I think the answer to this question may be in the OED, but I don't have access to the service. I am discussing "texts" using definitions (from dictionary.com) like this:

text: any theme or topic; subject.

and this

text: anything considered to be a subject for analysis by or as if by methods of literary criticism.

Within the context of cultural anthropology I'm having a discussion with my students about how the definition of a text has expanded over the years to include not just texts comprising words but also visuals (e.g., images in advertisements).

I've come across the latter usage of text in certain educational books:

"Like written texts, visual texts have been carefully constructed by their composers to shape meaning, and to affect and influence the viewer."


"This resource covers how to write a rhetorical analysis essay of primarily visual texts with a focus on demonstrating the author’s understanding of the rhetorical situation and design principles."

An ngram search for "visual texts" doesn't have many results before the 1960s, and some of the results refer to visual texts in single or double quotes to highlight the non-standard usage.

"visual texts"


visual "texts"

My question is:

  • 1
    I wasn't aware that 'we' do call "the images in an advert a text". I don't understand what you mean by text meaning "something other than words".
    – TrevorD
    Commented Sep 6, 2013 at 14:17
  • @tylerharms: I hope my editing clarified your questions. If not, feel free to re-edit. Certainly with the proliferation of words in combination with images in our highly visual world, the concept of text has to take the visual component very seriously indeed. That's not to say the visual component was never important; after all, pictographs go back to ancient cave drawings, do they not? Teachers today who rely strictly on the printed word (whether hard or electronic or both) handicap themselves and their students unnecessarily. Visual texts are great pedagogical tools--and more! Commented Sep 6, 2013 at 21:22
  • By visual texts do you mean, the ability to transmit and obtain information via images? For example, would you consider the Egyptian hieroglyphics "visual text" too? Can the images be accompanied by written text, or do they stand alone? One of the most famous examples of visual texts that come to mind is the bayeux tapestry. Am I on track or completely off the mark?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 7, 2013 at 19:54
  • 2
    This just sounds like a special use of the word in a small technical sense (just for cultural anthropologists. Those outside of that community would think it strange. That is, don't use 'visual text' unless you know your audience will appreciate the incongruity or rather the redefinition.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 7, 2013 at 21:01
  • 2
    I'm with all those who are not familiar with this usage of text. I suspect it is an overwhelming majority of English speakers. I don't believe text is widely used this way. As others have suggested, this is at best technical jargon.
    – John Y
    Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 12:19

2 Answers 2


'Text' is commonly used to describe things other than words in fields such as the history of art, literary theory and so on.

According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Text_(literary_theory))

In literary theory, a text is any object that can be "read," whether this object is a work of literature, a street sign, an arrangement of buildings on a city block, or styles of clothing. It is a coherent set of signs that transmits some kind of informative message. This set of symbols is considered in terms of the informative message's content, rather than in terms of its physical form or the medium in which it is represented.

I suspect it's only been commonly used this way since the 1960s. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_theory#Language_and_communication) states:

From the 1960s and 1970s onward, language, symbolism, text, and meaning came to be seen as the theoretical foundation for the humanities, through the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, George Herbert Mead, Noam Chomsky, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and other thinkers in linguistic and analytic philosophy, structural linguistics, symbolic interactionism, hermeneutics, semiology, linguistically oriented psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan, Alfred Lorenzer), and deconstruction

  • The wikipedia page you link to states that "a text is any object that can be read" so pictograms work, a photograph of my grandmother won't.
    – terdon
    Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 19:02
  • @terdon ah, but but note the quotation marks around the word 'read'. In this context 'read' doesn't have the usual meaning. Paintings, symbols, street signs can all be 'read' (ie interpreted, placed in their context, linked to the world around them)
    – Neil D
    Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 19:49
  • Postmodern authors often talk about "reading" almost anything. And you can definitely "read" someone's face or body language. If we accept metaphors, there's no limit.
    – CesarGon
    Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 22:09
  • @TimLymington: Indeed. That's my point.
    – CesarGon
    Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 22:43
  • I think this usage of text comes out of post-modernism, although the metaphor of reading something visual is who knows how old. I imagine the post-modern sense comes from semiotics, but I haven't been able to find the person who has taken the leap from calling an image a signifier to calling it a text.
    – tylerharms
    Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 7:31

It is not only common to refer to any object of interpretation as a text at the collegiate level, it is written into the very course catalog descriptions. For example, one of the aesthetics courses I took in grad school was called "Reading Texts: Developing Cultural Fluency" and the main text for that course was Performance Studies: The Interpretation of Aesthetic Texts. Certainly this usage dates from at least Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method (1975) and is inferred by Roland Barthes in "The Photographic Message," no. 1, Communications (Paris, 1961). While Barthes wrote that "(t)he photographic image (...) is a message without a code," he did speak of the reading the photographic image as parallel with the reading of its caption and title.

So, if I were you, I would likely argue that the 1961 article represents the archetypal--if not originating--use of "text" to refer to non-written objects of interpretation.

  • Thanks for the Barthes reference. I have it and will look through it for any evidence of text being used for images. I think Ferdinand de Saussure would probably be an earlier example of this understanding of texts. If you have any resources that cite his usage of "visual texts" I'd be interested in them.
    – tylerharms
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 13:22
  • I fear I may not have made myself sufficiently clear: Barthes, himself, does not expressly apply the term "text" to a non-textual object. He, instead, infers that a non-textual element's message is "read" in a way analogous its (con)textual elements like the title and caption. So... Barthes actually uses text and image as distinct categories, but his treatment of photographic images places them in the same semiotic tradition. Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 14:29
  • So to summarize, Barthes treatment of the topic is archetypal of the approach "image as text" but did not originate the usage you are investigating. Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 14:36

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