What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago:
Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005.
What Do Pictures Want? is divided into three sections, each devoted to
one of Mitchell’s key concepts for explaining pictures: image,
object, and medium. The book achieves a certain coherence, but
because several chapters were published separately as articles, there is
some repetition of central ideas.
Mitchell pursues a broadened concept of pictures (xviii), first by
working through a thought experiment that accepts their aliveness.
He suggests the animism and vitalism of images through the ideas
of cloning and destruction, idolatry and iconoclasm,
Dolly the Sheep and the World Trade Center. Rather than fitting neatly with the
polarized responses to images, however, Mitchell wants us to get beyond the
mystical/skeptical dyad (they’re alive; they’re dangerous, defeat them), to
a kind of criticism that makes images resonate without smashing them.
Acknowledging the peculiarity of the move to presume that images have a
life-force, Mitchell asks us to entertain the fiction so that our
encounters with pictures might be enlivened (ultimately, his arguments jibe with
In the second chapter, Mitchell answers the title’s question in a variety of
ways, eventually, however, proposing that a possible answer is "nothing"
(50). The emphasis here is not on a method for reading images but
on a richer understanding of their relationality in a complex skein of
desires; rather than locating desire in consumption or production,
we should locate it in the images themselves. This attribution of desire
to images seems like a kind of agentic shift, although I suspect Mitchell
would complicate this. His criteria for the living is that it can die. In
a Q&A with readers of his manuscript, Mitchell explains that images have a
verbal and visual life (55).
In the other chapters on image, Mitchell explores the idea of desire
through the double entendre of "drawing" and in connection with Freud’s
categories of desire (72-74). He also uses idolatry, fetishism,
and totemism to classify object-relations. With totemism, we
might revalue the image relative to its hypervaluation in the idol
and the fetish. Totemism affirms the life of the image and also introduces the
idea of scale as it comes between idolatry (large) and fetish (small) [to
connect this with networks, see p. 92]. Mitchell discusses each of the
terms–idolatry, fetishism, and totemism–more carefully in chapter 9 (188).
In the final one-third of the book, Mitchell addresses media (c. 10.),
explaining that image and picture are distinguished by medium. He
pushes beyond a strictly materialist reading of media, however, instead
preferring to define it as "material social practice" (203). In chapter
10, he introduces and explains ten theses on media (211):
- Media are a modern invention that has been around since the beginning.
- The shock of new media is as old as the hills.
- A medium is both a system and an environment.
- There is always something outside a medium.
- All media are mixed media.
- Minds are media, and vice versa.
- Images are the principal currency of media.
- Images reside within media the way organisms reside in a habitat.
- The media have no address and cannot be addressed.
- We address and are addressed by images of media.
Mitchell argues that images, not language, are the principal
currency of media (215). I need to spend more time with the chapters in this
Other returns: C. 9 discussion of terms; ^Perceian triad of symbol, icon, and
index (73); ^Consider Butler’s Excitable Speech, speech act, and image
(135); ^Networked image (92, 105, and totem, 191).
Key terms: poetics of pictures (xv), pictorial turn (5), metapictures (6,
10), magical attittudes (8), studium and punctum (9), double consciousness (10),
visual trope (10), living images (14), animated icons (14), biotechnology (15),
global capitalism (15), living symbols (15), iconoclasm (20), creative
destruction (21), Benjamin’s dialectical image (25), modern attitude (26),
personhood of things (30), Medusa effect (36), violence of male "lookism" (45),
visual culture (47, 337), dead metaphor (life of tropes) (53), drawing desire
(59), magnetism (60), ascesis (63), scopic drive (72), symbolic, imaginary, and
real (73), totemism (75), image’s surplus value (76), image science (77),
materialist hype (77), criticism (81), picture versus image (85), species and
specular (86), dead media (90), images at the center of social crisis (94),
image as immaterial (97), idolatry, fetishism, and totemism (97), found objects
(113), picturesque (114), totem (122), offending images (125), objectionable
objects (125), paleontology of the present (124), speech act (135), Foucault’s
Order of Things (155), object relations (188), totems of the mind (190),
medium theory (198), medium as material social practice (203), medium and
boundary (204), mystical empiricism (208), new media (212), visual studies
(337), showing seeing (355), vernacular visuality (356), interdiscipline (356).
