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10: Image

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    Image refers to a visual representation of someone or something in material or mediated form. We readily recognize images in the form of paintings and photographs, or in three-dimensional forms like statues and sculptures, or as visual displays on screens and monitors. The word “image” also refers to immaterial functions of mind and consciousness. We visualize things to ourselves in our thoughts, dreams, and memories. These mental images are much more difficult for us to share but no less real (or are they?). Images also come to us in the form of words. Verbal images are pictures in our minds that result from the descriptive powers of language, whether written or spoken. In another sense, even printed words are images, particular marks on a page to which we can pay visual attention.

     

    History of Image

    The word “image” is complex and tricky because it refers to the visible and the invisible, the physical and the mental, the material and the spiritual. We can trace the word’s ambiguity to its earliest usages in ancient Hebrew—where it conveyed both a material and immaterial presence, a concrete object in the physical world and a spiritual essence or ideal. Indeed, early Jewish commentators insist that the original authentic meaning of the Hebrew tselem—like the Greek eikon and the Latin imago (ancient words that we translate as “image”)—is not “picture,” but rather spiritual “likeness,” as in Genesis 1:26, “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Mitchell, 31- 36).[HD1]  There can be no possibility of mistaking man for a picture of God, so goes the predominant interpretive strain of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but rather, man possesses certain spiritual attributes that derive from and reflect God’s glory. But even in the Hebrew Scriptures, image (tselem) is an equivocal term, because it also refers to idols, those false material objects that the Lord commands Moses and the children of Israel to destroy when they cross from Jordan into the land of Caanan (Holy Bible, Numbers 33:51-52). 

    Of course, as material forms in space and time, images enter human history long before words. Many thousands of years ago, the substances of plants and animals, even the blood of human beings, were used to make pictures, representation by visual signs—marks, scratches, shapes, lines, colors—depicting human perception, aspiration, fear, hunger, and so on. We really know very little about the genesis of the earliest cave paintings. The art historian E.H. Gombrich suggests that perhaps it was the recognition of resemblances that prompted the first cave drawings, some rock or boulder suggesting a specific animal or object, which were then worked through artistic means into an even greater likeness. Resemblance—or similarity or verisimilitude, or mimesis—stands as the starting point for entering discussions on the concept of image.

    Whatever the origins, ancient cultures developed increasingly complex symbolic systems of pictorial signs that eventually evolved into writing. Scholars tell us that the first proto-writing was pictorial, comprised of ideograms—symbols that represented the thing that they attempted to express. Writing that is largely independent of these pictorial elements—logographic writing—  does not appear until sometime in the middle of the second (or maybe third) millennium BCE. One such example is the “Complaint tablet to Ea-nãsir,” written in the 18th century BCE. Note that “largely independent” indicates that no language is or was either completely ideographic or logographic. Consider the role of emojis in contemporary non-formal writing, for instance, or the way that image and text blend in MMS/SMS texting and messaging threads.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Complaint Tablet to Ea-Nasir. (Copyright; zunkir via Wikipedia Commons)

     

    Image Today

    If the word “image” is paradoxical (for example in the Hebrew Scriptures examples discussed above), images are just as ambiguous and equivocal when we’re referring to visual objects. Think of how strange an ability it is to recognize a material image as image: we see it, we name it, and at the same time we know that it’s not really there!

    In an ancient Greek legend, birds flew to peck the grapes from the picture by the famous painter, Zeuxis, because they were not seeing an image of grapes but rather the grapes themselves. Human beings, too, are capable of being fooled by the illusory tricks and powerful magic of images. The legend goes on to describe how Zeuxis’s rival, the painter, Parrhasius, tried to pull back the curtain from the same painting, only then to realize the curtain was itself a part of the picture. “What is that?” someone asks, looking at the still life of grapes and a curtain. “That is an image,” we reply. “You mean that canvas full of colors and lines? Or do you mean those grapes and that curtain?” (Mitchell 17).

