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April 30, 2004

Which thousand words?
Posted by Teresa at 10:55 PM *

Start at the top of the page here. Look at the Ukiyo-e print and try to figure out what’s happening in it. Then scroll down.

I’ve seen some very facile explanations of old undocumented art—what’s going on in it, what it means. I’m not saying those explanations were wrong. I’m saying that very little art has ever been made that can’t instantly be transformed by changing its context. I once read about a guy who was looking at an exceptionally scary piece of Buddhist religious art which showed a huge and imaginatively detailed monster stomping a helpless little human figure. He asked his guide what the picture signified. His guide explained that it was a picture of what enlightenment looks like to the ego before it happens.

Is a good, evocative picture worth a thousand words? Sure it is. It’s just that when it’s by itself, you can’t be sure which thousand words they are.

Comments on Which thousand words?:
#1 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 12:12 AM:

Fascinating, and not at all what I would have thought from simple viewing.

As I'm in the middle of Karen Joy Fowler's THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB which deals with perception, experience, and the nature of sacrifice, I really want to recommend it as relevant to the the discussion T seems to be starting here. I know some of you don't have time to read anything outside of work, but this book is tweaking my mind in ways much more like Russell's THE SPARROW than like THE EYRE AFFAIR. Major, serious, important, accessible fiction. Check it out.

#2 ::: Jonathan Copyright Post ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 12:33 AM:


would you like to ask Harlan Ellison's permission to print his brilliant refutation of the maxim "a picture is woth a thousand words?"

I've paraphrased it dozens of times in conversations, but I quite agree with Harlan here. But I would certainly never put anything of his online without permission. He is brave to be fighting AOL the way he is!

#3 ::: Larry B ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 12:49 AM:

I dunno - maybe I have too much context for Ukiyo-e prints - but the larger part of what was happening was easy to guess. The details would be dependent on the play.

Nonetheless, a point well made. So much of the information in an image is set by context, much of it cultural. I couldn't imagine trying to explain some of the more gruesome images commonplance to Catholicism to someone with no real Western cultural exposure. (Baywatch doesn't count.)

Of course, when I hear someone start to expound on what the figures in a work of art are doing, I somehow wind up thinking of Sister Wendy. Unless it's a modern work, then I think of Robert Hughes. (Which means that I probably watch too much TV.)

#4 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 01:25 AM:

It was clearly a puppet play and a woman putting on a man's helmet. I didn't know the specific story. (I grew up in the Ring of Fire.)

#5 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 03:20 AM:

I thought she was carrying a headdress of some kind. Or a sheep. I don't know the story it illustrates, and don't have a cultural context to fill the void. This puts me at a disadvantage, since, as an illustration, it has a more specific focus than, say, a watercolour of Mt. Fuji, and thus a 'correct' interpretation exists.

But perhaps more to the topic, one definition of 'art' might be an image that evokes a thousand words' worth of response from within more than one cultural context, and no one of them more 'correct' than any of the others.

#6 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 04:41 AM:

At Minicon this year I played a game that made use of this effect. It had several names of which my favorite was "Cricket, Cricket, I'm On Fire". You take a number of people sitting around a table -- ideally an odd number, at least 7. Each person gets a pencil and a sheet of paper. Start by writing a phrase on the sheet. Then pass the sheet to your neighbor, who must turn your phrase into a drawing. The top of the sheet gets folded over so only the drawing is visible, then the sheet gets passed on. The next person must turn the drawing back into a phrase; if they can guess the original phrase, that's great, but often they can't.... The sheet then passes on and the process iterates again. Once the sheet returns to the original writer, it's unfolded and the mutations observed.

Ctein managed to find a phrase that survived the whole process intact. Anyone want to take a guess?

Here's the answer, rot-13'd:
"Or irjl irjl dhvrg, V'z uhagvat jnoovgf."

#7 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 08:10 AM:

I thought the lady was going to put a hat on the seal.

#8 ::: R.M. Koske ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 11:23 AM:

I pulled one of those startling moments of blindness--I didn't see the dark figures at all. So I thought she was standing on the furniture to avoid a mouse. The headdress was either a weapon against it, or a cherished object she was protecting from it.

And maybe I'm just being dumb, but I didn't really see an explanation of this scene. Or is "this is a scene from kabuki and the figures are stagehands assisting the actor, meant to be ignored by the audience" the explanation?

(Delurking in confusion...)

#9 ::: Yoon Ha Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 11:29 AM:

And I didn't even realize it was a lady.

