No Problem?

No Problem

by Michael Fried

This essay, from the special issue “Description Across Disciplines,” is a reflection on the supposed difficulties of “description” in the writing of art history and art criticism. It begins:

Let me hoist up an epigraph, which I mean to wave brightly over everything I shall go on to say, from Ludwig Wittgenstein (no surprise, to anyone familiar with my writing): “The light shed by work is a beautiful light, but it only shines with real beauty if it is illuminated by yet another light.” Let me repeat it, the thought is so foreign to our usual assumptions: “The light shed by work is a beautiful light, but it only shines with real beauty if it is illuminated by yet another light.” I will proceed by making several somewhat general points, which I will try to back up with examples mainly from my own work.

The first point is this: I stand strongly opposed to the idea that there is some special problem—some problem of a theoretical or systematic nature—involved in describing works of (so-called) visual art. This means, to cite a famous text, that I find myself in disagreement with the views put forward in Michael Baxandall’s well-known essay “The Language of Art History” (1991), where he raises a number of problems of a general nature, the most important of which is the lack of fit, as he understands it, between the “linearity” of language and the non-“linearity” of pictures. In contrast to language, he writes, “a picture . . . or rather our perception of it, has no such inherent progression to withstand the sequence of language applied to it” (notice the metaphorics of this: “to withstand”—as if some kind of struggle is going on, with language as the aggressor; “the sequence of language applied to it”—as if slapped or thrust onto the picture’s surface; no suggestion here that a picture might welcome the right language, as if having waited for it nearly forever: think of my epigraph). Baxandall continues in the same vein: “An extended description of a painting is committed by the structure of language to be a progressive violation of the pattern of perceiving a painting. We do not see linearly. We perceive a picture by a temporal sequence of scanning, but within the first second or so of this scanning we have an impression of the whole—that it is a Mother and Child sitting in a hall, say, or a sort of geometricized guitar on a table” (459–60). We then observe greater and greater detail, including relationships among elements, but whatever our progress of seeing and noticing is like, “It is not comparable in regularity and control with progress through a piece of language” (460). Superior art writers (he mentions Giorgio Vasari and Charles Baudelaire) find ways to deal with this mismatch, Baxandall concedes. But in his view there remains a basic disparity between the circumstances of the literary critic on the one hand and an art historian or art critic on the other, for the simple reason that a literary text and our reception of it “have a robust syntagmatic progression of their own which the linear sequence of an exposition cannot harm” (460). Again, the imagery is that of a struggle, in which sequences of words seek to impose themselves damagingly on—more strongly, to violate—an artifact that by virtue of its inherent nature does its best to resist them. Indeed, Baxandall refers in these pages to “the basic absurdity of verbalizing about pictures” (461), as if the very project of seeking to do so were somehow under a cloud. (I find this a bit too British-commonsensical; why should verbalizing about pictures be thought of as more absurd than verbalizing about human relationships or, indeed, any other serious topic?) Continue reading …

MICHAEL FRIEDFried_2014 is J. R. Herbert Boone Emeritus Professor of Humanities and the History of Art at the Johns Hopkins University.  A new book of poems, Promesse du Bonheur,  with photographs by James Welling, has just been published by David Zwirner Books.

Description Across Disciplines Event

Description Across Disciplines

Tuesday, November 15, 5 pm
D37 Hearst Field Annex
University of California, Berkeleydescription-across-disciplines2

A symposium extending the ideas presented in the Representations special issue “Description Across Disciplines.”

Featuring speakers Mark Greif (founding editor n + 1, The New School), Mary Ann Smart (UC Berkeley), Georgina Kleege (UC Berkeley), Sharon Marcus (Columbia University), Heather Love (University of Pennsylvania), and Stephen Best (UC Berkeley).

Read the introduction to the special issue, “Building a Better Description,” here.

Sponsored by Representations, the Townsend Center for the Humanities, and the Florence Green Bixby Chair in English, UC Berkeley.

