When we talk about figure we do not directly address the abstract definition that makes it a great end, enclosed in its surroundings. Instead, we dream about the diverse forms that nature provides. Ever-changing forms of clouds that pass by, more durable forms that the eye scrutinizes, magnificent remains of an extinct life on a rock, Foz Côa drawings that witnessed the passage of time, man and his rituals. The forms, that is, the diversity that we relate to a certain individuality (the thing of the Ancients) open themselves to a wider front that transports them and on which they settle. We could say that every figure is the emergence of an anonymous potential of which it is the flower offered to our eyes. A flower that is destined to die and witnesses through its death why it shouldn't die. After all, every figure should come to rest in order to be a figure. Or it would not be seen, nor would a hand touch it.
A “figure” as such does not exist, given that it reveals a use that is always singular of signs and looks, according to D. Huberman . “Figure” evokes a first visual and conventional plan (figmentum, fiction) that hides and means something more real: “figure”, closer to the character or the mask, opposes “face” as a coherent organisation but brief. This is how we talk about figures that cover justice in societies and it is also what makes it an aspect of cultures. A figure is a field of strengths of different but related intensities, never hierarchical; its dynamic is a fractal one, and not that of spatial-temporal linearity . According to Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (ed. 1887, p.510ss) figure (from the Latin figura, fingere, figurative root, to form, to model). Figure is the form of something, its structure or appearance, a character that represents a number, a digit. In rhetoric, a figure is a way to express abstract ideas or something immaterial through words that suggest images of the physical world, a trope, a pictorial language. A Figure – in the sense of a “prophecy in acts”, as Auerbach defines it –imposes itself as a more prolific and freer means to guarantee the impulse of representation. A figure retakes real events of history, to interpret them as a promise of an open meaning, dominating the destiny of Western representation: Eve appears before Maria, Moses before Christ, a Synagogue before a Church, and this, until the loss of the sense-source, of the realist figuration until its undefined purification that is modern art.
Aristotle, in Prior Analytics, I, cc. 4-6, speaks of configuration, form or structure – schema to designate a syllogistic figure. With Hegel, the term figure acquires a new meaning: a figure is the translation of the term Gestalt, which was translated as form in psychology and that would be better translated as model. Cicero, in Brutus (69), in praise of Cato says: “the Greeks are used to embellishing speech when they modify the use of words that they call tropes (trópous), or when they modify the construction of a sentence, which they call figure (schèmata)”. Quintilian (Inst. IX, c. 1, 17 and before VIII, c. VI, where the “tropes” metaphor, longe pulcherrimus, is dealt with) argues about the distinction that has been maintained throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Over time, in addition to the figure of word and thought, those of passion started to appear (such as interrogation, suspension, apostrophe, enumeration), those of metaphor and mixed (that is of image and thought, like metonymy and periphrasis). João Mendes establishes figure in the analogical transposition or in the imaginative similarity of the approximate objects (comparison, allegory, metaphor), in the intellectual implication of expression (periphrasis, allusion, metonymy, irony, euphemism), in the intensification of speech (apostrophe, interrogation, anaphora, anadiplosis, hyperbaton, antithesis) . Freud sees in “dream work” (traumarbeit) the transformation of abstract thought into images, almost always visual.
In everyday language, the words “literal” and “figurative” are normally seen as opposites. It is an opposition that has very remote roots. In chapter 21 of Poetics, Aristotle makes a distinction between the standard name of something and the variety of other types of names amongst which he lists metaphor. The medieval theory distinguished the literal, allegorical, moral and analogical sense of the Scriptures. The figurative in language refers us to the order or pattern of second level in the use of words. The order of the first level of language consists of functions and conventions by a competent speaker of the language. The figurative order is a second level of verbal arrangements overlapping the first level . Fictional texts, by definition, are composite connotative forms that report events in time and space, modelled on real life events. We interpret these texts, not as narratives of literal events, but as events that imply various psychological, sociological or metaphysical meanings. The level of connotation in the visual sign is the point in which the already coded signs intersect with the deep semantic codes of a culture. Take the example of advertising speech. Here the purely denotative does not exist. There is no type of “natural” representation. All the visual signs in advertisement connote a quality, a value or inference situation that is present as a meaning of implication that depends on its connotative position. In Barthes' example, the knitted wool waistcoat always means “warm clothes” (denotation) and hence the activity/value of “retain heat”. However, in its more connotative levels it could also mean “the arrival of winter” or “a cold day”. And in the sub-codes of fashion specialised in woollen waistcoats it can also mean other things.
