhibit from, say, the book by Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet and the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image [New York: Viking, 1998]!)
13. Dirk Felleman has brought to my attention a most remarkable attack on the word/image binarism in philosophical discourse, together with a strategy for its overcoming, that is advanced in the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. They call their approach to “the image of thought” by the neologism “noology.” See: G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, What is Philosophy? Trs. H. Tomlinson and G. Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 36-37, 44; and, G. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, tr. P. Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 129-167. Also, see: Philip Goodchild, Deleuze & Guattari: An Introduction to the Politics of Desire (London: Sage Publications, 1996), 47, 66; and, John Marks, Gilles Deleuze: Vitalism and Multiplicity (London: Pluto Press, 1998), 44, 83, 89-90. In contrast and comparison to the thought of Deleuze on overcoming philosophy’s word/image binarism, there is also the seminal essay “White Mythology” from Jacques Derrida’s Margins of Philosophy, tr. A. Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982). Derrida writes: “Abstract notions [words, ideas, concepts] always hide a sensible figure [image]” (210). Derrida also writes against the image/word opposition in “Freud and the Scene of Writing” (see Derrida for Beginners, pp. 113-115), where he gives Egyptian hieroglyphs, primitive pictographs, and Chinese ideograms as examples which complicate the binary. I am indebted to Debra Knowles for calling this to my attention. The work by Lois J. Parker, Mythopoesis and the Crisis of Postmodernism: Toward Integrating Image and Story, represents another exploration of the same problem, though from a perspective quite different from that of this essay. Also, already in 1973, five years before Ricoeur’s complaint cited above, Norman O. Brown had argued against the word/image dualism in a most remarkable book, Closing Time (93-109).
14. This account is taken from a book on magic and is in a book of unpublished notes by the French Romantic writer Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly. It is in the notes to the Pléiade edition of Barbey d’Aurevilly’s works, I.1315. See Calvino, p. 31.
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