Friday, September 21, 2007

Edwards: Echoes of Camelot

Bill Schnupp

Abstract: Janis Edwards’ “Echoes of Camelot”

I. Summary

Edwards opens his piece with the argument that images disseminated by the mass media in connection with noteworthy social events became inextricably linked with those events in the form of “cultural remembering.” Essentially, the image encapsulates a particular historical or social moment—along with the associations that accompany such moments—and embeds it in the collective consciousness, easily retained and recalled. The poignancy of these images is found in the way they “express particulars to evoke the universal” (179). As an example, Edwards cites Joe Rosenthal’s World War II image of the flag raising at the battle of Iwo Jima—a very specific image that imparts (at least in one potential reading) ideas of patriotism, victory, and collective effort. Edwards expands on this example to demonstrate the longevity of the flag image by linking it to a similar image of firefighters raising a flag over the ruins of the WTC in 2002. The ideas present in the depiction of the flag raising at Iwo Jima are called forth in the image with the firefighters, and subsequently expanded on, thus granting the image a greater and more immediate potency.

Edwards next moves into a more illustrative example: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, particularly the photograph of a 3 year-old JFK Jr. saluting his father’s funeral procession. The author posits that this photograph is an instance of depictive rhetoric, an image that lives in the collective consciousness. The image of the lonely child, his father stolen away, paralleled the “national grief”: a country dispossessed of its innocence, leaderless. This and other photos of the Kennedy family served to forge a parasocial relationship (a one-sided relationship between the public and those represented by the mass media).

Edwards later expands on the “salute” image in a discussion of JFK Jr.’s own death in 1999: his plane crash was remote and isolated; not under media scrutiny until after the fact. Consequently, the image of the salute was widely and effectively used by the media to convey a sense of loss and mourning similar to that created in the photograph’s original context. Indeed the feelings were equally as poignant, and further reveal the depth of the parasocial relationship: “the salute photograph functions to engender outrage—not simply the outrage that accompanies a premature and (apparently) avoidable accident, but the outrage that this can be happening again—to the Kennedy’s, to us. The salute photograph connects the past and the present through its symbolic twin expressions of outrage and regret” (185). This stems into the ideas of an image’s truth value (meaning) and its symbolic value (accompanying connotations and ideas).

The author then offers eleven qualities common to such iconic/outrage-provoking photographs:
1. Celebrity
2. Prominence
3. Frequency
4. Profit
5. Instantaneousness
6. Fame of Subjects
7. Transposability
8. Importance of Events
9. Metonymy
10. Primordiality and/or Cultural Resonance
11. Striking Composition

The piece then moves to a notation of how depictive rhetorics and iconic images are appropriated by cartoonists and the mass media (sometimes inappropriately). Edwards’ closing thoughts are particularly engaging: “The invocation of the mythic narrative of the Kennedy promise and end of that promise prompted a mourning that was directed inward. As a nation, we mourned our own destiny, remembered through media images that returned us to that earlier time. . .the use of such images connects two messages, from now and then, linking together the “truth value” of a photograph and its symbolic value in harmonious resonance” (193).

II. Analysis

I think Edwards controlling idea here--that events of social gravity stick in our collective memory to be applied not only to their initial circumstances, but to successive events as well--is very compelling (and accurate). For example, I don't think it would be possible to ask someone about 9/11 and receive nothing in return: the image of the WTC smoking and tumbling lives in the American collective consciousness. What I find even more interesting though, is the way Edwards describes how an event can serve as the impetus for us to turn in upon ourselves. I think of it as a kind of frame of reference: it begins wide, on a social event of mass significance, but then tightens to each individual and causes them to refelct on themselves, to focus on their problem, their loss.

Fresh from Barthes, I also find myself attempting interpretation of Edwards’ idea through a semiotic/mythic lens; I think the parallels are definitely present. The image of the young Kennedy saluting holds the truth value of a child, formally dressed for a funeral or other somber occasion. The symbolic value, however, are the ideas of national grief and the loss of both innocence and a leader. To me, this feels like the movement between the linguistic and semiotic systems: in the linguistic scheme, there is photo of a boy in formal dress saluting as a funeral procession passes; the meaning is clear, a somber occasion, personal loss, etc. This filters into the mythic narrative, and the boy is no longer a boy, but a nation bereft of leadership. Edwards’ final remarks about the harmonious union of truth and symbolism also suggest the fluid relationship of meaning and form, of linguistics and semiotics to achieve meaning.

