5 / An Attempt at Theory

James Elkins

[This material was originally posted on Writing with Images. Please see that site, and this one, for the context of these notes.]

[Since I wrote this, I discovered an interesting response to this project, and an extension to “audiovisual essays,” here.]


The little literature on narratives with images tends to go in one of two directions. Either it focuses on a single book or author, or it considers the concept of writing with images as a philosophic or conceptual issue. There is a need for a middle ground, a view of the subject that can discern practices and possibilities without descending to case studies or rising into generalities.

I have tried to do something like this for the simpler case of nonfiction writing where the illustrations are fine art. In that case I was thinking of art history and visual studies, and I had the idea that there are three normative ways images are used, and five unusual or experimental ways. Here are those eight points, abstracted from a long essay. After the eight I will propose some ways of looking at the same problem in the case of writing that is ambiguously fictional and nonfictional (for example, Sebald’s); and finally, in the curious case where the writing presents itself as fiction and yet includes photographs of real places and people.



Three Uninteresting Ways that Images Interact with Narrative in Nonfiction

First, visual studies and art history tend to use images as mnemonics, reminding readers of images they may not be able to recall with sufficient detail, or that they may have seen but forgotten. This is the usual function of images in art history, visual studies, art theory, art criticism, and related fields. The images are not supposed to be adequate representations: they do not fully represent what they denote, as the text does.

Second, visual studies and art history use images as examples of concepts developed in the accompanying texts. This is especially true of texts in which argument plays a large role: in art theory, for example, or in philosophy of art. This sometimes also happens in writing that is ambiguously fictional or nonfictional, for instance in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, where a Rembrandt painting is shown across a double spread, and then on the next page we’re shown a detail, exactly as in an art history text. (It is slightly differently placed in the German.)

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At this moment the image serves as an example of a theory in the text (regarding truth, and the painter’s skepticism of “Cartesian rigidity”). (Incidentally, Sebald claims the tendons here are those from the back of the hand, and so they are deliberately shown incorrectly. There is a literature on this. He is probably wrong: these tendons resemble palmar flexor tendons; they are hard to dissect, and therefore they’re not always shown this way.)

Third, images are used as illustrations in both visual studies and art history. There is a distinction, I think, between examples and illustrations in this context: an example provides evidence or veracity to an argument; an illustration is an addition, an ornament, a conventional accompaniment. Images are often illustrations in more highly produced texts, such as “coffee table” books and large exhibition catalogues. (It is pertinent that Sebald apparently omitted photographs that were merely illustrations or examples; he preferred images that were pointers, that were suggestive, that moved beyond what the text spelled out. In art history, I think, that never happens.) (Searching for Sebald, p. iv-v = 507-8.)

The original essay I am excerpting was an introduction to a book called Theorizing Visual Studies; along with the other editors of that book, I proposed that images in the next generation of visual studies texts might function differently. Pictures might be less passive, and it might be possible for scholars to find ways to let images participate in the theorization of the field. We were interested in developing the claim, often made in visual studies, that images have their own power: that they contain or embody thought, that they have affective and cognitive power, that they can theorize or be considered as theories. I proposed five possibilities.



Five Interesting Ways that Images Interact with Narrative in Nonfiction

1. Images as intelligent theories: the photographs in visual studies and art history could function as theories alongside the positions and arguments adopted in the surrounding text. The principal example here is Leo Steinberg’s Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper, which takes copies of Leonardo’s work as evidence of qualities and properties of the original, in the way that art historians have long taken textual responses to artworks as evidence.


2. Images as mistaken theories: if a visual artwork can be considered to be a theory about something, then it must also be possible for an artwork to embody a mistaken, impoverished, or misguided theory about something. If copies of Leonardo’s Last Supper can be what Steinberg called “intelligent copies,” then there must also be unintelligent copies, like this one:


As Karen Eliot pointed out, reading a draft of this chapter, there is a large difference between “mistaken” and “unintelligent”: the former is entailed by theories that attribute propositional content to images, such as Nelson Goodman’s. The latter is, I think, the necessary unacknowledged opposite of Steinberg’s interest in “intelligent” copies. The Lego Last Supper might have nothing particularly “intelligent” to say about Leonardo’s painting, but it might not be “mistaken.” (See the full essay for more on this.)

