“The Multistable Meanings of Words and Images” by Stella East

“The visual sign of a horse, the linguistic sign for a horse, and the concept of a horse are three different signs systems. The visual image is too specific for general use, the verbal description, being only general, lacks volumes of information, and the concept cannot be recorded or materialized.”

This article was first published in 2009 in “Numer 80: A Magazine for Drawing, Illustration and Book Art” for The Norwegian Drawing Association (Tegnerforbundet). The original article in Norwegian can be seen here: “Flerstabile” og flertydige betydninger av ord og bilder.

The following is an edited excerpt from one of several discussions on “visual language.” Its form is a result of other ongoing discussions and claims about verbal language and a possible pictorial language.

For example scholar Susanne K. Langer claims, one of the criteria for a language is the ability to have “units with independent meanings” (100). In verbal language, says Langer, it is possible “to define the meanings of the ultimate single words, i.e., to construct a dictionary” (100). As pictures do not have “units with independent meanings . . . there can be no dictionary of meanings” and therefore pictures cannot fulfill this criteria (Langer 100-02). Umberto Eco, who also denies pictures the status of language, claims, “The image of a horse [in contrast to the word ‘horse’] does not mean ‘horse’ but as a minimum ‘a white horse stands here in profile’” (35). Eco’s example of pictorial specificity contrasts with the linguistic sign, which represents the meaning, all possible horses. For linguist Fernando de Saussure, “The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image” (36, emphasis mine). Language, claims Saussure, is “a system of distinct signs corresponding to distinct ideas” (30).

Drawing on Langer’s claim, that language allows “the meanings of the ultimate single words, i.e., to construct a dictionary,” I will offer a definition from the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, of the word “horse: . . . a large four legged mammal with a flowing mane and tail, used for riding and for pulling heavy loads.” Of course not every horse is “large,” “has a flowing mane and tail,” and not all horses are “used for riding and for pulling heavy loads.” Therefore, not only is this information largely incorrect and with volumes of information missing, but the dictionary definition does not articulate the general information embedded in the “concept” which is part of the linguistic sign. This is because the concept, which is an independent sign system, cannot be pictured, materialized, recorded or fully described. It can only be represented. The “community of speakers” (Saussure 45) and not the dictionary contain these concepts and therefore the true meanings of words. Though written words can be listed in the dictionary as a mere guide, the “concept,” the part of the sign that exists in people’s minds, cannot. The visual sign of a horse, the linguistic sign for a horse, and the concept of a horse are three different signs systems. The visual image is too specific for general use, the verbal description, being only general, lacks volumes of information, and the concept cannot be recorded or materialized. Furthermore, though Langer claims words have “fixed meanings” (100), the word horse, signifying a general concept of a horse, changes in syntax when accompanied by adverbs such as “white,” “sleek,” and “big.” In a larger syntax such as a paragraph or a whole story the word horse may acquire multiple and ambivalent qualities that are equally as, or more complex than, “a white horse stands here in profile.”

The Fable and Multiple Metaphorical Meanings

To demonstrate the comparative shifting of meanings in pictures and words I will use as an example the Aesop fable “The Wolf and Dog.” In this story, a starving wolf meets a well-fed dog in the middle of winter and asks him how he gets enough to eat. The dog invites the wolf to join him at his master’s house without letting on what he must do to be a dog. Finally, the dog explains that the sore on his neck is from his master’s chain. The wolf then tells the dog that he would rather remain hungry. In the verbal story, the word “wolf” can be a metaphor for wild, independent and free, and the word “dog” a metaphor for the domesticated and confined. This metaphor is strengthened and exaggerated within the context of the story by the dialogue and choices these two animals make. In this fable the wolf says he chooses to be his own master though it is winter and he is hungry. He therefore, becomes a metaphor signifying all individuals who choose freedom and free choice instead of confinement, bad working conditions and so on. The well-fed dog in the fable chooses captivity though he has a sore on his neck from the chain of his master. He therefore becomes a metaphor signifying the underdog, the working class, the suppressed and all individuals who do not have, or cannot see, alternative choices. These metaphors are not only expressed in the verbally told story, but are also independently expressed in the visual language of Jindra Capek’s “The Wolf and Dog” (see above image) from Tales of a Long Afternoon, written by Max Bolliger: The dog, his tail tucked between his legs, signifying subservience, and his plumpness signifying being well fed, walks with his head lower than the wolf’s head with a bloody mark of domesticity on his neck. With his ears hanging, and with a sad kind of expression on his face, he is placed lower than the wolf in the composition of the illustration. The picture’s viewer therefore, looks down more on the dog than on the wolf. The wolf, thin yet graceful, with his head and tail held high, signifying his free status, is placed above the dog in the composition, signifying his superior position. The picture of the wolf and the picture of the dog are, like the words “wolf” and “dog,” metaphors for freedom and captivity. Within the syntax of another fable, the wolf or the dog may represent other meanings. According to Jayne Elisabeth Lewis, “In fables, animals signify only in opposition to each other, and in the context of the visible . . . field that they inhabit at a particular moment. They are not, that is, enslaved to traditions of static correspondence in which serpents always represent wisdom, lions power, diamonds knowledge, and so forth.” (35) Therefore, unless we know the story well, we are never sure which metaphorical role each animal plays or represents, or what their outcome will be, until the story is told. It is this tension of duality, unpredictability, and ambiguity that is part of the fable’s make-up. The reader is driven forward to finish the story and therewith resolve or calm this instability. Though the outcome of the story is the reader’s reward, it may include a surprise twist, offering a new and unsolved ambiguity through the shift or exchange of identities and goals.

