The idea of writing with images

There is no history of the sorts of writing that include images, either in the broadest sense, which would include medieval illustrated manuscripts, or in the narrower sense I am studying here, which includes only fiction.

It would be possible to begin a European history of writing that includes images—what I call “writing with images”—with Greek manuscripts, such as Euclid’s or Archimedes’s, because they originally had illustrations. Or one could begin in the middle ages, with illuminations and marginalia. Or in the Renaissance, with the Hypnerotomachia poliphili or its later French analogues such as the Horus Apollon (c. 1544). Or in the later Renaissance with German mystical and alchemical texts such as van Franckenberg or Heinrich Kuhnrath. (What Painting Is has some things along those lines; for the French work see Tom Conley’s writing, and the Bibliography of 16th Century French Books, 1964.)

A history of writing with images could also begin with ideographic writing in the 17th and 18th centuries from Athanasius Kircher onward, as studied by Barbara Stafford; or with the diagrammatic impulse as it manifested itself in the Encyclopédie. (For that see John Bender and Michael Marrinan’s Culture of Diagram.) Or it might begin with non-Western traditions. The Chinese, Japanese, and Korean traditions each has several traditions of writing with included images (my own favorites are the 800-volume Taoist canon, which has diagrams and other images, and Zheng Qiao, as studied by Si Han in the book A Word About Image). There is also Mayan writing, with its own pictoriality; and many others from Egyptian hieroglyphs to the prehistoric Vinca “script.” (Some are in On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them; others are discussed in The Domain of Images.)

Closer to contemporary writing, it would be possible to begin a history of writing with images in the 19th century, with novels printed with images, even though those images were not usually chosen by the authors or planned in the writing. There is a wonderful and encyclopedic work on that subject, Paul Edwards’s Soleil noir: photographie et littérature des origines au surréalisme. I’ve chosen to start at the very end of that history, with Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-morte, because it is the first fiction imagined and planned from the outset to have images.

Even this relatively recent starting point is problematic, because the history is not continuous after Rodenbach. Instead writing with images follows a number of different independent lineages. W.G. Sebald, for example, was not influenced principally by Breton in his use of illustrations, as is sometimes assumed. Breton, in turn, may never have seen the illustrated version of Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-morte. Because there is no one history of novels and other fiction that include images, there are many partial histories, and each novel that has images has to be considered individually to see which sources its author might have known. I will discuss these sorts of problems in the close readings, rather than in a separate chapter, because the history is so discontinuous that it hardly makes sense to treat it as a separate subject.

A bibliographic survey of my subject has been assembled by Terry Pitts. He keeps two lists: one on LibraryThing, and another on his Vertigo blog. There are also a few books theorizing writing with images: Renee Riese Hubert’s Surrealism and the Book (University of California Press, 1988); Ofra Amihay and Lauren Walsh’s The Future of Image and Text (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2012); and a short section in Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction, on the subject of illustrated fiction (which McHale calls “anti-illustration”). (Thanks to Terry Pitts for pointing me to all three of these.) But none of them approximate a general survey.

Pitts calls the subject of this project “embedded images,” but I don’t find that especially felicitous, with its overtones of war correspondents and sexual misbehavior. “Captionless images” might be better, but that’s just a general guide, with many exceptions, and it doesn’t include the practice of call-outs.  (A “call-out” is a parenhetical interpolation in a text, like this: “See Fig. 42.” Call-outs are the calling card of academic nonfiction, and they have been used in fiction for special purposes.) I like “included images,” even though it’s not very expressive, but I prefer “writing with images,” because it is simple and indicates the someimes conversational, give-and-take relation that can happen between images and texts.

My sense of this subject is that “writing with images” as I am studying it is conceptually sufficiently stable, but historically fragmented and multiple. Hence this project is not a history, but a conceptualization.

It is possible to narrow the field further. A fairly high percentage of books on Pitts’s lists do not concern me here, because they use images as illustrations or ornaments, or because they use images without much care for how they work with the text. Reading for this project, I’ve found many authors who use images, from Jonathan Safran Foer to Arno Schmidt, do so tentatively or carelessly. I mention some of them in this project, but as a general rule, if a book reviewer can ignore the images in a novel, then the book may not be “writing with images” in any interesting sense.

My proposal in this project is that there is a lot to be said about how images and texts work together, and from a writer’s point of view there are more and less interesting things to be done with images. The chapter “An Attempt at Theory” describes several sorts of uses of images I think of as uninteresting; they include the usual forms of writing in the humanities, in which images are examples, illustrations, mnemonics, or ornaments. I’ve developed some ideas about less interesting uses of images on another page.

