Thursday, September 29, 2005

Mitchell - Picture Theory (1994)

Some risk involved in beginning with a leap; Mitchell's Picture Theory splinters through the title's pun--a theory of pictures and theory pictured or picture-able.  In the introduction, Mitchell calls the problem of the 21st C. a problem of the image.  This opens onto difficulties with the relationship between word and image, mapping and organizing fields of representation, and discord between reading proper and spectatorship (3).  Fumble them as we inevitably will, these and other differences might seem less gnarled if we "adopt Michel de Certau's terminology and call the attempt to describe [them] a 'heterology of representation'" (5).

This project--from theory-orientation of the first three chapters to the applications in the remainder of the book--develops out of a concern with agency and attempts to "open onto the image/text problematic" (7).  It also expresses a function related to curriculum and theory (6) in an effort to engage the following three questions: "What are pictures? What is their relationship to language? Why does this matter?" (5).

"The Pictorial Turn"
In this chapter, Mitchell begins with Rorty's idea of "turns" in philosophy; the pictorial turn engages the spectator-scene relation; it involves stances on the mass circulation of images and their relationship to text.  This iconology is complicated by the formalizing of visual arts as a discipline, by resistance to images in text (12), and postmodern upheavals of perspectival theories of representation.  In a nutshell (the picture of a nutshell):

Whatever the pictorial turn is, then, it should be clear that it is not a return to naive mimesis, copy or correspondence theories of representation, or a renewed metaphysics of pictorial "presence": it is rather a postlinguistic, postsemiotic rediscovery of the picture as a course, bodies, and figurality.  It is the realization that spectatorship (the look, the gaze, the glance, the practices of observation, surveillance, and visual pleasure) may be as deep a problem as various forms of reading (decipherment, decoding, interpretation, etc.) and that visual experience or "visual literacy" might not be fully explicable on the model of textuality (16). 

This tangle (tango?) between spectatorship and reading jostles conventional notions of reading as an undifferentiated activity (the common assumption: everyone gets "reading").  The move to complicate or question (interrogate) the spectator stands out from the rest of what Mitchell is doing here.  It springs from the pictorial turn: where are the differentiated models for reading?  Who's running them off?  How are those (faintly) differentiated models re-domesticated under the rubric of literacy (toss in 'critical' if you want)? Finally, Mitchell has a nice set six scenic inquiries along the lines of "what might we notice?" (26).

In this essay "on pictures about pictures," (35) Mitchell works through "an array" (57) of six+ images as a way to tease out the infinite relation between image and text suggested by Foucault in The Order of Things.  Mitchell calls his procedure "ekphrastic," which refers to "words about pictures" (38).  Self-referential images, like Saul Steinberg's The Spiral (1968), call attention to but cannot exhaust the "nested" representational possibilities (42).  In a section on "Dialectical Images," Mitchell works on the problem of "multistability" (43)--the blinking of an image that seemingly toggles back and forth (without dimming).  Can it be both?  The model here is the Rabbit-Duck that so concerned Wittgenstein. Its "what am I?" is perpetually unresolved.  Wittgenstein would give the Rabbit-Duck the possibility of both expressions at once, thus "restoring the 'wildness'" diminished by "psychology and by photographic models of the psyche" (53). 

Mitchell calls Valesquz's "Las Meninas" a meta-metapicture; the famous painting implicates us in the infinite referentiality--an undying parallax.  Is that you in the mirror observing the whole scene?  For Foucault, the importance of the painting is its way of keeping open those possibilities rather than fixing the relationships through naming.

At the end of the chapter, Mitchel considers "Talking Metapictures" (64): This is not a pipe, The two mysteries, and Arcadia Ego.  Such images suggest different effects; it's worth noting the primacy of text in pictures of reading.  Even in "This is not a pipe," the text tends to come define the picture of the pipe rather than the other way around--"discourse has the final say" (66).

"Beyond Comparison: Picture, Text and Method"
A method of imagetext must not become trapped in conventional comparisons.  Mitchell proposes imagetext not as kind of reduction or collapsing of image into text or text into image, but rather as a way to "pry them open" (100, 106).  Furthermore, a method of imagetext understands the varied disciplinary expectancies: these ideas might unsurprising to art historians who have long listened to images or literary scholars for whom imagery is passe (99).  Mitchell asks us to move beyond comparison--"the ideal trope for figuring 'action at a distance' between different systems" (85).  Why?

If the relation of the visible and the readable is (as Foucault thought) an infinite one, that is, if 'word and image' is simply the unsatisfactory name for an unstable dialectic that constantly shifts its location in representational practices, breaking both pictorial and discursive frames and undermining the assumptions that underwrite the separation of the verbal and visual disciplines, then theoretical pictures may be mainly useful as de-disciplinary exercises (83).

Terms: iconology (24), multistability (45), hypericon (28), ekphastic procedure (38), gestalt (42), nesting (48), assemblages (49), figure and dead metaphor (66), textual repetition and defacing (69), bands of readability (71), apotropaic image (78), attributed masteries (63), calligram (77)

Effects (not to be confused with theme or topoi) (74): Pipe Effect (74), Vortex Effect (75), Medusa Effect (78)

Figures: McLuhan (15), Panofsky (16), Foucault (5, 18, 60), Jonathan Crary (19), Althusser (29), Wittgenstein (60), de Certau (5, 71), Deleuze (70)

"Is iconology, in contrast to its 'disintegrative' methodological cousin, philology, incapable of registering 'faults' in culture, the fractures in representation, and the resistance of spectators?" (23).

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