e-Lit Resource
“Ekphrasis and the Other”

Writing in 1997 of the centuries of ambivalence associated with what we might now call multimodal “picture poems,” W.J.T. Mitchell outlined the “dangerous promiscuity” of ekphrasis, how its “mutual interarticulation” - with words helping to determine the significance of images and vice versa - threatens the stability assigned by audiences to each medium, at the same time that it provokes the wish that each medium’s limitations can be overcome. He makes the case that ekphrasis has typically provoked fascination through “three phases, or moments of realization” - indifference, fear, and, lastly (at least for some), hope.

Mitchell labels skepticism towards ekphrasis a “studied indifference,” which “grows out of a commonsense perception that ekphrasis is impossible”; from this perspective, there are “inherent, essential properties of the various media” and they have “their proper or appropriate modes of perception” (152).

Mitchell’s next phase, “ekphrastic fear,” he defines as the realization that “the difference between the verbal and visual representation might collapse,” and which he spots “in a wide range of literary theorizing, from the Marxist hostility to modernist experiments with literary space, to deconstructionist efforts to overcome ‘formalism’ and ‘closure,’ to the anxieties of Protestant poetics with the temptations of ‘imagery,’ to the romantic tradition's obsession with a poetics of voice, invisibility, and blindness” (154-56). This unease about the image-text boundary has a long history in human culture; it shows up now in a lot of the anxieties of our own age involving digital media—not so-called sensory fiction alone.

Mitchell’s third phase of awareness in the potential for the image-word relationship, “ekphrastic hope”: “this is the phase when the impossibility of ekphrasis is overcome in imagination or metaphor, when we discover a ‘sense’ in which language can do what so many writers have wanted it to do: ‘to make us see’” (152).