    Few have explored this paradox of the image, its relationship to presence and absence, as provocatively as the Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte. This is especially the case in his two pipe paintings, “La trahison des images” [“The Treachery of Images”] (1929), and the much later “Les Deux Mystéres” [“The Two Mysteries”] (1966). The first is a simple image of a pipe, and underneath it the sentence, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” [This is not a pipe.] Fair enough. We know that’s not a pipe; it’s a picture of a pipe. Similarly, consider the first panel in comic artist and ex-NASA scientist Randall Monroe’s xkcd comic “804: Pumpkin Carving” ( Pumpkin carving [xkcd.com]), where their beret-wearing artist carved a pumpkin into a pumpkin, invoking Magritte’s self-referential doubling.

    However, pictures rarely announce their own status as representations. In everyday conversation, if asked to identify Magritte’s painting we are very likely to say indeed, “The one with the pipe.” In a very straightforward yet provocative way, Magritte’s image explores the confusion between pictures and things. This confusion accounts for so much of the power that images possess. The second painting radically extends the ambiguities of the first. Like the earlier painting, it too is an image about images. But it is far more difficult to describe what is represented here. To help get us started, let’s look at a brief passage from a famous essay on the painting by the French philosopher, Michel Foucault. “There are two pipes,” he begins simply.

    Or rather must we not say, two drawings of the same pipe? Or yet a pipe and the drawing of that pipe, ... Or two drawings, one representing a pipe and the other not, ... Or yet again, a drawing representing not a pipe at all but another drawing, itself representing a pipe so well that I must ask myself: To what does the sentence written in the painting relate? ... perhaps the sentence refers ... to the disproportionate, floating, ideal pipe--simple notion or fantasy of a pipe. Then we should have to read, “Do not look overhead for a true pipe. That is a pipe dream. It is the drawing within the painting, firmly and rigorously outlined, that must be accepted as a manifest truth. (16-17)[HD2] 

    As Foucault’s analysis demonstrates, the serious contemplation of images can lead to a sort of vertigo. If we really think about how images work, there is a feeling of endlessly spinning about, which many modern theorists and commentators have identified as the predominant characteristic of contemporary life. The overwhelming abundance of cultural images has made it increasingly difficult for us to distinguish between image and reality.

    Today, images are everywhere. So much so, we might say, that in the 21st century the affordances of image are overdetermined, so pervasive an element in our everyday life that we tend to think of and through them as a matter of course without necessarily understanding both their power and their limitations. We make constant use of images to help us achieve all sorts of goals, desires, and rhetorical ends: to access and understand the past, both our own and the larger cultural societal groups of which we are a part; to elicit desire and get people to buy goods and commodities; to express feelings and identity; to distract and enthrall; above all, to record and to provide evidence—“yes, sir, you did indeed go through the red light; here are the pictures to prove it.”

    “A society becomes ‘modern’ when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images,” writes Susan Sontag in her 1987 book, On Photography, and throughout the second half of the twentieth century, cultural theorists have consistently described our modern age in visual terms. They refer to it as the society of the spectacle, the society of simulations, the age of surveillance, and so on. The intimate relation between the modern and the visual goes at least as far back as the nineteenth century, an era that produced an explosion of visual technologies, culminating in the invention of the camera. From its very beginnings, photography was wildly popular, producing images of “reality” of a kind never seen before.  It allowed this availability of the visual on an increasingly vast scale, a democratization of the ability to produce images, for private as well as public use. Of course, today, with the advent of social media and myriad cloud-sharing applications, the ability to produce, to circulate, and to consume images are activities most of us take for granted and perform with great facility in astonishingly large numbers. Most importantly, we are able more easily than ever before to alter images and change their original intention—or simply take them out of context.