3. Images as interruptions: images can be placed in texts in such a way that they interrupt ongoing arguments. This is ordinarily the case—we usually pause a moment when we turn a page and see a picture—but it can also be made part of the writing project. Later in this chapter, when I come to heading (C), writing that is ambiguously fiction and nonfiction, I will want to suggest that images can also be distractions: the difference is that in experimental writing, if an image is a distraction it is so intentionally, whereas in art history, if an image interrupts the argument, it does so because it’s placed in the middle of an argument—so it’s more an interruption than a distraction.

4. Images as things that remind us of argument: artworks have often seemed thoughtful, or have appeared to contain arguments or propositions. There are many examples in art history of accounts that treat images this way, including work by Louis Marin and T.J. Clark on Poussin. For both writers, in different ways, Poussin’s paintings conjure thought, embody propositions, argue, remind us of language.


5. Images as things that slow argument: reproductions in art history, visual studies, and related fields always present forms, colors, and content that is not directly related to the argument the author is making. That density of signs can also be made part of the writing project, when its effect—of distracting the reader, of slowing reading—is taken into account. My example here is Titian because I am thinking of Erwin Panofsky’s Problems in Titian: Mainly Iconographic, which is preoccupied with issues of narrative, reference, and symbol, even though the author says his book is black and white “not in spite of but because Titian was the greatest colorist of all time.” Detailed color reproductions in art historical accounts that concentrate on narratives and signs inevitably function partly as impediments to efficient reading: we turn the page, see a gorgeous painting whose materiality is not at issue in the text, and we pause.


Those five positive and three negative possibilities were aimed at scholarly work on art; I think they can be brought forward, expanded and elaborated, so they can help describe what happens in the general case of writing with images.



How Images Work in Writing that is Ambiguously Fiction and Nonfiction

Here I mean writing that is “deeply invested in questions of fictionality,” as James Woods describes Sebald’s novels. There is no unproblematic way to characterize this writing, except perhaps in the negative: what concerns me here is writing that does not present itself as fiction or, unequivocally, as nonfiction. In the following section I will turn to writing that presents itself directly as fiction.

From this point onward, it may be best to say these remarks are on the ontology of images, because often the issue in fiction or work at the borders of fiction and nonfiction is the different relations between the reality shown us in images (especially photographs), and the reality proposed in the narrative.

Reading a draft of this chapter, Terry Pitts wondered if there is a place for images that seem to be inserted in order to insist on the veracity of what they represent. In that case, he says, “It seems to hardly matter if the author has ‘seen’ the newspaper clipping or portrait or whatever. It’s like slapping down a piece of evidence and saying to the reader ‘Look here!'” I think he is right, and it is largely Sebald who raises this issue, because in the indeterminately fictional and nonfictional context of his books, photographs of actual events anchor the narrative to truth and history in ways that the narrative does not. This is an under-theorized subject in the Sebald literature, because the ontological status of his images tends to be reduced to the idea that photographs are “indexical”—that they are realia, that they are taken as representations of the world.

It may be helpful to distinguish what Nelson Goodman called the “roots of reference” (here, the indexicality or reality of photographic representation) from “routes of reference” (“the various relationships that may obtain between a term or other sign or symbol and what it refers to”). (Goodman, “Routes of Reference,” Critical Inquiry, 1981.) Sebald talked about his photographs as merely “documents of findings,” but as he knew, their presentation as Xeroxes, found images, or snapshots, and their quality and formatting in the books, matter just as much. (Interview in Searching for Sebald, p. 106.) In particular it can be helpful to distinguish photographs as (1) anchors, (2) proofs, (3) distractions from the narrative’s fictionality, (4) testimony, and (5) evidence. There are interesting contingent distinctions between those terms.

