Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mitchell--A sutured text


Mitchell's book, Picture Theory, is an erudite exploration of the relationship between images and text (or word and image). Rather than take a side and argue that images are translatable into texts and vice versa, Mitchell tries to complicate the relationship between them in a series of essays. The individual essays are rich, but they tend to concentrate on very particular works, images, or texts. This makes it difficult to find a way to talk about Mitchell's general point in relation to the text. As I was reading him, it seemed I was reading an analytic philosopher's engagement with french theory (Derrida, Foucault)--something like reading Stanley Cavell. Like the three previous mentioned philosophers, there is a reason that it is difficult to 'take away' (what Louise Rosenblatt might call an 'efferent' reading). Rather, we are left with a complex labyrinth of ideas. Mitchell weaves together the aesthetic, the ethical, and the political to create a dense (and yet, inspired by Foucault, a very 'surface') reading of the works in question.

Mitchell is not so much interested in the "meaning" of these works, as with the way they may structure a way of thinking. Thus, we are not supposed to necessarily come away with a new 'understanding' of Blake, slave narratives, or cartoons. Mitchell, writes, that "knowing what pictures are doing, understanding them" does not give us power over them, so perhaps if we can "open a negative critical space that would reveal how little we understand about pictures, and how little difference mere understanding is likely alone to make" we could do something with them" (6).  "Mitchell attempts to use these 'pictures' as a way to think differently about the image/text relationship and the way this reflects theory and ideology. He writes in the introduction,

"My aim has not been to produce a 'picture theory' (much less a theory of pictures) ,but to picture theory as a practical activity in the formation of representations" (6).

Thus, we are to understand the word 'picture' as a VERB, not as an adjective or part of a proper term 'picture theory'. Furthermore, his own methods I believe reflect this task and so it is very difficult to "understand" Mitchell. I cannot pin him down into a position--he does not reveal a particular affinity for Marxism, deconstruction, or new criticism. Through a few of his comments, it seems obvious he is politically left and deeply interested in the political implications of a picture (or theory's) perspective. Yet, it goes beyond this.

So, in the spirit of Mitchell's own work, I will attempt to perform an ekphrastic description, tracing some of the concepts, motifs, metaphors, in the work and ultimately attempt to describe Mitchell's practice--or perhaps--his 'principles' of engaging with images, texts, and imagetexts. Furthermore, I surmise that this first part of Mitchell will go quite well with our film for Monday, "objectified" since it seems that Mitchell is describing how images in some sense 'rule our world'--such that graphic designers consciously see this as their task.

Picturing Theory

In his first chapter, "The Pictorial turn," it is no surprise that he would look at two thinkers' "primal scenes" for their entire philosophy. When we think of Althusser, we think of interpellation, and we think of the scene with the cop or the person at the door--we think of the images/anecdotes that not merely 'illustrate' their philosophy, but are integral to our understanding their philosophy. Indeed, we could find many examples of this fictive anecdotes that most people may think of as harmless 'illustration' or harmless 'metaphor', but we are right to look at these frameworks of philosophers. For instance, Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic--we think of this in terms of a narrative and story. Just as importantly, Sartre's colorful anecdotes illustrating 'bad faith' and his major tropes in Being and Nothingness of sado/masochism for describing our relationship with the Other. I think Mitchell is trying to say that there is a reason these stick in our heads as opposed to the pages upon pages of working through the metaphysics of Hegel, Heidegger, and Husserl (in the case of Sartre).

And so he does this with Althusser and Panofsky. Rather than collapsing them into one, he traces their differences, only to find at a certain level of 'discourse' or images a commonality (a multiplicity?) refusing a reduction of their thought, but realizing that this implies a certain view of the world (but at the level of the scene). The common 'space' that both Althusser and Panofsky occupy is

"the placement of the recognition scene at the center of their reflections. The main importance of recognition as the link between ideology and iconology is that it shifts both 'sciences' from an epistemological 'cognitive' ground to an ethical, political, and hermeneutic ground" (33).

The way Mitchell describes this insight is (perhaps ironically) in terms of "recognizing" the problems of basing a 'science' of ideology or iconography on a scene of recognition/acknowledgment that in turn implies certain relations on an ethical and political level. Strangely, Mitchell reproduces the rhetoric of recognition/acknowledgment in his discussion of what this connection may imply:

"Althusser reminds us that Panofsky's relation to pictures begins with a social encounter with an Other and that iconology is a science for the absorption of that other into a homogenous and unified 'perspective.' Panofsky reminds us that Althusser's local instances of ideology, the greeting of subject with subject (s/s), are all staged within a hall of mirrors constructed by the soverign Subject (S/s) and that the ideological critique is in danger of being nothing more than another iconology" (34).