    Magritte’s seemingly straightforward statement, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” painted nearly 100 years ago, seems ever more significant. Sophisticated photo-editing software, such as Photoshop, can help alert us to the artifice of the image: framed, focused, retouched. But images, digital and otherwise, mediate so much of our experience that we may still find it difficult to see beyond them. The more we understand how images work, the better we can use them to our advantage, and guard against those that would use them to take advantage of us.

    The mass production of images in culture and society is central to the production of cultural ideas around representation. Because the presence of images are overdetermined, the repetitive ideas, themes, tropes, and motifs that they generate en masse can take on either a sense of cacophony (a feeling of non-patterned, dissonant randomness) or a sense of normative invisibility (a feeling of normalcy that comes from ubiquitous, semi-unified ways that certain ideas, persons, places, cultures, and genders have been/are represented). Both feelings about the presence of images are true: the world is overpacked with both incredibly random and remarkably consistent arrays of images that bombard the senses without mercy.  This duality is possible because certain dominant ideas, themes, tropes, and motifs obtain a higher signal-to-noise ratio than others, emerging as a pattern within the cacophony, repeated with greater frequency and strength than the rest. Sometimes, these dominant visual representations are stereotypical representations or harmful tropes that require active pushback from those that encounter them.

     

    Broadening the Concept

    Let’s briefly explore two visual tropes from comics and graphic narrative, a medium that attempts to represent the entirety of sensory experience visually. Two of the more common negative visual tropes in comics that readers (and creators) often encounter are “Women-in-Refrigerators” and the “Electric Black Guy.”

    The first of these, colloquially referred to as fridging, was coined by writer Gail Simone in the late 1990s. The term itself references a specific infamous, gruesome comic book image in which Green Lantern returns home to find that his nemesis dismembered his girlfriend and stuffed her mutilated corpse in the refrigerator (Green Lantern, Vol. 3, Iss. 54, 1994).[HD3]  More broadly, the term refers to instances in which women in superhero comics have been victimized, traumatized, mutilated, and/or murdered either as a means of providing (generally visual) shock value or as a way of providing weight to another male character’s narrative arc. This visual trope reduces women’s bodies to mere prop or object, often a literal exquisite corpse whose suffering is intended to contribute to experience of visual pleasure that comes from the consumption of a visual aesthetic object (a comic, a film, a photograph, a painting, etc.). Yes, male characters are also victimized, traumatized, mutilated, and/or murdered in superhero comics. However, as noted above, some images occur with greater frequency than others, comprising a dominant cultural pattern of representation. Even at the current moment that this section is being written, nearly a quarter of a decade after Simone coined the concept, even with the comics industry aware of the negative impacts of the trope on women’s experience (and readership), fridging is still relatively commonplace in superhero comics and other forms of speculative fiction. Consider that the fan favorite Muslim-American character Ms. Marvel, created by G. Willow Wilson, was just fridged in Spider-Man comics as the sorrowful dramatic climax of another male character’s narrative arc—only to be revived not two months later.

    Speaking of shock value, the second negative visual trope is the oddly common tendency of Black characters in speculative (especially superhero) fiction to have electrokinetic powers, the ability to generate and shoot lightning. This trope, referred to more broadly as the “Electric Black Guy” started in the mid-1970s and persists to this day. Black characters such as Black Lightning, Storm, Static, Ultimate Spider-Man (Miles Morales), Thunder Fall, Coldcast, Black Vulcan, Jackson Hyde, Black Hammer, Shango the Thunderer, and Volt (among others) all have their powers connected either partially or fully to lightning or electricity. On its face, this trope seems far less problematic than a visual trope like the aforementioned Women-in-Refrigerators. It certainly is less problematic. However, it comes with its own sets of entanglements and difficulties. Charles Pulliam-Moore, in his essay “Why Do So Many Black Superheroes Have Electricity Powers?” hypothesizes that it’s an extension of a tendency to connect Black characters with nature:

    Personally, the thing that’s always stuck with me about most black heroes with nature-based power sets is the very thin line writers and artists have to walk to make sure the character isn’t being depicted as a “savage.” The idea that black people are inherently closer to nature is one of the larger undertones to the problematic magical negro trope that many characters are often hamstrung by….The Black Electricity Trope reads like a distant cousin to the Magical Negro, in that they’re both established formulations of a character whose most defining qualities are a preternatural understanding and command of natural force. (para. 11-12)[HD4] 

    Pulliam-Moore emphasizes that “it’s not difficult to understand what makes electrokinesis popular with creators. For one thing, it can make for some of the most visually arresting art you can imagine” (para. 6). However, as with the magical negro trope, the “Electric Black Guy” is another permutation of an existing stereotype that connects blackness to the natural world, a stereotype that has had long standing damaging effects on Black cultural representation and influence. Yes, there are plenty of black characters that have powers that are not electrokinetic. There are also characters of diverse racial backgrounds that have electrokinetic powers. As noted in the paragraphs above, the problem of harmful visual representational tropes is their frequency—and with that frequency broader cultural association.

     

    Image and Other Concepts

    The relation between image and word, or between the arts of painting and poetry, has long been a central and much contested issue in discussions of art and philosophy. While there is a long tradition of identifying resemblances between the two arts, the relation between visual and verbal signs becomes increasingly understood in terms of a contest or rivalry. The expression “A picture is worth a thousand words” is a commonplace example, an assertion of the power of images and their ability to express things that words cannot. On the other hand, many commentators have come down on the side of tell, not show. Alphabetic text, they say, is more powerful than images for a picture needs words to indicate its story. Otherwise, it is but a frozen narrative illustrating any number of possibilities. Sontag, for instance, in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, points out that in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the same photographs of children killed in the shelling of a village were passed around in both Serb and Croat propaganda briefings—only their captions were altered. Words, she argues, are more powerful than pictures in mobilizing opposition to war, for pictures are mute, without context, utterly susceptible to appropriation.

    Of course, the real question is not which sign, visual or verbal, is better in any absolute sense, but rather, what are the peculiar affordances, in any given situation, of using images or words or some combination of the two. Typically, we regard images and painting as best suited to represent the visible world, words and poetry the invisible world of thoughts and ideas. We associate images with space and immediacy; pictures are static and represent the “here and now.” We associate words with time and development; narratives are in motion and represent the “beyond” and “beneath.” That is not to say that images cannot represent time and action, that words cannot represent space and stasis. But it may not come as easily to them.

     

    Looking Ahead

    Images are welcome components of the texts we compose in our writing classes. Few authors opt to represent their conversations in alphabetic text only. The affordances of remix are too great to dismiss the chance to incorporate pictures with text.

    Let’s imagine a written conversation project about the #MeToo movement. Including a panoramic image of the iconic 2017 Women’s March could serve as a powerful preface to a remixed timeline of events. A strong image can do the work of setting the scene before a text-based discussion.

    In the early 20th century, photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee collaborated on a text that documented the lives of struggling tenant cotton farmers. The book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, represents the devastating effects of The Great Depression in America. Look up Evans’ iconic images and notice how they tell a story. Agee writes the following in the beginning of the book:

    If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art; and I could trust a majority of you to use it as you would a parlor game. A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point. As it is, though, I’ll do what little I can in writing. (13)

    Representing a rich conversation in your writing project is about choice-making. Image is always an important option as you create a memorable sensory experience for your readers. Positive ethos can come from your choice to compose verbal or material images.

     

    Image in AI-Assisted Writing[HD5] 

    As we write this chapter, generative AI appears poised to transform our relationship to the arts and global economy in ways that we cannot yet anticipate. This is true in multiple domains and fields extending from journalism to copy editing, from coding to data analysis, from photography to graphic design. Generative image-based AI tools such as Midjourney, DALL-E 2, Stable Diffusion, Bing Image Creator, and Dream, among others, allow users to rapidly generate multiple permutations of images based on simple, plain text prompts until a user finds an image that satisfies their need. If you ever should need,[HD6]  for example, an image of a “Soaring Bald Eagle with U.S. flag cape carrying a piece of bacon,” generative AI can provide near-instantaneous pictorial outcomes. 

