Thoughts on emblem transposing

WomenWallArt - Spain, NYC, Munich

On a drinking binge in Berlin once I misinterpreted a friend of mine as hypothesizing that image might replace text in the future. I never forgot this theory, which startled me to silence at the time. Now in New York, where we scribble "I used to read" on trucks and play video games on the subway, I see the death of words for fun wherever I look. Since the American sentence can't get any shorter or simpler, and even that hasn't rescued literature, the only route here, our beloved frontier, is to eliminate words entirely - something the movies have been very successful at doing. 
In this framework I happened to stumble upon Walter Benjamin's The Origin of German Tragic Drama in "Baroque New Worlds" - a collection of excerpts and notes on baroque subjects - you know, because we're in the neobaroque. Benjamin's argument and project represent one of the more artistic approaches to theory that I have ever encountered. The second part of his second dissertation (Habilitation) in 1923-4 is conceived in the manner of an emblem (montage of image and text) with any section of it actually being a montage. The image, however, is replaced by quotations from baroque plays and juxtaposed to his theoretical statements, which echo the interpretation or motto of the emblem. "The components mounted together do not unify into a seamless whole, but are merely set side by side; as in the emblem, a textual relation is established, but at the level of meaning, the links remain a puzzle to be completed by the reader" (Zamora/Kaup)... 
In transposition, one of my ideas has been to replace text (particularly narration) with images/illustrations/art. First, however, we have to prepare some more regular transpositions before taking this radical step. Another idea has been to simply juxtapose pictures from different countries - say, for example, trash in America, the UK, Germany, Russia a la Bill Cunningham. That's all fine and well, though not very sophisticated. 
Benjamin's idea of creating emblems, however, could be combined well with such image transpositions. One of the underlying ideas in transposition is that there ARE at least conditional universals. In transposing texts from past eras and trying to find parallels in the 21st century, that is, cases where the form (like travelling, walking, eating) is the same, but the content may or may not be different, the transposition (the text resulting from this process) is implying the existence of universals without making an explicit polemical statement. Tentatively, and I say that because I have hardly analyzed aspects of transposition in a purely contemporary context, but logically it is no different today: we all eat, sleep, move around etc. There is street art in Munich, Brooklyn, London, etc. To a large extent this is all self-evident, and even subtle or overt differences between various cultures' treatment of the same subject (say, street art), should only be a superficial "carrot" to attract a non-theoretical audience. 
In the past->present transpositions I have explored the question of context as determining whether an actor chooses A or B (simplified) on the basis of whether the present situation is consistent with a past one where he knows how his predecessors acted. This element of comparison with the past disappears in every sort of contemporary transposition (and perhaps transposition is no longer the right word for what we are doing, but we'll leave that for a later point in time). The street art(ist) in Munich has a much weaker relationship to it/his counterpart in New York than a literary transposition has to its predecessor (original) or a person standing (or crossing) at a red light has to his role models who stood/crossed in the past. 
So while the combination of image and text across cultures is currently intriguing, and was largely derived from my idea of (partially) transposing words of past texts into contemporary images, the theoretical framework continues to remain in a weakly developed state. When we have a few more transposed emblems and a couple of these contemporary literary transpositions, it will be possible to analyze a broader body of work.

Henry Whittlesey


Lois Parkinson Zamora and Monika Kaup (Eds).  Baroque New Worlds. Duke University Press, 2010.
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