What Do Pictures Want?

The Lives and Loves of Images
By W. J. T. Mitchell

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2005 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-53248-6


Chapter One

Vital Signs | Cloning Terror

One never knows what a book is about until it is too late. When I published a book called Picture Theory in 1994, for instance, I thought I understood its aims very well. It was an attempt to diagnose the "pictorial turn" in contemporary culture, the widely shared notion that visual images have replaced words as the dominant mode of expression in our time. Picture Theory tried to analyze the pictorial, or (as it is sometimes called) the "iconic" or "visual," turn, rather than to simply accept it at face value. It was designed to resist received ideas about "images replacing words," and to resist the temptation to put all the eggs in one disciplinary basket, whether art history, literary criticism, media studies, philosophy, or anthropology. Rather than relying on a preexisting theory, method, or "discourse" to explain pictures, I wanted to let them speak for themselves. Starting from "metapictures," or pictures that reflect on the process of pictorial representation itself, I wanted to study pictures themselves as forms of theorizing. The aim, in short, was to picture theory, not to import a theory of pictures from somewhere else.

I don't meant to suggest, of course, that Picture Theory was innocent of any contact with the rich archive of contemporary theory. Semiotics, rhetoric, poetics, aesthetics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, ethical and ideological criticism, and art history were woven (probably too promiscuously) into a discussion of the relations of pictures to theories, texts, and spectators; the role of pictures in literary practices like description and narration; the function of texts in visual media like painting, sculpture, and photography; the peculiar power of images over persons, things, and public spheres. But all along I thought I knew what I was doing, namely, explaining what pictures are, how they mean, what they do, while reviving an ancient interdisciplinary enterprise called iconology (the general study of images across the media) and opening a new initiative called visual culture (the study of human visual experience and expression).

Vital Signs

Then the first review of Picture Theory arrived. The editors of The Village Voice were generally kind in their assessment, but they had one complaint. The book had the wrong title. It should have been called What Do Pictures Want? This observation immediately struck me as right, and I resolved to write an essay with this title. The present book is an outgrowth of that effort, collecting much of my critical output in image theory from 1994 to 2002, especially the papers exploring the life of images. The aim here is to look at the varieties of animation or vitality that are attributed to images, the agency, motivation, autonomy, aura, fecundity, or other symptoms that make pictures into "vital signs," by which I mean not merely signs for living things but signs as living things. If the question, what do pictures want? makes any sense at all, it must be because we assume that pictures are something like life-forms, driven by desire and appetites. The question of how that assumption gets expressed (and disavowed) and what it means is the prevailing obsession of this book.

But first, the question: what do pictures want? Why should such an apparently idle, frivolous, or nonsensical question command more than a moment's attention? The shortest answer I can give can only be formulated as yet another question: why is it that people have such strange attitudes toward images, objects, and media? Why do they behave as if pictures were alive, as if works of art had minds of their own, as if images had a power to influence human beings, demanding things from us, persuading, seducing, and leading us astray? Even more puzzling, why is it that the very people who express these attitudes and engage in this behavior will, when questioned, assure us that they know very well that pictures are not alive, that works of art do not have minds of their own, and that images are really quite powerless to do anything without the cooperation of their beholders? How is it, in other words, that people are able to maintain a "double consciousness" toward images, pictures, and representations in a variety of media, vacillating between magical beliefs and skeptical doubts, naive animism and hardheaded materialism, mystical and critical attitudes?

The usual way of sorting out this kind of double consciousness is to attribute one side of it (generally the naive, magical, superstitious side) to someone else, and to claim the hardheaded, critical, and skeptical position as one's own. There are many candidates for the "someone else" who believes that images are alive and want things: primitives, children, the masses, the illiterate, the uncritical, the illogical, the "Other." Anthropologists have traditionally attributed these beliefs to the "savage mind," art historians to the non-Western or premodern mind, psychologists to the neurotic or infantile mind, sociologists to the popular mind. At the same time, every anthropologist and art historian who has made this attribution has hesitated over it. Claude L��vi-Strauss makes it clear that the savage mind, whatever that is, has much to teach us about modern minds. And art historians such as David Freedberg and Hans Belting, who have pondered the magical character of images "before the era of art," admit to some uncertainty about whether these naive beliefs are alive and well in the modern era.