1. Here is an example of the metaphor of the anchor, from The Emigrants. The photograph shows the Banff Springs Hotel; notice how in both the German and English editions Sebald has been careful to place the photograph exactly two lines away from its identification in the text.

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In Rings of Saturn, Sebald’s practice is to anchor his photographs to either the line of text just before or after the image, or the second line preceding or following the image. That close linkage puts the idea of fastening, anchoring, in a reader’s mind, as if the image needs to be tethered in order to function as a sign of a root (but not a route) of reference. This first category doesn’t fit perfectly with the ones I’m about to name, because they are epistemological categories, to do with what counts as true outside the narrative. An anchor is a syntactic rather than a semantic category, but the reason it can be experienced as an anchor is because prose can appear to have a more fluid or unreliable relation to reality than photographs. This perception (since it’s nothing more than that) can be strong when actual photographs are present, as opposed to drawings or other graphics, and the author’s interest in anchoring the one to the other by formatting, captions, or call-outs, is a sign that the prose and pictures need to be physically attached to one another—and therefore a sign of epistemological instability.

2. Photographs can also be ineffective, ambiguous, incomplete, or hidden proofs that things, events, and people actually existed. There is a potentially productive alternative between (2a) the use of images as proofs that something existed, and (2b) the cultural fact that photographs, in particular, are taken to be proofs that things existed. The first could be counted as a perlocutionary act, the second as an illocutionary act, in J. L. Austin’s terminology.

(2a) A perlocutionary utterance, in the 2018 Wikipedia entry “speech acts,” is defined as having “actual effect, such as persuading, convincing, scaring, enlightening…” What matters is the psychological effect of persuasion: there’s the photograph, so that person or place Sebald describes must actually have existed.

(2b) An illocutionary utterance has an “intended significance as a socially valid verbal action”: in this case, the image would be intended to be taken as proof—or more precisely, as “evidence” in the sense I develop below. There’s the photograph, so Sebald must be asking me to believe the person or place actually existed.

A novelist who uses photographs will necessarily participate in the second assumption, even if she does not attempt to demonstrate actual truth. Sebald’s The Emigrants provides an example. The four stories in that book have widely been assumed to be “fictional or fictionalized sketches,” in James Wood’s words. But he reports that “Sebald told me in an interview that about 90 percent of the photographs were ‘what you would describe as authentic, i.e., they really did come out of the photo albums of the people described in those texts and are a direct testimony to the fact that these people did exist in that particular shape and form.'” (London Review of Books, February 20, 2014.) Wood adds the facts that “Sebald did indeed meet Dr. Selywn in 1970; Paul Bereyter was Sebald’s primary school teacher; his great-uncle Adelwarth immigrated to America in the 1920s; and Max Ferber’s life was closely modeled on Frank Auerbach’s.” Even so, Sebald’s statement, presumably made in the awareness that it was for the public record, and Wood’s biographical information, do not prevent the book from being read as “deeply invested in questions of fictionality”: for me, the photographs produce the insistent but unclear claim that they represent something real, while also being deliberately unhinged from what is said in the text.

3. When images work in this hidden or incomplete way, they also tend to work as a whole: that is, all the images in a given book work in concert to produce a reality effect. In an essay called “What Counts as True? Pictures and Fiction in W.G. Sebald,” Seth Kim-Cohen makes this point in relation to Austerlitz. “We are distracted,” he writes, “from the subjectivity of the testimony before us by the apparent objectivity of the photographs.”

The meaning of each individual picture is negligible. It is the meaning of the pictures’ collective presence, which is crucial to the functioning of Sebald’s books. The photographs say that the narrator, the writer (whoever), isn’t just making this stuff up. It’s out there in the world. The meaning of the photographs is that the objects in them are photographable: the buildings, the landscapes, the planes, the monuments, the trees, even the occasional person, exist. These photographs are admissible as evidence. [tinyurl.com/ncklgo8, 2011]

