Captions in the Time of Social Networks

Social media accounts can be used intelligently and politically

In his book, Petits traités 1, Pascal Quignard subtitled the 7th treatise: ‘On the relationships that text and image do not maintain’. He says in particular:

‘There is no link between text and image, other than the image of the text itself. Writing - like any mode of expression - seeks the un-transposable, and the signs are there, by function, to make up for the object that they have ceased to show and that has disappeared. The proper character of written signs is not to show what they designate; they mean; they reign in what can’t be shown’. And further on:

‘The image cuts the grass under the foot of language. To show the written word as a spectacle: If it appears, it is annihilated; it begins to be visible; it ceases to be readable’.

When one is a little familiar with his work, one understands that it is a provocation, a stone of impotence thrown in front of the complexity of the subject addressed. Indeed, the links between words and images cannot be reduced to the question of signifier and significant, and Quignard, in his hybrid fiction work, has explored the other springs of these links several times. If they are intimately linked to the media that support them, these links follow the evolution of writing through the centuries. From the illumination to the comic strip to the photo novel, the interweaving of meanings carried by the combination of images and words has recently been extended in new directions, outside books, and with force by social networks, and their very architecture.

Unfortunately, Pascal Quignard can’t shed any light on this point, as he explains on his website: ‘The writer Pascal Quignard has no account on any social network whatsoever. Any social account of the @PascalQuignard type is a usurped account’.

We will, therefore, have to conduct our own investigation. Especially since this communicative tool - which I would dare call “language” - seems to be the blind spot of these depreciated social media, among other things, because they would push people to write short, to write badly, to prefer images, less complex and faster to apprehend. If these assertions are true, it seems to me that they do not do justice to what is otherwise developing as new potentialities there.

In the context of this essay, I will discuss two approaches, which seem to me exemplary because they carry with them a perversion of the codes accepted in social networks and therefore a political dimension.

Figure 1: "I Know What I Would Do to You"
What is striking in many initiatives - and the evocative power of this image/text combination is even more evident - is the simplicity of the mechanism at work. As such, Dear Cat Callers is an example. Developed on Instagram by a young Dutch girl, it consists of 22 selfies taken mainly in the streets, always accompanied by men in the background. These men are strangers who harassed her while she was walking. The text that captions these clichés is based on the comments they made to her

As she explains it very well in the short text that begins this series: ‘By making the selfie, both the objectifier and the object are assembled in one composition. Myself, as the object, standing in front of the catcallers represents the reversed power ratio which is caused by the project’.

The process works in two stages, each of which amplifies the violence expressed and felt. First of all, it is true that the square photograph captures the voyeur and the object of his harassment in the same space, annihilating the voyeur’s impunity. But what, in my opinion, makes the proposal perfect - and what the presentation text omits - is the juxtaposition of the image and the text that is supposed to precede it. This word, which, coupled with a seemingly harmless portrait, denounces the trivialization of this social trend.

In another vein, but always with a desire to question the instrumentalization of bodies, James Fridman regularly publishes photographic diptychs on his Twitter account.

On a regular basis, this impressively talented graphic designer receives pictures of strangers with requests for changes. When he lends himself to the game, the result is always surprising.

His photo editing deliberately plays with an interpretation of the text in relation to the image, to create a new image that would be the answer: A fantasy of this original image but perverted or altered by a dysfunction of the representation. Sometimes, Fridman overturns this process by simply reproducing the original photo, initiating a dialogue with the person who sent him the photo.

Anyway, he’s always beating expectations. If the mechanism works, it is because Fridman has impressive skills in terms of photo editing that he uses to denounce, through absurdity, the tyranny of standardized beauty and endless happiness. He plays on words, invests the space between them and their representation, or between them and what they are supposed to represent.

You will tell me: This has nothing to do with the evocative power of the literature Quignard is talking about! Not so sure! At a time when reality - through these same social networks - is over-documented, saturated, the capacity of literature to digest the mass of data made public every day is more than ever necessary to help us understand the society in which we live. Still, it is necessary that the craftsmen of literature sometimes accept to get rid of the prestige constituted by books and that they plunge where wild words and images abound.