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The Photographic Essay Four Case Studies


Susan Reilly

W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Visual and Verbal Representation. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Pp. xv + 425. ISBN : 0-226-53231-3. (paper)

Table of Contents located after the review.

Other Voices, v.1, n.2 (September 1998)

Copyright © 1998 by Susan Reilly, all rights reserved

W. J. T. Mitchell's Picture Theory, sequel and companion to his 1986 Iconology, is an ambitious attempt to investigate the complex relation of picture to text -- particularly the manner in which "texts act like pictures or 'incorporate' pictorial practices and vice versa" (4). Mitchell, author of Blake's Composite Art and editor of The Politics of Interpretation and the journal Critical Inquiry, writes from a position well-informed by cutting-edge developments in philosophy, theories of the visual arts, and literary studies. Yet he is careful to qualify his work as neither offering a new theory nor iconoclastic jeremiads. What is proffered instead are vignettes of specific problems indigenous to the entire process of pictorial and textual representation within a variety of media, in the hopes that a critique of visual culture will alert readers to the power of images for evil and for good.

Mitchell's attempts, however, to steer a course between the Scylla and Charybdis of the postmodern paradigms which dominated the artspeak of the late eighties do not always meet with complete success. Despite his claim to transcend theory, Mitchell is steeped in the traditions he professes to react against. Roland Barthes and others have had a great deal to say about the semiotics of verbal-pictorial representation, and many of Mitchell's observations are not new. Like others before him Mitchell acknowledges the fact that we live in a society dominated by pictures and visual simulations. The current preoccupation with media images goes so far as to constitute a "common culture" (1) which defines our era -- an era Mitchell describes as the end of postmodernism. The postmodern mode of representation is one which represses language and absorbs it into image. Even modern thought itself is re-oriented around visual paradigms which threaten to overwhelm any possibility of discursive mastery. This fixation with representation gives rise to Mitchell's speculation that "the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the image" (2): he sees the need for a study of picture theory as predicated on the notion that we live in a culture dominated by pictorial image, yet remain unable to understand the power of the picture despite an abundance of theories on the subject.

The book raises the questions of what pictures are, how they are related to language, and why these questions themselves are of practical or theoretical value. Mitchell makes the polemical claim that in spite of the modernist utopian impulse to purify media, "all media are mixed media" (5) which combine different codes, discursive conventions, and sensory and cognitive models, and attempts to describe the interaction between visual and verbal forms and trace their connections to issues of power and value.

The recent elevated status of the picture constitutes the basis for Mitchell's claim that pictures themselves form a point of friction and discomfort across a broad spectrum of intellectual inquiry. In chapter one Mitchell elaborates his theory of a "pictorial turn" (11) in the sphere of philosophical studies which can be traced in the semiotics of Charles Pierce and in Nelson Goodman's "languages of art" -- a turn which is evidenced by the need to defend speech against the visual, and one which is identified with phenomenology, Derrida's grammatology, the investigations of the Frankfurt School, Foucault's insistence on the fault-line between the discursive and the visible, and the philosophy of Wittgenstein.

The essence of the pictorial turn, Mitchell argues, is not a "return to naive mimesis" but a "postlinguistic, postsemiotic rediscovery" of the picture as embodying a complex interplay of "visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies, and figurality" (16). It involves the realization that spectatorship may manifest the same deep problems which have been argued for reading, but that models of textuality may not be appropriate for theories of visual experience.

One of Mitchell's key themes is that of the "metapicture," (a picture which is about itself) a concept mined from the new art history and the study of visual culture. Drawing on twentieth century cartoons, well-known multistable gestalt images such as the Necker cube and the Duck-Rabbit, the metapictorial work of Magritte and Vel�zquez, and the narrative-pictorial oeuvre of Poussin, Mitchell examines the various dialectical positions in which pictures can stand in relation to themselves, the artist, the model or subject, audience, language, and other pictures -- and shows how these complex relations depend on cultural assumptions about, for example, power, desire, and knowledge. The effect of such pictures range from the negation of the relation of the visible to the readable to the potential for contrary readings with infinite possibilities and beyond.

Such relations have enormous consequence for rethinking the visual and discursive critical models of painting and poetry, and Mitchell is at his best when he moves into the chapter on Blake. Blake's mission, according to Mitchell, was to invent a "graphocentric" art which was committed to making language visible. In Mitchell's well-known view Blake's illuminated books seem designed to elicit the full range of associations between visual and verbal literacy, and construct image-text combinations which display a spectrum of relations extending from the disjunctive to the synthetic.

As Mitchell moves away from Blake he once more covers familiar ground with a chapter on the photographic essay which unsettles the easy assumption that photography is an objective mode of representation, a true reproduction of observable reality which meticulously copies it and is free from the investment of values. He argues that even the conditions under which photographs are produced can be called into ethical question, and may give rise to speculation, for example, as to whether the "violence" (286) which accompanies a photograph by Jacob Riis is justified by its political and epistemological value.

Along with "metapicture," the idea of the "image/text" is critical to Mitchell's discourse and connotes the deep-rooted and inescapable relation between visual and verbal forms. Even the idea that there are two distinct and discrete forms of communication -- the image and the text -- can be seen as prejudicial. Image-text relations are viewed as a site of conflict -- "a nexus where political, institutional, and social antagonisms play themselves out in the materiality of representation" (91).