Description and Redescription in the Milgram Experiments

Description in the Psychological Sciences

by Jill Morawski

The essay begins:

Whether our work attends to material objects, texts, behavior, or logic, at one point or another we undertake description. Yet such description practices often proceed without reflection or analysis. In my own discipline, psychology, researchers describe behaviors, experimental protocols, data analysis, and results, although they do so with scarce guidance beyond what is offered in a style manual. In recent articles, Heather Love, Stephen Best, and Sharon Marcus have argued against “suspicious interpretation” and advocated practices that seem to reproduce precisely the kind of transparent description that psychology has long taken for granted. Best and Marcus, for example, characterize the contributors to a special issue of Representations, “The Way We Read Now,” as “relatively neutral about their objects of study, which they tend less to evaluate than to describe, and which they situate in landscapes neither utopian nor dystopian.” As David Coombs has observed, such turns to descriptive criticism in literary studies suggest a disciplinary future “in which English has grown much closer to the sciences” by embracing value neutrality and objectivity as epistemic virtues. These moves toward description and away from interpretation and critique might be beneficial to literary studies, but what, if any, are the benefits to the sciences? Prior to this question stands another: what constitutes description in the sciences?

These questions guide this essay, which considers them in terms of one particular science, experimental psychology. Even at the start, there are some ready answers to the first question. Description is and has been crucial to psychology’s empirical practices, yet this aspect of scientific work apparently is so established and routinized that researchers rarely elucidate their methods or demonstrate the kind of “attentiveness” to the details of the observational events that is more regularly valued in the humanities. Under these circumstances, a focus on the practices and epistemology of description could provide guidance by which experimenters might refine, enrich, and possibly extend their description practices. Benefits could accrue also to a related aspect of modern experimental psychology, the quantification ideal, for the rise and triumph of quantification (taking numbers as accurate and sufficient descriptions of psychological events) risks substituting the “truth” of numbers for reports of what is actually happening. Description studies thus have the potential to inform research psychologists’ pervasive translation of psychological phenomena into numerics. Further, although scientific psychology depends on the description of observable events, its technical practices often involve dense inferential reasoning—that is, interpretation. Insofar as literary criticism regularly attends to interpretive practices, psychologists can take heed and consider how literary analyses might guide them toward better ways of interrogating their own scientific habits of inferential reasoning.

At the outset, it is important to recognize some distinctive features of the production and uses of scientific knowledge that are fundamental to psychology’s description practices. Chief among these features are the ideal of reductionism; elaborate techniques and technologies that are deemed requisite to observation, calibration, and the description of objects in the world; the preeminence of quantification over all other forms of description; and valences of material power, social and physical, that differ significantly from the humanities’ powers in effect if not in kind. Historian Theodore (Ted) Porter has analyzed these dimensions of science and isolated two different kinds of description. The first section of the essay reviews his taxonomy of science’s thin and thick description and uses it to outline the forms and contours of description in the psychological sciences, while at the same time acknowledging variations across this heterogeneous field. Porter’s analysis is especially useful in highlighting the scientific descriptions that are disseminated for general use and showing the social and material power realized through them. These “thin” descriptions, as Porter names them, figure centrally in scientific psychology, a science founded in the late nineteenth century with an explicit goal of improving the human condition. This aspirational goal has been sustained for more than a century and is exemplified in the now iconic slogan “giving psychology away” (in the sense of making it available for human benefit). The expression was coined by George Miller, one of the acclaimed fathers of cognitive psychology, whose 1969 presidential address to the American Psychological Association (APA) urged psychologists to give psychology away “as a means of promoting human welfare.” The second section of the essay centers on this “responsibility” to give psychological knowledge away for people to use by examining the modes of description employed in what is arguably the most famous experiment in twentieth-century psychology, Stanley Milgram’s series of behavioral studies of obedience. Reported in 1963, Milgram’s experiments continue to be regarded as the preeminent account of human tendencies to obey authority today. Examination of the relevant publications and archival materials indicates, however, that these avowedly objective “behavioral” studies relied on more than descriptions of behavior. They presumed an identifiable ontology that delineated deep psychic motivations and the consequent limitations of human autonomy. In order to assess the implications of Milgram’s ontological presuppositions—for both psychology’s description practices and the dissemination of psychological descriptions—his data analysis is compared with a redescription of that scientific evidence. The redescription contrasts in crucial ways with Milgram’s account of the experimental subjects’ virtually inescapable pull to follow orders. It also shows how much description matters when we aim to give psychology away.

