Depiction is a technical term used in psychology1, philosophy2, and art history3, but less so in linguistics4. One of my claims about ideophones is that they are best understood (typically, canonically, with the customary provisos about the fluid categories of natural language) as depictive words. Do we really need a term like that? Can’t we make do with good old ‘expressive’ or ‘vivid‘? No, I say. But what then is this elusive concept of depiction? How can we tell that something is intended as a depiction? What is depiction, such that we can distinguish it from other modes of representation? In answering these questions, it is useful to make a distinction between the signals that frame something as a depiction on the one hand, and the aspects of depiction as a mode of representation on the other hand. But let’s start with something more basic: words and images.
Words versus images
There is a domain where distinct modes of representation are very important and very clear: that of visual representations, in particular written words versus images. Take the following slide (from one of my presentations), with on the left a sentence involving le soleil “the sun” and on the right an image of the sun. (Bonus points for those who see whose handwriting that is.5) The claim here is a simple one: that the left and the right side involve two distinct modes of representation.
Description and depiction (Mark Dingemanse)
I’m guessing most readers will agree with at least this basic distinction. What we call this distinction doesn’t matter a lot, but I call it, following the literature, “description” versus “depiction”. More important than the labels are the ways in which the phenomena differ. On the slide above, a first opposition is between propositional vs. imagistic. This is in a way restating the same point (see Kosslyn 1980 for more details), so I’ll focus on the remaining three. There are three key differences that help us to deductively distinguish depictions from descriptions: descriptions differ from depictions (1) in terms of symbol system they use (using discrete symbols vs. using gradient markings), (2) in terms of form-meaning mappings (basically arbitrary vs. basically iconic), (3) in terms of how we interpret them (“decode” to interpret vs. “imagine” to interpret).
Words as images
Without even having started worrying about ideophones, this is a distinction that we need to make. It’s a distinction that is motivated on independent grounds. Words are different from images in their mode of representation, and we find a number of clear differences between the descriptive and depictive modes of representation.
The next step of my argument consists simply in noting that precisely those three key ways in which descriptions differ from depictions (in the visual mode) are also ways in which plain words differ from ideophones (in spoken language). Ideophones tend to use more gradient and discrete symbol systems; their form-meaning mappings tend to be more iconic than arbitrary; and to interpret them, we “imagine” more than we “decode” (Dingemanse 2011, 2012). Of course these differences are not absolute; in my thesis I have pointed out, for instance, that convention (and hence decoding) also plays an important role in depiction. After all ideophones are conventionalised words and not creative formations — most of the time.
When I say that ideophones are depictions, this is a statement about their mode of representation. It is more about a way some thing can be than about the thing itself. Take the sun. That’s a pretty good ‘thing’. Now take the two representations of the sun shown above. Even those representations are tangible ‘things’, in the sense that we can talk about them, point at them, isolate them (as I do on the slide above). But the way in which those two representations differ, that is their mode of representation. It is about the way something can represent something else. That is the sense in which I call an image of the sun and an ideophone in spoken language a depiction.
Signals and aspects of depictions
You wouldn’t be able to tell this is a painting if it weren’t for the frame. Right?
Having established this sense of depiction, we can next make a distinction between signals and aspects of depictions. A signal serves to alert the interpreter to a difference. It’s like the frame of a painting. That frame is not itself the depiction, but it frames it, marks it as distinct from the surrounding material. Distinct how? In mode of representation. Good examples of signals of depiction in speech are things like quotative markers or performative foregrounding. Both can be seen in an example like “The car went VROOOM” — the ‘go’ verb functions as the quotative marker, and the capitals of vroom help highlight its performative nature (a convention familiar from comic strips). Note that there is nothing depictive about the quotative verb itself. It just serves to introduce someting as as depiction.
Aspects of depictions is what I want to call the more direct manifestations of the depictive mode itself. For instance the smudges of paint on a painting, dark in some places and light in some others, thick in some places and thinner in others. This gradient use of paint is what makes the painting a depiction rather than a description. Good examples of aspects of depiction in speech are the iconic form-meaning mappings we find in ideophones: for instance the fact that word structure may resemble event structure in ideophones like dzâ! ‘sudden appearance’ or fwɛ̃fwɛ̃ ‘flexible’ (the technical term for this is Gestalt iconicity, Dingemanse 2011). These forms of iconicity, found commonly in ideophones but rarely in ordinary words, show that we find ourselves in another mode of representation, one in which verbal material is being used in gradient ways.