4, 5. “Evidence”  comes from Derrida’s Demeure: Fiction and Testimony; in Kim-Cohen’s reading there is a distinction between testimony and evidence. Testimony says, “You must believe me, because you must believe me – this is the difference, essential to testimony, between belief and proof – you must believe me because I am irreplaceable” (Demeure, p. 40), and evidence, which according to Kim-Cohen “calls for an unfiltered objectivity; a certainty upon which we can all rationally agree. Austerlitz, in particular, of all of Sebald’s novels, seems to want to present evidence rather than testimony.” Sebald’s narratives are variously dependable as truth, but the images are consistently witnesses. The distinction made here between evidence and testimony is close to the way images “interrupt” nonfiction narratives, which I mentioned above, except that, in theory at least, these “distractions” are intended as such, and made into themes or objects of reflection. (Personally, I do not read Sebald for anything resembling truth: I read him as fiction, but that is another issue. I understand he wants some photographs to work as witnesses.)

An example of a book in which images work somehow against testimony and evidence, at least in my reading, is Jan Ramjerdi’s RE.LA.VIR (2000). This is a novel (as its subtitle declares), but it also testimony about a rape. The pages are full of sentence fragments, prompts and online artifacts (like >, —-, ❏❏, and lines like “ALT.RE.AL.E::EE:EPISTOL:://A.M.I./EE”), and the back cover copy says the story is told “through the narrative filter of an online hypertext program.” The text is relentlessly violent, pornographic, and obscene, a little like a combination of Kathy Acker’s Kathy Goes to Haiti and glitch art. But the photographs distributed through the book are almost all ethereal nude studies, in the manner of early 20th century classicizing photography from Stieglitz to Weston. The photographs are mostly set in a garden, and some even have classical columns. The effect, for me, is that the images help RE.LA.VIR to be what it says it is: a novel, rather than a traumatized confession ornamented with internet conventions. The pictures are anti-evidence, anti-testimonial.

These possibilities—images as anchors, proofs, distractions, evidence, and testimony—comprise the field I would explore in relation to writing like Sebald’s. Yet it is important to keep in mind that these are all global readings, in the sense that they have to do with the presence, in general, of photographs in a narrative. To think about the individual images, it is necessary to cross over into the consideration of the narrative as fiction, which is my next subject.



Ways Images Work in Fiction

1. Images can show us things the narrator sees. The most straightforward function of photographs, in particular, is to re-present to us things that the narrator is said to see. There are ramifying possibilities. The narrator can experience things immediately, as often in Sebald’s books, or the narrator can see them in films or books, as in Bonnefoy’s l’Arrière-pays, where the narrator looks at pictures of places he has never seen.

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2. Images can show us things the narrator has recently seen. This happens in Bruges-la-Morte when Hugues says he no longer needs to go out to see the places he’s seen Jane, and then we see a picture of such a place.

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All these categories are rich with variations. The example from l’Arrière-pays is also an example of this second category, because the narrator doesn’t say “I am looking at a travel magazine with a photograph of the Caucasus in it”: he implies he has seen such things in the past. The moment in which the author, Bonnefoy, goes and consults his travel magazine, and gives it to the photographer to be copied for the book, is outside the book’s narrative. Equally absent is any sense of how we are to imagine exactly what the narrator remembers of this photograph, if anything, when he writes about “their villages… often ruined,” without any further description.

3. Images can show us things the writer sees. Most of the pages in Anne Carson’s Nox are examples of this. Nox is presented as nonfiction, so the narrator is identified with the author, but even if it weren’t, the high-reoslution color scans of documents and photos would necessarily seem to be things the author had seen. This may be a property peculiar to images, because even attempts at immediacy like the images and graphics in Tristram Shandy are distanced by the act of typesetting and printing.

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Jesse Ball’s Census is another example of images as things seen by the author (as opposed to the narrator). Census opens with an untitled three-page preface, explaining how Ball’s brother had Down Syndrome, and how Ball had wanted to write about him, but decided to write a fictional narrative in which a father travels with his son, who has Down Syndrome. In that way, he says, he hoped to “allow others to see what such a boy is like, or can be like” (p. viii). The bulk of Census is that fiction. The book ends with another untitled section, this time just 14 pages of photographs with no captions. That section begins immediately after the novel concludes. By implication these are Ball’s own family photos.