    These outcomes, at the current moment, still are subject to gaps in machine learning. Image-based AI can fail to construct images in ways that display sometimes terrifying, sometimes hilarious, flaws: A frog with too many eyes; a hand with too many fingers; a hand with fingers that each themselves have their own hands; or a swan with a saxophonic neck. Borders and boundaries between objects and environments dissolve rhizomatically[HD7]  or collapse under the weight of user expectations. However, because of the speed of image-based AI generation, a user can simply rapidly re-generate a prompt over and over and over until they find an image that satisfies their needs and largely hides the failures of the photo AI engine. There is a long-standing idea known as the “Infinite Monkey Theorem”—most people have heard it articulated as follows: “Infinite monkeys typing on infinite keyboards could eventually write the works of Shakespeare.” With image-based generative AI, it is as if one simply can produce the output of the aforementioned monkeys—or in this case monkeys indexed to Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, Cindy Sherman, etc.—without requiring typing time in passing. 

    But what does this mean about the nature of images itself? As noted in the history section, any discussion on the nature of images necessarily begins with the idea of resemblance, or similarity, or verisimilitude, or mimesis. Put another way, the discussion begins with the simple axiom that an image of a thing resembles the thing that it stands in for as proxy. However, at the same time as image-based generative AI improves its models and algorithms towards the goal of perfect approximation or photorealistic images, our expectations of the capabilities of images extend towards the hyperreal – more real than real itself – and towards the simulacra. Jean Baudrillard, in his central text Simulacrum & Simulation, describes the transition of images from following representational logics to simulacral logics as such:

    So it is with simulation, insofar as it opposed to representation. Representation starts from the principle that the sign and the real are equivalent…Conversely, simulation starts from…the radical negation of the sign as value, form the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference. (p. 170)

    What does photorealism even mean when a “photo” is neither captured photons nor more than the loosest approximation of human intention? What does it mean for our uses of images that they can be so often satisfied by a partially-randomized, partially-machine-patterned pictorial output with no index or connection to an actual place, person, space, object, animal, or time? These are only a few questions related to the relationship of images and value that generative AI challenges to address at our current moment.

     

    Writing with Image

    To conclude, more often than not, we encounter words, images, and other modes (sound, video, etc.) together. Television, cinema, websites, illustrated books, comic books, photographs with captions, museum objects, magazines, and labels—the visual and the verbal are involved in many different kinds of relationships. The interesting question is to determine, in each specific instance, the impact that one has on the other, and to decide for ourselves how we can best bring them together to suit our own purposes. You might ask yourself questions like these to determine when and how to use images:

    ·      What are the affordances and constraints of images in this situation?

    ·      Have I chosen the best images in each instance to represent other people, places, things, events, and my own ideas and arguments?

    ·      How do these images affect my ethos?

    ·      How are images used or not used in this genre?

    ·      What other modes can I combine with my images here as resources for changing and multiplying my meaning?

    ·      How should I arrange the images and other modes on the page or screen, so that readers get the experience I hope they will, and so that it is aesthetically pleasing?

    ·      Is my use and circulation of images legal and ethical? Have I considered issues surrounding intellectual property and copyright? Is my manipulation of images deceptive?

     

    Image Activity

    Using the 9 storyboard panels,[HD8] [HD9]  compose a love story in either image only or image +[HD10] [HD11]  text.

    Once finished, translate that illustrated story into spoken words. Working with a partner, use your storyboard as notes to tell the story out loud.

    Next, partners should write each other’s stories without referring to the pictures.

    Finally, look at your partner’s storyboard and adjust your written version of her story to reflect the content and ethos of the pictures.

    Exchange written stories and discuss the affordances and effectiveness of each version. Which are most effective? Why?

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    10: Image is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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