Whether we are dealing with a text or the offspring of the complex »Family of Images«, as the American art historian W.J.T. Mitchell called it in his 1984 piece »What Is an Image?«, is sometimes just a question of perspective. When we look up after having carefully read a text, we still see an image of it in front of our eyes. In the case of literature, this is often not particularly exciting. A page in a novel will generally appear as a block of text with a white margin, perhaps broken up a little by a paragraph or a headline. A poem on the other hand typically has a more informal layout given that »there is a lot of white space around the printed text on a page«, as stated by the Germanist Wolfgang Kayser in his work »Kleine deutsche Versschule« (Short guide to German verses), first published in 1946.

However, literature also deals with images, either by integrating them into the text or by presenting the text as an image. This can be seen in figure poems, in which the layout of words forms the shape of an object. The arrangement of the text then reflects, comments or even undermines what the text is talking about. This can also be seen in epic literature and novels, which — as was the case with W.G. Sebald — work extensively with photographs to try and suggest a particular likeness to reality and »authenticity« of the story. And this can also be seen with the sophisticated typographic design of texts for which the English arts and crafts movement towards the end of the 19th century, and the poet Stefan George with his St-G font from the beginning of the 20th century, strived.

Michael Bies

The blazing »fire of imagination«

JAM #28 — Image Language

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The blazing »fire of imagination«
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Poster
Illustration: Dicey Studios

However, literary texts mainly deal with images and imagery in a different, less obvious way. Unlike other types of texts — such as instruction leaflets or social media posts — literary texts to a greater extend use figurative language or describe situations and events in a way which appeals to our imagination, something which is in fact mainly understood as a purely visual faculty. This ability, to visualise images, is described in classical rhetoric in terms such as »hypotyposis«, »evidentia« and »enargeia«. In theoretical works from the late 18th century, this was declared a prerequisite for all literary works that wanted to be considered art. The philosopher Johann Adam Bergk wrote in his work Die Kunst, Bücher zu lesen (The art of reading books) in 1799: »The first thing that one must do when reading is to ignite the fire of imagination in order to be able to visualise and think about the whole thing reflectively.«

This describes different ways of viewing literature, of which there are two extremes: On one hand, we could go without reading the literature, and instead simply look at it and perceive it as slightly more or slightly less interesting text or typography. On the other hand, we could »overlook« this text and formatting and focus on the more or less interesting mental images that the literature sparks in our imagination. As with all great extremes, we generally tend to do both — and simultaneously.

But how does literary studies deal with the relationship between text and images, between literature and imagery? It may not be surprising to learn that these relationships are mostly either ignored or discussed using academic language that lacks any great affinity for images. That is understandable as there is no obvious answer to the question of if and if yes then how language and concept-based science can operate outside of the medium of language.

Nevertheless, in literary studies, there are attempts to perceive texts in a way that is perhaps not completely visual but at least diagrammatic. In the 20th century, that could be seen in movements such as formalism and structuralism: Academics such as Vladimir Propp, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes represented literary genres such as fairy tales, myths and epic literature via diagrams, mathematical formulas and elaborate tree structures. These movements continue in the 21st century, such as in digital humanities where texts are analysed quantitatively in a way never done before and complex text connections are visualised. Or in empirical aesthetics, that, with the help of neuroscience methods and imaging procedures, try to measure how much texts and text types really spark the »fire of imagination« as Bergk called it, and to what extent they let it run wild. However, it cannot be overlooked that such approaches, even when they deal closely with the literature, push the limits of what is traditionally understood as literary studies — or even go one step further.


Michael Bies is a scientific assistant at the Peter Szondi Institute of Comparative Literature at Freie Universität Berlin. He joined Die Junge Akademie in 2017.