Yeah, I suck. ^_^

#10 ::: Calimac ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 01:36 PM:

Is a good, evocative picture worth a thousand words? Sure it is. It’s just that when it’s by itself, you can’t be sure which thousand words they are.

Compare and contrast with the oft-made statement, "If a creative work needs to be explained, it wasn't any good as art to begin with."

#11 ::: Zara Baxter ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 04:06 PM:

I was thinking: "woman being kidnapped while attacked by slug"...

I swear that helmet has two antennae!

#12 ::: Jason ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 06:32 PM:

I'm in the same boat as Larry. I had too much pre-existing knowledge not to get the broad strokes of the action. Which speaks well of my forthcoming graduate work in Japan Studies. I agree one hundred percent with the sentiment, though.

Oh, and David? That's a great game, but I suspect that the results would be skewed, somewhat, by the artistic skills of the people playing.

#13 ::: Rachel Brown ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 07:38 PM:

I know enough about Kabuki and ukiyoe to make a pretty good guess about the haunted helmet print, but I'm still baffled by the one with the frogs dressed as Kabuki actors.

#14 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2004, 02:19 AM:

I know very, very little about japanese visual symbolism, but it looks as if there's a baby (or a small person/creature) on her back under that helmet, and in japanese mythology I believe that seals are the spirits of drowned sailors.

Even if all of that were true, it wouldn't get you any further, but it's what I noticed.

#15 ::: teep ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2004, 08:09 AM:

I got that it was a chick with a ... samurai helmet that didn't have any color on it. Until someone ELSE mentioned kabuki (in the comments above), I couldn't hook up the black persons in the print to the similarly-clothed figures I'd seen in the "kabuki ping-pong" ( video about a year ago.

#16 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2004, 08:53 AM:

I vote for giant slug hentai with two human accomplices.

At least, that was my first thought.

#17 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2004, 09:55 AM:

I saw it as a person taking off (putting on?) a cross between a helmet and a wig. What with the elaborate kimono and the silliness of putting a wig on a helmet, it seemed to be part of a play. This was confirmed when I noticed the helpful ninjas, though I wasn't sure quite what they were doing or why there was a seal.

Apparently, that's really what a simplified drawing of a samurai helmet looks like?

On the other hand, I think there's quite a bit to appreciate about the picture even if you don't know what's going on--there's that incredibly lush kimono and the invisible-but-not-really ninjas.

And the seal is charming.

#18 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2004, 10:24 AM:

I thought the lady was carrying the ghost of a warrior in battle helmet across the lake, but I, too, thought it was a seal ghost rather than a fox.

#19 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2004, 10:25 AM:

I thought the lady was carrying the ghost of a warrior in battle helmet across the lake, but I, too, thought it was a seal ghost rather than a fox.

#20 ::: bellatrys ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2004, 11:40 AM:

What's wild is that I have a souvienir doll from 1950's Japan that depicts this scene. I always assumed it was an arming scene - noble Samurai lady bringing her husband his helmet - until a few years ago I was researching kitsune, and discovered that, hey, there's a whole *story* about this! and it's a *ghost* story AND a woman warrior story - Mondo cool! Why don't we have an anime of this yet?

Now, how do people from other cultures react to iconography that we take for granted (including subcultural), is something that a) we all ought to ask ourselves for purposes of objectivity, but also b) very useful for sfnal authorly contemplation. What will aliens make of our mythological output? What would we make of alien art?

And what is the deep Terran mystical significance of bos domesticus, anyway? (A religious talisman of this cult)

#21 ::: Scorpio ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2004, 02:39 PM:

Looked like a puppet to me. I was glad to find out that my eyes are ok!


#22 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2004, 07:03 AM:

I was fairly clued in, but then I knew Yoshitaki did LOTS of ghost/demon woodcuts, and the Kabuki aspect was evident.

Too much study of Japan as a teen, I suppose.


#23 ::: LNHammer ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2004, 11:37 AM:

I too saw a seal instead of a fox, and was trying to figure out (a) if I've ever heard of a Japanese selkie story and (2) what kind of a sealskin includes helmet horns.


#24 ::: Connie ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2004, 11:57 AM:

I note for Yoon Ha Lee's peace of mind, that in fact the kabuki actor portrayed in the print would have been of the masculine gender. Dude looks like a lady, in other words.

#25 ::: Leslie ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2004, 01:30 PM:

Good point, Connie. I also had enough cultural context to get the gist, and thought the fox was a seal, but when I imagined the picture extending just far enough for its ears to be visible, then I could see it as a fox.

#26 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2004, 03:45 PM:

Put me in the "I already had the cultural context" group. I knew it was Bunraku, though I didn't know what story it was from.

