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The emblematic way of seeing

and its post-modern reception

György E. Szönyi

T he history of iconography and iconol-

ogy shows close parallels to the changes
in semiotics, literary and cultural theory from
scholars often used emblem books as visual dic-
tionaries of the age in order to decipher hidden
meanings of works of art.
essentialism through historicism and structur- Not that Panofsky, the founder of iconog-
alism to pragmatics-oriented reader-response raphy, wanted it exactly this way. He himself
criticism, hermeneutics, New Historicism and warned against the uncritical reliance on ico-
other post-structuralist trends. nography, and pointed out the rather limited
Let us remember how Panofsky defined use of this descriptive method: “Iconography is,
iconography: therefore, a description and classification of im-
ages much as ethnography is a description and
“Iconographical analysis, dealing with classification of human races: it is a limited and,
images, stories and allegories instead as it were, ancillary study which informs us as to
of with motifs, presupposes, of course, when and where specific themes were visualized
much more than that familiarity with by which specific motifs”.2
objects and events which we acquire By now we clearly see that the rise of re-
by practical experience. It presupposes visionist, poststructuralist iconology was first
a familiarity with specific themes or triggered by the realization of the dangers of
concepts as transmitted through literary the dictionary analogy we have mentioned. This
sources, whether acquired by purposeful was in fact first voiced by traditional intellectual
reading or by oral tradition.”1 historians, who were not particularly interested
in poststructuralist argumentation. Peter Daly,
This would suggest that iconographically who earlier had associated himself with the
determined imagery (for example the very con- ‘essentialist’ camp, in 1993 called attention to
ventional emblems) appeals to a knowledge that the risks that can follow from adapting oneself
is shared by the whole (interpreting) commu- to the dictionary analogy. Such a book, if used
nity. And indeed, until recently scholars dealing without enough competence, can easily lead to
with iconographical/iconological interpretation misunderstandings and misinterpretations; one
looked at this lore rooted in the Classical and only needs to think of the traps laid by syno-
Judeo-Christian traditions as something very nyms and homonyms.3
stable, conservative, almost archetypal among This danger, of course, characterizes not
cultural representations. Led by this conviction, only languages but all other sign systems, in-


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cluding iconographical symbols. Any semiotic This very modern sounding thesis is actually
system can generate ambiguous meanings in a direct descendant of Ernst Gombrich’s opin-
two different ways: 1/ the code – as fixed by ion from 1948: “Our attitude towards the image
tradition/convention – is itself equivocal; 2/ am- is inextricably bound up with our whole idea
bivalence is generated during reception, i.e. via about the universe”6 and “Our attitude towards
the hermeneutical process. As for the former, in words and images we use continually varies. It
European cultural history we encounter a very differs according to the level of consciousness.
old and very strong tradition of using the same What is rejected by wide-awake reason may still
symbolic images in diametrically opposed sens- be accepted by our emotions. [...] In the history
es: “in bonam partem” and “in malam partem”.4 of European thought this duality of attitudes is
As for the latter, to recognize this process we somehow reflected in the continuous co-exist-
need to empathize with some of the dilemmas ence of Neo-Platonic mysticism and Aristote-
raised by post-structuralism. Perhaps the most lian intellectualism”.7
important point is that if the meaning is gener- These views by now are fully accepted in
ated during the reception process between the traditional emblem research, too, or perhaps
text and the audience, then the horizon of ex- we should say, by now emblem research has also
pectation, as defined by Hans Robert Jauss, will undergone a theoretical reorientation as we
change from reader to reader, from community can see in the works of John Manning, Daniel
to community, thus finally resulting in countless Russell and others. As these authors emphasize:
variants of possible correct meanings. perception as a physical-biological process has to
This phenomenon has been clearly described be distinguished from seeing, as a socially condi-
by Daly, as follows: tioned cognitive act.
Catalyzed by post-structuralism (perhaps
“Emblem books may be regarded as primarily by deconstruction), this process of
dictionaries which document meaning ‘mild revisionism’ has also produced rather sur-
and use. They are not, however, infallible prising, extreme opinions. According to these
decoders of the meanings of motifs in views, meanings are limitless, semiosis is un-
various contexts because emblematic and limited. For example by the mid-1990s Stephen
iconographic codes do not convey single Orgel came to the conclusion that emblems,
signations, but potentially pluri-signa- which earlier had been considered to have very
tions. The idea that emblems are based stable meaning, are in fact the most fluid, most
on a one-to-one relationship of thing to ephemeral texts:
meaning, or image to meaning, is an over-
simplification. As repositories of the ver- “Even within individual handbooks, the
bal and visual culture of an earlier period breadth of interpretive possibility often
emblems can be an indispensable guide. seems both endless, and, for modern read-
But like dictionaries they can be used or ers looking for a key to Renaissance sym-
abused. Seeing is believing, but what we bolism, distressingly arbitrary. Renaissance
see is in a sense a function of what we be- iconographies and mythographies are
lieve, or what we know. What we see also in this respect the most post-modern of
depends in some measure on what we are texts, in which no meaning is conceived to
looking for, and capable of finding.”5 be inherent, all signification is constructed


