Last term (Hilary term 2011) at the traditional Oxford Slade Lectures, I had the chance to hear Prof. Z. Bahrani speak about the nature of representations in the Ancient Middle-East. The title of her lecture series “The Infinite Image: Art and Ontology in Antiquity” (many thanks to Prof. A. K. Bowman who flagged them up!) resonated with some of the questions we were dealing with while working on the e-Science and Ancient Documents project. I was not able to attend the very first lecture, but enjoyed tremendously the second one, as well as all the following ones. The second lecture, entitled: “What is/was an image?”, struck very close to home and got me thinking about mimesis and subsequently about the nature of digital images of artefacts, or more generally of digitized artefacts. The core of Prof. Bahrani’s argument in this lecture can be found in her book “The Graven Image” (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2003.)
The first slide of that “What is/was an image?” lecture showed a Jericho skull (~7000BC, such as the one from the British Museum on the right) and set the tone for the rest of the lecture. With this artefact, it is legitimate to ask: is it a skull? is it a mask? In some sense it is both. It is a plaster-covered skull of a deceased. So then: is it an image of the deceased? It is certainly not our contemporary version of a portrayal of the deceased. Is it an auto-icon then? After all, it incorporates a part of the body of the deceased (the skull). In this artefact, the deceased is both present and represented. It is more than a representation in a mimetic sense. Mimesis as a representational concept is our contemporary understanding of images; it is inherited from Classical Antiquity (Aristotle, 4th Cent. BC), and should not be used as an ontology when studying images/representations from anterior cultures. Prof. Bahrani then went on to explain what she thought the ontology of images was in Ancient Mesopotamia (or rather, Assyria and Babylonia). The Akkadian word şalmu, which scholars have translated as image, representation, or portrait, seems to have had a meaning that goes beyond our concept of representation by extending it to a representation that conveys a form of presence of the signified (note again the anachronism, and how, to explain a past ontology, we have to use our inherited Aristotelian ontology of images, in which the – posterior – signifier/signified distinction is deeply rooted).
Here are the two reasons why this lecture inspired me so much:
- Mimesis has been a guiding principle in the way we have performed image capture and processing of ancient texts in the e-Science and Ancient Documents project. But, suddenly, in the light of this lecture, I started doubting mimesis was the term I wanted to use. In fact procedural mimesis was our guiding principle in the development of image capture and processing strategies; we were attempting to mimic the strategies of the papyrologists who decipher the texts, the processes they call upon, rather than emulate the experts themselves.
- Not entirely disconnected from the mimesis issue, I have been bothered for a while by the use of the term digital surrogate in the Digital Humanities literature when talking about digitized versions of artefacts; and I was only able to propose the term avatar to replace it. Now, with the concept of şalmu, I can explain why digital surrogate dissatisfies me, and articulate why avatar, or better yet, şalmu, seems more appropriate. The term digital surrogate conveys a sense of replacing the digitized artefact in its originally intended function, whereas the terms avatar and şalmu offer a sense of representation of the artefact with a specific form of presence; and as the act of digitization is always conducted with specific – if often implicit – intentions and expectations, a digitized version of an artefact can only be a specific form of presence of the original artefact. Reading further on the concept of şalmu in Prof. Bahrani’s “The Graven Image” (chap. 5), I realized that, actually, a digitized version of an artefact is even more like a şalmu than I originally thought. See for yourself; the three main characteristics of a şalmu are that:
- it is encoded
- it is embedded into the real
- it influences the real
Don’t you think that these characteristics describe perfectly a digitized version of an artefact?
Doesn’t the term şalmu convey better than digital surrogate the fact that digitized versions of artefacts are contingent on the intentions and expectations that the digitizer has from the artefact?
Or would avatar be better suited, seeing that it also expresses a form of presence and is already widely used in the digital world?
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