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“[Mitchell] undertakes to explore the nature of images by comparing them with words, or, more precisely, by looking at them from the viewpoint of verbal. “[Mitchell] undertakes to explore the nature of images by comparing them with words, or, more precisely, by looking at them from the viewpoint. INTRODUCTION In , W. J. T. Mitchell published his ‘ Iconology’, with a sequel – an ‘applied iconology’ – in ‘Picture theory’. His program is ambitious.

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Images, text, ideology’, University of Chicago Press, ‘Picture theory, Essays on verbal and visual representation’, University of Chicago Press, Mitchell published his ‘ Iconology’, with a sequel – an ‘applied iconology’ – in His program is ambitious: Mitchell, just like Gottfried Boehmwants to herald an ‘iconic turn’: In his introduction, the author promises to answer two questions: But, soon, he confesses that he is jitchell so much out at providing a ‘new or better definition’ ,9 of the image, as rather to examine the ideologies responsible for the opposition of image and word.

Or, to put it with the introduction of ‘Picture theory’: Below, we will concentrate not so much on these ideological analyses, which are often quite illuminating, as rather on the presuppositions on which they are built. Mitchell contends that he is not out at providing a new definition mitcheol the image, that does not prevent him from adhering to a rather peculiar theory: Mitchell, the ‘iconic turn’ does not amount to a restoration of ‘naive mimesis, copy or correspondence theories of representation’That Gombrich – as a reaction to exaggerations like oconology of Nelson Goodman – has abandoned his earlier conventionalist stance in, is no more than a regression to a ‘one-sided naturalist account’Mitchell bluntly talks about ‘aesthetics’ as of a theory of ‘artistic signs’ ,47 and calls himself a ‘conventionalist and nominalist’ like Nelson GoodmanMitchell is not so much out at providing a new definition of the image, does not prevent him either from having a rather precise idea of what may be called an image: He gives an overview of all the ‘language games’ that can be played with the word ‘image’: Sometimes, literal images are distinguished from metaphorical ones, but W.

Mitchell opines that both have so much in common, that such a distinction is not to be recommended.

Apart form the question what a mirror image may have in common with something like a world view an ideologyit is apparent that W. Mitchell behaves like someone who would like to make a theory on wings that should apply not only to the wings of birds and insects, but also to those of airplanes, triptychs, parties, yes even music. We should also ask the question why such an extended concept of the image is not equally applied to its proclaimed opposite – words, or texts: Mitchell’s readiness to include images in the metaphorical sense into the family of the images, contrasts sharply with his endeavour to hollow out the idea of the ‘literal image’, an endeavour that he shares with the early Gombrich, Nelson Goodman and Gottfried Boehm.

There are two contradictory versions of this attack on the ‘literal image’. Let us first concentrate on the first version. Mitchell, the ‘natural attitude towards images, the naive conception of mimesis’ has to be replaced with a ‘historical account based in conventionalism’ He scorns ‘the questionable assumption that there are certain kinds of images photographs, mirror images that provide a direct, unmediated copy of what they represent’ He is talking of the ‘fallacy of the copy theory’ and of ‘atavistic notions’ such as ‘imitation’, ‘copy’, ‘correspondence’ theories of truthHe thereby refers to the old argument of Socrates Plato Kratylos that images have to differ from the original in order not to be duplicates, so that they cannot be defined by similarity92 – an argument that has been taken over by Nelson Goodmanwho states that similarity cannot be constitutive of the image because it is symmetric: Mitchell refers foremost to Nelson Goodman’s ‘Languages of Art’12where it is stated that images and ways of rendering like perspective are not ‘natural’, but conventional, just like the meaning of words, so that we have to learn how to read an image The conclusion is that the image is conventional and contaminated by language ,42 ‘The image is the sign that pretends not to be a sign, masquerading as natural immediacy and presence’ And, as if that did not suffice, W.


Mitchell adds that there is not even something like a ‘neutral, univocal, visible world’ that could be rendered in the image: Worse still, as with Nelson Goodman: Needless to remind that none of these arguments is valid. Socrates justifiably asserts that the image differs from the original – otherwise it would be impossible to tell the difference. But only sensory reduction is the difference that is constitutive of the image: But such constitutive difference only highlights that sensory similarity is equally constitutive: It is a mere sophism, hence, to conclude with Socrates and Goodman that the image is not determined by likeness: That is why Nelson Goodman’s ‘Duke of Wellington’ is not an image of his portrait.

Whoever denies that an image is determined by likeness, inevitably has to run into problems when he has to concoct a term for what we see in the mirror: Otherwise than Gottfried Boehm, who prefers to talk of degenerate images, W.

Mitchell solves the problem by talking of ‘an image which is not just a picture’ For a good understanding, we have to remind what is meant by ‘conventional’.

W. J. T. Mitchell’s Iconology and Picture Theory

In matters of signs, it is an indirect way of saying that we are dealing with unmotivated signswhere there is no intrinsic relation between the sign and its meaning, so that there has to be a convention determining what the meaning of the sign is. The term ‘conventional’ is confusing, since there are other conventions – for instance styles with the concomitant conventional choice or approach of subject matter.

