David Levi Strauss: The Third Image: Word & Image in the
are those who say that man and woman were once one, and that a
catastrophe caused them to split into two sexes, who have been
trying to get back together again ever since. I believe the same
is true of word & image, and, similarly, it is what they do
with and to one another, what happens between
them, that is most fascinating.
look at images and I read words. When I want to show something,
I project an image:
when I want to say something, I quote from texts:
relation of photography and language is a principal site of struggle
for value and power in contemporary representations of reality;
it is the place where images and words find and lose their conscience,
their aesthetic and ethical identity.
it is not at all obvious that the photograph, if photograph there
be, is already taken, already developed at the very heart of things
and at all points of space. . . .
Matter & Memory)
I love is the relation of the image and the text, a very difficult
relation but which thereby provides truly creative enjoyment,
the way poets used to enjoy working on difficult problems of versification.
The modern equivalent is to find a relation between text &
The Grain of the Voice)
it is true, as John Berger says, that photographs are "quotations
from appearances," that they constitute a "half-language,"
and if photography is, as Barthes called it, "a message without
a code," that needs words for its completion, then dont
words also constitute a half-language, continually, insatiably
in need of the visible?
the last 400 years, word and image have often been pitted against
one another. The Reformation taught the supremacy of the Word
over images on moral grounds. "For on words," wrote
Luther in his Catechism, "rests all our ground, protection,
and defense against all errors and temptation. . . . The Kingdom
of God is a kingdom of hearing, not of seeing." Calvin was
even more extreme in his censure of images. Humanist philosophers
also promoted the word over images. Hans Belting, in his book
Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era
of Art wrote;
the tool of rational argument, the word was the refuge of the
thinking subject, who no longer trusted the surface appearance
of the visual world but wanted to grasp truth only in abstract
concepts. . . .
images fell from favor, they began to be justified as works of
book is a thoroughly useful history of this fall. In my terms,
photography reversed this movement, causing us to believe images
again, for a brief time. Now, with the logical extension into
digital imaging, the veracity of images is again in crisis. But
still we go on believing, wanting to believe.
what is an image? "An artificial imitation or representation
of any object." More specifically, for our purposes, "An
optical appearance or counterpart of an object, such as is produced
by rays of light either reflected as from a mirror, refracted
as through a lens, or falling on a surface after passing through
a small aperture."
an image is called a real image when it comes to a point,
and a virtual image when it does not.)
word "image" comes to us from the Latin word for "imitation,"
and our first ideas about images came from Latin renderings of
the Greek philosophical term "eidolon," used by Democritus.
Democritus developed a kind of "atomic aesthetics" that
held that perception resulted from the action of "eidola"atomic
films or husks that emanate from the surface of things out into
the airbeing absorbed into the body (and into the soul-atoms)
through the sense organs. It does often feel like that to me.
"word" comes directly from the Greek "logos,"
on which rested another entire metaphysical theory of the relation
between spirit and matter, because "logos" always meant
both "word" in the sense of expressed meaning, and "reason"
or the creative faculty in human beings.
image is "a mental picture of something not actually
present," and the imagination, in extension, is "the
mental consideration of actions or events not yet in existence."
So what we are really always talking about with word & image
manipulation is a kind of magic.
word and image were one, I suspect that this magic was too powerful
for the gods to abide, so they split word & image up in order
to weaken them and neutralize their threat to the established
order. (This is the same reason that human beings were split into
two sexes, according to Aristophanes discourse on love in
our own time the established order has a tremendous stake in controlling
and limiting the uses and effects of words & images, since
the manipulations of word & image are central to the propagation
and maintenance of social Control. Because of this centrality,
they can also be turned and used to resist and subvert Control.
As the prophet Hakim Bey has recently written:
blind panopticon of Capital remains, after all, most vulnerable
in the realm of magicthe manipulation of images
to control events, hermetic action at a distance.
is what Burroughs is talking about in the interview you have.
Dissonance, on its own, is not as effective today as it once was.
Those methods of dissonance that the Surrealists used have been
utterly absorbed into the Spectacle. Now it is clarity that is
radical. Especially the clarity of dreams.
does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination
when awake?" asked Leonardo in his notebooks. And Burroughs
says, "Precisely what is a dream? A certain juxtaposition
of word and image." The revelation of images in dreams relies
on a certain inevitability of combinations of disparate words
I listened to a radio news story on the dreams of the blind. It
said that if someone is born blind, their dreams will not be composed
of visual images, but of every other kind of sensual stimulation.
But if one goes blind after reaching the age of seven, ones
dreams will include visual images for the rest of ones life.
