Between Word and Image
The 2006/2007 Fellows Program at the Warren Center, “Between Word and Image,” will study the relationship between language and visual artifacts as that relationship is articulated through various disciplinary perspectives in the humanities. Exploring the connections, obstructions, and interchanges between word and image, the Fellows hope to rediscover the disciplinary boundaries of their individual fields while strengthening an interdisciplinary discourse. The program also seeks to draw upon those exchanges as a means of forming intellectual relationships within the Vanderbilt community, with the goal of making the most out of the unique resources Vanderbilt has to offer its humanities scholars. The Fellows represent divinity, English, film studies, history, philosophy, religious studies, communication studies, teaching and learning, and women’s and gender studies. The program’s co-directors are Carolyn Dever, professor of English and women’s and gender studies, and Gregg M. Horowitz, associate professor of philosophy. Letters met recently with Professors Dever and Horowitz at the Vaughn Home to discuss the program.
Letters: This year’s fellows will study the relationship between language and visual artifacts across academic disciplines. Could you talk about the cultural context of this relationship, particularly as it affected your approach to the program’s theme?
Horowitz: Given that for most of our history human beings were illiterate, the dominant mode of non-oral communication was pictorial. So it is arguably only after the invention of the printing press that the word begins to ascend to predominance, and it is only relative to that historical moment that the twentieth century can be understood as the century in which the image again overtook the word as a communicative technology. That is, a certain technology of communication which had been present all along rose to a new—or renewed—centrality. But what is most deeply interesting to me is the way in which the contest between language and visual representation is so intensely fought in the twentieth century. For instance, something that is mostly forgotten in contemporary visual studies is its own origins in the efforts in the 1940s and 1950s: to think of images, or visual representations more generally, as essentially linguistic. There used to be a flood of books with titles like The Grammar of Film and The Language of Painting, so insofar as language was the better understood mode of communication—insofar as linguistics was a more advanced science—there was an effort to export the understanding of linguistic representation to visual representation. As they say, if all you have is a hammer, everything is going to look like a nail. In some ways, it was the analytic failure to make the linguistic map onto the visual that gave rise to the idea that the visual is an especially demanding or excessive mode of communication that puts extreme pressure on the modes of analysis we bring to bear on it. And I think in some ways we’re inheritors of the collapse of the effort—which nobody, as far as I know, talks about anymore—to make sense of the visual in strictly linguistic terms.
Dever: Let me suggest that new possibilities for the mass mediation of visual phenomena in the nineteenth century enabled the kind of contest that you are describing in the twentieth century: the reemergence of the visual as a medium that could contest the linguistic in the eyes of scholars and in the eyes of culture. To choose an obvious example: photography and its distribution and its reproduction. Its easy, inexpensive reproducibility and its claims to veracity made the image a new kind of problem in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That, I think, gives a back story to what you’re describing in the 1940s and 1950s.
Horowitz: I agree entirely. And I might add that the effort to make the visual intelligible in linguistic terms can be understood as part of the contest with this newly resurgent significance of the visual.
Letters: The 2006/2007 Fellows comprise several disciplines within the humanities. The program seeks to illuminate how each discipline has its own approach to the shared set of questions that you are considering, while also uncovering productive ways of rendering those differences intelligible to one another. Can you talk about the centrality of intelligibility as a concept that will facilitate speaking across such diverse disciplines?
Dever: As scholars, we all share the medium of the word. Scholars write within disciplinary modes, disciplinary idioms. One outcome of an interdis-ciplinary seminar focused on a topic of this sort is that we can share one another’s disciplinary approaches in a way that makes them meaningfully available to one another. Therefore, without eroding the integrity or the uniqueness or the value of those disciplinary contexts, we can open them up in productive new ways. But that is just a statement about inter-disciplinarity; it is not necessarily a statement about intelligibility, per se.
Horowitz: That is an especially interesting point. Throughout much nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western philosophy, intelligibility is practically identified with translation into language. Language is thought of as the very medium of thought. Language is where thought, as it were, confronts itself, so there is nothing in the way of self-understanding. This expresses a certain ideal of intelligibility as think-ing unimpeded by its conditions of possibility. In short, we once dreamt that we could make the world transparent to ourselves by translating it rightly into language. One of the interesting things about working in an interdisciplinary setting is that you confront people who in some sense are speaking the same language you are but who are nonetheless doing something different with it. You thereby confront the material force of the language, and one name we give to that force is disciplinarity. Whatever we name it, though, there is a definite material force there. And so you realize that while, as scholars who write, we are all committed to rendering our insights intelligible to others in linguistic form, nonetheless there is something that always shadows or stains the ways in which we do that. And perhaps you can only feel the power of that stain when you are dealing with a problem alongside a colleague who is equally interested in the material, but you still can’t quite see it from her point of view.
