The symbolic battle between word and image is a metaphoric representation of the contained malleability of human expression. In this fragment of Homer’s encyclopedic ekphrasis of world-making imagery that covers Achilles’ shield, he describes the following: “blazoning well-wrought emblems all across its surface, raising a rim around it, glittering, triple-ply with a silver shield-strap run from edge to edge and five layers of metal to build the shield itself.” The descriptive imagery forges the object and the object, in turn, contains the descriptive imagery. This passage enacts an antique notion of the rhetorical object/incanted thing, lost to a later empiricism and the Cartesian mind/body “crisis.”
It is seductive to consider the disembodied idea as liberated from dull materiality, the spirit being more lightweight and willing. Taking this presupposition of animus further, the latter day terms of “data compression” and “efficiency of delivery” reduce embodied rhetoric to an engineered immediacy or “need to know” basis, rather than allowing for a slower absorption of understanding. Melville’s hapless copyist Bartleby, an early anti-hero to this hack trend, ultimately refuses to physically budge from his employer’s office, which handles the replication of law documents. This site of the means of production/reproduction (of an individual’s “job” of societal representation) becomes an occupied space for both dead letters and enervated existence. Melville takes his anti-hero to a place of negative transcendence, setting up Bartleby’s illogical physical occupation of the office as a foil to a lightweight metaphysical reading. His story becomes a temporal place in itself, defined by its negation of narrative affect.
Contemporary narratives also address the issue of informational need impoverishing somatic awareness. David Foster Wallace’s literary ambition—in works such as Infinite Jest and his posthumously published Pale King—can be seen as an attempt to incant a reasoned existential meaning out of a dense matrix of social information, one that makes increasing demands upon our ability to subsume shallow representational affect as “being.” In his writing about Bret Easton Ellis’s tendency to list information-as-style-as-meaning, he notes, “If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world.” Given this tendency to desperately flatten the world, it is not surprising to witness an emphasis on the word as representation—an encoded cipher, or disemboweled metaphor. Perhaps the question to ask might be why are contemporary words so weakly mimetic, and why is the image of the thing lacking description adequate to convince any body of its reason to be? Contemporary figurative language seems anxiously bereft of its metaphorical partner, the embodied world.
Things that are intentionalized as art can be seen as rhetorical objects, not solely reliant upon representational affect, but also enacting a sensual, phenomenal contingency.
This indeterminate causality can fashion an object ideally suited to interrogate representational thinking in general and even, perhaps, in the political sense. A socially engaged art practice, synopsized historically by Claire Bishop in her 2012 book Artificial Hells, for example, often struggles with the task of expressing social phenomena as discrete representations, objectifying social structures in order to interrogate the repressive reification of the status quo. Perhaps an art that sees a need to ingenuously represent the social is no more effective than a politics that disingenuously does so. The homeostasis that sets in because of this structural stalemate allows the neoliberal positivism of late capitalism to replicate itself ad infinitum. Considering this dynamic, the issue of words overtaking objects is really an issue of representational affect taking over both.
But neither the art object nor poetic rhetoric has ever been able to equally compete with the sensual world. It is actually in failing to do so that both retain a sense in the imagination that equilibrates the pressure of undifferentiated nature with its mortal apprehension. Bad rhetoric (and politics) will always be with us, seducing with their ability to lead one away from the real work of actualized being in the world. Making sense—in the syntactical strictures of repressive grammatical and/or political correctness—is not the same as “being sense,” or approaching the pliant organ of the actual. Words are as incommensurate to being, as information is incommensurate to sense. If Homer’s rhetoric forged an awesome figurative world, then it was because it simultaneously represented and embodied myth. While we might not need another hero, we might reconsider how his shield was wrought.
TOM MCGLYNN is an artist, writer, and independent curator based in the N.Y.C. area. His work is represented in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Cooper- Hewitt National Design Museum of the Smithsonian. He is the director of Beautiful Fields, an organization dedicated to socially- engaged curatorial projects, and is also currently a visiting lecturer at Parsons/the New School.