Ekphrasis and the Other
W. J. T. MITCHELL
This article reproduced as part of
the Romantic Circles Electronic Edition of Shelley's "Medusa"
by kind permission of the University of Chicago Press.
"Ekphrasis and the Other" by W. J. T. Mitchell from PICTURE THEORY published by The University of Chicago Press, copyright 1994 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
the ear and the eye
lie down together
in the same bed
--William Carlos Williams
This otherness, this
"Not-being-us" is all there is to look at
In the mirror, though no one can say
How it came to be this way.
--John Ashbery, "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror"
Radio Photographs: Ekphrastic Poetics
1) ANYONE who grew up in the ageof radio will recall a popular comedy duo called "Bob and Ray." One of their favorite bits was a scene in which Bob would show Ray all the photographs of his summer vacation, accompanying them with a deadpan commentary on the interesting places and lovely scenery. Ray would usually respond with some comments on the quality of the pictures and their subject matter, and Bob would invariably say atsome point, as an aside to the audience, "I sure wish you folks out there in radioland could see these pictures." Perhaps this line sticks in my memory because it was such a rare break in the intimacy of Bob and Ray's humor: they generally ignored their radio listeners, or (more precisely) pretended as if the listener was sitting with them in the studio, so fully present to their conversation thatno special acknowledgment was required. If one can imagine what it would be to wink knowingly at someone over the radio, one can understand the humor of Bob and Ray. One can also, I think, begin to see something of the fascination in the problem of ekphrasis, the verbal representation of visual representation.
2) This fascination comes to us, I think, in three phases or moments ofrealization. The first might be called "ekphrastic indifference," and it grows out of a commonsense perception that ekphrasis is impossible. This impossibility is articulated in all sorts of familiar assumptions about the inherent, essential properties of the various media and their proper or appropriate modes of perception. Bob and Ray's photographs can never be made visible over the radio. No amount ofdescription, as Nelson Goodman might put it, adds up to a depiction. A verbal representation cannot represent--that is, make present--its object in the same way a visual representation can. It may refer to an object, describe it, invoke it, but it can never bring its visual presence before us in the way pictures do. Words can "cite," but never "sight" their objects. Ekphrasis, then, is acuriosity: it is the name of a minor and rather obscure literary genre (poems which describe works of visual art) and of a more general topic (the verbal representation of visual representation) that seems about as important as Bob and Ray's radio photographs.
3) The minority and obscurity of ekphrasis has not, of course, prevented the formation of an enormous literature on the subject that tracesit back to the legendary "Shield of Achilles" in the Iliad , locates its theoretical recognition in ancient poetics and rhetoric, and finds instances of it in everything from oral narrative to postmodern poetry. This literature reflects a second phase of fascination with the topic I will call "ekphrastic hope." This is the phase when the impossibility of ekphrasis is overcome in imagination ormetaphor, when we discover a "sense" in which language can do what so many writers have wanted it to do: "to make us see." This is the phase in which Bob and Ray's "radio magic" takes effect, and we imagine in full detail the photographs we hear slapping down on the studio table (Sometimes Bob would acknowledge this moment in a variation of his punchline: instead of a wish, an expression of...
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