Dever: That is what brought me to answer a question about intelligibility by way of different disciplinary idioms. I am interested in the failure of intelligibility—its oftentimes productive failure. Not as an end in itself, but as a means to a longer-term goal of better understanding. I think intelligibility on its own terms is overrated.
Horowitz: We can follow that through one step further. With the productive failures of intelligibility—as you said, in order to produce better understanding—it might even be the case that we don’t know what it is that we want to produce. It might not be a better understanding. There might be some other goal here, some other value that we will find when intelligibility fails.
Letters: Each of you invoked the term “interdisciplinarity” in your answer to the previous question, so this seems a great time to consider that term more carefully in light of the distinctness of individual disciplines that this year’s program is highlighting. Can you say more about what is at stake in maintaining this disciplinary difference relative to the possibilities interdisciplinarity offers?
Dever: For me one of the key concepts behind this seminar, and much of the initiative behind its proposal, is “humanities.” Even before we ask questions about disciplinarity or interdisciplinarity, it seems important to ask what we are doing as humanistic scholars these days. This interesting tension or competition or collaboration between issues of the image and issues of the word—sliced in many different directions—gives us a way in to that question. As luck would have it, “humanistic” is not necessarily even a term that describes the research of each of this seminar’s participants. Nonetheless, one of the animating questions here is how our different disciplines collectively contribute towards this powerful, under-funded, under-understood concept known as the humanities. So even before we get to the question of disciplinarity and what is at stake there, I think that we are all brought to the Warren Center under a shared practice that I would like to unpack and understand more fully.
Horowitz: Right. I think what Carolyn said is intimately linked to the word-and-image theme. The reason a university is a university—the reason it invokes universality in specifying its social function—is because it is supposed to enable us to develop overviews of what is good for human beings. Of course, this now sounds like an old-fashioned claim that very few of us are prepared to defend anymore. But we need to keep it in mind in order to grasp how the formation and the collecting together of the humanistic disciplines expressed beliefs about what configurations of knowledge you had to achieve in order to justify the university’s claim to universality. So I repeat: even if we are not comfortable anymore thinking in terms of universality and universal knowledge, we have to talk about this ideal, even in its defeat, or we won’t really know what we are doing together. And, to return to the theme of word-and-image, one of the central reasons we do not know how to talk about the university and universality now is that, as long as the humanities were conceived as essentially linguistic disciplines, they were held together by the idea of a common language. But we are not just workers in a field of language anymore. And I really think that part of the significance of image study is that it breaks up this log jam. It is not that we know how to talk to one another about images, but rather our not knowing how to talk to one another, even while working together, breaks up the log jam because lack of intelligibility makes it vivid that we do not know how image fits into more traditional conceptions of the humanities.
Dever: That suggests how a deeper understanding of disciplinary practice benefits our larger question about the humanities in today’s university. Hopefully we become better at what we do by understanding cognate approaches to the same kind of inquiry.
Letters: One of the goals of the Fellows program is the creation of alliances across disciplines in order to make the most of Vanderbilt’s institutional resources. How do you envision these alliances? What gains would there be for the university community?
Horowitz: What made this program exciting, even though I don’t think this was our original impetus to propose it, is that it turns out that visual studies, which is not itself a discipline, is being undertaken in all sorts of disciplines. And precisely because there is not, in my view, a meta-discipline, collectively we might be able to manufacture a shared space of problems, a set of considered alliances. There is not a discipline that brings us all together, yet all the people in this seminar are working around this problem.
Dever: What Gregg just described as visual studies led me to think of it in all of its disciplinarily-specific incarnations. What we are doing in the program is creating a community of scholars who are actively working on the question of the visual from widely different perspectives. That can help us to open up space and create relationships, intellectual relationships, which will benefit future students who come along with a curiosity to pursue work in our various fields.
Letters: You both envision this program impacting not only your roles as researchers but as educators, particularly in your approaches to graduate education. Can you discuss what you imagine will be the connection among teaching, independent research, and the collaborative inquiry you will be pursuing in this year’s Fellows Program?