Since dad worked for Toshiba for a while and went to Japan many times a year, the home I grew up in was filled with Japanese art and objects; as a child, I owned a lovely kimono outfit that went from wig to zori.

I've seen both Kabuki and Bunraku performances in NYC (with simultaneous translation through headsets); my daughter now plays with some of the Japanese toys my dad brought home for me decades ago. My mother's living room is still decorated in a mix of Art Deco and Japanese styles, and my parents' collection of very fancy Japanese dolls is the featured element in the room, presented in a special display case my dad built himself. My brother and I gave them the centerpiece of the collection for their 40th wedding anniversary, 11 years ago, but dad started collecting the dolls when he was in Korea during the "police action."

#27 ::: Martial ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2004, 04:10 PM:

Looked like a kidnapping/theft of helmet to me. Pondered deeply the signifigance of the "seal". Expected the rest of the comic book to consist of heroic samurai tracking down stolen love object.

So much of the information in an image is set by context, much of it cultural. I couldn't imagine trying to explain some of the more gruesome images commonplance to Catholicism to someone with no real Western cultural exposure.

I just got back from Afghanistan (working with NGOs). In Kabul there are many shops selling DVDs: The Passion of the Christ, Kill Bill, Freaky Friday, Sex in the City, The Simpsons, the box set of Alien movies. Wow.

Do I only get a thousand words?

how do people from other cultures react to iconography that we take for granted (including subcultural) [oh,cruel snip!]

Judging by Afghanistan, they buy it anyway. What they make of it is another conversation that was repeatedly submerged under politics.

#28 ::: ElizabethVomMarlo ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2004, 04:16 PM:

Huh. I thought it was a woman, carrying a helmet-head-dress thingy (fancy armour I figured). What baffled me were the scary guys in black--what was he doing to her under her skirt? I figured it for something sinister and sexual (possibly paranormal sexual--like dementors with ugly intent), completely missed the idea of kabuki and didn't see the seal at the bottom at all. Color me midwestern.

#29 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2004, 04:47 PM:

Without the cultural context, I thought the Men In Black were puppeteers, and did not recognize the helmet thinking it some sort of alien slug. On a later look I can see she's carrying it, but that didn't come through the first time.

#30 ::: novalis ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2004, 07:43 PM:

(forgive the l33t spelling of p00p -- I'm circumventing Making Light's filters. You'll also have to change some URLs due to this -- just tr/0/o/)

David Goldfarb, I first learned that game under the name "Eat P00p You Cat", but it's locally (that is, at the Harvard scifi club) called "The Paper Game" (a terribly undescriptive name). I've also heard "Picture Oracle" from some Columbia U scifi types.

Good art skills help, but you would be surprised at how well stick figures, boxes, and arrows do (and how poorly elaborately rendered scenes sometimes do). I got an excellent picture of a river, a dome with nude people in it, a sea, and a crossed out sun, but while I could identify most individual elements, and knew the reference, I didn't put them together.

On the other hand, even with not-very-good art, after two iterations of "E-mail causes conifers to turn into deciduous trees", "PINE stands for Pine Is Not Elm" was restored almost exactly to the original -- the only alteration having to do with a friend's desire to be a smartass.

I keep meaning to set up a high-tech system for online play, but I'm not sure I would have the tuits to do my pieces in a timely fashion, so I doubt anyone else would.

I also notice that play styles differ dramatically. I am quite likely to draw a short comic strip, using conventions from comics (thought vs. speech bubbles) and mathematics (implication arrows, slashed equals signs), but I don't use words or numbers. If it came up, and it the next person were a programmer, I would use ?: ("x = a ? b : c" means "if a, x is assigned the value of b else x is assigned the value of c" from the C programming language. I also use magnifying glasses to denote a "zoom in" on a particular part of a scene. On the other hand, most of the games I see online involve only single pictures with no explicit progression of time, and do use words but not as many arrows.

#31 ::: abby ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2004, 11:36 AM:

novalis, David, I learned that game as "Pictionary Telephone", but the name I like best for it (from New England Young Friends) is "Spanking Yoda".

#32 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2004, 12:48 PM:

I did quite a bit of study into Bunraku back in college, so I recognized the scene for what it was right off the bat...then had to reinterpret what it was the rest of the populace would probably see, which was quite an amusing exercise.

#33 ::: Kylee Peterson ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2004, 05:11 PM:

The "Cricket, Cricket, I'm on Fire" name is from a particular game we played here in Seattle, in which that wound up being one of the end (or maybe just intermediate) phrases. The original was, of course, "Liar, liar, pants on fire". Poor drawing skills are half the fun: lyre -> cricket. The other half is watching the way people's minds work, what they focus on, what is added or subtracted from a drawing as it goes, and what's a stable meme.