Thus, each figure tells us something about the other, but does not solve the problems that we can now see by looking at this similarity. Our connection does not lead us into a further understanding of the picture or the scene, but leads us (basically) to a deconstruction of both systems of thought that pretend toward an objective scientific stance.


Mitchell's next chapter, "Metapictures" is a key chapter for many reasons. We do not have to 'discover' Mitchell's method, because he tells it to us in the first couple pages: "My procedure, therefore, will be ekphrastic. That is, I'm simply going to attempt faithful descriptions of a series of pictures that seem to be self-referential in various ways" (38).

Ekphrasis is 'description', but does this not give us a sort of false sense of 'objectivity'?. . .or perhaps 'objectivity' is the wrong word. Innocence? The use of the term "simply" or when he uses "merely" (recalling Kant's annoying use of 'merely', allowing him to equivocate in his philosophy) seems to attempt to reassure the reader that he is not trying to 'dig into' the image--he is not going to do it violence--he is going to try and take the picture 'as it is'---he is going to attempt to see if pictures themselves have their own 'metalanguage', a second-order discourse without the explicit need for verbal articulation (although this is what Mitchell can do given the limitations of academic prose). I am suspicious of this method, yet intrigued. We will have to go to the chapter on "Ekphrasis and the Other" to fully see what is going on in Mitchell, but before we do this, let us look at a few of his examples in the chapter "metapictures."

Throughout the chapter, instead of defining the meta-picture, he will unravel the very concept: "Perhaps the most obvious thing called into question by the metapicture is the structure of 'inside and outside', first and second order representation, on which the whole concept of meta- is based" (42). In the spirit of Wittgenstein (and, the more I think about it, in the spirit of Archaeology era Foucault), Mitchell traces the different kinds/ways a picture can be what he will call a meta-picture. Thus, like Wittgenstein's notion of 'family resemblances' in the concept of 'game', Mitchell does not collapse all of these metapictures into one definition except that it is a "picture that is about itself." But, we must remember, it does not explain anything--this is particularly difficult for me to grasp.

Duck Rabbit

The duck-rabbit is a meta-picture that Mitchell calls "dialectical pictures" because their primary function is "to illustrate the co-existence of contrary of simply different readings in the single image" (45). The most famous use of the duck-rabbit is in Wittgenstein. We cannot say that the duck-rabbit 'illustrates' Wittgenstein's philosophy or concept: "The Duck-Rabbit is the ideal hypericon for Wittgenstein because it cannot explain anything (it remains always to be explained) and if it has a 'doctrine' or message, it is only as an emblem of resistance to stable interpretation, to being taken in at a glance" (50). The Duck-Rabbit, and some other meta-pictures have a different 'subject' than themselves--they "call into question the self-understanding of the observer" (57).

As we can see in the duck-rabbit example, meta-pictures are migratory--meaning that they are not only part of a particular discipline, but have a wide-ranging status in the cultural field. They puzzle us.

Instead of thinking about the 'meaning' of the meta-picture, Mitchell moves in an almost conventional rhetorical dimension: the consideration of the effects of the meta-picture: "the effect [ of "This is not a Pipe"] is to be a certain infinite reverie activated by the density of the image and the legend, how they are drawn and inscribed" (74). Mitchell uses tropes to describe these effects (another one is the "Vortex" effect)--just as he points out that Wittgenstein cannot get outside the picture/use of trope. The reference to 'reverie' reminds me of Kant's aesthetic contemplation, but Mitchell would not wish to claim that the effect is purely aesthetic. As he writes about Magritte's picture, "the idleness and reverie connoted by the pipe are not incompatible with disciplinary pedagogies, especially the sort that involve initiation rituals and exercises in self-understanding" (74). Mitchell points out that we can 'return' the pipe to the world by 'erasing' the legend and placing another text there.

These 'effects' cannot be collapsed into a single 'effect' of meta-pictures. I think that Mitchell thinks these are different effects that must be described on their own terms. If meta-pictures really are concerned with effects, then we can understand Mitchell's final move in the essay: "The metapicture is not a subgenre within the fine arts but a fundamental potentiality inherent in pictorial representation as such: it is the place where pictures reveal and 'know' themselves [. . .] where they engage in speculations and theorizing on their own nature and history" (82).



