Book Review

Pinkus, Karen. Picturing Silence: Emblem, Language, Counter-Reformation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Reviewed by Andreas Zachrau | December 7, 2001

In this rewarding book Karen Pinkus attempts to rescue the emblem from the status of being a mere curiosity. Ever since the Renaissance, Pinkus argues, the majority of theoreticians of the emblem have conceptualized this tripartite medium with a view to the subscritio’s (the explanatory poem or text) supremacy. It is the subscriptio that resolves the fragmentary pictura (icon) and inscriptio (motto). Pinkus convincingly shows, however, vis-à-vis Humanist treatises and modern theories (Benjamin, Wittgenstein, Lacan, Derrida, Ginzburg, Bryson), that the emblematic gaze could not be controlled. It is the icon, then, toward which motto and poem float in search for meaning.

This humanist prejudice (decoding emblems through the accompanying text), the insistence that “the word governed [the]visual image,” Pinkus places in a larger context, the transhistorical debate, as it seems, as to the inherent danger of writing, ranging from Plato’s Phaedrus to Derrida’s thought. There has always been an anxiety about writing’s capability to denature what it claims to imitate. And Pinkus detects a version of that anxiety in emblems that picture silence (scholars, for example, surrounded by books, holding a finger to their lips) expressing the humanists’ ambivalent attitude towards the written word and language in general. Silence had been gendered; it was the domain assigned to women. But humanists, Pinkus argues, haunted by their eloquence, overtook that domain, establishing yet another realm of male dominance, emasculating themselves, as it were, to use silence as a platform from which to announce their contemplative and intellectual superiority, their active participation in high culture. In usurping that former female domain, however, the humanists (involuntarily but the more tellingly) paid homage to the visual.

But this detextualization of the emblem was only the beginning. For Pinkus it was the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola that brought the icon’s importance to the fore. Ignatius’ attempt at institutionalizing silence was guided by his belief in the meditative mind’s unstable imagination. Ignatius set the stage but it was later Jesuits who, overcoming their suspicion of images (the danger of idolatry), inserted images into the Exercises in order help the reader to “figure out” the sacred drama.

This book has shown me that it is always worthwhile to revisit now and then the question as to the relationship between the visual and the discursive realm. Any attempt, past or present, at delineating or confining these realms can throw some interesting light on our very own conceptual prejudices. Pinkus drives home this point quite beautifully when she contrasts the respective interpretative regimes of early modern emblems and today’s baseball cards.

Back to Book Reviews