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Script as Image at Dumbarton Oaks

A summary of the proceedings of the Sign and Design Symposium
Script as Image at Dumbarton Oaks

Sign and Design symposium participants.

Organized by Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak (New York University) and Jeffrey F. Hamburger (Harvard University), the symposium placed the phenomenon of script as image (as opposed to text and image) in a cross-cultural perspective. Participants presented research on the medieval Latin West, the Byzantine East, the Islamic world, Jewish manuscript illumination, and both Pre-Columbian and post-colonial Latin America.

Our age, in which computers have taken over all forms of textual production and promise to give new meaning to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century concepts of “automatic writing,” has witnessed a widespread nostalgia for, or at least sympathetic interest in, older, more personalized forms of writing, such as calligraphy, glyphs, and graffiti. The relationship between word and image has long been a staple of scholarship. Of these, ut pictura poesis is only the most familiar. Ekphrasis is another. Variations on the text-image paradigm include oppositions between oral and written, hearing and seeing, and, in the medieval West, Latin and the vernaculars -- a hierarchy of languages, both spoken and written, that varies in its relationship to visual forms of expression. Whereas semiotics insisted on the linguistic nature of all systems of representation, and Derrida’s deconstruction, building on Saussurian linguistics, emphasized the logocentricity of Western thought, the anthropological turn in the Humanities has redirected attention to the ways in which images and imagistic modes of presentation augment and enhance the primacy, presence, and power of speech. The symposium sought to tap into and interrogate the newfound interest in presence, or in the production of effects of presence; in issues of agency -- the agency, not only of human actors, but also of objects; and in the role of materiality in the production of meaning.

Contributors explored ways in various cultural traditions have organized the relationship between image and letter, whether in terms of equivalency, complementarity, or polarity. Papers explored those situations in which letter and image were fused, forming hybrid signs that had no vocal equivalent and were not necessarily bound to any specific language. It emerged that while imagistic scripts work on the visible, troubling representation, they also challenge the legible in terms of linguistic signification. The incorporation of figures, objects, colors, even events, within the letter insists on the material dimension of the sign. As the iconicity of the letter transforms reading into gazing, the script-like character of the image compels consideration of the co-signification of sign forms. In mediating each other into altered formats, the script-image disrupts a-priori models and ideas and thus redefines both text and image in terms of their signifying and representational processes. The disruptive effect of imagistic script inheres in a suspension of meaning that defamiliarizes the system of representation and signification in which it was produced and circulated.

Looking at the material and visual dimensions of script, including pictographic, ideographic and logographic writing systems, as well as alphabetic scripts, the contributors offered a variety of ways to consider this entire nexus of issues. Are the visual dimensions of script essential or extraneous? Do they merely shape expression or are they constitutive of meaning? Such questions go to the heart of the relationship between representation and reality.

Participants pictured above are (back row) Irvin Cemil Schick, Ivan Drpić, Cynthia Hahn, Didier Méhu, Ghislain Brunel, Elizabeth Boone, Tom Cummins, Anne-Marie Christin, Beatrice Fraenkel, Antony Eastmond, Vincent Debiais, Herbert Kessler, Irene Winter, (front row) Katrin Kogman-Appel, Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, and Jeffrey Hamburger.

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