"The book as a whole, then, is about pictures, understood as
complex assemblages of virtual, material, and symbolic elements" (xiii).
"A picture, then, is a very peculiar and paradoxical creature,
both concrete and abstract, both a specific individual thing
and a symbolic form that embraces a totality" (xvii).
"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" (11).
"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" (13).
"Computers, as we know, are nothing but calculating machines. They are
also (as we know equally well) mysterious new organisms, maddeningly
complex life-forms that come complete with parasites, viruses, and a social
network of their own. New media have made communication seem more
transparent, immediate, and rational than ever before, at the same time that
they have enmeshed us in labyrinths of new images, objects, tribal
identities, and ritual practices" (26).
"In short, we are stuck with our magical, premodern attitudes toward
objects, especially pictures, and our task is not to overcome these attitudes
but to understand them, to work through their symptomology" (30).
"What is the moral for pictures? If one could interview all the
pictures one encounters in a year, what answers would they give?"
"The question of what pictures want certainly does not eliminate the
interpretation of signs. All it accomplishes is a subtle dislocation of
the target of interpretation, a slight modification in the picture we have of
pictures (and perhaps signs) themselves. The keys to this
modification/dislocation are (1) assent to the constitutive fiction of
pictures as ‘animated’ beings, quasi-agents, mock persons; and (2) the
construal of pictures not as sovereign subjects or disembodied spirits but
as subalterns whose bodies are marked with the stigmata of difference,
and who function both as ‘go-betweens’ and scapegoats in the social field of
human visuality" (46)
"What pictures want from us, what we have failed to give them, is an idea
of virtuality adequate to their ontology" (47).
"Pictures want equal rights with language, not to be turned into
"What pictures want in the last instance, then, is simply to be asked what
they want, with the understanding that the answer may well be, nothing at
"There is simply no getting around the dialectics of life and death,
desire and aggression, in the fundamental ontology of the image"
"Images are also, in common parlance, mental things, residing in the
psychological media of dreams, memory, and fantasy; or they are
linguistic expressions (‘verbal images’) that name concrete objects that may or
may not be metaphoric or allegorical" (84).
"Images are ‘kinds of pictures,’ classifications of pictures. Images
are, then, like species, and pictures are like organisms whose kinds are given
by the species" (85).
"We live in the age of cyborgs, cloning, and biogenetic engineering, when the
ancient dream of creating a ‘living image’ is becoming a commonplace" (96).
"Totemism, in fact, is the historical successor to idolatry and
fetishism as a way of naming the hypervalued image of the Other. It also
names a revaluation of the fetish and idol. If the idol is or represents a god,
and the fetish is a ‘made thing’ with a spirit or a demon in it, the totem is ‘a
relative of mine,’ its literal meaning in the Ojibway language" (98).
"My main point is simply to suggest that the question of images and value
cannot be settled by arriving at a set of values and then proceeding to the
evaluation of images. Images are active players in the game of
establishing and changing values" (105).
"Totemism allows the image to assume a social, conversational, and
dialectical relationship with the beholder, the way a doll or a stuffed
animal does with children" (106)
"For another key to the found object is its tendency, once found, to
hang around, gathering value and meaning like a sort of semantic flypaper or
photosensitive surface" (118).
"If images are life-forms, and objects are the bodies
they animate, then media are the habitats or ecosystems in which
pictures come alive" (198).
"The difference between an image and a picture, for instance, is precisely a
question of the medium. An image only appears in some medium or other–in
paint, stone, words, or numbers. But what about media? How do they appear, make
themselves manifest and understandable? It is tempting to settle on a rigorously
materialist answer to this question, and to identify the medium as simply the
material support in or on which the image appears" (203). [A medium is more: "material
"Media can fit on both sides of the system/environment divide: they
are a system for transmitting messages through a material vehicle to a receiver;
or they are a space in which forms can thrive[…]" (208).
- Related sources:
- Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. 1912.
Trans. Karen Fields. New York: Free Press, 1995.
- Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press,
- Latour, Bruno, and Peter Weibel, eds. Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.