Kant's transcendental schema is a product of the imagination as the capacity to represent an object even without its presence in intuition, the capacity to figure. U. Eco says that the schema is not an image because an image is a product of the reproductive imagination, while the schema of sensitive concepts is a product of the a priori pure capacity of imagining “per così un monogramma”. The Kantian schema would be closer to Bild Wittgensteinian, proposition that has the same form of the fact it represents, in the same sense in which it speaks of the iconic relationship to an algebraic formula, or to the model in the scientific-technical sense. Mathematics designates a figure as a geometrical symbol of the form of bodies. Figures are formed by points, lines or surfaces: a straight line, a polygonal line, a circle, an ellipse, a spiral, a cube, a sphere. Figure, in this field, is also any graphical schema that represents the fundamental elements of an object and that addresses the demonstration or solution of a problem. In turn, figures in Music are the signs of notation commonly called notes or pauses. It is from this old name that is derived the designation of “canto figurado”, given to the mensurable and counterpoint composition, in opposition to plainsong. In Art a figure is the capacity to elaborate by means of graphical forms, a sense, meaning or symbol, with or without communication purposes. A figure is written on the criss-crossing of techniques, of language and of religion (A. Leroi-Gourhan) in which the plastic arts appear.
To talk about “figure” is to situate it short of the constituted signs, to address the systems of signification from the dissociation of sign, of a loss of meaning as it exists in its “semiological state”. This issue is one of distinction between manifestation and immanence, between two “states” of signification. For the semiotic of discourse, to speak of figure, according to this meaning, is to distance it from the model of sign. In Hjelmslev's tradition, figure is a “non-sign” that intervenes in the construction of signs, not only in the expression plan but also in the content plan . If we analyse the inventory of the following words “bull”, “cow”, “man”, “woman”, we would recognize that this small lexical body is structured by greatness of content inferior to these words, such as masculine/feminine, bovine/human. Literary semiotics saved this first definition of figure. “Barge”, “nets”, “fish” are figures as regards greatness of content that both in discourse and in the dictionary have the power to refer to the realities of the world said to be natural, in other words a real barge and nets through which fish are caught. A figure, as an element of content, should combine with other figures to produce its effects of signification, so it is not reducible to a stabilizing meaning. A figure is therefore an invention typical of speeches without which it would not exist. That is why if we want to study figures, we should read them not in language dictionaries but in texts. A figure is a signified figure that belongs to the form of the content: it speaks of the world without reproducing it. Figures point out disturbances in the language code; they are the effect of utterance tensions in the language system like indexes of the body that speaks. The term “figural” is owed to J. Geninasca to designate this discursive status of figurative greatness . The discursiveness, in which the utterance is made, provokes in the figurative greatnesses a proof of emptiness. Amongst the virtuality in which it is found in the discursive configurations, full of multiplicities of meaning and of use, and the updating in which they would be placed “in value” through a specific semi-narrative structure, it would be necessary to foresee an “emptiness” stage, in which the figurative greatnesses are in a “figural” state, in the signified state without meaning more than in the state of sign in which the figure is related to a value. The discursive arrangement of the figurative plan “mixes up” the representation of the world: it is not only a fictional metamorphosis of the “real” world, but it is a transformation that affects at the same time the (decentred, multiple, fragmented) point of view, the conditions of perception and the iconic function of the figurative elements. It distorts the image in benefit of what is called anamorphosis. Anamorphosis draws a perspective of discursive and utterance interpretation that resumes the whole figurative plan of the text, at the distance of referential and thematic dimensions. Anamorphotics or figurals, these non-signs alert to the discursive treatment of figures of the natural world: the discourse transforms recognizable signs (visible and signs decoded) into visual significants. The figural introduces in the discourse the rule of the significant, transforming the visible into visual. The “visual” nature of discourse is announced through this “coherent distortion” of the world M. Merleau-Ponty spoke of and that G. Didi Hubermann goes back to in order to define the effect of pictorial work, when he speaks of the emergence of visual in the visible, a distortion whose (discursive) coherence indicates a focal point . The “distortion of the world” is important to discursive coherence because now it is the rules of discourse (metaphor, metonymy...) and not only those of “verisimilitude” of the world that direct the discursive negotiation.