The essay then moves, with an ironic twist, from reviewing psychology’s principal description practices to considering how psychologists devoted to objective descriptions have also engaged interpretation and even undertaken the suspicious and symptomatic reading they frequently denounce (notably in their rejection of psychoanalysis). My turn toward what some might take to be an underside of scientific description aims neither to fault the scientists nor to debunk the science; nor is it intended to promote any wholesale rejection of so-called deep interpretation. Rather, by redescribing an experimental record, I point to ways of reading experimental subjects’ actions that do not depend on either an imagined veridical description (a transparent representation) of those actions or a deep reading of invisible motives or tangled mentations. Without claiming to discover the “real” experimental outcomes, this redescription of the experiment brings attention to the effects of subjects’ behaviors: working with different ontological precepts, it aims to illuminate the performative in the behaviors they emit. Continue reading …

This essay uses the case of scientific psychology to explore modes of description and the broader objectives underlying these modes, reporting on both the complexities and potentials of psychological description. It examines the description techniques of the classic Milgram experiment and offers a redescription of the resulting data to show both how psychology’s practices of description entail more than objective accounts of observed behavior and how these descriptions can influence the social world and our understandings of ourselves. The case of Stanley Milgram’s experiments in obedience suggest the material and social powers of the descriptions psychologists “give away” for human benefit.

JILL MORAWSKI is Wilbur Fisk Osborne Professor of Psychology at Wesleyan University, where she also serves as Chair of the Science in Society Program. Her historical work probes the performances of experimental psychology and the kinds of persons that are enabled or constrained through these scientific practices. Recent articles include “Epistemological Dizziness in the Psychological Laboratory: Lively Subjects, Anxious Experimenters and Experimental Relations” (Isis 2015), and “Livelihoods of Theory: The Case of Goffman’s Early Theory of Self” (Theory & Psychology 2014).

Across the Great Describe

Interpret or Describe?

by Cannon Schmitt

The essay opens with a page spread from Alison Bechdel’s 2012 graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? Cannon Schmitt then begins:

UnknownWhat do we require of these pages? Or, to anthropomorphize and so shift the emphasis: what do they require of us? Such questions are at once theoretical and methodological, and the potential answers are so varied that reducing them to any binary between x or y way of proceeding would clearly be insufficient. Nonetheless, at present one pair of options stands out among others: should we interpret or should we describe? Is our task as readers, viewers, critics, scholars, and theorists the interpretive one of assigning or discerning meaning, crafting a reading, making the object of our attention speak its hidden truth? Or is it, on the contrary, the descriptive one of limning all the details, redoubling the object in our commentary on it, refusing the obviousness of the obvious by exhaustively accounting for what is to be read or seen?

I write “on the contrary” as though interpretation and description were opposites, somehow mutually exclusive. This is indeed how they figure in much recent debate. To take only one example, useful because especially explicit: in a 2010 article in differences, Ellen Rooney states categorically that “description as a mode of reading doesn’t work at all.” Attacking the “surface reading” advocated by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus in the introduction to their special issue of RepresentationsThe Way We Read Now,” Rooney claims that such an approach—and, by clear implication, any similar descriptive method—naively “dreams itself free of . . . the conflicts that emerge when description is defined as always already a matter of interpretation.” But it’s superfluous to quote from the body of the article because all we really need to know appears in its title, which exhorts us not, as the state motto of New Hampshire has it, to “Live Free or Die,” but rather to “Live Free or Describe.” For its opponents, description equals death: death of critical responsibility, death of political engagement, death of relevance.

