Friday, January 21, 2011

Invislbe/Visible; Image/Word

"Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read" --Stephen in Ulysses

"any theory of painting is a metaphysics" --Merleau-Ponty

In "What is an image," WTJ Mitchell, like many of the contributors to Defining Visual Rhetoric is attempting to struggle against the paragonal relationship between image and word (a struggle between the two). His main framework comes from Wittgenstein, an analytic philosopher who thought that ultimately philosophy is about ridding ourselves of the problems that we pose that are usually caused by misuse of language. As such, Wittgenstein and his followers try to demystify phenomena in the world: not to reduce it to meaninglessness, but to get rid of false problems caused by metaphysical speculation. Mitchell's analysis is powerful because he carefully analyzes the 'history' of our conceptions of images in order to show the complicated relationship between image and word and to argue that there isn't an "image proper" and an improper, much like Derrida argues in his discussion of the 'proper' name. I labeled Mitchell's analysis as an "analytic philosopher's deconstruction of the image proper."

I have always had a difficult time figuring out what "imagery" is when analyzing poetry. When I looked at poetry I thought about 'images' as any 'concrete' words that the poet uses to convey a certain meaning or mood. Mitchell shows that imagery in poetry has changed throughout its history. We tend to think about imagery as figurative language as opposed to literal language. Though, I would argue that Derrida's essay "White Mythology," among others, has successfully argued that actually 'literal' language is only dead metaphor (or catechresis). In contrast, in the 18th century, because of their 'representational' view of imagery they understood the verbal image as "what the words actually name" (Kenner qtd. in Mitchell 513). In the 18th century, in the work of say Alexander Pope, everything was conceived in terms of "description," which led to the neo-classical aesthetic of measure in use of "ornament" in one's poetry. For instance, look at Pope's Essay on Criticism. Particularly this passage

True Wit is Nature to advantage dress'd,
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd;
Something whose truth convinced at sight we find,
That give us back the image of our mind.  

Thus, poetry's job is to figure Nature in its exact description so as to give us back the world as it appears to us. Too much ornament can destroy the poet's ability to describe the world.

In response--the Romantics came up with the idea of "imagination," which Mitchell argues is imagery "sublimated and mystified" (515-516). Thus, the true images were abstract images of some pure form. Mitchell's view of imagination is highly reductive and has none of the poetic spirit that literary analyses of it have--but i do think it describes the Romantic aesthetic quite well. 

These two senses of image: an 'internal' and external (visible) image creates the ambiguity of the word 'image'. Ultimately, it has to do with the visible and the invisible, which Mitchell discusses at length toward the end of his work. This is where Merleau-Ponty comes into play, who, we must admit in "Eye and Mind" seems to re-mystify painting, depth, and the 'image' even as he combines this with psychological insight and description. Mitchell claims, 

"The pictorial artist, even one who works in the tradition known as "realism" or "illusionism" is as much concerned with the invisible as the visible world. We can never understand a picture unless we grasp the ways in which it shows what cannot be seen" (Mitchell 526).
Furthermore, both Mitchell and Merleau-Ponty agree that linear perspective is not the one true representation of the world. Mitchel claims (much like the epigraph of this blog does) that linear perspective hides its own artificiality. But--it seems to make visible (within its metaphysics) "the very nature of the rational soul whose vision is represented" (Mitchell 526).

The question I want to ask is what is the relationship between Merleau-Ponty's sense of the the 'invisible/visible' and Mitchell's?

Both Mitchell and Merleau-Ponty believe that the realm of the image cannot be reduced to either space or time, such as Lessing did (and as Stephen ponders this relationship at the beginning of the "Proteus" chapter in Ulysses) but they frame this in very different ways. Mitchell argues that for Lessing "painting was incapable of telling stories because its imitation is static rather than progressive, and that it should not try to articulate ideas because these are properly expressed in language rather than in imagery" (527). This absolute separation of space and time, painting and language is what gets Lessing in trouble even though Mitchell agrees that obviously these are two different modes of presentation (Stephen says "nebeneinander" and "nacheinender" (next to each other; one after the other) for painting and language explicitly--I assume he is quoting Lessing).

This attempt to purify the image from the word and vice versa is exactly the kind of thinking Mitchell wants to avoid. He argues that the image's "invisible element," what we have variously described as "expression," "feeling," "affect" can be understood to be "clues in a picture that allow us to perform an act of ventriloquism, an at which endows the picture with eloquence, and particularly non-visual and verbal eloquence" (527). Even abstract expressionism is a "pictorial code requiring a verbal apologetics as elaborate as any traditional mode of painting, the ersatz metaphysics of 'art theory'" (528).

To me, this seems a bit of a reduction of "expression," or other similar terms that we usually define as an irreducible (to language) element in painting or other images. I agree completely with Mitchell that images signify and sometimes do have a 'verbal eloquence' but I'm not sure that we should think about painting as providing clues toward this ventriloquist act.

Merleau-Ponty approaches this time/space division in a different way, arguing eventually that "the art of painting is never altogether outside time, because it is always within the carnal" (186). His evidence for this consists in the fact that when someone paints a 'horse' in movement, they actually  have to paint a position that the horse is never actually in (if we were able to see it frame by frame). Thus, like Mitchell, Merleau-Ponty does not think that the truth of painting (or any image) is somehow an objective truth of 'representation'. However, Merleau-Ponty's approach to painting comes from his discussion of vision as an embodied experience. This sense of embodiment is what is missing from Mitchell's analysis.

What is the 'invisible' in Merleau-Ponty if not a kind of 'verbal eloquence' coming out of the visual? In true phenomenological fashion, Merleau-Ponty can never quite express it in words or point to it an say "that's what I mean." But lets look at a few passages about the invisible:
"the proper essence of the visible is to have a layer of invisibility in the strict sense, which it makes present as a certain absence [. . .] there is that which reaches the eye directly, the frontal properties of the visible, but there is also that which reaches it from below--the profound postural latency where the body reaches itself to see--and that which reaches vision from above like the phenomena of light, of swimming, of movement, where it participates no longer int he heaviness of origins but in free accomplishments"
 The latter half of this passage is taken from Paul Klee, one of the painters Merleau-Ponty mentions in the essay. The first part, however, is I think the closest we can get to what Merleau-Ponty means by the invisible. Rather than naming it as "expression" or for a verbal connection, he places the visual in contact with the gestural, the eyes in contact with the body and the mind--all participating in Being. The invisible seems at other times to be that which in vision is a means of transportation and recognition of our belongingness to the being of things: "that even our power to imagine ourselves elsewhere [. . .] or to intend real beings where they are, borrows from vision and employs means we owe to it" (187).

This primacy of perception (as the collection of Merleau-Ponty's essays are called) is sometimes difficult to swallow and Mitchell's more prosaic analysis is easier to grasp. Furthermore, Mitchell does not seem to privilege either vision or language (and goes through pains to demonstrate the difficulty of finding an analogy of the relationship: translation--privileges the language, geometry--gives us hope that one day we will be able to have a perfect relationship between word and image).

However, the benefit of bringing Merleau-Ponty into the conversation is that he brings in the consideration of the body and vision.

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