On Representation, Power, and Textimage
Presented with images, we actively look back. Textimage, as a term, does not posit that a reading subject will be subsumed by images if images are present. Here I am advocating for [W.J.T.] Mitchell’s term “critical iconography.” Looking as resistance; looking back is political.
Textimage is and comes from a process rooted in social practice where it is vital to understand the divide between official declarations of truth and what is actually happening. For example, state law may declare certain crimes “bias crimes” and deliver more harsh sentences for these, yet its same legal apparatus finds police innocent who have shot a person dead for being black. This is the gap between what is said and what is seen, abstract concept and lived experience.
“When the public nature of the social event encounters the silence of the word,” writes Homi K. Bhabha in The Location of Culture, “it may well lose its historical composure and closure.” Thus the ambiguities and contradictions of modernity, while invisible or perhaps intellectually interesting to some, may be for others at best a complexity to live with and at worst just plain dangerous and often both.
As for art, Bhabha articulates that this loss of composure and closure leads to an art that “affirm(s) a profound desire for social solidarity…” and to art not necessarily concerned with the boundaries of genre. For example, based on a newspaper account, is Toni Morrison’s Beloved a fiction? A history? These questions require the important clarifying question “for whom?” after them.
Telling/showing—whether narrative or abstract—always has a context and a politics.
If I adopt Mitchell’s proposal that representation is “activity, process, or set of relationships,” who is to say that the artist’s subject may not take that power back at any point in the relation—before, during, after the making? Who is to say that the artist has not relinquished power or subverted power in the process of representing?
I want to advocate for an awareness of these possibilities of exchange. See the following “Matrix for Representation as Textimage Process”:
|what can’t be said/seen||the seen/the said||what must be seen/said|
|agreement||neutrality or dismissal||resistance|
Various combinations within and across this matrix account not only for the verbal/visual range of representations—from clear articulations to crude utterances and shadowy images of the pre-articulation—and also for acceptance, rejection, alterations, individual agency, responsibility, community bonds and solidarity, the necessity and problems of identitarianisms, censorship from without and/or within, non-conformity and risk, evolution and new forms, traditions in culture and the arts, as well as political urges, necessities, and strategies made manifest.
Directions: take any subject—“narrative” or “abstract,” if you work with that binary—and move the subject from one box in the matrix to the next, randomly, hopping and skipping if you would like. Submitted to this complex, what do you notice about your subject?
For example, lately I have been wondering, what is the textimage of “class”? I am thinking that class is “shifty”: what one allows others to see is just as much a function of class as what is actually seen. What is important, then—and class teaches us this—is to add “for whom?” with each move in the matrix. For example, class may be there in the quality of the fabric of your coat: a fine wool, or tattered. But “tattered” may indicate class confidence for some. Who can wear a coat patched up in a crafty way and fear no reprisals, or miss an opportunity? Not the same person who might use their credit card to purchase a new coat. Privately, credit to cover up the holes, publicly.
And the “for whom” must include the “I.” The first representational act, then, is for the author to look at themselves, to denaturalize any particular gaze they may be born into or gain via context, and to inventory received knowledge and know-how that inflects their relationship to the subject supposedly “external” to themselves.
In her extended essay Harlem, a work featuring photographs by Alice Attie, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes, “We must investigate and imaginatively constitute our ‘own’ unclaimed history with the same teleopoietic delicacy that we strive for in the case of the apparently distant.” Spivak uses the Derridean term “telepoietic” which refers to a process of imagining others without any pre-formed idea of the outcome of that imagining. To telescope in, then, to the self and ask to see without knowing what one may find instigates the process of representation.
A fear of approaching a representational matrix, including using it to engage in close self-study, would render many among us not able to be represented and so disappeared. And because racism and sexism and poverty and wars do not cease, some of we who make representations, who interpret them, and who teach will find it impossible not to reside in the between space of the verbal and the visual, enacting critical reading and spectatorship, and offering up image and speech as action/reflection.
Photography as Epistemology
Photography may be signaled, used, without a single image being present. Similar to the absent photograph of ekphrasis, this textimage practice activates resistance: what’s incorporated is not any one photograph, but rather a way of seeing, of knowing. When photography is an epistemology, subjects appropriate photography’s language and talk back to the lens, actually resisting being pictured.
For example, in Jennifer Firestone’s Flashes, photography has little to do with the presence of photo as artifact, but everything to do with photography as a way of negotiating power.
Firestone wrote to me about her project, explaining, “Perception is of course not to be trusted, it’s unstable and subjective: what am I missing from my view; what am I choosing to zero in on? Yet the act of ‘photographing,’ whether via camera or words, can be forever seductive as it provides a false resting space, a stamp to a moment that asks to be preserved.”
But in case we make the mistake of believing that the individual has no agency in the face of this seduction, this mistrust, Flashes presents a way of resisting passivity, seduction, and imaging exhaustion:
The buildings block this building
so light between
is what I call mine
and if I am without clothes on the couch I feel I have the right
to show my body to the light and anyone who’s watching.
The speaker is “framed” and she “frames,” she is exposed and she exposes. Aware of the limitations of looking and framing, about being seen and taking the light in rather than projecting an image out, she decides “so light between/is what I call mine.” She uses a photographic imagination as a framework to insert ambiguity into the alleged fixity of photography and subjectivity.
Is the speaker vulnerable or powerful? It is not possible to tell, and so I think that the speaker is ultimately a resistor, funneling power away from the typical gaze and into a no-man’s land—no-woman’s land—of power-aware authorship.
Firestone’s resistance: using the tool on itself. Flashes from the camera and flashes of poetic knowledge flow in two directions and restore full subjectivity for a speaker who risks being pictured and probably never gave her subjectivity away despite all the cameras and newsfeeds surrounding her.
 I invoke Paulo Freire on the liberated subject forged via action/reflection. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he articulates, “…reflection—true reflection—leads to action.”