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Backwards Up Niagara Falls: Space/Time, Image/Text and the Biases of Information
Unformatted Document Text:  8 representation that are definitively spatial or temporal, with consequences for the construction of subjectivity and social relationships. Space/Time: Image/Text A long tradition of aesthetic and literary criticism has based itself on the claim that different media establish representational modes which are specifically organized around the dimensions of space and time. The central dichotomy running through this tradition is between pictorial and written media, image and text. Most commentators on this tradition locate the birth of its modern theoretical elaboration in eighteenth-century debates on the relationship among the arts, especially the so-called ‘sister arts’ of poetry and painting. The best known work in these debates is Lessing’s Laocoön: An Essay Upon the Limits of Poetry and Painting, originally published in German in 1766. Lessing, in response to theories that maintained the fundamental similarity of the arts, promoted an antithetical principle which today we would call ‘medium specificity’: that each medium is necessarily and naturally distinctive in both physical characteristics and signifying structure, and therefore also in its ideal representational object. 7 Crucially, the distinctiveness of media was anchored in the space-time dichotomy: painting, which uses forms and colours arranged side by side in space, can only represent objects existing side by side, while the consecutive signs of poetry can express only objects in time. The peculiar subjects of painting are therefore contiguous bodies; those of poetry – sequential actions. Lessing’s distinction requires a few comments. First, it is an ontological one: it seeks to anchor the specificity of a medium in a description of its essential qualities, its being. Painting is spatial by nature and by necessity (not contingently or ideally), poetry temporally so. Any indications of temporality in painting or spatiality in poetry are at best mere accidents, irrelevant to the true founding principle of the art, and at worst betrayals of self. Second, the distinction is based, as W.J.T. Mitchell (1986) notes, on a ‘homology’ between the medium’s

Authors: Frosh, Paul.
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representation that are definitively spatial or temporal, with consequences for the construction
of subjectivity and social relationships.
Space/Time: Image/Text
A long tradition of aesthetic and literary criticism has based itself on the claim that
different media establish representational modes which are specifically organized around the
dimensions of space and time. The central dichotomy running through this tradition is
between pictorial and written media, image and text. Most commentators on this tradition
locate the birth of its modern theoretical elaboration in eighteenth-century debates on the
relationship among the arts, especially the so-called ‘sister arts’ of poetry and painting. The
best known work in these debates is Lessing’s Laocoön: An Essay Upon the Limits of Poetry
and Painting, originally published in German in 1766. Lessing, in response to theories that
maintained the fundamental similarity of the arts, promoted an antithetical principle which
today we would call ‘medium specificity’: that each medium is necessarily and naturally
distinctive in both physical characteristics and signifying structure, and therefore also in its
ideal representational object.
7
Crucially, the distinctiveness of media was anchored in the
space-time dichotomy: painting, which uses forms and colours arranged side by side in space,
can only represent objects existing side by side, while the consecutive signs of poetry can
express only objects in time. The peculiar subjects of painting are therefore contiguous
bodies; those of poetry – sequential actions.
Lessing’s distinction requires a few comments. First, it is an ontological one: it seeks to
anchor the specificity of a medium in a description of its essential qualities, its being. Painting
is spatial by nature and by necessity (not contingently or ideally), poetry temporally so. Any
indications of temporality in painting or spatiality in poetry are at best mere accidents,
irrelevant to the true founding principle of the art, and at worst betrayals of self. Second, the
distinction is based, as W.J.T. Mitchell (1986) notes, on a ‘homology’ between the medium’s


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