Walker Evans, Hale County Alabama, 1936

Aristotle on Captioning

I was reading Aristotle’s Topics, and was struck by his puzzling over the correct use of phrases:

Sometimes a phrase is used neither homonymously, nor yet metaphorically, nor yet literally, as when the law is said to be the measure or image of things that are by nature just. Such phrases are worse than metaphor; for metaphor does make what it signifies to some extent familiar because of the likeness involved (for those who use metaphor do so always in view of some likeness), whereas this kind of thing makes nothing familiar, (for there is no likeness in virtue of which the law is a measure or image nor is the law ordinarily so called). So then, if a man says that the law is literally a measure or an image, he speaks falsely; for an image is something produced by imitation, and this is not found in the case of the law. If on the other hand, he does not mean the term literally, it is clear that he has used an obscure expression and one that is worse than any sort of metaphorical expression.

Moreover, see if from the expression used the account of the contrary is not clear; for definitions that have been correctly rendered also indicate their contraries as well. Or, again, see if, when it is merely stated by itself, it is not evident what it defines— just as in the works of old painters, unless there were an inscription, the figures used be unrecognizable.

The core values of Aristotle’s conception of metaphor are conflicted— as Paul Ricoeur has noted— he uses a model of metaphor as resemblance in Poetics and here, in Topics, but is not nearly so stringent about it in Rhetoric. But it is interesting to me that he invest a great deal in the power of a caption to clarify an image. I think the confusion reflected in this passage plays itself out well in the development of documentary photography in the 1930s.

Aristotle is concerned about obscure expression— is a picture without a caption more confusing? Not if it is metaphoric or literal— if its reference is clearly one or the other, then it seems unnecessary. But what if the usage isn’t so clear? It seems that according to Aristotle, without the caption there is no way to interpret the image.

I am reminded of the two extremes of the photographic books I’m considering— Doris Ulman’s 1933 collaboration with Julia Peterkin, Roll Jordan, Roll uses no captions; neither does Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The strange thing is that Ulman’s photographs are meant to be clearly metaphoric— whereas Evans work is neither literal or metaphoric. Evan’s photographs fall into the strange zone that Aristotle is writing about here. Are his photographs obscure because of this? I think that is a point to ponder.

The cause for Evans’ avoidance of captioning was to avoid the rhetorical posturing in the interim works. However, what is the cost? Is it obscurity?