ebr7 image + narrative, part two summer 98
Narrative + Image = Two Languages (in One Work) x Multiple Meanings [A Rationale for an Issue]
Thinking about narrative and image seemed natural, even unavoidable.
It may have begun back when the understanding of reading shifted from the hermeneutic interpretation of a literary text to an even more metaphoric understanding of reading as the semiotic analysis of 'texts' that were not necessarily literary, not even written in the traditional sense, e.g., feminist readings of medical statistics, semiotic readings of everything from advertising to classical music.
Certainly a more expansive understanding of 'reading' and 'text' would entail a more encompassing understanding of narrative: an understanding that isn't content to limit itself to literature as the study and appreciation of stories and poems, but instead sees the conventions of writing as a way to order vast amounts of information into patterns that limn the world (and arise from it), that imply an argument about the nature of knowledge and how it is transmitted. Suddenly, genres as broad as fiction and non-fiction were seen as too exclusive, too tidy - ultimately less useful in a world where literary criticism was just as likely to mean an archeology of neurosis as a monograph on Proust. A world where even the general population is sensitive to the broadened sense of 'text' and 'reading' as we demonstrate every ten years when something as simple as counting heads, i.e., the census, becomes a semantic battleground. So, just as 'literature' gets dropped for the more useful term 'text' (a term that allows for hybrid forms), novels and poems as well as movies, histories, biographies, and political campaigns become narratives, the first term of the equation that serves as the title to this double issue of ebr devoted to narrative and image.
The second term, image, comes from its own ubiquity.
In his Picture Theory, WJT Mitchell quotes Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature:The picture of ancient and medieval philosophy as concerned with things, the philosophy of the seventeenth through the nineteenth century as concerned with ideas, and the enlightened contemporary  philosophical scene with words has considerable plausibility.Today, Mitchell proposes, the reliance on the dominant linguistic model of thought has loosened, allowing for the possibility of what he calls the 'pictorial turn,' a turn toward the coding and reading of symbol systems that do not assume linguistic form as ultimate reality. This assumption is the chink Norman Bryson sees in Saussure's conception of sign systems: a blindness to how signs interact with the world outside their own systems, an interaction that is communal by nature and therefore resists structural analysis. From photographic restaurant menus to the mapping rather than indexing of information, there can be no doubt that the image has taken over many functions once performed by words. Indeed, people who live in a culture where advertising is so pervasive that it has become a type of folk culture can't avoid this shift. And they participate in it mainly unconsciously, for, just as the general population can absorb a Freudian understanding of how the mind works, we all can absorb a pictorial turn, and in fact seem to have done so judging from the natural ease with which we read a landscape of icons, communicate through images, indeed code most of our activities, even our bodies.
Then, of course, there is the technology. Always the technology and its multifarious ramifications. Humming along since people noticed that technologies like the telephone transformed the materials of literature, i.e., language and its structures, there has always been interest in the materiality of the text: the stuff available for a writer to sculpt into narrative. And in tandem with this way of looking at literature, the ability to manipulate images as never before has turned the buttoned-down literary 'page' into the Wild West, where everything is in a state of flux, borders are wide open and every homesteader his or her own law. The theater space of a 'page' has become much more integral to the staged meanings of words, particularly in the fluid environment of the screen.
Of course, written poems have always utilized space as an element of poetics, but before any pictorial turn we would have thought of them in terms of stanzas, not the white emptiness that sets them off as such. Think of print before and after type escaped the confining lines of cast lead. Now consider a visual landscape where words morph in shape and color before your eyes. Accompanied by animated figures in the margin, words that dance, a book that sings.
Yes, we've definitely had a paradigm shift here, a marriage of author's stage performance, so dependent on sound, and the poetics of the page, so dependent on appearance. The result might be described in terms of a poetics of presentation, the poetics of space recently addressed by Marjorie Perloff, WJT Mitchell, Johanna Drucker, J. Hillis Miller, Charles Bernstein and a number of others, some of whom are represented in this two-volume issue of ebr.
When first considering what an issue on narrative theory and image might contain, we conceived of the poetics of space as a characteristic that would cut across the idiosyncrasies of specific works. That is, we were defining a genre: a species of literary work that draws on its visual form not simply as a stylistic movement or conceit. Indeed, it was easy to agree that not every work that included visuals was an image/text and it was easy to exclude works where illustration served as decoration, especially decoration that could be stripped from the work without distress to its meaning. Rather, we were interested in the way that the genre of literary works serves as both organizing principle and symbol, much the way that Erwin Panofsky focused on the linear perspective of quattrocento paintings as a symbolic form: a form that carried within it an understanding of the world. We tried not to have any preconceived ideas of what these forms might be or what they might symbolize. Rather, our interest was in discovering how others saw the role of visual form in narrative, both within the text as well as outside, in the cultural work the genre might do - how it rose out of the historical situation that it gave expression to. In a sense, our questions were as old as literary criticism itself: how does the form of a text shape its reading? Or convey a reading that may not be available from its content? - albeit we had in mind a literalization of what space and form have meant to literary circles in the past.