A casual reader–by which I mean a partly disengaged reader, one willing to read quickly and for feeling rather than slowly and for structure–might find those photos simply moving. The untitled preface begins by saying the author’s brother died in 1998, and at the end of the novel, the boy’s father dies; given those deaths, and others in the novel, it might be enough to be reminded of the author’s own loss. But I think a more careful reading shows how problematic images can be when they are presented as things the author, rather than the narrator, has seen.

Midway through the novel, there is a section (pp. 112-120) where the narrator, the boy’s father, recounts some family photographs that his son had put up on his wall at home. The descriptions follow the photographs, more or less accurately, more or less in order. Some things in the photos are different from what’s described, but most are exactly the same. There are some indications Ball didn’t picture his readers turning back and forth and comparing descriptions with photos. Two of the photographs show three children, one with Down Syndrome, being pulled in a toy wagon (pp. 250-51). In the narrative, Ball’s narrator remarks “there is another boy who is in three [actually two] of the pictures. He lived across the way…” (p. 118). Here it seems Ball (not the narrator) has forgotten there are three children in the photos, perhaps, I thought, because he was himself one of the children, so in his mind only one more child needed to be accounted for. But I don’t think this is what happened: I think he was assuming–strangely, to my way of thinking–that readers would not be looking at the photographs while they read pp. 112-120. By implication he is also assuming that his narrative, the imagination that went into it, will overwrite the photos. But how can a reader not think of the author, and of his photos, when she reads these pages? Perhaps a reader won’t notice or study the photos until she has finished the novel, but regardless of when she looks at the photos, she will think of this passage, and at some point every attentive reader will compare these pages to the photos.

I can think of three ways of encountering these images: (1) the reader continues in the fiction, and doesn’t notice the photographs until she finishes the novel; (2) the reader remembers looking at the photos, but doesn’t compare them to what’s described in these pages; (3) the reader compares the photos to the ekphrases. On the face of it, these are different possibilites, but  they amount to analogous reading experiences in the end.

In my reading, it was a relief to come to the end of the pages describing photographs, because they were such a strong interruption in my reading. I was suddenly compelled to think of the author, rather than the fictional narrator. (I’m not objecting to metafiction here: I’m registering he fact that metafiction is not part of Bal’s novel except in these eight pages.) Each time I compared a photo to its description, I was in effect being asked to think about the author’s own imaginative process, and what he chose to alter. I was compelled to wonder what kind of reader he imagined–a reader, for example, who wouldn’t think about the photos until the end of the reading experience, who wouldn’t want to compare the photos to their descriptions. I think a careful reading has to show that Bal didn’t resolve the place or function of the images in Census as a whole.

Before I draw a conclusion from this, I want to mention anoyher example of the problems posed by photos presented as things the author has seen. Ball’s earlier book Silence Once Begun also has one section of images, also without words, but this time in the middle of the novel. When the reader comes to these pages she may assume at first they represent things the characters have seen, because the book is a mystery involving a trial, witnesses, and an inquiry. But the images are exactly what a non-Japanese tourist might photograph—indifferent scenes from a train, the backs of passengers’ heads, closed storefronts. For me, that section ends up being about Jesse Ball, the author, rather than the Jesse Ball who is identified as the narrator of the story. I imagine the author traveling around Japan, taking generic images that might work in his novel. I also imagine I am supposed to imagine the photographs are taken by the narrator, and that they are meant to express the narrator’s sense of loneliness and uncertainty;  but the narrator has lived in Japan for a long time and would have access to many more specific, telling images. These seem more like snapshots taken on a short visit. The effect is jarring and, I think, unintended.

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There are three other photographs in Silence Once Begun; one is a picture of a person who figures in the novel. It is part of the evidence the narrator is gathering. In this case, the picture is reproduced so small we can hardly see it, and it is apparently taken at an angle, carelessly, as if it had been hung on a wall. In the logic of the narrative there is no reason for that carelessness, because everything else in the story is so fastidiously presented (transcribed interviews, chronologies, even unpromising details). So the appearance of this one photograph so small on the page again takes me out of the fiction and reminds me of the author, who must be the one who decided we will not be able to see the woman clearly—as clearly as the narrator himself sees her, both in her picture and later in life. 