One refinement: If the paper's originator doesn't happen to recognize it, we keep going because it'll just get funnier.

#34 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2004, 12:28 AM:

And here I thought it came from "Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home, your house is on fire and your children don't know." I don't like the "EPYC" name because toilet humor tends to squick me. A personal quirk.

At Minicon we came up with the name "Money Duck". That one started out as, "It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Superchicken" and on the first iteration the poor bird got turned into engine exhaust and erased; meanwhile Cally Soukup hallucinated a vertical bar over Superchicken's S-symbol and turned it into a dollar sign. This left me having to draw, "I see a flying airplane is a money duck" and I surprised myself by managing a fairly nice (although of course amateurish) rendition of a duck in a top hat stretching out one wing with dollar bills on it.

#35 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2004, 04:38 PM:
because toilet humor tends to squick me.

Ah, if only that verb weren't a homonym...I know my little world would be a less confusing place...

See the last two definitions.

#36 ::: Sarah Thompson ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2004, 05:59 AM:

I can't resist. Japanese print geek time!

What I find interesting is the question of whether the print illustrates a scene from bunraku (the puppet theater) or kabuki, or, I suspect, the latter disguised as the former. An actor's name-- Otani Tomomatsu, I think-- is given in one of the boxes at the upper right, next to the name of the role, Yaegakihime. So, probably live action kabuki. But why the guys in black who look so much like puppeteers? In kabuki they'd be used for things like on-stage costume changes or manipulation of props, but here they seem to be manipulating the actor as if he were a puppet.

Yoshitaki was an Osaka artist (and not a very well known one, as opposed to the contemporary Tokyo artist Yoshitoshi, who's much more famous), and bunraku is a specialty of Osaka, so maybe there was some local tradition of imitating bunraku when performing kabuki. Just a thought.

The print is from a series called Mitate Iroha Datoe, which loosely translates as "Selected comparisons for the letters of the alphabet." Well, actually, it's not an alphabet but a syllabary; this print illustrates the letter "yu." Unfortunately I can't read (offhand) the subtitle identifying this scene, so I'm not sure whether there was some kind of punny joke involving the letter "yu." Looks like it might include the word "yuurei" (ghost, spirit), presumably the fox spirits.

A common marketing device in the nineteenth century was producing prints in a set (Collect Them All!), either an arbitrary number (36 Views of Mt Fuji-- which actually has 46 prints, because it was so successful that they issued 10 extras)or a predetermined one (53 stages of the Tokaido road, 47 letters of the kana syllabary, etc.).

Roger Keyes, in =The Theatrical World of the Osaka Print=, dates this series to around 1865. For a closer date, you'd have to locate as many of the individual prints as possible and then track when those actors played those roles-- with the caveat that in a mitate series, sometimes actors are shown in roles that they didn't actually play but that the artist, or the fans who bought the prints, wanted to imagine them in. It kind of reminds me of that game of recasting favorite movies that one so often sees on line.

#37 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2004, 10:19 AM:

"Foolish inconsistency is the hobgoblin of small minds" (Ralph Waldo Emersion)

The quibbles are in the differing defintions of foolish.

#38 ::: Jonathan Shirogitsune Post ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2004, 02:57 PM:

Sarah Thompson:

When you say:

"'yuurei' (ghost, spirit), presumably the fox spirits"

I presume that you mean some of:

* byakko {white (spiritual) fox}
* fokkusutorotto {fox-trot}
* furudanuki {old fox or schemer}
* furukitsune {old fox or schemer}
* gingitsune {silver fox}
* gizensha {hypocrite or fox in a lamb skin}
* inari {name of the fox deity}
* kitsune {fox (common usage)}
* shirogitsune {albino fox or arctic fox}
* shirubaafokksu {silver fox}
* umisen'yamasen {sly old fox}

For reasons of tricolor, "shirogitsune" is the best literal and poetic translation of my middle name, and mother's maiden name, "Vos", into Japanese.

The name shirogitsune seems to come up a lot in Role Playing games, if Google is right...

#39 ::: MDČ ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2004, 03:35 PM:

* inari {name of the fox deity}

Actually, Inari's the god and the fox is just his messenger. A very frequent mistake it seems.

#40 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2004, 04:30 PM:

Skwid: a homonym? Onomatopoeia, I see, but how is it a homonym, and for what?

