Recent paper for a Theory of Science and Methodology in Visual Culture class below.  Question was “Sign; surface; meaning.” Discuss, taking the syllabus as your point of departure. Hampered by a very tight word limit – hence the rather heavy crutch of the Keats lines. All of it new and untested material for me, but found this overtly hermeneutic approach of analysis and writing a useful and different way of getting into the topic.


I want in the brief space of this assignment to attempt to use several of the hermeneutic writings looked at on the course in analysing a personal notion of a “crystallization.” The term crystallization is intended to hint at a kind of irresistible sense of clarity and permanence that can be cast over one’s comprehension of an artwork. This irresistibility consists not so much in any sense of a particular truth or ideal attained, but rather in the very unavoidable and unshakeable nature of this particular kind of comprehension. The crystallized comprehension does not necessarily rule out a multiplicity of possible interpretations, but it does admit that, in the case of any work that has crystallized in its own comprehension, it can’t help but be lead down the particular path of effect which the artwork has so singularly cleared out amongst all other possible interpretations. Things become not so much true as unfalsifiable. This transformation that occurs in the comprehension makes the artwork itself a very singular kind of “sign,” one that can be thought of as a signal or switch that lights up this single-minded brand of comprehension.

That is not to say that the crystallized comprehension of an artwork is a limited one. On the contrary, this sense of a permanent quality to such comprehension is a result of the very strength and totality of the effect it enacts on comprehension. Likewise, the sense of clarity is not so much one of simplicity, but rather of being able to see more clearly. The crystallizing work becomes – to draw from two poems[1] of Keats – like a new planet “swimming” into one’s field of comprehension. It unveils a “wide expanse,” in which, like the figure of legend, one is able to see with “eagles eyes.” But such spatial metaphors that hint at depth are misleading. As soon as crystallization occurs, whether after a long period of time spent studying an object or upon first glance, questions of depth or complexity[2] of experience fall by the wayside as the particularities of the work and one’s comprehension of them merge into a kind of level plane of fused experience[3]. Differentiations matter little, the pieces of the puzzle have been irrevocably set into a permanent kind of whole, and the science of interpretation readily concedes to the pseudo-science of holistic intuition. With thought so completely entranced and suspended in this crystallized comprehension, a notion of “meaning” becomes little more than an afterthought.

Such a sense of an unbreakable totality is directly related to the corresponding devaluation of interpretation or meaning. In the very fullness that such a crystallized comprehension faces there is a correspondingly empowering sense of speechlessness. Here we are in similar territory to Didi-Huberman’s endorsement of a notion of “not-knowledge.” However there is perhaps a slightly different cast to this cystallized not-knowledge. Rather than being confronted by an opaque surface, it is the very sense of clarity of experience that proves to be its overwhelming feature[4]. Like the subject of Rilke’s ‘Archaischer Torso Apollos,’ one is dazzled by this intense gaze that the artwork casts upon comprehension. And rather than having “to commit ourselves to the paradoxical ordeal not to know”[5], as Didi-Huberman would have it, in the crystallized comprehension one finds oneself already committed, already under the spell of this transformation that has taken place and transplanted experience to a plane of the “absolute” (for lack of a better word that captures this wordlessness) that imparts a kind of breathless wonder. One stands, “Silent, upon a peak in Darien,” taking it all in, readily accepting that there is really nothing to add to what has already been expressed so well.