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In both Census and Silence once Begun, there is evidence Bal isn’t thinking about images. This is shown by a comment he made in an interview: “The photographic evidence.” he said, “is meant to strengthen and evoke not just the strangeness of seeing Japan, which is no stranger than any other place, but the general strangeness of seeing at all.” But the photographs in Silence once Begun are too much of the common 21st century aesthetic of indifference to express what he intends—they look too much like art student photographs. In a Brooklyn Rail interview he said that he wasn’t “there yet” with photography: “it could be that you need to have a faith in images, and I don’t have it.” If “faith” is read as “interest,” that accounts for the images in the book.

It is possible to mend the gap between fictional narratives images as things the author saw. In Census, for example, it would have been possible to add a first-person, nonfiction narrative to the closing section of images. Using the same voice with which he introduced his novel, Ball could have written some pages about the actual photographs, identifying some of the actual times and places. He could have written something about how he wrote pp. 112-20, and what he was thinking when he wrote those pages: what he wanted to salvage from the photographs, how he tried to write them into his fition, who he decided they needed to be reproduced even though they had already been presented in the fiction, what reality effect he hoped they might have, why he couldn’t initially bring himself to write anything about them, the extent to which they were private documents. Any of those or similar strategies might have built bridges between the fiction and its nonfictional frame, and would have helped heal the wound (“scab,” to use a metaphor from the novel) caused by the sudden intrusion, in the middle of the novel, of a very different kind of reading.

4. Images can show us things that are like what the narrator has seen. In Bruges-la-Morte, several of the city scenes are not described nor identified, and because the city is the image of his dead wife, those photographs may be taken as emblems or typical views of the city, like things Hugues has seen but not necessarily those exact things. In Breton’s Nadja, the scenes taken for Breton by Boiffard can be understood as resembling things the narrator and the author had seen.

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(Presumably neither Breton nor his narrated character André saw those exact people, and so the scene at the flea market is intended to be similar to the episode recounted in the book.) Pitts, who read a draft of this list, pointed out that photographs can also be understood as emblems of a time or an era. That would be a generalization of photographs as images of things the narrator has seen, and at its limit it would also include things like those the narrator has seen. This happens, for me, with the images of the remnants of Ottoman life in Pamuk’s Istanbul. Many of these photographs are like things Pamuk had seen as a child, but most were gone before he was born.

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I wonder if it might be interesting to distinguish these species of resemblance: an image that is very like something I have just seen, as opposed, perhaps, to an image that is fairly similar to a series of things that I have seen at various times in my life.

5. Images can show us things the narrator imagines. The narrator might imagine places she has never seen, or pictures she has never seen (this would include drawings, diagrams, anything at all). The collage of Nadja’s eyes in the 1963 edition of Nadja is an example.

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What is the best way to think about what this image is? As a photo-collage, it may be understood as an approximation, in the medium of fine art photography, of the way the character André experienced Nadja; or it may be taken as an attempt to create an artwork that expresses a feeling, but not an imagined image, of Nadja. The difference is whether or not we are asked to imagine that André could have seen such an image in his mind’s eye. More on this at the end.

Pitts suggested as an example example flip-book at the end of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which causes the falling man in the 9/11 photograph to float back upward, echoing the narrator’s wish that his father hadn’t died. Flipping those pages, a reader enacts the narrator’s desire, making it plausible that Foer intended the images as a picture—a moving picture—of something his narrator imagines.

There is an interesting ambiguity built into this: images may be presented as being imagined by characters, or they may be presented as representing what characters imagine. In the first case, as readers we would be invited to see mental images as the characters do; in the second case, we would be given completed pictures of things characters might experience differently. In the first case a character may think of an image in detail, and we’re invited to look at it along with her, even though it is in her mind’s eye; or a character may remember or picture something, and we are given a similar or typical image. The difference can be understood as a difference in the ontology of the image: in the first case, we are asked to think that the character experiences her life as pictures: a counter-intuitive notion, unless readers have eidetic memories.

