Imaging the French Revolution Discussion
Imaging the French Revolution Discussion
1. Are images vital sources of historical knowledge that have been insufficiently exploited?
images as sources Lynn Hunt, 5-31-03, 5:48 PM
RE: images as sources Wayne Hanley, 6-6-03, 9:29 AM
RE: Images as Sources (June 22, 2003) Barbara Day-Hickman, 6-22-03, 4:40 PM
reading images Lynn Hunt, 6-23-03, 10:44 PM
historical knowledge Vivian Cameron, 7-5-03,
5:15 PM
Some belated comments Warren Roberts, 7-9-03,
10:53 AM
A postscript Warren Roberts 7-9-03, 11:28 AM
More on images as sources Joan B. Landes, 7-12-03,
2:33 PM
RE: More on images as sources Vivian Cameron
7-26-03, 4:22 PM

Subject: More on images as sources
Posted By: Joan Landes
Date Posted: 7-12-03, 2:33 PM

We have been fruitfully discussing the advantages and disadvantages of using the image as a source. This includes the kind of knowledgein Vivian’s terms, historical or symbolicto be gained from the image, Warren’s caution about the truth-value of images and the need to supplement visual with textual evidence, Wayne’s question about the creator’s intent, as well as Barbara’s proviso that the image always belongs to a wider framein this case, the visual culture of Roman and Gallic Catholicism. In addition, Lynn asks about meaning, messages, and guidelines for the interpretation of an image. These remarks pose three interrelated issues, deserving of our attention: First, what is a source? Second, is the meaning of a source yielded fully only where authorship can be attributed, the artist’s intent established, and all authoritative (contemporary) readings exhausted? Third, why do images appear to pose more interpretive challenges than textual sources?

On the first issue, I am persuaded by Peter Burke’s argument that historians are misled by the frequently employed metaphor of documents as sources, “as if they were filling their buckets from the stream of Truth, their stories becoming increasingly pure as they move closer to the origins;” and “implying the possibility of an account of the past which is uncontaminated by intermediaries.” Of course, the contamination that historians worry about most is our own imposition of a “presentist” agenda on the past by way of extraneous questions or theoretical perspectives unavailable to past actors. But as Burke adds, “it is of course impossible to study the past without the assistance of a whole chain of intermediaries, including not only earlier historians but also the archivists who arrange the documents, the scribes who wrote them and the witnesses whose words were recorded.”

Concerning the second set of concerns, I am surprised to find so much emphasis placed on creative intent, long after literary critics have debated the “death of the author.” Interest in individual agency, including the biographical study of an individual figure, as demonstrated by Warren’s valuable work on Prieur, has led to a modification if not outright rejection of this influential thesis. Still, even the most convincing account of authorial/artistic intent would fail to exhaust the meanings to be derived from an image, for the simple reason that no author (of a picture or a text) can control its meaning. This leads historians to seek evidence of contemporary readings, but it is less the anonymity of a work than the impossibility of an exhaustive search that should concern us: Not only is the archived written record fragmentary, but additionally a great deal of contemporary response was not recorded in writing in a society still composed of massive numbers of illiterate persons. For the latter, primary exposure to revolutionary ideas most likely occurred through oral and visual means, for example, by acquaintance with printed engravings and ephemera. Even if scholars had sources available to them comparable to the salon livrets or contemporary critical commentary used in the study of “high” art, we would still need to account for the gap between audience and public, noted by Thomas Crow in his influential study of the eighteenth-century art public. The aim of the critic was to substitute himself [sic] for the public, to speak in its name. Yes, texts – including the print’s own title and accompanying passages, as well as newspapers, published works, legislative, court and police records – can assist in interpretation, and will help especially to identify authoritative and hegemonic meanings that circulated in print culture. Yet, images can be a useful resource in retrieving both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic views.

Concerning the third problem, therefore, I am proposing that we resist the search for one stable meaning and instead seek to identify multiple meanings. Similarly, instead of searching for “sources,” we might view historical materials as what Peter Burke calls “traces” or what Vivian suggestively terms “souvenirs” and “memory triggers” in the production of symbolic events. Furthermore, we should approach textual evidence circumspectly to avoid unwittingly privileging the text over the image, and thus further encouraging the tendency of words to “police” images. Although we may not all be products of a strictly Protestant (North American) upbringing, Barbara’s remarks point to a more general unease experienced by those trained to work withand, therefore, privilegewritten sources when confronted by visual evidence, a response that surprisingly includes even many art historians. Like the objects of our research during the revolutionary period in eighteenth-century France, perhaps we too remain overly suspicious of images, for their disturbing ability to beguile and seduce, or, in a completely contradictory manner, for their mute silence, a stubborn refusal to say what they mean. As W.J.T. Mitchell insists, “spectatorship (the look, the gaze, the glance, the practices of observation, surveillance and visual pleasure) may be as deep a problem as various forms of reading (decipherment, decoding, interpretation, etc.) … [so] that ‘visual experience’ or ‘visual literacy’ might not be fully explicable in the model of textuality.”

1. Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing; The Use of Images as Historical Sources (Ithaca, N.Y., 2001), 13.
2. On this problem as a larger cultural motif, see; W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago, 1986). In the revolutionary context, see especially Mona Ozouf, Festivals and the French Revolution, trans. Alan Sheridan (Cambridge, Mass., 1988); Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley, 1984); James Leith, “Ephemera: Civic Education through Images,” in Robert Darnton and Daniel Roche, eds., Revolution in Print: The Press in France, 1775-1800 (Berkeley: University of California Press, in collaboration with the New York Public Library, 1989).
3. W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago, 1994), 16.

Extended Discussion
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