Horowitz: It’s a fascinating question. A peculiar feature of graduate education in the humanities is that it accomplishes two ends, but the ends are in tension with one another. On the one hand, it is the education of intellectuals who can gain a reflective grasp on some sphere of human activity. But there are plenty of academics who object to being called “intellectuals.” They regard that label as an insult that smells of amateurishness and dilettantism. Such academics would say that we are not training intellectuals but professionals. And that is true also, since graduate education is a licensing procedure. This is a real institutional tension. On the one hand, we have got to make our students into professional specialists. On the other hand, if the people who get their Ph.D.s are so specialized that they don’t know “why”—if they cannot insert what they are doing into a larger field of significant intellectual life—then that is not graduate education in the humanities either. The question is how to balance specialization with the ability, and it is a cultivated ability, to confront a problem in a fresh way: that is the balance we need. You cannot just give up one for the other. So, how to improve graduate education? I might want to describe the problem otherwise as how to open it up in a certain way—how to let graduate education encounter this tension. The intellectual fields that most interest me personally, such as art history and psychoanalysis, have in common that in their initial formations they were not professionalized within the university. They arose outside of university life. The early art historians had to elbow their way into the university, which in fact they did more successfully in exile. Psychoanalysts likewise tried to find their way in, but they were kept at the door except in medical schools. And I think that part of the reason for this—not the entire explanation, of course, but part of it—is because they lived in a special intimacy with images, and images are thought of (even by some art historians and most psychoanalysts) as regressive, as not, or not yet, the stuff of “Culture.” Hence, such studies did not have a place in the university. But then reflecting on disciplines of the image is a good way of opening up what is at stake in a university “discipline,” and that is crucial if we are going to talk about transforming or improving graduate education.
Dever: A few minutes ago I claimed that intelligibility is overrated. Of course, it is and it isn’t. We would not have psychoanalytic theory if we had intelligibility in any reliable way in our everyday lives. Or in our unconscious lives—or in our everyday lives insofar as they are our unconscious lives. On the other hand, intelligibility has everything to do with disciplinary recognizability. Just as scholars require certain tools to participate professionally in their disciplines, we also have to learn to address basic research problems in fresh ways. This requires us to strike a balance: to work within recognizable disciplinary parameters in creative, original ways. Understanding how and when to use disciplinary tools, and how and when to put them aside, fosters creativity. Interdisciplinarity can help us to see familiar things in new ways, and in that sense it can offer a push toward innovation. This is especially important in the context of our seminar because we do not yet understand the nature or the culture of the image as it is going to evolve in the future—the next generation or two, or a century from now. We do not yet know. Our goal for ourselves and for our students is to understand our own disciplinary practices rigorously, but at the same time to stay open in our conceptualization of our most basic terms. Hopefully this will allow us to recognize what we are seeing when we see it in the next few years.
Horowitz: I would simply add that we are at a transitional moment in this regard. The title of this year’s program, “Between Word and Image” could appear to mean “Between Language and the Visual.” But the concept of image is just as much at home in language studies as in visual studies. What, after all, is poetry full of? Image is not synonymous with the visual; it can be identified, perhaps, with the non-prosaic, the non-literal. The fact that we had been unreflexively identifying the image with the visual tells us that our most basic concepts for mapping this field are undergoing transition. Thirty years ago, Carolyn and I would not have gotten five minutes into our conversation using those concepts that way. It is a sign of the growth of the significance of visual culture that it has practically swallowed up the concept of the image without remainder. So I think this is a really good moment to be thinking about how the basic concepts which structure what we do intellectually are in transition.
Letters: So this notion of creativity seems to be a way to start to bridge the gap between the professionalization and the production of intellectuals for graduate education, because it can make meaningful those two things to one another. But it looks like creativity will be an increasingly important thing for the seminar to think about in terms of approaching the transitional challenges you have identified.
Horowitz: Yes, especially—and I don’t know if you meant otherwise—but especially creativity in the domain of intelligibility. What I mean by that is that it is not the creativity that people sometimes think of—that creativity is what happens at the limits of language, which I don’t think anybody in this room thinks. Forging concepts is creative work. It is not just reproducing patterns of thought, and if we can get at that creative moment in which conceptual fields get generated, we will see that it, too, is significant, significant creative work. And that is part of what we want to educate graduate students about also.