6. Images can show us things the narrator dreams. I know only one example of this, aside from the ambiguous and inexplicit ones such as the dreamlike images in Breton’s l’Amour fou, Nadja, or Bruges-la-Morte, which can be understood as hallucinations, daydreams, fantasies, or other signs of states that mingle wakefulness and sleep. The example is in Rings of Saturn, where an image of a labyrinth is something the narrator dreams:

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It is interesting that this image doesn’t register as something entirely different than every other image in the book. It’s the only picture in the book that is not given to us as a picture of something in the world. It is followed by several unillustrated pages describing the narrator’s friend Michael Hamburger (the real-world author) describing, apparently truthfully, his memories. The fact that those 9 pages have no illustrations is also interesting, because if the narrator’s dream images can be illustrated, why not a character’s memories, which after all refer to real places? It seems that in Rings of Saturn, at least, the prohibition against illustrating things the narrator hasn’t seen is stronger than the rule that photographs should represent places and people in the world. And aside from all that, it’s curious that—at least for me—an image said to be taken from a dream is so easily accommodated in a book that is all about actual history—a book in which all other photographs are evidence. Surely that’s not just because of the cropping, which shows Sebald didn’t want us to see the details of the actual garden: it seems to be a property of the suspension of disbelief that I had never noticed before.

This anomaly, the single dream image, has not concerned commentators on Sebald so much as the image’s artifice. Lise Patt has traced the image to a tourist brochure of Somerleyton, and she demonstrates, in a photo-collage, how the image was cut from its page, laid on a Xerox machine with the cover up, and photocopied, producing a white ring around the image that ends up looking like a black paper mask:

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But this belongs to a separate subject, because it is easily possible to imagine a dream image in this place in the narrative that was not modified in this fashion—it would have been enough just to declare it a dream image. The fact that Sebald didn’t speaks to the way he was imagining dreaming at that moment.

7. Images can show us things the narrator is unaware of. Any narrative that has an omniscient narrator should be able to accommodate photographs and other images of places, people, and objects that the narrator herself does not know about, or isn’t thinking about. Such images would be a simple structural parallel to the device of the omniscient narrator, or to indirect or free indirect narration.

I do not know any examples of this, except, as a precedent, the literally thousands of illustrated novels, novelizations, and retellings of operas, plays, and other stories in the 19th century, as they are exhaustively catalogued in Paul Edwards’s Soleil noir. The difference between those examples and the ones I am studying is that the authors of the books that concern me chose the images as they wrote; the texts Edwards studies often had images added after the fact, as illustrations of the stories—hence the fact that the characters are generally unaware of the pictures that accompany the texts. This category would overlap with the next:

8. Images can represent the mental states of characters. This, too, may be thought of as a logical extension of any narration that is intended to describe characters’ mental states. If a space exists for a narrative voice that can describe such states, then images should also be able to do so. (Needless to say images in the first few categories also go to the characters’ mental states; but I am thinking here of images the characters themselves do not see, remember, or experience.) Terry Pitts’s suggestion for this category is the film stills in Pierre Guyotat’s Coma, a book I did not find persuasive. Pitts proposes that because the stills “have nothing whatsoever to do with the direct narrative,” they might “be said to set a mood or represent some parallel to the text.” I think that is likely, but given the permissions and freedoms the author grants himself—it seems almost any visual material might have worked as well.

9. Images can represent the structure of the text. This happens with the two illustrations in Roubaud’s Great Fire of London, which are both images possessed by the narrator, but they quickly become available in the text as extended metaphors for the ways time and memory have been experienced by the narrator.


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This photo, for example, is a blurred time exposure, taken at night, by the narrator’s wife; it comes to stand for her death and his insufficient memory of her. There is an important precedent for images that structure a text: frontispieces, which functioned as emblems and summaries of a book’s contents. There is a large literature on frontispieces, which could be brought to bear on this more recent history.

