A Fragment

A Fragment on Blake

*I’ve been writing pretty intensely, with no time to blog so I thought I’d at least post a fragment.

The uneasy relationship of word and image on a page has been
a subject of constant negotiation. In Words and Pictures, Wilson Hicks,
former editor of Life magazine provides an excellent example of the
atomistic approach: “words are distinctly one kind of medium,
pictures another” (4). Nonetheless, the composite effect of
photojournalism is “aimed at obtaining such an efficient relationship
of picture and words as will produce an equilibrium between the visual image
and the auditory symbols, or words.” The goal of the combination is “to approach the simultaneity of actual experience” (6). The implication is that the combination thus provided is superior to either medium alone. Hicks’ point of view, and indeed, the perspective of photojournalism itself, bases its appeal on the possibility of a “truth effect” that can occur when the identification between the viewer and the page is complete. Like imaginative literature, photojournalism requires a suspension of disbelief, a negotiated forgetting of the limitations of even complex representations to structure actual experience.

However, equilibrium is not the only possible relation
between word and image that promotes a synergistic effect. One of the most
complex and considered approaches to the combination of words and images dates from the late eighteenth century. William Blake presents complex challenges to both word and picture theories. The questions evoked, in considering the original versions of his work rather than letterpress editions, evade the theory of identification presented by Hicks. For example, one of his most famous poems, “The Tyger” opens with a question: “What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” (E:42 4-5). The question repeats, with an important change, in the final stanza: “What immortal hand or eye / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry” (E:42 24-5). Viewed in its original context, both hand and eye play a part in Blake’s representation. The words are written in script, and the tiger is engraved upon the page for the reader to see. However, hardly equivalent with the lines of the poem, the tiger poses languidly on the page as menacing as a typical housecat.

The framing of the poem with an incongruous image deepens
the complexity of Blake’s questioning of how to represent God,
setting in motion an intense dialogue in which neither text nor image seems
to hold a complete answer. The sum of meaning is greater than any of its
constituent parts.

It forces a reader to question the audacity of “framing”
the fire and terror of the tiger in the poem with the docility in the
drawing, when both passion and peace are symmetrical parts of God. Who dare frame god?

The frame Blake invokes is at once verbal and visual. Word and
image are neither equivalent nor subservient to each other. They exist together
producing meaning on this page. Blake questions representation using the
vehicle of a complex representation containing word and image.

Figure 1: Songs
of Innocence and Experience,
Copy C Plate 50

The relationship of word and image
in this example can be characterized in a number of general ways. It presents a
sort of representative illusion, where the qualities of the tiger fluctuate
dependent on which constituent part we grant primacy, a gestalt combining two
signifying systems. Or, it also can be described as an oscillation between the “at”
level (the surface of the image and script) and the “through”
level of language as a vehicle for conceptual meaning as described by Richard
A. Lanham. In either case, the creation of meaning rests on the presence of an a
competence in both signifying systems, destabilized by their
confluence. Blake’s word/image is unstable because it presents, in
Bakhtinian terms, a dialogic construction of meaning. It cannot be reduced to a
simple dialectic synthesis; it does not contain a single monologic voice of “actuality,”
as implied by Hicks, but something far messier.