Dever: But we have to start by challenging our own frameworks.
Horowitz: Yes, absolutely.
Dever: And that is why this is a useful project for a group of faculty to undertake for a year.
Letters: Finally, although from different disciplines, each of you is currently focusing your critical inquiry on an aspect of the visual. Can you say more about how your individual research interest has brought you to this particular project and how you see that interest contributing to the program’s dialogue?
Dever: The book that I am working on has to do with late-Victorian aestheticism and with the way in which the politics of sexuality in late-Victorian England are mediated through all kinds of interactions with visual culture. The very concept of beauty itself, artistic beauty or beauty as it is transmitted through not only the fine arts but through claims to fineness or beauty, becomes the currency of public sexual identity. Through this medium of visual beauty and through the kind of protective cover of Art with a capital “A,” Victorian writers and painters and artists introduce certain socially extremely difficult topics to a broader audience. And so my work in the recent past has brought me up against a range of different meanings of the visual, not only in literary cultures but also in a series of aesthetic communities in the late-nineteenth century.
Horowitz: It is amazing how, despite the fact that I’m dealing with a different century and an entirely different group of materials, our themes overlap so much. I’m going to be starting on a new project next year on what I call, in a jab at new media studies, “old media.” I am interested in exploring the contemporary fate of archaic media, which is to say media that never became media of fine art: cut silhouette, for instance, and cartooning. They were certainly media of communication, but never of fine art. They might have been, of course. History could have been otherwise. There could have been no invention of photography, and who knows? The nineteenth century might have been the century of the silhouette. That’s not the way it played out, however.
Dever: Thank heavens!
Horowitz: Indeed. Although, the fact that the silhouette got trapped in the space of musty domesticity and became archaic has something to do with why it never gave rise to a fine medium, a refined medium, a medium of fine art. Old media are unrealized art media, which is why I am interested in the way in which they have become central to many contemporary visual arts practices. There are a lot of artists who are making use of stuff that was communicative at some point but that did not have, so to speak, the right afterlife. So, what is interesting to me about this, and where it overlaps so much with Carolyn’s work, is that the archaic is not merely the old. It is something old that promises some kind of significance, which means it is allied with the future also, but it has to be unlocked in a certain way. In certain cases, it needs the shelter of the fine arts to unfold its significance. This raises the great danger that the fine arts will abuse and misuse this archaic heritage by emptying it of its historical significance. There is a tension here that I am drawn toward between visibility, or making visible, and significance, or understanding.
Dever: How do you reconcile the fact that you work on the visible, but you also work on psychoanalysis?
Horowitz: In the following way: there is a sub-structure, an understructure, an unconscious to visibility. When things become visible, they become visible against a background that itself remains—I’m not sure what to call it—non-visible. And this is one way of thinking of the unconscious. It is what has not come to appearance. But it is generative. It is active and makes demands on thinking, even though it has not come to appearance. I am interested, then, in how things become visible, but that is not a question you can ask things themselves directly, because by the time they are there to be asked, it is too late. Things keep their condition of visibility hidden within their visibility. And psychoanalysis is, for me, the best way to get at the structure of the visible.
Dever: I would like to go back to the question of intelligibility based on what Gregg just said about psychoanalysis being the only approach to this question of the visible.
Horowitz: The only one that works for me.
Dever: That feels intuitively right to me. We both work on psychoanalysis, and for me it offers a practice of fathoming the unintelligible within the façade of the intelligible. So any claim to intelligibility per se seems to me to be premature or short-circuited or wrong-headed or somehow just incorrect.
Horowitz: And if that’s right, then we’re pressed right up against our earlier question about what other values we have besides intelligibility. I sometimes think this is why handling visual artifacts is so complicated. Our immediate impulse as humanists is to translate them.
Horowitz: But if you think of visual artifacts as secret bearers—as holders of secrets—and you think of your task as an interpreter as helping them to keep their secrets, then it is not so much intelligibility that you are driving at but, as it has sometimes been said, transmission instead of truth. Perhaps it is transmission we care about.
Dever: Yes. And that brings us back to the ways in which we can make meaningful our disciplinary differences to one another. Over the course of this year we have the opportunity to put aside the question of truth and take on this interesting question of how each of us transmits interpretations of the image and the word.
Letters: Thank you both for a lively and provocative conversation. This year’s program looks to be one full of realizable possibilities, both for scholars in the humanities and across the Vanderbilt community.
For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.
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