The cache of images collected in ones memory will be continually
supplemented by imagined (virtual) visual images. Enough images
will have been collected from the world of appearances in seven
years to last for a lifetime of dreams.
why is a writer concerned with all of this, anyway?
first man-made marks that we can reasonably call "writing"
were pictographsinscribed shapes on cave walls, rocks, bone,
etc., which told stories, denoted the passage of time, considered
the phenomenological world and influenced events. Picture-writing
preceded and generated the graphic systems of Egypt, Assyria,
and China; but in America, especially in North America, picture-writing
continued among the indigenous population long after alphabetic
writing became common. This picture-writing can still be observed,
if one knows where to look.
transition of Aztec and Mayan picture-writing to signs for sounds
(phonetic language) was interrupted by the Conquest. In fact,
the history of the Conquest can be read as the conquest of the
Christian Word over the ancient American image (pictographs) of
the Maya. The Classic Maya of a thousand years ago wrote their
wisdom and vision, their "history of the future," in
hieroglyphs, called "akab zib" or night writing. It
now appears that there a few readers left (shamans) who still
know how to read these signs.
most useful (and inclusive) definition of "writing"
Ive found is in Eric A. Havelocks Origins of Western
Literacy: "The history of writing and the written word
is often treated simplistically as though the term writing
identified a single invention that has operated with more or less
uniform effects from ancient Egypt to modern Europe. This reflects
that prejudice which would divide all history into two epochs,
the illiterate and the literate. In fact, the term writing
describes a series of technological devices which, regardless
of the varying instruments and materials used to write with or
on, have been historically distinguishable by their widely varying
capacity to perform their basic function: namely, to assist the
user in an act of recognition."
these terms it is clear that some cave paintings, records inscribed
in stone or clay, winter counts, and photographs operate as writing,
assisting the user in an act of recognitionfrom the
Latin recognoscere, to know again, or, breaking it down
one step further, to become acquainted with again, through
representation. These are tools with which to recognize
goes on to make an important shift in emphasis: "For whereas
historians who have touched upon literacy as a historical phenomenon
have commonly measured its progress in terms of the history of
writing, the actual conditions of literacy depend upon the history
not of writing but of reading." One can "write"
anything, but if there is no one to read it, it will not survive,
and it is reading that depends on a complex system of social and
political assumptions and understandings or transfers.
is what the individual organism begins to do as soon as it becomes
an individual organismit accumulates data and then processes
that data into information it can use to survive and grow. Reading
the novels of William Burroughs or William Gass, or the photographs
of Robert Frank or Cindy Sherman, is only an extension of this
present crisis is not so much a crisis in the forms of writing
as in the abilities of reading. As my friend the poet Don Byrd
has said, "We discover that the world is a text at precisely
the moment we discover we no longer know how to read."
communication disorders most prevalent today include "the
perversion of the significance of events" (the equilibration
of different orders of significance in product advertising and
what we still euphemistically and nostalgically call "the
news") and the usurpation of time (especially the time required
to effectively process perception, what the poet Larry Eigner
used to call "the time taken to mean it").
images are superficially perceptible at a faster rate than words,
they can more effectively be used to bait and overwhelm perception.
When images are speeded up, we tend to contract them (in a sort
of persistence of the lack of vision), and receptors are
blocked open so that hidden meanings can get in under the conscious
level. When this happens, communication becomes Control, a tool
used by the powerful against the powerless. This has become a
part of the science of public relations and the management of
subvert this mechanism, to break into the Grey Room, requires
some very sophisticated perceptual hacking, as well as some old-fashioned
teleological shelter from the storm.
also requires the clarifications of memory. When people talk about
the Information Age, I always think that what were really
living in is the Age of Forgetting. More information (not to speak
of knowledge) is being lost now than at any time in history. Every
time we switch to a new storage medium, that medium is invariably
less stable than the previous one, which is made obsolete so that
we can no longer read or access the information it contains. And
this destabilization of memory is accelerating at an astonishing
one way to resist and subvert Control is to activate and recover
incredible proliferation of images and words and the increasing
speed of their dissemination has led to what Paul Virilio has
called the "industrialization of vision" and "the
automation of perception of the world." "The storage
of mental images is never instantaneous," he writes, "it
has to do with the processing of perception. Yet it is precisely
this storage process that is rejected today."
all-consuming Pandaemonium of words and images has done something
that no single dictator has ever been able to accomplish; namely,
the utter pre-empting of substantive resistance to Control through
the colonization of the imagination, leading ultimately to what
Virilio has called "the progressive dematerialization of
the terrestrial horizon." "It is becoming hard,"
he says, "even impossible, to believe in the stability of
the real, in our ability to pin down a visible that never stops
vanishing." The connection between word and image and the
real has been eroded to the point where their ability to incite
independent action has been all but eliminated. This is not an
accidental effect, but a well-planned political strategy.
most political decision you make is where you direct peoples
eyes. In other words, what you show people, day in and day out,
is political. . . And the most politically indocrinating thing
you can do to a human being is to show him, every day, that there
can be no change.