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1. A Pelican, from Wolfgangus Frantius (transl. by Gáspár Miskolczi), Egy jeles Vad-Kert, Avagy az oktalan
állatoknak [...] Historiaja (Lötsén 1702)

or applied; the fluidity and ambivalence of Orgel mobilizes a quite magnificent appara-
the image are of the essence.”8 tus to prove his truth. He presents numerous ex-
amples from Shakespeare to illustrate when the
The heart of the problem is that we do not dramatist actually subverts the traditional mean-
(and cannot) know how to read a Renaissance ings of symbolic images, and, what is more, when
picture: such complex ambiguities are developed in his
text that they generate an infinite and unstoppa-
“How do we know how to read a Ren- ble oscillation between alternatives of meaning.
aissance image? In the simplest cases, His most galvanizing argument is the exegesis of
we have Renaissance guides to interpre- the pelican image. As we know, in Christian ty-
tation, in the form of iconologies and pology this bird is the symbol of Christ’s self-sac-
handbooks of symbolism. Yet such cases rifice, based on the pre-modern scientific notion
immediately become less simple when we that the pelican mother feeds her children with
observe that reading imagery through her own blood (see [fig. 1], a traditional pelican
them depends on reading texts, and image from a Hungarian publication of 1702).
therefore shares in all the interpretive According to Orgel, this symbolic image
ambiguity of that process: the readings of carries more than one ambiguity. To begin with,
texts is a dialectical, and sometimes even the mother-bird stands for the male Christ.
an adversarial, procedure. Interpretation The Saviour thus changes gender, the kingly
depends, moreover, on what texts we se- male giving way to the nurturing founder of
lect as relevant, and even on what we are the Catholic Church. Furthermore, a really un-
willing to treat as text.”9 nerving tension can be generated by consider-


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ing the whole context of the image. The little fact should be no impediment to such an under-
pelicans, accepting the blood of their mother, standing.12
thus commit cannibalistic matricide. This is the Let us try once again to formulate the pur-
case of interpretation when “overstanding”10 (as poses of iconography and iconology, taking into
opposed to understanding) leads to such new consideration the classical definitions of Pan-
and exciting readings which do not seek what ofsky as well as the recent, post-structuralist
is said (or shown by the image), but rather what concerns. An ‘iconographical program’ means
is concealed. that ideas or stories are represented by means
Such an approach to texts and images, of of visual or verbal images and the basis of their
course, has not been the privilege of modern understanding will be a body of knowledge, con-
critics. The moral of Orgel’s argument is that ventionally shared by the interpretive commu-
any member of an interpretive community at nity. This is the cultural code. For the ‘classics’
any time could subvert the traditions and sym- of iconology, such as Panofsky or Gombrich,
bols of his/her own community, and in fact great the point of interpretation was a correct, or at
artists have always done so. least ‘a less wrong’ reading, that is acquiring the
In Richard II the old John of Gaunt turns to code and using it for the sake of meaning.
his cousin, the young king, with the following Post-structuralist iconology seems to step
bitter remark: beyond this program, and the new aims are best
represented by W. J. T. Mitchell. For him iconol-
“O, spare me not, my brother Edward’s son; ogy should not be interested in the reception, the
That blood already, like the pelican, generation of meaning only, but rather in an even
Hast thou tapped out and drunkenly ca- more pragmatic way it should concentrate on the
roused.” (2.1.124–7) intellectual and emotional reactions triggered by
those meanings, which form power relations and
The quotation shows that Shakespeare did a general politics of using words and images.
accomplish the subversive step and used the im- Mitchell suggests the following coordinates in
age of the self-sacrificing pelican to refer to the mapping and evaluating the politics of images:
cannibalistic cruelty of the young generation. iconophobia, iconophilia / fetishism, iconoclasm, and
Orgel dryly comments: “The only way to have idolatry. His two groundbreaking books, Iconol-
the topos to have it both ways”.11 ogy (1986) and Picture Theory (1994) are devoted
It seems that one has to find the radical and to this program, thus creating the conceptual
subversive meaning only once; then it continues framework of post-structuralist iconology.
its life as if by itself. Shakespeare also ‘recycled’ As for the politics of images, Mitchell’s ini-
the image of the cannibalistic young pelicans in tial thesis is that in European culture words and
King Lear, but he also managed to give a new images have always been opposed to each other.
twist to it. Lear speaks about his “pelican Western thought has basically been ‘logocen-
daughters” (3.4.77), and the power of the image tric’, and has tried to distinguish between words
is that the matricide here becomes the symbol and images by asserting a fundamental differ-
of even more general filial ingratitude. Although ence, always emphasizing the superiority of the
– as Orgel admits – there is no Renaissance dic- former. In such a context comparisons between
tionary of symbols that would allow this radical the two media or their identification have al-
reading, it seems to be right to claim that this ways been considered subversive, as one can