We have to go back the better part of a century to find someone with a comparably virulent antidescriptive stance. In his now-classic 1936 essay “Narrate or Describe?” the Marxist philosopher and literary critic Georg Lukács codified the aesthetic superiority of what he called narrating to describing. Although the distinction sounds properly narratological, as if it could be arrived at with recourse to categories of analysis such as narrative voice or focalization, in Lukács’s idiosyncratic usage it has to do with something more elusive, namely a writer’s stance toward a fictional world. Novelists narrate when they present a world in flux, riven by forces of change—change, moreover, in which the novelist and her or his narrator have a vested interest. Of necessity, then, narration is committed to action (including inner action: epiphany or disillusionment, for example). It also links every detail in a novel to the fate of that novel’s characters. Narration admits of no filler. Description, by contrast, is all filler. Novelists describe when they enumerate the details of a world in which those details do not finally matter. Description treats as mere backdrop or setting that which, in narration, would be freighted with consequentiality. As a result, description amounts to nothing more than a kind of “still life.”

Narrating and describing, as Lukács elaborates them in connection with fiction, are far from perfectly analogous to the critical approaches of interpreting and describing. Nonetheless, the overlap is significant enough to be instructive. To begin with, Lukács associates description as a fictional mode with death, just as present-day detractors (and even some proponents, including Heather Love) do with description as a critical mode. If his condemnatory labeling of the world rendered via description as “still life” isn’t clear enough on this front, we need only consider in addition the assertion that, in the work of Émile Zola—for Lukács the quintessential practitioner of novelistic description—the problems and contradictions that vex a living reality are “simply described . . . as caput mortuum of a social process.” Latin for “dead head,” caput mortuum was originally an alchemical term used to designate, per the OED, “the residuum remaining after the distillation or sublimation of any substance”: in its current, figurative usage, “worthless residue.” Thus, in “Narrate or Describe?” narration and novelistic description admit of the same relation Love has posited between interpretation and critical description: that of “the fat and the living” to “the thin and the dead.”

Animated, living narration; static, dead description: a stark opposition. But even as he wields it in the service of a partisan history of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary production (on which more below), Lukács can find no novelist who only narrates or only describes. Despite the either/or choice of its titular question, that is, “Narrate or Describe?” answers with a both/and: narration and description require each other. I call attention to this apparent contradiction not as an example of faulty logic or inconsistent positions but instead as a useful model for how we might understand the related opposition between interpretation and description. The point is not that we cannot distinguish between the two. It is, rather, that they depend on and implicate each other in ways that render jettisoning either untenable. That no critical description can purify itself of interpretation is hardly news: such antidescriptive absolutism is now so widespread in the humanities as to constitute a kind of truism. But the inevitability of interpretation’s reliance on description has found few standard bearers. In what follows I make the case for that reliance by way of Lukács, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), and, finally, those two pages from Are You My Mother? with which I began. Continue reading …

This essay is a contribution to our special issue “Description Across Disciplines” edited by Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best. You can read the introduction to that issue here.

CANNON SCHMITT, Professor of English and Associate Director of the PhD program in English at the University of Toronto, is the author of two books, Darwin and the Memory of the Human: Evolution, Savages, and South America (2009; paperback reprint 2013) and Alien Nation: Nineteenth-Century Gothic Fictions and English Nationality (1997), and co-editor of Victorian Investments: New Perspectives on Finance and Culture (2008). His essays have appeared in Representations, Victorian Studies, ELH, Genre, and elsewhere. He is now at work on the sea in Victorian fiction and the possibility of literal reading.