Wenders, The Act of Seeing
dystopic vision of the eventual effects of the coming image technologies,
especially machines of optical enhancement ("Vision machines")
is worth taking seriously. In the essay I gave you to read, "Eye
Lust," from his recent book Open Sky, he writes:
was once a cottage industry, an art of seeing. But
today we are in the presence of a tangible appearances business
that may well be some form of pernicious industrialization
personally fear we are being confronted by a sort of pathology
of immediate perception that owes everything, or very nearly everything,
to the recent proliferation of photo-cinematographic and video-infographic
seeing machines. Machines that by mediatizing ordinary
everyday representations end up destroying their credibility.
can we resist this deluge of visual and audiovisual sequences,
the sudden motorization of appearances that endlessly bombard
a time when everyone is rightly asking about the freedom of
expression and the political role of the media in our society,
it would surely be a good thing if we also ask ourselves about
the individuals freedom of perception and the threats
brought to bear on that freedom by the industrialization of vision
and hearing. . .
ocular intrusion now superseding the invasion of vanquished countries,
how can we fail to foresee the abrupt decline of geo-politics
in favor of a sort of iconopolitics, in which the reign
of the image would soon be concerned not so much with multiplying
recording surfaces or screens, as with the discreet, furtive
invasion of the time depth of our field of vision?
you think that Virilio is an alarmist, you are right. But to determine
whether or not his alarm is justifiable, I suggest you go back
and read what he was saying about "speed as the essence of
war, technology as the producer of speed, endo-colonization, and
ultimate weapons" (in Pure War) a full decade before
the commencement of Operation Desert Storm.
feel now like a little black box projecting slides without captions."
Genet, Prisoner of Love
Situationists declared themselves "the last avant-garde"
in 1957. Instead of critiquing earlier art traditions, they critiqued
"the spectacle," a world ruled by images and consumerism.
today cannot effectively compete with the Spectacle (what I call
the all-consuming Pandaemonium) on its own terms (saturation and
speed). You are outgunned and vastly undercapitalized. So you
must use guerilla tactics to change the rules of engagement.
That is, you must engage the audience differently. What
cannot (yet) be simulated is what happens between word and image
in the mind of the reader/viewer.
one who looks is essential to the meaning found, and yet can be
surpassed by it. And this surpassing is what is hoped for. Revelation
was a visual category before it was a religious one. The hope
of revelationand this is particularly obvious in every childhoodis
the stimulus to the will to all looking which does not have a
precise functional aim. . . . Whatever its frequency, our expectation
of revelation is, I would suggest, a human constant. The form
of this expectation may historically change, but in itself, it
is a constituent of the relation between the human capacity to
perceive and the coherence of appearances.
person had a machine that could remember images. Another had a
machine that could remember words. But the third person had a
device that made connections between words and images. She kept
it under her hat.
Odile & Odette,
have been accused of believing in words and images more than in
people, but thats not true. What I believe in is the Third
Image, what sometimes appears between words and images. And thats
where I go to find you.
the world is so tiny, or we are so enormous; in either case, we
fill it completely. . . ."
Letters to Milena
by Maria Alos
has been discussed about the relationship between word and image.
Writer David Levi Strauss gave an interesting account of the history
of this relationship ...When I want to show something, I project
an image and when I want to say something, I quote from texts...
said Levi Strauss as he started juxtaposing images while quoting
texts from highly recognized writers.
it is true, as John Berger says, that photographs are "quotations
from appearances," that they constitute a "half-language," and
if photography is, as Barthes called it, "a message without a
code," that needs words for its completion, then dont words
also constitute a half-language, continually, insatiably in need
of the visible? Levi Strauss asked. This question probably
reflects the need to understand that, in order to create a complete
image that we might call a third image
we need from its counterpart (word). But shouldnt we also
require some sort of visual representation to fully grasp the
abstraction of words?
word and image in the same hierarchical position? Levi Strauss
emphasized how word and image have been antagonized throughout
history. Words seem to have been put above images and images have
been disregarded as some sort of illustrations of a higher language
words segregated to the realm of fantasy. He also
explained how -for a short period of time- photography reversed
this tendency, giving us a way to believe in images again.
But, as he also mentioned, this belief died as digital technologies
made evident to us that we cannot trust images, that they are
not facts and we cannot believe in them, no matter how much we
want to believe or how much they can trick our eyes.
image, Levi Strauss pointed out, is a mental picture of something
not actually present... and imagination is the mental consideration
of actions or events not yet in existence so when word/image
manipulation takes place, it becomes a kind of magic.
But for him, when word and image were one --as he supposes they
were at the beginning-- this magic was so powerful
for anyone to take, that the gods decided to split word and image
in order to neutralize their power. There is a saying that goes
"divide and conquer". But didnt then the gods leave us with
a disjointed version of a language? Image/word manipulation is,
as Levi Strauss said, a powerful tool for social control. Our
minds are caught helpless and unable to make the connections to
resist this manipulation. The combination of word/image manipulation
with the saturation of fleeting images in present days must leave
us even more confused and vulnerable to this control.
Strauss interestingly expressed that when people talk about the
so called Information Age, he always thinks that this age should
rather be called the Age of Forgetting as more information is
being lost than at any other time in history. Although I believe
he was referencing storage information --like computer data--
this also applies to the amount of information that enters our
brain and is constantly being lost and replaced by more information.
So, how can we fight back? He said that one way to resist and
subvert this control is to activate and recover our memory.
our memory then is a way to be armed with a magical 'third eye'
that enables us to see the connections between word and image
and clearly understand the 'third image.'