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see from the various debates relating to the ‘ut in the surface of consciousness. It was
pictura poesis’ principle, or the question of ek- this subversive image that Wittgenstein
phrasis. These deliberations considered images sought to expel from language, which
as the centre of some particular (and dangerous) the behaviourists sought to purge from
power that has to be curbed, controlled, and at psychology, and which contemporary art-
the same time exploited.13 According to this theorists have sought to cast out of pic-
situation, European philosophers, aestheticians torial representation itself. The modern
and theorists of art and literature have always pictorial image, like the ancient notion
felt compelled to take side in these debates and of «likeness», is at least revealed to be
become iconophiles or iconophobes. Positions linguistic in its inner workings.”15
in these debates have also meant power-rela-
tions wrapped in value-judgements.14 Mitchell Why is it, Mitchell asks, that the relationship
sees the more or less hidden agenda of this between words and images is experienced so in-
strife as follows: tensely and politicized by theorists and artists
alike? Each chapter of his second book, Picture
“The dialectic of word and image seems Theory, examines one aspect of this conflict, re-
to be constant in the fabric of signs that search into which he divides into the following
a culture weaves around itself. What var- areas: 1/ the study of those esthetical and critical
ies is the precise nature of the weave, the systems that have been trying to maintain the
relation of warp and woof. The history of demarcation line between the branches of art,
culture is in part the story of a protracted especially between verbal and visual expression;
struggle for dominance between picto- 2/ the study of those artistic practices that, in
rial and linguistic signs, each claiming spite of the above theoretical efforts, subverted
for itself certain proprietary rights on and transgressed the artificially created barriers
a “nature” to which only it has access. between space and time, eye and ear, natural
At some moments this struggle seems to and conventional, iconic and symbolic (with
settle into a relationship of free exchange a special reference to Gesamtkunstwerke, such
along open borders; at other times (as in as emblems, cartoons, theatre, film, and televi-
Lessing’s Laocoon) the borders are closed sion); and finally 3/ the study of pragmatics, that
and a separate peace is declared. Among is the use of images as opposed to the study of
the most interesting and complex ver- meaning or theory of images. He summarizes
sions of this struggle is what might be his polemical program as follows:
called the relationship of subversion, in
which language or imagery looks into “One claim of Picture Theory is that
its own heart and finds lurking there its the interaction of pictures and texts
opposite number. One version of this is constitutive of representation as
relation has haunted the philosophy of such: all media are mixed media,
language since the rise of empiricism, the and all representations are hetero-
suspicion that beneath words, beneath geneous; there are no “purely” visual
ideas, the ultimate reference in the mind or verbal arts, though the impulse
is the image, the impression of outward to purify media is one of the central
experience printed, painted, or reflected utopian gestures of modernism.”16


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Relying on revisionist theory as well as on that even in the future. Such a synthesis is not
his own practical observations, Mitchell asserts actually needed, as the study of images has been
that the differences between images and lan- and remains more a methodology and a special
guage are not merely formal matters, but they area of investigation than an independent criti-
are linked to fundamental ideological divisions. cal theory having its own philosophy.
In practice, “they are linked to things like the As we have seen, various approaches such as
difference between the (speaking) self and the source-studies, history of ideas, art history, aes-
(seen) other; between telling and showing; be- thetics, literary interpretation, post-structural-
tween ‘hearsay’ and ‘eyewitness’ testimony; be- ist cultural theory and many more can profit
tween words (heard, quoted, inscribed) and ob- from iconological considerations, but they will
jects or actions (seen, depicted, described),” etc. interpret the results according to their specific
He borrows Michel de Certeau’s terminology to convictions and assumptions. One thing is cer-
describe these differences: “a heterology of rep- tain: the complex study of early modern culture
resentation.”17 Mitchell’s post-modern concerns, will not live without this methodology, no mat-
of course, are not limited to the examination of ter in what conceptual frame it will utilize the
modern art and the problems of modernism. He results and elaborate on them. Future studies in
tries to embrace the whole history of iconopho- ‘emblematics’ certainly should not end in the
bia, iconoclasm and iconophilia, reaching back deconstruction of the artistic texts or images,
to the ancient practice of ekphrasis, the Renais- nor in the naive effort to reconstruct the au-
sance emblems, or the ‘multimedial program’ of thors’ intention, but rather in a construction of
(pre)Romanticism, as we know from his excel- created worlds, artistic universes, for ourselves,
lent studies of Blake’s composite art.18 interpretive communities. The mechanism of
such a construction may very well be similar to
Thinking over once again the issues and ap- the procedure Shakespeare suggests in the case
proaches I have reviewed in this essay, we can of Richard II:
conclude that iconography and iconology are
going to find their place even among the most “King Richard: My brain I’ll prove the
radical critical trends which deliberately try to female to my soul,
emphasize their detachment from the history of My soul the father, and those two beget
ideas as well as from traditional semiotics. The A generation of still-breeding thoughts;
variety of opinions concerning early modern And these same thoughts people this lit-
‘emblematics’ also make us realise that no syn- tle world,
thesis in this research field has been achieved so In humours like the people of this world.”
far, in fact we should not expect anything like (5.5.6–10)