Audio Description Described

Audio Description Described: Current Standards, Future Innovations, Larger Implications

by Georgina Kleege

The essay begins:

In April 2015, Netflix, the video rental and online streaming service, announced that its new series Daredevil would be available with audio description for the blind and visually impaired. The company also announced that soon it would increase the availability of audio description for all its in-house productions. This step may have been taken in response to protests from disability activists who remarked on the irony that Daredevil, whose title character is a blind superhero, would not be completely accessible to blind viewers. It may also have been a preemptive effort to avoid a lawsuit. In 2012, the National Association of the Deaf won a settlement against Netflix that compelled the service to provide closed captioning for all its on-demand programming. Additionally, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set mandates compelling television broadcasters to increase the number of programs available with audio description and requiring all movie theaters with digital projectors to offer audio description devices to patrons who request them. What all this means for blind people is that there will be a proliferation of accessible movies and television programs. As accessible offerings proliferate, it seems an apt moment to review the history of audio description and scrutinize current standards and practices.

“Audio description” is the umbrella term for techniques meant to make visual media accessible to blind people. These services have been around since approximately the 1980s, when they first began to be offered in live theater performance. The blind audience wore headsets provided by the theater, and a describer was positioned backstage or in the sound booth, from where he or she broadcast brief descriptions about the actors’ movements, gestures, facial expressions, and costumes during the natural pauses between the characters’ speeches. Sometimes more detailed description of the set and a reading of the program were offered before the performance or during intermission. Then, as now, the service is typically offered for only certain performances of the show, and patrons are required to sign up in advance. At approximately the same time that audio description began to be offered in the theater, the service began to be available for television programs and movies. In these cases the description was recorded on a separate audio track accessible to the moviegoer through a headset provided by the theater, or via a setting on the television, and then later by selecting the described version on a home videotape or DVD. At the same time, museums began to offer docent-led tours for blind people and special taped tours or additional tracks on audio tours used by sighted visitors. Over the years, the services have expanded, and the practices have become standardized. While it’s understandable that a certain level of consistency and professionalism is necessary, the rules and guidelines that have become codified seem to arise from problematic assumptions about what blind people can understand and should know about visual phenomena.

Until recently, the standards for audio description have received very little scholarly scrutiny. Literature on the topic is typically written for practitioners and usually only suggests minor tweaks to standard practices or summarizes the results of focus-group surveys of consumers. Some researchers employ the techniques of narrative theory or discourse analysis to collect data from existing audio-description scripts or to tout the advantage of this kind of analysis without necessarily demonstrating how it will produce better results. One research study used eye-tracking technology on a group of sighted participants watching short excerpts of a film, then used the data to write a descriptive track and compared it to an existing audio description of the same film. Blind participants were then asked to evaluate the merits of the two descriptions. Even the researchers admitted that their findings were inconclusive, and that the expense of the technology makes further research of this kind impractical. In disability studies scholarship, when audio description comes up, it typically appears in lists of necessary accommodations to promote the goal of social inclusion for people with disabilities, along with closed captioning, sign-language interpretation, architectural modifications, and so forth. Scholars advocate for audio description in specific situations, in public service announcements for emergency preparedness, for example. But for the most part, in this scholarship, as in the literature for producers, there is a kind of tacit acceptance that the foundational assumptions behind the practice are sound and unproblematic.

What I have at stake here is that I am blind myself, and so a potential consumer of audio description services. As will become apparent, I am skeptical about, even hostile to, the current practices. My critique of the standard practices, however, is blunted by the undeniable fact that I cannot see what I’m missing. So, whenever possible, I try to draw the attention of scholars of literature and visual culture to audio description, in the hope that the perspective of someone who is neither a service provider nor a consumer could eventually lead to innovation. The increased availability of audio description, such as that provided on Netflix offerings, could mean that sighted people might happen upon it and discover some utility beyond what was originally intended. In other words, I resort to a familiar tactic of disability rights discourse and draw an analogy between this relatively new disability accommodation and the most familiar one—the wheelchair ramp. The analogy runs that while a wheelchair ramp, which was originally intended to provide access to people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices, can now be understood to serve anyone, disabled or not, who uses a conveyance on wheels, such as a baby stroller, wheeled suitcase, or skateboard. Thus, my goal here is not merely to critique the current practices of audio description but also to speculate on how it might expand beyond a segregated accommodation to create a more inclusive culture. Continue reading …

Audio description seeks to make visual media—film, television, theater, art exhibits—accessible to blind people. This essay uses the audio-described version of the Oscar-nominated film The Sessions as an example of the current standards. It then speculates on future innovations that could democratize the medium and make it more inclusive.

