Fleckenstein, “Words Made Flesh”

Fleckenstein, Kristie S. “Words Made Flesh: Fusing Imagery and Language in a Polymorphic Literacy.” College English 66.6 (2004): 612-630. (19 pages)

The central concern of Fleckenstein’s piece is the role of the image or imagery in literacy. As she writes, “words have received the lion’s share of attention” in scholarship on literacy, “as well as he organizing principle in our theories of meaning” at the expense of an understanding of the role of the image (613). She sets out to define a polymorphic literacy, one that “emphasizes the reality that meaning shapes itself in response to the dictates if different media, modes, and contexts of representation” (615). In the context of pedagogy, she advocates for an more capacious understanding of how meaning is made by re-framing the way we talking about such activity: namely, she points to Smagorinsky who advocates the field to replace writing with composition in order to support the production and interpretation of images and words; she also points to the New London Groups’ emphasis of “a pedagogy of multiletracies” that honors the many media by which we construct our meanings (615). Such shift in terminology allows for a focus on “the nexus of semiotic systems”, “literacy operates on the levels of bodies, minds, and contexts, across which swirl images with words, words as images. …Meaning consists of a web, an ecology of symbol systems feeding into and evolving out of one another” (616). In this sense, polymorphism is necessarily dynamic, emphasizing transformation: the inclusion and interrogation of imagery in the making of meaning is meant to disrupt “the specious stability of language, because an image is always subject to time and place. An image is a temporal-spatial experience, one that shifts as we experience it because we experience it” (617).

From here Fleckenstein seeks to define “imagery”: “[1] a process and [2] a product inextricable from language.” She first points to imagery as a social construction (i.e. process): “…an image evolves when we shape a reality based on the logic of analogy” Analogy, then, the connections among elements to create meaning, “connects elements environmentally, crafting a whole context, one that integrates emotions, motivations, and goals. Because of its analogic nature, imaging crosses borders, breaking down categories” (618). In other words, Fleckenstein notes the necessarily constructed nature of image; it functions within the interactions of “the visual sign, the technology that enables and sustains that sign, and that viewer” (Mirzoeff, cited in 618 Fleckenstein). We see through terministic screens beholden to the material and interpretive elements of meaning-making. She also points to imagery as a product: “the act of connecting percepts analogically results in the shaping of a particular entity, the image itself. That image, however, is fluid. An image is never just one thing: it is many different things at the same time” (618). This claim harkens back to earlier claims that images are beholden to the frames in which they function. Finally, she claims that “any image nests within itself a range of modalities”: “visuality is permeated with an array of other sense such as texture, sound, smell, and feeling” (619). It is this claim that she uses to push against the misnomer of “visual rhetoric” as it seemingly privileges the visual, which only partially accounts for the image, excluding the polymorphic aspects of the image (620-1).

The porous and fluid nature of the image highlights the similarly porous and fluid nature of the image and the word. “Image and word shape each other even as they are shaped…thus we cannot say whether image or word is first; we cannot ascertain which is the cause and which is the end” She continues, “meaning is always a statement about ht necessary inevitable transaction between image and word” (619).

But she further opens imagery to include mental imagery, graphic imagery, and verbal imagery. She discusses each of these three senses of imagery in the context of meaningful place.

Mental Imagery: “mental imagery accounts for our experiences of place as an internal reality and for continuing influence of place in reading and writin even when we are no longer physically present there. Mental imagery, the lest accessible of three kinds of kimagery because it leaves no material trace as testimony to its existence, is the evocation of a reality in the apparent absence of reality” (623). She references the visual-kinesthetic map as a guiding principle to understand “an inner geography by which we plot our participation in life and in the world” (623). Such inner geography (porous and fluid) defines how we interact with others and our habits of behavior, of mind.

Graphic imagery: graphic imagery is central to our construction of place as an external reality. The creation of visual-kinesthetic mental maps functions in tandem with the creation of a reality external to the individual” (624). Such creation of the visual-kinesthetic map is important to literacy “in that design and inhabitation of a specific place facilitates particular performances of language while at the same time silencing others” (625).

Verbal Imagery: “Verbal imagery functions to describe our reality and, through that articulation, to shape our perceptions of that which we describe. Verbal imagery organizes our reality and it enables us to arrest fluid reality, serving as a force for colonization or a spur to revolution” (626). The acknowledgement of verbal imagery allows us to interrogate and critique the language descriptions of place: “by attending to the verbal imagery, we are bale to perceive the tissue of words permeating place and thus dictating what can and cannot be done, what should and should not be done, and who should or should not be within that palce” (627).

Fleckenstein finally offers some pedagogical applications, organized around three points: (1) inviting students to create and then talk back to verbal descriptions of place; (2) “critique place through graphic design”; (3) increase the scope of our students’ visual-kinesthetic mental maps by interweaving graphic, verbal, and mental imagery with language” (629).


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