Tuesday, September 11, 2007

More Vocabulary Tests

This discussion continues to be usefully provocative.

Jaleen Grove writes,
I don't actually interpret the classic definitions of illustration like this at all. I would suggest that "illuminating" is not equivalent to embellishing, nor is explicating text equivalent to being subservient to it. I think these are value judgments that have been imposed on the literal meanings by people who had stakes in not letting illustrators get the upperhand socially or economically in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
I would agree, to some extent. But my original point has to do with the limitations of the term in contemporary usage, with all the associations that are now part of its meaning. I don't think there is an Edenic meaning to be recovered. Moreover, I would distinguish between the term as a specific noun (an illustration) and its meaning more broadly as a field of activity or a discipline. I think it's mostly a workmanlike term in the first case, and a poor one in the second.

Grove continues:
The Word and Light are inextricably linked, not one above the other - the first use God makes of the Word is to define light. Therefore, the illumination of manuscripts was just as holy as the scripture. Think of the frescos in the nave of the church - they are all illumination, and not even a line of text - they were accompanied by oral tradition. From this point of view, written texts were the embellishment to the images - remember, pictoral media precedes the written. It is simply impossible to separate the two into hierarchies, no?
Wow. This argument is intelligently and gamely made! Alas, I'm not buying it as culturally descriptive in a secular society. The authority and prestige of the written word exceed that of the image. Pictures may be sexier and more emotive, but these were exactly the grounds on which Plato booted the artist out the ideal Republic. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word calls the shots. (I will return to this notion in an upcoming post on cartooning.)

Anyway, my observations concerning the shortcomings of the term are meant to set up some sustained looking at images, in part to test its applicability.

Bob Flynn writes,
Yeah, I understand what you're getting at. For me, it would boil down to whatever this new word would be...and what new pretenses it might carry. I'm probably more cautious after having done similar thinking about comics and graphic novels and seeing a similar thought path. "Graphic novel" was made popular by the publishing industry to get comics into bookstores, so the motivation is different. But the idea was to get people to take comics more seriously because the subject matter was more mature or something, even though I'm not sure that was WIll Eisner's intent when he coined it. Now "graphic novel" is a very wishy-washy term...very hard to define, except for its hierarchical superiority over the comic book.
Good comparison. As a term, comics suffers a related problem--tonal associations with humor for a word meant to describe a structural form. People have indeed been struggling with that one for a long time. I do not find graphic novel objectionable particularly. It's useful and handy. Does seem to suggest a certain scale or length, an unnecessary inference.

Images: Write What you see in a Book, (John of Patmos receives instructions from an angel [Revelation 1:9-11]) illuminated manuscript illustration, the Cloisters Apocalypse, 14th century French production; A Third of the Sea Became Blood...a Third of the Ships Were Destroyed, (The second angel blows his trumpet after the opening of the seventh seal [Revelation 8:9]) the Cloisters Apocalypse.


Bob Flynn said...

Just to continue a bit further on the "graphic novel" tangent...I agree that length, breadth, and serious themes are fair categorizations. Problem is most people use the shorthand that graphic novels are for adults (mature audiences) and comic books are just kids stuff. "Graphic Novel" has in someways become the PC or buzzword for a comic. I hear it all the time from clients..."oooh, we want the character to be in a graphic novel," when in fact they are talking about a 1 or 2-page comic strip. And graphic novels are the new craze in the kid-lit community, when they are nothing but comic books---but it's okay for kids to read if you call them "graphic novels." What's so bad about the word "comic"?

I know your reasons are sincere and primarily intellectual. I would simply caution what I would term a "re-imaging campaign." It should be linguistically motivated, which I know that it is.

DB Dowd said...

Bob, to be clear, I am looking to identify and clarify certain shortcomings in our use of language, especially in the case of illustration. There is no magic bullet, I know. Really I want to rescue visual experience from poor categorization, so that the primacy of the made thing may be maintained and experienced, better to enjoy and evaluate it critically. I do not envision a campaign of any sort, nor do intend a new vocabulary for plausibly named things. I do aspire to more descriptive engagement in the empirical spirit I have recently mentioned.

And I get your frustration with the disfavor of "comic." Again, these troubles spring from a surprisingly poor set of terms that developed in English to name these visual forms. An odd bit of bad luck for so rich a territory and so supple a tongue as ours.

John Hendrix said...

Here's where some smarty pants says something like "And Eskimos have like 8,000 words for snow!"

Jaleen Grove said...

Oh good, now we're getting somewhere with an actual conversation about illustration!

I take your point about any "originary" pre-Plato meaning being moot today. Such is the genesis of language. Yet still I resist the urge to rename the discipline. And I'm still not agreeing the Word is superior. Yes, many people argued this for centuries, but so much scholarship of the 20th and present century have been postulating a return to the visual as dominant (not that I agree with them either; I'm still going for Both Are Equal). Marshall McLuhan is one, WJT Mitchell is another. With the advent of recent technology that can deliver images more efficiently than in the past it is possible to argue that we have become more visually literate than literacy-literate than, say, in 1830 or even 1930. New research in cognitive science (Hi, Dr Ann Marie Barry) is showing just how insidiously imagery gets past our consciousness and triggering memory, affecting how we think long before we deciphre the text.

There's been quite the anxiety in the field of illo over the past ten years, with stock and digital photography and the plethora of imagery available online and all. It has, in some ways though, been triggering a renaissance in the field. This seems to just be coming into focus now. I think it might be both the panic at the changes AND the shifting role of the illustrator because of it that it feeding this hankering for a new name. Maybe we ARE changing enough to warrant it. But I still don't want to lose the history.