Kleege_Georgina_0417 - Copy_500GEORGINA KLEEGE teaches creative writing and disability studies at the University of California, Berkeley.  Her recent books include Sight Unseen (1999) and Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller (2006). Kleege’s latest book, More than Meets the Eyes (forthcoming in 2017) is concerned with blindness and visual art: how blindness is represented in art, how blindness affects the lives of visual artists, how museums can make visual art accessible to people who are blind and visually impaired. She has lectured and served as consultant to art institutions around the world including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London.

The Poetics of Description

Description and the Nonhuman View of Nature

by Joanna Stalnaker

The essay begins:

Today, when thinking about the divide between literature and science, we may tend to associate literature with the imagination and science with observation and description. The prehistory of this assumption can be traced back to the eighteenth century, when description first emerged as a contested category in urgent need of definition, beyond the traditional rhetorical notion of enargeia, the figure by which an absent object or person is made vividly present through words. As Lorraine Daston, John Bender, Michael Marrinan, Cynthia Sundberg Wall, and I have shown, the practice of description underwent significant transformations in the eighteenth century, as competing regimes of description emerged and were defined in opposition to each other. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s famous Encyclopédie, published over two decades beginning at midcentury, offered three separate entries on description: one for geometry, one for natural history, and one for belles lettres. A later iteration of that work, the Encyclopédie méthodique, added yet another entry on the newly invented genre of descriptive poetry, which purportedly undermined classical poetics by failing to subsume description to narrative or didactic design. Yet the disciplinary landscape operative in these definitions—and in the descriptive practices surrounding them—cannot be easily mapped onto our familiar opposition between imaginative literature on the one hand and scientific description on the other.

423px-thumbnailIn what follows, I will look at two writers from the French eighteenth century whose work illustrates the contingency of modern categories and definitions of description. The first is the famous naturalist and renowned stylist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, whose multivolume Histoire naturelle spurred the vogue for natural history across Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century. The second is the once-celebrated but now obscure poet Jacques Delille, who took the Scottish poet James Thomson as his model and introduced the so-called genre of descriptive poetry in France in the last decades of the Old Regime. Taken together, these two writers exemplify what the great naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier called “the age of description.” This age has fallen out of view since Cuvier’s lifetime, lost to the modern fracture between literature and science. Yet I will argue that it holds special relevance for us today, at a time when short-story writers and political theorists alike share an impulse to ascribe agency to nonhuman things and to question the centrality of human perspectives. One of the biggest surprises to emerge from the unfamiliar landscape of the eighteenth-century age of description is its elaboration of a poetics of description grounded in dramatic shifts in scale and nonhuman perspectives on nature. Continue reading …

This article looks at two writers of the French eighteenth century, the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon and the poet Jacques Delille, whose innovative practices of description call into question our modern opposition between literature and science and raise the issue of how literature might be transformed through attention to nonhuman views of nature.

JOANNA STALNAKER teaches in the French Department at Columbia University. She is the author of The Unfinished Enlightenment: Description in the Age of the Encyclopedia (Cornell, 2010) and is currently working on a book about the last works of the French philosophes at the end of the Enlightenment.

New Special Issue on Description


edited by Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best

Number 135, Summer 2016 (read on Highwire)

Now available


Building a Better Description (the issue introduction: free access until October 31!)

Observable Behavior 1–10 

The Point of Precision

Cloud Physiognomy

Description and the Nonhuman View of Nature

Audio Description Described: Current Standards, Future Innovations, Larger Implications

Interpret or Describe?

Description in the Psychological Sciences

No Problem