William Gass and David Levi Strauss



Analysis by Yoko Kanayama



Gass and Levi Strauss agree that difficulty with integrating text and image is a function of western culture. To begin this panel discussion Gass states that western culture has an ability to combine text with music, either as a separate entity or internally as with poetry. He explains how poets are expected to consider rhythm, tempo and the sounds of spoken word when writing. Gass claims this ability is unparalleled in western culture when integrating text with image. Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese characters and calligraphy were given as examples of eastern cultures' facility for combining image and text.

My response is that these examples encompass a rather narrow interpretation of imagery and text. The visual representation of language Gass refers to as image represents formal concerns with stylization, development and placement of line, and symbolic shorthand. The panel did not explore similar elements in western text. These concerns are reflected in illuminated manuscripts, rudimentary choices of font, and silhouettes indicating which bathroom is for men or women. Gass and Levi Strauss did not explain what, in their examples, qualifies text as image.

It is my observation that the physical characteristics of any written foreign language stand out. Furthermore these examples of Arabic calligraphy and Chinese and Japanese characters evaluate the text in terms of marks on a page devoid of meaning. This failure to include meaning ignores the many possible relationships between evoked and pictorial imagery. Written content can play off pictorial content, from representational to surreal, the way color and tone either combine or contrast to define space and form.

Gass' and Levi-Strauss' terms text and image were used without denotation, as though universally clear and singular interpretations have been established. They use these same two terms to describe everything from opera to advertisement. This oversimplification of terminology hampered the entire discussion of image and text. Gass and Levi Strauss referred to cinema and opera as examples of the most successful, though still flawed, western combinations of image and text. Gass asserts that for all the multimedia elements employed opera offers a generally fragmented experience. He explains the spare and fleeting moments when competing elements combine harmoniously to provide a holistic and unified experience. This interdependence of elements in perfect balance is his Utopic combination of text and image.

Both opera and cinema employ a moving image, an image built up and sustained over time which functions differently than a still image, whether it be a photograph, painting or sculpture. Gass and Levi Strauss did not discuss the difference between a still and moving image, the setting which directs the relationship between viewer and image, or the impact of a single image versus a succession of images.

Levi Strauss touched upon his observations concerning the combination of text and photography. Without giving specifics Levi-Strauss stressed the tendency for artists to combine text and photography to fill in the gaps of one another: text used to explain an image which is incomplete or an image used to illustrate what is lacking in text. What Levi Strauss does not discuss is the ability to combine text and photography to subvert a viewers experience of language or invert the relationship between object and observer.

Gass and Levi Strauss defined the Utopian combination of text and image as the creation of a unified, cohesive whole such that all elements, having been considered independently, combine with harmonious intention. A great deal of time was spent explicating this Utopia, as well as the impossibility of its attainment. Levi Strauss balances his belief that Utopian thinking is a type of imagination with the realization that the only things worth doing are the ones that are impossible. Lost in this theoretical marrying of elements was an exploration of a variety of practices. The terms text and image each encompass a great range of practical application. What was lacking was a grounded discussion of what can and does happen when combining text and image, with the terms and practices specified.