Almost thirty years ago, W. J. T. Mitchell’s Iconology helped launch the interdisciplinary study of visual media, now a central feature of the humanities. Along with his subsequent Picture Theory and What Do Pictures Want?, Mitchell’s now-classic work introduced such ideas as the pictorial turn, the image/picture distinction, the metapicture, and the biopicture. These key concepts imply an approach to images as true objects of investigation—an “image science.” Continuing with this influential line of thought, Image Science gathers Mitchell’s most recent essays on media aesthetics, visual culture, and artistic symbolism. The chapters delve into such topics as the physics and biology of images, digital photography and realism, architecture and new media, and the occupation of space in contemporary popular uprisings. The book looks both backward at the emergence of iconology as a field and forward toward what might be possible if image science can indeed approach pictures the same way that empirical sciences approach natural phenomena. Essential for those involved with any aspect of visual media, Image Science is a brilliant call for a method of studying images that overcomes the “two-culture split” between the natural and human sciences.
|Publisher:||University of Chicago Press|
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About the Author
W. J. T. Mitchell is the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago and is editor of Critical Inquiry.
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Iconology, Visual Culture, and Media Aesthetics
By W. J. T. Mitchell
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ART HISTORY ON THE EDGE
Iconology, Media, and Visual Culture
It has been a long time since I could claim to be an outsider to art history. Despite my lack of academic credentials in this field, I have been ploughing it for so long that, as Karl Marx would have put it, my brains and muscle have long since been mixed with the soil of the visual arts, and that is where I expect to be buried.
But there was a time back in the 1980s when I was part of a generation of literary critics and philosophers who migrated into the visual arts. Scholars like Norman Bryson in England, Mieke Bal in the Netherlands, and Gottfried Boehm in Switzerland, not to mention the hordes of semioticians, structuralists, and deconstructionists, began to invade the quiet domain of the visual arts and set up camp with new methods and metalanguages. At the same time, art historians like Michael Baxandall, Svetlana Alpers, Hans Belting, and David Freedberg were expanding the boundaries of traditional art history into rhetoric, optical technologies, and vernacular or nonartistic images, and a new debate over modernism was emerging between T. J. Clark and Michael Fried.
Closer to home, in fact right at the heart of my own Department of Art History at the University of Chicago, was a remarkable scholar who epitomized these new tendencies, and who dazzled us all with his audacious efforts to revolutionize the study of medieval art, a field that many of us in literature and the visual arts had regarded for some time as hopelessly orthodox and stuffy, dominated by religious dogma and the archaic conventions of aristocratic romances. My own literary training had led me to think of medieval culture as unbearably pious and obsessed with higher, more spiritual things than we modern, secular humanists could bear to contemplate. Even the great Chaucer, with his bawdy humor and scatological realism seemed to have been made safe by a comprehensive framework of Christian allegorizing that assured us of the stable theological system underlying all the deviations. As Albert Baugh put it in his classic textbook, A Literary History of England:
One is constantly aware in medieval literature of the all-important place of the Church in medieval life. It is often said that men and women looked upon this life mainly as a means to the next. Certainly they lived in much more fear of Hell and its torments and were vitally concerned with the problem of salvation for their souls. Religious writings are, therefore, a large and significant part of medieval literature, not off to one side as in our day, but in the main stream. They bulk large because religion overtopped the common affairs of life as the cathedral dominated the surrounding country. ... [E]ven where religion is not directly concerned, a moral purpose is frequently discernible in literature, openly avowed or tacitly implied as the justification for its existence.
It may seem all too obvious in retrospect how such a situation was tailor-made for a scholar like Michael Camille who devoted himself to exploring the boundaries, margins, and outsides of this hegemonic picture of medieval culture. His approach to the dangerous supplements and dialectical oppositions of canonical medievalism were refreshingly contemporary, if not quite postmodern, in procedure. Camille was an obsessive student of the detail who loved to pore over the intricate and overlooked "ornamental" features of medieval texts, placing the primary and dominant message in the context of the secondary elements that often complicated, parodied, and undermined the master discourse.
When Michael Camille joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1985, fresh from his Cambridge training with Norman Bryson, he found a group of young scholars eagerly awaiting his arrival. Medievalist Linda Seidel, Byzantinist Rob Nelson, photographer-philosopher Joel Snyder, and modern art historians Becky Chandler, Martha Ward, and Margaret Olin had already, along with literary scholars Elizabeth Helsinger and myself, formed an informal workshop known as the Laocoön Group, named not primarily for the ancient sculpture, but for G. E. Lessing's classic reflection on the relations of literature and the visual arts. The Laocoön Group was dedicated to studying the intersections of the visual arts, philosophy, and literature, and its monthly meetings were enlivened by visits by the young Gayatri Spivak, who led us through Derrida's Of Grammatology, and Tom Crow, who denounced the group as a deviation from serious art history.
