Perceptual Salience in Images Discussed by Literary Critics

Nearly forty years after Mitchell’s seminal study (1984), the ‘image’ remains a latent theoretical battlefield marked by conflicting conceptualisations. Within the field of literary and linguistic studies, recent works by Tabakowska (2018) and Süner (2019) exemplify a pictorialist (iconic) and an iconoclast (symbolic) standpoint, respectively: the former tends to place perception (or rather, ception: see Talmy 1996) at the very core of representation, promoting it to a language- and world-modelling principle. The latter, by contrast, tends to dismiss perception as definitionally and ontologically inessential.

The present paper agrees with the cognitivist paradigm in treating simulated perception and sensation as central to the literary image (see also Kuzmicova 2013); differently from Tabakowska, however, it lays more weight on so-called ‘rich’ images carried by lexical content, since it regards image-schemas and diagrammatic iconicity in general as too conceptual to affect significantly (that is, perceptually) the general reading experience my model aims to account for. My emphasis on the sensorial salience of certain lexico-semantic dimensions (e.g., semantic class, concreteness, imageability, specificity, size of referent: see Castiglione 2020a) rests on a systematic analysis of a large sample of contextual uses of the word ‘image’ in literary criticism. The findings show: (a) that the standard practice of critics, when they engage in the analysis of actual texts, is far more homogeneous than a review of the theoretical literature would seem to suggest, and is therefore amenable to formalization; (b) that the perceptual and sensorial qualities of the words (or more precisely, of their referents) almost invariably guide critics in isolating and discussing the most salient images in poems (pace Süner); (c) that diagrammatic patterns (e.g., image-schemas) are too subtle to be picked up by critics under the ‘image’ descriptor unless they are specifically trained in Percean semiotics or cognitive linguistics. While (c) points to a regrettable lack of theoretical sophistication in many critics, it also suggests that there is a recurring hierarchy in perceptual and thematic saliency which calls for an explanation. I believe that showing an accurate picture of extant discursive practices will provide a robust reference point for any further theorical elaboration. 

I will conclude by proposing a new definition of image in light of the aforementioned analysis and will outline some current and future developments of my imagery model.

Davide Castiglione

Vilnius University

Post-doc Research Fellow and Assistant Professor in English at Vilnius University, specializing in the stylistics and poetics of poetry. His thesis-based monograph Difficulty in Poetry: A Stylistic Model was published by Palgrave in 2019, whilst his articles have appeared in international journals such as Language and Literature and the Journal of Literary Semantics. He has recently received EU structural funds (project No 09.3.3-LMT-K-712-19-0204) to develop a taxonomy of imagery in poetic discourse. He is also a published poet in Italian, with the collections Per ogni frazione (2010) and Non di fortuna (2017).