It’s been theories of knowledge week around my house. There is a fracture between language and image; a sort of metaphoric divorce. I’ve been thinking about that gap, because it also represents my “second life” after years of dealing with images. Only lately have those ideas begun to coalesce, because virtually every theorist splits the visual and verbal into independent realms. Indeed, empirical observation tends to support this. As I have recollected before, I find it difficult, if not impossible, to talk and make photographs at the same time.
Reading Roland Barthes’ “Photography and the Electoral Appeal” reminds me of the essays on politics and language that I have considered this year, from George Orwell and Toni Morrison. Barthes, as usual is unique in his approach for he deals with photography as “an ellipse of language and an ‘ineffable’ social whole,” proposing that in this sense photography “constitutes an anti-intellectual weapon and tends to spirit away ‘politics’ (that is to say a body of problems and solutions) to the advantage of a ‘manner of being’, a socio-moral status.”
Barthes goes on to perform a rhetorical analysis of the variety of poses and types of political photographs, suggesting that each one conveys its own sense of ethos which the candidate sells to get himself elected, liberated from the problem of actually dealing with issues. This is distinctly parallel to the point made by Orwell and Morrison, that political language is a tool used to dumb us down and force us to accept violence, unquestioningly.
What is transmitted through the photograph of the candidate are not his plans, but his deep motives, all his family, mental, even erotic circumstances, all this style of life of which he is at once the product, the example, and the bait.
But I am very uncomfortable with the idea of images, photographic or otherwise, as an “ellipse of language.” I think they operate on a separate field, and though the basic nature of the appeals (ethos, pathos, logos) is much the same, the realm of the image is tied to a different circuit in our brain.
I’ve written a bunch of stuff about emotional memory and trauma in the last few months. The core of it is that emotions are placed into memory without control or processing by higher brain functions. Reading a article about visual research at Vanderbilt suggests that vision works in much the same way. The brain centers that deal with temporality, narrative order, and the like don’t get primary control over what we see. Consequently, it seems unlikely that image is an ellipse, an extension, or modification of language. However, some people like Aristotle offer a fairly compelling argument that language actually springs from images. At first, I pretty much agreed. Now I’m not so sure.
To give one primacy over the other is the problem, particularly when the complex processing required for language seems to occur in many parts of the brain. The level of complexity increases when you examine other research on Braille readers suggesting that there is an abstract level of meta-image that is close to language, and outside the influence of the senses. So, in saying that language springs from images, which images are we speaking of? Sensual images, or abstract mental images unrelated to the senses? Other work on image rotation suggests that “unreal” images are dealt with differently than real ones, consequently finding a connection between image (of the sensual variety) and language seems even more obtuse than at first glance. Like the emotions, confrontation with images of the real may operate at a visceral level where processing is different and not at all language or narrative driven. Can these two systems be reconciled? Are we hopelessly separate and at odds with our animal selves?
Antiphon, the Sophist, seems to have thought so. In the fragments of his lost work On Truth he cuts right to the core problem:
Mind rules the body, but it needs a starting point.
This starting point is the senses. We believe what we see with our eyes more than abstractions
But when we speak, there is no permanent reality behind our words, nothing in fact comparable to the results of seeing and knowing.
Language, borne from the fantasy centers of the brain, is consistently unreal. We create our concepts of self only through language, learned from the communities we live in, and yet inside at the deepest of levels it must be our own, turning and twisting and examining itself. I still don’t buy social constructivism because, like Antiphon, I don’t believe that there is a permanant reality behind words. It’s just a negotiation of inside and outside, of animal and socio-logical creature, which often gets shattered in waves of self (not community) doubt.
Even as a broken mirror, which the glass
In every fragment multiplies; and makes
A thousand images of one that was,
The same, and still the more, the more it breaks;
And thus the heart will do which not forsakes,
Living in shattered guise, and still, and cold,
And bloodless, with its sleepless sorrow aches,
Yet withers on till all without is old,
Showing no visible sign, for such things are untold.
Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Canto III 289-297.
Sounds like living, and thinking, to me.