Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"The Language of Pictures": Visual Representation and Spectatorship in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"The Language of Pictures": Visual Representation and Spectatorship in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials

Article excerpt

Phillip Pullman foregrounds the act of storytelling in His Dark Materials, and many critics have explored the thematic and literary implications of its function in his novels. (1) Most of these studies discuss oral or written storytelling, but I will investigate an alternate mode of telling and receiving in the trilogy: the visual mode, especially as it functions on the levels of expanding fields of vision and hermeneutics in His Dark Materials. Pullman's own interest in visual literacy opens the door to this examination: he has collaborated with an illustrator to write a few short graphic novels, the most well-known of which is Spring-Heeled Jack, a reinvention of a popular Victorian penny dreadful; he has also written two essays about picture books and graphic novels ("Invisible Pictures" and "Picture Stories and Graphic Novels"). He made his own illustration debut in His Dark Materials by creating the woodcuts that precede each chapter of the trilogy. Thus, Pullman's fascination with "the notion that you can tell stories, you can ask and answer questions, and so on, by means of pictures" ("Interview") drives this study.

Pullman's multiple manifestations of the visual in the novels--by way of images (as with the daemon, the alethiometer, and the spyglass) as well as via modes of visual representation, spectatorship, and acts of visualization-often function as means for character and thematic development in His Dark Materials. The visual literacy advocated by the trilogy emphasizes that learning to recognize the potency of visual texts and to engage in multiple active and curious ways of "seeing" allows the viewer to expand his dynamic interaction with the world around him.

The relationship between the visual and the verbal "sister arts" has been a subject of study from the beginnings of western philosophy and certainly has its roots in far earlier times and cultures. His Dark Materials, in its historical context, employs visual storytelling in ways that draw upon and move beyond a classical study of the sister arts. While the trilogy employs classical elements such as iconography and ekphrasis, Pullman writes in the wake of what W. J. T. Mitchell terms the "pictorial turn," an occurrence he places during the advent of video and internet technology:

   [The pictorial turn is] a postlinguistic, postsemiotic rediscovery
   of the picture as a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus,
   institutions, discourse, bodies, and figurality. It is the
   realization that spectatorship (the look, the gaze, the glance, the
   practices of observation, surveillance, and visual pleasure) may be
   as deep a problem as various forms of reading (decipherment,
   decoding, interpretation, etc.) and that visual experience or
   "visual literacy" might not be fully explicable on the model of
   textuality. (16)

Thus, my investigation into visual representation in His Dark Materials indulges the conceptual framework suggested by Margaret Dikovitskaya, who states that "Objects of visual studies are not only visual objects but also modes of viewing and the conditions of the spectatorship and circulation of objects" (64).

In the worlds of His Dark Materials, one fundamental condition of active spectatorship is the possession of Dust, the life-force of Pullman's created universe and the central metaphor for consciousness in the trilogy. It is a physically existent substance, but only in the mode of the visual: at no point does any character touch, taste, hear, or smell Dust. While it is invisible to the naked human eye, more than one character manages to see it. Attempts to see and interpret Dust, or see and appreciate evidence of it in other visual manifestations, drive the action of the entire trilogy--which suggests that Pullman's work, insofar as it employs this investigation into visual literacy, is largely about the way the human subject chooses to perceive the world around him. …

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