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Theory of the Image A844 Exs. 3.4.1

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Theory of the Image A844 Exs. 3.4.1

Read the given extracts from:

W .J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology  (1986)

W .J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (1994)

Hans Belting, ‘Image, medium, body: a new approach to iconology’ (2005)

Bruno Latour, ‘What is iconoclash? Or is there a world beyond the image wars?’ (2002)

October group, ‘Roundtable: the predicament of contemporary art' (Foster et al., 2004).

What sense have you gained of the changing terms of an understanding of the relation of word and image?

These essays don’t really provide anything like a linear development of theory and lots of issues seem to be contingent on the kind of works that are being discussed. I can’t, for instance, see Belting’s contributions as easily divorced from debates about the image related to the transition from image as real presence to construct and hence the rooting of the debate in systems of belief.

There is always a concern expressed at the inability of a single academic discipline to address the debate and the critique of attempts by art-history to do so start with addressing the inadequacy of iconographic approaches. In Mitchell (1986), the debate centres on how ‘image’ is used in discourses, revealing its dependence, in iconography for instance, on the written word, or, at least a ‘dialect of word and image’ (43). His view is that this dialectic is not essential quality of the ‘image’ but a historical variable wherein the specific configurations of word – image relationships serve political interests. Hence the need to distinguish in the debate relationships between image, text and ideology (the latter being the role of the relationship in contemporary social power relationships (I think). One version of this he explores in Mitchell (1994) named as ‘the pictorial turn’ within postmodernism (15). For him it equates (16, p. 3) spectatorship with reading as a process of decoding the presented stimulus.

His answer is not to deconstruct iconology but o reconstruct it in terms of the self-awareness of the image of itself as an image and the debates it feels thence a need to enter – like the paragone themes of Renaissance culture.

Belting’s (2005) insistence on new critical vocabulary -  image, medium, body – is not a mere addition to text and ideology but a further deepening of the self-consciousness of imagery about itself that is not, as Panofsky is, confined to discourses about art (303) The aim is to ally with ‘neurobiology’ – to find all images a compromise between origination as endogene and exogene (304). In all he tries to deepen ‘ideology’ so that it touches more closely the stuff of images – media used to represent and body in action.


The body, as owner and addressee of images, administered media as extensions of its own visual capacities. Bodies receive images by perceiving them, while media transmit them to bodies.  (315)


The body as ‘archetype of all visual media’ (316) is almost he ‘primitive’ of the image.

On ‘anachronism’ (to develop later) - & Didi-Huberman

 pp. 316f. & on digital image (317)

Latour’s (2002) notion of iconoclash. This looks at the fate of modernist iconoclasm (equated with Greenberg’s attempt to purify painting to a flat surface) under conditions where non-art icons of the West are being destroyed to the discomfort of even modernists (911).

The Roundtable discussions focus on the disappearance of the ‘bourgeois public sphere’ BB 679. What it leaves us with is a yet undeveloped terminology for the diffusion of images across different kinds of space, including cyber-space.

Discussion from Course

The relationship of visual images to verbal language and literary narrative has been long and fraught. Both W. J. T. Mitchell and Bruno Latour discuss the Second Commandment where, it goes almost without saying, the prohibition on images is delivered in words. In the more recent post-Renaissance Western tradition, pictures and words were powerfully imbricated in doctrines such as ut pictura poesis and the Sister Arts. Visual art functioned as a supplement to literary narrative, for the most part biblical or classical. By contrast, modernism’s assertion of the autonomy of art can be understood as a defence of the independence of visual art from literary narrative.

However, the mid-twentieth-century reaction against modernism involved a pronounced ‘linguistic turn’: not merely restoring the traditional relationship of visual and verbal, but regarding the visual as a kind of language. A wide range of social activities, ranging from popular culture to ‘high’ art, were opened to a mode of analysis that was essentially rooted in linguistics. The positive effect of this was enormous. The language of semiotics flared through art, art history and cultural studies like a bush fire, vaporising pieties about art and the spirit like so many old rags. Not only were the connoisseurish archaisms of art appreciation swept away by the ‘new academy’, but the modernist attempt to theorise art as exclusively of that new understanding of images was ‘that they must be understood as a kind of language’ (Mitchell, 1986, p. 8).

In the face of this, Mitchell’s innovation, a ‘pictorial turn’ which ushered in contemporary image-theory, was to assert, quite unequivocally, that ‘Images are not just a particular kind of sign’ (Mitchell, 1986, p. 9). Mitchell saw images as crucially distinct from the realm of language. But at the same time, this was not a return to earlier ideas of words or pictures transparently representing reality, nor to the modernist myth of the complete separation of the visual from the verbal.


What factors stimulated this change of perspective?

As a (informed I hope) guess before discussion:

1.     Globalization of world economies & digital space as a replacement for transcendence.

2.     Associated growth and distribution of images and markets for commodified versions of the image in trade, commerce, politics and ‘leisure’.

3.     Distrust of transcendence but fear of its absence. At heart that may be about fear of the loss of power of the ‘hand-made’, the product of art & craft as activities rather than objects.

Discussion from Course

Two factors seem to have come together to stimulate a renewed acknowledgement of the power and specificity of the image, and a corresponding desire to move beyond the bounds of art history as such. These were, on the one hand, a growing apprehension about the increasing ‘academicisation’, in a negative sense, of the ‘new academy’ itself; and on the other an inescapable awareness of the growing power of an image-world beyond the scope of academic art history as institutionally constituted, in the badlands of the mass media and the internet.

Mitchell began to regard images as having a kind of agency, and to sketch an account of imagery which grounded their power ‘in social and cultural practices’ (Mitchell, 1986, p. 9). For this task, ‘the parochialism of art history’( Mitchell, 1986, p. 12) as conventionally understood, even in its sophisticated new incarnation, rendered it inadequate. The stakes were higher. Pictures and words, though marked by ‘some difference that is fundamental’ (Mitchell, 1986, p. 44) were nonetheless compacted together, and not to be parcelled out into the fiefdoms of separate academic disciplines. It was, precisely, the relationship of the two that was important. ‘The dialectic of word and image seems to be a constant in the fabric of signs that a culture weaves about itself’ (Mitchell, 1986, p. 43).

In subsequent works, Mitchell spoke of a ‘sense that changing modes of representation and communication are altering the very structure of human experience’ (Mitchell, 1994, p. 3). In this perspective, a newly critical iconology would aim to investigate ‘the basic construction of the human subject as a being constituted by both language and imagery’ (Mitchell, 1994, p. 24). To this end, ‘tending to the masterpieces of Western painting will clearly not be enough’ (Mitchell, 1994, p. 15).

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