Of course, semiotics being what it is (or more to the point, we humans being what we are), signals and aspects may sometimes be conflated. The use of paint in a painting is not only an aspect of the depiction that helps you imagine the scene; it also serves as a signal that alerts you to the fact that you are now looking at a depiction and not a description. In language, performative foregrounding is not only a signal that we are now listening to a depiction: it can also serves as an aspect of the depiction, as in Janis Nuckolls’ descriptions of Quechua ideophones where intonation is used to signal height and other things (Nuckolls 1996). And in an ideophone that is reduplicated eleven times in my Siwu corpus, the expressive morphology serves not just as a signal that we’ve entered the depictive mode, it is also an aspect of the depiction itself in that it may iconically signal ongoing repetition.
The burden of alternative accounts
In closing, it is useful to think about what this account is giving us — and conversely, how we could argue against it. What it gives us is a unified explanation of a set of features that have struck linguists as noteworthy from early on. Ideophones have always been described in special terms such as “vivid”, “expressive”, “playful”, “peculiar”, but none of these terms have been properly defined and so we’ve been stuck, for a long time, with subjective, piecemeal characterisations of ideophones. Here I have argued that the depictive mode of representation is a key feature (perhaps the key feature) distinguishing ideophones from ordinary words.
If one really wanted to argue against a depictive account of ideophones, one would have to come up with good reasons for the conglomerate of signals and aspects that I argue point us to the depictive nature of ideophones. One would have to explain why they often come with quotative marking; why their forms are more gradient and iconic than ordinary words; why they are in many languages susceptible to expressive morphology; and why they are often performatively foregrounded. That seems a tall order. This is precisely the thought process I went through before ending up at the solution presented at length in my thesis and summarised here. The solution lies in recognising that ideophones differ from ordinary words in terms of mode of representation, in a way that is analogous to the difference between written words and images.
Note. I thank Kimi Akita and Herb Clark for their thoughtful questions about these matters, which over the years have helped me to clarify my account of ideophones as depictions.
Clark, Herbert H., and Richard J. Gerrig. 1990. “Quotations as Demonstrations.” Language 66 (4): 764–805.
Dingemanse, Mark. 2011. The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu. PhD dissertation, Nijmegen: Radboud University. http://thesis.ideophone.org/.
———. 2012a. “Advances in the cross-linguistic study of ideophones.” Language and Linguistics Compass 6 (10): 654–672. doi:10.1002/lnc3.361.
———. 2012b. “Coerced iconicity in writing and speech.” SemiotiX XN-8. http://www.semioticon.com/semiotix/2012/07/coerced-iconicity-in-writing-and-speech/.
Gelman, Susan A., and Paul Bloom. 2000. “Young children are sensitive to how an object was created when deciding what to name it.” Cognition 76 (2): 91–103. doi:10.1016/S0010-0277(00)00071-8.
Goodman, Nelson. 1968. Languages of art: An approach to the theory of symbols. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
Güldemann, Tom. 2008. Quotative Indexes in African languages: a synchronic and diachronic survey. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Kosslyn, Stephen M. 1980. Image and Mind. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Magritte, René. 1929. “Les Mots et les Images.” La Révolution surréaliste 12: 32–33.
Nuckolls, Janis B. 1996. Sounds Like Life: Sound-Symbolic Grammar, Performance, and Cognition in Pastaza Quechua. New York: Oxford University Press.
Walton, Kendall L. 1973. “Pictures and Make-Believe.” The Philosophical Review 82 (3): 283–319.
Zemach, Eddy M. 1975. “Description and Depiction.” Mind 84 (336): 567–578.