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1 Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, London back their children to life. The continuation of this
1993, p. 61. story (told by Wolfgang Franzius and reinterpreted
2 Panofsky (see note 1), p. 57. by the Hungarian Gáspár Miskolczi) is that some of
3 Cf. Peter M. Daly, Teaching Shakespeare and the Em- the reviving young pelicans, noticing their mother
blem. A Lecture and Bibliography, Wolfville 1993, pas- had completely exhausted herself, would in turn give
sim. blood to the dying mother, while others would not
4 Cf. Peter M. Daly, Literature in the Light of the Emblem. do so. The conclusion is: “There are good and bad
Structural Parallels between the Emblem and Literature in children. The good ones take care of their mother
the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Toronto 1998 while the bad ones will not...” (quoted from Henrik
[1979]. Farkas, Legendák állatvilága [Mythical beasts], Buda-
5 Daly (note 3), p. 20. pest 1982, p. 125). See also James Hall, Dictionary of
6 Ernst H. Gombrich, ’Icones Symbolicae’: Philoso- Subjects and Symbols in Art, New York 1974, pp. 86,
phies of Symbolism and Their Bearing on Art (1948), 238 and George Ferguson, Signs & Symbols in Christian
in: idem, Symbolic Images (Studies on Renaissance Art, London 1961, p. 23.
Iconology, 1948–1972), London 1978, p. 125. 13 A Hungarian scholar, Mónika Medvegy, compares
7 Gombrich (note 6), p. 179. this attitude to ‘double bind’, a term used in psy-
8 Stephen Orgel, Gendering the Crown, in: Margareta choanalysis. It is an attraction and aversion at the
de Grazia et al. (ed.), Subject and Object in Renaissance same time that longs for the beautiful representation
Culture, Cambridge 1996, p. 136. of images, but still remains distrustful of them. See
9 Orgel (note 8), p. 133. Mónika Medvegy, Egy festmény narrativálásának
10 Jonathan Culler’s term, see Umberto Eco, Interpreta- módjai és poetológiai dimenziói. E. T. A. Hoffmann:
tion and Overinterpretation. Umberto Eco with Richard ‘Doge és dogaressa’, in: Attila Kiss – György E.
Rorty, Jonathan Culler, Christine Brooke–Rose, ed. Stefan Szőnyi (ed.), Szó és kép. A művészi kifejezés szemiotikája
Collini, Cambridge – New York 1992, pp. 114–115. és ikonográfiája [Word and Image. The semiotics and
11 Orgel (note 8), p. 134. iconography of artistic expression] (Ikonológia és
12 Orgel is actually wrong in restricting the original műértelmezés 9), Szeged 2002, pp. 285–299.
traditional meaning to only one interpretation. 14 W. J. Thomas Mitchell, Iconology. Image, Text, Ideology,
A quick survey of sources and dictionaries of sym- Chicago 1986, pp. 42–46. An excellent and complex
bols brings to light that from the very beginnings the analysis of the politics of images in the pre-aestheti-
pelican image had rather diverting interpretations. cal (i.e. pre-Renaissance) age can be found in Hans
Physiologus suggested that the young pelicans, when Belting, Bild und Kult. Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem
growing up, hit their parents, who because of this Zeitalter der Kunst, München 1990.
killed their young out of anger. Later they bitterly 15 Mitchell (see note 13), p. 43.
regretted their rage and offered their own blood to 16 W. J. Thomas Mitchell, Picture Theory, Chicago 1994,
bring them back to life. According to another ver- p. 5.
sion, it was the mother pelican that killed the small 17 Michel de Certeau, Heterologies: Discourse on the Other,
ones and the father, returning, pierced his chest to Minneapolis 1986, quoted by Mitchell (note 15), p. 5.
give blood to revive the children. Yet another tra- 18 His first monograph was devoted to Blake’s Composite
dition asserts that it was the snake which sneaked Art, Princeton 1978 but he has revisited this artist in
into the nest and killed the chickens, after which Picture Theory: “Visible Language: Blake’s Art of Writing”,
the returning parents together gave blood to bring 1994, pp. 111 151.


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