Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration


Telling Pictures – Ekphrasis and Iconoclasm

Prof. Dr. Barbara Kuhn


This research project interrogates the relationship between narration and visuality in texts, specifically how images manifest themselves in language, and how images act in texts and beyond the boundaries of texts. This includes imagines agentes, not only in the sense of mnemotechnics but also in the more comprehensive sense of anthropology. Proceeding from the question how linguistic images function in early modern texts, the project (to be carried out with the startup funds applied for) will examine in multiple respects the workings of active and interactive images originating in the heads of readers by means of language and rendering them observers of imaginary picture worlds. Each approach will build bridges between literary scholarship (understood as cultural science) and anthropology, arts scholarship and religious studies. Thus, the point of departure for these reflections, and a stimulus to deepening them, is the observation that “telling pictures” often have a potential for integration. In addition, they at times threaten to or actually do switch over into a disintegrating potential, to the extent that images cannot inexorably be determined in the imagination but are capable in (at least) a double sense of unfolding in a disintegrating potential.

For on the one hand, there is the inevitable indeterminacy of linguistically generated images, images which always function as an appeal to more less already formed imagination, thus permitting fully heterogeneous image worlds to emerge despite all the reductive efforts of the text. This multiplicity of meanings, which in its connotations goes far beyond the oft-cited disappointment of literary texts to be illustrative, is instead constitutive for the texts themselves, inasmuch as readings that are image-supported (bildgestützte) or imagined (eingebildete) run counter to every intention. On the other hand—and it is this neglected aspect that should really be analyzed– the disintegrative potential of “telling pictures” develops in particular at points where these images exceed the boundaries more or less set for them by the text. Here, owing to their imaginative potential, these overgrow their actual frames, thus undermining the function of illustration. For either what is to be illustrated is forgotten over the image or the narrated image virtually cancels out that which “tells the picture.” Put differently: it is because the ekphrasis itself becomes iconoclasm. Detailed narratological and rhetorical analyses, particularly of early modern texts, will examine the subversive activities of such images, so as to be able to make more general conclusions on the relationship of narration and visibility, beyond early modernity and with particular reference to our present, dominated as it is by an abundance of images.

An additional aspect of the proposed project is associated with this subversivity:  with the question of the “observer“ of “telling pictures,” who should not be overlooked, due to the observer’s meaning-making role. Such observers can on the one hand be narrated figures in a text, whose gaze creates in the first instance the image to be seen by the reader and her inner eye, but also at the same time provides the perspective from which the imaginary image is supposed to be seen. Since intratextually it is already possible that a collision of various gazes emerges—whereby not only the points de vue of the narrated figures would have to be analyzed but also their relationship to the narrating voice—the possible gazes are multiplied by the “other observer,” i.e., the extratextual gaze of the reader who is not required to connect with the telling gaze of the narrating instance. . In this respect as well, the integrating and disintegrating activity of narrated and read images will thus be examined so that further insight can be gained on the origins and effects of images more generally. This is accomplished through the question of the origin of signification through images in a text—which is also always a question about perception and the guiding of perception.

In this sense, the planned project observes images both as the subject and object of narration, thus examining the particular interplay of both meanings of syntagma. For “telling pictures“ means not only what images narrate—that which makes them “speaking pictures“—but also the narrating of images. For its part, this inevitably creates images, constructing them as an object by means of a narrating subject. It is therefore important to examine the clash of imago, imagines and imaginatio in the narratio.