CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

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Ekphrasis as Science Fiction

Session 3 Imagination and Projection

Institute for Cultural Inquiry


In this paper I consider the relationship between two definitions of the term ekphrasis: the modern critical understanding whereby it designates the literary description of an art work or object; and the older understanding as recently proposed by Ruth Webb, according to which it should be understood as the rhetorical practice of making that which it describes appear as convincingly and affectively present or real for the listener/reader. I suggest that these two definitions are linked – and differentiated – by the different ways in which they depend upon a notion of imaginative projection. I then argue that we might aptly describe this kind of projection as science-fictional, in that it enables a figurative kind of time travel, and presents what would otherwise seem impossible as convincingly real, precisely by drawing attention to, rather than attempting to conceal, this apparent impossibility. I seek to elaborate this science-fictional quality of ekphrasis through a brief consideration of three examples: Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield, Dan Simmons’ science fiction novel, Ilium (2003), and Cy Twombly’s work 50 Days at Iliam. The latter two cases, I suggest, can be considered to involve inversions of ekphrasis in the modern critical sense, but constitute genuine examples of ekphrasis  in the older sense uncovered by Webb.


James Burton is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin, where he is working on a project on the relations between fiction, animation and non-human forms of error. A former Alexander von Humboldt fellow, he has taught in the fields of cultural studies, media studies and the history of art at Goldsmiths, University of London, the University of Kent, and the Alpen-Adria University in Klagenfurt. He is the author of The Philosophy of Science Fiction: Henri Bergson and the Fabulations of Philip K. Dick (Bloomsbury, 2015) and co-editor, with Erich Hörl, of a forthcoming volume on ecology in the context of modern technological and media culture. He has published several articles on the philosophy of fiction, science fiction, the philosophy of memory, and most recently on the ethical and social significance of parasitism.