10. Images can break up the relentless drive of literary narrative. This radical position is Tan Lin’s; as he says in an interview, “eliminating images (or their mildly correspondent blank spaces with a text) would make reading more straightforward and linear, and for me, unrelenting.” I can’t think of any other examples of this aesthetic, although it is consistent with recent conceptual writing in general. It’s here just for completeness, and because of its fundamental place in the dynamic relation of words and images: the idea that images interrupt reading in some way is inherent to everything on this page, and in this project, and it can be traced to accounts like Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Discourse, Figure. At the moment, however, it seems to me that the use of images specifically to break up the normative flow of writing is rare, and may not necessarily be best thought of as an example of the much more foundational condition of writing and images.

11. Images can work against the veracity of the text. I suppose this entry really should balance the remarks under heading C, “How Images Work in Writing that is Ambiguously Fiction and Nonfiction,” because there images always have some function in relation to the real world. But it’s also possible, in fiction, that even photographs can produce an anti-realist effect. In Daniel Alarcón’s story “The Anodyne Dreams of Various Imbeciles,” the same photo is reproduced over and over, captioned as if it represented different people. The effect is to insist that the story is fiction, and to undermine whatever suspension of disbelief a reader might have mustered.


Beyond the Preeminence of the Text

The preceding ideas are all from the point of view of images, as it were, asking what images can contribute to narratives that are imagined as already in place, or as following historically delineated forms. And yet each one of them leaves the text preeminent. Even when an image is an “intelligent theory,” it is likely–as it is in Steinberg’s book–to be subservient to the text.

The most interesting texts are dialogic, by which I mean narrative and images that not only avoid the one-way flow of meaning characteristic of nonfiction texts with images, such as the ones at the beginning of this chapter, but also engage in a dialogue with one another, so that each is intermittently or consistently posed or personified as writing or text, each with its own interests and capacities for answering, overwriting, interrupting, and otherwise altering the other. Here are two examples of more dialectic exchanges, from the text’s point of view.

1. Ekphrases can balance images. The initial image of a hospital window in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn is matched, on the opposite page, by an ekphrasis describing what the narrator saw when he dragged himself to the window and looked out. That description takes about as much space as the photograph, and faces the image like a complement or discursive caption. This balances the reader’s attention, announcing—at the beginning of the book—that readers might pay equal attention to images and text. (Two more ekphrases follow before the appearance of the next photograph, which must also raise the question, in a reader’s mind, about a possible imbalance of words and images, an inadequacy of images, or an agon between what is visible and what can be put in words.) By the same logic:

2. Images can balance ekphrases. If a text has an extensive ekphrasis, and the image doesn’t correspond to it, then the image corrects or answers what’s in the text. It is possible–but very rare–that the image can then lead the reader’s imagination instead of the text.

3. Narratives can change images. In nonfiction it isn’t the business of the art historian or theorist to write about things that aren’t in the images, to remake the images, or otherwise to contradict what they reveal or represent. But in fiction things are different, and narrative has the capacity to overwrite images. Sebald does this in Rings of Saturn, for example where the narrator returns to the book’s opening image of an empty window, and says what he saw in it later: “I saw a vapor trail cross the segment [of sky] framed by the window” (p. 18 in the English edition). This is a striking strategy, because it puts a vapor trail in the reader’s imagination—in the reader’s memory of that image. It modifies the image without asking the reader to look at the image again, and so it declares, in effect, that the reader may hold the book’s images in her imagination, and expect the narrative to sometimes redraw them. By the same logic:

4. Images can change narratives. This, too, could lead to texts in which the images guide the reader’s imagination, and not the texts. But as in point 2, it is extremely rare. Both points 2 and 4 would require the text to have a quantity and quality of detailed references to the images, in order to compel readers to pay close attention, and not to skim or glance as we tend to do even with some of Sebald’s images. (Or with Tan Lin’s, for different reasons.)

There is a world of possibilities for writing with images in which the images lead: but it is, so far, almost entirely unexplored.

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