Imaging the French Revolution Discussion
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C. In this interchange, Joan Landes and Vivian Cameron unsettle common assertions about the relationship between text and images.

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.”1 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 been confronted by 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, have 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 much (perhaps the majority of) contemporary response did not enter into writing in a society composed of massive numbers of illiterate persons, whose primary exposure to revolutionary art was through printed engravings and ephemera. Even were we to have something comparable to the salon livrets or contemporary critical commentary available to students of “high” art, there remains the problem of 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, including the discovery of authoritative and hegemonic readings circulated in the world of print. But the image may help to retrieve the counter-hegemonic, potentially subversive readings (in both text and image).2

Concerning the third problem, I am therefore proposing that we resist the search for one stable meaning, but rather attempt to retrieve multiple meanings not from “sources,” as such, what Peter Burke instead calls “traces” and Vivian suggestively refers to as “souvenirs” and “memory triggers” in the production of symbolic events. Moreover, we should approach textual evidence circumspectly, lest we unwittingly participate in the dominant impulse to privilege the text over the image, to encourage what has been referred to as the word’s aim to “police” the image. Although we may not all be products of a strictly Protestant (or, North American) upbringing, Barbara’s remarks point to a more general unease experienced by those trained to work with (and privilege) written sources, including surprisingly many art historians themselves. Like our subjects in revolutionary France, perhaps we too remain 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.”3

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, ed., Revolution in Print.
3 W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago, 1994), 16.

Subject: RE: More on images as sources
Posted By: Vivian Cameron
Date Posted: July 26, 2003, 4:22 PM

Joan's comments are a welcome response to some of the problems I, as an art historian, had with some of the questions. First, for the art historian, the image is the primary document. That visual text then is read in conjunction with written texts that can identify characters, events, actions, and the like, but the visual image is privileged over the textual evidence. Second, as I state in my reply to question 5 [See archived discussion], regardless of the intent of the author, images, just like texts, will always have multiple interpretations, which are affirmed, contested, refined, reframed. Third, these multiple interpretations are dependent upon an audience of diverse spectators, each individually different because of the multiple combinations of class, gender, race, religion, knowledge, education, family background, psychology, etc. To discover the enormous diversity of interpretations, one has only to read the multiple reactions to a single work recorded in the Salon criticism of the eighteenth century.

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