Ekphrasis is a Greek term whose etymological meaning is “to speak out” or “to show in full.” Debates on ekphrasis go back to classical antiquity and Homer’s lines on Hephaestos making Achilles’ shield in Book 18 of the epic The Iliad (8th century bce). Ekphrasis was considered a mode of speaking capable of bringing absent things before the listener’s inner eye by aiming at enargeia, a vivid quality of language producing evidentia (evidence) and rousing emotions through lively, precise, and detailed verbal descriptions. Over the centuries, the term underwent a considerable narrowing-down of its original meaning and eventually, during the Second Sophistic, came to designate the description of works of art. However, ancient ekphrasis, in the broader sense of detailed and lively description, had a rich afterlife throughout the Middle Ages (e.g., in Geoffrey Chaucer), the Renaissance (e.g., in Shakespeare), Neoclassicism (in Joseph Addison’s essays and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s “Laocoön”), and even into the Romantic Age (e.g., in William Wordsworth and George Gordon Byron). In its narrower sense as verbal representation/evocation of or response to a work of art or visual object, it is a ubiquitous phenomenon in 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century literature, be it poetry or narrative fiction. Many modernist, postmodernist, and post-postmodernist literary texts are replete with ekphrases, but these ekphrases very often question any mimetic or illusionist aesthetic and no longer exclusively follow the paragonal model: instead of competing with one another, ekphrastic word-image configurations are more adequately described as intermedial constellations and collaborations. As a pertinent feature of 20th- and 21st-century poetry and narrative fiction—examples are novels by Julian Barnes, Antonia Susan Byatt, Teju Cole, Siri Hustvedt, or Donna Tartt—ekphrasis has also attracted the attention of literary scholars and theoreticians of culture. Due to the many attempts to conceptualize and theorize ekphrasis, any attempt to give a simple definition will not suffice. In the 1980s and 1990s scholars such as Murray Krieger, William John Thomas Mitchell, and James Heffernan theorized ekphrasis: while Krieger saw ekphrasis as a symptom of the semiotic desire for the natural sign and Mitchell discussed ekphrasis within a paragonal framework of socio-cultural power relations, Heffernan defined ekphrasis as the verbal representation of visual representation. Included among the seminal concepts and definitions of ekphrasis in the early 21st century are approaches from phenomenology and cognitive poetics or new reception aesthetics, the digital humanities, postcolonial and transcultural studies, and the environmental humanities. By going beyond questions of representation that have dominated ekphrastic criticism for a long time, functions of ekphrasis, in particular socio-cultural and ethical functions, have gained new attention.
Description is generally associated with the novel in its modern form, a perception captured in one of the dictums from Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas: “Descriptions: There are always too many of them in novels.” But description has a much longer history and abounds in other genres, from the epic to lyric and didactic poetry to tragedy and beyond. In the 18th century, it was even considered a genre unto itself, in the newly conceived genre of descriptive poetry popularized by the Scottish poet James Thomson. Description also features prominently in genres of writing often considered nonliterary, such as encyclopedias, scientific writing, how-to manuals, and travel guides. Indeed, critical suspicion surrounding description in Western rhetorical and poetic tradition stems in part from the perception that it can too easily become a site for the incursion of the nonliterary (i.e., things rather than people, scientific or technical knowledge, abstruse vocabulary) into the literary domain. Description resists easy definition and has been characterized as one of the blind spots of Western literary discourse. In antiquity, rhetorical and poetic treatises gave scant attention to description, and neoclassical poetic doctrine was more concerned with policing description’s boundaries than defining it. It was not until the 18th century that description emerged as a theoretical problem worthy of debate and as a prominent literary practice. Since antiquity, description has been associated with visualization and the visual arts, through the rhetorical figures of enargeia and ekphrasis and the Renaissance doctrine of ut pictura poesis. Through this association, description has close ties to mimesis and has proved especially vulnerable to Platonic attacks on poetry, and on literature more broadly, as a mere copy of reality. In the 19th century, description featured prominently in the realist novel, but in the mid-20th century it was used, notably by the French New Novelists, as a means of contesting realism. Formalist and structuralist criticism sparked renewed interest in theorizing description in the 1970s and 1980s. At the beginning of the 21st century, in an age of interdisciplinarity when the boundaries between the literary and the nonliterary have become increasingly porous, description has once again emerged as a key theoretical problem for thinking across disciplines and has even been proposed as a new mode of reading that avoids the pitfalls of humanist hermeneutics.
The contested category of Asian American literature presents a rich opportunity to explore questions of epistemology. At the start of the 21st century, a formal turn in literary study further illuminates shifts in structures of knowledge and ways of knowing. Asian American literature emerged in the 1970s as a critical response to a history of exclusion and misrepresentation. As the field established itself, literary knowledge was defined quite narrowly: it is produced by Asian Americans and the subject of knowledge is Asian America itself. The reading practices that arise from this central paradigm have been called “instrumental” or “sociological,” insofar as they conceive of literary language, with varying degrees of formal interest, as an instrument or expression of Asian America. From the 2000s onward, scholarship on Asian American form and poetics has grown steadily, and what distinguishes this particular movement is its privileging of form as its primary object of investigation. Correspondingly the subject of knowledge also shifts from Asian America as the default referent to Asian American literature and the literary tradition. Critics note that one consequence of making form the prime objective is a potential tendency to drift away from the ambit of Asian America altogether. Those literary texts featuring conspicuous formal experimentation have garnered a lot of attention; less has been paid to the early texts, like the anthology Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (1974), where formal concerns are not as explicit. Yet upon closer examination of Aiiieeeee! one discovers another type of figurative activity that can help redefine Asian American literary knowledge, offering us new ways of reading and looking at race.