If the dialectic of word and image is central to the study of media, then the term ekphrasis (alternatively spelled ecphrasis) must also be a crucial part of understanding media as the intersection of verbal and visual. Few pieces of media jargon have as long a history or as considerable an evolution as ekphrasis. The conflict of word and image in media can be better understood by tracing the history and evolution of ekphrasis, which embodies the practice of both elements.

The word has undergone such change, in terms of definition and usage, that even the Oxford English Dictionary provides little information. Ekphrasis has taken on such specialized meanings over the ages that the only way to pin down even a cursory understanding of the word requires knowledge both ancient and modern. The Oxford English Dictionary does provide a definition, from 1715, for ‘ecphrasis’ as “a plain declaration or interpretation of a thing.” The second reference, from 1814, is similarly abrupt indicating some shift in meaning over the course of about a hundred years when ekphrasis is characterized by “florid effeminacies of style.” While not inaccurate, this definition is hardly recognizable against the panoply of meanings ekphrasis has covered and continues to cover in debate today. More usefully, the Oxford English dictionary does break down the etymology where ‘ek’ means ‘out’ and ‘phrasis’ means ‘to speak.’ ‘Out to speak’ or ‘to speak out,’ the word takes its original meaning from ancient Greece. [1]

Initially, ekphrasis was a rhetorical term like many others taught to Greek students. Teachers of rhetoric taught ekphrasis as a way of bringing the experience of an object to a listener or reader through highly detailed descriptive writing. Ekphrasis was one of the last rhetorical exercises students were taught and the challenge was to bring the experience of a person, a place, or a thing to an audience. The true use of ekphrasis was not to simply provide astute details of an object, but to share the emotional experience and content with someone who had never encountered the work in question. The student of ekphrasis was encouraged to lend their attention not only to the qualities immediately available in an object, but to make efforts to embody qualities beyond the physical aspects of the work they were observing. [2]

Another ancient reference to the complication of words and images in ekphrasis comes in its relation to the famous quote by Horace, ‘ut pictura poesis’. [3] There is some discussion about the translation of this phrase, but there is agreement that it does bear on the conversation about the relation of words and images in art. Given the important role ekphrasis plays in this critical discourse it is reasonable to think there would be discrepancy between different scholars of the word. Peter Wagner summarily asserts, “If critics agree at all about ekphrasis, they stress the fact that it has been variously defined and variously used and that the definition ultimately depends on the particular argument to be deployed.” [4] These various definitions can be followed and an accumulated understanding of ekphrasis can be achieved, but not without understanding the term at once in its ancient and modern contexts.

Ekphrasis was generally understood as a skilled way of describing art and other aesthetic objects after it was learned as a tool of rhetoric. Using the rhetoric successfully was a means of demonstrating prowess, as a scholar and writer and eventually ekphrasis became an art that described art. One of the earliest, and most often referenced, examples of this kind of ekphrasis comes from Homer’s Illiad where the description of Achilles’ shield appears as part of the narrative. [5] Such a reference seems appropriate to a rhetorical device, but there is still the second definition from the Oxford English Dictionary to keep in mind. The distinction is clarified by Wagner when he writes, “Ekphrasis, then, has a Janus face: as a form of mimesis, it stages a paradoxical performance, promising to give voice to the allegedly silent image even while attempting to overcome the power of the image by transforming and inscribing it.” [6] Even as a part of its early history, ekphrasis occupies a strange place between the realms of the visual and the linguistic. Despite all of the changes the word has undergone and no matter the argument making use of the term, the apparent conflict between image and word is central to the concept.

Over the course of history numerous scholars have taken up ekphrasis as part of their study, particularly in terms of literature, art history, and in all studies surrounding media. Most all of these writers take time to tell a similar story of genealogy dating back to ancient rhetoric in Greece. Lines are then traced throughout literary and artistic traditions even to the present moment. As more and more work is produced on ekphrasis there are a few more commons threads and usages that are useful to the general understanding that allows for fruitful engagement with ekphrasis. Many scholars make use of James Heffernan’s general conception of ekphrasis as “the verbal representation of visual representation.” [7] This definition still relates to even the earliest Greek origins of the word and encapsulates the more modern use of the term. However, even as this definition opens the term up to a broader utility there comes the difficulty of somehow still restraining what constitutes ekphrasis.

