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  • The Unspeakable and the Unimaginable:Word and Image in a Time of Terror
  • W. J. T. Mitchell

My teacher at Johns Hopkins, Ronald Paulson, exposed the depths of the so-called "word and image" problem when he drew a fundamental distinction, located in eighteenth-century aesthetics and semiotics, between the "emblematic" image and the "expressive." The emblematic was the image as word, as linked to, determined by, readable in words. The expressive was the obverse—the unreadable, the mute, the indexical—a "regression into primitivism prior to language, or a leap forward to the ineffable beyond language."1 This distinction then was discovered to inform the spaces of the eighteenth-century English garden, in its development from "poetic" and allegorical garden spaces to the wilder, more open and detextualized spaces of the landscape garden and the picturesque.

Paulson's lesson still resonates with me, partly because it reminds us of the fundamentally dialectical character of the word/image problem, the way in which each term simultaneously contrasts itself with and incorporates its partner. The word/image problem is "inside" the problem of the image, and vice versa. I think Derrida would call this an "invagination" in discourse, one that is built into ordinary language. The word as image, image as word; the word as a limit for the image, and vice versa. We see this limiting character most clearly when we note the way "words fail" to capture the density of signification in the image, or conversely we find ourselves unable or forbidden to make an image of that which we can nevertheless mention or name—God, the infinite, absolute chaos or the void.2 We see the invagination of word and image when the allegorical or emblematic image dictates a determinate verbal signified, or (perhaps even more dramatically) when the verbal sign itself, as diagrammed by Saussure, reveals the auditory signifier as the bearer of its obverse, a pictorially rendered signified that is embedded within the structure of the verbal sign as a concept or mental image.3

The dialectical character of the word/image relation may be seen most clearly, however, when we note that this difference, or differance/differend, is actually a compound of at least two (perhaps more) [End Page 291] differences, one articulated at the level of signs and symbols, the other at the level of sensory perception and production. That is, "word and image" names two fields of relationship that intersect one another in logical space: 1) semiotic relations such as Peirce's symbol/icon (signs by convention and by resemblance, with the indexical sign by cause and effect forming a third space), and 2) sensory relations between the auditory and the visible. We see the interlacing of these two fields of difference in a common expression such as "verbal and visual media," in which the verbal denotes a certain kind of sign (the linguistic) and the visual indicates a kind of sensory channel. Signs and senses are interarticulated in the relation of words and images, and part of our work as analysts is to remain aware of these distinctions even as we observe the weaving of their distinct strands in the fabric of representation. We could go on, of course, to elaborate these distinctions in terms of other categories—Lessing's modalities of time and space, the structural and systemic distinctions Nelson Goodman drew between digital and analogical codes, the archaeological "strata" that Foucault called "the sayable and the seeable," or the Freudian drives that Lacan dubbed the "vocative" and "scopic"—the desire that animates the speaking/hearing circuit on the one hand, and the optical/tactile construction of the visual field on the other.4

But in this essay I want to explore a limit approached by both sides of the dialectic, namely the frontiers of the unimaginable and the unspeakable, the place where words and images fail, where they are refused, prohibited as obscenities that violate a law of silence and invisibility, muteness and blindness. And I want to take this up in order to bring the ancient topos of word and image to bear on the contemporary issue of terrorism, and the role of words and images in the so...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 291-308
Launched on MUSE
2005-06-21
Open Access
No
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