Responding to the challenge to redescribe the image/text problematic which underwrites comparative studies in the fields of literature and art, Mitchell examines some of the practical and methodological implications of his conclusions for the study of words and images. His chapter on method challenges the value of the comparative method in the sister arts tradition and exposes the academic politics behind its advancement. Its assumptions about the existence of a unifying concept are seen as illusory, and the privileging of certain forms of relations over others is linked to a "ritualistic historicism" which "always confirms a dominant sequence of historical periods...leading to the present moment (87)." His antidote is one which calls for the concept of the "Image/text" as an attempt to overcome binary theories of that relation and replace them with a dialectical model.

Picture Theory argues that the tensions which exist between visual and verbal representations are inseparable from issues such as gender, race, and class. In his essay on abstract painting and language Mitchell points out that the "narrative of failed revolution and political marginalization of the avant-garde...contradicts its idealized self-image," (229) and examines the role of the avant-garde as a bourgeois movement which depends upon capitalist patronage. Shifting from genre to gender Mitchell argues that French colonial postcards of Algerian women can be seen, for example, as images with an unwritten text which legitimizes a voyeuristic fantasy of Orientalism for the European consumer. Malek Alloula's textual treatment of the "degrading fantasm" inscribed in the manner in which such images are consumed removes them from their context of exotic fascination and situates them within a "colonial gaze" of "luxury, lust, and indolence" (308). Mitchell's consideration of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing as a work of and about public art examines the tendency of racial violence to focus on public icons or idols -- in this case a collection of photographs of non-black luminaries which hangs in a Brooklyn pizzeria. The exclusion of Afro-Americans from the photo gallery forms the basis of the film's text about assimilation and marginalization. Mitchell also examines the ways in which unrealistic racial stereotypes in the film can be seen as realistic representations of the way blacks are perceived in the public sphere.

Mitchell is less persuasive in his chapter on "Art and the Public Sphere." Following the lead of the Frankfurt School and the French critique of the "scopic regime," Mitchell asks us consider the role of art and image-making in an international corporate culture as he elaborates the relation of "mass spectacle" to "the mediatization of experience" (365). Using the example of the statue of the "Goddess of Democracy" in Tiananmen Square, Mitchell argues that art which enters the public sphere can be received as a provocation to or an act of violence. Mitchell's leitmotif, culled from Habermas's account of Enlightenment masternarrative, that "the template of the public sphere might be described as a theatrical/architectural imagetext" (364) is not entirely convincing or satisfying. This is the sort of thing Barthes wrote about much earlier and far more succinctly in his Mythologies. Though any consideration of the relation between mass-circulated image and mass media commentary must, in a work like Picture Theory, necessarily be confined to a manageable area, Mitchell's attempt to define the public sphere as the site of media text production which comments upon images available for public consumption is both perhaps too broad in scope and too narrow in its focus on violence. The leap from Mitchell's own definition of "imagetext" as a composite art form, to a consideration of film, statuary, and the Vietnam Memorial as "image" in connection with media responses is neither new nor in keeping with the rest of the book, but may be of interest to those not familiar with the work of the post-structuralists and semiotitians.

Meant as a "pedagogical primer" (7) for the classroom, yet aimed at an ambitiously wide audience which ranges from the specialist to the general reader, the book is intended as a companion to the study of visual and verbal representation. It raises intriguing questions regarding the dynamic between representation and discourse -- between the seeable and the sayable. Mitchell argues that his study is written in the belief that tensions between visual and verbal representations are inseparable from those which surround cultural politics and political culture; but he is consistently more interested in critiquing received answers of what pictures are and how they relate to words, and in showing why settled answers to these questions may be impossible. As Mitchell himself puts it, (7) "if [the book's ] only accomplishment is...to make the segregation of the disciplines more difficult, that will be enough." >

Table of Contents:

I. Picture Theory
1: The Pictorial Turn
2: Metapictures
3: Beyond Comparison: Picture, Text, and Method
II. Textual Pictures
4: Visible Language: Blake's Art of Writing
5: Ekphrasis and the Other
6: Narrative, Memory, and Slavery
III. Pictoral Texts
7: Ut Pictura Theoria: Abstract Painting and Language
8: Word, Image, and Object: Wall Labels for Robert Morris
9: The Photographic Essay: Four Case Studies
IV. Pictures and Power
10: Illusion: Looking at Animals Looking
11: Realism, Irrealism, and Ideology: After Nelson Goodman
V. Pictures and the Public Sphere
12: The Violence of Public Art: Do the Right Thing
13: From CNN to JFK
Conclusion: Some Pictures of Representation

Click here to purchase W.J.T. Mitchell's Picture Theory from Amazon.com

In "Iconology," W. J. T. Mitchell asked what images are, how they differ from words, and why these questions have been such a source of contention for centuries. In this companion volume to "Iconology," he extends his investigation to pictures--the concrete, representational objects in which images appear.

Although we have thousands of words about pictures, Mitchell notes that we do not yet have a satisfactory theory of them. What we have is a variety of disciplines--semiotics, philosophical inquiries into representation, new departures in art history, studies in mass media--that attempt to converge on the problem of pictorial representation and visual culture. Identifying the problems inherent in the attempt to master visual representation with verbal discourse, Mitchell proposes instead to "picture theory." He looks at the way pictures function in theories about culture, consciousness, and representation, and at theory itself as a form of picturing. What precisely, he asks, are pictures (and theories about pictures) doing "now," in the late twentieth century, when the power of the visual is said to be greater than ever before, and the "pictorial turn" supplants the "linguistic turn" in the study of culture?

Focusing on Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," Oliver Stone's "JFK," and television coverage of the Gulf War, he examines the capacity of visual images to awaken or stifle public debate, collective emotion, and political violence. An "applied iconology, " this book by one of America's leading theorists of visual representation offers an immensely rich and suggestive account of the interplay between the visible and the readable across the culture, from literature to visualart to the mass media.

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