David Levi Strauss: The Third Image: Word & Image in the Information Age



There 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.

I look at images and I read words. When I want to show something, I project an image:

And when I want to say something, I quote from texts:

The 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.

(W.J.T. Mitchell)

But 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. . . .

(Bergson, Matter & Memory)

What 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 & images.

(Barthes, The Grain of the Voice)

If 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 don’t words also constitute a half-language, continually, insatiably in need of the visible?

Over 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;

As 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. . . .

As images fell from favor, they began to be justified as works of art.

Belting’s 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.

So 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."

(Such an image is called a real image when it comes to a point, and a virtual image when it does not.)

The 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 air–being absorbed into the body (and into the soul-atoms) through the sense organs. It does often feel like that to me.

Our "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.

The 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.

When 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 Plato’s Symposium.)

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:

The blind panopticon of Capital remains, after all, most vulnerable in the realm of ‘magic’–the manipulation of images to control events, hermetic ‘action at a distance.’

(Hakim Bey, Millennium)

This 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.

"Why 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 and images.

Yesterday 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, one’s dreams will include visual images for the rest of one’s life. The cache of images collected in one’s 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.

So, why is a writer concerned with all of this, anyway?

The first man-made marks that we can reasonably call "writing" were pictographs–inscribed 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.

The 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.

The most useful (and inclusive) definition of "writing" I’ve found is in Eric A. Havelock’s 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."

Under 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 recognition–from 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 the World.

Havelock 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.

Reading is what the individual organism begins to do as soon as it becomes an individual organism–it 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 primary activity.

The 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."

The 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").

Since 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 consent.

To 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.

It also requires the clarifications of memory. When people talk about the Information Age, I always think that what we’re 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 rate.

So one way to resist and subvert Control is to activate and recover memory.

The 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."

The 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.

The most political decision you make is where you direct people’s 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.

Wim Wenders, The Act of Seeing

Virilio’s 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:

Sight 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 of vision.

I 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.

How can we resist this deluge of visual and audiovisual sequences, the sudden motorization of appearances that endlessly bombard our imagination?

At 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 individual’s freedom of perception and the threats brought to bear on that freedom by the industrialization of vision and hearing. . .

With 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?

If 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.

"I feel now like a little black box projecting slides without captions."

Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love

The 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.

Artists 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.

The 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 revelation–and this is particularly obvious in every childhood–is 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.

John Berger, "Appearances"

One 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.

Dear Odile & Odette,

I have been accused of believing in words and images more than in people, but that’s not true. What I believe in is the Third Image, what sometimes appears between words and images. And that’s where I go to find you.

"Either the world is so tiny, or we are so enormous; in either case, we fill it completely. . . ."

Kafka, Letters to Milena



Analysis by Maria Alos



Much 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.

If 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 don’t 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 shouldn’t we also require some sort of visual representation to fully grasp the abstraction of words?

Are 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.

The 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 didn’t 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.

Levi 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.

Recovering 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.'