Let me put my cards on the table at the outset. I believe that magical attitudes toward images are just as powerful in the modern world as they were in so-called ages of faith. I also believe that the ages of faith were a bit more skeptical than we give them credit for. My argument here is that the double consciousness about images is a deep and abiding feature of human responses to representation. It is not something that we "get over" when we grow up, become modern, or acquire critical consciousness. At the same time, I would not want to suggest that attitudes toward images never change, or that there are no significant differences between cultures or historical or developmental stages. The specific expressions of this paradoxical double consciousness of images are amazingly various. They include such phenomena as popular and sophisticated beliefs about art, responses to religious icons by true believers and reflections by theologians, children's (and parents') behavior with dolls and toys, the feelings of nations and populations about cultural and political icons, reactions to technical advances in media and reproduction, and the circulation of archaic racial stereotypes. They also include the ineluctable tendency of criticism itself to pose as an iconoclastic practice, a labor of demystification and pedagogical exposure of false images. Critique-as-iconoclasm is, in my view, just as much a symptom of the life of images as its obverse, the naive faith in the inner life of works of art. My hope here is to explore a third way, suggested by Nietzsche's strategy of "sounding the idols" with the "tuning fork" of critical or philosophical language. This would be a mode of criticism that did not dream of getting beyond images, beyond representation, of smashing the false images that bedevil us, or even of producing a definitive separation between true and false images. It would be a delicate critical practice that struck images with just enough force to make them resonate, but not so much as to smash them.

Roland Barthes put the problem very well when he noted that "general opinion ... has a vague conception of the image as an area of resistance to meaning-this in the name of a certain mythical idea of Life: the image is re-presentation, which is to say ultimately resurrection." When Barthes wrote this, he believed that semiotics, the "science of signs," would conquer the image's "resistance to meaning" and demystify the "mythical idea of Life" that makes representation seem like a kind of "resurrection." Later, when he reflected on the problem of photography, and was faced with a photograph of his own mother in a winter garden as the "center" of the world's "labyrinth of photographs," he began to waver in his belief that critique could overcome the magic of the image: "When I confronted the Winter Garden Photograph I gave myself up to the Image, to the Image-Repertoire." The punctum, or wound, left by a photograph always trumps its studium, the message or semiotic content that it discloses. A similar (and simpler) demonstration is offered by one of my art history colleagues: when students scoff at the idea of a magical relation between a picture and what it represents, ask them to take a photograph of their mother and cut out the eyes.

Barthes' most important observation is that the image's resistance to meaning, its mythical, vitalistic status, is a "vague conception." The whole purpose of this book is to make this vague conception as clear as possible, to analyze the ways in which images seem to come alive and want things. I put this as a question of desire rather than meaning or power, asking, what do images want? rather than what do images mean or do? The question of meaning has been thoroughly explored-one might say exhaustively-by hermeneutics and semiotics, with the result that every image theorist seems to find some residue or "surplus value" that goes beyond communication, signification, and persuasion. The model of the power of images has been ably explored by other scholars, but it seems to me that it does not quite capture the paradoxical double consciousness that I am after. We need to reckon with not just the meaning of images but their silence, their reticence, their wildness and nonsensical obduracy. We need to account for not just the power of images but their powerlessness, their impotence, their abjection. We need, in other words, to grasp both sides of the paradox of the image: that it is alive-but also dead; powerful-but also weak; meaningful-but also meaningless. The question of desire is ideally suited for this inquiry because it builds in at the outset a crucial ambiguity. To ask, what do pictures want? is not just to attribute to them life and power and desire, but also to raise the question of what it is they lack, what they do not possess, what cannot be attributed to them. To say, in other words, that pictures "want" life or power does not necessarily imply that they have life or power, or even that they are capable of wishing for it. It may simply be an admission that they lack something of this sort, that it is missing or (as we say) "wanting."