I do not remember exactly when the Laocoön Group ceased to exist. Perhaps it was when its members began to be promoted to tenure and took over the running of Chicago's art history department in the late 1980s. I do remember that Michael Camille's arrival coincided with the publication of his wonderful first article, "Seeing and Reading: Some Visual Implications of Medieval Literacy and Illiteracy." As one can tell from the title, this article was well suited to the Laocoön Group, as was Camille's deep engagement with French theory, especially in its emphasis on nonverbal systems of meaning. Michael quickly became the heart and soul of Chicago art history. He was a fabulous teacher, an exquisite writer, and a colleague who made us all feel as if we belonged to a very special club — the "école Chicago" — that was blessed by his brilliance and enthusiasm. I know that I date my own identity as an art historian to a moment when I confessed to him my fear that Iconology, my 1986 foray into image theory, would never pass muster among art historians, and he expressed astonishment that I would have any such doubts.
It is difficult to separate Michael Camille's influence on my work from the whole ambience of the Laocoön Group, but it may be worthwhile to identify a few tendencies in his thought that pervaded our discussions. Of course, "word and image" was central to our discussions already, but Michael had a way of grounding this topic in the materiality of texts and graphic arts, and in the technological revolutions that change the ratios of what Foucault called the "seeable and the sayable." There was also Michael's close attentiveness to the self-reflexivity of images, the ways in which the mimetic "monkey business" of ornamental features in architecture and book design constituted a whole other level of theorizing and criticizing the dominant ideologies of artistic monuments. Perhaps most inspiring for me was a moment of convergence in our work around the problem of idolatry and iconoclasm in the visual arts. As Michael was beginning work on his first book, The Gothic Idol (1989), he quoted back to me a sentence from Iconology that he had found useful: "a book which began with the intention of producing a valid theory of images became a book about the fear of images" (3). I don't think Michael himself had any fear of images, but he loved to contemplate the exuberance of their lives, and their tendency to exceed all forms of discursive control. He gave us all permission to think poetically about our work, to cross disciplinary boundaries, and to ask forbidden questions such as (in my own case) "what do pictures want?"
I want to turn now from these reflections on the moment of Michael Camille to the aftermath of his influence, and that of the Laocoön Group, on subsequent developments in art history, or at least of my own sense of how the field has evolved in the last twenty years. I'm especially interested in the way Michael's merry insistence on crossing the boundaries of medieval orthodoxy was also expressed as a freedom to cross the borders of traditional art history. Michael's lovely second book, Image on the Edge (2004), gives me the courage to try to think broadly, if somewhat autobiographically, about art history itself as a "discipline on the edge," an edgy discipline capable of veering between hostility and hospitality to border crossings from adjacent fields such as literature, cinema, and cultural studies.
My migration into art history was spurred, initially, not by any abstract or theoretical imperative, but by the practical requirements of understanding the work of William Blake, a painter, poet, and engraver whose composite art of "illuminated printing" made it necessary to think across the boundaries between word and image, literature and the visual arts. Blake's work also required, as Michael pointed out to me once, the exploration of a past-present dialectic among the highly disparate moments of medieval illumination, Enlightenment book technology, Romantic poetics, and contemporary cultural politics. It was as a later result of this forced migration from one disciplinary territory to another that I began to reflect more broadly on art history's relation to adjacent disciplines that have influenced, supplemented, and to some extent transformed its identity.
In my view, art history may be understood as the convergence of three distinct fields of study that reside upon its borders, provoking, stimulating, and sometimes threatening its identity as the "history of works of art": (1) iconology, the study of images across media, and especially of the interface between language and visual representation; (2) visual culture, the study of visual perception and representation, especially the social construction of the field of visibility and (equally important) the visual construction of the social field; and (3) media studies, specifically the emergent field known as "media aesthetics," which aims to bridge the gaps between technical, social, and artistic dispositions of media. All these fields are, in some sense, outside the boundaries of art history, constituting its horizon or frontier, while at the same time providing a necessary and sometimes dangerous supplement to its work.
Iconology opens the border to the image, the fundamental unit of affect and meaning in art history. Visual culture opens the border to the specific sensory channel through which the "visual arts" necessarily operate. (It is, in this sense, analogous to the relation of linguistics to poetics, language to literature; Ernst Gombrich called it a "linguistics of the visual field.") And media aesthetics opens the border on the relation of the arts to mass media, avant-garde to kitsch, polite to popular arts, art to the everyday. These fields also cross-fertilize: visual culture provides one of the principal channels for the circulation of images, constituting the primary (but not exclusive) domain of their appearance and disappearance; media aesthetics provides a framework for considering the larger "ratio of the senses" (Marshall McLuhan) or what Jacques Rancière calls the "distribution of the sensible," studying the relations of the eye to the ear, the hand to the mouth, at the same time putting technical innovation and obsolescence at the center of attention.