W.J.T. Mitchell “juxtaposes” another fable “The Bear in the Eagle’s Nest” (53, 56) with what he calls a “multistable image,” “the Duck-Rabbit” (46). “The Duck- Rabbit” is a puzzle pictogram that resembles both a duck and a rabbit depending which way one looks at it” (53). “The Duck-Rabbit” can be perceived either as a duck, or as a rabbit, or as both at the same time and therefore as a “hybrid” “Duck-Rabbit” (Mitchell 53). Within the same visual field, says Mitchell, the reader’s point of view shifts, “flashing” between what might be the “listening” ears of the rabbit, or the open “quacking” beak of a duck (76). Mitchell further explains that the rabbit and the duck don’t “resemble” each other, but like animals in fables they are “’nested’ together–that is, located, imagined, or pictured in the same gestalt, the one a narrative representation or fable, the other an equivocal picture.” (56)

The “multistable” properties of “The Wolf and Dog” are also expressed visually in Capek’s visual version of the fable. Within this monoscenic image a blackish wolf and whitish dog walk together in a snowy winter landscape. The landscape creates a bright, white rectangular form at the bottom of the composition, geometrically framing these two animals. This signifies their importance, and silhouettes them into seemingly one entity, connoting their momentary merging of identities. On the right hand side of the page, there is a building with a light on in the window. Directly below the building is a snowman. These two structures connote the world of people. The dog walking slightly ahead of the wolf is compositionally entering or returning to that world, signifying his participation in it. On the left hand side of the picture, there are high trees, with three perched birds and bushes, connoting the natural world. Two birds fly from right to left, away from the human world and towards the natural world. This movement is against the natural forward direction of the book, and in the opposite direction of the walking animals below. Their freedom contrasts the dilemma that these earthbound mammals share. The wolf has not yet, within the composition, left his side of the page, signifying his attachment to the natural world. Both he and the dog are also centered between the left and the right hand side of the page signifying their choices between the natural and civilized worlds. Which way will they go? Towards freedom and starvation, or food and domesticity? The dog has hidden a half-truth about himself. He is well-fed but he does not say why. Therefore, the wolf, who only sees the well-fed part of the dog, is willing to give up his identity as a wolf to be like the dog. The dog, hiding half the truth, secretly wishes to be like the wolf, yet not as the whole wolf. He wishes to be as free as the wolf but not starving like the wolf. Therefore, he continues to be a dog. This suggestive “shift” of identities is expressed visually as the one half of the wolf overlaps the one half of the dog. The wolf and dog are then “‘nested’ together,” and for one brief moment their identities seem to “merge” and “shift.” This identity exchange also connotes the history of the wolf and dog who in real-life, share identical DNA, yet are culturally, psychologically, and physically different (Mlot). The visual story “The Wolf and the Dog” is, then both a “multistable” picture, a “multistable” fable, and a representation of a “multistable” moment within a fable or within history. Like the “Duck-Rabbit” the doubleness within “The Wolf and the Dog” lies embedded in the image itself. “Multistable images” are also feature in masks, shields and ritual objects of “so-called primitive art” and “often display visual paradoxes conjoining human and animal forms, profiles and frontal views, or faces and genitals” (Mitchell 45-46). The parts and units of “multistable” images are in a constant change of meaning with each reading and each reader. This is, then, not so different from the complexity of meanings in verbal stories such as “The Wolf and the Dog,” even though each word may be considered as “units with independent meanings.”

Stella East

Works Cited

Bolliger, Max. Illus. Jindra Capek. Tales of a Long Afternoon. Trans. Joel Agee. Zurich: Bohem press, 1988.

Eco, Umberto. “Critique of the Image.” Thinking Photography. Ed. Victor Burgin. Hampshire: Macmillan, 1982. 32-38.

“Horse.” Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 3rd ed. 2001.

Langer, Susan K. “Discursive and Presentational Forms.” Semiotics: An Introductory Anthology. Ed. Robert E. Innis. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1985. 90-107.

Lewis, Jayne Elisabeth. The English Fable: Aesop and Literary Culture, 1651-1750. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Mitchell, W.J.T. Picture Theory. 1994. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.

Mlot, Christine. ”Stalking the Ancient Dog” ScienceNewsOnline. <https://www.sciencenews.org/archive/stalking-ancient-dog> June 28, 1997.

Saussure, Ferdinand De. “The Linguistic Sign.” Semiotics: An Introductory Anthology. Ed. Robert E. Innis. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1985. 28-46.

Stella East
has recently written the MA thesis, “Picturing Stories: The Integrity and Marginalization of Visual Storytelling in Children’s Picturebooks,” which investigates picturebook illustration as visual language, and as an art form, within a visual storytelling tradition.



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