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  • Image
  • Juliet S. Sperling

copying, engraving, flap book, harlequinade, illustration, image, immateriality, picture, manuscript, materiality, metamorphic image, metamorphosis, moveable books, Oliver Wendell Holmes, visual culture

Picture a world in which matter molts like a snake, perpetually sloughing off replicas from an infinite number of surfaces. Hollow, atom-thin skins of people, things, and animals fill the air, imperceptibly filmy and small. When these ghostly floating membranes collide with an open-eyed viewer’s receptive retina, an image is born.

Or so proposed the ancient philosopher Lucretius in the first century BCE, which the Bostonian Oliver Wendell Holmes recalled in an 1859 essay about a popular new image technology, the stereograph.1 Although so-called emission theory had long since been debunked, imagining images as the transportable copies of objects was an attractive framework with which to process the rapidly transforming visual landscape of the nineteenth century. Photography, lithography, wood engraving, and countless other picture-making innovations had opened the observable world to reproduction on a scale hardly imaginable before. Putting to words an idea that had begun crystallizing in American visual culture more than half a century earlier, Holmes rhapsodized about the detachment of representations from their annoyingly dense things: “There is only one Coliseum or Pantheon; but how many millions of potential negatives have they shed,—representatives of billions of pictures,—since they were erected! Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable. We have got the fruit of creation now, and need not trouble ourselves with the core. Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us.”2 Mobility was key: for Holmes and his nineteenth-century [End Page 683] peers, images were visual ideas that could replicate, regenerate, and slide across media, immaterial in their very potential for exchange.


From Lucretius to Holmes and beyond, there is no shortage of writing on the many concepts assembled beneath the banner of image, nearly all prefaced with the same caveat: summarizing a term that sits at the busy intersection of art history, literature, aesthetics, cinema and media studies, philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, and religious studies would be an impossible endeavor.3 I will contain my investigation to the subject of images as visual representations on a surface in order to ultimately consider the more granular problem of images in early American material texts.

Definitions of the visual image span several subcategories, three of which are most relevant here: images as likenesses, or representations of a physical thing on a material support; images as mental conceptions, cognitive conjurations based in both reality and fantasy; and images as venerated icons, elusively poised in between solid and imagined states. Foundational art-historical theories of the image have interwoven all three concepts. Take, for instance, Irwin Panofsky’s attempts to systematize the study of likeness under the banner of iconology, Ernst Gombrich’s emphasis on the subconscious schemata that govern perception, and W. J. T Mitchell’s proposition of images as a language that requires fluency.4 Hans Belting’s influential concept of the image insists that images do not simply exist in a static physical form but rather happen in the space between the viewer’s body and the material support of an artwork or object.5 Ultimately, recent theories position the image as an occurrence, a performance, and, above all, a synthesizing process that takes place in the space between objects and bodies. [End Page 684] Neither fully physical nor conceptual, images are immaterial instantiations of ideas not conveyable by language alone.

But the goal of this essay is to ask how image operates as a keyword for the field of early American material texts, a scholarly community for whom print conjures visions of type and editions before copperplates and burins. When the visual aspects of texts are considered at all, it is most often through the lens of word-image relationships, a line of inquiry from which fruitful theoretical and technical studies of page layout, format, and technologies of reproduction have emerged.6 A secondary thread has fixated on technologies of picture production, from transfer methods such as pouncing and electrotyping...


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pp. 683-690
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