The first of these fields, iconology, is very ancient. It goes back at least to the Renaissance and Cesare Ripa's Iconologia, and perhaps earlier to Philostratus's Imagines, and now includes the full range of nonartistic images, including scientific images. It is the field that interrogates the very idea of the image in philosophical discourse and traces the migration of images across the boundaries between literature, music, and the visual arts (the three great orders of lexis, melos, and opsis outlined in Aristotle's Poetics). From the standpoint of iconology, the notion of a visual image is not a redundancy but a tacit acknowledgment that there are verbal and acoustic images as well. Iconology is therefore as much concerned with tropes, figures, and metaphors as with visual and graphic motifs, as much with formal gestures in auditory time and sculptural-architectural space as with pictures on a wall or screen. In Erwin Panofsky's classic formulation (restricted to the visual image), iconology includes the study of iconography, the historical study of the meanings of specific images, and goes beyond it to explore the ontology of images as such, and the conditions under which images attain historical significance. In the post-Panofsky era of what I have called "critical iconology," it has taken up such matters as "metapictures" or reflexive, self-critical forms of imagery; the relations of images to language; the status of mental imagery, fantasy, and memory; the theological and political status of images in the phenomena of iconoclasm and iconophobia; and the interplay between virtual and actual, imaginary and real images captured by the English vernacular distinction between images and pictures.
Iconology has found work to do as well in the realm of the sciences, investigating the role of images in scientific research, specifically (in my own work) in the phenomenon of the "natural" image (e.g., the fossil and the type specimen) and the entire question of speciation and evolutionary morphology. At the same time, the advancement of the life sciences in the last century has revolutionized the ancient conception of the image as an "imitation of life." Biotechnology has now made it possible to make a living image of a life-form in the process known as cloning, with profound consequences for our concepts of both images and life-forms. When these developments are coupled with the revolution in information science produced by the invention of the computer, we find ourselves entering a new era of what I have called "biocybernetic reproduction," characterized by the appearance of the "biodigital picture." This vitalistic and animistic conception of the image (whose pedigree in the work of Michael Camille would be worth exploring) has led me to speculate that the proper question to ask of pictures is not merely what they mean or what they do, but what they want.
Visual culture, in contrast to iconology, is a fairly recent object of study, though it has a long pedigree in philosophical treatments of the spectator as the exemplary subject of epistemology, from Plato's Allegory of the Cave to Descartes's Optics, to the tradition that Martin Jay has termed "ocularcentrism." As a technical matter, visual cultural studies probably emerges from innovations in optical recording technologies such as photography, television, and cinema, and from studies of culture and psychology centered on visual perception and recognition. Visual anthropology and studies of material and mass culture are important inspirations for the field of visual culture, as well as a variety of artistic movements that challenge the centrality of painting and sculpture to the canon of art history. Artistic forays into popular culture, installation and environmental art, conceptual art, and new media have, in alliance with critical iconology, forced an expansion of the field of art history that both recalls and goes beyond the founding ambitions of the Warburg and Vienna schools. Art history under the pressure of visual culture now includes a wide variety of research agendas, ranging from Lacan's scopic drive to the phenomenon of racial profiling and the power of the gaze, to the dialectics of spectacle (Guy Debord) and surveillance (Michel Foucault). It aims to investigate the specificity of the optical field in relation to tactile and acoustical modalities, as well as the Foucauldian-Deleuzean strata of the "seeable and sayable." Visual culture also explores the frontiers of visuality in its relation to the so-called visual arts, its imbrications with language, with the other senses, and with the limits or negations of visuality in phenomena such as blindness, invisibility, and what might be called the "overlooked" elements of everyday life. It is especially concerned with the phenomena of intersubjectivity in the scopic field, the dynamics of seeing and being seen by other people as a critical moment in the formation of the social. Inspired by such foundational texts as Jean-Paul Sartre's "The Look" and Franz Fanon's "Algeria Unveiled," visual culture helps us see how works of art may "look back" at spectators. Most fundamentally, it aspires to explain, not merely the "social construction of the visual field," but the visual construction of the social field, the way that modes of spectacle and surveillance coupled with mass and social media constitute our brave new world of drones, NSA data mining, and hactivism.
Excerpted from Image Science by W. J. T. Mitchell. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Preface: Figures and Grounds Acknowledgments Part One: Figures 1 Art History on the Edge: Iconology, Media, and Visual Culture 2 Four Fundamental Concepts of Image Science 3 Image Science 4 Image X Text 5 Realism and the Digital Image 6 Migrating Images: Totemism, Fetishism, Idolatry 7 The Future of the Image: Rancière’s Road Not Taken 8 World Pictures: Globalization and Visual Culture Part Two: Grounds 9 Media Aesthetics 10 There Are No Visual Media 11 Back to the Drawing Board: Architecture, Sculpture, and the Digital Image 12 Foundational Sites and Occupied Spaces 13 Border Wars: Translation and Convergence in Politics and Media 14 Art X Environment 15 The Historical Uncanny: Phantoms, Doubles, and Repetition in the War on Terror 16 The Spectacle Today: A Response to Retort Coda: For a Sweet Science of Images Index