Depiction is reference conveyed through pictures. Basically a picture refers to its object through a non-linguistic two-dimensional scheme. A picture is not writing or notation. A depictive two-dimensional scheme is called a picture plane and may be constructed according to descriptive geometry where they are usually divided between projections (orthogonal and various oblique angles) and perspectives (according to number of vanishing points). Pictures are made with various materials and techniques, such as painting, drawing, or prints (including photography and movies) mosaics, tapestries, stained glass, and collages of unusual and disparate elements. Occasionally, picture-like features may be recognised in simple inkblots, accidental stains, peculiar clouds or a glimpse of the moon, but these are special cases, and it is controversial whether they count as genuine instances of depiction. Similarly, sculpture and theatrical performances are sometimes said to depict, but this requires a broad understanding of 'depict', as simply designating a form of representation that is not linguistic or notational. The bulk of studies of depiction however deal only with pictures. While sculpture and performance clearly represent or refer, they do not strictly picture their objects.
Objects pictured may be factual or fictional, literal or metaphorical, realistic or idealised and in various combination. Idealised depiction is also termed schematic or stylised and extends to icons, diagrams and maps. Classes or styles of picture may abstract their objects by degrees, conversely, establish degrees of the concrete (usually called, a little confusingly, figuration or figurative, since the 'figurative' is then often quite literal). Stylisation can lead to the fully abstract picture, where reference is only to conditions for a picture plane – a severe exercise in self-reference and ultimately a sub-set of pattern.
But just how pictures function remains controversial. Philosophers, art historians and critics, perceptual psychologists and other researchers in the arts and social sciences have contributed to the debate and many of the most influential contributions have been interdisciplinary. Some key positions are briefly surveyed below.
Traditionally, depiction is distinguished from denotative meaning by the presence of a mimetic element or resemblance. A picture resembles its object in a way a word or sound does not. Resemblance is no guarantee of depiction, obviously. Two pens may resemble one another but do not therefore depict each other. To say a picture resembles its object especially is only to say that its object is that which it especially resembles; which strictly begins with the picture itself. Indeed, since everything resembles something in some way, mere resemblance as a distinguishing trait is trivial. Moreover, depiction is no guarantee of resemblance to an object. A picture of a dragon does not resemble an actual dragon. So resemblance is not enough.
Theories have tried either to set further conditions to the kind of resemblance necessary, or sought ways in which a notational system might allow such resemblance. It is widely believed that the problem with a resemblance theory of depiction is that resemblance is a symmetrical relation between terms (necessarily, if x resembles y, then y resembles x) while in contrast depiction is at best a non-symmetrical relation (it is not necessary that, if x depicts y, y depicts x). If this is right, then depiction and resemblance cannot be identified, and a resemblance theory of depiction is forced to offer a more complicated explanation, for example by relying on experienced resemblance instead, which clearly is an asymmetrical notion (that you experience x as resembling y does not mean you also experience y as resembling x). Others have argued, however, that the concept of resemblance is not exclusively a relational notion, and so that the initial problem is merely apparent.
In art history, the history of actual attempts to achieve resemblance in depictions is usually covered under the terms "realism", naturalism", or "illusionism".
The most famous and elaborate case for resemblance modified by reference, is made by art historian Ernst Gombrich. Resemblance in pictures is taken to involve illusion. Instincts in visual perception are said to be triggered or alerted by pictures, even when we are rarely deceived. The eye supposedly cannot resist finding resemblances that accord with illusion. Resemblance is thus narrowed to something like the seeds of illusion. Against the one-way relation of reference Gombrich argues for a weaker or labile relation, inherited from substitution. Pictures are thus both more primitive and powerful than stricter reference.
But whether a picture can deceive a little while it represents as much seems gravely compromised. Claims for innate dispositions in sight are also contested. Gombrich appeals to an array of psychological research from James J. Gibson, R. L. Gregory, John M. Kennedy, Konrad Lorenz, Ulric Neisser and others in arguing for an 'optical' basis to perspective, in particular (see also perspective (graphical). Subsequent cross-cultural studies in depictive competence and related studies in child-development and vision impairment are inconclusive at best.
Gombrich's convictions have important implications for his popular history of art, for treatment and priorities there. In a later study by John Willats (1997) on the variety and development of picture planes, Gombrich's views on the greater realism of perspective underpin many crucial findings.
