November 3, 2005

Ekphrasis and the Internet

I’ve been thinking this morning about how the theorization of ekphrasis is relevant to scholarly discussions of new media. Focusing on the key issues of ekphrasis illuminates how we contend with the ever-representing of electronic media forms: sounds, images, and texts and their coexistence in their internet space, for example. In new media scholarship, this begins with definition. Jay David Bolter in his essay “Virtual Reality, Ekprhasis, and the Future of Writing” from The Future of the Book, for example, uses a definition of ekphrasis that relies heavily on the concept of ravishment. He describes ekphrasis as the way words “capture” image. The term “capture” demonstrates ways in which words overtake, subsume, and render images. In his own words:

"Thus, the renegotiation of the word and image that is taking place in our traditional and new media is leading to a crisis in rhetoric. For both ancient and modern rhetoric have depended upon subordinating images to words. In ancient rhetoric it was the spoken word that controlled the image; in modern rhetoric it has been the written or printed word. Now when neither the written nor the spoken word can exert effective control, the result is an inversion of traditional rhetorical practice. In particular, the effect of turning a newspaper into a multimedia screen can be seen as an inversion of the classical device of ekphrasis . Ekphrasis is the description in prose or poetry of an artistic object or striking visual scene; it is the attempt to capture the visual in words. Today, as the visual and the sensual are emerging out of verbal communication, images are given the task...of explaining words, rather than the reverse" (264).

Having spent quite some time considering the tradition of ekphrasis, my own sense of it is that this may be true if we believe, as some do, that the tradition depends in some way on that hostile encounter between words and images in which the word emerges as victorious; however, this is not always the case. Even in that reading, the “crisis in rhetoric” has been a crisis that has been in existence for a long time. I will grant that new media perhaps makes this struggle more overt. But if our understanding of the tradition of ekphrasis changes, if we understand that words and images do not always seek to “capture” the other but also to find some way of understanding it and representing its difference in a foreign media (words in images), then what changes about the way we interpret the multimedia interface of the World Wide Web? Is the coexistence of words and images destined to act out this “capturing” or is it a choice? And then, more significantly, what does making that choice say about the ways we read and interpret new media forms?

Bolter in this comment seems to be resurrecting the “ancient” rhetorical term as it is used in, say, the Progymnasmata. But the term has enjoyed a much livelier and varied use in poetry. In its classical sense, ekphrasis could be described as enargia, lively description. Ancient rhetoricians believed that making the object of discussion literally present in the mind’s eye would be helpful to the rhetorician by creating immediacy for the listener. What Bolter, I believe, is focusing on in the next turn is that for the modern rhetorician (and let’s say for argument’s sake the poet as well) the development of printing technology made this relationship more hostile because words and images could be present simultaneously, therefore each medium (and its creator) needed to vie for authority. The next sentence, however, is problematic. In “modern” rhetoric, did the printed word conquer the image? Well, if you look back to the earliest modern poets, their rival painters actually had garnered more authority than their poet/writer counterparts. In the Renaissance, as Jean Hagstrum points out, painters became socially equal to if not greater than poets. In this case, the struggle between poets and painters, the paragone struggle that Mitchell discusses with regard to the ut pictura poesis tradition, is between competing artists. The term in Mitchell’s Iconology, is mapped onto the relationship between words and images themselves, and not just their makers.

Bolter returns to the fact that he’s discussing the classical rhetorical strategy of ekphrasis when he says: “Now when neither the written nor the spoken word can exert effective control, the result is an inversion of traditional rhetorical practice. In particular, the effect of turning a newspaper into a multimedia screen can be seen as an inversion of the classical device of ekphrasis.” In other words, now, because the screen is something we look at as image, and because the text of the page can be overcome by the immediacy of the image, the situation is reversed. Images become superior to the word. There are a lot of leaps to make here: 1.) That the newspaper isn’t an image already… that the text of a newspaper can exist non-pictorially; 2.) That words that exist on the screen don’t try to describe, capture, or alter the images they appear along with; and 3.) That “today” the sheer numbers of images that exist demonstrate definitively that the image is more powerful than language, when in fact it may be the opposite, the multiplicity of images that exist may demonstrate our lack of faith in the authority of any one image in the task of “explanation.”

What Bolter identifies is that the term ekphrasis is a good place to start when thinking about what words do with images. This, I believe, is true. Instead of looking at the classical rhetorical view of ekphrasis, however, I think it would be much more faithful to the multiplicity of relationships between words and images in new media forms to learn what we can from the poetic tradition of ekphrasis. Bolter’s own description of the term focuses on the competitive nature of the interaction, which we know exists. But by revealing a more varied relationship between the arts, as I believe looking at ekphrastic poetry by women does, we open up alternative possibilities for the ways we consider words and images in multimedia… and more particularly on the Web. Bolter’s understanding of ekphrasis, I believe, directly contributes to his use of the term “remediation” in later work, where various media forms are constantly in a state of making the objects they represent more “present” to the viewer/reader. These media are constantly in competition with one another for authority as “true” representations. By recognizing that ekphrasis does more than “capture” or “describe” the visual in verbal terms, we learn that perhaps there are alternative relationships between images and words, and this, I would hope, would open up variant readings of the ways images and words interact in other media, in other words not only as remediations, but perhaps also as sympathies. Perhaps, we could read newspapers as kinds of remediation, but online poetry or fiction as playing out visual-verbal sympathies.

Posted by c_jane at November 3, 2005 1:53 PM | TrackBack