Since 1964, R. Barthes noticed that rhetoric deserved to be rethought in structural linguistic terms , at the same time G. Genette began a series of studies about the general topic of Figures in La rhétorique de l’espace du langage (1966, 1969, 1972), while T. Todorov annexed to one of his first works (1967) a draft of the system of tropes and figures. In rhetoric, figures are observed in function of the roles they play at a certain moment of the argumentative discourses. In Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's theory there are “figures of option”, “figures of presence” and “figures of communion”. The criterion of classification is found in the social and cognitive effects of the figure and not in its logical or discursive structure. It is this social function that makes Perelman distinguish between “figures of style” and “argumentative figures”, said at times of rhetoric : In this context, figures are only important if they can be factors of persuasion. In this perspective, the poetic trope is considered a simple ornament, defined as an effect of argumentative discourse that failed.
In the root of the word figure is the Latin term fingere that means imitate, and also imagine and invent. To describe the iconic, figure we need to have a series of concepts: isotopic (pertinence), alotopic (impertinence), degree (inference), conceived degree, interaction between the understood and the conceived, carrier levels, trainer and developer, sub-type and determinant. A drawing, a photograph, a billboard, a logo are all carriers of any figurative. They represent objects or people, landscapes, artefacts. On the other hand, an image may be a carrier of ulterior meanings that have to do with their specifically plastic aspects (visuals). The graphic or pictorial forms may be carriers of a specific sense. Whatever the sense produced, it is not the symbolical nature of chromaticism, but that which is called a semi-symbolical relationship between the chromaticism found in the same text and the meanings that they carry (cf. Floch 1985, 1986b). For the Brussels school of thought, every figure presents two necessary aspects: on the one hand, a discernible structure, independent of the content, on the other hand, a use that differs from the normal function of expressing itself, therefore, attracting attention (1976:227). This is how in fact elocutio rhetoric defines these figures: 1. as a deviation whose re-evaluation is determined by contextual and pragmatic factors. 2. as own procedures to provoke the effect of autelism, that Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca found again with the formula “attract attention”. A figure fundamentally has an instrumental function of reorganisation of categories that result from experience (the encyclopaedic knowledge).
G. Didier-Huberman, L’image ouverte, Paris, Gallimard, 2007.
Wester’s Unabridged Dictionary, ed. 1887, p. 510ss.
Augusto Joaquim, posfácio a Causa Amante de Maria Gabriela Llansol, Lisboa, A regra do Jogo, 1984.
João Mendes, "Figura" in Enciclopédia Verbo Luso-Brasileira, Edição Século XXI, Lisboa, São Paulo, 1999.
G. Didi-Hubermann, Devant l’image, Paris, Minuit, 1972.
Roland Barthes, La Rhétorique, Cours à l’école Pratique des Hautes Études, 1964-1965.
Perelman, l’empire réthorique. Rhétorique et argumentation, Paris, Vrin, 1977.
L. Hjelmslev, Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, Madisom, University of Winsconsin Press, 1963.
Jacques Geninasca, “Stylistique et sémiosis”, Sémiotique et Bible, nº 85, Lyon, 1997.
E. F. Kittay, in Metaphor, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1987.
Donald Davidson, “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”, in Philosophical Grounds of Rationality, Richard E. Grandy and Richard Warner (eds), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1986, 157-174.
John Searle, “Literal Meaning”, in Expression and Meaning, Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Umberto Eco, Dalla’albero al labirinto. Studi storici sul segno e l’interpretazione, Milão, Bompiani, 2007.