Thawing the Frozen Image/word: Vernacular Postmodern Aesthetics

Article excerpt

In a postmodern climate, one of the most tabooed concepts would seem to be stasis, in conjunction with notions of containment. As such it is not difficult to see why postmodern writers have a curious love/hate relationship with the image: insofar as the image is regarded as an example of fixity and arrested time, it becomes the mode of representation most to be avoided; yet insofar as the notion of containment pertains to disciplinary boundaries, then enlisting the image in mixed-media compositions would seem to be the best way of blurring or otherwise resisting such constraints. Of course, what also comes into play here is the status of the written word itself: does it belong on the side of the visual mode of representation, or on the side of the oral and the unfixed or fluid?

Significantly, in articulating this dilemma, postmodern critics, authors, and artists have not only inadvertently pointed to what may constitute a way out of the trap, but in the process have also resurrected an old trope for expressing it. Thus in describing the double bind that affects much recent postmodern literary expression, Steve McCaffrey observes: "Classical discourse is our inheritance; lodged within the bastions of grammar, it represses all manifestations of libido within rigid vessels of content, freezing energy into representation" (94, emphasis ours). The trope, in short, is that of the "frozen words," a graphic metaphor of fixity and flux that dates back to Plutarch and has long informed vernacular, visual, and, more recently, literary notions of language's inability to freeze permanently our lived experience. Plutarch first introduced the notion of frozen words in his discussion of "hearing," where he describes a city so cold that "words were congealed as soon as spoken"; after some time, when the weather changed, the words "thawed and became audible" (Bartlett 137). The trope marks one of the first recorded examples of "graphic materiality" (McCaffery 99), of language's potential material presence; later it became a staple European conceit, quoted by Joseph Addison, where he attributed it to Mandeville's Travels, and echoing variously throughout the written texts of Castiglione (155), Rabelais, Baron Munchausen, Samuel Butler, John Donne (see Grey's annotations for Hudibras), and collections of in-group jokes, such as Captain William Hicks's Coffee-House Jests. More commonly, though, the trope is associated with a vernacular tradition of oral tales and jokes told in and about the extremes of northern weather (see Thompson; Baughman; Fowke & Carpenter).

What differentiates the frozen words trope from such high art notions as G. E. Lessing's "pregnant moment" in sculpture (9) or Henri Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment" in photography (385) or Diderot's "perfect instant" in painting (qtd. in Burgin 19), is the emphasis on orality and flow: unlike the arrested moment's focus on visual stasis, the frozen word embodies the visual, the literate, and the oral in a form where meaning is located not in the moment but in the moment's release. If words can freeze like water, then under the right conditions they can also flow like water; and, not surprisingly, the resulting rhetoric of water, word, image, and oral flow suggests a potent postmodern formula for dislocating the written word from the page and reconceptualizing the perceived stasis of the image.

By reason of climate and geography, the Canadian literary and visual arts scene has been especially involved in the use of northern tropes and interarts strategies. Early modernist authors and painters, from Frederick Philip Grove to Lawren Harris, draw upon images of frozen water and the myth of the North to articulate a vision where arrested motion - physical, social, and psychological - becomes a recurrent thematic refrain. For many recent artists, however, images of northern purity and stasis no longer carry the same appeal. Postmodernists like Robert Kroetsch, Roy Kiyooka, Murray Favro, and Liz Magor, for instance, seek instead to animate both image and text (via multi-media installations and photo-graphic constructions), all the while playing off and critiquing the established modernist paradigm of the arrested moment. …


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