Iconotexts and Architecture: Toward Literary Analysis

By Cass, Jeffrey | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Iconotexts and Architecture: Toward Literary Analysis


Cass, Jeffrey, Academic Exchange Quarterly


Abstract

Borrowing from the theoretical writings of Peter Wagner, the author makes use of the concept of "iconotext" in order to present a pedagogical model that more easily transitions students from basic composition courses to courses that require students to write about literature. A consideration of architectural landscapes forms the basis of this approach.

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A little over a decade ago, in a compelling issue of College English, Janet Carey Eldred and Peter Mortensen wrote that "our profession [was] witnessing ongoing efforts to link literary and textual scholarship, composition scholarship, and critical theory" (512). Nevertheless, after many years of well-intentioned efforts in the field of literacy studies, the realigning of curriculum at community colleges and comprehensive colleges and universities, and the synthesis of literary theory and composition, students still struggle, sometimes valiantly, with their writing as they transition from basic composition courses to literature courses. That transition is anything but seamless. If anything, students suffer from a radical disconnect between basic composition courses and literature courses, principally because they can see little relevance in literature (or many other high order disciplines requiring intricate analysis), which often appears dissociated and abstracted from their workaday lives. Literature professors frequently become, as George Steiner suggests In Bluebeard's Castle, rather like convivial docents in a dusty museum trying to convince tourists of the eternal beauty and lasting value of the art on display, but ultimately sounding puerile and out-of date the longer we lead the tour (105). Instead, we should demonstrate, at least to students in this moment of compositional liminality, how the production of meaning through textual analysis just is the examination of the contours of everyday life. We often fail to make the point that students' lives (and what literally encompasses them) can be as endlessly interesting (and subject to scrutiny) as the texts we champion, that, in fact, students must apply the principles of literary analysis to the architecture, landscapes, and environmental geographies that shape not only students' ideology but their behavior as well. Before they may fondly regard literature, students must confront and do battle with literariness. In the end, I hope to convince students of the necessity of literary analysis, even if I cannot always convince them of the necessity of literature.

In delivering courses that transition students from the rudiments of basic composition to textual complexities of literature courses, I draw upon Peter Wagner's notion of the iconotext. In his book Reading Iconotexts: From Swift to the French Revolution, Wagner analyzes eighteenth-century literature with and through eighteenth-century prints, which he labels "iconotexts" (12). He prefers this term "because of the interpenetration of texts and images they exhibit" (12). Moreover, he further argues that "iconotexts" are "intermedial" since they "encode discourse and represent events" (12). For Wagner, this is a key insight since the iconic is as rhetorical as it is visual and, as such, "iconotexts" are just as interpretable as the 'regular' literary texts we wish students to read and to analyze. Extending Wagner's views, I am particularly interested in the process of "intermediation" that "iconotexts" provide. Their "rhetoric" means that the iconic--its visual geographies and architectural landscapes--may be interpreted as rigorously as any other 'written' text, as if visual images were the words of texts, and with the same paradoxes, ambiguities, and symbolic complexities that attend the conventions we use for analyzing canonical literary texts. Indeed, readers can ultimately discover the iconotextual within literary texts, what classical rhetoricians call ekphrasis. Once students practice interpreting the iconotextual complexity of both familiar and alien environments, their encounters with Jonson's Penshurst or Homer's Shield of Achilles or Shelley's ruined monument of Ozymandias do not seem as daunting or formidable. …

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