Chess Games

Robert Capa, A Russian Journal, 1948.

The young girls danced together. They wore bright print dresses, and headcloths of colored silk and wool, and their feet were almost invariably bare. And they danced with fury. The music had a rapid beat, accentuated by drum and cymbal. The bare feet beat the floor. The boys stood around and watched.

We asked a girl why she did not dance with the boys. She said, “They are good for marrying but there are so few of them since the war that a girl only gets into trouble when she dances with them. Besides, they are very bashful.” And then she laughed and went back to her dancing.

There were so few of them, young men of marriageable age. There were very young boys, but the men who should have been there dancing with the girls were dead.

The energy of these girls was unbelievable. All day they had been working in the fields, since daylight in fact, and yet after one hour of sleep they were prepared to dance all night. The men at the chess tables played on, unmoved and unbothered by the noise that went on around them.

John Steinbeck Russian Diary 98-99 (1948)

Rules of the Game

Capa’s photograph seems relatively uncalculated when compared to Steinbeck’s prose. The awkward framing, and its slight dissonance from the description that adjoins it does not amplify the prose as much as it provides a sort of center from which Steinbeck’s prose launches more assuredly in a calculated series of moves. First, there is the description. Then, an offered explanation. Next, the political reflection. And finally, the emotional punctuation which marks the difference between men and women. Saussure compares the structure of language with a game of chess:

The language is a system which admits no order other than its own. This can be brought out by the comparison with a game of chess. In the case of chess, it is relatively easy to distinguish between what is external and what is internal. The fact that chess came from Persia to Europe is an external fact, whereas everything that concerns the system and its rules is internal. If pieces made from ivory are substituted for pieces made of wood, the change makes no difference to the system. But if the number of pieces is diminished or increased, that is a change which profoundly affects the “grammar” of the game. Care must none the less be taken when drawing distinctions of this kind. In each case, the question to be asked concerns the nature of the phenomenon. The question must be answered in accordance with the following rule. Everything is internal which alters the system in any degree whatsoever. (Course in General Linguistics 43)

The presence of the photograph on the page alters the reading of the text in subtle ways here, but as the proliferation of images in printed material has become a given, the ability of the image to substitute for the description is perhaps the first alteration of the language system. Considered in this aspect, images do not follow their own internal “logic and affordances” as Kress claims, but rather the grammar and structure of the language they supplement. They cease to follow their own rules, but rather adopt the rules of other discursive games.

It seems productive, in my opinion, to consider the presence of images on the page as an internal rather than external aspect of language.