Some practical, and mainly indefensible, exclusions

My main subject, then, is fictional or experimental narratives from Rodenbach onwards, written in continuous prose, with interposed images planned or made by the author, used in such a way that they are integral to the meaning of the text, and not dispensible ornaments. That may sound restrictive, but it includes Sebald, Breton, and an increasing number of contemporary writers. I am mainly excluding books with any of the following three features:

1. Call-outs. It matters, in this project, that images not have “call outs”: nothing should interrupt the text with a scholarly parenthesis. This isn’t a strict rule. A call-out can be as harmless as any parenthetical reminder (given that parentheses are always a bit annoying by nature), but it can also be as insistently intrusive as the so-called MLA Citation Style (Smith 2004: 129-34) which creates a nearly unreadable bump in the narrative (Oates 1972, Rushdie 1987, Szigmond-Hallavy 2012b). An author who is alert to what is happening with images may want to use call-outs, but an author alert both to their images and their writing will be likely to feel a little pinprick at the insertion of each call-out (Lotringer 1982), each interruption (see fig. 13), every small gesture in the direction of academic authority (LaCapra 1996, Derrida 1982a, Agamben 2011). Writers attentive to the pull of images and the power of the text have generally wanted to avoid call-outs. The exceptions are mainly in traditions of experimental fiction influenced by Oulipo.

2. Captions. Another habit of scholarly writing that I would like to avoid is the caption. Under what circumstances do images need captions? In science, images often require technical explanations; and in long textbooks, images need to be labeled for cross-references. Sometimes agencies that hold copyright require that they are acknowledged on the same page as the illustrations they license. But even in art history, captions can be mainly a convention. My office bookshelves are full of art history books that did not really require captions. Scholarly books in art history usually have either a List of Plates in the front matter, or a List of Photo Credits in the back matter, and either one would be enough to help readers locate images without captions under each image. Like call-outs, captions are an academic habit. There are a few fiction titles that have illustrations with captions, and as in the case of call-outs, the writer’s purpose is usually to recall academic writing. Most examples I am interested in here do not have captions.

3. Books that don’t ask to be read through. I’ll also be avoiding most books with minimal narrative, or narrative that can be indifferently rad or skipped, or read in any direction, because I am interested in what happens when fiction, in its fullest sense–such as a novel–makes use of images.

Many artist’s books have minimal continuous narrative, creating a reading experience different in kind from the narratives that concern me. An example is Ellie Ga’s Classification of a Spit Stain, which is full of faux-scientific spreadsheets and diagrams of stains. It can almost be read from first page to last, and I have read it that way.

But its readability, in that sense, is dependent on the fact that it’s a short book, and there are only nine narrative passages.

There are pages with unreadable palimpsests, which are signals to the reader that it isn’t necessary to try to read everything.

Longer artist’s books that ask to be read through, or hint that someone with patience and time might read through them, are rare. In theory I might read a book like Ga’s through from beginning to end, even if its prose was strongly discontinuous, if the text signaled that was possible or expected. Leaving aside images for a moment, there is Infinite Jest (the entire audiobook takes 38 hours); I have read that, including every footnote; and I’ve read every one of the 1,200 pages of notes in Nabokov’s edition of Eugene Onegin, but not every note in Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary, because the former is a set of notes linked to a narrative poem, and the latter is a “dictionary” (really, an encyclopedia).

Classification of a Spit Stain is a beautiful book because Ugly Duckling Presse, the publisher, gave it a  low-tech, low contrast, Xeroxed look. I like the book, but imagine how much more challenging it would be if it had a denser, more connected narrative, so that I would be asked to study the stains, learn them like the author seems to have done, memorize their shapes, follow along, discriminate, classify. Each time I am given permission to thumb at random through a book, reading becomes more a matter of the physical nature of the book itself: in this case the book is about  the poignance of the overlooked, the poetry of the everyday, the slight surrealism of the despised and forgotten, the absurdity of taxonomy, the foibles of natural history, the failure of systems, the hopelessness of understanding the world by studying it—and also the inadvisability or absurdity of actually reading a book about spit stains cover to cover. All these meanings work by signifying as a whole: Classification of a Spit Stain gives me one single accumulating impression. Its themes and ideas do not grow on me page by page, they don’t gain intensity as I read, they don’t compel sequential attention. Ga’s book could be 30 pages long or 3,000. It could have one spreadsheet or dozens, a single labeled image or hundreds. It does not have a necessary form. A narrative that asks to be read, with individually placed images, is for me a condition for the most conceptually challenging engagements between writing and images.

Those are some of this project’s many exclusions. None are meant dogmatically: they are just to keep the subject manageable, and to help focus on the central conceptual problems. In Chapter 2, I continue to define the project, but I will end here with a note on contemporary novels in general.

The notion that writing with images might be a way forward for literary fiction

This project is personally motivated: I am trying to discover a territory in which I might write. I hope these pages can be helpful to scholars and readers, but they are in the end practical aids for my own project, which is a novel with images in it.

I would like to think that in this supposedly preeminently visual culture, in what art historians sometimes  call the “post-medium condition,” it is crucial to think about how images and text work together, and that in itself might be a way forward for the novel. Writing with Images is ultimately a subject that is intended for use in contemporary writing.

2 thoughts on “The idea of writing with images

  1. Hi!

    I haven’t finish going through all the pages, I don’t know if it helps, but have you read Photographie et langage by Daniel Grojnowski? It’s in french btw. And also Lire et voir series (ed. Daniele Meaux) – I only had acces to vol.1 – Livres de photographies et de mots. Also a more particular work, La Mort et les Statues by Jean Cocteau and Pierre Jahan, I recommend to check it out, since the text was written after photos and the latter are not a mere illustration of the text, neither do they directly describe the photos (there was also an article written about it by Kathryn Brown).

    Good luck with the project!

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