Mitchell's use of the word "suture" to describe the image-text relationship is an interesting one. Suture can mean, in the surgical sense, "a stitch used by doctors to hold tissue together." Etymologically, it means 'to join'. And yet, 'suture' to me seems so close to 'sever'--it doesn't sound like a word that holds something together. Perhaps it is important that suture refers explicitly to the closing of a wound. So, although suture means to 'join' it also has the connotation of wound. It only holds together the wound while the wound heals, but I think that Mitchell would argue that the image/text relationship never quite heals--it never merges into one--it is always the relationship of the suture--an on-the-way to healing, but never quite getting there.


In geography, 'suture' also means "a major fault zone through an oregen or mountain range. Sutures separate terranes: tectonic units that have different plate tectonic, metamorphic,  and paleographic histories."

Although this geographical meaning is derived in a kind of metaphorical drift from surgery, in some ways it seems more appropriate to Mitchell's methods. Furthermore, suture means in paleontology a "fossil exoskeleton, as in a suture line."

Considering Mitchell's insistence that the 'metapictures' are like figures (or, in verbal terms, tropes) which migrate across disciplines, it seems appropriate to look at the meaning of the word outside of the two that Mitchell mentions--film theory and psychoanalysis. If we take Mitchell's work to be influenced heavily by Deleuze's reading of Foucault, we can see that this 'structural' meaning of suture may be useful for understanding his methods. On a related note, we should also consider the importance of shifting from the model of suture in psychoanalysis/Lacan to suture as geography given Deleuze and Guattari's critique of psychoanalysis in Anti-Oedipus and their geographical metaphors: "de-territorialization." I find it hard to believe Mitchell did not capitalize on this metaphorical relationship.

Fault zones are zones of complex deformation in earth's tectonic plates. It is not a simple fracture, but a set of complex relations. Foucault's archaeological method is based on the idea of looking at the surfaces of different levels. Mostly, he applies this to history, changing the very meaning of the "history of ideas," and so the definition of suture as separating 'terranes'--which have different 'histories' seems an appropriate figure. The various 'histories' are like the various levels. Foucault writes, "archaeology distinguishes several possible levels of events within the very density of its discourse" (AK 171). He speaks of "discontinuities" and redefines rupture as a sort of re-organization and transformation:

"rupture is the name given to transformations that bear on the general rules of one or several discursive formations. Thus the French Revolution [. . .] does not play the role of an event exterior to discourse, whose divisive effect one is under some kind of obligation to discover in all discourses; it functions as a complex, articulated, describable group of transformations that left a number of positivities intact, fixed fro a number of others rules that are still with us, and also established positivities that have recently disappeared or are still disappearing before our very eyes" (AK 177).

This recalls to me the shifting of tectonic plates, where, as Baudrillard puts it "at the bottom (!) the ground never existed, only a cracked epidermis; nor were there any depths" (Baudrillard 40). Mitchell himself uses this geographical metaphor, but does not take it further: "But [Magritte's] real aim is to show what cannot be pictured or made readable, the fissure in representation itself, the bands, layers, and fault-lines of discourse, the blank space between the text and the image" (Mitchell 69).

Thus, the suture in Mitchell, I think, should be understand more as a sort of 'suturing' (joining together) the senses of suture in the  medical and the geographical sense such that the geographical sense structures spatially the medical sense (as Foucault would do in his own work).


Mitchell begins his book with a quotation from Richard Rorty's Philosophy in the Mirror of Nature. This is his starting point for discussing the "Pictorial turn." But Rorty is important for Mitchell in another way as well: Rorty is known for his (at the time--particularly in the 'analytic' tradition) statement that philosophy is less about 'arguing' and more about re-describing the world. Philosophy is description, or, 'ekphrasis'.