That said, I don’t think a completely pure version of Barthes’ ideas can be applied to this reading, as I believe Edwards definitely employs some iconographical ideas (despite the fact that iconography seems more centered on classic/antiquated art). For instance, at one point in her discussion, she writes that “the news media poses a situation that requires a distinction between how a photograph was understood at the time and how it might be understood in the current day” (184). If I read Barthes correctly, texts are severed from their historical context in their interpretation, as the role of the semiologist/mythologist is to stop the fluid movement between the linguistic and mythologic systems. A large part of Edwards argument, however, is that images are encapsulated in their historic context; this quality is what allows for the layered meaning that results from re-presenting a past image in contemporary times. This idea clearly conforms to Van Leeuwens’ “Semiotics and iconography” when he writes that “iconography also uses arguments based on intertextual comparison[a past image recalled to the present] and archival background research[ inclusion of historical context]” (117).

It is in my attempt to apply and understand Van Leeuwens’ ideas that I find myself a bit confused about a part of Edwards’ piece. I understand that the salute photograph is a myth of sorts, and that it consequently holds a meaning beyond that of a little boy saluting. Edwards frequently calls the photo an iconic image. I can’t decide if this image is an example of iconographical or iconological symbolism, as Van Leeuwen distinguishes them in the following way:

“Iconographical symbolism. . .denote[s] a particular person, thing or place, but also the ideas or
concepts attached to it. . .iconographical symbolism is apprehended by realizing that a male figure with a
knife represents St. Bartholomew. . .” (100-1).

“Iconological symbolism is what, in another context, would be called ideological meaning. . .to ascertain
those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or
philosophical persuasion” (101).

The two ideas seem almost indistinguishable to me. In each case, the iconic symbol is accompanied by associations, concepts, and idea. At first, I thought the fact that Van Leeuwen explicitly mentions nations in his discussion of iconological symbolism made it clear, but now I’m not so sure. Iconographical also denotes a symbol that evokes more than just itself. Perhaps I’m reading to much into this; maybe someone can straighten it out for me?

III. Questions, Key Terms, and Further Reading

1. What do you make of Edwards’ closing thought—that the symbolic meanings of images spark a self-reflexive

2. What ideas do you feel this piece is more informed by: Semiotics? Iconography? Both?

Key Terms:
Visual rhetoric
Depictive Rhetoric
Parasocial Relationship
Truth Value
Symbolic Value
Cultural Remembering/Collective Memory



Bridgett said...

Great abstract, Bill, I think you summed up the whole arguement very elegantly. I think the answer to your second question is she uses both Semiotics and iconography. that being said she draws more heavily on iconography as well as she should as that field gives her more more room to discuss the subject matter. Barthe doesn't quite cut it in turms of the full meaning of an image.

Bill said...

Thanks for the input; I agree with your reasoning--that Edwards seems to employ a blend of both semiotic and iconographic elements.

tom peele said...

I don't know . . . I have not yet read the Edwards, but I'm not sure I agree with Van Leeuwen's critiqe (if it can even be called that) of Barthes. VL is right that B. doesn't talk about intertextuality, but he also doesn't rule it out. VL provides a useful method for analysis, but it doesn't seem to me to be in conflict with Barthes--just an extension.

As for iconography and iconology (two unhelpfully similar terms) this is what I get:

Iconographical symbolism is not only the thing itself, but also the ideas or concepts attached to it" (100). These are the status quo meanings, what Hall called "hegemonic readings."

Iconological symbolism moves from "identifying generally accepted conventions . . . to an interpretation of which the artists may not be aware and which may not be generally accepted" (101). Hall's oppositional readings?

Bill said...

Thanks for your response. I reacted to Edwards as a kind of mixture of semiotics and iconography--as though VL's ideas and those of Barthes are rigidly compartmentalized. Your point is well taken: the approaches are complimentary, as VL points out on 117, "both methods provide explicit arguments for determining which represented elements. . .can be interpreted as symbolic, and for distinguishing between conventionally accepted forms of symbolism and broader 'iconological' interpretations."

Also, thanks for the distinction between iconological and iconographical--they still run together a bit for me, but linking them to Hall's more familiar ideas is definitely helpful.