W.J.T. Mitchell’s essay “Word and Image” is portion of a aggregation of essays which define “critical art terms.” The critical art term that Mitchell is charged with shaping is, as the rubric indicates, “word and image.” All of this seems clear and straightforward, until one starts reading the essay. After the first few paragraphs, the lone thing that is clear is that nil is what it seems.

Initially, the essay seems to be about the challenges and/or restrictions of depicting images with words, specifically within the context of art history. Mitchell launches into the piece with this guess: “if the cardinal undertaking of art history is the survey of ocular images, the issue of ‘word and image’ focal points attending on the relation of ocular representation to language.” He so discusses words as verbal marks every bit good as ocular Markss, explicating how we can take to switch back and Forth from image to word and word to image.

He develops this farther, proposing that ocular experience may be “much like a linguistic communication, ” and supports this theory with statements crossing from 18Thursdaycentury philosopher George Berkeley to modern-day neuropsychologist Oliver Sacks. Unfortunately, these are the lone two beginnings he cites, go forthing one to inquire what may or may non hold transpired in the centuries between them.

Next, still working with the vision/language analogue, Mitchell suggests that vision acknowledgment “seems possible merely for language-using animate beings, ” and he provides a ocular experiment for the reader ( the duck-rabbit illustration ) to turn out, or at least underscore, this point.

Possibly at this point a spot more account would assist the reader to do the springs that are required to travel from one idea to the following. This reader would hold accepted, for intents of this essay, his averment that merely language-using animate beings are capable of image acknowledgment. The duck-rabbit game, nevertheless, offered no clear cogent evidence of this: the fact that one can see a duck, so a coney, so a duck, so a coney… demonstrates merely that one is likely a language-using animal—that, and nil more.

The following paragraph offers no farther account of the vision/language issue. Alternatively, Williams launches instead suddenly into a commentary on academic sod wars over the “word and image” argument. He admits that certain persons, himself included, have been “spotted traversing the boundary lines from sections of literature into art history” ( 52 ) . He speaks of “literary imperialism” being checked by the “border police” as it presumptively attempts to infiltrate the art universe, and of the defensiveness of art historiographers as they attempt to protect their sod.

At this point the reader may inquire, “what IS this essay about? ” Is this dubiously playful poke at overly-defensive art historiographers merely that, a playful poke? Or does this lightly-veiled abuse foreshadow the existent mission of this piece: to revile his co-workers in the art section? For he does look purpose on this ; he carries on the onslaught for several paragraphs. At one point he bemoans what he calls “one of the more cheerless sights in modern-day art history…the haste to repair on some maestro term ( discourse, textuality… ) that will work out the enigma of ocular experience and representation and fade out the difference between word and image” ( 53 ) .

The troublesome portion of this statement is the thought that repairing on “some maestro term” will decide anything: will it work out this mystery—and if so, how? Will it fade out differences? Again, how? Can he offer any cogent evidence? Who are the art historiographers who are hotfooting to make this?Areat that place any art historiographers hotfooting in to make this?

If, at this point, he is prosecuting in an full-scale attack—in fact, even if he is not—this a pretty rough accusal to set away without something to endorse it up…but alternatively of explicating farther or supplying cogent evidence, he veers off on another tangent wholly, mentioning a transition from G.E. Lessing: “Painting and poesy should be like two merely and friendly neighbors…”

He follows this up with his ain analogy of “two states that speak different linguistic communications but that have a long history of common migration, cultural exchange, and other signifiers of intercourse.” Then, holding re-established chumminess with his friends/foes from art universe, he goes away on yet another tangent, telling the history of the word-image issue.

He starts off with Horace, moves on to Aristotle, winds up with Yates…a whirlwind history of the word-image concept….and so he returns to modern-day civilization: Michael Jackson, Gillette shaving pick,Sesame Street. After fundamentally disregarding the latter as “kitsch, ” he touches upon the construct of a “cultural universal, ” depicting Adam and Eve as “images…speaking emanations of the Word.”