There is much current debate about how much verbal representation about visual representation should be considered ekphrasis. Again, much like the debate between word and image the lines are poorly drawn from either side of the argument and many scholars navigate their way depending on their needs. Addressing this evolution Wagner writes, “Ekphrasis, then, originates in the field of rhetoric and has been appropriated by literary critics and art historians.” [8] Even by Wagner’s approximation this is not an inherently bad circumstance, but one that leaves scholars with a challenge of confining the term with constraints that still allow for useful observations and insights into the dilemma of the word and the image. Wagner continues suggesting, “We should drop, once and for all, the tacit assumption that the verbal representation of an image must be “literary” to qualify as ekphrasis—in our age of the arbitrary sign it has become extremely difficult to distinguish between “literary” and “critical” text. If ekphrasis is “the verbal representation of visual representation,” a definition most experts now seem to accept, the first part of that definition can only mean: all verbal commentary/ writing (poems, critical assessments, art historical accounts) on images. All such writing is essentially ekphrastic: the difference between the critical and the literary versions is one of degree, not one of mode or kind.” [9] Wagner is mindful of the need to broaden and restrict the usage of the word ekphrasis. All of the meanings the word has gathered since its inception are still operable definitions and more nuances in the character of ekphrasis are continuing to be drawn out.

The modern problem of the word and the image is still at issue and ekphrasis is still central to making a way between the sides. The modern problem of ekphrasis is how best to limit and expand the term's meaning in order to continue to make inroads into the productive work that results from investigation into the word/image dialectic. This dialectic is, more than ever, central to the contemporary discussion of media theory. As Wagner and Heffernan both indicate that as word/image problem expands to involve more and more disciplines there is more and more interest in the ways ekphrasis, an ancient term, can be a part of a modern understanding.

Some of the contemporary conceptions of ekphrasis can be understood in a tripartite understanding proposed by W.J.T. Mitchell. Initially, encountering the concept of ekphrasis leads to ‘ekphrastic indifference,’ which is a result of the seeming impossibility of the verbal and the visual ever meeting as they supposedly do in a case of ekphrasis. [10] Mitchell here cites another theorist interested in word and image, “No amount of description, as Nelson Goodman might put it, adds up to a depiction.” [11] The ‘indifference’ here really emphasizes the split between word and image as two separate modes of representation that cannot be intertwined, as ekphrasis would indicate.

Mitchell then suggests ‘ekphrastic hope’ is the next step in an evolving understanding of an ever-evolving term. ‘Ekphrastic hope’ opposes the indifference in a moment of inspiration or metaphor or imagination where the gap between the verbal and the visual is somehow closed by a means that can only be described as ekphrasis. [12] Mitchell describes this phase as “the moment when ekphrasis ceases to be a special or exceptional moment in verbal or oral representation and begins to seem paradigmatic of a fundamental tendency in all linguistic expression.” [13] The hope of ekphrasis resembles something like the early Greek rhetoricians believing that there might be a way to write about objects so that someone could encounter them verbally, but still be impressed with the visual.

The final phase in the three-part system that Mitchell puts forward is that of ‘ekphrastic fear.’ Mitchell writes, “This is the moment of resistance or counterdesire that occurs when we sense that the difference between the verbal and the visual representation might collapse and the figurative, imaginary desire of ekphrasis might be realized literally and actually.” [14] ‘Ekphrastic fear’ is a moment beyond the ‘ekphrastic hope’ where imagination made a visual representation possible in verbal form. This fear arises from the possibility that verbal ever could displace or replace the visual by actually accomplishing the goal of replicating the visual in the verbal. The idea of ekphrasis, both ancient and contemporary, rests on the idea that ekphrasis is only a rhetorical term or a means of negotiating a way between the verbal and the visual. If ekphrasis were to become a complete and perfect intermediary between the two sides of the word/image dialectic the entire paradigm would crumble. The three steps of this progression and understanding of ekphrasis represents a contemporary appreciation of ekphrasis that fully acknowledges the ancient rhetorical past, the dynamic evolution of the term since its inception, and the ever-flowering possibility of what ekphrasis might mean.

Ryan Welsh
Winter 2007