Ceci n’est pas une pipe



I guess you usually start your day by browsing through a newspaper or watching the news while hurrying your breakfast. Then, by some means of transport you rush to your work or university. What you might not be taking into account is that even while you are on your way trying the best to keep your eyes open and counting the minutes to the next cup of coffee, you are bombed with hundreds of visual and verbal messages, most of them being advertisements. You are an essential part of a constant rivalry where the aim is to catch your conscious or unconscious attention. This ”war” is led not only by different brands but by different forms of media as well, in particular, the visual and the verbal.

At first glance it might look like there is nothing especially complicated concerning the relation between different media: for instance, one could simply say that a book contains illustrations for their supplementary, decorative function and…that`s about it. This is not a completely wrong answer, however, life gets boring when it`s too easy – let’s complicate things a little!

In my last university year I had a long lasting love-hate relationship with W.J.T Mitchell’s ”Picture Theory”. Reading this book was both a very much enjoyable and frustrating experience. To my horror and despair, it didn’t live up to its name as in the very end, after more than 400 pages which had to be read (and reread…), the author admitted that he is not capable of creating a picture theory and that this endeavour is in general most likely impossible. To my great relief, he still provided me with a lot of fascinating insights related to the visual and the verbal and I`d like to share a few of them with you.

Most importantly, Mitchell claims that there is a fundamental gap and rivalry between different media. He uses ekphrasis, a literary device which stands for a verbal representation of visual representation (e.g. a description of a painting) as an example of this rivalry. Ekphrasis puts these two media in opposition, the main aim of it being ”the overcoming of otherness” since via ekphrasis texts are supposed to overpower their semiotic ”others”. ‘The ”self” is understood to be  an active, speaking, seeing subject, while the ”other” is projected as a passive, seen, and (usually) silent object, thus, not capable of expression.’ Usually people tend to understand the verbal medium as the prevailing one, since it enables them to express their thoughts. Consequently, it looks like the visual medium cannot speak for itself as it has to be reflected through language. However, in these days our culture has become more and more dominated by the visual medium. We encounter an enormous amount of pictures every day, therefore, even though it has to be reflected through language, it is the message of the picture that matters. It could be inferred that the language works only as a translator either when we see a painting in an art gallery or an advertisement in a bus stop, diminishing the power of the verbal in the image and text relation.

Paradoxically, when different modes of representation try to get rid of their counterparts and establish their own superiority, they get even closer. Mitchell refutes the possible objection that there can be purely visual and purely verbal types of art. For example, even the most abstract painting usually has a title which implies some ways of looking at the painting. What is interesting, as Mitchell notes, there are some paintings, especially abstract ones, which are given a title ”Untitled”. It follows that this choice reveals the urge to purify the visual from the verbal. However, even if the painting does not have a title, even the one which would deny itself as a title (”Untitled”), it is impossible to get rid of the textual in the visual. Mitchell claims, that abstract or modernist paintings which try to avoid the textual medium, paradoxically, are the densest with textuality, since in themselves they incorporate exhaustive philosophical and theoretical texts. Similarly, texts which do not include any kind of visual medium still work on our imagination and make us ”see”. Also, ”’pure” texts incorporate visuality quite literally the moment they are written or printed in the visible form’.

This brings us to an idea that even though the relation between different media is of a conflicting nature, they still can`t help but appear together in a variety of possible forms – be it a difficult to comprehend painting which is just a white canvas called ”Untitled” or a colourful advertisement of a new shampoo which will make your hair look oh so perfect! Of course, you can just get the shampoo and not be bothered too much about the ”self” and the ”other”, but if you have come to this part of the article, I feel confident enough to say that you are rather eager to take things to a whole new level!



Mitchell, W.J.T. 1994. Picture Theory: Essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.


By Julija Televičiūtė

Graduate from Vilnius University, English Philology (BA)

Translation trainee at Lithuanian Unit