Let us examine, then, whether images are conventional departing from an example that Gombrich made popular: A face can be rendered from two equally informative perspectives: Both perspectives have their drawbacks: A compromise is the three-quarter-view or a diptych, like the mug shot. Another compromise is the construction of a new original: Let us suppose now that the relation between image of original is of the same kind as the relation between sign and meaning which is not the case, see ‘ Semiosis and mimesis ‘.

Does it follow from this analysis that the relation between image and original is just as unmotivated and hence conventional as the relation between sign and meaning? That the relation is not ‘iconic’, but ‘symbolic’? With the Egyptian rendering however, the model is replaced with an originalthat differs from the model, although the discrepancy is not so big as with centaurs or angels. But the rendering of angels and centaurs, as well as that of the doe-eyed face is ‘true to nature’ nevertheless:.

It is not because an original differs from the model s serving as a starting point, that the image would not resemble the original – that its rendering would not be ‘true to nature’ see: To be sure, the rendering in profile was an Italian convention, that in three-quarter-view a Flemish, and the doe-eyed an Egyptian.

But these are conventions in the choice of the original. In semiotics, ‘convention’ has to do with the relation between sign and meaning the relation between image and original. Whether the original differs form the model or not, in either case the relation between image and original is determined by sensory reduced likeness.

That the word ‘angel’ is ‘conventional’, is not because it is a conventional representation in the West, but because an angel could as well have been called a devil, and vice versa. There is no such ‘convention’ with regard to the relation between an image and its original: In matters of signs, the relation is ideally conventional unmotivatedand in matters of signs, there is always sensory reduced likeness. The likeness can be more or less suggestive. In the real world as well as in the image, we construct a world departing from sensory givens that function as object or image constituting signs.

When we see two eyes lighting up in the dark, when we see a silhouette looming up in the mist, we read these sensory impressions as a spatial object against a background.

In the image, a contour as well as a hazy stain can produce the same effect. Such imageconstitting signs differ from objectconstituting signs in the real world in the same way as different fonts differ from each other, while they are read as the same letters nevertheless. In either case, we are dealing with signs motivated in the same way as the sign ‘smoke’ for ‘fire’ metonymy: A contour as an imageconstituting sign is a motivated sign, hence, and there is no need of an acquired code to read it: Conventional in the use of a contour is only the choice of one of the many techniques: An outline is not conventional, however, in the sense that we would have to agree on reading it as a sign for a three-dimensional object and that we could choose another sign at will – for instance a stain for an outline or a line for a surface A similar approach goes for the many ways in which rounding can be evoked: Not so for W.


As opposed to Gombrich IIhe states: And that is fundamentally wrong: Mitchell justifiably criticises the theory of the ‘mental image’ as the referent of words14 ff, especially p.

He refers to the endeavour of Wittgenstein II ‘to expel the idea of mental imagery’15but also to Burke, who contends that only in one of twenty cases an image is formed in the mind. It must be stated with emphasis indeed that thinking does not proceed through manipulating icknology, but rather signs.

Mitvhell his fervour, Burke goes so far as to deny that poetry would conjure up images He thereby obscures the fact that, in literature, words do really conjure up images in the mind – images in the literal, not in the metaphorical sense of the word.

That literature conjures up images for all the senses, also the interoceptive senses is testified by the fact that we are mostly disappointed when we see the screen version of a novel. How much also W. Mitchell is blind to the existence of imageconjuring signs in novels and poetry, appears not only from the fact that he does not criticise Burke, but also from the fact that he states that pornographic literature is far more suggestive than images ,86 – as if erotic literature would consist of words and not of images After having reduced the image iclnology a conventional sign, W.

Mitchell now also denies the existence of imageconjuring sigs, and hence the ‘pictorial’ character of literature. Micthell and poetry are thus equated with discursive texts, on the sole ground that iconologt both make use of words. In iclnology same breath, painting and literature are subsumed under the sign – as ‘representations’ on the same footing as scientific or philosophical texts: The subsumption of the image under the sign is completed in that the same Mitchell, who overlooks the ‘pictorial’ nature of literature, cannot stop to stress the ‘pictorital’ nature of ideologies in the metaphorical sense.

Mitchell succeeds in making the subsumption of the image under the sign acceptable.

‘W. J. T. Mitchell and the image’. Review of ‘Iconology’ and ‘Picture theory’ by Stefan Beyst

Henceforward, the image is merely a special kind of sign – although it remains iconologj how it can be discerned from other signs see below. The first consequence of this subsumption is that there is no longer a difference between art and science.

The second a reduction of the opposition between image and sign into the opposition between image and text, painting and literature. Before analysing these two consequences, we first have to make an intermezzo. Mitchell not only invokes Socrates, but the Bible as well.

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

Did God not create man after his likeness? Such likeness cannot be meant to be ‘literal’, but mitcbell as a kind of ‘spiritual likeness’ – ‘an image which is not just a picture’Mitchell ‘spiritual likeness’ must be understood as a list of predicates, so that ‘likeness is linguistic in its inner workings’ ,43a new version of the idea mitchlel the image is a sign.

We will soon get to learn other versions, but concentrate now on the further course of history according to W. From biblical times, we rush at full speed over Maimonides and Milton to the Renaissance, when, with the invention of perspective, the mltchell were laid to the literal concept of the image: In the nineteenth century, this approach is enforced by the invention of photography, which was presented as ‘a natural mode of representation’Mitchell, this is completely mistaken:


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