A more frankly behaviouristic view is taken by the perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson, partly in response to Gombrich. Gibson treats visual perception as the eye registering necessary information for behaviour in a given environment. The information is filtered from light rays that meet the retina. The light is called the stimulus energy or sensation. The information consists of underlying patterns or 'invariants' for vital features to the environment.
Gibson's view of depiction concerns the re-presentation of these invariants. In the case of illusions or trompe l'oeil, the picture also conveys the stimulus energy, but generally the experience is of perceiving two sets of invariants, one for the picture surface, another for the object pictured. He pointedly rejects any seeds of illusion or substitution and allows that a picture represents when two sets of invariants are displayed. But invariants tell us little more than that the resemblance is visible, dual invariants only that the terms of reference are the same as those for resemblance
A similar duality is proposed by the philosopher of art Richard Wollheim. He calls it 'twofoldness'. Our experience of the picture surface is called the 'configurational' aspect, and our experience of the object depicted the 'recognitional'. Wollheim's main claim is that we are simultaneously aware of both the surface and the depicted object. The concept of twofoldness has been very influential in contemporary analytic aesthetics, especially in the writings of Dominic Lopes and of Bence Nanay. Again, illusion is forestalled by the prominence of the picture surface where an object is depicted. Yet the object depicted quite simply is the picture surface under one reading, the surface indifferent to picture, another. The two are hardly compatible or simultaneous. Nor do they ensure a reference relation.
Wollheim introduces the concept of 'seeing-in' to qualify depictive resemblance. Seeing-in is a psychological disposition to detect a resemblance between certain surfaces, such as inkblots or accidental stains, etc. and three-dimensional objects. The eye is not deceived, but finds or projects some resemblance to the surface. This is not quite depiction, since the resemblance is only incidental to the surface. The surface does not strictly refer to such objects. Seeing-in is a necessary condition to depiction, and sufficient when in accordance with the maker's intentions, where these are clear from certain features to a picture. But seeing-in cannot really say in what way such surfaces resemble objects either, only specify where they perhaps first occur.
Wollheim's account of how a resemblance is agreed or modified, whereby maker and user anticipate each other's roles, does not really explain how a resemblance refers, but rather when an agreed resemblance obtains.
Other psychological resources
The appeal to broader psychological factors in qualifying depictive resemblance is echoed in the theories of philosophers such as Robert Hopkins, Flint Schier and Kendall Walton. They enlist 'experience', 'recognition' and 'imagination' respectively. Each provides additional factors to an understanding or interpretation of pictorial reference, although none can explain how a picture resembles an object (if indeed it does), nor how this resemblance is then also a reference.
For example, Schier returns to the contrast with language to try to identify a crucial difference in depictive competence. Understanding a pictorial style does not depend upon learning a vocabulary and syntax. Once grasped, a style allows the recognition of any object known to the user. Of course recognition allows a great deal more than that – books teaching children to read often introduce them to many exotic creatures such as a kangaroo or armadillo through illustrations. Many fictions and caricatures are promptly recognised without prior acquaintance of either a particular style or the object in question. So competence cannot rely on a simple index or synonymy for objects and styles.
Schier's conclusion that lack of syntax and semantics in reference then qualifies as depiction, leaves dance, architecture, animation, sculpture and music all sharing the same mode of reference. This perhaps points as much to limitations in a linguistic model.
Reversing orthodoxy, the philosopher Nelson Goodman starts from reference and attempts to assimilate resemblance. He denies resemblance as either necessary or sufficient condition for depiction but surprisingly, allows that it arises and fluctuates as a matter of usage or familiarity.
For Goodman, a picture denotes. Denotation is divided between description, covering writing and extending to more discursive notation including music and dance scores, to depiction at greatest remove. However, a word does not grow to resemble its object, no matter how familiar or preferred. To explain how a pictorial notation does, Goodman proposes an analogue system, consisting of undifferentiated characters, a density of syntax and semantics and relative repleteness of syntax. These requirements taken in combination mean that a one-way reference running from picture to object encounters a problem. If its semantics is undifferentiated, then the relation flows back from object to picture. Depiction can acquire resemblance but must surrender reference. This is a point tacitly acknowledged by Goodman, conceding firstly that density is the antithesis of notation and later that lack of differentiation may actually permit resemblance. A denotation without notation lacks sense.