This intuitive and holistic totality of the crystallized experience is like the mnemonic quality of haiku (and poetry in general), and once an artwork is received in such a way there is a sense in which the experience of it has been indelibly imprinted on the mind. The crystallized experience can be thought of in this sense as similar to a photographic snapshot, and in its permanence there is a kind of photographic memory to one’s comprehension of it. It pops out in this regard, taking on a particular sharpness in the way that it focuses the attention of the mind. Thus the “surface” of the crystallized experience is this indelible popping quality in one’s comprehension of the work in question; the permanent mark it establishes; the now set groove that guides the needle of comprehension just so. So clear does this inscription of the artwork become in comprehension that one is able in a sense to reproduce the experience of this kind of comprehension – to paint without the model – quite readily from thereon in. This is a kind of internalizing of sign and surface, an acknowledgement of a work’s comprehensive power over one’s own power of understanding. Thus, as opposed to some hermeneutic emphases on the importance of things like presence and play, I would suggest that the presence of the work itself, in such instances, becomes somewhat “secondary” (again, for lack of a better word). There is an abiding sense in which one no longer requires the presence of the artwork after it has crystallized. The Proustian madeleine now lies within one, at hand and available to be nibbled on at any time[6]. But it is not quite right to speak only of internalization, for this internalizing metaphor could just as easily be turned inside out, in that we might say that the crystallized work also externalizes the internal thought processes, bringing comprehension to the level surface plane of experience mentioned above. As with the headless torso of Rilke’s ‘Apollo,’ the artwork has, in such a transformation, somehow seen through you. One becomes in a sense the very object itself[7], enacting a sense of self-forgetfulness similar to that Gadamer describes[8]. Thus, despite hinting at a sense of clarity earlier, it might instead be better to speak of a transparency in the crystallized experience. For the less clouded the crystal, the clearer and more transparent it is, the brighter it shines, the easier one sees through it.

This exposition has now come to be dominated by a metaphor of the crystal (like the white wall that washes over Didi-Huberman’s text). It may well be that this reflects a crystallized mindset at work in this very essay. I point this out because, as Mitchell demonstrates in regards to Marx’s use of a metaphor of the camera obscura[9], such is the power of such particularly dominant strains of metaphors (what Mitchell dubs “hypericons”) that, once lodged in comprehension, they can act as dominant prisms through which comprehension is drawn into and through – to the point where they have the potential to ride roughshod[10] over one’s own ability to use them in effective or meaningful ways. And yet has not something like Plato’s cave proven irresistible for one generation after another? Consider Keats’s line, “There is a triple sight in blindness keen.” There is a sense here in which sign, surface and meaning can, on occasion, fuse into a singular kind of triple sight. A visionary sight that is in a sense blind, in the way that such a crystallized comprehension confounds the hermeneutic impulse, but nonetheless keen, in the hold it is able to maintain on the mind’s eyes.


Gadamer, HG, ‘The Ontology of the Work of Art and its Hermeneutical Significance,’ in Kearney, R & Rasmussen D, Continental Aesthetics. Romanticism to Postmodernism, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2001, pp. 321-339.

Gumbrecht, HU, Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2004.

Didi-Huberman, G, Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

Mitchell, WJT, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986.

[1] John Keats, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ & ‘To Homer.’ (return)

[2] Such as, for instance, Gombrich’s distinction between the natural and conventional sign, or Nelson Goodman’s notion of density and differentiation – as highlighted in each case by Mitchell. (return)

[3] While this notion of a fused and level plane is clearly influenced by Gadamer’s Horizontverschmelzung, there is at least one central difference between the two: rather than there being a cyclical aspect to this fusing, with crystallization the so-called hermeneutic circle can be said to have come to a standstill. For as long as it is crystallized in comprehension, a dynamics of interpretation remains closed. If there is any sense of movement felt within it, then this is most likely aesthetic in nature. But both ideas do share the strong sense of passivity in this fusion: “Theoria is a true sharing, not something active, but something passive (pathos), namely being totally involved in and carried away by what one sees.” (Gadamer, p.332) (return)

[4] Although such a distinction between opacity and clarity is in itself a differentiation and thus of secondary interest to a concept of crystallization. (return)

[5] Didi-Huberman, p.7 (return)

[6] Only the failings of memory hold this permanently imprinted quality back, and in that case one can always refresh the memory with a repeated direct presencing of the sign. (return)

[7] Gadamer on the work of art as subject: “The work of art is not an object that stands over against a subject for itself. Instead the work of art has its true being in the fact that it becomes an experience changing the person experiencing it. The ‘subject’ of the experience of art, that which remains and endures, is not the subjectivity of the person who experiences it, but the work itself.” (p.322) (return)

[8] Gadamer, p.332 (return)

[9] See the chapter ‘The Rhetoric of Iconoclasm – Marxism, Ideology, and Fetishism,’ in Mitchell. (return)

[10] This is where discussions on the “violence” of the irresistible image come into play. See, for instance, Didi-Huberman on the negating, “murdering” power of the image on the legible; Gadamer on the way in which an artwork “affirms itself… by killing” (p.330); Mitchell unravelling Edmund Burke’s aesthetic concepts around violence; or a whole slew of various poems by Keats. (return)


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