It would be disingenuous, however, to deny that the question of what pictures want has overtones of animism, vitalism, and anthropomorphism, and that it leads us to consider cases in which images are treated as if they were living things. The concept of image-as-organism is, of course, "only" a metaphor, an analogy that must have some limits. David Freedberg has worried that it is "merely" a literary convention, a clich�� or trope, and then expressed further anxieties over his own dismissive use of the word merely. The living image is, in my view, both a verbal and a visual trope, a figure of speech, of vision, of graphic design, and of thought. It is, in other words, a secondary, reflexive image of images, or what I have called a "metapicture." The relevant questions, then, are what are the limits of this analogy? Where does it take us? What motivates its appearances? What do we mean by "life" in the first place? Why does the link between images and living things seem so inevitable and necessary, at the same time that it almost invariably arouses a kind of disbelief: "Do you really believe that images want things?" My answer is, no, I don't believe it. But we cannot ignore that human beings (including myself) insist on talking and behaving as if they did believe it, and that is what I mean by the "double consciousness" surrounding images.

Cloning Terror

The philosophical argument of this book is simple in its outlines: images are like living organisms; living organisms are best described as things that have desires (for example, appetites, needs, demands, drives); therefore, the question of what pictures want is inevitable. But there is also a historical dimension to the argument that needs to be made explicit. To paraphrase Marx, if people make images that seem to have lives and desires of their own, they do not always do it in the same way, nor under conditions of their own choosing. If the phenomenon of the living image or animated icon is an anthropological universal, a feature of the fundamental ontology of images as such, how does it change over time, and from one culture to another? And why does it impress itself so forcibly on our attention at this specific historical moment? If the living image has always been the subject of a double consciousness, of simultaneous belief and disavowal, what conditions are making the disavowal more difficult to maintain today? Why, in other words, do various forms of "iconoclash"-the war of images-seem so conspicuously a part of the pictorial turn in our time?

The answer to this question cannot be obtained abstractly. It must be sought in the specific, concrete images that most conspicuously embody the anxiety over image-making and image-smashing in our time. Consider two images that so clearly define our historical moment. The first is Dolly the sheep (fig. 3), the cloned animal that became the global icon of genetic engineering, with all its promises and threats. The second is the twin towers of the World Trade Center at the moment of their destruction (fig. 4), a spectacle that ushered in a New World Order defined by terrorism. The potency of these images doesn't reside merely in their presentness or topical currency but in their status as enigmas and omens, harbingers of uncertain futures. They also exemplify the sensuous spectrum of image anxiety in our time, ranging from the overwhelmingly traumatic spectacle of mass destruction on the one hand to the subtle creepiness of the cloned sheep, which, as visual image, is quite unremarkable, but as idea is a figure of considerable dread.

The clone signifies the potential for the creation of new images in our time-new images that fulfill the ancient dream of creating a "living image," a replica or copy that is not merely a mechanical duplicate but an organic, biologically viable simulacrum of a living organism. The clone renders the disavowal of living images impossible by turning the concept of animated icon on its head. Now we see that it is not merely a case of some images that seem to come alive, but that living things themselves were always already images in one form or another. We register this fact every time we say something like "She is the image of her mother," or remark on the link between the very idea of species and the specular image. With the clone, these commonplaces take on a new resonance, a classic instance of what Freud called the Uncanny, the moment when the most ordinary forms of disavowed superstition (monsters in the closet, toys coming alive) come back as undeniable truths.

The image of the World Trade Center, by contrast, signifies the potential for the destruction of images in our time, a new and more virulent form of iconoclasm. The towers themselves were already widely recognized as icons of globalization and advanced capitalism, and that is why they were the target of attack by those who regarded them as symbols of decadence and evil. The destruction of the towers had no strategic military (as distinct from symbolic) importance and the murder of innocent people was, from the point of view of the terrorists, merely a regrettable side effect ("collateral damage" is the military euphemism) or merely instrumental to the aim of "sending a message" to America. The real target was a globally recognizable icon, and the aim was not merely to destroy it but to stage its destruction as a media spectacle. Iconoclasm in this instance was rendered as an icon in its own right, an image of horror that has imprinted itself in the memory of the entire world.

(Continues...)



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