Nevertheless, Goodman's framework is revisited by philosopher John Kulvicki and interestingly applied by art historian James Elkins to an array of hybrid artefacts, combining picture, pattern and notation.
Pictorial semiotics aims for just the kind of integration of depiction with notation undertaken by Goodman, but fails to identify his requirements for syntax and semantics. It seeks to apply the model of structural linguistics, to reveal core meanings and permutations for pictures of all kinds, but stalls in identifying constituent elements of reference, or as semioticians prefer, 'signification'. Similarly, they accept resemblance although call it 'iconicity' (after Charles Sanders Peirce, 1931–58) and are uncomfortable in qualifying its role. Older practitioners, such as Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco variously shift analysis to underlying 'connotations' for an object depicted or concentrate on description of purported content at the expense of more medium-specific meaning. Essentially they establish a more general iconography.
A later adherent, Göran Sonesson, rejects Goodman's terms for syntax and semantics as alien to linguistics, no more than an ideal and turns instead to the findings of perceptual psychologists, such as J. M. Kennedy, N. H. Freeman and David Marr in order to detect underlying structure. Sonesson accepts 'seeing-in', although prefers Edmund Husserl's version. Resemblance is again grounded in optics or the visible, although this does not exclude writing nor reconcile resemblance with reference. Discussion tends to be restricted to the function of outlines in schemes for depth.
The art historian Norman Bryson persists with a linguistic model and advances a detail of parsing and tense, 'deixis'. He rejects resemblance and illusion as incompatible with the ambiguities and interpretation available to pictures and is also critical of the inflexible nature of structuralist analysis. Deixis is taken as the rhetoric of the narrator, indicating the presence of the speaker in a discourse, a bodily or physical aspect as well as an explicit temporal dimension. In depiction this translates as a difference between 'The Gaze' where deixis is absent and 'The Glance' where it is present. Where present, details to materials indicate how long and in what way the depiction was made, where absent, a telling suppression or prolonging of the act. The distinction attempts to account for the 'plastic' or medium-specific qualities absent from earlier semiotic analyses and somewhat approximates the 'indexic' aspect to signs introduced by Peirce.
Deixis offers a more elaborate account of the picture surface and broad differences to expression and application but cannot qualify resemblance.
Lastly, iconography is the study of pictorial content, mainly in art, and would seem to ignore the question of how to concentrate upon what. But iconography's findings take a rather recondite view of content, are often based on subtle literary, historical and cultural allusion and highlight a sharp difference in terms of resemblance, optical accuracy or intuitive illusion. Resemblance is hardly direct or spontaneous for the iconographer, reference rarely to the literal or singular. Visual perception here is subject to reflection and research, the object as much reference as referent.
The distinguished art historian Erwin Panofsky allowed three levels to iconography. The first is 'natural' content, the object recognised or resembling without context, on a second level, a modifying historical and cultural context and at a third, deeper level, a fundamental structure or ideology (called iconology). He even ascribed the use of perspective a deep social meaning (1927). However more recently, a natural or neutral level tends to be abandoned as mythical. The cultural scholar W. J. T. Mitchell looks to ideology to determine resemblance and depiction as acknowledgement of shifts in relations there, albeit by an unspecified scheme or notation.
Iconography points to differences in scope for a theory of depiction. Where stylistics and a basic object is nominated, resemblance is prominent, but where more elaborate objects are encountered, or terms for nature denied, simple perception or notation flounder. The difference corresponds somewhat to the division in philosophy between the analytic and continental.
Dozens of factors influence depictions and how they are represented. These include the equipment used to create the depiction, the creator’s intent, vantage point, mobility, proximity, publication format, among others, and, when dealing wth human subjects, their potential desire for impression management.
Other debates about the nature of depiction include the relationship between seeing something in a picture and seeing face to face, whether depictive representation is conventional, how understanding novel depictions is possible, the aesthetic and ethical value of depiction and the nature of realism in pictorial art.
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