What’s still losing here, for this reader, is a deficiency of continuity, and a inclination to gloss over centuries of history in a few sentences Mitchell darts about, touching briefly upon one theory or thought, rubing the surface, giving the reader hardly clip to breathe— and so he takes away once more. It’s a dizzying gait, about impossible to maintain up with.

But so there is a break—visually, at least—the crudely-drawn tree that appears in the white infinite below the following paragraph is a soothing sight. Following to it appears the word “tree.” Here we are, it seems, back to rudimentss, to “word” and “image.” It is now, one may surmise, that Mitchell is genuinely acquiring to the point.

But he doesn’t—and the reader bit by bit begins to see that all thisishis point: that all these theories and historical notes and illustrations and rebuses may be portion of this complex relationship, but that there is no simple filtrating down to some pure, clear construct.

I would non differ with his statement that “the straightforward, practical difference between words and images turns out to be much more complicated than it looked at first glance”—but I would reason that the stairss he uses to take up to this statement are excessively widespread and confusing ; that the passages are excessively ill-defined ; and that the relevancy of some of the points made is non evident. So, yes, this is more complicated than it looked at first—he is persuasive plenty a author to convert me of that. However, as for the agencies he uses to acquire at that place: something is losing. Possibly there is an premise that the reader’s cognition will let him or her to do these connexions unaided?

But what about the readers who don’t? They will non walk off wholly defeated, for nevertheless roundabout the path, Williams does hold a point to drive place.

He begins with a disclaimer, saying that his ain failure to “discover a house, univocal footing for the differentiation between words and images doesn’t mean….that there aren’t any existent differentiations to be observed ( 57 ) .” Having said this, he introduces the construct of word/image as a “dialectical trope” which is invariably switching, invariably being transformed, unable to stay inactive.

He so zeros in on the words used to associate “word” and “image, ” settling on a shorthand version of “vs.” and “as.” He points out the tenseness inherent in “versus, ” and the integrity implicit in “as.”

It is evident now to the reader that Mitchell has something to state, something the reader wants to hear—however, there is one more hurdle to be jumped as he introduces what seems to be another “red herring, ” this clip in the signifier of Saussurean theory, which he discusses rapidly but exhaustively, complete with diagram. However, one time once more, he fails to convincingly associate this construct to the undertaking at manus, which is a definition of the art term “word and image.”

Yet as he grows closer to his decision, he does pull disparate parts of the essay together. He does, for illustration admit that “more is at interest than conceptual housework or a policing of boundaries between art history and literary theory” ( 59 ) . The underlying significance—what all this fluttering about is meant to demonstrate—is a connexion to “larger societal and cultural issues.”

What preciselyarethese “larger societal and cultural issues” ? Once once more, Mitchell dizzies the reader, mentioning to kids, adult females, inkinesss, and the multitudes in a individual parenthetical statement, so traveling on to raise more inquiries.

In the terminal, this essay about “word and image” offers more inquiries than it does replies. Does it offer us a definition? It doesn’t seem so. On the other manus, possibly we should inquire:isthere a definition? And so allow Williams reply with words from an earlier essay:

What are we to do of this competition between the involvements of verbal and pictural representation? I propose that we historicize it, and handle it non as a affair for peaceable colony under the footings of some across-the-board theory of marks, but as a battle that carries the cardinal contradictions of our civilization into the bosom of theoretical discourse itself ( Mitchell 1986:1107 ) .


Mitchell, W.J.T. “Word and Image.” InCritical Footings for Art History,edited by Robert

S. Nelson and Richard Shiff ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996 ) . ( pages

51-61 )

— — —“’Image and Word’ and ‘Mute Poesy and Blind Painting’ 1986. InArt in Theory

1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas,edited by Charles Harrison and Paul

Wood ( Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992 ) . ( pages 1106-1111 )