Interactions - The Bulletin of I.A.W.I.S.
No. 16, April 1996

Re-reading 18th-century Prints
Peter Wagner. Reading Iconotexts. From Swift to the French Revolution. London: Reaktion Books, 1995. 211 pp, 98 illustrations. GBP 19.95.

Reading Iconotexts is a study of 18th-century prints and their inscriptions, which Wagner prefers to call iconotexts in order to emphasize the high degree of mutual interdependence and interpenetration between word and image which they exhibit. In fact, Wagner claims that they form a specific genre, because in them, neither text nor image is free from the other. One of Wagner's main intentions is to rescue Hogarth's art from its reputation of being wonderful and wondrous but ancillary evidence for historians. Assuming a theoretical position that aims to replace the older art-historical views of Gombrich and Panofsky as well as to abandon the traditional author function - that is, the assumed causal relation between author and work - Wagner proposes to use an interdisciplinary approach and to concentrate on the dense fabric of the iconotext itself.

Reading Hogarth "right" is difficult for two reasons, one intrinsic and one extrinsic. On the one hand, these illustrations are in and of themselves heterogeneous; they represent both a critique and an enactment of 18th-century commercialization of culture and taste. On the other, modern interpretation suffers from a severely distorted view, because, over the generations, the immensely broad range of 18th-century cultural phenomena has been pared down to a very narrow body of samples. One consequence of this reductionist tendency is that the significance attributed to the novel in the second half of the 18th century - at the expense of other discursive forms which flourished again in that period - is vastly overstated. (As Ian Watts shows in The Rise of the Novel, the novel was still not a popular form of literature, simply because it was far too expensive for most people to buy.) Popular alternative discursive forms evoked in Hogarth's prints are considered marginal in comparison with the novel only from a modern point of view and because of a shift in taste.

Wagner regards 18th-century prints in general - and in particular Hogarth's art - as graphic equivalents of poetic utterances à la Kristeva: that is, as convergences of a multitude of discursive traditions. Using Hogarth's well-known first plate of A Harlot's Progress as an example, Wagner convincingly shows what he means. To "understand" this picture - that is, to get the maximum information out of it and to grasp it - we have to be capable of decoding a wealth of sign systems running criss-cross through its visual appearance. On a pictorial level, we find both the re-enactment and the subversion of traditional subjects as diverse as the Penitent Harlot, the Choice of Hercules and the Visitation. Similarly complex but more difficult to trace and recognize are those references to what must have been first-rate contemporary tabloid material offered by the three central human figures: the rapist Colonel Charteris, the notorious prostitute Kate Hackabout, or the debauched Mother Needham. Then, there are the numerous emblems and puns present in the guise of seemingly accidental elements such as the dead goose and the bell, which may both well refer to the fate of the silly goose who may soon be a dead belle. By the same token, the horse whose excessive appetite causes it to knock over a pile of utensils demonstrates ad oculos how the consequences of gluttony affect the careless without delay.

The quasi infinite number of allusions generated by the quite finite space of Hogarth's engraving proves Kristeva's point that references do indeed evoke a "universe" of significances. In order to explore this vastness, Wagner is forced, as he explains, to transcend the boundaries of traditional "single-field" criticism, soon finding himself in the position of a literary historian, an art historian, or simply a historian. But that is not enough. Wagner must also cross the boundaries of the traditional canon. That is why Reading Iconotexts offers not only most enlightening reassessments of the "front-matter" of Gulliver's Travels or eye-opening insights into the discursive traditions and mentalités underlying Hogarth's art but also includes other, traditionally suppressed matter, in this case a chapter on "Obscenity and Body Language in the French Revolution." In his analysis, Wagner is able to show how, contrary to what one might think, Revolutionary obscene imagery published in France in the 1780s and 1790s is far from revolutionary in its mechanisms, but falls back on restrictive / repressive allusions instead. He argues that obscene visual representations cannot simply be dismissed as marginal or offensive, because this would mean ignoring important changes of attitude during the Revolution. The problem with these texts and (icono)texts is, however, that the enormous body of popular ribald discourse forming their subtext is lost.

An important conclusion which Wagner draws from his observations of the function and the fate of erotic/pornographic/obscene discourse is that, rather than forcing pamphlet literature - and this doubtless applies to other recalcitrant or uncanny texts - into ready-made categories, critical assessment should subject it to discourse analysis. Such a reading can bring out a dense fabric of meanings and significances that is completely obliterated by a one-dimensional classification of it as pornography.

Drawing on recent theories of semiotics and intertextuality, Reading Iconotexts offers a fresh and often intriguing assessment of 18th-century verbo-visual phenomena. At the same time, it states a powerful case for the widening of a canon that has been imperceptibly narrowed down to support a firmly-established, if not stereotypical, view of 18th-century illustration. Wagner's delightful offering is sure to appeal to anyone interested in the intricacies of word and image interaction.

(Martin Heusser)