Mez, Emerson said "a foolish consistency..." He was denouncing being mindlessly consistent.

#41 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2004, 04:37 PM:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

-- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

Skwid: Any relation to Squidward, on Spongebob Squarepants?

MD^2: "Actually, Inari's the god and the fox is just his messenger. A very frequent mistake it seems." Ouch. I stand corrected, tail between my legs.

#42 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2004, 05:38 PM:

Careful not to trip.

#43 ::: MDČ ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2004, 10:13 PM:

Actually, I had to hear that sentence almost every week from my teacher during my japanese religion course. He was a very particular man. And we were pretty obnoxious students. I guess I'm just passing on the pain and knowledge.

Oh, also, a tanuki isn't a fox.

#44 ::: novalis ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2004, 01:00 PM:

I ran "Liar, liar, pants on fire" through the Paper Game last night, and got out: "The man lied until his chest exploded."

On an unrelated subject, I use unique addresses for various forums, to track address harvesting. Recently, I've gotten more spam for the address I post here than for most of my other addresses (not counting work-related addresses). I know there's nothing anyone can do about this, but I thought I would warn people.

#45 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2004, 04:34 PM:

Xopher: Is a homonym not when a word is spelled/pronounced the same but has two different meanings? Sure, the word is onomatopeic either way, and sure, the more common meaning has its etymological roots in the other (AFAICT), but for the vast majority of users I doubt there is any awareness of the specific physical action associated. It is one word with two different meanings.

JVP: No.

#46 ::: Sarah Thompson ::: (view all by) ::: May 11, 2004, 03:29 AM:

Aha! Mystery solved, at least partly. I just remembered that there is an English translation of this scene of the play. It's in =Kabuki Plays on Stage=, vol. I (U. of Hawai'i Press, 2002).

Sure enough, there is a costume change just at this point. When Yaegakihime becomes possessed by the foxes, her costume magically changes from red to white. On the Kabuki stage, stagehands dressed in black to make them "invisible" take off the outer layer of the actor's clothing to reveal the white costume underneath.

So, what looks like sinister black-clad figures undressing a woman is actually stagehands helping a male actor in a female role make a dramatic costume change. In an anime version, probably the red costume would morph into a white one, perhaps with a glowing aura, to indicate the moment of fox possession.

But it's unusual for woodblock prints to show stage action so literally. I can't think offhand of another example.

Re: which fox term, I'd have to dig up the original script, which I don't have on hand. Sorry. Magic foxes are generally assumed to be white; shirogitsune and byakko are alternate readings for the same written word.

MD2, thanks for the tanuki reference. I've been exploring the wonderful Onmark website but hadn't gotten to that entry yet. Now I know why the tanuki in Kyoto were so pitiful looking two summers ago, and not to be seen (at least by me) this past summer. Alas!

#47 ::: Rachel Kronick ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2004, 08:03 AM:

David, it was great playing EPYC/Moneyduck/CCIOF with you. I obviously won't guess what the phrase with such staying power was, because I was party to it, even though I now don't remember it. At the MnStf meeting last night, we played a couple quick rounds and then resolved to do a version of it at next year's Minicon, with all the GoH's involved. Should be fun.

#48 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2004, 12:59 PM:

Skwid: 'homonym' is a perniciously ambiguous word. Also, saying "it's a homonym" is like saying "he's a twin." I got confused by this.

homographs are two or more different words that are spelled the same, frex 'unionized' (having unions) and 'unionized' (electrically neutral). They are generally pronounced differently, but see below.

homophones are two or more different words that are pronounced the same, but spelled differently (usually, BSB), frex 'their', "they're", 'there'.

Calling both homographs and homophones 'homonyms' has caused many a schoolchild needless confusion and suffering. IMO the term should be entirely abandoned, but that's not what we're talking about here.

When pronunciation and spelling are both identical, it's a matter of some debate whether two different words are used (thus justifying the label 'homonym'/'homophone'/'homograph'), or whether there are simply two different senses of the same word. One bases the decision on such factors as whether the word/s is/are derived from a common source, how different the meanings are, etc.

For example, I would argue for two different, homophonous (and homographic) words 'host' in English, one that means a multitude, and another that means a harborer of guests (or parasites, to the extent these are distinct); I would argue that the term 'host' as in 'communion host' is not a third word but a special case of the second word - the "guest" in this case being the Divine Nature.

As for 'squick' - I didn't click your link, so I responded with some confusion. Mea culpa on that. But now that I have clicked it, I would have to say that they seem to me to be different senses of the same word, the nasty (and to me extremely obscure) sense being older. The common sense is a metaphor, see?

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