(And--a question I've been pondering--is there a difference between ekphrasis and tropes? Ekphrasis as 'description' seems to be opposed to the use of tropes, but we find every major figure Mitchell discusses and Mitchell himself using tropes rather than creating a meta-language)

Mitchell distinguishes three 'attitudes' towards ekphrasis:

1. Ekphrastic hope: "the impossiblity of ekphrastic is overcome in imagination or metaphor, when we discover a 'sense' in which language can do what so many writers have wanted it to do: 'make us see' (152). It is also when "the estrangement of the image/text division is overcome and a sutured, synthetic form, a verbal icon or imagetext arises in its place" (154).
2. Ekphrastic fear: "the moment of resistance or counterdesire that occurs when we sense that the difference between the verbal and visual representation might collapse and the figurative, imaginary desire of ekphrasis might be realized literally and actually (154).
3. Ekphrastic indifference: ekphrasis is strictly impossible, it is a curiosity--an obscure literary genre and of a more general topic (the verbal representation of visual art (152).

Mitchell attempts to look at these three "moments" from the perspective of the "relatively neutral viewpoint of ekphrastic indifference, the assumption that ekphrasis is, strictly speaking, impossible" (156).

Before moving on to the rest of the chapter, I want to lthink for a moment about 'ekphrastic hope' in terms of Mitchell's use of the word 'suture'. Here, suture would be the sort of ideal, healing suture that is 'ideal and utopian'--one that will eventually heal the division so that 'imagetext' could be a legitimate hybrid. I think that Mitchell's attention to the mutual dependence of ekphrastic hope and fear shows that we must reveal the assumptions inherent in whatever 'suture' we sew.

Homer and Ekphrasis

Mitchell argues that 'ekphrastic poetry' is a site where ekphrasis as a "sham or illusion" is "worked through" like ideology (163). The key moment of ekphrasis in this essay for Mitchell is Homer's description of Achilles' shield.

Mitchell sets up his analysis by referring to the commonplace of Marshal Mcluhan's "the medium is the message." Mitchell writes,

"The mystery is why we have this urge to treat the medium as if it were the message, why we make the obvious, practical differences between these two media into metaphysical oppositions which seem to control our communicative acts, and which then have to be overcome with utopian fantasies like ekphrasis" (161). 

In other words, Mitchell seems to be asking why we must collapse materiality and message into the same 'level'. Why can we not describe the material/practical/social differences as part of the message, but not as the end all be all. This is something I think we need to discuss more in class.

While there are many debates about the function of Achilles shield, Mitchell believes that these are not mutually exclusive:

"Homer's whole point seems to be to undermine the oppositions of movement and stasis, narrative action and descriptive scene, and the false identification of medium with messsage, which underwrites the fantasies of ekphrastic hope and fear. The shield is an imagetext that displays rather than concealing its own suturing of space and time, description and narration, materiality and illusionistic representation" (178).

Here we return to the problem of the 'suture'--it seems as though Mitchell argues that when an imagetext conceals its own suturing, pretending to be a utopian moment where imagination can conquer the gap, it is an ideology that needs to be worked through. Whereas, when the imagetext reveals its own suturing, it allows us to see that the utopian moment is elsewhere. I am not quite sure I understand Mitchell's next move:

"We are stationed at the origin of the work of art, at the side of the working Hephaestos, in a position of perceptual and interpretive freedom. This is a utopian site that is both a space withint he narrative, and an ornamented frame around it, a threshold across which the reader my enter and withdraw from the text at will" (178). 

I am just not sure what to do with this passage and what he means by a "utopian site"--what is Mitchell saying about the reader? It has something to do with the 'suture' and so I am led back to Mitchell's long footnote on pages 91-92:

"Film theory's emphasis, not surprisingly, has been on the suturing  of the image sequences and the construction of the subject as spectator. But the question of the image/text suggests, I hope, that the notion of suture might well be extended to include the subject as reader and listener" (92). 

What is utopian about this relationship? As readers, are we really in a 'no-place' or 'good-place'--in a sort of "neutral" positioning? Mitchell seems to back out of his claim that ekphrastic indifference leaves ekphrasis as a "curiosity"--ekphrastic poetry instead seems to be very important and paradigmatic for the imagetext. The canonical examples show how

"the 'workings' of ekphrasis, even in its classical forms, tends to unravel the conventional suturing of the imagetext and to expose the social structure of representation as an activity and a relationship of power/knowledge/desire--representation as something done to something, with something, by someone, for someone" (180).

And I don't really have a conclusion for this. Of course, I am only halfway through the book and so perhaps the rest of the book will answer (or at least "describe better") some of my questions, concerns, and confusions. All in all, I felt like moving through Mitchell's text very closely, tracing his language was the only way to really 'get' this text. I can only hope that the rest of the book provides as much food for thought as the first half.

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